What Really Matters in an Argument

I’m slowly working through Kim Stanley Robinson’s speculative sci-fi novel Red Mars, and I keep thinking about this passage where two characters discuss the nature of argument:

“What do you think of all the arguments about what we should do up there?” [Maya] asked, gesturing at the red stone ahead of them.
“I don’t know.”
“I think Phyllis makes a lot of good points.”
[John] shrugged. “I don’t think that matters.”
“What do you mean?”
“The only part of an argument that really matters is what we think of the people arguing. X claims a, Y claims b. They make arguments to support their claims, with any number of points. But when their listeners remember the discussion, what matters is simply that X believes a and Y believes b. People then form their judgment on what they think of X and Y.”
“But we’re scientists! We’re trained to weigh the evidence.”
John nodded. “True. In fact, since I like you, I concede the point.”

Amusing, isn’t it? And more true, I think, than people want to admit. As enterprising Americans in an enlightened society, we like to believe we can weigh the evidence of various claims carefully—even scientifically—and reach rational conclusions about what we believe is best. But the fact is that we put an enormous amount of stock in where the evidence comes from and who puts it forward. We have friends and allies and intellectual heroes, and find it difficult to trust anything which contradicts what they say; and this is not a rational approach to finding the truth. We like to think we are fair and emotionally strong enough to embrace whatever the truth is, regardless of our social preferences. The lesson I take from this is that I am immediately suspicious of anyone who claims that they have looked at an issue objectively, on their own, and/or in a way that is un-influenced by their peers. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to be as objective as possible. It just means that more caution and more awareness of our limits, tribal tendencies, and the limits of our peers — these are vital things to cultivate.

Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson