A Note On Debate

Recent unpleasantness in the comments has convinced me to post, or reiterate, something that I’ve been meaning to put up for a while. My first impulse is simply to warn people not act like a dick towards other people, but maybe this is a better idea. Call it a primer on how not to lose a debate on the internet.

The easiest way to lose a debate is to start throwing personal shit at the other person. It’s bad form and sensible people generally take it as a sign that you don’t have anything worthwhile to say. On a practical level it embarrasses your allies and encourages your opponents.

Godwin’s Law, of course. In general I agree with the idea that you lose by comparing your opponent’s postition with the most ridiculously horrible thing that you can imagine, but there are limits. It’s not like the Nazis wiped their ass with Evil toilet paper and started their morning with Evil sausage links and a cup of Evil coffee. Wagner, and particularly his widow, were enthusiastic Nazi supporters anti-semites [oops; historical revisionism on my part]. Does a music discussion end when you bring up Wagner? No, it doesn’t. Cry Godwin when somebody’s comparing you to a Nazi but be aware that German political history has useful lessons if we remove the medieval notion of Evil from every bratwurst and roll of toilet paper that passed through the country between 1938 and 1945.

By the same logic, “Leftism is bad because Pol Pot was leftist” qualifies as a Godwin violation while a specific comparison between factors that led to the rise of Pol Pot and similar factors in other countries does not.

Maybe the most useful point is to learn your logical fallacies. You don’t need to memorize the whole list, but the five or six most common will help you to figure out why you’re sure that somebody is wrong but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Humans have a certain innate logic that gets offended when it spots an obvious fallacy. Everbody knows ad hominem, which is kind of sad when we all violate it anyway. Somebody isn’t wrong because they’re a ‘moonbat’ or a ‘wingnut,’ even moonbats and wingnuts get things right sometimes. If you want to prove them wrong you have to try harder than that.

Reductio ad absurdum and slippery slope often go together; the first happens when you rephrase somebody’s argument in bad faith using the most extreme conceivable example and the second speaks for itself. Post hoc ergo propter hoc comes up when A happens followed by B and somebody inappropriately concludes that A causes B. There’s your illogic whenever you see somebody declare, “Democrats won’t start winning elections until they stop [X],” where [X] stands in for the writer’s pet peeve du jour. Click here for a good example.

I have a particular beef with the composition fallacy, which occurs whenever somebody picks the characteristics of an individual and transposes those characteristics onto the group to which they belong. You can safely identify composition whenever you see “The Left” or “The Right” in the vicinity of an adjective. On the downside, eliminating composition might leave the internet empty except for two people talking about Harry Potter.

Ad hominem is the best known of a large family of innapropriate-appeal fallacies. Anybody who assumes that something must be right because everyone says so is violating ad populum. Ad ignorantiam happens when you assume that something’s false because you don’t know it to be true. Inappropriate authority speaks for itself. Whenever the TV news has some airheaded pundit weigh in on a politically-important technical matter, there’s your fallacy. Appeal to unacceptable consequences comes up fairly often, for a classic illustration recall the argument that we can’t accept that Americans torture because if people accepted that we torture then it might encourage our enemies.

Another internet favorite, tu quoque, means ‘you too’ in Latin. I wouldn’t call this tactic useless to the same degree as ad hominem or ad populum, after all turnabout is fair play, but bear in mind that you aren’t touching the other person’s underlying logic by pointing out that he or she is also a hypocrite/embezzler/necrophile.

This post has grown out of control and still that’s far from the whole list. For a comprehensive list and better explanations than I’ve given, check out Nizkor and the Fallacy Files.

It’s also bad form to assume bad faith on the other guy’s part. On a practical level Evil is a pretty rare commodity, and most people do what they do out of decent intentions. Assume good faith until proven otherwise and you’ll be surprised how accomodating folks can be.

