Better Disagreement

by lukeprog3 min read24th Oct 201184 comments

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SteelmanningDisagreement
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Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.

- Gandhi

 

Now that most communication is remote rather than face-to-face, people are comfortable disagreeing more often. How, then, can we disagree well? If the goal is intellectual progress, those who disagree should aim not for name-calling but for honest counterargument.

To be more specific, we might use a disagreement hierarchy. Below is the hierarchy proposed by Paul Graham (with DH7 added by Black Belt Bayesian).1

 

DH0: Name-Calling. The lowest form of disagreement, this ranges from "u r fag!!!" to "He’s just a troll" to "The author is a self-important dilettante."

DH1: Ad Hominem. An ad hominem ('against the man') argument won’t refute the original claim, but it might at least be relevant. If a senator says we should raise the salary of senators, you might reply: "Of course he’d say that; he’s a senator." That might be relevant, but it doesn’t refute the original claim: "If there’s something wrong with the senator’s argument, you should say what it is; and if there isn’t, what difference does it make that he’s a senator?"

DH2: Responding to Tone. At this level we actually respond to the writing rather than the writer, but we're responding to tone rather than substance. For example: "It’s terrible how flippantly the author dimisses theology."

DH3: Contradiction. Graham writes: "In this stage we finally get responses to what was said, rather than how or by whom. The lowest form of response to an argument is simply to state the opposing case, with little or no supporting evidence." For example: "It’s terrible how flippantly the author dismisses theology. Theology is a legitimate inquiry into truth."

DH4: Counterargument. Finally, a form of disagreement that might persuade! Counterargument is "contradiction plus reasoning and/or evidence." Still, counterargument is often directed at a minor point, or turns out to be an example of two people talking past each other, as in the parable about a tree falling in the forest.

DH5: Refutation. In refutation, you quote (or paraphrase) a precise claim or argument by the author and explain why the claim is false, or why the argument doesn’t work. With refutation, you're sure to engage exactly what the author said, and offer a direct counterargument with evidence and reason.

DH6: Refuting the Central Point. Graham writes: "The force of a refutation depends on what you refute. The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone’s central point." A refutation of the central point may look like this: "The author’s central point appears to be X. For example, he writes 'blah blah blah.' He also writes 'blah blah.' But this is wrong, because (1) argument one, (2) argument two, and (3) argument three."

DH7: Improve the Argument, then Refute Its Central Point. Black Belt Bayesian writes: "If you’re interested in being on the right side of disputes, you will refute your opponents' arguments. But if you're interested in producing truth, you will fix your opponents' arguments for them. To win, you must fight not only the creature you encounter; you [also] must fight the most horrible thing that can be constructed from its corpse."2 Also see: The Least Convenient Possible World.

 

Having names for biases and fallacies can help us notice and correct them, and having labels for different kinds of disagreement can help us zoom in on the parts of a disagreement that matter.

Let me illustrate by labeling excerpts from Alvin Plantinga's critical review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion.

DH1, Ad Hominem:

Dawkins is not a philosopher... [and] you might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores...

DH2, Responding to Tone:

[In this book] the proportion of insult, ridicule, mockery, spleen, and vitriol is astounding. (Could it be that his mother, while carrying him, was frightened by an Anglican clergyman on the rampage?) If Dawkins ever gets tired of his day job, a promising future awaits him as a writer of political attack ads.

DH4, Counterargument:

What is Dawkins' reply [to the fine-tuning argument]? He appeals to 'the anthropic principle,' the thought that... "we could only be discussing the question in the kind of universe that was capable of producing us." ...But how does that so much as begin to explain why [our universe] is fine-tuned? One can't explain this by pointing out that we are indeed here — anymore than I can 'explain' the fact that God decided to create me (instead of passing me over in favor of someone else) by pointing out that if God had not thus decided, I wouldn't be here to raise that question.

DH6, Refuting the Central Point:

Chapter 3, 'Why There Almost Certainly is No God,' is the heart of the book... [Dawkins says] the existence of God is monumentally improbable... So why does he think theism is enormously improbable? The answer: if there were such a person as God, he would have to be enormously complex, and the more complex something is, the less probable it is: "However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable..."

