The Power to Demolish Bad Arguments

by Liron9 min read2nd Sep 201953 comments


PoliticsEconomicsConversation (topic)Disagreement

This is Part I of the Specificity Sequence

Specificity turns any argument into a game of 3D Chess. Just when it seems like your argument is a clash of two ground armies, you can use your specificity powers to take off and fly all over the conceptual landscape. Fly, I say!

"Uber exploits its drivers!"

Want to see what a 3D Chess argument looks like? Behold the conversation I had the other day with my friend “Steve”:

Steve: Uber exploits its drivers by paying them too little!

Steve’s statement was a generic one, lacking specific detail. So I shot back with my own generic counterpoint:

Liron: No, job creation is a force for good at any wage. Uber creates increased demand for labor, which drives wages up in the economy as a whole.

You can see I was showing off my mastery of basic economics. This seemed like a good move to me at the time, but I should have prioritized which of my skills to bust out. The skill of specificity is so badass that it even takes precedence over the mighty Econ 101.

When I used my Econ 101 rook to attack Steve’s defenses and put his king in check, I was merely playing 2D chess. The 3D chess move would have been to dial up the specificity.

What happens if I ask Steve to zoom into the substance of his claim? Then the conversation goes like this:

Steve: Uber exploits its drivers by paying them too little!
Liron: What do you mean by “exploits its drivers”?
Steve: Come on, you know what “exploit” means… says it means “to use selfishly for one’s own ends”
Liron: You’re saying you have a beef with any company that acts “selfish”? Doesn’t every company under capitalism aim to maximize returns for its shareholders?
Steve: Capitalism can be good sometimes, but Uber has gone beyond the pale with their exploitation of workers. They’re basically ruining capitalism.

Nooooo, this is not the enlightening conversation we were hoping for. You can sense that I haven’t made much progress “pinning him down”.

But don’t worry… that wasn’t my real demonstration of 3D Chess. Psyche!

In the above conversation, I didn’t employ my specificity powers, I just showcased another failure mode. Can you figure out where I went wrong?

It was a mistake for me to ask Steve for a mere definition of the term “exploit”. I should have asked for a specific example of what he imagines “exploit” to mean. How specifically does Uber exploit its drivers?

Instead, I accepted his non-specific reply — that “exploit” means “to use selfishly” — and I tried to counterargue by tossing the big abstract concept of “capitalism” into the discussion. From Steve’s perspective, “capitalism” is yet one more generic word for him to build his generic responses out of, together with “exploitation” and “selfishness”. He loves flinging concept-words around; it makes him feel like he’s having a lively intellectual back & forth.

Steve’s mind doesn’t actually contain a structured understanding of the subject he’s making a claim about; it contains a ball pit of loosely-associated concepts. He holds up his end of the conversation by snatching a nearby ball and flinging it. And what have I done by mentioning “capitalism”? I’ve gone and tossed in another ball.

I hate to admit it, but Steve’s approach in the above dialogue works for him. By sloshing around his mental ball pit and flinging smart-sounding assertions about “capitalism” and “exploitation”, he just might win over a neutral audience of our peers. What a nightmare for us.

Is there a way to reach in and pull him out of this pit? Yes, by activating our specificity powers! Here’s how it’s done:

Steve: Uber exploits its drivers by paying them too little!
Liron: Can you help me paint a specific mental picture of a driver being exploited by Uber?
Steve: Ok… A single dad whose kid gets sick. He works for Uber and he doesn’t even get health insurance, and he’s maxed out all his credit cards to pay for doctor’s visits. The next time his car breaks down, he won’t even be able to fix it. Meanwhile, Uber skims 25% of every dollar so he barely makes minimum wage. You should try living on minimum wage so you can see how hard it is!
Liron: You’re saying Uber should be blamed for this person’s unpleasant life circumstances, right?
Steve: Yes, because they have millions of drivers under these kinds of circumstances, and meanwhile they IPO for $80B.

He doesn’t realize it yet, but by making him flesh out a specific example of his claim, I’ve now pulled him out of his ball pit of loosely-associated concepts. This isn’t your average 2D argument anymore. We’re now flying like Superman.

Liron: Ok, sticking with this one specific person’s hypothetical story — what would they be doing if Uber didn’t exist?
Steve: Getting a different job
Liron: Ok, what specific job?
Steve: I don’t know, depends what their skills are
Liron: This is your specific story Steve, you get to pick any specific plausible details you want in order to support any point you want!

I have to stop and point out how crazy this is.

You’d think the way smart people argue is by supporting their claims with evidence, right? But here I’m giving Steve a handicap where he gets to make up fake evidence (telling me any hypothetical specific story) just to establish that his argument is coherent by checking whether empirical support for it ever could meaningfully exist. This is a preschool-level standard that your average arguer can’t pass.

