Tag: Argument

Bad Arguments and How to Avoid Them

Productive arguments serve two purposes: to open our minds to truths we couldn’t see — and help others do the same. Here’s how to avoid common pitfalls and argue like a master.

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We’re often faced with situations in which we need to argue a point, whether we’re pitching an investor or competing for a contract. When being powerfully persuasive matters, it’s important that we don’t use bad arguments that prevent useful debate instead of furthering it. To do this, it’s useful to know some common ways people remove the possibility of a meaningful discussion. While it can be a challenge to keep our cool and not sink to using bad arguments when responding to a Twitter troll or during a heated confrontation over Thanksgiving dinner, we can benefit from knowing what to avoid when the stakes are high.

“If the defendant be a man of straw, who is to pay the costs?” 

— Charles Dickens

 

To start, let’s define three common types of bad arguments, or logical fallacies: “straw man,” “hollow man,” and “iron man.”

Straw man arguments

A straw man argument is a misrepresentation of an opinion or viewpoint, designed to be as easy as possible to refute. Just as a person made of straw would be easier to fight with than a real human, a straw man argument is easy to knock to the ground. And just as it might look a bit like a real person from a distance, a straw man argument has the rough outline of the actual discussion. In some cases, it might seem similar to an outside observer. But it lacks any semblance of substance or strength. The sole purpose is for it to be easy to refute. It’s not an argument you happen to find inconvenient or challenging. It’s one that is logically flawed. A straw man argument may not even be invalid; it’s just not relevant.

It’s important not to confuse a strawman argument with a simplified summary of a complex argument. When we’re having a debate, we may sometimes need to explain an opponent’s grounds back to them to ensure we understand it. In this case, this explanation will be by necessity a briefer version. But it is only a straw man if the simplification is used to make it easier to attack, rather than to facilitate clearer understanding

There are a number of common tactics used to construct straw man arguments. One is per fas et nefas (which means “through right and wrong” in Latin) and involves refuting one of the reasons for an opponent’s argument, then claiming that discredits everything they’ve said. Often, this type of straw man argument will focus on an irrelevant or unimportant detail, selecting the weakest part of the argument. Even though they have no response to the rest of the discourse, they purport to have disproven it in its entirety. As Doug Walton, professor of philosophy at the University of Winnipeg, puts it, “The straw man tactic is essentially to take some small part of an arguer’s position and then treat it as if that represented his larger position, even though it is not really representative of that larger position. It is a form of generalizing from one aspect to a larger, broader position, but not in a representative way.”

Oversimplifying an argument makes it easier to attack by removing any important nuance. An example is the “peanut butter argument,” which states life cannot have evolved through natural selection because we do not see the spontaneous appearance of new life forms inside sealed peanut butter jars. The argument claims evolutionary theory asserts life emerged through a simple combination of matter and heat, both of which are present in a jar of peanut butter. It is a straw man because it uses an incorrect statement about evolution as being representative of the whole theory. The defender of evolution gets trapped into explaining a position they didn’t even have: why life doesn’t spontaneously develop inside a jar of peanut butter.

Another tactic is to over-exaggerate a line of reasoning to the point of absurdity, thus making it easier to refute. An example would be someone claiming a politician who is not opposed to immigration is thus in favor of open borders with no restrictions on who can enter a country. Seeing as that would be a weak view that few people hold, the politician then feels obligated to defend border controls and risks losing control of the debate and being charged as a hypocrite.

“The light obtained by setting straw men on fire is not what we mean by illumination.”

— Adam Gopnik

 

Straw man arguments that respond to irrelevant points could involve ad hominem points, which are sort of relevant but don’t refute the argument—for example, responding to the point that wind turbines are a more environmentally friendly means of generating energy than fossil fuels by saying, “But wind turbines are ugly.” This point has a loose connection, yet the way wind turbines look doesn’t discredit their benefits for power generation. A person who made an ad hominem point like that would likely be doing so because they knew they had no rebuttal for the actual assertion.

Quoting an argument out of context is another tactic of straw man arguments. “Quote mining” is the practice of removing any part of a source that proves contradictory, often using ellipses to fill in the gaps. For instance, film posters and book blurbs will sometimes take quotes from bad reviews out of context to make them seem positive. So, “It’s amazing how bad this film is” becomes “Amazing,” and “The perfect book for people who wish to be bored to tears” becomes “The perfect book.” Reviewers face an uphill battle in trying not to write anything that could be taken out of control in this manner.

