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The RoBlog
Saturday, November 20, 2004
Fact-Free Argumentation
I ran across an op/ed piece by William F. Buckley, Jr., that discusses how liberal the nations' colleges are. Mr. Buckley makes the assumption that colleges are the churches of the liberals, and you must be one to get in (as a professor).

I can't speak to whether or not this is true, as I have never tried to become a professor at a college, but I've been wondering lately about the weird skew the cities in the US have towards being liberal, and the rural areas for being conservative. Are the cities liberal because people run into many different ideas and people all of the time, and this causes city dwellers to be more open minded (similarly, do rural people have much less exposure to people with differing viewpoints and are therefore less challenged on what they personally believe)? Or do people who are liberal have an affinity for the city and choose to move to it, leaving only the conservatives behind?

As much as the answer to this is not yet clear to me, it would seem that the same sort of cause and effect conundrum is at play in the nations colleges. Are college professors more liberal because they are exposed to more ideas, or, as Buckley suggests, because colleges actively choose only liberal professors?

Buckley provides some anecdotal evidence for the latter point, and this is what ultimately concerns me. Reading his piece, I felt like he was a conservative before I even knew where he was going with the piece. As such, it makes me feel like he already knew what he thought about the idea before he even looked into it. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, of sorts.

I'm increasingly concerned about the effect of people with a pulpit (on any side of a discussion) who espouse a particular opinion without showing their work, and, worse, who actively ignore good solid evidence that contradicts their arguments (I am by no means implying that there is such evidence in Mr. Buckley's case).

I think it's finally time that we demand that people cite what information supports their conclusion in a way that allows it to be falsified. If it is falsified, we should demand that they stop using that information; go find new information, or change your argument. To do otherwise is to spend a lot of valuable energy going nowhere. If we're going to build a better world, we need to have a knowledge base that we can trust to build on top of, and pure opinions stated with the assumptive authority of fact are harmful to all of us in the long run.

At the very least, opposing sides can put more energy into finding new evidence for their opinions, or new opinions to support their general goals that are stronger and more valid that ones that are nullified, rather than just spouting them out as if they were true all along.

In an ideal world, sites equivalent to FactCheck.org, where non-biased criticism would be dished out to all comers, would flourish, and people would flock to them to find out what things are valid arguments, and which are not. Opponents could fight it out publicly on such sites to prove or disprove a claim; winner take all (for that claim).

Unfortunately, my feeling is that most people aren't interested in the validity of a point. Rather they are interested in if it supports their opinion or not. This doesn't mean that the country's falling apart, but it does mean that progress will be slow in coming until the population puts some value on accuracy and correctness.

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