Weekend Diversion: How to argue...and actually accomplish something

Aug 16 2009 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Debate and Discussion

Sometimes, things happen. Such as:

  • Someone is wrong on the Internet
  • Someone is being a dumbass on the Internet
  • Something is wrong with the world
  • I'm bored

...and that's when it is time to argue. Sometimes (sigh), there's simply no way around it and I am forced (forced, I tell you) to put myself out there and make the best argument that I can to make what I want to happen actually happen.
Let me start with this lighthearted conciliatory air


Why start with such a confrontational piece? Well, the good Dr. Isis covered some of that in her post on "How to Argue..." in which she made the essential points about power-differential. In essence, controlling the terms of disagreement and debate are often (not exclusively, often) a tool of the power structures which is deployed to artificially enhance their side of the dispute at the expense of the less powerful. Head on over to Isis' place to discuss this facet.

I also present this extended version of the well-known Public Enemy rap because it links back to the Civil Rights era. This is but one (highly salient and relatively recent) example of the value of so-called "civil" and "uncivil" approaches to causing palpable change in a highly important and highly charged discussion. It is hard not to frame this in terms of the Overton window.

Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous "outer fringe" ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable. The idea is that priming the public with fringe ideas intended to be and remain unacceptable, will make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison.

Despite what the short-memoried may think based on the highly successful 30 yr Republican Overton strategy, these tactics are not limited to a single political dimension. Such tactics were deployed during the Civil Rights era with remarkable success in moving the window of what it was reasonable to discuss in a more liberal, progressive direction. Fringe ideas such as equal treatment under the law, attacks on pervasive systematic discrimination and interracial marriage became normalized. Yes, in part because of the radical fringe of Black Power, the early Malcolm X, the Panthers and other ideologies which helped to drag that Overton window.

How does this work and/or what is the purpose of the extreme end of the debate? A shock to the system is perhaps the best way to put it. Despite what some people would like to believe, the calm rational argument is a piss-poor option in changing people's opinions and beliefs. Do we need to resort to the many, many examples in the political sphere people's central emotional political affiliation trumps any possible consistency with respect to individual issues? Tax-and-spend versus Don't-tax-but-spend-more? Sanctity-of-life versus execute-criminals?

So let us examine these views about the proper way to argue advanced by Dr. Siegel.

there are good ways and bad ways to argue. Calling someone names? Probably a bad idea. Yelling at someone that they're wrong without explaining what's actually correct? Probably also not the best idea.

First we need to deal with the whiff of straw that is coming across. If we venture down to the base of Ethan's pyramid we find the ad hominem attack listed down at the bottom with name-calling. Now what I find in discussion on the sorts of forums and blogs that I frequent is that actual name calling and ad hominem attacking exists far less than certain nose-sniffing comments would have us believe. The reason, of course, is a fundamental confusion between these two statements.

"You are an ignorant fucknut and therefore your argument lacks merit."
"Your argument lacks merit for these reasons from which I conclude you are an ignorant fucknut"

See the difference? And yet when the criticized person reads the second statement, they almost inevitably conclude that the former has been said. See this for an example. Why do people mis-read? Because they are so invested in their position that they have to immediately construct a defense when anything starts to question that position. This little jujitsu puts the critique back on the opposite position by making out that their legitimate position comes from an illegitimate personal bias against the person holding the position. Nice trick!

STFU n00bThe second part is also a work of straw since, once again, the proportion of times someone is told they are wrong without explaining why they are correct is vanishingly small. Most of the time, especially on the linky-linky internets, the reason for being wrong is provided...somewhere and in some format. Although likely enough right in the discussion in question. So the trope that "you are not explaining why I am wrong" is usually a sign of lazy unwillingness to do some additional reading.....or.....
Cognitive defensive structures built up to resist considering that one might actually be wrong.

Here we arrive at the meat of the matter. Once having accomplished more than about 300 ms worth of consideration of a given topic, people are highly resistant to the idea that their rationale, conclusions and evidence base might actually be wrong. And the wronger the consideration might be, the more resistant to acknowledgment is the individual. We might think of this as the intrapersonal Overton window.

Once a person has convinced him or herself that s/he is correct, or has a pretty good take on the world, the notion that s/he is a sap, fool, tool of advertising, subject to the laws of behavioral conditioning, biased, mistaken, illogical and the like is outside of the Overton window. Consequently, anything that suggests to them that they are mistaken, etc, must be flawed, illogical, unfair, below-the-belt, not-cricket, uninformed and/or meaniepants.

