Monday, October 1, 2018

Peak argument is the best argument

From How to disagree well: 7 of the best and worst ways to argue by Paul Raner, deriving most his material from the original blog post, How to Disagree by Paul Graham.

Click to enlarge.

Read the original. Execerpts:
DH0. Name-calling.
This is the lowest form of disagreement, and probably also the most common. We've all seen comments like this:
u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!
DH1. Ad Hominem.

An ad hominem attack is not quite as weak as mere name-calling. It might actually carry some weight. For example, if a senator wrote an article saying senators' salaries should be increased, one could respond:
Of course he would say that. He's a senator.
DH2. Responding to Tone.

The next level up we start to see responses to the writing, rather than the writer. The lowest form of these is to disagree with the author's tone. E.g.
I can't believe the author dismisses intelligent design in such a cavalier fashion.
DH3. Contradiction.

In this stage we finally get responses to what was said, rather than how or by whom. The lowest form of response to an argument is simply to state the opposing case, with little or no supporting evidence.

This is often combined with DH2 statements, as in:
I can't believe the author dismisses intelligent design in such a cavalier fashion. Intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory.
DH4. Counterargument.

At level 4 we reach the first form of convincing disagreement: counterargument. Forms up to this point can usually be ignored as proving nothing. Counterargument might prove something. The problem is, it's hard to say exactly what.

Counterargument is contradiction plus reasoning and/or evidence. When aimed squarely at the original argument, it can be convincing. But unfortunately it's common for counterarguments to be aimed at something slightly different. More often than not, two people arguing passionately about something are actually arguing about two different things. Sometimes they even agree with one another, but are so caught up in their squabble they don't realize it.

DH5. Refutation.

The most convincing form of disagreement is refutation. It's also the rarest, because it's the most work. Indeed, the disagreement hierarchy forms a kind of pyramid, in the sense that the higher you go the fewer instances you find.

To refute someone you probably have to quote them. You have to find a "smoking gun," a passage in whatever you disagree with that you feel is mistaken, and then explain why it's mistaken. If you can't find an actual quote to disagree with, you may be arguing with a straw man.

DH6. Refuting the Central Point.

The force of a refutation depends on what you refute. The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone's central point.

Even as high as DH5 we still sometimes see deliberate dishonesty, as when someone picks out minor points of an argument and refutes those. Sometimes the spirit in which this is done makes it more of a sophisticated form of ad hominem than actual refutation. For example, correcting someone's grammar, or harping on minor mistakes in names or numbers. Unless the opposing argument actually depends on such things, the only purpose of correcting them is to discredit one's opponent.

Truly refuting something requires one to refute its central point, or at least one of them. And that means one has to commit explicitly to what the central point is. So a truly effective refutation would look like:
The author's main point seems to be x. As he says:
But this is wrong for the following reasons...
DH4-DH6 tend to be rare because they represent good faith disagreement and the attendant work to address the other's actual argument, not simply using rhetoric to insult the maker of the argument or attack a straw-man misrepresentation of the actual argument.

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