How to Watch an Argument

Researching Issues of Contention

What everyone should learn to admit, at some point in their life, is the extremely biased environment in which they were brought up. There is no escaping the truth of this—you were raised in particular circumstances, which eventually led to your having particular views. It does not matter what these views are, only that they have arisen from your experience.

Without an explicit effort on your part to expose yourself to experiences and information that contradict these views, your natural circumstances (and your concomitant desires) can be said to have directly produced the mindset that you have. Although this mindset cannot be called worthless, it has limited value.

The natural question arises: “what of the experiences that have been forced upon me by people who stand in opposition to my mindset? Surely these have contributed to my broader understanding.” It is certainly possible to have our opinions improved by accident, but in many cases it doesn’t happen. The experiences that are forced on us often tend to reinforce our perspectives, as these are the experiences that created them in the first place! The things most likely to improve our perspectives are those which do not come to us naturally. I cannot recall any occasions on which I have changed my mind about a serious issue without making an honest effort to understand it better. I think most people would admit to having a similar experience.

All this jargon, of course, is just another plea for objective reasoning. But there are some ways to do this that I’ve found better than others. I believe that the best way to understand the perspectives of both sides in an issue is to properly watch the argument for a time. Do not participate; do not stigmatize one of the sides. Simply observe what the two sides are saying to one another, and it will soon become clear why they do not agree.

Here are some things I have learned:

1. Read what everyone says.

The biggest obstacle in understanding a contentious issue is the unwillingness to read what everyone else is saying. There isn’t much to elaborate on here—read responses to common arguments, and read responses to those responses.

There are exceptions, however. Sometimes good responses are not available, and the person who gets the last word often sounds right. Only read what everyone says if you feel that it will end with fair representation.

2. Use the Internet. Apply caution when doing so.

Reading books is considered a higher and nobler method of acquiring information, and in many cases I agree with this. None of us can deny, however, that a great deal of what we know has also been read on the Internet. The problem with the Internet is not that it has no legitimate information, but that it contains a great deal of both legitimate and illegitimate information. The good information is there, it simply must be found, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference.

Fortunately, there are a few hallmarks of bad information, such as bad spelling and grammar, rotating .gif animations, and facts that nobody else seems to have heard before. Despite this, extensive cross-referencing is necessary when reading on the Internet. Look for things that appear consistently, or that have no adequate rebuttals.

3. Do not make inferences from Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is useful for facts. It is not useful for making inferences. These articles are edited by a relatively small collection of nerds who have congregated around a particular topic. While individual facts are mostly true, the legitimacy of a position cannot be ascertained by the way these articles are written. [1]

4. Extract good points.

Good arguments are like ore. They do not come in solid bricks, but must be carefully refined from lesser ideas that their originator may also have come up with. I often wince when I read a good point by someone who is universally hated, or in the middle of saying a whole bunch of things that nobody agrees with. Who’s going to dig that gem out of there and have the courage to defend it?

Discredit arguments one at a time. Do not discredit people.

5. Extract points… period.

One of the reasons I do not read opinions on the Internet very often is that the arguments are often very low in content. Having read many lengthy rants by people on controversial topics, I have come to the conclusion that insults and pompous statements of confidence make up the vast majority of what is said.

If you must read the writings of highly opinionated people (and numerous learned people do write this way, so it cannot be discounted), do the following:

– Paste the text into a document

– Delete everything that is not either a fact, or a conclusion drawn directly from those facts

– Match the real facts and conclusions with the responses from someone on the other side of the issue, after similarly stripping down their response.

Leaving the rant intact will only obscure your ability to find a good argument, or make you mad enough to write something equally useless. You will also notice that carrying out step 2 sometimes requires deleting everything.

6. Learn to recognize a lost argument.

Have you ever noticed that nobody ever really “loses” an argument? It’s rare for one side to simply collapse and concede defeat. A lost argument is not identified by blood and guts, but by emptiness.

The death of an argument is often contemporaneous with a switch to guerrilla warfare, picking on small pieces of evidence that support it rather than addressing the whole picture. In the extreme, there are statements asserting that the position “cannot really be proven wrong.” Is that so? Proof is an almost impossible burden. The important question is: why do you believe this in the first place?

The converse of the above is also a red flag: “you cannot really prove your position.” The “really” in this sentence usually means “mathematically,” or something equally extreme. [2]

Remember that, in and of itself, a lost argument does not mean a lost cause. It means that someone did not have a good argument, not that good arguments don’t exist.

7. If the issue is important to you, use appropriate timing.

Discovering that you have been living a lie may be necessary, but it should probably wait until after exams.

8. Keep focus

The second biggest obstacle to understanding, in my opinion, is the willingness of people to skim the surface of ideas without ever getting to the bottom of any of them. This ensures that everyone will leave with exactly the same views that they started with.

In some of the most difficult dialogues I’ve had, the other person would immediately change the subject as soon as a more “fresh” idea came to mind, seemingly reinforcing all the other opinions that never had a chance of being overturned. It creates a very misleading situation:

I have an opinion about X.

You have a contrary opinion about X

Clearly we disagree mightily on X

This reminds me of Y, which you are also wrong about

Hearing your defense of Y reminds me of Z

With X, Y and Z working in my favour, how can you keep on arguing?

This is, of course, different from investigating topics alone. It is, however, more dangerous, because there is nobody to point out that you are doing this.

Carefully investigating each facet of an issue is time-consuming, but it is the only way to accomplish anything. Skimming the surface of many issues will only reduce the chances that you will ever return to complete what you have started, for you may feel that you have done it already. It is fair to point out that many important ideas are highly interconnected, requiring input from each other. But in order to solve this problem, we have invented a wonderful mechanism, and it goes like this:

“For the sake of the argument, assume that…”

9. Freely Acknowledge Bias

You have a bias. You prefer that things come out one way more than another. No matter how many times you use the word “rational” or “scientific,” you are ultimately a human being with hopes, fears, and vast ignorance of the information you would truly need to make a completely objective decision about most issues. What you can hope (in most issues lending themselves to objective analysis) is that your bias is not strong enough to overpower the conclusion implied by the evidence.


[1] If you have built up great confidence in Wikipedia and the experts who write it, you have probably never clicked on the “Discussion” page and read what the authors of your articles are saying to each other.

[2] You may have noticed that in the special case of the existence of God, some theists use the former while some atheists use the latter. Neither mean much of anything. [3] This essay has little application to such questions.

[3] I just learned that it’s not well agreed-upon as to whether you use “neither” in the singular or the plural in that case. MS Word tried to correct me, but I defied it and stuck with my usage.


One Response to “How to Watch an Argument”

  1. Number 7 is a key point. And yet, studying for exams usually produces thinking on every other subject but the one being tested…which leads to discovering distracting things – such as that you have been living a lie.

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