...What can be said for this argument? Not much. First, is God complex? According to much classical theology... God is simple, and simple in a very strong sense... More remarkable, perhaps, is that according to Dawkins' own definition of complexity, God is not complex. According to [Dawkins] something is complex if it has parts that are "arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone." But of course God is a spirit, not a material object at all, and hence has no parts. Therefore, given the definition of complexity Dawkins himself proposes, God is not complex.3

 

Of course, even a DH6 or DH7 disagreement can still be wrong. But at the very least, these labels can help us highlight the parts of a disagreement that matter for getting at the truth.

Also see: Causes of Disagreements.

 

 

 

__________________

1 This article is an update to my earlier post on CSA.

2 Sometimes the term "steel man" is used to refer to a position's or argument's improved form. A straw man is a misrepresentation of someone's position or argument that is easy to defeat: a "steel man" is an improvement of someone's position or argument that is harder to defeat than their originally stated position or argument.

3 For an example of DH7 in action, see Wielenberg (2009). Wielenberg, an atheist, tries to fix the deficiencies of Dawkins' central argument for atheism, and then shows that even this improved argument does not succeed.

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DH7 should be kept internal, at least at first. Being misinterpreted as trying to construct a straw man when you've been trying to do the opposite can derail a conversation. To actually believe that you've made a steel man, not a straw man, the person you're arguing with would have to admit that you've created a stronger argument for their own position than they could.

It's probably best to practice up to DH7 internally, and only up to DH6 vocally.

If we imagine arguments as soldiers, as they tend to be, the problem becomes even clearer:

(A and B are about to fight.)

A. Ah! My worthy opponent! I shall send my greatest soldier to crush you... GOLIATH! ATTACK!

B. His sword's a little wimpy. Let me give him a bazooka.

If I were A, I wouldn't trust that bazooka on B's word alone, I'd be annoyed at the slight against my blacksmiths, and, even if it turned out to be a totally legitimate bazooka, I would, at the very least, consider B a tactless grandstander.

(Though if the bazooka did work, I'd use it, obviously. I just wouldn't like using it.)

You can be gentle about DH7 by attributing the improved argument to someone with high status. This is my typical strategy and seems to work well. It's a double whammy because you're implicitly associating them with someone of high status e.g. "it's funny you say that, it's very similar to an argument by ". I'm NOT saying that you actually have to know a bunch of famous arguments offhand, the better argument can be attributed fallaciously to anyone who has spoken on a topic and can have little to do with the person's original argument. Few notice and you have the out of being mistaken even if they do.

That is a fascinating border case between Dark Arts and rational discussion.

The way this is done in (good) academic philosophy is "6 then 7". First you show that their central point fails for reason x. Then you suggest how their position can be improved upon then you refute the new position.

DH7 does happen between mathematicians now and then. Person A has an idea of a proof for X. Person B could show a problem with Person A's proof (DH6) or an unrelated disproof of X (DH4? DH6?), but the best response is to show A a disproof of X that makes it clear why A's strategy is futile.

This is often done well enough that it doesn't even hurt feelings. But math is kind of a special case.

