Cooper’s Brewery: Agreeing to Disagree

You can’t argue with evolution – or marriage equality. pic by Jens Kuu

The Cooper’s Fracas,
Agreeing to Disagree,
and Truth

I admit I’m a beer snob. Fortunately most pubs and bars these days have a selection that as well the usual vile swill, includes one or more palatable options. Like Coopers. Oh dear. Coopers. You may have noticed. Their brand was featured in a “light hearted” debate between two conservative politicians – the openly gay Tim Wilson supporting marriage equality, and Andrew Hastie opposing it. The whole thing was sponsored by the Bible Society, and Coopers quickly discovered a strong public reaction against them with bars taking their beer off tap and long time drinkers declaring their intent to switch brands. In the end, Coopers issued an apology, and declared themselves supporters of marriage equality.

The idea that we can, in a polite, civil, manner disagree is worthy. I have no doubt that my likes in food, music, fashion, and so forth, differ to yours – quite probably to very large degrees (I like ABBA after all). And that is fine. In these matters, personal preference, heritage, and other such factors mean that there is no definitive external measure which we can all agree is reasonable, by which we can justify a conclusion that Taylor Swift is preferable to Elton John, or that banana has no place (or is perhaps essential) on a pavlova. These are not matters in which there is a reasonable definition of truth.

There are, no doubt, debates about what truth even is, but in this context I will draw on my expertise as a professional scientist and talk about truth in the sense that something may be said to be true if we can test it in a variety of ways, using criteria that all can agree are unbiased, and we find repeated and independent evaluations all agree. There are many lines of evidence; many different tests we can do to determine whether it is more probable that the Earth is round rather than flat. And they come up demonstrating that the Earth is round every time. It doesn’t make sense to debate whether or not the Earth is round, and agreeing to disagree is nonsensical. That doesn’t mean we have to be rude. It doesn’t mean it is okay to treat people badly. But we can’t, in the pursuit of being kind and respectful of others, abandon truth.

It is crucial that we distinguish between debates in which we are discussing the merits of positions which are underpinned not by truth, but by opinion, and those in which the topic under consideration is underpinned by truth. If the topic of discussion is subject only to opinion (whose music you prefer, or whether you like or dislike man-buns), then it makes perfect sense either to arrive at a compromise position (both artists have some merit, and some flaws, perhaps). However, if the topic may reasonably be subject to the bright glare of a determination of truth or untruth, then agreeing to disagree, or compromising for some in-between position is intellectually dishonest.

There are some debates that take place in public discourse where parties either through ignorance or through being wilfully misleading, confuse these two domains of discourse. Without a doubt the most famous of these is debates is the merit of evolution as an explanation for life on Earth as we observe it. On the one hand, there are many lines of evidence – the most compelling of which I think is the evidence of our DNA, where we can see evolution in progress, from the evolution of drug resistant strains of bacteria, through the evolution within cancers, and comparing the genomes of reptiles, birds and placental mammals (like us) with the genome of the platypus, where it is beautifully apparent that the platypus is the descendant of a transitional animal as a line of reptiles evolved into a more mammalian form. To argue that evolution is not a good description of how we come to see the cornucopia of forms of living organisms around us is to pit opinion against truth. I completely allow that it is possible that someone could come up with a better explanation, but it seems highly unlikely – the explanatory (and predictive) power of evolution through natural selection is exquisitely comprehensive, and the more we learn about how life works at the molecular level, the more beautifully elegant an explanation it becomes.

Another debate that is very lively here in contemporary Australia is whether LGBTI people here should be accorded equal legal recognition for their relationships under the federal law of our pluralist secular state. While this isn’t a scientific argument, like the merits of evolution, it is still a debate where truth has an important role to play. In the sense of truth we are using here, it is true that being LGBTI is a natural and normal, if minority, expression of what it is to be human. This is a testable fact. I am not going to recount all the evidence here, but take for example the fact that hundreds of species which use sexual reproduction as their means of propagation also have sub-populations that exhibit same-sex pairings, same-sex copulation, and so on. There are other lines of evidence also, but articulating them all is not my purpose here. But it is undoubtedly true that being LGBTI is a normal, if minority, expression of what it is to be human.

It seems to me to be a pretty reasonable principle that our laws should treat us all equally, on the basis of our shared humanity, not on the basis of our difference. Perhaps you have arguments against this principle, and if you do, I am interested to hear what they are. But if we accept that we should all be treated equally before the law, and it is true that being LGBTI is a normal expression of being human, then to argue that LGBTI people should not have their relationships equally recognized before the law, is on par with arguing that evolution through natural selection is not a good explanation for life as we see it, or arguing that the Earth is flat.

Debating whether LGBTI people should have equal access to marriage under civil law is not a debate in which it is reasonable to disagree. It is not akin to a debate over which music we prefer. It is predicated on whether being LGBTI is a legitimate way of being. And evidence, fact, says that it is. It is predicated whether we think we should, on the basis of our common humanity, be equal before the law – and while that does not have the status of a scientific truth, it is a widely embraced standard (you could even call it the Golden Rule, if you like). Consequently, arguments against marriage equality should not be given equal weight to those in favour – it’s not a valid debate. I’m not saying we should throw the furniture at one another, or refrain from drinking free beer – within reason. But which beer is the best beer is a debate in which we can agree to disagree.

Thomas Conway, March 2017