Duncan’s Law

In an internet discussion, opponents will only ever respond to your weakest point.

So don’t give an off the cuff example, because you’ll end up discussing that one thing for the rest of the thread. In fact, examples of any kind are dangerous, because real life is complex: there’ll almost always be some insignificant part of any example that doesn’t overwhelmingly illustrate your point. And again, that’s what you’ll be discussing from now on.

And, when you do, your opponents will be revelling in the non semper ergo numquam fallacy: thinking they can shoot down your argument if they can disprove any part of it, regardless of how slight the technicality.

If your opponent is reasonably antagonistic to your position, there is very little point in trying to break this law. Because this is a prisoner’s dilemma: if you discuss reasonably and your opponent follows Duncan’s Law, you will just sound like you’re conceding. And your reasonable language will get thrown back at you from that point on, as evidence of your concession and perhaps duplicity.

The more two parties engage in this, the more likely they are to descend into insults and acrimony. Because both of them feel that their position is being belittled, they are being ignored, and the other party is arguing in bad faith. Because, they are. It is easy to identify it in the other person, but almost impossible to notice how much of an ass you’re being yourself.

If two parties end up insulting each other, you can usually trace it back to Duncan’s Law. At some point, each felt the other was not properly engaging with their position, but instead grandstanding on trivial sideshows.

This is why many internet discussions go so badly.

This is why people who gamely try to engage on their opponent’s blogs end up sounding like trolls, or being made to feel so unwelcome that they leave.

The law also applies to some forms of scholarship, but perhaps the long lead time makes it less pronounced.

I do this, particularly with creationists. Do you?


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8 responses to “Duncan’s Law

  1. So I am confused.
    I think I get this point:
    (1) Keep it simple: in light of “Duncan’s Law”, keep your replies succinct so as to not offer tons of distractions.

    But did you also say
    (2) Don’t be too reasonable or you will look weak and it will be used against you.
    (3) Don’t sound reasonable or it will look like concession
    (4) Don’t insult, it will result in an inescapable spiral downhill

    Ironically, you didn’t stay succinct, and as a troll, you offer me ways to avoid your intended point — but I am not sure what it was?

    So, I agree with Duncan’s Law. Though it would have been nice to know where that label came from — link? (you gave us other links).

    I think recognizing Duncan’s Law itself is incredibly valuable.

    In light of your insight, what do you think of this strategy.

    (1) Start your comment trying to summarize in a sentence or two the critical point of the writer in such a way that the writer says, “Exactly, that is what I was saying.”

    (2) THEN, suggest any part of this main point you can agree with (even if an attitude or supposition which may be useful when used correctly. )

    (3) FINALLY, succinctly suggest one point you think offers a bit of a challenge to this position.

    Principle: Be succinct, focused and satisfied with baby-steps in the dialogue.

  2. Ian

    Yes to your first 4, although 3 and 4 only apply with an antagonist, in my experience.

    The law is named for a particular long term sparring partner of mine (it’s also my middle name, coincidentally).

    And I think your strategy is fine, with someone who is interested in coming to agreement. Not with someone who wants to prove themselves right.

    The world is complex, and if the other party is determined to prove you wrong, then just about anything you say, no matter how small, will provide ample room for non semper ergo numquam or similar criticisms of the general in terms of the specific.

  3. Duncan’s Law deserves to be as well known as Godwin’s Law. I would love to give proper credit to you as the author when I reference it. I don’t see that you’ve tipped your identity here, though?

  4. Ian

    Thanks Jeffrey!

    You can just reference here irrco.wordpress.com. I don’t use my surname here, not because I want to be anonymous (I think it appears in the notification emails, or at least it used to), but because I rely to some extent on my name being searchable for work.

  5. Ian

    @Jeffrey (I just liked your FB post on it, my FB is under my full name, and generally doesn’t pollute the google index).

  6. Thanks! Adding full credit in a comment there.

  7. Huh… Wow… That’s what that is. Nicely done!

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