Debate 101

Monday, February 20, 2006 | 07:01 AM

I seem to be attracting all sorts of obnoxious commentary over at -- especially in the Columnist Conversation forum at Real Money. Its has been throwing off alot more heat than light.

Given my outlier status, I'm not surprised that my perspective has attracted some criticism. What did surprise me was the generally poor quality of debate:  personal attacks, rhetorical nonsense, misquoting, general bullshit. 

As one of (apparently) few people who Question the status quo; reads the actual BLS releases; considers how accurate the official statistics are; I was kinda taken aback by how happily so many people were to sup at the teat of government data, and to defend the status quo.   

Doug Kass tells me to suck it up. But that's not my style. And as I did the "slow burn" on the way home one night, this bit of sarcasm was born. I posted it at columnist conversation, and then thought it might be too inflammatory, and so suggested to an editor that he might want to take it down.

But I enjoyed it too much to let it disappear. It was addressed to Cody, but he is not the primary offender -- he was merely the last person to post

I have decided to repost a slightly edited version here:

Cody (and everyone else),

This evening, we will be discussing the basics of debate. This will be a brief and painless primer to facilitate further discussions.

Let's start with the most basic concept. Anytime you post something in response to another author, you may find it helpful to actually read what that other person has written. Yes, I know it is time consuming, but you will find it an invaluable aid. Start slowly -- when a person says BLACK, avoid accusing them of saying WHITE.

You will find that reading your counterpart's positions will facilitate the discussion immnensely.

Another example: Consider responding to the person's actual arguments. You may note that not many people do that. In one instance, someone seemed to have missed my entire point, and as far as I can tell, only recognized the word RIGOR. They chose to respond only to that word -- and totally out of context, to boot. I must admit to total befuddlement.

Here's an example of responsive debate I recently was involved in: I had disagreed with Jim Cramer's comments that "the Bear case sounded more rigorous than the Bull case." For the record, Jim had written:

"[The Bears] certainly sounded more rigorous than the bulls, but that's typical, too. It is a more rigorous position to argue the negative about virtually any aspect of the stock market because the market is based on faith . . . Plus, the rigor can easily be equated to delicious scare tactics that the bulls can't muster."

I found Jim's argument legitimate, but too cliched, and non-persuave. So using a classic debate technique handed down to us from the ancient Greeks: I actually responded to what he wrote.

Now, this apparently is a new concept for many of you, so I will go into more details at this juncture: You see, in many cultures, debate and rhetoric is a time honored way that ideas get discussed, refined, sharpened. By elaborating on the issues, considering all the facts, looking at arguments from different angles, a consensus -- or at least better understanding -- can be reached.

Yes, I understand that's not how its always done around here. Sometimes, non-sequiturs seem to rule, and reading comprehension's inexorable slide continues unabated. (Note: Inexorable means "relentless").

(What's that? Oh, yes, thank you for pointing that out). Ahem. Where was I? Oh yes. Back to Debate 101.

An example of responsive debate and criticism would be how I addressed Jim's writings. I wrote:

"I find it hard to say that the typically Bullish, sell side research analyst is not rigorous in their thought process. . . Further, some people see a day like today and claim its easy to "scare people out of the market." That's simply one-sided nonsense. You can just as easily scare people back into the market. Its what happens in any strong rally, where people get panicked in and chase stocks up -- happens all the time. Or how about a good old fashion short squeeze? Calling in borrowed stocks? Goosing index futures? Please, there are 100 ways to draw the moths to the flame."

I could have stopped there, but Jim had presented a powerful case, and I thought I needed a stronger response to counteract it: So I mustered additional arguments:

"Scaring the Bears is just as easy, if not more so, given the theoretical infinite losses on the short side. This is especially so when you consider all of the forces that line up on the Bullish side: Mankind's natural progress, population growth, and technological development is the backdrop that has very strong Bullish tendencies. That's not including the Wall Street machinery, the mutual fund industry, and whatever administration happens to be sitting in the White House -- all of which have a strong incentive to accentuate the positive."

Take note of the techniques used here: What I did was address the facts, opinions and arguements Jim used in his comments.

This will be a novel technique for some of you, and you may initially experience some  discomfort when first using it. Not to worry, though, as you become more acclimated to this, you will eventually find your comfort levels will rise.

Some of the more observant of you may have noted that I did not attack Jim personally, nor did I misquote him, nor take his words out of context. I responded directly to the main thrust of his arguments with my own arguments.

Further, note how when I quote Jim, I use quotation marks (") to show that these are his precise words. I use ellipses (. . . ) to signify where I dropped a sentence or paragraph of his. Note that where I changed a word for grammer, I put it in brackets [].

But most importantly, do you follow how this whole "actually-responding-to-what-the-other-person-said-with-a counter-argument" works? Its become very popular in all the best places.

In a typical debate scenario, someone stakes out a position, gives facts as they see them, presents their theories, opinions, etc. Then the other person responds to that person's arguments with facts countering the first persons positons. They poke holes in the theories, demonstrate why the facts may be different, weave a different analytical thread.

I will reveal a debate trick to those of you without rhetorical training: this technique works best when you have a counter-argument of substance. A combination of facts and the application of either logic or historical analogy are the ideal set ups for using this fact based technique.

This is what debate is. And I am compelled to point out that its been sorely lacking in Columnist Conversation, which is looking more like the Yahoo message boards of old. Its become a variation of the old trail lawyer's saw:  "When the facts and the law go against you, make sure the jury knows the other lawyer is a jerk."

Obviously, this does not apply to everyone. In fact, it doesn't apply to most people at RM. But given the reading comprehension problems I have since observed, I will repeat this sentence, and bold it: this doesn't apply to most people here.

I have become the person at RM with the most defined and outlying market position. Those of you who know me know I enjoy mixing it up, discussing all sorts of things late into the night. I am happy to go over my positions, trades, arguments, etc. I certainly do not shrink from a fight.

However, as the outlier, I have become a lightning rod for all sorts of inappropriate and disappointing behavior, which I am putting an end to right now. Tonite's Sarcasm Theater is my way of saying enough! No mas!

To be blunt, CC is becoming a giant time suck.I simply do not have the bandwidth for correcting each and every mean spirited attack.

So from now on, I will respond to CC's that meet the ground rules for argument that the Greeks laid out for us 4,000s years ago: Honest, fact driven debate, fairly argued. For everything else, I will reference back to this post.

Even from a foe a man may learn wisdom . . .

Monday, February 20, 2006 | 07:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack (0) add to | digg digg this! | technorati add to technorati | email email this post



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Most men would rather die than think. Many do. - Bertrand Russell

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts - Bertrand Russell

The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed a standard citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. - H.L. Mencken

Posted by: MrMarket | Feb 20, 2006 7:32:46 AM

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