Jason Dias: How To Avoid Being Either A Sophist or An Apologetic

sophist or apologetic
Written by Jason Dias

It’s too easy to be a sophist or an apologetic, even if you’re not sure what that means. Here’s Jason Dias on the difference and how to notice it …

jason-dias-anewdomain-amazon-kindleaNewDomain — Are you a sophist or an apologetic? There’s a difference.

Apologetics (not apologies) is a practice, the practice of deflecting arguments against faith. We usually think of this in terms of Christian apologetics but anyone can do it. Apologetic arguments are really common in modern politics, probably because politics and faith have more in common than not being good topics of conversation for dinner parties.

Faith requires believing things for which there is inadequate evidence or even contrary evidence. Politics, far too often, means aligning with a party and accepting all the planks of their platforms, even though you have a coalition problem.

are you a sophist or an apolA scientific look at the propositions of faith or politics frequently turns up problems. No dogmatic position is likely to withstand a lot of scrutiny. Examining the story of Noah’s Ark, for example, we run into a lot of logical problems (how did Grizzly bears get from North America to the Middle East to board the boat?) and actual physical problems (no wooden boat has ever been successfully constructed on anything like the scale described in the Old Testament).

Apologetics seek to deflect such arguments and even deflect experimental evidence.

The same thing happens with articles of faith like trickle-down economics. A believer cites their state’s economic record and correlates it to their policies, or introduces some anecdotal evidence.

It’s not at all only the faithful doing these things: It’s also the television companies who want advertising dollars and who are willing to pander for them.

Apologetics doesn’t always rely on sophistry, but it can. Sophistry means clever but fallacious arguments. These are very, very popular on the Internet these days – and also in politics. The most famous recent example is James Inhoffe waving around a snowball and scoffing at the idea of global warming. Fox News seems to make this argument quite frequently.

But long-term changes in climate in no way preclude short-term sameness of climate. In other words, the world will need to get a lot warmer before snow is impossible.

This is a form of the fallacious anecdotal evidence. I say mass shooters tend to be young white men, then you mention Nidal Hassan, who shot up a medical office at Fort Hood. But your individual example does not refute the statement. I did not say all mass shooters are young white men. I noted a tendency, which is borne out by the data.

Listening to political arguments can be very trying, because they nearly always include sophistry.

The gun debate and the climate change problem are both replete with examples, too, and they tire us out, make it difficult to even want to participate.

soph3“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Well, I guess that’s a logically valid statement on its own, but it’s still sophistry – and  it is also the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Because nobody is suggesting that guns kill people. They’re suggesting that there is no good reason for law-abiding citizens to have high-powered, high-capacity weapons. AR15s aren’t even very good for hunting; they’re overspecified for murder.

That’s what guns are for, especially handguns.

Violence still goes on without guns, but much less efficiently – and the moral character of a nation can be distilled easily from her attitude towards firearms.

The argument goes off into ad hominem attacks. “Guns kill people like spoons made Rosie O’Donnell fat.” What is this argument? You should agree with me because I hate Rosie? What did she ever do to you? Nothing.

A spoon is a tool. I eat with it. Any harm I do to myself with the spoon – and it’s really the food and lifestyle choices – is on me. A gun is a tool, for murdering other people. It is not to blame for the behavior of its owner … but isn’t easy access to dangerous weapons a contributing factor?

I just saw a snippet of the last debate. One question was, do we need to get involved with fantasy football? Jeb! So he was saying something about unregulated day-trading, and Chris Christie interrupted to yell about existential threats to America. Because Al Qaeda and ISIS are attacking us, isn’t it a waste of time to have the government involved in fantasy football?

A sophist argument. Don’t confuse sophistry with sophistication.

First, there are much larger and more urgent threats to the United States than terrorist groups. Global warming, for example, is not only imminent but happening right now. It is not impossible to tie unrest in the Middle East to shifting climate – water and agricultural problems resulting in human troubles.

sophist or an apologeticSecond, it isn’t impossible for a government to do more than one thing at a time. There are lots of people up there on Capitol Hill.

If we have time to vote 50 times to repeal Obamacare, couldn’t we pass a bill about online gambling and also one about defending us from ISIS?”

Apologetics and sophistry. Keep your eyes open for these. I promise, you’ll see them all the time. Even our science shows can get into this.

Mythbusters, for example, frequently ends with replication. So we’ve found out that a bullet can’t, in fact, blow up the gas tank on a car.

So what would it take to do that? And I just finished reading a lengthy scientific paper disputing the claim that much of the difference in incomes between people with varying levels of education has to do with their starting position (in other words, wealthy people can afford to send their kids to school).

The paper did everything except measure familial starting wealth and control for it – all sorts of arcane and Byzantine statistical corrections to make the assumptions fit the assertion. Why? Well, to sell you college as a cure to your ills, of course.

A scientific approach is to examine the best available facts and use those facts to reach a cautious conclusion. The opposite – start with the conclusion (God is real, Democrats will solve all your problems, Bigfoot exists) and move backwards through data to support your position – is fundamentalism.

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.

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