Tuesday, November 01, 2005

How to Argue with Smart People, or Why I Like to "Split Hairs"

Smart people, or at least those whose brains have good first gears, use their speed in thought to overpower others. They’ll jump between assumptions quickly, throwing out jargon, bits of logic, or rules of thumb at a rate of fire fast enough to cause most people to become rattled, and give in. When that doesn’t work, the arrogant or the pompous will throw in some belittlement and use whatever snide or manipulative tactics they have at their disposal to further discourage you from dissecting their ideas. Scott Berkun


I believe this applies to many blog commentators, and not just the smart ones. They hop, skip, and jump from argument to argument and topic to topic, never letting you pin down the flaws because by the time you get there, they're already somewhere else.

Scott Berkun has some ideas about how to prevent people from doing this. Although he's talking mostly about working on a software development team, I think his advice is relevant to all of us.

So your best defense starts by breaking an argument down into pieces. When they say “it’s obvious we need to execute plan A now.” You say, “hold on. You’re way ahead of me. For me to follow I need to break this down into pieces.” And without waiting for permission, you should go ahead and do so.

First, nothing is obvious. If it were obvious there would be no need to say so. So your first piece is to establish what isn’t so obvious. What are the assumptions the other guy is glossing over that are worth spending time on? There may be 3 or 4 different valid assumptions that need to be discussed one at a time before any kind of decision can be considered. Take each one in turn, and lay out the basic questions: what problem are we trying to solve? What alternatives to solving it are there? What are the tradeoffs in each alternative? By breaking it down and asking questions you expose more thinking to light, make it possible for others to ask questions, and make it more difficult for anyone to defend a bad idea.

No one can ever take away your right to think things over, especially if the decision at hand is important. If your mind works best in 3rd or 4th gear, find ways to give yourself the time needed to get there. If when you say “I need the afternoon to think this over”, they say “tough. We’re deciding now”. Ask them if the decision is an important one. If they say yes, then you should be completely justified in asking for more time to think it over and ask questions.


I realize now that this technique is what I always try to do, but I've never spelled it out before. I try to keep the focus on a single aspect of an argument until it's settled. I don't let my opponent shift the goalposts, gloss over an assumption, or use fallacious logic in order to befuddle me.

The best part is that you can often (well, "rarely" is probably more accurate) convince your opponent that they need to rethink their position, since it's basically a house made with shoddy materials on a shaky foundation.

In his essay, he also includes the reasons he believes smart people defend stupid ideas: they inherited them from parents, they've gotten away with defending them before, groupthink, short-term thinking, desire for an idea to be true, following stupid leaders, etc.

I think religious people are particularly likely to hold bad ideas due to tradition, following stupid leaders, and the desire for an idea to be true.

22 comments:

Laura said...

Just psychologically speaking, just like an addiction, it is difficult to get someone who believes completely in something that shapes their entire cosmology, world view, morals, values, traditions to see any other point of view.

Yes, I am equating religion (different from spirituality) to an addiction. Both control the way you act, think and how you evaluate information, often without your consciously realizing it.

The only people I know who have changed their religious beliefs have done so after a personal experience that led them down another path. Not from arguing with someone and saying "gee, you're right". That goes for both people I know who have converted from one religion to another or who have become athiests. (Dad being a perfect example of a recovering Catholic).

CyberKitten said...

Laura said: Just psychologically speaking, just like an addiction, it is difficult to get someone who believes completely in something that shapes their entire cosmology, world view, morals, values, traditions to see any other point of view.

That's why discussion of beliefs is so difficult - because they're deeply entwined in how people see themselves. Challenge someone's beliefs.. and you are challenging who they are.

Jewish Atheist said...

The only people I know who have changed their religious beliefs have done so after a personal experience that led them down another path. Not from arguing with someone and saying "gee, you're right".

