Arguing Online

Things are quite busy here at the moment, so I’m not posting as often as usual. In lieu of a more substantive post, I thought I’d share a new site and podcast I came across today.

The site is You Are Not So Smart.

The current episode is about arguments, and contains a lot of interesting anecdote and speculation. The preview of the episode on the site links this image from Wikimedia:

It is a diagram of Paul Graham’s hierarchy of online disagreement (I assume the Paul Graham, Silicon Valley luminary, since he is referred to as a programmer). It nicely summarises some of the issues we all face trying to have constructive conversations about religion online. I’ve shared before my frustration at facing conversations that drop down the pyramid, and my frustration at my own tendency to do the same. I think the diagram summarises my experiences pretty well.

If you do listen, let me know what you think.


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10 responses to “Arguing Online

  1. Well, that’s embarrassing. I think I always get stuck around “Contradiction” sometimes accidentally finding my way up to “Counterargument”. Ugh!

  2. Ian

    Definitely, though I’ve been known to indulge in some juicy name-calling too.

  3. Lafayette Ann

    I recently argued very hard and publicly for a certain vote on a controversial issue before a board. The closer I and my allies got to the top of the pyramid – to refuting the central point of our opponents, the more our opponents dropped DOWN the pyramid. By the time we fairly well refuted the central argument, we were being called ‘liars’. And in the end a well-constructed argument didn’t do us any good. I think the ‘liar’ gambit worked out well for our opponents. The name caller got to speak last.

  4. Ian

    Thanks for commenting, Lafayette Ann, and welcome!

    Your experience is one I recognize, definitely. Higher in the pyramid may be ‘better’, but isn’t often more convincing. Look at what qualifies for political argument!

  5. arcseconds

    I don’t know why the top three are ranked separately from one another, and I’m not even sure I see much distinction between them.

    It seems to me a good argument could easily and would often fall into all three categories: explicitly refute the central point, which is a mistake, which you correct by providing evidence in the form of quotes.

  6. Ian

    Thanks. I think its probably a consequence of the space in the diagram. The difference between the top two layers is what is the topic, so the second one is a refutation of any part of the disagreement, whereas the first tries to limit the discussion to the core point, to avoid clashing over incidentals. The difference between refutation and contradiction I think is quite fuzzy though. Still, the specifics are less important than the general idea, I think.

  7. arcseconds

    @Layfayette Ann:

    That sounds incredibly frustrating!

    However, even though it may fail in the short term, I don’t see it as a reason to ever stop giving reasoned arguments. If we decide to abandon them in favour of emotionally manipulative, fallacious rhetoric (especially abusive, emotionally manipulative, fallacious rhetoric), then even though we might win at the moment, we would be doing that by endorsing a method of arriving at a decision which has no connection with the decision being the right one. It only depends on the persuasive ability of the proponents, and there’s no guarantee the most persuasive people will be supporting the right outcome, or be well-motivated.

  8. arcseconds

    Maybe it’s a bad idea to even argue at all, as it only intensifies the beliefs you’re arguing against:

    although perhaps continually repeating the point may help:

  9. arcseconds

    huh. only just realised the first link is to the same site that you posted here!

  10. Ian

    @arc, Interesting point about the backfire effect. Hmmm. I think it does increase the polarisation of some people, yes. I have some questions about the studies that I’ll have to do some more reading on. Might be worth a post here.

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