Getting back to the original point of this post, John and I don’t enjoy playing comments cop. This site has some of the most freewheeling and unmoderated commentary that I know about and we like it that way. Don’t take this post as an effort to stifle any sort of expression, but rather a (hopefully) helpful pointer that the most effective way to win an argument is to not forfeit.

***Update***

Essential reading. [Now goes to John’s post above, since we thought of the same thing at roughly the same time.]

And more on Godwin’s Law. Two (!) inaccuracies in a post about winning an argument. If only irony was money…

48 replies
  1. 1
    rilkefan says:

    Wagner died in 1883. Sure he was an antisemite, but not exactly a Nazi. The Nazis did use him, of course.

    Otherwise, excellent post.

  2. 2
    Slide says:

    perhaps you should direct your post at Cole who seems to violate quite a few of your above examples on a regular basis.

  3. 3
    John Cole says:

    Slide- I teach course on logical fallacies. I know I am not employing them.

    Also, Tim’s post didn’t touch on this, but there are some people who don’t use logical fallacies, but who are just dicks whenever they get achance. You are one of them.

  4. 4
    Pb says:

    Heh. Et tu, John Cole? Let the flamewar commence. (D’oh!)

  5. 5
    neil says:

    I teach course on logical fallacies. I know I am not employing them.

    Oh, that one’s too easy.

  6. 6
    John Cole says:

    Go ahead, Slide. Point out where I have employed logical fallacies.

    Not to Slide- a logical fallacy is not when you disagree with someone.

  7. 7
    Ed says:

    Quick, name 3 effective presidential candidate ads (Republican or Democrat) that didn’t incorporate a logical fallacy.
    Politics aren’t philosophy, the moral high ground is littered with losers, and following the rules of fair play will make you feel better while soothing the pain of getting your ass kicked. Such is the state of politics and the political blogosphere, circa 2006.

  8. 8
    Perry Como says:

    Godwin’s Law, of course. In general I agree with the idea that you lose by comparing your opponent’s postition with the most ridiculously horrible thing that you can imagine, but there are limits.

    Actually, that’s not Godwin’s Law (common error). Godwin’s Law states:

    “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

    There is no inherent “loss” attributed to invoking Godwin’s Law. A good article on the topic by Mike Godwin.

  9. 9
    srv says:

    You know the Nazi’s set alot of rules about public discourse.

  10. 10
    John Cole says:

    Not to mention, you don’t even understand what an appeal to authority is:

    This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject.

    Amazing. You just incorrectly used a logical fallacy.

  11. 11
    Pooh says:

    That’s amazing. Irony in three comments or less.

    Though actually John demonstrates an important point in that ad hominem attacks are not always ad hominem fallacies. Assume that Slide is, in fact, a dick (wear it with pride, son…) John pointing out that he is a dick, and thus does not have much standing to raise points of order in a discussion about civil discourse is well taken. Similarly, if someone (let’s call him “Racket”) is caught blatantly misquoting a source document to make a point, it is not fallacious to bring up said incident in in response to later arguments.

    That being said, any exchange between, say, scs and ppGaz is fallacios, though as far as I can tell, not fellatious.

    Carry on.

  12. 12
    Tim F. says:

    Perry,

    That’s true, I had a paragraph on how Godwin’s Law morphed into the current common-law practice of declaring a loser and ending the thread but the post seemed long enough already. The common-law aspect of the Hitler thing is the only reason I felt comfortable proposing a revision.

  13. 13
    neil says:

    I was mostly kidding, although I have had enough teachers who didn’t know their shit to know that ‘teaching a course’ doesn’t make you an authority.

  14. 14
    Perry Como says:

    Ed Says:

    Such is the state of politics and the political blogosphere, circa 2006.

    Heh. Check the Deja (Google Groups now, I think) archives. The level of political discourse is nothing new.

    Pooh says:

    That being said, any exchange between, say, scs and ppGaz is fallacios, though as far as I can tell, not fellatious.

    Early front runner for PotD.