7Will_Sawin9yIn particular, in math it is clear which arguments are more dubious. DH4 arguments are often perfectly acceptable, as a simple and clear counterexample refutes a complicated argument that could easily have a subtle flaw. The ability to make simple, irrefutable arguments is tremendously beneficial to sane arguing, for instance because it enables you to use the The Emperor Has No Clothes defense and avoid studying the details of your opponent's argument.
3GilPanama9yIn this case, I'd even drop my initial thoughts about rudeness. If you can prove that somebody's gone down mathematical blind alley, it's downright polite to do so, since there's no ambiguity about the relevance of the steel man here.
5fiddlemath9yI'm pretty sure it depends on who you're arguing with. If either of you is trying to /win/, rather than /find the truth/, then DH7 is tough to do. But if you and your interlocutor both care more about being correct than sounding correct, and you both respect each other, then you can and should attempt DH7 aloud.
5GilPanama9yI can respect the person I'm arguing with, and consider them to be truth-searching, and still not want to antagonize the part of their hardware that likes winning. I also dislike having my primate hardware antagonized unnecessarily; I tolerate it for the sake of truth-seeking, but it's not fun. I see two likely cases here: A) I come up with a tougher version of their argument in my head, in order to be as careful as possible, but I still have a good way to refute it. This is DH7. In this case, announcing the tougher version doesn't get us any closer to the truth. A dead steel man is as dead as a dead straw man. I might as well refute what was actually said, rather than risk being unnecessarily smug. B) I come up with a tougher version of their argument in my head, and I can't actually defeat the tougher version. In this case, I definitely ought to announce this problem. But this is not DH7 as posted. This is my actual purpose in making a steel man - the possibility that the steel man may actually force me to change my mind. I'm not trying to argue with my opponent on a higher level when I do this, I'm trying to argue myself out of being cognitively lazy. A good rule of thumb: DH7 should be really really REALLY hard to do well if you're arguing with reasonably smart people who have thought carefully about their positions. In fact, it is so hard that anybody who could do it consistently would never need other people to argue with. EDIT: In the interests of dealing with the worst possible construct, I should add: A) In the case where openly announcing DH7-level arguments lets both parties see that they've misinterpreted each other, going to DH7 is a net win. B) An expert DH7-level arguer may still need other people to argue with if they have been exposed to very different sets of evidence. But generally speaking, the cognitive effort needed to communicate a steel-man version of someone else's position is better spent on expressing one's own evidence.
5gjm9yIf you come up with a better version of the other person's argument but keep it to yourself and only refute the original version, then later on they may think "Now, in all honesty Gil was right about X ... but no, wait a moment, that's just because I didn't get it quite right. If I'd said X' instead then his argument wouldn't have worked." and stick with their position rather than changing it. I doubt that this outweighs the effect of antagonizing them at the time by saying "You should have said X', and I'm now going to refute that" in most cases, though.
1GilPanama9yIdeally, a reasonable counterargument that applies to the strong form will also apply to the weak form without significant editing. If the person one was arguing with would have been receptive to DH7 in the first place, that alone should stop them from making the strong form argument - the countering evidence has already been provided. Where this fails... well, I said "at first" in my thread-starter for a reason.
2Will_Sawin9ySome DH7, or at least DH7-like thinking, can be relatively easy. For instance, there will often be gaps in someone's argument that they do not consider significant, or a general case they hadn't bothered to think of. You can't make it perfect, but you can patch it up a bit.
0GilPanama9yPoint taken - in some cases, the significance of the gaps is more evident to the outside view.
2HughRistik9yThis. DH7 is of limited use in an adversarial debate, unless your opponent is open-minded. It could convince fence-sitters, but only if they are open-minded. The problem with DH7 is that it's too easy for your opponent to accuse you of a straw man. Even if that's not true, they may be able to delude some of the audience. Analogies are another debate tactic in this category: they are only useful towards listeners with an open-mind, otherwise, they make you open to attack be the other person rejecting your analogy. A great time to use DH7 or analogies is against the argument of someone who isn't present to convince a third-party. Since your opponent isn't there, they can't reject your attempts at charity or analogies as straw men, and you can use those tools to convince your audience that you are correct, and you've given those arguments the best consideration you can. Of course, if you're going to do this, try to make sure you are right, because if you are wrong (e.g. you misunderstood what your original opponent was saying), then they won't be around to clarify. EDIT: Actually, there is a way to do DH7 with your original interlocutor. You have to lead them to admitting that the steel version actually follows from their argument, and then you knock it down. E.g. you start by "are you suggesting Y?" which you think follows from their original position, X. This can make you look like you are genuinely working to understand them (which, of course, you are). Then when they take the bait, you knock it down, and they can't complain. And you can't be too confrontational or accusatory, because that will tip them off that you are going to knock Y down. If they catch a hint of that, then they will never admit that Y follows from their original position X.
1dlthomas9yYou need to be sure that your rebuttal applies both to the argument they have presented and to the steel man argument you have constructed (which you can spell out or not, depending on context), and ideally to any men of straw or steel others are likely to construct for themselves on hearing your opponent's argument.
0thomblake9yI think it bears repeating that this matters if you're trying to win an adversarial debate, but not so much if you're trying to learn the truth of the matter.
2TheOtherDave9yDepends on how it's done, IME. I often find that "Hm. So you're saying XYZ? That doesn't really work, because of ABC. But now that I think about it, X'Y'Z' would be consistent with what you're claiming, and not have that problem. Even there, though, A'B'C' suggests it's false." can work all right, although I'm often tempted to add "But of course by this point I've wandered off into a corner and started arguing with myself, which seems antisocial."
3GilPanama9yI think that in some contexts, like arguing over mathematical proofs (as orthonormal noted), spending a little time arguing with yourself to bring out X'Y'Z' is polite and a sign of good faith. In other cases, I'd rather just trot out A'B'C' early on, as long as it doesn't require too much effort, and deal with both arguments at once without ever explicitly raising X'Y'Z'.
0MarkusRamikin9yThe danger you point out is real, but an unqualified dictum such as "DH7 should be kept internal, at least at first" is very specific advice that IMO is going too far. A great deal depends on the quality of the sub-argument to do with strengthening the opponent's position, and the opponent's (and/or audience's, if any) receptiveness to that. You seem to be saying we should always have low confidence in both, while I'd say it depends. Maybe let's not. Applying DH7 already assumes we're interested in truth, not just in winning a debate.
4GilPanama9yI don't ALWAYS have low confidence in the other arguer's ability to tolerate a steel man version of their own argument. I do have low confidence in the ability of most people, especially me, to decide what constitutes a non-gratuitous steel man. I have an unfortunate, but understandable, bias in favor of my own creations, and I suspect that this bias is widely shared.

