Adventures in Ethics and Science

Ethan Siegel at Starts with a Bang shares some thoughts about productive argumentation and a graphic to illustrate various approaches:

i-5d00a8cff5a51e29765c72572386b44a-Disagreement-hierarchy.jpg

I find myself fascinated with the graphic itself. In particular, I’m pondering what rhetorical work the pyramid does here.


If the point is that the lower strata on the pyramid are less effective ways to engage with someone else’s arguments, then I’d think that you could use a ladder here just as easily as a pyramid. Maybe you can. Maybe the person who made the graphic just likes pyramids, or doesn’t care for ladders.

But, if the pyramid is meant to capture something important about what the graphic is trying to communicate, what exactly is that essential feature?

Does the size of each stratum indicate the frequency with which one can expect to see the corresponding strategy in arguments out in the world? Is the ad hominem a far more common type of engagement than refuting your opponent’s argument? (There is a question, in my mind, of whether it’s actually a good idea to view people you’re arguing with as “opponents,” but that’s a separate issue, I think, from the question of what work the pyramid does in this graphic.)

The other pyramid I see kicking around trying to communicate with me is the food pyramid. In that pyramid, the strata have a normative, rather than descriptive, function — you’re supposed to try to get less of the stuff near the top and more of the stuff near the bottom. I’m pretty sure that’s not the message this argumentation pyramid is trying to convey.

Along similar lines to a frequentist interpretation of the strata, maybe this pyramid is conveying something about the ease or difficulty inherent in different types of engagement. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to call someone an asshat, but understanding her argument well enough to raise a good counterexample to it may take some mental labor. If this is the rhetorical work that the pyramidal layout does here, it may also suggest a corresponding hierarchy of people who have the mental skills to engage in each of these ways — making the people at the tippy-top of the pyramid more elite than those using the strategies from lower strata.

Or, possibly the pyramid shape is intended to convey something more literal about the different ways for engaging in an argument: the strategy at the top is a sharp tool for engagement, the one at the bottom is a blunt object.

It’s quite possible that I’m over thinking this question, but if every picture tells a story, I think it’s worth asking what the intended (or unintended) subtext of this image might be.

What do you think?

Comments

  1. #1 Brian
    August 15, 2009

    My first take was the gravity-based one — getting to the top of the pyramid takes effort. But, now that you’ve brought it up, I’m inclined to think that the person who make it was thinking more about the relative frequency of such argumentation in the real world. (Though if that were the intention, it should probably look more like a radio tower attached to a two-story building.)

    There is also the fact that the point of the pyramid is labeled “explicitly refutes the central point”. Maybe the lowest level of the pyramid is supposed to suggest an unfocused argument, with higher levels orbiting progressively closer to the real issue.

  2. #2 Dr. Free-Ride's Better Half
    August 15, 2009

    Many are aware of the mystical properties of pyramids. In particular, maintaining attention on a mental image of a pyramid is very effective for keeping one’s wits sharp.

  3. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    August 15, 2009

    It doesn’t take a lot of effort to call someone an asshat, but understanding her argument well enough to raise a good counterexample to it may take some mental labor.

    However, it does take a lot of effort to call someone a CockDoucheWeaselMonkey.

  4. #4 Isis the Scientist
    August 15, 2009
  5. #5 CRM-114
    August 15, 2009

    Pyramid scheme?

    It seems to be elevating reasoned discourse to the championship position.

    That, of course, is not always wise. It is a foolish course when you are up against a pathological liar.

  6. #6 Ethan Siegel
    August 15, 2009

    Janet, I think that the pyramid is better than the ladder in this visualization scheme because the top is more focused than each progressive layer beneath it, as well as being something that more mature people tend to do.

    Name-calling is the most juvenile of all the options; after all, those were the first arguments I had as a kid with my peers. Ad hominem is not much better, but it is certainly more focused. Note how this moves from the individual to the individual’s argument to the crux of the individual’s argument as you move up the pyramid.