Actually, I changed mine from Orthodox Judaism to atheism after reading a bunch of science & philosophy books and arguing on- and off-line. I know that mis-nagid changed his beliefs purely from thinking about it as well.

Jack's Shack said...

I don't believe in radical change in thought/belief taking place overnight. It is important that it be done over time and with thought. Just my two cents.

UberKuh said...

In my experience, and not that I am an expert debater, "breaking an argument down into pieces" is by far the best way because it forces your opponent to address each of his or her potential problems or to look negligent in not doing so. And of course pointing out what is not obvious to your opponent is bound to happen, given that your opponent would have not consciously made obvious mistakes.

The only problem I have found with pointing out every little jot and tittle of a post or email is that a lot of people like to add their responses directly after a problematic quote, and this creates a very long and confusing reply. I recommend responding to all problematic points and then organizing your response into paragraphs, separate from the original post.

Sadie Lou said...

JA--
You jump from topic to topic very quickly, if you haven't noticed. You posted twice or three times in one day before (like today). My husband was really into the debate that was being had on the evolution of the eye but feels that since the other posts got posted--that debate quickly petered out as people moved on to the new topics.
"I think religious people are particularly likely to hold bad ideas due to tradition, following stupid leaders, and the desire for an idea to be true."

Number one: Everyone accepts some form of tradition. I'm sure your family has some traditions that you participate in, yes?

Number two: I question anyone that doesn't follow a leader of some sort. If you're not accountable to anyone--that's a dangerous position to be in. Whether it's your boss, father, teacher, mentor, whatever--we all have leaders. Of course it's up to us to make sure we aren't following someone that is "stupid" but that's in the eye of the beholder.

Number three: Everyone desires for their truth to be true. You desire for your truth to be true otherwise you wouldn't believe it...knowingly.

Jewish Atheist said...

My husband was really into the debate that was being had on the evolution of the eye but feels that since the other posts got posted--that debate quickly petered out as people moved on to the new topics.

Actually, I was really hoping he'd respond to my response to his Darwin quote. In fact, I still hope he does. I get an email everytime someone posts, so I always read them and usually respond. I try to wait a little bit between posts, but sometimes I get excited. :)

Number one: Everyone accepts some form of tradition. I'm sure your family has some traditions that you participate in, yes?

The problem isn't following traditions, it's blindly following traditions. I left the Orthodox Jewish tradition because I don't believe in it.

Number two: I question anyone that doesn't follow a leader of some sort.

Well, there are leaders like "I look up to my father" or "I love this writer" and there are leaders like, "My Rabbi says I shouldn't get divorced because if I keep having children, my marriage will get better." (This happened to someone I know, who got divorced a few kids later.)

Everyone desires for their truth to be true.

Some truths are hard to swallow, particularly if accepting them will cause you a major worldview change, or perhaps to leave the community you grew up in, as I had to. It's usually a lot easier to just go along. People are biased towards "easy" truths.

The only problem I have found with pointing out every little jot and tittle of a post or email is that a lot of people like to add their responses directly after a problematic quote, and this creates a very long and confusing reply.

Hehe, and here I am doing it. The problem with doing it your way is that people then freely ignore points they don't want to talk about. If you break it up like this, they feel more obligated to respond to each point if they respond at all.

Sadie Lou said...

Actually, I was really hoping he'd respond to my response to his Darwin quote. In fact, I still hope he does. I get an email everytime someone posts, so I always read them and usually respond. I try to wait a little bit between posts, but sometimes I get excited. :)

I'll tell him. :)

The problem isn't following traditions, it's blindly following traditions. I left the Orthodox Jewish tradition because I don't believe in it.

Well, you didn't say "blindly" following tradition. It's hard to define what we're talking about when we are talking about tradition.
Define blinding following tradition--give examples. Because I agree with you on this one.

The thing about leaders is tricky. I see what you're saying about leaders giving bad advice and information--that's borderline cultish.
What I'm talking about is being under someone else's authority.

