Sunday, 7 October 2012

How to Disagree

The rise of social media and "user generated content" on on-line newspapers has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of people who can argue, in real-time, online.

But as people are not generally trained in the skills of debate and argument, the quality of these online discussions can sometimes (perhaps often) end up as a simple slanging match.

Which isn't helpful - and just leaves people angry.

So BFTF was chuffed to find out about a "Hierarchy of Argument", devised by Paul Graham, which describes the ways in which people argue, and how some approaches can be fallacious. It's shown below, together with some comments taken from Graham's essay on the subject, and also a short list of some common fallacies.

Unfortunately it's common for counterarguments to be aimed at something slightly different. More often than not, two people arguing passionately about something are actually arguing about two different things. There could be a legitimate reason for arguing against something slightly different from what the original author said: when you feel they missed the heart of the matter. But when you do that, you should say explicitly you're doing it.

To refute someone you probably have to quote them. You have to find a "smoking gun," a passage in whatever you disagree with that you feel is mistaken, and then explain why it's mistaken. If you can't find an actual quote to disagree with, you may be arguing with a straw man.

While refutation generally entails quoting, quoting doesn't necessarily imply refutation. Some writers quote parts of things they disagree with to give the appearance of legitimate refutation, then follow with a response as low as Contradiction or even Name-Calling.

Refuting the Central Point.
The force of a refutation depends on what you refute. The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone's central point.

Even as high as Refutation we still sometimes see deliberate dishonesty, as when someone picks out minor points of an argument and refutes those. Sometimes the spirit in which this is done makes it more of a sophisticated form of ad hominem than actual refutation. For example, correcting someone's grammar, or harping on minor mistakes in names or numbers. Unless the opposing argument actually depends on such things, the only purpose of correcting them is to discredit one's opponent.

Truly refuting something requires one to refute its central point, or at least one of them. And that means one has to commit explicitly to what the central point is. So a truly effective refutation would look like:

The author's main point seems to be x. As he says:

But this is wrong for the following reasons...
The quotation you point out as mistaken need not be the actual statement of the author's main point. It's enough to refute something it depends upon.

Other Common Fallacies

Ad Hominem (Argument To The Man):
Attacking the person instead of attacking his argument. For example, "Mr Smiths views that black people should be deported are worthless because he is a convicted benefit fraudster” (which may be true, but is not why his views are wrong)

A common form is an attack on sincerity. For example, "How can you argue that we should “Buy British” when you have a Japanese car?”

Another variation is attack by innuendo: "Why don't scientists tell us what they really know; are they trying to hide something?"

Straw Man (Fallacy Of Extension):
Attacking an exaggerated or caricatured version of your opponent's position. For example: "Mr Smith says that we should abandon Trident. I disagree and cannot understand why he wants to leave us defenceless”

Excluded Middle (or False Dichotomy):
For example, "We must deal with poverty before spending money on science ” - Why can't we do some of both ?

Appeal To Anonymous Authority:
An Appeal To Authority is made, but the authority is not named. For example, "Experts agree that ..", This makes it impossible to verify the information and it may well be that the arguer themselves does not know who the “experts” are.

Moving The Goalposts
If your opponent successfully addresses some point, then say he must also address some further point. If you can make these points more and more difficult (or diverse) then eventually your opponent must fail. Asking questions is easy: it's answering them that's hard.

It is also possible to lower the bar, reducing the burden on an argument. For example, some person might claim that eating sunflower seeds prevents colds. When they do get a cold, then they move the goalposts, by saying that the cold would have been much worse if not for the sunflower seeds they were eating.

Image Source :
Heirarchy of Argument


  1. First sentence: "...has allowed resulted in a dramatic increase..." Seems to have slipped past the editing eye. I'll 'argue' for using either "has allowed" or "has resulted in" but not both. ;~)

    One common discussion technique seems to be missing from this presentation you shared. Often someone will quite dramatically shift to a very different track or even topic that is only slightly related, but that is somehow important to that person. It frequently goes beyond conflation, because there seems to be no real attempt at drawing a line of connection - there is simply a leap. This can result in parallel but minimally related threads or even a total hijacking of a thread. Perhaps more often than not, it seems to be dodge when the person has no real basis for argument - only "feeling" or opinion. I've given up on many potentially valuable discussions that have disintegrated in such a manner.

  2. Thanks for the free proof-reading, much appreciated. And for you comments. It is a shame that the "last men standing" in those valuable discussions are the ones least interested in learning what the other side has to offer...