Research has shown that…

doorBionda Merckens

Research has shown that…

It’s unbelievable, but some people still try to win debates with the argument that ‘scientific research has shown that…’. We should know better than to quote the last headline from some random internet source.

But suppose that you’re sitting on what you believe to be a ‘killer fact’ – something that can win the debate for you immediately. How then should you use it, if you want to avoid saying ‘research has shown that…’?

Why we want to quote research

A speaker generally want to quote research because it provides the audience with a clearcut signal: what we’re about to say, is absolute and indisputable fact. It’s as certain as day follows night, the earth revolves around the sun and each human being having parents. We’re saying something about our degree of certainty.

But the phrase ‘scientific research’ is a red flag for the opposition. Their ears start making teflon as soon as they hear it, and their brains start cranking out all the standard critical questions that accompany all types of scientific research: who did this research? What was the sample size? Aren’t you mistaken correlation with causation? And so on, and so on…

The solution is simple. Follow the next two steps and you’ll be able to transform a killer factoid into a killer argument.

Step 1: Just say it

Suppose you’re the opposition in a debate about reinstating the death penalty (in a country where it was previously abolished). The proposition argues that death penalty prevents crime, because criminals don’t want to die. You happen to have the killer fact: ‘research has shown that’ countries with the death penalty aren’t any less criminal than countries without the death penalty, which is what you’d expect if you’d follow the proposition’s reasoning.

The first step is to just state the factoid, without prefacing it with the awkward and unnecessary ‘research has shown…’. If it is a fact about which you’re sure, you should utter it as a fact about which you’re sure. You wouldn’t say ‘research has shown that the sun rises everyday’, would you?

Better yet, you can turn this into an excellent question for a POI: just get up and as proposition: ‘but then how do you explain that countries with the death penalty have the same or an even higher crime rate then countries without the death penalty’? BOOM! The burden of proof now rests with them.

Step 2: What’s the story behind the statistics?

Factoids are interesting, not because of the facts within them, but because of the stories behind them. What does this factoid tell us about the assumptions we have about how the world and humans work? What assumptions does it reveal to be false, and what assumptions should we apparently be making?

In the case of the death penalty, the conclusion of the research tells us that criminals in general don’t make a cost benefit analysis; Most (violent) crimes are committed under external pressure, out of ignorance or on the spur of the moment, with little rational premeditation. That’s why criminals aren’t deterred by the death penalty: they generally don’t even think about. And that’s why countries with the death penalty have the same or even higher crime rates than countries without the death penalty.

A nice side-effect of this trick is that it leads you straight into a substantive debate. In stead of a shallow verbal exchange on the research, you’re having a debate about the fundamental premises of human behavior: are we rational or not? You only reach these premises by searching for the story behind the statistics.

Respond: How do you think people should use scientific research in debates? Does it have any use?

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Bionda Merckens contributor