If you need examples, stroll about the ScienceBlogs and review discussions of alternative medicine, vaccine-autism theories and all varieties of anti-medical woo and crackpottery. Here at DM you can amuse yourself with those firmly committed drug fans. The nice-guy types who argue at Zuska's pad and elsewhere with their "yeah buts". And make no mistake, the intrapersonal Overton window assuredly applies to the host bloggers just as much as it does to the antagonist commenter (this makes no comment on who is correct I will note).
This is why this statement from Professor Siegel

Those top two levels are really the only way to ever change someone's mind, or to sway other intelligent, thinking people to your side.

is as wrong as wrong can be. This only works (maybe) within the intrapersonal Overton window. Once your rational refutation strategy ventures too far afield SNAP!, the listener defaults back to their position and starts rapidly building the cognitive defenses, arguing any old nonsense, to avoid the apparent distress of actually moving his or her Overton window. Fascinatingly, Professor Siegel actually fesses up to exactly this:

But if you want to argue on my site, you're really best off remembering this hierarchy, and staying as high as possible on it.

The translation is "Don't try to actually convince me that I might be wrong about anything to which I cling dearly".
--
[I'll end here for now. Part II will be on the function and utility of name calling and generally FWDAOTI.]

41 responses so far

  • becca says:

    I've found this Overton window model incredibly useful in thinking about arguments ever since you've introduced it.
    It's still a Totally Lame excuse to keep CPP around though.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    How about these reasons?

  • becca says:

    I'll count #6 (Seeding the intellectual environment with particular ideas) as encompassing the Overton window.
    As far as the others, some are lame and some are valid.
    (1) Amusing oneself.
    I'm sure he amuses himself. Watching him amuse himself is only marginally less voyeuristic than some pretty bad internet porn though. Not a good reason to keep him around.
    (2) Rousing the troops.
    Occasionally I've seen him be useful this way, and it's not a totally lame excuse.
    I just don't want to be part of those troops. Which makes me wonder about the effect of extremists on group cohesion and how that intersects with the Overton window. Are groups that want to succeed in their political policy goals required to tolerate being lumped in with the biggest assholes?
    (3) Bringing ridicule upon someone else.
    His specialty. I admit I've gotten some schadenfreude from his comments sometimes. Then I smack myself with an empathy stick and get over it. An understandable, if not morally defensible, reason to support him.
    (4) Amusing other people.
    Valid enough, even if I don't share the taste.
    (5) Attracting eyeballs to a blog, article, book, etc.
    He might be useful at this as far as it goes, but I don't think it's sufficient to justify a lot of his arguments. Traffic should be a means to an end, and if creating a more interesting dialog is part of the goal, I'm not sure COCKDOUCHEWEASELMONKEY helps. I'd be willing to reconsider based on Google analytics data on "COCKDOUCHEWEASELMONKEY" suggesting orders-of-magnitude more audience though.
    (7) Performance art.
    This is the one that is actually the Lamest Possible excuse for a CPP. He's simply not creative enough.

  • COCKDOUCHEWEASELMONKEYINFINITYBAJILLION!11!!1!
    I WIN!

  • Brilliant Brother Drug. The beginning is inspired.

  • Katie says:

    "Those top two levels are really the only way to ever change someone's mind, or to sway other intelligent, thinking people to your side.
    is as wrong as wrong can be. This only works (maybe) within the intrapersonal Overton window. Once your rational refutation strategy ventures too far afield SNAP!, the listener defaults back to their position and starts rapidly building the cognitive defenses, arguing any old nonsense, to avoid the apparent distress of actually moving his or her Overton window."
    False. Ethan's *qualified* statement is correct. If someone is arguing "any old nonsense," this places them directly in the non-intelligent, non-thinking pile.
    "But if you want to argue on my site, you're really best off remembering this hierarchy, and staying as high as possible on it.
    The translation is "Don't try to actually convince me that I might be wrong about anything to which I cling dearly"."
    Again, I call bullshit. There is a huge difference between your translation and Ethan's call to keep it civil and productive on *his* site.

