Politics and Economics

Hierarchy of Argument

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The rise of social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter and this website) and the ability to respond to online newspaper articles has ensured that we are more able to debate and disagree with the author. Agreeing tends to motivate people less than disagreeing and there’s less to say.

So,  there’s a lot more disagreeing in the modern, connected world. Many debate anonymously using a pseudonym rather than their real identity, which allows people to be abusive and behave differently than they would if they were face-to-face with their opponent. Trolling is the modern equivalent of poison pen letters and easier to execute.

Consequently the quality of disagreement in online debates is poor.

I found this model, Grahams Hierarchy of Disagreement useful in holding people to account on the quality of their argument.

Name-calling.

This is the lowest form of disagreement. We’ve all seen comments such as “you’re stupid / racist / sexist / homophobic”.

But it’s important to realize that more articulate name-calling has just as little weight  e.g. “the author is a self-opinionated dilettante” or “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilisation in between” (Oscar Wilde).

Ad Hominem.

Ad hominem is Latin for “to the man” or “to the person”.  It is short for argumentum ad hominem and is a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument (or persons associated with the argument) rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself.  An ad hominem attack is not quite as weak as mere name-calling. It might actually carry some weight. For example, if a doctor wrote an article saying Government health spending should be increased, one could respond: “Of course he would say that.  He’s a doctor.”

This wouldn’t refute the author’s argument, but it may be relevant to the case. But it’s still a very weak form of disagreement.  If there’s something wrong with the doctor’s argument, one should say what it is; and if there isn’t, what difference does it make that he’s a doctor?

Arguing that the author is unqualified or lacks authority on a topic is a variant of ad hominem and is also ineffective.  Good ideas often come from outsiders with a fresh view of the problem.

Responding to Tone.

The next level up we start to see responses to the style of 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 the theory of evolution in such a cavalier fashion”.

Though better than attacking the author, this is still a weak form of disagreement. It matters much more whether the author is wrong or right than what is his tone.  The tone is subjective and doesn’t tell us if the author is incorrect in their conclusions.

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.

e.g. “I can’t believe the author dismisses evolutionary theory in such a cavalier fashion. Evolution is a proven scientific theory.”

Contradiction can sometimes have some weight. Sometimes seeing the opposing case stated explicitly adds to the argument, but references and evidence carries more weight.

Counterargument.

Here we reach the first form of convincing disagreement. Forms up to this point can usually be ignored as proving nothing. Counterargument might prove something. But 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 realise it.

There could be a legitimate reason for arguing against something slightly different from what the author said.  For example,  when one feels they missed the central point of the argument. But when one does that it should stated explicitly that is what you are doing.

Refutation.

The most convincing form of disagreement is refutation. It’s also the rarest, because it’s the most difficult.  This is why the disagreement hierarchy forms a pyramid – the higher one goes the fewer instances one finds.

To refute someone one should quote them and then explain why the argument is mistaken. If one can’t find an actual quote with which to disagree one can give the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not advanced by that opponent  i.e. arguing with a straw man.

While refutation generally entails quoting, quoting doesn’t necessarily lead to refutation. Some writers quote parts of things they disagree with to give the appearance of legitimate refutation, then follow with a response from a lower form of argument, such as contradiction or counterargument.

Refuting the Central Point.

The force of a refutation depends on what is refuted. The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute the opponent’s central point.

Even as high as Refutation one can still 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 minor mistakes in events and statistics. 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. And that means one has to commit explicitly to what is the central point. So a truly effective refutation would look like:

“The author’s main point seems to be <x> as he says <quotation> , but this is wrong for the following reasons….” Preferably with the addition of relevant evidence and authoritative references.

Even this formula can reveal deliberate dishonesty in a debate.  For example, the deliberate citing of poorly conducted or flawed research as evidence that the central point of the argument is wrong.  Examples of poor research are many, but even well conducted research can produce the occasional exceptional result.  It is mischievous to produce these as evidence when the author knows most other examples of well conducted research on the same topic proves a different conclusion.

So what?

So what good is all this? One thing the disagreement hierarchy doesn’t give us is a way of picking the winning argument in a debate. These levels merely describe the form of a statement, not whether it’s correct. A response that refutes the central point could still be completely wrong.

The most obvious advantage of classifying the forms of disagreement is that it will help people to evaluate the quality of what they read and if the responder is being intellectually dishonest.  An eloquent speaker or writer can give the impression of destroying an argument merely by using forceful words or getting amusing and memorable sound bites quoted repeatedly in the media.

But the greatest benefit of disagreeing well is that it will improve the quality of debate.  A debate should be about testing alternative solutions to a problem.  So, a better debate should lead to a better solution.  This benefits everybody.

Thanks to Paul Graham.

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