Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Distilled Wisdom #3: How to Sound Reasonable (Part 2)

Welcome back to Distilled Wisdom, where I boil out all the impurities and useless information I've taken from the sea of knowledge and serve you up a nice tall glass of distilled wisdom!

We return now to a glass of Distilled Wisdom so large I had to pour it out into two smaller glasses to make it manageable: How to Sound Reasonable. Last time, I discussed the proper use of emphasis and the value of answering all questions. If you haven't read it yet, go check it out right now.

This time, I'll be addressing the following topics:

3. Don't pursue
4. Explain your logic
5. Hold back your insults

3. Don't pursue

Throughout the course of an online debate, it will inevitably spread out. Instead of an initial one or two points in contention, you may end up with five or six. Once it reaches this point, some threads will end up being dropped by one party or the other. They may have simply overlooked it, they may be planning to get back to it later, or they may just lack a reply. When you see this happen, you may feel the urge to pursue the issue and point out that this thread has been dropped. Don't.

If you're a skeptic, you should know that the human mind isn't a very good judge of evidence. It has many inherent biases, and the one relevant here is the bias towards the last thing it's heard. Even if the last thing was an argument that had already been made and debunked, it might still hold weight in the mind of the audience. This makes it very important to never let them get the last point in. If it's a point they've already raised, then say so, but don't just let it stand.

Now, let's apply this to the case where your opponent lets a point drop during a debate. If no one addresses this point again, your last argument will stand, and it's as good a victory as you're going to get short of them explicitly conceding. There's no need to pursue the issue and either challenge them about it or simply point out they've dropped it, and in fact this may be harmful to your position.

How can it be harmful? Well, let's examine what might happen in different cases, depending on why they dropped the point. The first way this could happen is if they've simply overlooked or forgotten about it. When you go to point out they've dropped it, you're just reminding them to argue it. If your tone is harsh or critical enough, you may also end up looking like a jerk. Now, let's take the case where they were planning to get at that point later. In this case, you don't run the risk of reminding them of it, but you're almost guaranteed to come off looking bad when they explain that this was the case.

Then there's the final case in which they didn't respond because they didn't have a response. If you're facing a somewhat dishonest opponent, they may come out and use one of the above two excuses to cover this up. They then might come up with some bullshit argument, which just results in the debate continuing, and you've given up your victory.

What about an honest opponent? They may just ignore it again, in which case you're back to square one, except with more risk of sounding unreasonable if you decide to pursue again. They might come up with some rationalization on the spot, which leads you back into debating with them. Or, finally, they may actually admit that they don't have a response.

So let's go over all the possible results. The majority of them are bad for you, a few are neutral, and only one provides a slight benefit. The chance of a pursuit being beneficial just isn't worth it in the end.

Now, that applies to the bulk of cases, but there are a couple exceptions. The first is if you had originally asked them a question intending to show that they couldn't answer. In the case, it's best to come straight out and say this is what you're doing, plus keep reminding them of it. When you're trying to make a point in this manner, pursuit is critical or the fact that they didn't answer this question will likely be forgotten.

Another exceptional case is when the point dropped lies at the heart of the argument, and all other threads are tangential. Unless you want to get sidetracked debating less relevant matters, it's quite reasonable to pull the debate back to the main issue here. Just be careful how you do it.

4. Explain your logic

Imagine you're reading an online debate. One of the debaters was just challenged by the other to show evidence against the existence of God. They come back with the following reply:

Alright, if your vision of God is true, then there would be testable effects. We've tested for those effects, and we haven't seen them. There's your evidence against God.

That argument actually is logical, but the logic isn't made clear. Because of this, the other debater replies:

That's not evidence, that's absence of it! Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence.

So now the first person is on the spot. They could go back with "In this case, it does work," which is true, but not helpful. Instead, it's best to make the logic used as patronizingly clear as possible:

That's often true, but there is an important exceptional case: when it can be put into a Modus Tollens form. In this case, here's what the argument looks like:

If God exists as you describe him (A), and if we perform experiment B, we would get result C. (If A and B, then C.)

We performed experiment B, and didn't get result C. (B and not C)

Not C implies not both A and B. Since B is true, A must false. No evidence was found for God's existence, so this serves as evidence against it.

Exposed like this, the argument is quite reasonable. When it comes to explaining logic, don't be afraid to go into the details, logic can be surprisingly counterintuitive at times.

Aside: I call the reasoning used above the "Modus Tollens Exception." It has yet to catch on, but it's an important exception in these cases, so hopefully it'll get more regard under some name.

5. Hold back your insults

There's a time and a place where it's appropriate to insult people who come to your blog espousing woo. The place is, of course, The Two Percent Company, where it's always appropriate to insult woos who comes by. But for the rest of us, we have to find an appropriate time.

