6 Tips for Productive Arguments

We’ve all had ar­gu­ments that seemed like a com­plete waste of time in ret­ro­spect. But at the same time, ar­gu­ments (be­tween sci­en­tists, policy an­a­lysts, and oth­ers) play a crit­i­cal part in mov­ing so­ciety for­ward. You can imag­ine how lousy things would be if no one ever en­gaged those who dis­agreed with them.

This is a list of tips for hav­ing “pro­duc­tive” ar­gu­ments. For the pur­poses of this list, “pro­duc­tive” means im­prov­ing the ac­cu­racy of at least one per­son’s views on some im­por­tant topic. By this defi­ni­tion, ar­gu­ments where no one changes their mind are un­pro­duc­tive. So are ar­gu­ments about unim­por­tant top­ics like which Pink Floyd album is the best.

Why do we want pro­duc­tive ar­gu­ments? Same rea­son we want Wikipe­dia: so peo­ple are more knowl­edge­able. And just like the case of Wikipe­dia, there is a strong self­ish im­per­a­tive here: ar­gu­ing can make you more knowl­edge­able, if you’re will­ing to change your mind when an­other ar­guer has bet­ter points.

Ar­gu­ments can also be nega­tively pro­duc­tive if ev­ery­one moves fur­ther from the truth on net. This could hap­pen if, for ex­am­ple, the truth was some­where in be­tween two ar­guers, but they both left the ar­gu­ment even more sure of them­selves.

Th­ese tips are de­rived from my per­sonal ex­pe­rience ar­gu­ing.

Keep it Friendly

Prob­a­bly the biggest bar­rier to pro­duc­tive ar­gu­ments is the de­sire of ar­guers to save face and avoid pub­li­cly ad­mit­ting they were wrong. Ob­vi­ously, it’s hard for any­one’s views to get more ac­cu­rate if no one’s views ever change.

This prob­lem is ex­ac­er­bated when ar­guers dis­par­age one an­other. If you re­buke a fel­low ar­guer, you’re set­ting your­self up as their en­emy. Ad­mit­ting they were wrong would then mean giv­ing in to an en­emy. And no one likes to do that.
You may also find it difficult to care­fully re­con­sider your own views af­ter hav­ing ridiculed or be­rated some­one who dis­agrees. I know I have in the past.
Both of these ten­den­cies hurt ar­gu­ment pro­duc­tivity. To make ar­gu­ments pro­duc­tive:
  • Keep things warm and col­le­gial. Just be­cause your ideas are in vi­o­lent dis­agree­ment doesn’t mean you have to dis­agree vi­o­lently as peo­ple. Stay classy.

  • To the great­est ex­tent pos­si­ble, up­hold the so­cial norm that no one will lose face for pub­li­cly chang­ing their mind.

  • If you’re on a com­mu­nity-mod­er­ated fo­rum like Less Wrong, don’t down­vote some­thing un­less you think the per­son who wrote it is be­ing a bad fo­rum cit­i­zen (ex: spam or un­pro­voked in­sults). Upvotes already provide plenty of in­for­ma­tion about how com­ments and sub­mis­sions should be sorted. (It’s prob­a­bly safe to as­sume that a new Less Wrong user who sees their first com­ment mod­ded be­low zero will de­cide we’re all jerks and never come back. And if new users aren’t com­ing back, we’ll have a hard time rais­ing the san­ity wa­ter­line much.)

  • Err on the side of un­der­stat­ing your dis­agree­ment, e.g. “I’m not per­suaded that...” or “I agree that x is true; I’m not as sure that...” or “It seems to me...”

  • If you no­tice some hypocrisy, bias, or gen­eral defi­ciency on the part of an­other ar­guer, think ex­tremely care­fully be­fore bring­ing it up while the ar­gu­ment is still in progress.

In a good ar­gu­ment, all par­ties will be cu­ri­ous about what’s re­ally go­ing on. But cu­ri­os­ity and an­i­mos­ity are mu­tu­ally in­com­pat­i­ble emo­tions. Don’t im­pede the col­lec­tive search for truth through rude­ness or hos­tility.

In­quire about Im­plau­si­ble-Sound­ing Asser­tions Be­fore Ex­press­ing an Opinion

It’s easy to re­spond to a state­ment you think is ob­vi­ously wrong with with an im­me­di­ate de­nial or at­tack. But this is also a good way to keep your­self from learn­ing any­thing.

If some­one sug­gests some­thing you find im­plau­si­ble, start ask­ing friendly ques­tions to get them to clar­ify and jus­tify their state­ment. If their rea­son­ing seems gen­uinely bad, you can re­fute it then.

As a bonus, do­ing noth­ing but ask ques­tions can be a good way to save face if the im­plau­si­ble as­ser­tion-maker turns out to be right.

Be care­ful about re­ject­ing highly im­plau­si­ble ideas out of hand. Ideally, you want your ra­tio­nal­ity to be a level where even if you started out with a crazy be­lief like Scien­tol­ogy, you’d still be able to get rid of it. But for a Scien­tol­o­gist to berid them­selves of Scien­tol­ogy, they have to con­sider ideas that ini­tially seen ex­tremely un­likely.