    That’s why I like this visualization. Thanks for posting about this, too!

  7. #7 Naked Bunny with a Whip
    August 15, 2009

    The pyramid is making a moral judgment on how I argue. Therefore, it sucks.

    Refuted!

  8. #8 Zuska
    August 15, 2009

    Sometimes name-calling, of a sort, is useful. For example, in the process of debunking arguments/propaganda put out as “objective” studies, it can be helpful to name the names that helped bring the study or report to life. Is the author funded by the American Enterprise Institute? or the Discovery Institute? That might make you look at what they are saying quite differently. In that case, it does help, and seems to me legitimate, as part of your argument, to label – to situate – the person you are discussing in their political/financial context.

  9. #9 tbell
    August 15, 2009

    cool that you’re interested in visualization and argument. I was lamenting last week that there don’t seem to be any good interactive blogging tools for mapping out arguments. I think it would be wonderful for journalists/bloggers/scientists to use argument mapping (with claims, counterclaims and evidence) to keep track of evolving issues (be they scientific, historical, social, or other). Point by point refutations of pseudoscience, Fisking, FAQs, or blogposts with commentary tend to be so ephemeral, (yes, yes, i know that’s a feature not a bug for some people), and long threads go stale. However, as a central focus for extended issues where new claims and evidence, (or new types of bogus arguments are being offered) I think a visual map/diagram would be kinda cool, and could be returned to again and again, made fresh with updates etc. If someone offers you up a lame old argument, you just point them to the right branch on the tree. IF they have a geniunely new piece to consider, then it can hang on a new branch. I also think they would be good for structuring scientific evidence and counterevidence alone (i.e. not just dealing with pseudoscience). I know that lawers and philosphers regularly make use of such things, I’m just wondering whether there are good dynamic tools for this on the web suitable for blogs (i.e. interactive, easily realizable in broswers, simple to use, content searchable, etc.)

  10. #10 Pinko Punko
    August 16, 2009

    I think the colors suggest an argument for equality.

  11. #11 Jean
    August 16, 2009

    I most definitely had the food pyramid reaction first, but when that failed to make sense I switched to the top=rare/best, bottom=common/base interpretation. Then I decided he was probably the pedantic ass sort of individual that would annoy me, and stopped thinking about it. Also, why limit yourself to only one level of the pyramid? Is not variety the spice of life? Just explicitly refuting someone’s central point is boooorrriiinnnggg. It’s much more entertaining if you also point out they are a pedantic ass.

  12. #12 ktbug ladydid
    August 16, 2009

    Hmm. I liked your idea that the pyramid was selected because of the frequency of use for each method while arguing. Indeed the majority of arguments (logical or illogical) involve lots of name calling (think John Stewart and that crazy political dude)…see? I called him a name! And oddly enough, I didn’t mean to…I just don’t know his name, and well, feel my description is pretty accurate. The effectiveness of each method though, is determined by the desire and purpose of the argument. Is the point to construct a well written paper on a particular point of view? Use the top tiers. Is the point to enrage and frustrate the opponent? Use the bottom. Is the point to distract? Use the middle.

  13. #13 J. J. Ramsey
    August 16, 2009

    Zuska: “Sometimes name-calling, of a sort, is useful. For example, in the process of debunking arguments/propaganda put out as ‘objective’ studies, it can be helpful to name the names that helped bring the study or report to life.”

    That’s not name-calling.

  14. #14 Invader Xan
    August 16, 2009

    Personally, I think a Boltzmann distribution would be a better description.

    Mind you, the pyramid works quite sufficiently as a kind of conversational hierarchy. An idealistic one, perhaps, but a hierarchy nonetheless.

  15. #15 D. C. Sessions
    August 16, 2009

    Zuska, you are describing argumentum ad hominem, not “name calling” as such — although there’s not a lot of difference, since calling someone a creepy misogynist sleazebag relies on the hidden assumption that any argument from a CMS is unreliable.