  • Jason Dick says:

    Becca,
    But I think they make perfect sense when you see them as personal reasons to bother presenting an argument, instead of excuses to do so. As far as I'm concerned, nobody needs any "excuse" to present an argument, other than the desire to do so. And those desires can come in many forms, from desire to shoot down an asinine argument presented by somebody else, or to just want to get something off your chest. It doesn't matter to me why a person wants to present an argument.
    So I think Comrade PhysioProf hit the nail perfectly on the head with what he was responding to.

  • Cara says:

    Now what I find in discussion on the sorts of forums and blogs that I frequent is that actual name calling and ad hominem attacking exists far less than certain nose-sniffing comments would have us believe. The reason, of course, is a fundamental confusion between these two statements.
    "You are an ignorant fucknut and therefore your argument lacks merit."
    "Your argument lacks merit for these reasons from which I conclude you are an ignorant fucknut"

    Exactly.
    Also, the fucknut in question usually gets a couple of passes first (which courtesy is ignored, because the fucknut is OWED this, by God) before fucknutitude is called, THEREFORE eliminating any possible validity to the charge of ad hominem.

  • becca says:

    "But I think they make perfect sense when you see them as personal reasons to bother presenting an argument, instead of excuses to do so." Oh absolutely- not all logical motivations are justifications for behavior. Let alone justifications for existence (I use the phrase "justify your existence" as a very tongue-in-cheek thing. Indeed, the assumption I've made- that DM needs to justify CPP at all- is meant as quite tongue-in-cheek. After all, it's DM's blog and he lets me comment. It's pretty presumptuous to demand anything else. But I always need *something* to give DM a hard time about).
    I was actually struck that it was a very good list of some motivations for engaging in an argument.
    It's a discrete point that I'm personally underwhelmed by justifications for popping in, yelling "COCKDOUCHEWEASELMONKEYINFINITYBAJILLION!11!!1!
    I WIN!" and scampering off.

  • Some DICK agreed with me! I WIN!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Stephanie Z says:

    From a strictly tactical perspective, there is a great deal of utility in appearing to stick to the elevated bits of the pyramid while doing whatever the hell you were going to do anyway. Not the easiest thing to pull off, though.

  • megan says:

    As I always argue, the use of relativism in philosophical debate to gain footing on the public forum, as the downfall of much recent liberal control of the public stage of ideas. With the undercutting of reason and debate techniques in basic education, most people easily fall sway to the poor debate arguing techniques used by the conservative/orthodox cultural supporters used to establish and cement previously discounted and disproved stances as having some newly found never before discovered/plain ignored validity or veracity.
    Because valid science does use new discoveries and hypotheses, those with weak hypotheses that cannot be supported or consistently validated take refuse in the excuse of just not enough sampling, people ignoring results, denial of bias etc.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    August 1963, MLK: "I have a dream"
    August 1989, PE: "Fight the power"
    August 2009, CPP: "COCKDOUCHEWEASELMONKEY"
    *Sigh*

  • DrugMonkey says:

    N-c, you know full well that both fight the power and CPP's stylings are tame in comparison with the extremes of the civil rights era..on both sides. MLKJr was a relatively moderate voice, in hindsight if you did not agree at the time.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    More than that, CPP gives the people who are going to have vapors no matter what something to have vapors about, so that it's much harder to make a case that the people who are speaking in more than nouns are going over the top. Imagine how much easier a time DM would have around here if one of his co-bloggers was actually, firmly against legalization of marijuana. Hyperbole can clear a space for eloquence and examination.
    We had that discussion last week about atheism over at my place.

  • NOUNS!@?!? We don't need no motherfucking NOUNS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • ginger says:

    I just wanted to point out this stellar example of the name-calling approach:
    http://scientopia.org/blogs/drugmonkey/2009/08/the-myth-about-exercise-gimme-a-break#comment-1848702
    I believe that he is making the "Your argument lacks merit for these reasons from which I conclude you are an ignorant fucknut" case, but the placement of the sweeping insult at the start of the comment makes it difficult to assess.

  • DB says:

    Did you seriously just try and argue that ad hominem attacks are justifiable and don't belong at the bottom of the argument barrel because a conclusion which can be misinterpreted as an ad hominem is not, in fact, an ad hominem? Honestly, this kind of tripe has made me conclude that you're a COCKDOUCHEWEASELMONKEYINFINITYBAJILLION. Of course, I've only concluded this because you are a COCKDOUCHEWEASELMONKEYINFINITYBAJILLION and not based on the strength of your argument—equally justified, right?

