Weekend Diversion: How to Argue

Sometimes, things happen that either:

    • I don't agree with,
    • I have different information than other people (sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes just different), or
    • need to be spoken out against,

and that's when it's time to argue. Sometimes, there's no way around it, and I need to put myself out there, and make the best argument I can for one side of an issue based on what I know.

So this week, I have a conciliatory song from one of my favorite bands that you've probably never heard of, Storyhill, and this song is called Continents Collide. If I was near Dearwood, MN, I'd definitely go see them this coming Labor Day Weekend. Take a listen:

Why pick such a conciliatory song to talk about arguments? Because 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.

But how do you know what the best way actually is to present your arguments? Fortunately for you, I've found a helpful pyramid to help you formulate your arguments. At the top is the most effective; at the bottom is the least effective.

It's sometimes tough to decipher what the central point of someone else's argument is, because most people don't argue clearly and logically. But if you can identify it, that's when you win. When someone else mucks around at the bottom of the pyramid, don't sink to their level; stay up high. 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.

You are, of course, free to argue however you like. 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. Most of you do pretty well, but this has served me well in general, and I hope it helps you to see things laid out like this. And if not, at least you got a great song out of it!

More like this

You suck!

Oh, wait. Wait. Sorry. Had my computer upside down.

By Naked Bunny wi… (not verified) on 14 Aug 2009 #permalink

I might want to use this pyramid in class (but without the "Although, you know you really *are* an asshat" that appears when you mouse over each label"!). Could you tell us where you found it so that it can be cited?

You have completely ignored the fact that different participants in an "argument" may have different purposes in engaging the "argument", and thus completely different hierarchies of effective "strategy". You assume without question--as is common on the Internet--that the only possible purpose for "arguing" is convince your interlocutor and, perhaps, non-participant bystanders that you are "correct". This is only one purpose among many for "arguing", especially on the Internet.

At the top is the most effective; at the bottom is the least effective.

A pyramid of assumptions not in accordance with experimental results. You can't reason somebody out of something they didn't reason themselves into. Or to put it another way, what PhysioProf said.

Pretty song, though. My wife and one of our cats came over to listen.

"or to sway other intelligent, thinking people to your side. "

Yes, but that pretty much rules out the folks that are arguing from the bottom of the pyramid in the first place, yes? Maybe its best just to hit them on the head with a 2 x 4. May not win the argument, but it shuts them up just the same.

Disputation is a proof of not seeing things clearly.

Don't argue like you're trying to win something. Everybody has a different pair of googles through which they view the world. All you can do is tell people about what you see through your pair.

The only experience I have ever had with scary socialized medicine was when my daughters came down with chicken pox while we were on vacation in Toronto. We were given care even though we are not Canadian citizens, and were sent a bill for seven dollars. There were no forms to fill out, no waiting, no mention of paymen

Oh and Ethan, please see the comment I made on your post about 1998 and the Accelerating Universe...

It's interesting that those tattoos do a better job of realistically representing the cephalopod eye (the one that's visible in each, anyway!) than most cartoons do. There are probably cartoony versions of cephalopods on tattoos too though.

CPP and george.w,

I disagree with you. Why? Because the only way you make progress in an argument is by arguing your points out in the open, laying the facts out, and constructing what is logical and sensible out of the facts. If your purpose is not to make progress in an argument, why argue at all?


I don't agree with what you say about disputation. That is certainly only true sometimes. The big bounce theory, as for your comment on my 1998 post, is evidenceless at this point, as the probability that our Universe will recollapse looks to be zero. The Hubble expansion would have to reverse, and there is strong evidence against that ever happening.

"I've found a helpful pyramid..."

You should credit the source of that image, and/or make it link to the original article. I say this not because I'm a copyright weenie (although such a position would be defensible), but because attribution is simply the ethical thing to do.

You'd want your images and articles credited, and so you ought to do the same for another content creator. It won't diminish this article's goodness. If anything, you'll better demonstrate how connected you are to other authors.

(We aren't having an argument, so I'm not sure what level I'm at. :-) )

If your purpose is not to make progress in an argument, why argue at all?

You are still begging the question. You define "progress" as "convincing other people you are correct". This is not the only purpose for "arguing". Others that come immediately to mind include:

(1) Amusing oneself.

(2) Rousing the troops.

