I am getting over a cold and thus I was looking at Facebook today and came up on:
which for those not wishing to get on Facebook is this image of "space required to transport 60 people" comparing car, bus and bicycle:
Now with a few moments of reflection one realises that there are several things about the image which do not make sense. First is the word 'space'; is it space as in the space occupied by just the vehicles which is what is shown with cars parked almost bumper to bumper or perhaps would showing the space taken on the roadway during typical operation be better? And should the occupancy rates be the maximum possible, minimum possible, mean possible, actual peak usage, actual off peak usage, etc.?
The point of this post is not to focus on problems with the image. The point of this post is that in the comments section on Facebook it sparked a comment which is an exquisite example of confusing or conflating a criticism of an argument with a criticism of the issue about which it refers. There were many comments on Facebook and I glanced at some at noticed that in addition to the discussion of the personal, economics, social and general policy issue about various mode there were those commenters who pointed out some of the problems with the image similar to the ones I mention above.
It was in response to these criticisms of the image that some one attempted to answer some of the criticism and then wrote: "THOSE who critized at the picture are HELPLESS SELFISH PEOPLE !". I suggest we overlook the problems with spelling and grammar and focus on what I think is the essence of the Facebook response.
To me the essence of the Facebook response is that demonstrating a fault or weakness in an argument or evidence about an issue is also an attack on the issue under discussion. The Facebook response seems to hold that if the proposition is better to ride a bus or bicycle than drive a car and if an image is provided which appears at first glance to show a reason why driving a car is very space inefficient then discussing the weakness in the image is mistakenly taken as if it was a direct attack on the primary proposition that riding a bus is better than driving a car.
And it is easy to see why this erroneous connection can occur. A proposition is usually supported by many arguments and pieces of evidence. If all are removed then the proposition has no support. However what many people fail to realise is that it having invalid arguments supporting a proposition is harmful. If someone is really interested in both being as accurate as possible and in a particular proposition then they should not only welcome the criticism and refinement of arguments; they should actively engage in the process themselves.
Let me repeat this: if you hold a position on some proposition then you should be subject all arguments and evidence in support of the proposition rigorous criticism. What you want to do is remove the invalid and weak arguments so they can be replace by better arguments. And if it is an argument that you created yourself then I recommend spending some extra effort in rigorous criticism.
If vigorous criticism causes all of the arguments and evidence for a proposition to fall then that is a good indication that the proposition needs revision. In the example we have before us if the image was the only piece of evidence for the proposition that riding the bus was better than riding the car and that image had all of the faults listed then perhaps that proposition might need revision to something like:
1. Commute time is improved by riding the bus instead of driving a car
2. Energy is efficiently used by commuters riding the bus instead of driving a car.
3. Commuters have an easier time dealing with their children' s after school activities and running errands by riding the bus instead of driving a car.
4. Space on the roadways is better used by riding a bus instead of driving a car.
And so forth. Many different propositions are possible; what this continual criticism of the propositions, the arguments and evidence allows us to improve what we know. This is (in part) how we improve human knowledge. And if it turns out the proposition needs to be refined that clarifies what exactly is the issue at hand.
Persons familiar with Pan-Critical Rationalism (see The Retreat to Commitment by W. W. Bartley or read the short overview essay by Max More http://www.maxmore.com/pcr.htm.) will notice that following the Pan-Critical Rationalist approach helps avoid the problems we have been discussing.
A final point that I want to emphasise is not just related to driving a car versus riding a bus rather it is the higher level principle of keeping our arenas of discourse and cognition well maintained. This does not mean rooting out all use of metaphor, simile, puns, wordplay, fun and occasional general silliness. But it is important to be able to recognise the type of activity in which we are engaged. And thus criticising the image is not selfish rather is it is mutually beneficial, positive sum.
This is particularly true about important questions yet is often these big questions that come with emotional commitment by many people on different sides. Typically we see this is questions related to religion and politics which are often given the designation as the two big question areas. And this is why it is important to keep in the habit on the small things so that we maintain the skills and habits for big question propositions.