Bias and Pointless Arguments

by Mr. Cheap

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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