It’s been ar­gued that many main­stream skep­tics aren’t re­ally that good at crit­i­cally eval­u­at­ing ideas, just dis­miss­ing ones that seem im­plau­si­ble.

Iso­late Spe­cific Points of Disagreement

Stick to one topic at a time, un­til some­one changes their mind or the topic is de­clared not worth pur­su­ing. If your dis­cus­sion con­stantly jumps from one point of dis­agree­ment to an­other, reach­ing con­sen­sus on any­thing will be difficult.

You can use hy­po­thet­i­cal-ori­ented think­ing like con­di­tional prob­a­bil­ities and the least con­ve­nient pos­si­ble world to figure out ex­actly what it is you dis­agree on with re­gard to a given topic. Once you’ve cre­atively helped your­self or an­other ar­guer clar­ify be­liefs, shar­ing in­tu­itions on spe­cific “ir­re­ducible” as­ser­tions or an­ti­ci­pated out­comes that aren’t eas­ily de­com­posed can im­prove both of your prob­a­bil­ity es­ti­mates.

Don’t Straw Man Fel­low Ar­guers, Steel Man Them Instead

You might think that a pro­duc­tive ar­gu­ment is one where the smartest per­son wins, but that’s not always the case. Smart peo­ple can be wrong too. And a smart per­son suc­cess­fully con­vinc­ing less in­tel­li­gent folks of their delu­sion counts as a nega­tively pro­duc­tive ar­gu­ment (see defi­ni­tion above).

Play for all sides, in case you’re the smartest per­son in the ar­gu­ment.

Rewrite fel­low ar­guers’ ar­gu­ments so they’re even stronger, and think of new ones. Ar­gu­ments for new po­si­tions, even—they don’t have any­one play­ing for them. And if you end up con­vinc­ing your­self of some­thing you didn’t pre­vi­ously be­lieve, so much the bet­ter.

If You See an Op­por­tu­nity To Im­prove the Ac­cu­racy of Your Knowl­edge, Take It!

This is of­ten called los­ing an ar­gu­ment, but you’re ac­tu­ally the win­ner: you and your ar­gu­ing part­ner both in­vested time to ar­gue, but you were the only one who re­ceived sig­nifi­cantly im­proved knowl­edge.

I’m not a Chris­tian, but I definitely want to know if Chris­ti­an­ity is true so I can stop tak­ing the Lord’s name in vain and hope­fully get to heaven. (Please don’t con­tact me about Chris­ti­an­ity though, I’ve already thought about it a lot and judged it too im­prob­a­ble to be worth spend­ing ad­di­tional time think­ing about.) Point is, it’s hard to see how hav­ing more ac­cu­rate knowl­edge could hurt.

If you’re wor­ried about los­ing face or see­ing your coal­i­tion (re­search group, poli­ti­cal party, etc.) diminish in im­por­tance from you ad­mit­ting that you were wrong, here are some ideas:

  • Say “I’ll think about it”. Most peo­ple will quiet down at this point with­out any gloat­ing.

  • Just keep ar­gu­ing, mak­ing a men­tal note that your mind has changed.

  • Redi­rect the con­ver­sa­tion, pre­tend to lose in­ter­est, pre­tend you have no time to con­tinue ar­gu­ing, etc.

If nec­es­sary, you can make up a story about how some­thing else changed your mind later.

Some of these tech­niques may seem dodgy, and hon­estly I think you’ll usu­ally do bet­ter by ex­plain­ing what ac­tu­ally changed your mind. But they’re a small price to pay for more ac­cu­rate knowl­edge. Bet­ter to tell unim­por­tant false state­ments to oth­ers than im­por­tant false state­ments to your­self.

Have Low “Belief In­er­tia”

It’s ac­tu­ally pretty rare that the ev­i­dence that you’re wrong comes sud­denly—usu­ally you can see things turn­ing against you. As an ad­vanced move, cul­ti­vate the abil­ity to up­date your de­gree of cer­tainty in real time to new ar­gu­ments, and tell fel­low ar­guers if you find an ar­gu­ment of theirs per­sua­sive. This can ac­tu­ally be a good way to make friends. It also en­courages other ar­guers to share ad­di­tional ar­gu­ments with you, which could be valuable data.

One psy­chol­o­gist I agree with sug­gested that peo­ple ask

  • “Does the ev­i­dence al­low me to be­lieve?” when eval­u­at­ing what they already be­lieve, but

  • “Does the ev­i­dence com­pel me to be­lieve?” when eval­u­at­ing a claim in­com­pat­i­ble with their cur­rent be­liefs.

If folks don’t have to drag you around like this for you to change your mind, you don’t ac­tu­ally lose much face. It’s only long-over­due ca­pitu­la­tions that re­sult in sig­nifi­cant face loss. And the longer you put your ca­pitu­la­tion off, the worse things get. Quickly up­dat­ing in re­sponse to new ev­i­dence seems to pre­serve face in my ex­pe­rience.

If your be­lief in­er­tia is low and you steel-man ev­ery­thing, you’ll reach the su­per chill state of not hav­ing a “side” in any given ar­gu­ment. You’ll play for all sides and you won’t care who wins. You’ll have achieved equa­nim­ity, con­tent with the world as it ac­tu­ally is, not how you wish it was.