Let’s see how he might reply:

Steve: I guess he could instead be a cashier at McDonald’s. Because then he’d be a W2 employee and get medical insurance.
Liron: In a world where Uber exists, couldn’t this specific guy still go get a job as a cashier at McDonald’s? Plus, wouldn’t he have less competition for that cashier job because some of the other would-be applicants got recruited to be Uber drivers instead? Can we conclude that the specific person who you chose to illustrate your point is actually being *helped* by the existence of Uber?
Steve: No because he’s an Uber driver, not a McDonald’s cashier
Liron: So doesn’t that mean Uber offered him a better deal than McDonald’s, thereby improving his life?
Steve: No, they just tricked him into thinking that it’s a better deal, but it’s actually a worse deal for him.
Liron: So like, McDonald’s offered him $13/hr plus benefits, while Uber gave him an estimate of making $20/hr but it actually works out to $14/hr once you factor in all his costs like gas and depreciation, but Uber gave him no benefits, so his overall compensation value is less than making $13/hr plus benefits at McDonald’s?
Steve: Um, ya, something like that.
Liron: So if Uber did a better job of educating drivers about how much their compensation plan is really worth, would you stop saying that Uber is “exploiting its drivers by paying them too little”?
Steve: No, because Uber preys on drivers who need quick access to cash, and they also intend to automate away the drivers’ jobs as soon as they can.
Liron: It looks like you’re now making new claims that weren’t represented in the specific story you chose, right?
Steve: Yes, but I can tell other stories
Liron: But for the specific story you chose to tell that was supposed to best illustrate your claim, the “exploitation” you’re referring to only “robbed” the driver of the value of a McDonald’s cashier’s health insurance plan, which might be like a $1/hr loss? And his work schedule is so much more flexible as an Uber driver… couldn’t that easily be worth $1/hr to him, so that he wasn’t “tricked” into joining Uber but rather made a decision in rational self-interest?
Steve: Yeah maybe, but anyway that’s just one story.
Liron: No worries, we can start over and talk about a specific story that you think would illustrate your main claim. I’m listening…
Steve thinks for a little while...
Steve: I don't know all the exploitative shit Uber does ok? I just think Uber is a greedy company.

In complex topics such as politics and economics, most people who think they’re making an “argument” are merely making an incoherent statement. They’re confused about their own claim.

Before you think about winning the argument, just start by drilling down into whether their point is coherent. You’ll then find that you’re often done arguing before you even really start.

In the above conversation, I hadn’t gotten to a point where I was trying to refute Steve’s argument, I was just trying to get specific clarity on what Steve’s argument is.

As I tried to nail down his point, his point simply collapsed down to nothing. He didn’t have a single specific example of what specific world-state could possibly be a referent of the statement “Uber exploits its drivers”.

Zooming Into the Claim

Imagine Steve shows you this map and says, “Oregon’s coastline is too straight. I wish all coastlines were less straight so that they could all have a bay!”

Resist the temptation to argue back, “You’re wrong, bays are stupid!” Hopefully, you’ve built up the habit of nailing down a claim’s specific meaning before trying to argue against it.

Steve is making a claim about “Oregon’s coastline”, which is a pretty abstract concept. In order to unpack the claim’s specific meaning, we have to zoom into the concept of a “coastline” and see it in more detail as this specific configuration of land and water:

From this perspective, a good first reply would be, “Well, Steve, what about Coos Bay over here? Are you happy with Oregon’s coastline as long as Coos Bay is part of it, or do you still think it’s too straight even though it has this bay?”

Notice that we can’t predict how Steve will answer our specific clarifying question. So we never knew what Steve’s words meant in the first place, did we? Now you can see why it wasn’t yet productive for us to start arguing against him.

When you hear a claim that sounds meaningful, but isn’t 100% concrete and specific, the first thing you want to do is zoom into its specifics. In many cases, you’ll then find yourself disambiguating between multiple valid specific interpretations, like for Steve’s claim that “Oregon’s coastline is too straight”.

In other cases, you’ll discover that there was no specific meaning in the mind of the speaker, like in the case of Steve’s claim that “Uber exploits its drivers by paying them too little” — a staggering thing to discover.

TFW a statement unexpectedly turns out to have no specific meaning

“Startups should have more impact!”

Activating our specificity powers let us demolish Steve’s claim that “Uber exploits its drivers” by showing that Steve had no specific meaning in mind for it. But Steve is just your average college-educated guy. Let’s kick it up a notch.

Consider this excerpt from a recent series of tweets by Michael Seibel, CEO of the Y Combinator startup accelerator program:

Successful tech founders would have far better lives and legacies if they competed for happiness and impact instead of wealth and users/revenue.
We need to change [the] model from build a big company, get rich, and then starting a foundation...
To build a big company, get rich, and use the company's reach and power to make the world a better place.