  15. 15
    John Cole says:

    I was mostly kidding, although I have had enough teachers who didn’t know their shit to know that ‘teaching a course’ doesn’t make you an authority.

    Hehe. Fair enough.

  16. 16
    OCSteve says:

    I don’t even need to win the debate – it’s not like I have any hope of changing anyone’s mind here. What I would like is civil discussion: express my point of view and read informed and thoughtful counterpoints. Occasionally I learn something new or read a perspective I had not considered. It’s not going to make me pull the D lever, but it does force me to justify my positions, even if it’s just to myself.

    I lurked here for years, and then something drew me into the debate one day. I tried for a couple of months to have discussions here, but I have recently given up most hope that it is possible. Several times lately I have found myself writing a response to something only to say “screw it – what’s the point” and just delete it without posting it.

    I can pretty well call regular’s specific response to whatever topic goes up, and I know certain commenters will post the same response to whatever the topic is. So while I still stop by to read the posts and comments, more and more I find I am just slipping back into lurker mode. I don’t mind a little rough and tumble – but it seems there is little room left for civil discourse and I find myself looking to other venues for that.

  17. 17
    Slide says:

    Tim:

    The easiest way to lose a debate is to start throwing personal shit at the other person. It’s bad form and sensible people generally take it as a sign that you don’t have anything worthwhile to say. On a practical level it embarrasses your allies and encourages your opponents.

    Me:

    perhaps you should direct your post at Cole who seems to violate quite a few of your above examples on a regular basis.

    John:

    there are some people who don’t use logical fallacies, but who are just dicks whenever they get achance. You are one of them.

    Case fuckikng closed.

  18. 18
    John Cole says:

    Slide- LOL. You may not be a Bush Republican, but you sure have their mentality. You stir shit up and attack people, then when someone responds, you act like your delicate sensibilities have been offended.

    In the immortal words of John Jay Hooker:

    Sometimes you can’t call a son of a bitch a son of a bitch without calling him a son of a bitch.

    Thus endeth the lesson.

  19. 19
    SeesThroughIt says:

    Quick, name 3 effective presidential candidate ads (Republican or Democrat) that didn’t incorporate a logical fallacy.

    Well, there was that one with that guy. You know…that guy? With the eyebrows? Yeah, that one.

    Also, there was that one ad a few elections back that had the person with the thing talking all about the stuff. That one really spoke to me.

    I’ll get back to you on the third one.

  20. 20
    Krista says:

    I have had enough teachers who didn’t know their shit to know that ‘teaching a course’ doesn’t make you an authority.

    No kidding.

    Great post, Tim. Now we all know the meaning to those fancy-pants terms we’ve been bandying about. :)

    Evil coffee is great, though. Smooth, rich, with just a soupcon of brimstone. No better way to start the day.

  21. 21
    Slide says:

    I guess its in the eye of the beholder John. I don’t think my post, suggesting that you use some of the tactics that Tim was complaining about, was “stirring shit up and attacking people”. I think your response, calling me a dick, is. The most thin skinned blogger in the universe saying I have delicate sensibilities? lol.. now THAT is funny.

  22. 22
    Pb says:

    Ah, what would a traitorous leftie like you know about sensibility anyhow, you and your ilk are just jumping to surrender to any two-bit Hitler wannabe faster than a greased Frenchman. With Cindy Sheehan now running the Democratic party, the hateful liberal agenda couldn’t be more clear–and after they let the crazies nuke Israel, we’ll be next in line, unless we stop them! I’m sure this was their intent all along–they hate our President, along with all other righteous Christian Americans.

    </snark>

  23. 23
    srv says:

    Tim,

    I think you want to bump that “Essential reading” link back a directory.

  24. 24
    Pooh says:

    John, for what it’s worth, I think you at least border on the composition fallacy at times *cough*sheehan*cough*, but you at least recognize that she inhabits a…special place in your brain.