Hollow man arguments

A hollow man argument is similar to a straw man one. The difference is that it is a weak case attributed to a non-existent group. Someone will fabricate a viewpoint that is easy to refute, then claim it was made by a group they disagree with. Arguing against an opponent which doesn’t exist is a pretty easy way to win any debate. People who use hollow man arguments will often favor vague, non-specific language without explicitly giving any sources or stating who their opponent is.

Hollow man arguments slip into debate because they’re a lazy way of making a strong point without risking anyone refuting you or needing to be accountable for the actual strength of a line of reasoning. In Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse write that “speakers commit the hollow man when they respond critically to arguments that nobody on the opposing side has ever made. The act of erecting a hollow man is an argumentative failure because it distracts attention away from the actual reasons and argument given by one’s opposition. . . . It is a full-bore fabrication of the opposition.”

An example of a hollow man argument would be the claim that animal rights activists want humans and non-human animals to have a perfectly equal legal standing, meaning that dogs would have to start wearing clothes to avoid being arrested for public indecency. This is a hollow man because no one has said that all laws applying to humans should also apply to dogs.

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”

— Noam Chomsky

 

Iron man argument

An iron man argument is one constructed in such a way that it is resistant to attacks by a challenger. Iron man arguments are difficult to avoid because they have a lot of overlap with legitimate debate techniques. The distinction is whether the person using them is doing so to prevent opposition altogether or if they are open to changing their minds and listening to an opposer. Being proven wrong is painful, which is why we often unthinkingly resort to shielding ourselves from it using iron man arguments.

Someone using an iron man argument often makes their own stance so vague that nothing anyone says about it can weaken it. They’ll make liberal use of caveats, jargon, and imprecise terms. This means they can claim anyone who disagrees didn’t understand them, or they’ll rephrase their contention repeatedly. You could compare this to the language used in the average horoscope or in a fortune cookie. It’s so vague that it’s hard to disagree with or label it as incorrect because it can’t be incorrect. It’s like boxing with a wisp of steam.

An example would be a politician who answers a difficult question about their policies by saying, “I think it’s important that we take the best possible actions to benefit the people of this country. Our priority in this situation is to implement policies that have a positive impact on everyone in society.” They’ve answered the question, just without saying anything that anyone could disagree with.

Why bad arguments are harmful

What is the purpose of debate? Most of us, if asked, would say it’s about helping someone with an incorrect, harmful idea see the light. It’s an act of kindness. It’s about getting to the truth.

But the way we tend to engage in debate contradicts our supposed intentions.

Much of the time, we’re really debating because we want to prove we’re right and our opponent is wrong. Our interest is not in getting to the truth. We don’t even consider the possibility that our opponent might be correct or that we could learn something from them.

As decades of psychological research indicate, our brains are always out to save energy, and part of that is that we prefer not to change our minds about anything. It’s much easier to cling to our existing beliefs through whatever means possible and ignore anything that challenges them. Bad arguments enable us to engage in what looks like a debate but doesn’t pose any risk of forcing us to question what we stand for.

We debate for other reasons, too. Sometimes we’re out to entertain ourselves. Or we want to prove we’re smarter than someone else. Or we’re secretly addicted to the shot of adrenaline we get from picking a fight. And that’s what we’re doing—fighting, not arguing. In these cases, it’s no surprise that shoddy tactics like using straw man or hollow man arguments emerge.

It’s never fun to admit we’re wrong about anything or to have to change our minds. But it is essential if we want to get smarter and see the world as it is, not as we want it to be. Any time we engage in debate, we need to be honest about our intentions. What are we trying to achieve? Are we open to changing our minds? Are we listening to our opponent? Only when we’re out to have a balanced discussion with the possibility of changing our minds can a debate be productive, avoiding the use of logical fallacies.

Bad arguments are harmful to everyone involved in a debate. They don’t get us anywhere because we’re not tackling an opponent’s actual viewpoint. This means we have no hope of convincing them. Worse, this sort of underhand tactic is likely to make an opponent feel frustrated and annoyed by the deliberate misrepresentation of their beliefs. They’re forced to listen to a refutation of something they don’t even believe in the first place, which insults their intelligence. Feeling attacked like this only makes them hold on tighter to their actual belief. It may even make them less willing to engage in any sort of debate in the future.

And if you’re a chronic constructor of bad arguments, as many of us are, it leads people to avoid challenging you or starting discussions. Which means you don’t get to learn from them or have your views questioned. In formal situations, using bad arguments makes it look like you don’t really have a strong point in the first place.

How to avoid using bad arguments

If you want to have useful, productive debates, it’s vital to avoid using bad arguments.