If the goal is intellectual progress, those who disagree should aim not for name-calling but for honest counterargument.

and

DH7: Improve the Argument, then Refute Its Central Point...if you're interested in producing truth, you will fix your opponents' arguments for them. To win, you must fight not only the creature you encounter; you [also] must fight the most horrible thing that can be constructed from its corpse."

I would add that the goal of intellectual progress sometimes extends beyond you-the-rationalist, to the (potentially less than rational) person you're arguing with. The goal is not just to "produce" the truth, or to recognize the truth with your own two eyes. The goal is to both locate the truth and convince the other person that it is in fact the truth.

Often, I find myself in the following scenario: Someone says, "X and Y, therefore Z!" And off the bat, I have a good idea of what they're thinking and where the logic goes bad. But in point of fact, they are being loose with semantics, and there exist definitions of X and Y consistent with their original (loose) statements which would imply Z. I could ask them clarifying questions and ... (read more)

0a_gramsci9yI find this is the most constructive way to resolve a debate between two people (see: http://lesswrong.com/lw/881/the_pleasures_of_rationality/ [http://lesswrong.com/lw/881/the_pleasures_of_rationality/]) But in long-running debates, or ones with heated debaters, this is much harder. Firstly, because many debates are long running precisely because this strategy cannot be applied to the,. The issue with heated debaters is that this requires an open mindset of looking for truth versus looking to prove yourself right, which I find lacking in many debates.

There's a valuable difference between two different kinds of counterarguments (that I encountered in Drescher's Good and Real, but I presume it's widely known):

To correct someone, it is not sufficient to offer an argument for the opposite conclusion. At that point you merely have an apparent paradox - two arguments for opposite conclusions. You must also point out where in their argument they went wrong.

If everyone followed this policy, it could break certain circular or repetitious disputes which are trapped in a cycle of: A offers argument for X, B offers argument for not-X, A repeats their argument more clearly or more loudly, B repeats their argument in turn, and so on.

5Will_Sawin9yDoing this is often surprisingly difficult. There's something about analytical frameworks, where to me, A feels like a flaw in the argument to B, whereas to you, B feels like a flaw in the argument to A. I think one reason for this is that decisions are made in terms of cost-benefit analysis, which tends to make that distinction fuzzier.
4lessdazed9yMaybe they didn't go wrong, and there is no paradox, and it is a matter of relative values as to which is more important. In which case screaming makes a lot of sense as a strategy.
7GilPanama9yIn that case, we can replace "point out where in their argument they went wrong" with "point out where our underlying value judgments seem to diverge." If they then try to argue that your values are wrong and theirs are right, either you have to move the discussion up a meta-level or, yes, screaming.

Interesting hierarchy, but it lacks one important point which is often fundamental in some debates, like the theism/atheism one, or even many political one : the difference between "belief" and "belief in belief". For many theists nowadays, the core of their belief in God is not really due to deep reasons that God has to exist - they believe that Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark and most of the Bible are philosophical tales, not that they really happened, they believe in evolution, when they are sick they go see a doctor, not to Lourdes... but they still believe in God, because if they feel that if they don't, life has no meaning, ethics will crumble, and the horror of death will become unbearable without the hope of afterlife.

