Argument is futile

By March 7, 2023Science, Society

I stumbled across this Bertrand Russell story while farnarcling around on Mastodon (which is like Twitter but without the Murdoch halfwits and the racists). It was a response from the brilliant Russell to a 1962 enquiry from Sir Oswald Mosley, who had founded the British Union of Fascists thirty years earlier. Mosley was inviting Russell to engage in a debate, in which he hoped to persuade the moral philosopher of the merits of fascism. Russell responded with:

“Thank you for your letter and for your enclosures. I have given some thought to our recent correspondence. It is always difficult to decide on how to respond to people whose ethos is so alien and, in fact, repellent to one’s own. It is not that I take exception to the general points made by you but that every ounce of my energy has been devoted to an active opposition to cruel bigotry, compulsive violence, and the sadistic persecution which has characterised the philosophy and practice of fascism.

I feel obliged to say that the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us.

I should like you to understand the intensity of this conviction on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I value in human experience and human achievement.”1

Fortunately, I have never had to debate a fascist, as I don’t think I know any. I know the odd RWNJ (and they are odd), but I doubt they would demand pictures of Adolf Hitler be placed in every schoolroom, or that Mein Kampf be studied in high school, as some fascists in Australia seem to want2, 3.

I have had debates which turned out to be futile because the concepts of evidence and reason are alien to some who believe in assorted conspiracies, whether they be just your average QAnon-fuelled conspiracy theorists, creationists, anti-vaxxers, or climate change deniers. Creationists ignore centuries of palaeontology and stratigraphy, decades of genetics and palaeoanthropology, as well as over a century of physics, not to mention cosmology. Anti-vaxxers ignore over two centuries of vaccination and subsequent decades of the study of immunology. Climate change deniers ignore decades of climate science, physics, geology and vulcanology.

What these anti-science buffoons often indulge in, is what is termed the ‘Gish Gallop’, a technique named after the American creationist Duane Gish. A person employing this technique hurls as many different half-truths and lies in quick succession such that the opponent cannot hope to combat each point in real time. This, of course, leaves some points unanswered and allows the galloper to claim his opponent lacks the counter-arguments4, thereby claiming vindication.

Debate with these people is pointless, because they deeply believe the pseudoscience they spout, and no amount of evidence will ever convince them otherwise. What I find more useful is dealing with those who are simply ignorant of the facts but who repeat some of the same drivel. I simply take them to task on a particular single point and if not able to provide all the details, I do so at a later time. For instance; in a recent conversation with a couple of people, one of them said that 700 Australians had died as a result of receiving a Covid-19 vaccination. I hadn’t checked out the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) website for some months, so I didn’t have the real figures at hand. However, later that same day, I chased them up. The TGA’s most recent report of deaths subsequent to receiving a Covid-19 vaccination states that after 49.7 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine had been administered to Australians, there were 756 reports of deaths subsequent to the vaccination. I presume this is what my interlocutor was relating to me. However, all deaths subsequent to receiving any vaccine have to be reported. Of those 756 reports, only 11 were linked to the vaccination5

A link to the TGA’s detailed information was sent to the interlocutor’s e-mail address. He thanked me for the information when I saw him next. A minor victory of facts over bullshit.




  • JON says:

    In essence he thanked you for wet-nursing him. At least he did that I guess. Was he genuinely disinformed or does he blindly chase that stuff? If the latter you should also send him a link to casual fallacy (correlation/causation), which has become so widespread among nescient and gullible antivaxxers that it’s become their primary method of spreading disinformation?

    Was interested in how “Sir” Oswald Moseley came by his knighthood (inherited) in light of Boris The Buffoon’s resignation “honours” list, which apparently includes his “honourable” dad – now a citizen of France based on his mother’s nationality. Nothing wrong with that but I’m sure the French will celebrate the irony and most Brits will see the comedy if Sunak actually proceeds with all Johnson’s recommendations – most of which are based on cronyism according to some pundits. The system stinks to high heaven so hopefully Starmer will scrap it if (when) he becomes PM.

    • admin says:

      He is a nice bloke, so I suspect it is simply ignorance on his part. I have argued with chemtrail-believing nutters before and they are definitely not the full shilling. This bloke is not like that. As you say, it was a bit of wet-nursing, and that exemplifies the inability of so many people just to find facts on the web. Given that a fair proportion of the world’s knowledge is now online and readily available, I find it extraordinary and depressing that so many people are unable to find things out. I suspect is that many cannot be bothered making the effort, so rely on some conspiracy-laden muppet on YouTube telling them stuff which is almost certainly abject bullshit. Either that or they are functionally illiterate and cannot comprehend what they read.
      As for the ‘honours’ system, it has always been corrupt. When a halfwit like Abbott can give Prince Philip a knighthood seemingly as a way to curry some sort of favour; or when a workplace psychopath can get a Public Service Medal just for doing the job they are paid an exorbitant salary to do, then you know the system is simply rotten.

      • Arthur Baker says:

        It’s not just the majority of the world’s knowledge that is now online and readily available. The majority of the world’s bullshit is also out there and TOO-readily available. The critical factor is that if you want real useful information you have to fight your way through mountains of absolute crud and SELECT the real stuff. This necessarily involves judgment and selectivity, a characteristic sadly lacking in far too many people.

        In years gone by, if you wanted to look up some information, you probably went to a library. My local library in the 1950s, in a downmarket suburb of a still-war-damaged northern English industrial city, wasn’t exactly Oxford University’s Bodleian or Washington’s Library of Congress, but it did have the important stuff – Britannica, with all the updating yearbooks, the OED, reputable reference books on history, geography, science, linguistics, medicine, philosophy, and who knows what else.

        The important difference between then and now is that the (wonderful) trained and dedicated librarians who ran the joint did the sorting out for you. They weren’t going to waste one penny of their tight-arse budget on books that were full of unscientific crud, or indeed anything that came from less than reasonably reliable and verifiable sources. The trained librarians were the filterers. And largely, they did a very good job on a stingy budget.

        Fast forward to 2023. Google something. Anything. Four million hits. Then consider Sturgeon’s Law (look it up): “90% of everything is crud”. And there’s no guarantee that Google’s page-1 display will contain anything that’s even remotely true or reliable. Ain’t no trained librarian to help you select the good stuff. Sisters (and brothers) have to do it for themselves (where “it” is discriminating between truth and utter bullshit).

        And many are they who simply can’t. Often, I can’t. And I admit it. Can YOU reliably distinguish between fact and crud in disciplines where you have no academic background? Every time? Are you aware when you’ve made a poor choice and got something wrong? Do you admit it when you’re wrong?

        The sum of the world’s knowledge is VAST, and nobody is an expert in everything.

        • admin says:

          While, like you, I expected to find out that 90% of everything that Google comes up with was ‘crud’ I did a few searches and was surprised how little bullshit came up. Maybe it is simply a matter of what is searched for. Anyway, the resulting searches and my comments were so long, I thought I’d use them as a post on the site rather than a comment. I have just posted that item online.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.