The first thing we need to do to avoid constructing bad arguments is to accept it’s something we’re all susceptible to. It’s easy to look at a logical fallacy and think of all the people we know who use it. It’s much harder to recognize it in ourselves. We don’t always realize when the point we’re making isn’t that strong.

Bad arguments are almost unavoidable if we haven’t taken the time to research both sides of the debate. Sometimes the map is not the territory—that is, our perception of an opinion is not that opinion. The most useful thing we can do is attempt to see the territory. That brings us to steelman arguments and the ideological Turing test.

Steel man arguments

The most powerful way to avoid using bad arguments and to discourage their use by others is to follow the principle of charity and to argue against the strongest and most persuasive version of their grounds. In this case, we suspend disbelief and ignore our own opinions for long enough to understand where they’re coming from. We recognize the good sides of their case and play to its strengths. Ask questions to clarify anything you don’t understand. Be curious about the other person’s perspective. You might not change their mind, but you will at least learn something and hopefully reduce any conflict in the process.

“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”

— Joseph Joubert

 

In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, the philosopher Daniel Dennett offers some general guidelines for using the principle of charity, formulated by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  1. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  1. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  1. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

An argument that is the strongest version of an opponent’s viewpoint is known as a steel man. It’s purposefully constructed to be as difficult as possible to attack. The idea is that we can only say we’ve won a debate when we’ve fought with a steel man, not a straw one. Seeing as we’re biased towards tackling weaker versions of an argument, often without realizing it, this lets us err on the side of caution.

As challenging as this might be, it serves a bigger picture purpose. Steel man arguments help us understand a new perspective, however ludicrous it might be in our eyes, so we’re better positioned to succeed and connect better in the future. It shows a challenger we are empathetic and willing to listen, regardless of personal opinion. The point is to see the strengths, not the weaknesses. If we’re open-minded, not combative, we can learn a lot.

“He who knows only his side of the case knows little of that.”

— John Stuart Mill

 

An exercise in steel manning, the ideological Turing test, proposes that we cannot say we understand an opponent’s position unless we would be able to argue in favor of it so well that an observer would not be able to tell which opinion we actually hold. In other words, we shouldn’t hold opinions we can’t argue against. The ideological Turing test is a great thought experiment to establish whether you understand where an opponent is coming from.

Although we don’t have the option to do this for every single thing we disagree with, when a debate is extremely important to us, the ideological Turing test can be a helpful tool for ensuring we’re fully prepared. Even if we can’t use it all the time, it can serve us well in high-stakes situations.

How to handle other people using bad arguments

“You could not fence with an antagonist who met rapier thrust with blow of battle axe.”

— L.M. Montgomery

 

Let’s say you’re in the middle of a debate with someone with a different opinion than yours. You’re responding to the steel man version of their explanation, staying calm and measured. But what do you do if your opponent starts using bad arguments against you? What if they’re not listening to you?

The first thing you can do when someone uses a bad argument against you is the simplest: point it out. Explain what they’re doing and why it isn’t helpful. There’s not much point in just telling them they’re using a straw man argument or any other type of logical fallacy. If they’re not familiar with the concept, it may just seem like alienating jargon. There’s also not much point in using it as a “gotcha!” point which will likewise foster more tensions. It’s best to define the concept, then reiterate your actual beliefs and how they differ from the bad argument they’re arguing against.

  1. Edward Damer writes in Attacking Faulty Reasoning, “It is not always possible to know whether an opponent has deliberately distorted your argument or has simply failed to understand or interpret it in the way that you intended. For this reason, it might be helpful to recapitulate the basic outline . . . or [ask] your opponent to summarize it for you.”

If this doesn’t work, you can continue to repeat your original point and make no attempt to defend the bad argument. Should your opponent prove unwilling to recognize their use of a bad argument (and you’re 100% certain that’s what they’re doing), it’s worth considering if there is any point in continuing the debate. The reality is that most of the debates we have are not rationally thought out; they’re emotionally driven. This is even more pertinent when we’re arguing with people we have a complex relationship with. Sometimes, it’s better to walk away.

Conclusion

The bad arguments discussed here are incredibly common logical fallacies in debates. We often use them without realizing it or experience them without recognizing it. But these types of debates are unproductive and unlikely to help anyone learn. If we want our arguments to create buy-in and not animosity, we need to avoid making bad ones.

The Difference Between Truth and Honesty: What Law School Teaches us About Insight, Logic, and Thinking

“We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.”
— Anaïs Nin

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Matthew Frederick‘s series of 101 things I learned in {Business School, Law School, Architecture School, Engineering School} attempts to distill the key learnings from these disciplines and offer them in a bite-sized package.

