Saturday, February 4, 2012

Arguing the importance of argument

We were in a small hut in South Africa when Noah and I began to discuss sampling schemes. The tradeoffs were clear. For a given amount of effort, one can distribute replicates among or within. Sample lots of sites with little replication within each site or fewer sites with replication. The one approach allows for the greatest generality, but provides no ability to distinguish sites. The other generates certainty in the estimate for a site, but sacrifices certainty in the pattern among sites.

Given the tradeoff, what to do? Sample as many sites as possible? Sample few sites well? Or some intermediate.

And so started the argument. There was no animosity, just a comparison of ideas. It took a long time. Kendra and Val lost patience, went for a game drive, and came back to find us still at it.

Kendra and Val saw lions and hyenas. We generated the “2 or 20” rule for sampling—either sample 2 sites well replicated or 20 sites with no replication, never in between. It doesn't matter who took what side. The point was to work through the idea. 

Argument that was the progenitor to science. It has shaped science at every step.

Many great arguments have punctuated the sciences. Huxley argued for Darwin and famously responded to Wilberforce that “I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth.” 

Over a hundred years later, Johanson and Leakey debated the origins of humans based on fossil evidence:

“In the heat of debate, Dr. Johanson held up a chart showing his Lucy version of the human family tree. Next to it was a blank space in which he invited Mr. Leakey to draw his version. Feeling trapped, Mr. Leakey finally took a pen and placed a large X through Dr. Johanson’s tree. “Well, what would you draw in its place?” Dr. Johanson asked. “A question mark,” said Mr. Leakey, and so he did with a bold flourish.”--NYT

Though there are still examples of argument in ecology, it has almost disappeared. Our national meetings are series of talks, virtually none of which are paired with opposing view points. Plenary talks are small talks writ large. Never counterpoints. Departmental and lunchtime seminars typically follow the 5-50-5 model: 5 minutes introduction, 50 minutes of talk, 5 minutes of questions.

The review of papers is a last vestige of argument. A paper generates a thesis. Reviewers respond to the thesis and often provide antitheses (or reject presuppositions). The editor acts as judge to evaluate arguments.

But even this standard can become diluted with some journals only looking for essentially factual errors as the basis for rejection. Argument is to happen after publication, not before. A valid model, as long as argument takes place.

The marginalization of argument handicaps the science. Argument sharpens ideas. And only the comparison of thesis and antithesis can generate synthesis. Many syntheses are more inclusive than synthetic. It is important to aggregate data, findings, and ideas, but argument is required to compare ideas.

There are dangers to argument. Outcomes can be perceived as a loss for one of the participants. But in the best debates, ideas are compared not people. Poor arguments can become personal. As the saying goes, “play the ball, not the man”. There is a danger in debate that performance can outweigh argument. This is why the dialectic is favored over rhetoric. Rhetoric is persuasion that can rely on emotion, dialectic only logic.

Ultimately, we argue to sharpen ideas. Can ideas be sharp without argument? Yes. But argument is the best way to sharpen any idea.

How do we promote argument?

Read papers with another person. Flip a coin and have one person argue the paper’s main point and another a counterpoint. For example, Cease et al. just published in Science that “heavy livestock grazing and consequent steppe degradation in the Eurasian grassland promote outbreaks of this locust by reducing plant protein content.” Would this conclusion stand up to argument? Can equally parsimonious alternative explanations be generated? Which is weakest part of their thesis and the most important to further test? A good argument is necessary for this.

Another way to foster argument is to have talks follow the 5 – 25 – 30 model. Instead of 50 minutes of slides, have only 25. No one can absorb 50 minutes of information. Once, when information was rare, an hour talk was an important part of the dissemination. But now? If the talk were on YouTube, would we all sit and watch it together? YouTube can replace presentations, but it can’t replace discussions. Take 30 minutes to argue and discuss points.

Scientific argument has to happen every day. If it only happens during the review process, it is often too late. I reviewed a hundred papers over the past 3 years. Papers written without argument as part of the process are clear. Papers get written without theses or identification of antitheses. Hypotheses take the up-down-stays the same form if they are there at all. They don’t identify or discuss competing hypotheses. Critics of important theories can state that “scientists haven’t proved their point”, when any arguer knows that true question lies in whether they have identified the most parsimonious explanation.

Argument can’t be constant and anywhere. But we can promote it in a balanced manner at multiple levels within out discipline.

Does argument ultimately promote our science? One can always argue the contrary, but even if they were successful, I think that would be Q.E.D.

Back to the hut in Kruger. Not long after, Noah had his first PNAS paper. The results were derived from  98 sites. No replication at any site.

1 comment:

  1. This is the clear line of argument. Thanks for this interesting one.

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