Aug 7, 2009
Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll has come up with the matrix above as a new way to classify people’s views on controversial topics. He calls it the Grid of Disputation.
As Carroll explains, he wants to see people in the top right corner focus their efforts on debating people in the bottom right corner rather than those in the bottom left:
There’s no question that there is a place for mockery in the world of discourse; sometimes we want to engage with crackpots just to make fun of them, or to boggle at their wrongness. But for me, that should be a small component of one’s overall rhetorical portfolio. If you want to play a constructive role in an ongoing cultural conversation, the sizable majority of your disputational effort should be spent engaging with the best people out there with whom you disagree— confronting the strongest possible arguments against your own view, and doing so with a respectful and sincere attitude.
This strategy is not universally accepted. One of the least pleasant aspects of the atheist/skeptical community is the widespread delight in picking out the very stupidest examples of what they disagree with, holding them up for sustained ridicule, and then patting themselves on the back for how rational they all are. It’s not the only thing that happens, but it happens an awful lot, and the joy that people get out of it can become a bit tiresome.
My own goal is not really changing people’s minds; it’s understanding the world, getting things right, and having productive conversations. My real concern in the engagement/mockery debate is that people who should be academic/scholarly/intellectual are letting themselves be seduced by the cheap thrills of making fun of people. Sure, there is a place for well-placed barbs and lampooning of fatuousness — but there are also people who are good at that. I’d rather leave the majority of that work to George Carlin and Ricky Gervais and Penn & Teller, and have the people with Ph.D.s concentrate on honest debate with the very best that the other side has to offer. I want to be disagreeing with Ken Miller or Garry Wills and St. Augustine, not with Paul Nelson and Ann Coulter and Hugh Ross.
A side note: If a new study is correct, Carroll is most likely right-handed. Researcher Daniel Casasanto says his experiments show that right-handed people are more likely to associate positive ideas with their right side and negative ideas with their left side. (They judge objects on their right side as more intelligent, happy, honest, and attractive.) For left-handers, it’s the opposite. Which is why, without him realizing it, Carroll might have arranged his grid the way he did, with friends and worthy opponents on the right and embarrassing allies and crackpots on the left.