(3) Bringing ridicule upon someone else.

(4) Amusing other people.

(5) Attracting eyeballs to a blog, article, book, etc.

(6) Seeding the intellectual environment with particular ideas.

(7) Performance art.

I am sure others can chime in with numerous other reasons for "arguing" other than "convincing other people you are correct".

I am not an asshat!

I'll have you know that I paid good money for this hat. They're considered very fashionable in Geneva right now, you know.

A crucial reason for arguing is to waste the time of the person you are arguing with, and make them appear academic and ineffectual to a wider audience. Someone who knows you are using this pyramid can keep you occupied forever by shifting goalposts, raising the standard of proof, etc.

Try your approach at a healthcare town hall and see how far you get.

Mark Hoofnagle has it pretty much sewn up.

Where's the layer for concern trolling? Buried in the sand still?

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 15 Aug 2009 #permalink

I am sure others can chime in with numerous other reasons for "arguing" other than "convincing other people you are correct".

"Shouting down progress to promote corporate interests."

"Instilling fear in others to support your own fears."

I'll grant that in a purely academic debate, you have the best chance of convincing another person by explicitly refuting their central points. The court of public opinion operates, alas, by a different set of rules.

Actually I'm not sure refutation even "works" in academic debate. Most people are capable of holding a completely discredited opinion, if it serves them to do so. Mind you I'm not proposing a solution. Not sure there is one.

What many of you are advocating are dirty tactics to use when the other person isn't being logical, rational, or reasonable.

But if you start with the other tactics/motivations, don't you immediately drive that discussion into the dirt? Don't you immediately destroy any chance for learning or mind-changing? I think you do, which is why I choose to disengage when the top levels of the pyramid fail to elicit a reasoned response.

But do you have better proposals? Do you think there are different strategies that would serve me better?

I have to say, I disagree with the pyramid. There is plenty of the Ad Hominem method in use in both our legal system and politics, and it seems to work effectively (as sad as it makes me).

But do you have better proposals? Do you think there are different strategies that would serve me better?

Nope, you've optimized your strategies to your satisfaction, and that's how it should be. Stick with 'em. But I'm addressing the prescriptive nature of your title.

When arguing with someone whose position is patently absurd, I make the stop-off at logic somewhat brief (while not ignoring it, of course), and then work on ridiculing the absurdity. First point out factually that the emperor has no clothes, and then if people don't start acknowledging the obvious, it's fair to start making fun of his tiny little dick.

You are right right that it won't convince the person you're arguing with, but that's not generally an option anyway. It can create space for others to acknowledge both the nudity and dicklessness of the emperor, however.

(Sorry, eight years of the Bush administration and a number of conversations with fundamentalists have made me grumpy.)

The heart of this seems to be the distinction between rhetoric and logic. I seem to recall that some ancient Greeks talked about this a bit.

"Do you think there are different strategies that would serve me better?"

Yeppers, you can derail the whole conversation. Stop pissin around with the Nice Guy routine and cut to the chase. Here's TEH MANUAL: http://www.derailingfordummies.com/

A good way to argue with *cough marginalize cough* women is to tell them that they aren't being logical, because of course, those laydee hormones make them all emotional, which is of courser, the complete opposite of Rational, a substance produced by nutsacs. I can't tell you how many completely random men have told me to smile while I'm waiting in line at the store, or told me I'm a turn-on when I argue with them. Yeah, I'm real cute until I'm real pissed. And when they don't like what I have to say, I proudly wear the bitch pin, but quietly hope to gawd that I didn't just piss off a completely Rational turns-on-a-dime vengeful violent man.

Or you can check your privilege so we don't have to point it out to you, which never goes well, for us that is. A good place to learn about privilege would be Zuska's D00dly outreach project.

There are plenty of tactics I can think of that don't exactly fit into this.

1) The most absolute form of refutation I can think of is not just to counter their argument, but to patch the holes left in it and go to the strongest form of their position that exists. Show a deeper understanding of their own position and lay out the strongest form of argument they could possible present to you, beyond their abilities to come up with normally, and then knock it down.

This is a dirty, nasty way to treat someone, but also very effective at closing the argument, and at educating others in the argument. It also somewhat immunises them against the arguments you lay out; even if they don't believe you that their position is flawed they are unlikely to trust an argument they first heard from an opponent demonstrating it's flaws.