  25. 25
    Davebo says:

    Is it just me? Or does posting on acceptable debate tactics here sound a lot like posting on acceptable greco-roman wrestling holds at the WWF website?

  26. 26
    Par R says:

    I almost never agree with anything Duncan Black (atrios) has to say, but recently he made an observation about someone that rather perfectly describes many of the regular posters here: (paraphrasing from memory) “Whether they’re right or wrong, their writing usually has the sophistication of late night conversation among somewhat smart but incredibly stoned college freshmen.”

  27. 27
    Richard 23 says:

    John Cole: I teach [a] course on logical fallacies. I know I am not employing them.

    Neil: Oh, that one’s too easy.

    John Cole:Not to mention, you don’t even understand what an appeal to authority is:

    This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject.

    Amazing. You just incorrectly used a logical fallacy.

    Funny exchange, but I thought neil got it right. But perhaps my understanding is lacking. I’ll have to defer to John, the authority here.

    Appeal To Authority

    There are two basic forms of appeal to authority, based on the authority being trusted. The more relevant expertise of an authority, the more compelling the argument. Nonetheless, authority is never absolute, so all appeals to authority which assert the authorities’ claims are definitely true are fallacious.

    But then I’m citing the authoritative Wikipedia. LOL!

  28. 28
    John Cole says:

    Richard- Fallacies are not always a fallacy, if you will. For example, while the slippery slope is often pointed out whenever someone discusses gun control or abortion restrictions, there are in fact legitimate things which cold be a slippery slope- like, for example, drug abuse- people who do one drug are much more likely to do others. etc.

    At any rate, Neil’s specific point was that simply by stating I am an expert on an issue is an abuse of the appeal to authority, which it is not.

  29. 29
    Richard Bottoms says:

    Sometimes you can’t call a son of a bitch a son of a bitch without calling him a son of a bitch.

    Hear, hear.

  30. 30
    Al Maviva says:

    What OCSteve said.

  31. 31

    I can pretty well call regular’s specific response to whatever topic goes up, and I know certain commenters will post the same response to whatever the topic is. So while I still stop by to read the posts and comments, more and more I find I am just slipping back into lurker mode. I don’t mind a little rough and tumble – but it seems there is little room left for civil discourse and I find myself looking to other venues for that.

    I believe that’s only possible when the commentators have an open mind to change. That is, you have to speculate, rather than just claim you know all facts. If you claim to know something which it is impossible to know, because it’s really something that’s subject to interpretation through analysis, you’re going to devolve into a flamewar. This is the problem with ideologues.

    Frankly, I also think civil discourse also can only occur when the topics mentioned are intelligent, rather than simply Gotcha politicking.

  32. 32

    Debate on the internet? It is to laugh.

  33. 33
    Perry Como says:

    Debate on the internet? It is to laugh.

    Arguing on the internet is like…

  34. 34

    Under the above rules, is it okay to suggest that both Hitler and Bush were/are closeted homosexuals and that their repressed selves reflected their policies towards homosexual/gay rights? This would fit in nicely with Wilhelm Reich’s “sex-economy” theory.

  35. 35
    Dr Pretorius says:

    “Maybe the most useful point is to learn your logical fallacies. …
    Reductio ad absurdum and slippery slope often go together; the first happens when you rephrase somebody’s argument in bad faith using the most extreme conceivable example and the second speaks for itself.”

    Now, this may be picking nits but you are aware that Reductio ad Absurdum is not, in fact, a logical fallacy, right?

    The one you were looking for was “Appeal to Ridicule”, which is a version of the straw man fallacy, not reductio ad absurdum, without which a great deal of both mathematics and philosophy would be completely impossible.

  36. 36

    Heh, this is _exactly_ the reason I’m working on a new project specifically aimed towards elevating the level of political debate. With technology, we’ve found ways to allow assholes toss around words like “moonbat” and “Nazi”. But I think we can use the same powerful technology to relegate that nonsense elsewhere.