Let's start at the beginning. You make a post, and someone comes in and comments on it. It's obvious from their post that they don't agree with you. Your tone in responding to them should depend on a few different factors. The first of these factors is the tone of the commenter. If they're harsh and ridiculously rude, you have leave to be as well. If they're quite polite about their disagreement, you shouldn't go in insulting them off the bat. That'll just drive them off, and make you look quite unreasonable and hotheaded. In general, my recommendation is to be just one notch more polite than them. It leaves you room to react appropriately to rude commenters, but you'll still always look like the reasonable one.

Now, there are a couple of other factors that can come into play as well. The first is the general tone of your blog and your normal personality. If your blog is generally quite harsh and critical, it won't seem as out of place if you're rude in a comment. The reverse is true if you're generally very polite; any rudeness stands out like a sore thumb.

The other factor that can affect this is the tone of the specific post. If this post was a lot more insulting than is normal for you, then you have to take this into account when considering how it was replied to. If the commenter is harsh and insulting in response to this, it may just be because they were angered over this post. In this case, it's a good idea to respond calmly and politely, and possibly even apologize.

All of this just applies to the first post. Once you've argued with someone for a while and they still don't get it, insults become more appropriate. Here are a few signs of when it's quite appropriate to insult someone:
Now, all of this is assuming that you've been somewhat reasonable to start with, and they're the one escalating it. You should be careful that you aren't the one who's unreasonably escalating the debate into an argument.

All of this being said, it's also worth noting that even in some very long debates, insults never become appropriate. For instance, you could be debating with an ultimately reasonable and polite person who has been fed a ton of misinformation. It could take a long time to get through all of it, and any insults will undo any progress you've made. Yes, it may be frustrating to you, and yes, it may be regurgitated arguments you've heard thousands of times before, but this doesn't mean that this person knows all this. S/he might actually be willing to listen, so don't squander your opportunity.

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Distilled Wisdom Index


TheBrummell said...

I had a previous, long-winded comment that blogger destroyed. Oh well.

I like these distilled wisdom posts, please keep providing them. Thanks.

OK, a few months ago a woo-ish person showed up on my blog, and I called his argument (lots of blathering about "metaphysics" and "science providing complementary knowledge to other [unspecified] things") "Bullshit".

He took umbrage at this, and the conversation deteriorated rapidly. How would you succinctly express your contempt for an idea while making it clear you have no contempt for a person?


Nes said...

Hey, you need to fix your link to the previous post; it leads to an edit post page, which we can't get to since we aren't you! :-)


Infophile said...

Nes: Fixed, thanks for catching that.

TheBrummell: It's always hard to divorce the idea from the person expressing it. Even if you say simply that you think the idea is bullshit, they're going to infer that you believe there's something wrong with them for believing it as well.

What Skeptics have learned about critical thinking is that the average human doesn't have it. This leads perfectly normal people to the wrong conclusions all the time, so there's not necessarily anything wrong with them for believing something false. Whatever your mode of response is, you should try to express this.

So, now to what I'd recommend for your question. The first option I can think of is to use a lighter term. "Bullshit" is pretty harsh, and even if aimed directly at the argument, they're likely to take offense to it. A lighter term, such as "rubbish," expresses the same sentiment, but is less insulting.

The second option is to try to drive a wedge between the person and their beliefs. If you've known this person for a while, act surprised that "an intelligent person like you would believe this. Haven't you seen the recent findings against it?"

If you don't know them, take the tact that they must not have seen all the data (which is often the case). Something like, "If you'd seen the results of experiments done on it, surely you'd agree that [some woo] is rubbish," should work.

In any case, the trick is to pass blame for their belief to any source other than themselves. It's the woo's advocates' fault for providing faulty or incomplete information, not theirs for not seeking out the whole story. It's the advocates' fault for using logical fallacies or exploiting biases, not theirs for falling for it.

Of course, for some ideas, this is unavoidable. Take Flat Earth believers for example. The idea is obviously bullshit, and it's so much so that there has to be something wrong with them for believing it. It's also unavoidable when dealing with some people. They'll tie themselves into a theory so tightly that it's impossible to attack the theory without attacking them as well.

Anonymous said...

Another great installment in the series!

A piece of advice I picked up in my late teens that I've often found useful is to try to distinguish between a persons level of knowledge, their intelligence and their character. Someone who has a lack of knowledge is not necessarily stupid or a jerk, and unless they prove otherwise, you shouldn't treat them that way.

When online debates derail, it often seems to be because at least one of the participants, willfully or not, has confused these three characteristics of their opponent.