Article idea: Good argumentation

by Ezekiel 1 min read27th Nov 20117 comments


I'm newly subscribed but looking to contribute, and I was wondering if anyone would be interested in an article (or series thereof) teaching, in a formal and well-defined manner, how to argue. It would cover things like:

  • The general outline for a compelling argument;
  • How to systematically construct a sound deduction from premise to conclusion;
  • How to properly substantiate (that is, bring examples and illustrations for) a point;
  • How to notice an unsound argument;
  • How to define and point out the flaws once you do;
  • Et cetera.

There are two reasons why I think such an article might be helpful for this community: Firstly because having learned those skills you could apply them in the privacy of your own head, both to your own arguments and those of others, which in my experience gives a huge boost to critical thinking ability. Secondly because I think most of this community would like to actually make the world a saner place, and those skills are really handy when trying to explain to some intelligent-but-uninitiated schlub why a given silly belief or deduction is in fact silly, or conversely why any of the tools of rationality we use here are in fact rational. It's not magic, but it helps.

It might also improve the level of discourse on the site, of course, but frankly the level of actual argument here is really high in comparison to that of most real-world forums (let alone most Internet forums), and I'd guess with about .75 certainty that nothing I could teach would make it noticeably "better" (a higher growth rate for the function describing the probability of reaching truth as dependent on resources spent arguing). But at the moment I'm inclined to attribute that to the kind of people doing the arguing, rather than the training they have.

And yes, I've noticed articles here that touch on the subject, like Yudkowsky's on inferential distances or language, but I haven't seen anyone having the hubris to try and cover the entire subject in broad strokes. Hubris is a personal speciality of mine.

If this would be helpful, and particularly if there's anything you feel should fall under this heading that I missed in the above list, please say so. If you don't think such an article would be helpful, also please say so. Two reasons I've considered for why that might be the case:

  • It's irrelevant - most LWers know it already, or it wouldn't actually improve their critical thinking and they're not interested in playing the missionary;
  • It would do more harm than good, in much the same way as knowing about biases can. This is an especially large risk since what I'm teaching would come from my years as a tournament debater, a game which while great fun spits in the face of the very concept of truth. I'm mostly relying on the objectivity and lightness I've witnessed here to mitigate that risk, but if I'm wrong by all means point it out.

PS: No, of course it's not a good idea to finish an argument with reasons that it's likely to be wrong! Who told you to do that?