  • TheBlindWatcher says:

    Katie said : "False. Ethan's *qualified* statement is correct."
    I stopped reading, after the word "False" 😉
    Which is sort of funny. I'm not meaning to be disrespectful at all, but I'm thinking: Surely there must have been something in this or linked article that suggests you shouldn't start an argument with the word "False!"

  • Gabe says:

    I still don't know what the hell is wrong with melding logic and flash?
    The pyramid is certainly logical, and stripped of its culturally tainted subtext, makes solid, reasoned sense.
    so why can't that be at the core? I'd argue that public enemy occupied the very highest strata of that pyramid, and this might be my problem with the whole utterly silly spat that's being dragged across all these blogs.
    It may just be my opinion that ALL great arguments will combine the top and the bottom of the pyramid.

  • The pyramid is certainly logical, and stripped of its culturally tainted subtext, makes solid, reasoned sense.

    Oh, to have the luxury of prancing around with my wand, stripping things of their cultural subtext wherever I go!

  • Gabe says:

    ^
    if you can't understand something at its core without being confounded and distracted by bias, it doesn't leave you in a balanced, informed position. how much that matters is up to the individual.

  • Katie says:

    TheBlindWatcher said:
    Katie said : "False. Ethan's *qualified* statement is correct."
    I stopped reading, after the word "False" 😉
    Which is sort of funny. I'm not meaning to be disrespectful at all, but I'm thinking: Surely there must have been something in this or linked article that suggests you shouldn't start an argument with the word "False!"
    1) I start with the phrase "False." Not "False!" Or even "False because you're a COCKDOUCHEWEASELMONKEYINFINITYBAJILLION!11!!1!"
    Do you see the difference?
    2) Clearly, you did continue reading after the "False." But nice try.
    3) TheBlindWatcher's comment seems to place him square in the category DM describes:
    Once your rational refutation strategy ventures too far afield SNAP!, the listener defaults back to their position and starts rapidly building the cognitive defenses, arguing any old nonsense, to avoid the apparent distress of actually moving his or her Overton window.

  • Samia says:

    Somehow I've been getting hits from the John Lennon post you linked, and now I just clicked over there and am really sorry I read the latest comment. Ugh. I hate the internet. :/

  • DSKS says:

    "But if you want to argue on my site, you're really best off remembering this hierarchy, and staying as high as possible on it."
    The translation is "Don't try to actually convince me that I might be wrong about anything to which I cling dearly"
    .
    Aw c'mon, speaking of thatching... between which two lines in the original post did that sentiment so clearly emerge?
    I'll agree that Ethan is, unfortunately, wrong that reason is the only way to change most minds. The lower levels of the presented pyramid better describe contemporary political debate precisely because many minds are more easily swayed by misinformation, smear and innuendo than they are by reasoned argument. But it would be slightly perverse for Ethan to determine that, for this reason, he should encourage maintaining this gutter level of debate in a scientific forum.
    I fail to see from this post, or from that on Isis' blog, what's so objectionable about Ethan's desire for the engagement of debate to be based on the exchange of reasoned arguments (particularly on a science blog, and more specifically a blog on which the author does reserve the right to define the nature of the debate as it occurs on his or her internets turf).

  • Katie says:

    "I fail to see from this post, or from that on Isis' blog, what's so objectionable about Ethan's desire for the engagement of debate to be based on the exchange of reasoned arguments (particularly on a science blog, and more specifically a blog on which the author does reserve the right to define the nature of the debate as it occurs on his or her internets turf)."
    Amen.

  • Mike_F says:

    So you guys are having an argument about how to argue. Somebody needs to get a life...

  • Xanthippas says:

    There's nothing political about Ethan's post, not even impliedly so. I'm not entirely certain what your point, other then that maybe I should insult you as I say that.