JC Masterpiece said...

When that doesn’t work, the arrogant or the pompous will throw in some belittlement and use whatever snide or manipulative tactics they have at their disposal to further discourage you from dissecting their ideas.

Oy vey! I know Sadie Lou and i have seen quite a bit of this! When you're one or two people in amongst a group of people that don't agree with you, you tend to see this quite a bit of this as has been evident in a number of your posts here.
Heavens knows at times all i have to do is look at the name of the person commenting and know. This person is going to be on an angry rant, or that person is going to be insulting and degrading misrepresenting what i say no matter what is said.
You have even seen this when dealing with screaming monkey or shouting thomas or whatever his name is.
At times i'm tempted to agree with some of the commenters sounding like i'm disagreeing just to see if they are even paying attention enough to realize that i supported their statement.

So your best defense starts by breaking an argument down into pieces.
This is often really difficult to do. I try to do it, but it usually means that i end up posting long comments that take quite a bit of time and energy.
I've just about given it up on dealing with stacey in the post on Starlight and the Age of the Universe. With all of her taking things completely out of context and redefining words to fit her view then stating that the Bible fits her view because she purposefully & incorrectly translates it to make it sound like it does. In all, spending what limited time i do have online dealing with that is exhausting.

Thus while this is the best way to prove the point. It isn't the best way to save your sanity.

Jewish Atheist said...

Well, you didn't say "blindly" following tradition. It's hard to define what we're talking about when we are talking about tradition.
Define blinding following tradition--give examples. Because I agree with you on this one.


I was talking about people believing bad ideas, so the "blind" was implicit. If you're following tradition and it's wrong, you're probably following blindly. An example of blindly following tradition is Hasidim wearing fur hats in New York City in the summer. They do it because their ancestors wore them in Poland or wherever. Which was cold.

The thing about leaders is tricky. I see what you're saying about leaders giving bad advice and information--that's borderline cultish.
What I'm talking about is being under someone else's authority.


Well, yes, a good leader is good to have, although one must be eternally vigilant. Even the ones who seem the best seem to have scandals pop up all the time. I was just referring to stupid ones.

Oy vey! I know Sadie Lou and i have seen quite a bit of this!

Ain't that the truth. I'm sorry it has to be that way.

Thus while this is the best way to prove the point. It isn't the best way to save your sanity.

Wise words. It can be frustrating as hell to pick apart the arguments of someone who isn't interested in playing along.

CyberKitten said...

Sadie Lou said: I question anyone that doesn't follow a leader of some sort. If you're not accountable to anyone--that's a dangerous position to be in. Whether it's your boss, father, teacher, mentor, whatever--we all have leaders.

I thought this was a very strange thing to say. As far as I am aware I certainly don't "follow a leader".. My political philosophy tends towards Anarchism - and I like to think for myself...

Laura said...

But who is to say what is a "bad idea". As far as I'm concerned, any belief system that rests on an argument such as:

I do xyz because ______ says I should.
(God/Grandma/Muhammad/Hitler/Uncle Sam/The Bible/my Dog)

is flawed because it lacks personal accountability. You don't do it because you want to, or because you personally feel you should. You do it because something or someone tells you to. That feeds the common misconception that morals can only originate external to the self. I think that is wrong.

Shlomo said...

Good and bad ideas are determined by our goals in the context of the culture/society they manifest. At best, we allow our power of reason and the desire for mutual benefit to sway our ethics for the better. It is the combination of our natural needs for human contact and pleasure/safety processed through reason/rationale into a coherent idea. This is what keeps most of us from becoming criminals or anti-social.

Pack animals have heirarchy and social order, too. The difference for us, as with love, is that we THINK about it.

Kol Tuv

Sadie Lou said...

I thought this was a very strange thing to say. As far as I am aware I certainly don't "follow a leader".. My political philosophy tends towards Anarchism - and I like to think for myself...