In 101 Things I Learned in Law School he teams up with California-based attorney Vibeke Norgaard Martin. Together they deliver a noteworthy book for the armchair lawyer in all of us. Despite the title, readers will find the selection of insights below connect to a lot of the ideas on this site.

Consider this bit on the difference between truth and honesty.

Lawyers must be honest, but they don’t have to be truthful. Honesty and truthfulness are not the same thing. Being honest means not telling lies. Being truthful means actively making known all the full truth of a matter. Lawyers must be honest, but they do not have to be truthful. A criminal defence lawyer, for example, in zealously defending a client, has no obligation to actively present the truth. Counsel may not deliberately mislead the court, but has no obligation to tell the defendant’s whole story.

Insight doesn’t arrive head on — echoing William Deresiewicz they write:

Be suspicious of the person who sizes up a new situation very quickly, claims understanding, and stakes out an ironclad position. Insight usually requires long periods of discussion, research, analysis, rationalization, and counter-argument, and it rarely arrives while attacking a matter directly or on a first pass. If one occasionally is able to quickly understand a complex matter, he or she is far more likely to misunderstand it.

Thinking means ragging at problems long enough to understand them — something less and less common in our fast-paced world. Most people won’t or can’t do the work to understand the problem. Our first thoughts are most often the thoughts of someone else and represent conventional wisdom.

Writing is thinking on the page.

A well-constructed argument rarely, if ever, resembles what one started with. Writing effectively isn’t recording the argument one wishes to make; it is a process of discovering what one’s argument needs to be. Through writing, thinking, researching, rewriting, rethinking, and rewriting again, an argument is discovered and clarified.

You don’t have to be right. You just have to be better than the alternative.

It is always possible to make at least some arguments for or against a legal position. An argument requires logic, but legal argument is not a purely logical form of argument that promises a universal, absolute conclusion. Rather, it is a practical form of argument that aims to establish one claim as more probable or reasonable than another.

Make a logical argument. There are two types of logic: deductive and inductive.

Deductive logic: usually works from broadly accepted truths toward demonstrating a truth in a specific situation, although more properly it is any argument in which the premises guarantee that their logical outcome is a truth.

Inductive logic: tends to work from specific examples of truth toward demonstration of a larger truth, but can be any argument whose conclusion, while not guaranteed, is a likely or higher probability outcome of the premises. Successful inductive reasoning requires a convincingly large sample size.

Large sample sizes are not only important in inductive reasoning but they also offer a guide for how to spend our time reading and learning. Peter Kaufman offers some insight on the three largest sample sizes.

Every statistician knows that a large, relevant sample size is their best friend. What are the three largest, most relevant sample sizes for identifying universal principles? Bucket number one is inorganic systems, which are 13.7 billion years in size. It’s all the laws of math and physics, the entire physical universe. Bucket number two is organic systems, 3.5 billion years of biology on Earth. And bucket number three is human history, you can pick your own number, I picked 20,000 years of recorded human behavior. Those are the three largest sample sizes we can access and the most relevant.

Arguments, however, are about more than rationality and sample sizes. We are human after all. Passion comes into play.

Rationality is cool; passion is warm. Rationality provides logical justification for a position, while passion provides a human connection to it. Both are needed to advance an argument; an abundance of one will not compensate for a dearth of the other. An argument may be extraordinarily rational, but its correctness alone is unlikely to compel others to care enough to right the wrongs behind. it. An extremely passionate argument may initially attract sympathy, but unmitigated displays of emotion at the expense of rationality will wear thin and eventually prompt others to tune out your message. Rationality makes an argument worthy. Passion makes it worthwhile.

Show me a company governed by rules and I will show you a dying company — the extent to which rules govern culture offers an indication of how fast. Despite our attempts to reduce everything to an efficient systems of rules there are always exceptions. The wise know the exceptions to the rules. One could argue that you don’t know the rule until you know its exceptions.

A presumption of all court testimony is that the opposing side may cross-examine its source. If a witness quotes someone who is not available for cross examination, the statement, if objected to by the opposing attorney,  might be ruled hearsay and be forbidden. The rule against hearsay testimony has about thirty exceptions. In order to get a statement made outside court into court when its originator is unavailable to testify, one has to determine how to fit it into at least one of the exceptions. In practice, the exceptions to the rule are the rule.

Echoing the Kantian Fairness Tendency, the integrity of a system is more important than the fairness in one case.

