A case for good faith argument

The ideas that shape a healthy world depend on a process of open, honest, at times contentious, debate. Thoughts on the role of applying skepticism, as opposed to cynicism, to this debate.

A healthy world is a world founded on good ideas, and good ideas are founded on a process of open, rigorous, even heated, debate. Yet such a debate is not always what we see in our public discourse. Polarization has informed a public conversation which does not always support a healthier world. Conducting a better public debate, it seems to me, is trading the cynicism that often informs bad faith arguments for the healthy skepticism which informs the generative conflict of ideas that truly advances progress. Some thoughts on how we can support such a conversation, towards the goal of a healthier world.

The last several years have been a contentious time. Polarization, informed by political divides, has come to characterize much of the public debate. The below graph reflects this, showing how opinion has migrated away from the center and towards extremes on the left and right.

Source: Pew Research Center. October 5, 2017. The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider. From: https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2017/10/05/the-partisan-divide-on-political-values-grows-even-wider/. Accessed May 18, 2021.

The time of COVID was no exception—it was, if anything, an intensification of the division we have seen. It did not take long after the emergence of a novel coronavirus for the existential stakes of the political debate to migrate to conversations about masking, lockdowns, social distancing, the origins of the virus itself, the means of treating the disease, and, eventually, vaccines.

These divides have done much to undermine our response to the pandemic, just as they have done much to add dysfunction to our political process and fray our social fabric. Having said this, I would also add that I do not regard emotional, deeply felt, debate to be a uniformly negative influence. I have long argued for the importance of a diversity of perspectives and for creating space for these perspectives to be aired and debated, even when such debates are uncomfortable and contentious. This discourse, when it is conducted civilly and respectfully, is necessary for advancing the ideas that support a healthier world, and, ultimately, a culture and politics capable of meeting the needs of the moment.       

There is, of course, a seeming inconsistency in what I have just said. How can I say divisions have undermined our COVID response—and, by implication, our broader approach to health—while also arguing for the necessity of vigorous, even contentious, debate as a means of supporting a healthier world?   I found myself inspired on this by recently reading what Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote about his interactions with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

“Justice Ginsburg and I often disagreed, but at no time during our long tenure together were we disagreeable with each other. She placed a premium on civility and respect”

It seems to me that if Justices Thomas and Ginsburg, who disagreed with each other’s views on the court a majority of the time, could argue for decades with civility and respect, so can we all.  The key to this, I venture, lies in a central characteristic of any conversation in which opposing views are being presented, a characteristic which determines whether or not that conversation is constructive. That characteristic is the presence, or lack, of good faith. By good faith, I mean a spirit that puts forward ideas which are thoughtfully considered, with the goal of advancing a better world. Good faith arguments are presented in a way that respects the position of the other, with an eye towards learning and compromise, not zero-sum domination. This is in contrast with ideas advanced solely to support one’s political “team,” gain advantage over one’s perceived opponents, or simply to generate attention. Bad faith arguments reflect a refusal to accept that others may have good intentions in the case they are making. These arguments can also be deployed as a means of sowing doubt about conclusions which are, in fact, scientifically sound. This is the case, for example, with many who have argued tobacco is actually safe or that climate change is not real, two positions which are unsupported by science, but strongly supported by financial and partisan incentives.     

When ideas are presented in good faith, it is possible for a debate to become quite heated and still support progress. When they are not, then even ideas which are quite good in themselves are in a far weaker position in relation to creating a better world. Indeed, the presentation of good ideas in bad faith can go far towards tainting these ideas for years to come, robbing the public debate of arguments that might otherwise have been beneficial, because they were made by bad faith actors.

The Trump era was an effective test-case of this. I do not think it is partisan to say that former President Trump made many statements in bad faith. His overarching concern was to defeat his political opponents; he often seemed to adopt positions solely for this purpose. This is not to say, however, that former President Trump was the only purveyor of bad faith in the recent past.  Perhaps in reaction, or perhaps illuminating more fundamental human truths, we saw bad faith arguments at every level of public discourse.  During COVID, there has been no shortage of such arguments, as elements of our pandemic response were coopted by partisans with all sorts of motivations. This is, I would stress, categorically different than robust, good faith debates aimed at elevating best practices to help us navigate this moment. Indeed, this time of COVID has helped clarify why it is necessary to differentiate between arguments made in good and bad faith, as a means of advancing a conversation that genuinely supports a healthier world.