    Why can’t we use the same technology and social networking to fight back? Just like spam has been very radically reduced, I think that we can also use the network (both computers and people) to push the folks who insist on ad hominem attacks down to a realm where they can “debate” amongst themselves, while the rest of us can enjoy the very debate that OCSteve and I wish could happen.

    I’m currently working on the software that will try to do just that. It will work with most blog systems and should not be invasive at all. If anyone out there is interested in this project, feel free to write a comment on my blog and I’ll contact you.

  37. 37
    Kimmitt says:

    I appreciate the idea of debating with conservatives, and even enjoy it as an intellectual game.

    But in the end, a guy who voted for Bush is a guy who voted for a fascist,* and that isn’t a discussion about policy any more. It’s a discussion about whether or not we get to have meaningful discussions about policy any more.

    *whether or not he thought he was doing so

  38. 38
    Digital Amish says:

    Never having studied rhetoric (or much else for that matter) I found this a most interesting post. One question — kind of tangent to your article– has there actually ever been a documented case of anyone actually winning an arguement in a newsgroup or blog comment?

  39. 39
    CaseyL says:

    Digital Amish, if by “winning an argument,” you mean in terms of changing someone’s mind about a point of ideology, I think the answer is no; at least, I’ve never seen it.

    If you mean changing someone’s mind about a specific position they took on a specific matter, I think the answer is yes, though I can’t think of a concrete example.

    If you mean someone admitting they were wrong about the facts of a specific case, then yes: that happens fairly frequently.

  40. 40
  41. 41
    Indathrone says:

    ditto… what OCSteve said.

  42. 42
    Digital Amish says:

    CaseyL, you’ll never convince me of any of that hogwash.

  43. 43
    BlogReeder says:

    But in the end, a guy who voted for Bush is a guy who voted for a fascist

    Kimmitt,you keep using that word — I do not think it means what you think it means.

  44. 44
    Pb says:

    BlogReeder,

    you keep using that word—I do not think it means what you think it means.

    Inconceivable!

  45. 45
    Cyrus says:

    Patrick Lightbody Says:

    Heh, this is exactly the reason I’m working on a new project specifically aimed towards elevating the level of political debate. With technology, we’ve found ways to allow assholes toss around words like “moonbat” and “Nazi”. But I think we can use the same powerful technology to relegate that nonsense elsewhere.


    I’m currently working on the software that will try to do just that. It will work with most blog systems and should not be invasive at all. If anyone out there is interested in this project, feel free to write a comment on my blog and I’ll contact you.

    I hope you’re right, but you must have a very different view of human nature than me. See, you’re working on the assumption that the majority of people, or even a significant minority, are like you or OCSteve claim to be. I must have a more jaded view of people willing to pontificate anonymously about deeply-held political topics.

    No offense is intended by “claim to be”, by the way. It’s just that people are poor judges of their own limits and tempers. Even more importantly, different people have different standards for what is acceptable discourse. Al Maviva, for example, voiced unqualified support for OCSteve even though Al’s idea of civil discourse apparently includes implying that anyone who disagrees with him is a dirty hippie – whiteboy dreadlocks, anyone? – and that opposition to Bush is just rooted in hysteria, hyperbole and hot tempers. (And even that is reading a lot into his post… but I wanted to preserve the alliteration. :) Sorry.) He’s more polite than most around here, including me I think, but still, a troll filter that lets comments like that through is as useful as a spam filter that lets the spam through if it has your name in the message.

    I wish you luck, but trying to create a troll filter any more effective than censoring four-letter words seems Quixotic.

  46. 46
    kl says:

    I appreciate the idea of debating with conservatives, and even enjoy it as an intellectual game.

    Yeah, you really seem like you’re having a blast.

  47. 47
    Kimmitt says:

    Yeah, you really seem like you’re having a blast.

    It’s all fun and games until someone gets shot in the face.

  48. 48

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

Comments are closed.