  • Isabel says:

    "Imagine how much easier a time DM would have around here if one of his co-bloggers was actually, firmly against legalization of marijuana. Hyperbole can clear a space for eloquence and examination." Eloquence huh.
    You mean DM's position would seem more moderate so us 'drug lovers' would be more receptive to his cannabis bashing. Hmmm. Similarly, or conversely, advocates nowadays think we're making great advances when we push through a medical-marijuana bill or decriminalization in a few states when there is no justification for the ban in the first place. Such apparent 'progress' when in fact we're frogs sitting in water that has come to a slow, imperceptible boil. As we lost liberties, one after the other we barely noticed. The question Should cannabis be legalized is backwards - the actual question is should it be prohibited. The default position is free access. It wasn't invented in a laboratory, peole have been using it for centuries.
    The real breaking point with the 'leftist liberal establishment' for me was when everyone came out of the woodwork because of the Patriot Act. Such outrage, which was nowhere in evidence as over the last few decades the police gradually acquired previously unheard of powers and millions of innocent workers had to turn over bodily fluids for analysis of their off-hours activities by current and future employers. It all seems so normal now. 700,000 people arrested per year for possessing or selling a plant humans have used and sold for possibly 10,000 years, that's extremely useful and causes few problems. Whatever. But the Patriot Act - an outrage! If the drug war powers had all happened at once perhaps there would have been outrage. Now we're grateful to register with the government and pay even more at a medical marijuana dispensary - we even call it compassionate.
    Cannabis is by all accounts far less harmful than alcohol, yet alcohol prohibition was much less damaging to individuals, it was more like decriminalization. People were not thrown in jail for mere possession. But we're still shaking out heads over it today. How could we have been so crazy? We don't even see that we're way crazier today! Forcing workers to turn over urine and hair samples, coercing them into rehabilitation programs. DM needs to take a stand for legalization and put his clinical observations in a rational historical perspective, and I'm sure we'd all be happy to discuss his dependency concerns. But when he acts like he's on the fence, or implies that legalization advocates should check out this-or-that study, as if pot could possibly be more harmful than prohibition, he deserves all the shit he's been getting.
    I heard Jocelyn Elders on the radio yesterday, being interviewed about the current candidate for surgeon general. Her top health concern in the US? Obesity? Nope. Drugs? Nope. The DRUG WAR. Check out the Pacifica Radio Archives if you don't believe me...
    Score one for me. Thank you Ms. Elders!

  • Isabel says:

    sorry for the typos, I didn't catch them the first time through. After two weeks of having house guests to entertain - and share my computer with:( I've been catching up on my reading the last few days and am pretty bleary-eyed. I actually think I've developed some kind of eyestrain. In fact I have no business wasting time here at all - except that I appear to enjoy arguing!

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Isabel, kindly don't tell me what I mean. Particularly when you're wrong.

  • DM needs to take a stand

    LOON ALERT!!!111!!11!!

  • Isabel says:

    Well what did you mean? How would DM having a co-blogger who was firmly for cannabis prohibition clear a space for eloquence and examination? I'm curious. Who would be hyperbolic besides, obviously the co-blogger, since it's an untenable position that requires hyperbole? I don't know how else to interpret your comment. I would really like to know what your point actually was.
    The link above leads to this definition "The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous "outer fringe" ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable. The idea is that priming the public with fringe ideas intended to be and remain unacceptable, will make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison."
    I don't see how else to interpret your statement.
    Another arguing technique - act offended that the other person didn't understand what you meant, and storm away with no further explanation.
    CPP, what grade are you in?
    Your arguing techniques are getting old, and thinking about it I think they do fall under ad hominem. I don't think it's so separate from name-calling, in this case anyway, for the intended effect is the same - people shouldn't listen to my arguments in the future because I'm obviously a troll, or simply crazy. Otherwise why even bother?
    go back to your penis-prancing through the flowers please.

  • Suppressive Person says:

    "Penis-prancing?"
    Automatic WIN for Comrade PhysioProf.

  • Isabel says:

    you missed the reference- others were just saying that about him here. I was just repeating the reference. Nice try, whoever you are, who just pounces in out of nowhere and makes sweeping proclamations which reveal their supreme ignorance:)

  • Funky Fresh says:

    Personally, I think anyone with the ability to penis prance wins the argument, no matter what. The fact that you are batshit crazy doesn't help your case, though.

  • Cashmoney says:

    Personally, I think anyone with the ability to penis prance wins the argument
    Only if they can spew rainbows and unicorns whilst prancing through the fields of flowers, Funkster....

  • PENIS-PRANCING THROUGH THE FLOWERS!!!1111!!

  • becca says:

    Shouldn't it be penis-prancing through the peonies? Or perhaps poppies?
    Something like tiptoeing through the tulips, I should imagine...

  • LostMarbles says:

    Isabel,
    I know we haven't been on speaking terms for a while, but you really ought to have attributed that. It's not nice to plagiarize.
    P.S. Nobody said that around here. It happened at Dr. Isis'.

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