How can we determine whether an argument is made in good or bad faith? To my thinking, we can do so in two ways. The first way is rooted in a realistic view of human motivations. We can better understand the spirit in which the argument is being presented through a clear-eyed analysis of the incentive structure supporting it. For example, there are people and organizations whose job is to present the news from a sharply partisan perspective. This means, fundamentally, that their business model depends not necessarily on the triumph of the best ideas, but rather on the ongoing slow-burn of partisanship in our society. They may seem to want their ideas to win out, but if they won the argument, that would mean the argument would be over, which—not to put too fine a point on it—would hurt their bottom line. So, the continuation of rancorous debate will always be their core priority, even if this comes at the expense of the natural progress of ideas. It is not hard to see how such an incentive structure can threaten to corrupt the presentation of even the best ideas, creating a structural barrier to good faith debate.  It is not hard to see why, for example, much bad faith arguing happens on social media where the incentive is to get likes, views, and where those likes and views accrue to any form of argument regardless of how reasoned (or not) it may be.  This does not mean that everyone working within such an incentive structure is acting out of conscious bad faith, only that the foundations of their endeavor make it hard to fully resist this counterproductive tendency. While calling attention to these incentives can perhaps seem like an observation born of cynicism, at a time when so much of our public debate is underwritten by these forces, to look away is, I think, to miss something fundamental about the nature of this conversation.   

Having raised the point of cynicism, I should perhaps revise it. It is not so much cynicism which helps us to see the incentive structures which support bad faith; rather, it is skepticism. Indeed, it is cynicism which tends to produce so much bad faith in our society. Skepticism, on the other hand, is rooted in the tradition of scientific inquiry, in the empiricism which interrogates theories and ideas for their truth and general utility, not for their usefulness to a given ideology or partisan goal. This leads to a second way of neutralizing bad faith—the use of skepticism. Skepticism could well be described as “doubt in good faith.” It is through a healthy skepticism that we can detect the presence not just of bad faith but of bad arguments. This opens the door to a robust process of debate and inquiry informed purely by a search for the truth; the truth being a necessary condition for the best practices which support a healthier world. Skepticism frustrates the rush to judgement that so often accompanies bad faith arguments; it forces us to slow down, weigh evidence, and consider the broader context in which an argument is being made. This can counteract a consensus being assembled too-hastily, an error we have seen not just during COVID, but in the face of prior health threats, such as Zika. As with COVID, the emergence of Zika presented us with many unknowns—about its origin, its effects, and how to best prevent it. This state of not knowing led to a rush to align our engagement with this disease with approaches which had worked in the face of past contagions like Ebola, even when this proved to be an uneasy mismatch. Had we paused to apply an appropriate level of skepticism to our efforts, we may well have avoided some of the blind alleys in which we found ourselves. I wrote at the time about the importance of cultivating a comfort with ambiguity and doubt, to prevent some of these very pitfalls.  

Implicit in both these suggestions is the importance of balance. It is possible, and somewhat ironic, that both skepticism and a realistic awareness of incentive structures can themselves be used in bad faith, to discredit ideas we do not like. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear arguments opposed not on their merits, but due to the occupation or identity of the person making them. Likewise, it is possible for healthy skepticism to curdle into a dogmatic unwillingness to accept new information or emerging paradigm shifts, however much they are based on solid empirical analysis. Both of these perspectives, then, should be used judiciously, in good faith, to advance understanding.

It is worth asking: what might our pandemic experience have been like if it had been more informed by good faith and healthy skepticism than by cynical putdowns and zero-sum partisanship? Given the power of the latter to narrow our idea space and limit our capacity to collaborate towards solutions, it is likely a more constructive engagement would have resulted in a better response to COVID. Working in good faith might have meant our conversation could move past political points-scoring, to support a nimbler, more data-informed coordination of best practices in the face of the pandemic. 

Perhaps I am naïve in thinking we can set aside our tendency to engage with each other from positions of bad faith. But the recent crisis has shown what can happen when our arguments are too-much shaped by cynicism and motivations that have little to do with creating a healthier world. Given that COVID could well be followed by another, far more dangerous pandemic, we no longer have the luxury of being unduly swayed by our worst motivations. We need to engage, in good faith, with the challenges we face, if we are to shape a future which is healthier than our past.     

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Thank you to colleagues who led our work on a recent paper about spatial and temporal inequalities in mortality in the USA, 1968-2016. We showed widening spatial inequalities in mortality, including an urban to rural, and south-westward, shift over this time period.

In this week’s The Turning Point, Michael Stein and I talk about grief and loss, as part 1 of two pieces, reflecting on the importance of this topic in a time of COVID.

Check out The Contagion Next Time