A trial’s search for truth is invariably imperfect because it cannot be conducted in a way that introduces unfairness into the legal system. If a piece of evidence was improperly acquired or mishandled by the prosecution, it may be excluded from trial even if it provides an incontrovertible link between the defendant and the crime, because evidence in future cases could be similarly abused. If this allows a guilty person to go free, it is not because the court is not interested in the truth of the case; it is because it accepts that the truth must take some small lumps in the short run so the court gets better at finding the truth in the long run.

101 Things I Learned in Law School goes on to discuss how to explain your argument, language, why an hour can have 116 minutes and more.

The Art of Winning An Argument

We spend a lot of our lives trying to convince or persuade others to our point of view. This is one of the reasons that Daniel Pink says that we’re all in sales:

Some of you, no doubt, are selling in the literal sense— convincing existing customers and fresh prospects to buy casualty insurance or consulting services or homemade pies at a farmers’ market. But all of you are likely spending more time than you realize selling in a broader sense—pitching colleagues, persuading funders, cajoling kids. Like it or not, we’re all in sales now.

Persuade or Convince?

But … how are we to change minds? What’s the best way to win an argument? Should we try to convince people, or should we try to persuade them?

In the difference between persuading and convincing, Seth Godin writes:

Marketers don’t convince. Engineers convince. Marketers persuade. Persuasion appeals to the emotions and to fear and to the imagination. Convincing requires a spreadsheet or some other rational device.

It’s much easier to persuade someone if they’re already convinced, if they already know the facts. But it’s impossible to change someone’s mind merely by convincing them of your point.

Sometimes people just disagree. And it’s here where we things start to get interesting.

“What a Man wishes, he will also believe”

— Demosthenes

At first, when people disagree with us we assume they are ignorant … that they lack information. So we try to convince them with information. If we show them that information and they still don’t change their mind, we just think they’re idiots.

In her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz explains:

… The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is that we just assume they are ignorant. You know, they don’t have access to the same information we do and when we generously share that information with them, they are going to see the light and come on over to our team.

When that doesn’t work. When it turns out those people have all the same information and they still don’t agree with us we move onto a second assumption. They’re idiots …

This approach of trying to convince people that we’re right and they’re wrong is flawed and rarely works. And it’s not because people are idiots, most of them are not.

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

In many cases, we are overconfident about what we think because we’re familiar with the material. We think we know more than we actually do because it’s available to us. In short, we convince ourselves that we understand how something works when we don’t.

In a study about a decade ago, Yale professors Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil asked students to explain how simple things work, like a flushing toilet, a sewing machine, piano keys, a zipper, and a cylinder lock. It turns out, we’re not nearly as smart as we think.

When knowledge is put to the test, our familiarity with things leads to an (unwarranted) overconfidence about how they work.

Discovering that we don’t know as much as we think isn’t as easy as it may seem. Testing our own knowledge sounds like a lot of work. And most of the time others won’t test it either, however, when they do our knowledge doesn’t often match our confidence. And this is the beginning of how we start to show others or even ourselves that our view of the world might need updating.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

— Richard Feynman

The Era of Fake Knowledge

It’s never been easier to fake what you know: to both yourself and to others.

It’s the conservation of energy. Why put in the effort to learn something if we can get by most of the time without learning it? Why read the entire document when you can just skim the executive summary and get away with it?

Our intellectual laziness, however, comes with a cost. The more we coast the harder it gets to discern the difference between what we think we know and what we actually know. We end up fooling ourselves.

(There are two quick ways you can test your own understanding of something. The first is called the Feynman Technique, and the second is by doing the work required to hold an opinion.)

How to Win an Argument

Recent research shows how the illusion of knowledge might help you convince people they are wrong.

When asked to give reasons for their view, people remain as confident of their positions as they were before giving reasons. This is how we often argue with others. A tennis match of reasons served out and returned from one side to the other. Only no one is listening to the other or even considering they might be wrong. The way to really change minds and soften stances is to ask people to explain why they held views.

(Interestingly this very similar to the technique used by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss to soften people’s stances. He simply asks them how am I supposed to do that?)

We often can’t explain why we think what we do. And when asked to explain it we realize that we’re not as knowledgeable as we thought. That’s when we revise our confidence level down and become more open to the views of others.

If you want to win an argument, simply ask the person trying to convince you of something to explain how it would work.

Odds are they have not done the work required to hold an opinion. If they can explain why they are correct and how things would work, you’ll learn something. If they can’t you’ll soften their views, perhaps nudging them ever so softly toward your views.

It is worth bearing in mind, however, that someone might do the same to you so make sure you can explain why you think what you do.