2) Call someone on passive aggressive politeness. Signs of respect are cheep, and commonly take the place of actual respect or consideration of an argument. If someone hides behind stilted formality they commonly aren't engaged in the debate at all.

Calling them on this gives them the chance to take the high ground, but if you are careful (and self depreciating with it) it tends to work pretty nicely.

3) Use your opponent as an excuse to learn something new. This mostly comes in when you have been beating your head against a brickwall for a while. If the person you are supposedly debating with isn't paying any attention (or just lip service) to your arguments, stop talking to them and just use their arguments as talking points.

For example, if you are debating a Creationist who is ignoring all of your counter arguments or evidence, no matter how you formulate them, stop trying to get their attention at all and just write things that you feel are best. Write articles to save and refer to later. Research and write on sub-topics or case studies you find interesting, even if only tangential to the original argument. So long as they aren't going to get anything out of the debate, you may as well.

This one feeds nicely into 1; after a few such debates you probably know the opposition position better than most people you will encounter who hold it.

4) Expose their sources. A lot of non-experts are forced to view certain arguments by balancing various arguments from authority. Showing that one of those authorities is less valid than the other is the only way to break through the initial 'he said she said' and get them to actually consider the evidence.

In such cases, calling people like Kent Hovind a lying, tax evading, gun hoarding, greedy, lying bastard is perfectly acceptable. Obviously you need to provide evidence, but even so this is technically ad hominem, the definition of which doesn't rest on truth or evidence. If you need to justify this, it is to counter another fallacy, but frankly it is also a good tactical move. The most powerful way to make someone reconsider their position is to make them reconsider the sources they rested on to defend it.

By Paul Schofield (not verified) on 15 Aug 2009 #permalink

Fair enough but the level of how I debate often has to do with the amount of thought and care that went into any assertion I may argue against.

Pulling some made up crap out of deep rectal defilade and tossing it out on stage without even a cursory check of accuracy, validity or anything else beyond the statement sounding good and supporting your particular worldview doesn't mean that I'm required to spend hours of detailed research to refute your argument in detail.

People are pretty casual about making stuff up. Which is fine for writing fiction. But when a declarative statement of fact is made like; 'The moon was shown to be made of green cheese by Apollo 33 in 1944' or 'Obama isn't a citizen', and the person obviously hasn't spent ten seconds finding out why that might be untrue I think a response of "your crazy" is sufficient.

Yes, I could dig through the relevant sites and dig up sound, well established, opinions from knowledgeable people and carefully quote them, cite sources and build a detailed refutation. It would take me hours.

The original falsehood didn't take ten seconds to manufacture and now they want me to spend my time refuting this BS? Life is to short to argue with people who are operating out of rank stupidity and/or bad faith.

If and when they are willing to demonstrate that they are willing to spend some time and care to vet their own sources and to dig deep enough to understand at least the outlines of the issues then I will answer back in detailed and considered language.

I agree with the author 100% - I engage in arguments often enough - and I do my research, I am always civil, I do understand the other position . If the other side has no intention of arguing like I do, if they resort to those lower tactics, I just refuse to engage them.

For those out there who would like to (for academic reasons, mostly) learn how to more effectively argue their point, I'd like to suggest this: A Rulebook for Arguments, by Anthony Weston. It's a short (less than 100pgs) paperback I had to read in an english course. At the very least, it'll make you feel better when you see asshat typing. :)


When I argue, I try very hard to be civil, thoughtful, cite sources, and directly address the central point. I also try very hard not to rise to provocations. This has three good effects:

1) Sadly, it usually stands out and is more noticeable on the internet.

2) Even if you don't hope to change the mind of the person you're arguing against, people 'on the fence' will tend to listen to you.

3) If I do lose my cool, it's again so rare that it stands out and usually makes it obvious the person I'm arguing with went over the line.

Ethan, just in case you didn't notice, I did in fact make an implicit recommendation: go back over old (fellow scibling) Mark Hoofnagle's posts at denialism blog, and watch how he deals with the people who turn up in the comments there. Unfortunately, he hasn't posted much recently.

More generally, I'd say, try to understand where your interlocutor is coming from emotionally, and respond to that.

Ethan, you are not authorized to make this argument. Have you not been paying attention? Just shut up. You are not authorized to make this argument. Or any argument. Just shut up.

