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This intriguing article appeared on the NY Times website on June 15 (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/arts/people-argue-just-to-win-scholars-assert.html). I said intriguing, because I've always suspected that debates are a dubious way to get at the truth of things. Winning or losing a debate isn't really a measure of the truth of an argument -- it's a measure of debating skills, period. And yet there has always been this assumption that winning a debate somehow gives the winner's claim a legitimacy. A case in point is the debate between the prosecutor and the defense in a court of law, which is presumed to deliver justice. But this assumption needs to be seriously reexamined.
I was thinking something along this line the other day, when I happen to watch a quiz show on TV. The players were sevearl professors of science at famous universities (attended by their students as sidekicks), who competed in a sort of an inter-collegiate battle of intellect. They were shown a series of seemingly elementary experiments in physics using pendulums and baloons and what not, and were asked what the outcome would be. Whichever team that gave correct answers most often would win. Simple enough, right? One would imagine that professors at prestigious universities couldn't possibly get the answers wrong. Well, what happend was that with each question, the professors made wildly divergent predictions (which began to seem more like guesses as the show went on), and most of them got the answers wrong each time! What seemed most interesting to me was that at each question, the professors explained in a logical manner why they would expect a certain outcome, and each argument actually seemed to have some merit. In other words, they all seem to be right -- until the experiment actually played out.
What this game show revealed was that arguments may appear to be sound but could produce completely erroneous answers. If the merit of each argument were to be examined and judged only in a "market of ideas" without the reality test, the most persuasive argument would certainly win. And yet such judgment could be completely irrelevant, because the truth exists outside those arguments, in the form of actual results of experiments, for instance. In the face of hard facts, arguments must cease and after-the-fact reasoning begins.
The judicial system is never that black-and-white, however, and we have no choice but to grope in the dark by listening to dubious arguments and make the best guesses. The question is, do we try to get at the truth, or do we just try to guess which argument would be most appealing? That's a crucial difference, I think.