When I first read these tweets, my impression was that Michael was providing useful suggestions that any founder could act on to make their startup more of a force for good. But then I activated my specificity powers…

Before elaborating on what I think is the failure of specificity on Michael’s part, I want to say that I really appreciate Michael and Y Combinator engaging with this topic in the first place. It would be easy for them to keep their head down and stick to their original wheelhouse of funding successful startups and making huge financial returns, but instead, YC repeatedly pushes the envelope into new areas such as founding OpenAI and creating their Request for Carbon Removal Technologies. The Y Combinator community is an amazing group of smart and morally good people, and I’m proud to call myself a YC founder (my company Relationship Hero was in the YC Summer 2017 batch). Michael’s heart is in the right place to suggest that startup founders may have certain underused mechanisms by which to make the world a better place.

That said… is there any coherent takeaway from this series of tweets, or not?

The key phrases seem to be that startup founders should “compete for happiness and impact” and “use the company’s reach and power to make the world a better place”.

It sounds meaningful, doesn’t it? But notice that it’s generically-worded and lacks any specific examples. This is a red flag.

Remember when you first heard Steve’s claim that “Uber exploits its drivers by paying them too little”? At first, it sounded like a meaningful claim. But as we tried to nail down what it meant, it collapsed into nothing. Will the same thing happen here?

Specificity powers, activate! Form of: Tweet reply

What's a specific example, real or hypothetical, of a $1B+ founder trading off less revenue for more impact?
Cuz at the $1B+ level, competing for impact may look indistinguishable from competing for revenue.
E.g. Elon Musk companies have huge impact and huge valuations.

Let’s consider a specific example of a startup founder who is highly successful: Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, currently valued at $33B. The company’s mission statement is proudly displayed at the top of their about page:

SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

What I love about SpaceX is that everything they do follows from Elon Musk’s original goal of making human life multiplanetary. Check out this incredible post by Tim Urban to understand Elon’s plan in detail. Elon’s 20-year playbook is breathtaking:

  1. Identify a major problem in the world
    A single catastrophic event on Earth can permanently wipe out the human species
  2. Propose a method of fixing it
    Colonize other planets, starting with Mars
  3. Design a self-sustaining company or organization to get it done
    Invent reusable rockets to drop the price per launch, then dominate the $27B/yr market for space launches

I would enthusiastically advise any founder to follow Elon’s playbook, as long as they have the stomach to commit to it for 20+ years.

So how does this relate to Michael’s tweets? I believe my advice to “follow Elon’s playbook” constitutes a specific example of Michael’s suggestion to “use the company’s reach and power to make the world a better place”.

But here’s the thing: Elon’s playbook is something you have to do before you found the company. First you have to identify a major problem in the world, then you come up with a plan to start a certain type of company. How do you apply Michael’s advice once you’ve already got a company?

To see what I mean, let’s pick another specific example of a successful founder: Drew Houston and Dropbox ($11B market cap). We know that Michael wants Drew to “compete for happiness and impact” and to “use the company’s reach and power to make the world a better place”. But what does that mean here? What specific advice would Michael have for Drew?

Let’s brainstorm some possible ideas for specific actions that Michael might want Drew to take:

  • Change Dropbox’s mission to something that has more impact on happiness
  • Donate 10% of Dropbox’s profits to efforts to reduce world hunger
  • Give all Dropbox employees two months of paid vacation each year

I know, these are just stabs in the dark, because we need to talk about specifics somehow. Did Michael really mean any of these? The ones about charity and employee benefits seem too obvious. Let’s explore the possibility that Michael might be recommending that Dropbox change its mission.

Here’s Dropbox’s current mission from their about page:

We’re here to unleash the world’s creative energy by designing a more enlightened way of working.

Seems like a nice mission that helps the world, right? I use Dropbox myself and can confirm that the product makes my life a little better. So would Michael say that Dropbox is an example of “competing for happiness and impact”?

If so, then it would have been really helpful if Michael had written in one of his tweets, “I mean like how Dropbox is unleashing the world’s creative energy”. Mentioning Dropbox, or any other specific example, would have really clarified what Michael is talking about.

And if Dropbox’s current mission isn’t what Michael is calling for, then how would Dropbox need to change it in order to better “compete for happiness and impact”? For instance, would it help if they tack on “and we guarantee that anyone can have access to cloud storage regardless of their ability to pay for it”, or not?

Notice how this parallels my conversation with Steve about Uber. We begin with what sounds like a meaningful exhortation: Companies should compete for happiness and impact instead of wealth and users/revenue! Uber shouldn’t exploit its drivers! But when we reach for specifics, we suddenly find ourselves grasping at straws. I showed three specific guesses of what Michael’s advice could mean for Drew, but we have no idea what it does mean, if anything.

Imagine that Dara Kosrowshahi, CEO of Uber, wanted to take Steve’s advice about how not to exploit drivers. He’d be in the same situation as Drew from Dropbox: confused about the specifics of what his company was supposedly doing wrong, to begin with.

Once you’ve mastered the power of specificity, you’ll see this kind of thing everywhere: a statement that at first sounds full of substance, but then turns out to actually be empty. And the clearest warning sign is the absence of specific examples.

Next post: How Specificity Works