Gosh. That is such a snobbish thing to say. As if the opposite was true for me?
I like to think for myself too--surpirsing I know. *rolling eyes*
No accountability is dangerous and whether you like it or not--you are under MUCH authority. If you are an employee, you follow a leader. While this boss of yours doesn't think FOR you, you answer to him. If you are the boos of your own business--you follow the leadership of all the other companies you deal with. You are submissive to the way they lead their company and you work together with nobody trying to push their weight around--ideally.
If you pay your taxes and drive the speed limit, you are following a leader. The law is created by the people and enforced by leadership.
I attend church. Our church believes in a plural eldership--we don't have a head pastor, we have three elders that teach. They delegate jobs to other elders. There are men in charge of Sunday School, the finances, the church building, the worship team...and on and on. It's not a pecking order or a means for others to be bossy; it's a well oiled machine with everyone accountable to someone else and under the guidance of Christ. When someone says they don't follow a leader--that means they answer to no one but themselves. Is that what you're saying cyberkitten?

CyberKitten said...

Sadie Lou said: Gosh. That is such a snobbish thing to say. As if the opposite was true for me?

Not at all. It was a statement about ME - not you. I was adding to the point I was making about not "following" leaders.... any insult was purely unintentional.

Your definition of "leader" is incredibly wide. I obey the law (mostly) therefore I follow a leader...? That's not really how I would define things....

Sadie Lou said: When someone says they don't follow a leader--that means they answer to no one but themselves. Is that what you're saying cyberkitten?

What I'm trying to say is that I believe that I am ultimately responsible for my own actions (as is everyone IMO). The 'buck stops here' - as it where.

Some years ago I had an interest in Military affairs. My Boss at the time suggested I join the TA (basically a 'National Guard' type thing). I laughed @ the suggestion explaining that I have a pathological inability to take orders.

Sadie Lou said...

I laughed @ the suggestion explaining that I have a pathological inability to take orders.

I don't think that's funny. The orders might seem ridiculous to you--but the orders save lives. Someone that strays from the orders is dangerous. It's easy to tell when the orders are important and when they are not to someone who has it all together in the head but what about the people who lack a little common sense but THINK they know everything?
That's why the military requires that EVERYONE follow the SAME orders--they create unity and unity is key for survival.

I did a post on leadership today.

CyberKitten said...

Sadie Lou said: That's why the military requires that EVERYONE follow the SAME orders--they create unity and unity is key for survival.

Which is why I'm not in the Military - and would never join them.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"Actually, I changed mine from Orthodox Judaism to atheism after reading a bunch of science & philosophy books and arguing on- and off-line."

Me too..though maybe not to atheism. More like from Orthodoxy to Freethinker. It was a very gradual development.

Jewish Atheist said...

Orthoprax: mine was gradual, too.

Sadie Lou said...

Which is why I'm not in the Military - and would never join them.

That's smart.

Shlomo said...

My mental escape occurred in my teens. My physical departure wasn't until my late 20's. My emotional departure took a bit longer.

I'm free now, inside and out.

Jack's Shack said...

With all of her taking things completely out of context
That is usually the first thing people say when they are not real sure of their position.

and redefining words to fit her view then stating that the Bible fits her view because she purposefully & incorrectly translates it to make it sound like it does. And that is the second point that people resort to.

JC,

It may seem that I am picking on you and that is probably true, but that is because you consistently use strawmen arguments and then accuse those that disagree with you of doing the same. Please understand that I am not picking on you as a person, I do not mean to denigrate or belittle you and I apologize if it comes off that way.

However I cannot help but chuckle at some of what you have said.The reality is that in order to reach your position you had to go through a series of mistranslations and adjustments so that the circle would fit into the square pegs hole. The problem is that there are a lot of chinks left to fill in.

Picking apart an argument is important because it not only forces the person you are debating to step up but it forces you to work harder to demonstrate why your position is superior.