Bias and Pointless Arguments

by Mr. Cheap

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Years ago I lost all taste for arguments, debates and heated discussions.  One of the underlying basis for engaging in these is the idea that through the contest, truth will emerge.  All other things being equal, the person with the correct perspective SHOULD be able to “out-argue” the person with the incorrect perspective (since they’ll have stronger points to use as weapons).  This is, in part, the basis for the legal system in most countries.

I think this is false, and the entire exercise is, at best, a waste of time.

Logical Fallacies

Years ago I took “Elementary Logic” during my undergrad (I joked with friends that it should be easy, since it was “elementary”).  One part of the course was a list of logical fallacies which SEEM to prove a point, but don’t.  The textbook presented these saying that the intention WASN’T to use these to attack another’s position (“Well sir, you’ve just undermined your own position by making an ad hominem fallacy”), but to examine our OWN assertions and make sure they are free of fallacies in order to strengthen them.

Just about any Internet discussion forum or blog (certainly including my own posts) is RIFE with logical fallacies to the point that the discussion seems pretty meaningless.   Some communities adopt guidelines, such as Godwin’s Law, to try to prevent the most egregious instances of this, but I’ve never encountered a community that came anywhere close to avoiding them.

Desperate to Win

I think a big part of the problem with arguments is that quickly people become more interested in “winning” and any pursuit of the truth goes out the window.  I’ve known people who would just make stuff up to try and win arguments.  One of my friends may have put it best when he told me that “you can’t win debates with people who are intellectually dishonest”.  A friend of a friend once bragged that he had never lost a debate.  With a bit of digging, it turned out that he was just incredibly stubborn and would keep insisting he was right and the other person was wrong no matter what else was said.

Self Protection

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.

-Upton Sinclair

I am reminded of this quote every time a real estate agent comments on one of our real estate agents posts.  I find most of the justifications of the value of agents offered to be laughably transparent (and the attacks on the original posts to be bizarre straw man attacks – they criticize Mike for things he never said in the posts or comments).

Underlying Basis for Conflicting Views

At its heart, I think this is the real reason I find arguments unproductive.  Often people disagree about very fundamental issues, and rather than discussing them they argue about derived issues.  If a staunch republican was arguing with a staunch democrat about which candidate is the better person to be president, they’ll both be able to argue forever.  They aren’t actually arguing about who is the better person for the job, they’re disagreeing about ideology (but that’s not what they’re talking about, they pretend it’s about the candidates).

Consider another two individuals, one who believes that individuals are in the best position to make decisions about themselves and their property and one who believes that people can be protected from making bad decisions and that those who are better off have an obligation to help those who are worse off.  These two people will disagree about almost every social policy that is proposed.  Rather than getting to the heart of the matter and admitting they have different philosophical outlooks, they will argue, and argue and argue the details of any proposal and will be incapable of reaching a genuine consensus.


The truth isn’t democratically determined, but I think people living in democracies lull ourselves into thinking it is.  If everyone in a discussion forum feels A is true, but one lone person rails on about B, the view tends to be that A must be true.  If everyone thought this way we’d still be living in caves.  You get the same dynamic in group arguments where the majority can shut down the minority by interrupting them, giving “everyone a chance to have their say” (which leads to the majority getting more air time) and congratulating one another on their “iron clad” arguments (which the only thing iron clad about them is that they agree with the persons original belief).  I love an old video of one of Milton Friedman’s lectures where a hippie tries to rebut Friedman’s view (with the enthusiastic support of the audience) and Friedman, once he’s finally allowed to respond, calmly and methodically rips the beatnik’s argument to shreds.

What’s The Alternative?

People are welcome to argue with one another if they enjoy it (apparently Wikipedia has taken all the fun out of cocktail party debates – the only topic people can still argue about is whether or not Wikipedia is a valid source of information).  I think science has long had a better model of getting to the truth:  stating position on paper rather than back-and-forth dialogues.  This certainly isn’t to say there’s no disagreement in the sciences (nature-vs.-nurture in psychology and light as a wave or a particle in physics were both protracted and vicious).  Instead it forces people to state their position clearly and for the record, instead of allowing them to backpedal and use rhetorical games to make their point.

