Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Art of Debate

Captain of the debate team? Hardly. Some people really don't have a knack for taking criticism without resorting to lobbing personal insults at anyone who questions their approach. Today's story is a look at a recent illustrative encounter of what not to do.

I recently attended a week-long meeting of a group of scientists. A big part of why we come together is to talk about our research and to discuss not only the nuts and bolts of the detailed and complex algorithms that were used to analyze our data, but also the interpretations and findings that we believe the data support. This is expected at such gatherings, and furthermore, gives rise to a healthy system of checks and balances.

Well, at least this is how things are supposed to play in principle. It does not always turn out this way in reality, especially when people have an inflated opinion of themselves, are overly zealous or passionate about their work, are running on fumes from lack of sleep, or have some personal issue with the person raising the criticism. I think this last point was at the heart of what I witnessed the other day.

Considering the rules of formal debate, how would you respond to the following criticism? "Gee Howard, I think you are making too much of the agreement between your data and the theory especially given the simplicity of the model." .... How about, "You know, I've never met anyone from your village that I have ever thought was worth a crap." O.K., can anyone pick out the subtle mistake that Howard made with his response?