Friday, April 18, 2008

How to argue and why

The web, with its opportunities for interaction, lends itself to argument. How can we keep it constructive? Although there’s often a right and a wrong side to an argument seldom does anyone “win” by convincing the opponent to concede to a particular point of view. In most cases the best outcome is for both sides to gain a better mutual understanding, identify previously unrecognized areas of agreement, ultimately identifying the irreducible points where the parties may just have to “agree to disagree” and where further appeals to evidence and logic may or may not be productive.

Paul Graham, writing about disagreement in the cyber environment, has neatly schematized the analysis of argument by proposing a hierarchy of its various forms. The cheapest shot, level DH0 at the bottom of the list, is name-calling. As Graham points out, whether crude or articulate, name-calling is name-calling, and belongs at the bottom of the heap:

DH0. Name-calling.This is the lowest form of disagreement, and probably also the most common. We've all seen comments like this:

u r a #*@!!!!!!!!!!

But it's important to realize that more articulate name-calling has just as little weight. A comment like

The author is a self-important dilettante.

is really nothing more than a pretentious version of "u r a #*@."

Next up (DH1) is the Ad Hominem argument which, Graham notes, while occasionally useful, is still weak:

For example, if a senator wrote an article saying senators' salaries should be increased, one could respond:

Of course he would say that. He's a senator.

This wouldn't refute the author's argument, but it may at least be relevant to the case. It's still a very weak form of disagreement, though. If there's something wrong with the senator's argument, you should say what it is; and if there isn't, what difference does it make that he's a senator?

If this reminds you of the critics of drug detailing to physicians it’s because they resort to the ad hominem argument over and over again. (“Don’t listen to anything they say because they’re trying to sell something”).

And so the list goes, onward and upward to the top category (DH6) which is “Refuting the central point.” The scheme can help you refine your own arguments. Moreover, by putting them in easily identifiable categories it gives readers a tool to spot weaknesses in other people’s arguments:

The most obvious advantage of classifying the forms of disagreement is that it will help people to evaluate what they read. In particular, it will help them to see through intellectually dishonest arguments. An eloquent speaker or writer can give the impression of vanquishing an opponent merely by using forceful words. In fact that is probably the defining quality of a demagogue. By giving names to the different forms of disagreement, we give critical readers a pin for popping such balloons.

Raising the standard makes your argument not only more civil but also stronger. Cheap shots and personal attacks, while they make entertaining blogging, can weaken your effect. Astute readers may perceive, often correctly, that it’s the best you have to dish out.

The CreateDebate blog has illustrated the hierarchy as a pyramid to highlight the fact that the lower forms of argument are more common.

H/T to


dvnutrix said...

Thank you for this thought-provoking and interesting post on a topic that gnaws away at me from time to time.

I loathe incivility much as I understand how some interactions can become particularly frustrating. And there is something particularly irritating about comments that neglect the content of a post or comments and reading your post made me realise that it is the equivalent of people not listening.

Bryan said...

Hey, I wanted to let you know that if you liked the post about How to Write Strong Arguments, you’ll love our latest post on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Internet Users. Check it out here:

Let me know what you think!