I was a freshman in college when I heard my first academic argument. I was working in a plant physiology lab and one afternoon my (then) PI faced-off with one of his post-docs about how to define the direction toward the end of a plant root. They battled for an hour. I admit that I was scared and very upset. I liked both of them; they were down-to-earth and reasonable people. Why were they fighting? More importantly, of all the topics to risk an infarction over, plant roots? Really? I almost quit research. I hate conflict. But, later that day, something else happened. My PI and post-doc cheerfully buckled their Birkenstocks and strolled across the UMass campus to grab coffee together. They looked happy as they walked. Had they ended the argument in a fist-fight? Was it amnesia? I continued to pipette.
Six years later I find myself in very ironic position. My classmates bury their faces in their hands when I try to start an argument. I will argue over any concept or opinion that I can (science or otherwise) with whomever I can. I do not care how crazy my notion seems to other people (or to myself). Most importantly, I sincerely hope that I lose the argument. I hope that, through the argument, my defense is completely disarmed and that I walk away from the intellectual battlefield as a wounded soldier. My battle cry, “may you know more about this subject than I do, may you teach me how to think in a new way!” My thesis for this article: as PhD students, we must practice arguing over ideas as often as possible.
It is worthwhile for us to learn to argue simply because we chose to attend an academic research university. Lots of traditions permeate the generations since academics were cloistered monks. Solitude is not one of them. We are not assigned isolated cells to carry out our work (I admit our bench bays sometimes feel like cells). Instead, we are surrounded by brilliant people. To argue with someone is not a challenge of their intellect, it is to challenge your idea. Furthermore, it is the ultimate display of respect if you invite me to an argument. I am honored that you have entrusted me with your idea and I am humbled that you consider me competent to dissect it.
What about the end-game? If you and I are having an argument and you can convince me that my idea is flawed, then I am forced to think in a new way. You have helped me. Thank you! I may walk away a little confused, but alas, the chains are rattled and the cerebral revolution has started.
Before I completely romanticize the act of arguing I want to make a few concessions. First, I admit that the vast majority of arguments do not end in one person walking away “enlightened.” Most arguments between people result in a stand-still. A few years after the root argument, I asked my post-doc friend who he thought won his argument with my PI, he said “you know, I don’t think anyone actually wins those arguments,” and with a wink “but I think that I convinced him that there was value in my perspective.” Are we wasting time when we argue? I do not think so. Arguing is a mental exercise. It forces us to clarify and structure our reasoning. Furthermore, the chance that one person, or both people, will walk away with a new perspective holds tremendous value. It is worth it!
Second, an argument must be respectful. There is absolutely no reason to be abrasive, rude, overbearing or condescending (for sure, a lot of people in science should be taking notes here). Know who you are talking to. Everyone has their own way of communicating. Again, good arguments test ideas, not people. This is not to minimize the human element in the argument, it emphasizes it.
Finally, we should never fear the argument. Our ideas are important to us. They may have come about through long and difficult experiences. We must respect each other’s ideas. Still, ideas only have value if they somehow reflect or clarify the truth, so they must be tested. Individuals avoid arguing because they do not want to make other people upset or because they want to remain on good terms. Most of us (myself included) are naturally possessive and proud of our ideas. I propose that we not let this get in the way of a good argument. As graduate students, we are in the business of testing ideas. We must also practice separating a challenge of our ideas from a challenge to our competency in forming them. When we do this, we increase our ability to think in new ways.
Réne Descartes postulated cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” Despite its simplicity, it is a poor reconstruction of Réne Descartes’ actual philosophy. Rewritten in the American English vernacular, it could be “I doubt, therefore I am.” Ideas are powerful, but it is our ability to test them that clarifies our existence. So in conclusion, Argue, and be wrong! Care to challenge me on this?