By Zombie Muffin (not verified) on 16 Aug 2009 #permalink

Do you think there are different strategies that would serve me better?

Not our problem, Ethan. Our problem is how to use strategies that would serve us better. All in all, we're happy that you use the strategies you've outlined because they put you at a disadvantage against us when we use more effective ones.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 16 Aug 2009 #permalink

I'd actually be sort of interested to read your response to this blogger's post regarding your pyramid:

The most unoriginal thing posted on the internet since the internet was borned?

I think Monty Python summed up the pyramid very well ~30 years ago; I think they went through most (if not all) parts of that pyramid in one scene: "I'd like an argument".

Ah, such great lines:

"But that's not an argument! An argument is a connected series of statements made to establish a proposition, not the automatic gainsaying of everything."

"Look, if I were to argue with you then I must take up a contrary position, musn't I?"

By MadScientist (not verified) on 16 Aug 2009 #permalink

Dude, you need to dump the pyramid. I'm going to leave aside the (in my opinion, good) point about the rhetorical value of emotional arguments like ad hominem and name-calling. For now, I'll stipulate that those are bad. Certainly, there are contexts (e.g., scientific papers) in which those are bad strategies.

Even then, the pyramid makes no sense. What's the difference between "refutation" and "refuting the central point"? Is the former finding a minor mistake and pouncing on it? If so, why is that better than simply presenting the opposing case?

What if I agree with your argument completely, but think that there's a more important argument for the other side which you discount? Which one is that? Even if you added it, why would be higher or lower than a refuting the other side's point?

What's the difference between counterargument and contradiction? That one has evidence and the other doesn't? If so, what serves as "evidence" in an argument about morality, as opposed to one about science or public policy? Couldn't one "refute" without evidence? Why would refuting without evidence be better than counterarguing with evidence?

In summary: even if one restricts oneself to "rational argument" (whatever that means), the hierarchy you propose makes no sense, nor would any other hierarchy. Better to think of rhetoric and argument as an unordered set of tools, from which you pick the best one for the job.

I don't get why you argue that refutation is better than a counterargument.
A well conducted counterargument is constructive instead of destructive.
One example would be the Aether-theory. It was refuted quite often, but because there was no counterargument it was reconstructed in a different form (you need to do quite exotic measurements if you want to refute the Lorenz aether). But as soon as a reasonable counterargument showed up there was progress.

In summary: even if one restricts oneself to "rational argument" (whatever that means), the hierarchy you propose makes no sense, nor would any other hierarchy. Better to think of rhetoric and argument as an unordered set of tools, from which you pick the best one for the job.

Actually, I think the styles of argument as laid out above are quite distinct from one another. But leaving the goal of absolute clarity aside, if you're trying to instruct people how to address each other in the comments section of a blog, you're better off going with a pyramid. Actually, I would argue it's effective enough for about 90% of arguments online or elsewhere since it clearly distinguishes both the value and effectiveness of certain styles of argument.

As this debate unfolds on the various science blogs, our nation debates healthcare reform. A complex program designed by experts (social scientists, people who spend their professional lifetimes studying how to improve the nations health) is shouted down in town hall meetings by yahoos with no real knowledge or understanding of our health system. We see groundless claims about "death panels" and comparisons of our president to Hitler. Ethan, I agree with you that serious issues should be debated in an appropriate fashion, and I'm saddened that some of our science colleagues endorse these behaviors.

This is the bottom of a slippery slope characterized by the postmodern idea that facts are relative, accuracy is unimportant, and expertise is equal between PhDs and high school dropouts. Relativism and deconstruction are the enemies of science. Argument by yelling, argument without facts, and argument without logic may be acceptable in the spheres of politics or revolution but if you're discussing science it is not only counterproductive but destructive.

I do agree with Dr Free-Ride that the graphic is not useful.

The speed and coordination displayed in the responses from SB's anonymous PoMo posse makes me wonder what Ethan has been writing in the back forum.

Anyway, I value honesty and facts. And if certain of the bloggers here think that honesty and facts are better left to white men and privilege, then they, not Ethan, are the ones making an argument from a position of implicit racism.

I'm sorry you have to deal with this, Ethan, please keep up the good work.

Depending on the type of arguement, I most of the time like to just sit back and listen.