    Argumentum ad hominem, in your example, is a weak refutation of the argumentum ad verecundiam. As often happens in complex arguments, the material you’re refuting may be some 1400-page denialist opus of male bovine excrement. You’re not going to get anywhere with a point-by-point refutation based on original sources; the best that’s possible in limited time is to cast doubt on the authority of the source.

    On the other hand, argumentum ad hominem is most often applied in ways more like the Pharma Shill Gambit.

  16. #16 Vagueofgodalming
    August 17, 2009

    The association for me was with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which (on Wikipedia, at least) has a very similar colour scheme.

    From Ethan’s point of view, that would have been counterproductive, since it merely switched on my bullshit detector, which immediately went into overdrive.

  17. #17 Mr T
    August 17, 2009

    In an argument, there is the topic itself, then there are all the other irrelevant topics that can be brought into the argument. A pyramid may not be the perfect shape, but to me it conveys the idea that the best arguments comprise a limited group on the top of the metaphorical pile.

  18. #18 D. C. Sessions
    August 17, 2009

    In an argument, there is the topic itself, then there are all the other irrelevant topics that can be brought into the argument.

    That’s why the general category of logical fallacies which includes argumentum ad hominem is called “arguments of distraction.”

  19. #19 Pat Cahalan
    August 18, 2009

    If it’s based on frequency, the slope is all wrong. The base angles of that triangle ought to total about 179.87 degrees.

    About the best you can hope for on teh Intrawebs is a Refutation or a Counterargument; in order to Refute the Central Point the opposing side has to have, ya know, an actual Central Point… even when the issue being discussed can be encapsulated thus (rare in complex systems), it hardly ever actually *is*.

    I don’t know that name calling belongs below an ad hominem. Saying “You’re a douche bag, and your argument is wrong because of ” is perhaps socially regrettable, but it’s certainly more legitimate than, “You’re a douche bag and everyone knows all douche bags are wrong.” Name-calling, in the strictest sense, is disconnected from the value of the argument except as a rhetorical device.

    “Oh, how long will you abuse our patience, Cataline? How long will this madness of yours mock us? When will your audacity end, swaggering about as it does now?”

  20. #20 tim sabore
    September 2, 2009

    It is not a pyramid, it’s an ass hat.

  21. #21 anon
    October 3, 2009

    The food pyramid analogy would, indeed, work much better if the pyramid is reversed: most comments (or so the o-tempora-o-mores mindset would have us believe) are stuck at the bottom, in a useless (thus narrow) stratum, and only the very best comments make it to the less murky waters at the top of our inverted-pyramidal pool.

    I think the pyramid works well the way it is, and I can make a rational argument for it (but I’m not sure that’s indeed the reason I like it): what if we interpret the width of each stratum as the (metaphorical) size of the target? Larger targets are easier to hit: this works even better if you take the analogy of an actual pyramid you’re trying to hit with, say, artillery: hitting the top of the pyramid is much harder than hitting an area at the base (you can just walk up and poke it with a stick at the base, but to get a decent chance of hitting the top stratum, you have to back off and take shear winds into account). I don’t want to get too carried away with the relative ease of damaging sandstone compared to electrum here, but I do think the artillery metaphor makes an obvious but significant point: you’ll most likely end up at least one layer below what you’ve aimed for. You might think criticising the central calculation in a paper invalidates it completely, when it actually just points out a mistake that leaves the paper’s conclusions valid (that would be “Refutation”, though I do think that’s a bad name). Maybe the paper’s authors will put you as low as level 5, arguing that it’s merely a slip of tone (or a typo) and everything remains valid. Accidentally ending up at a higher layer than what you aimed for is extremely unlikely, or indeed impossible if your missile never reaches sufficient altitude.

    You can run up to the pyramids and kick them, but to damage the pyramidion at the top, you’re going to need a decent-sized propellant and the weather report.

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