With blogs I think we get a mixture of the two conversations, comments (which are a lot more like discussion / debates) and rebuttal posts (which are more like the scientific format).  While I’ve received a large number of excellent comments, others have been of fairly low quality (and have been FAR worse then even the worst rebuttal post).

I actually think this could be a superior model of government, where an open website is provided and anyone (lawmakers and concerned citizens) can write commentaries on the issues of the day.  In a “Digg” style, the community could promote which articles recieve the focus, and it could lead to more accountable politicians (perhaps they’d be more ashamed seeing their deceits in black-and-white instead of videos or news articles where they could claim they were “taken out of context”).  Popular perspectives could originate anywhere and be promoted to provide a mandate to officials.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kris

Excellent post Mr. Cheap. Will now forward to my husband, in hopes of lighter conversation. Thanks!

2 Al

You’re wrong, wrong, wrong on everything you said. :)

3 Michael James

Interesting post. I too have lost interest in adversarial-type arguments where the goal is to win rather than to seek truth. You can usually tell which type of approach a person is taking by whether they acknowledge both positive and negative aspects of their point of view. Few things are good in all respects.

4 Sampson

Great post!

While I agree that arguments are not the most fruitful way of revealing the truth, I think you put a little too much faith in ‘scientific discussions/learning’. Yes, the forum of publishing peer-reviewed ideas is a long-standing and well conceived tradition in science, however, we scientists still succumb to the same fallacies which occur in standard arguments.

Global warming – while data contradicting the warming trend or suggesting its part of a non-anthropogenic cycle exists, it is dwarfed by the 1000′s and 1000′s of reports showing it IS due to human activities.

-Underlying Basis for Conflicting Views-
This most frequently occurs when scientists use their findings to attain more political positions (within funding agencies), or start their own companies from discoveries. These individuals must maintain a presence within the scientific community to provide legitimacy to their new positions/companies, but the underlying biases are obvious. They often have significant negative impact on the community because they are often such staunch supporters of ‘untruthful’ views.

-Logical Fallacies-
This is where most scientists do no fail. They do suffer from an alternative/analogous failure which is publishing data that may not be reproducible and the validity questionable. The logic of the argument might be sound, but data may not be solid.

-Self Protection & Desperate to Win-
Scientists seldom suffer from these, we would be laughed at.

While I don’t mean to suggest the forum of scientific ‘discussion’ is a bad one, I think the main reason why it is alluring is the reason you highlight about the ‘Digg’ community.


Scientists and scientific discussion must be more controlled and have stronger basis in seeking truth because our careers depend on it. I remember sometime ago, a respected Zoologist and Chief-Editor of a respectable journal allowed the publication of ‘proof’ of an Ogo Pogo / Loch Ness monster type of animal. His career was over by the end of the year.

5 Cecil

I just wanted to point out one community that I frequent that seems relatively free of these kinds of back-and-forth, going-nowhere arguments that are rife with logical fallacies.

Oddly enough, the community is one devoted to identifying and avoiding all these biases –

I was stunned a few weeks ago to see a 200+ comment thread about a controversial issue (the Amanda Knox case) that was full of honest, intellectual debate about the issues – including lots of people admitting they were mistaken and revising their opinions.

6 Matthew

i completely agree with this. As a sophmore student, I’ve been directed to write a research project on a controversial topic. I knew this was useless, simply because its usually just a contest to see who argues most efficiently, instead of solving the actual problem. I began an arguement with the teacher assigning the project, telling her. “I want to argue the controversial issue, of argueing controversial issues.” She declined, i insisted. This went on for several minutes, until i was suspended from school for insubordination. Our schools are now TEACHING us to be useless, and to argue points. Instead of coming up with a solution. Being a pacifist it took me several days to just find an issue where i could pick a side. I decided to go with abortion, simply because I looked at it from a logical instead of moral point of view. Though i did not want too.

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