by Jay Johansen | Feb 13, 2010
If someone is advocating a position or idea that you question – whether it's someone at your job suggesting a new product, or a politician or reformer urging social or economic change, or someone promoting a scientific (or pseudo-scientific) theory, or a religious idea, or whatever – if someone is advocating a position or idea that you question, watch how they react when someone asks them polite but challenging questions. I mean questions like, "How do you know this is true?", "What makes you think this will work?", "What evidence do you have to back up your claims?" (Whether relevant evidence would be market research, scientific experiments, historical documents, or whatever.) Etc.
Responses tend to fall rather neatly into one of two categories.
Category A are those who reply by presenting factual evidence and/or logical arguments. I am usually impressed when someone gives this sort of answer. Even when I don't have the expertise to judge the evidence, the fact that they have made a serious effort to collect and analyze evidence is impressive.
Category B are those who reply with some variation of, "I'm the authority, you must trust my professional opinion", "All the experts agree that this is true", "The evidence is too complicated, you wouldn't understand it", or even an angry "How dare you question me!" or "If you don't agree you must be an anti-intellectual extremist bigot". When I hear this sort of response, when someone refuses to present any evidence to support his position, I suspect that that is because they have no evidence.
It is true, of course, that there are kooks and hoaxsters who present elaborate arguments with one unsubstantiated statement piled on top of another. Just because someone presents (alleged) evidence doesn't mean we should automatically accept it uncritically. But if someone presents his evidence, we at least have the opportunity to evaluate it. Kooks and hoaxsters who can keep up a rational-sounding argument for very long are fortunately rare.
Likewise, it is possible that someone has real evidence to back up his claims, but he is just fed up with answering stupid questions from ignorant people and he gets snappy. That would explain and excuse an isolated non-responsive comeback. It would not explain a pattern of refusal to present the evidence.
People who know what they're talking about and who are telling the truth are usually eager to share the evidence that led them to their conclusions. They love nothing more than to tell the story of all the hard work they went to, how they struggled to gather this information and all the twists and turns they had to navigate.
When someone tells me that he has a pile of evidence to prove that what he is saying is true but he refuses to tell me what it is … no thanks.
© 2010 by Jay Johansen