The Three-Pronged Fruitfulness of Strategic Pluralism

Note: This is the third installment in the series on debating tactics and pseudoskepticism. For other posts in this series, see the index entry.

In yet another intellectually piercing comment by the user Wonderist in response to the previous installment, Wonderist pointed out that (comment chopped up for brevity):

Actually, I believe that it is very important to long-term strategy to foster and advocate the use of many different approaches from many different people and perspectives. The ridicule approach is just one approach, and is not universally effective; it depends both on the skill with which the ridicule is pulled off, and also on the audience itself, which may not appreciate even mild-mannered satire. In fact, I would take it a few steps further and argue […] that the long-term viability of the defense of science and reason is to specifically encourage and experiment with different approaches. Diversity of tactical approaches is not just a “let’s all join together to fight the common enemy” call to solidarity. It also has some merit as a kind of ‘evolutionary’ meta-strategy. […] When skeptics form communities (such as we’re doing on the internet) and start sharing different arguments and approaches, trying new ones out here and there, we will inevitably end up with a much more robust and resilient skeptical movement, than if we all tried to stick to one single ‘play-book’ of ‘best arguments’.

In biological psychology, strategic pluralism refers to the notion that “multiple, even contradictory behavioral strategies might be adaptive in certain environments and would therefore be maintained through natural selection” (Passer et. al. 2009). However, in this context, I use strategic pluralism to refer to the notion that many different debating strategies and attitudes might be successful in terms of persuasive power depending on situational factors such as subject matter, speaker, opponent, audience and so on. Simplified, this means that someone like the Catholic cell biologist Ken Miller can succeed in certain situations where someone like the hard-core atheist Richard Dawkins might not and vice versa.

When I talk about the three-pronged fruitfulness of strategic pluralism, I am referring to the notion that (1) different debating strategies and attitudes may be successful in different contexts, (2) that strategic pluralism may be fruitful by giving rise to more optimal attitudes and debating methods against pseudoscientists and pseudoskeptics by virtue of keeping using those that work and eliminating those that does not work as well (a form of cultural evolution by memetic selection) and (3) strategic pluralism may also be fruitful in the sense of contributing to overcoming pseudoscience/pseudoskepticism in the overarching cultural conflict between science-based rationality and its opponents (compared to more single-minded approaches).

The memetic selection of debating strategies is not without a rich tapestry of theoretical antecedents. It is an application of of memetics developed by individuals like Dawkins (1976) and Dennett (1995). It is also powerful reminder of Toulmin’s “conceptual evolution” and Hull’s later developed “general theory of selection processes” (Losee, 2001), both dealing with descriptive philosophy of science. The general idea is that different research programs or paradigms compete in an evolutionary fashion with respect to solving Kuhnian anomalies in the social and cultural context of science. There are of course important differences between this type of conceptual evolution and biological evolution: biological evolution is without foresight and goal, conceptual evolution is not, and the replicators in biology does not resemble research programs very much (Losee, 2001).

So strategic pluralism seems, on the face of it, entirely reasonable. However, crafting models is one thing and actual evidence for such a model is another thing entirely. What if we get more empirical?

There has probably not been a whole lot of research on this topic, but research on related topics such as persuasion and how to give listener-centered oral presentations may be useful towards this end. It is clear that there exists cultural differences in expectations both for giving and listening to lectures, such as posture, eye contact, organization, tone, gestures, visuals and level of directness (Anderson, 2011). If cross-cultural differences exists, then perhaps there are differences among subcultures as well? Being able to make the audience identify with yourself may be beneficial as well.

References and Further Reading:

Anderson. P. V. (2011). Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach. 7th edition. Boston: Wadsworth.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary edition. New York. Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Losee, J. (2001). A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. 4th edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Passer, M., Smith, R., Holt, N., Bremner, A., Sutherland, E., & Vliek, M. (2009). Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.


Debunker of pseudoscience.

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