When someone is thinking like that, no DH5, DH6 or DH7 level disagreeing on the existence of God will do much. But building a line of retreat could. While under your hierarchy, attacking those belief in belief, building a line of retreat, would be only a DH1, while it can (in some cases, obviously not in all of them) be the most efficient way to disagree : point to the core reason behind a disagreement.

8Louie9yIt's much the same concept, but I will point out that I prefer to build people new temples [http://www.spencergreenberg.com/2011/09/your-beliefs-as-a-temple/] instead of helping them construct lines of retreat.
[-][anonymous]9y 10

Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress. - Gandhi

Source? I can't find any that look reliable.

I like this post, even though it doesn't add much to Paul Graham's original essay. I mean, I wouldn't have seen this content if it were not posted on Less Wrong.

For all of my life until this year, I've been confounded by DH2 arguments against myself. Why are my opponents ignoring what I say because I said it angrily, or sadly, or confrontationally, or in passing, or whatever? Well, I don't like when people do that, but it doesn't change the fact that people do it, so I've started to adopt a more pleasant, acceptable tone.

I still don't like it. I don't like... (read more)

Why are my opponents ignoring what I say because I said it angrily, or sadly, or confrontationally, or in passing, or whatever?

The way you say something may signal that you are trying to diminish their status. If you say it with a sufficiently negative tone, it may even be taken as a signal (a generally reliable signal) that you care more about diminishing their status than about having a truth-seeking discussion.

In other words, what wedrifid said, but less simply and more explicitly.

-1wedrifid9yExactly!

I like this post, even though it doesn't add much to Paul Graham's original essay.

I debated whether to bother writing it, but in the end I felt it was worth it to:

  • Compress the content explaining each level of heirarchy
  • Include DH7, which was at the time only available on Internet Archive
  • Give concrete examples from actual articles
7Vladimir_Nesov9yOn LW, this idea is well-known as The Least Convenient Possible World [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2k/the_least_convenient_possible_world/].
0lukeprog9yAdded, thanks.

Sometimes, talking about tone is merely a poor rebuttal — a DH2 argument. Sometimes, it's a request for a more pleasant conversation: it's simply unpleasant to have a casual chat with someone who comes across as contemptuous, hopeless, or bigoted. Tone does exist, after all, and it is possible to be an unpleasant, hostile conversationalist; so sometimes when people talk about tone, they really mean it.

(For instance, it is insufferable to have a conversation about (say) race and IQ with someone who keeps using racial slurs in the conversation; or about the relative importance of different academic disciplines with someone who keeps referring to engineering students as "pencil-necked dorks" or liberal-arts students as "poem-fag hipsters". Obviously, their choice of tone does not prove anything about their actual arguments; but it does come across as hostile and unpleasant. People having a casual conversation cannot be expected to put up with arbitrarily high levels of unpleasantness.)

The tone argument becomes seriously toxic, though, when what the tone-arguer means by it is: your argument is wrong; therefore, gathering and presenting evidence for it, and making yo... (read more)

3wedrifid9yBecause for most practical purposes how you say it is the important part.
1Grognor9yIt upsets me that people are replying to this comment as though it were a problem I still have.
2thomblake9yProbably because of: It sounds like you haven't really gotten over the issue.
0thomblake9yTo put it another way: You are upset that they are misinterpreting what you say because of your tone. Instead, you could recognize that you are speaking their language incorrectly. That tone seems important to other speakers of the language and not to you is not a problem with their understanding of the language.

I really like this article a lot, and want to adopt these terms into more general usage. An important step to accomplishing this is to stop referring to the items by number, and use their gloss descriptions. "False positive" is a lot easier to remember than "type I error" (or is it type II....)

The first few levels of the hierarchy, DH0, DH1, DH2, DH3, are not useless, if you're concerned with getting to the truth efficiently. Pointing out that the author has no credentials in the area they are speaking in would allow people to limit their attention to credentialed speakers (due to bounded rationality). The senator example is similar - if you can't listen to everything and have to prune someone, choosing to forgo listening to obviously biased speakers might be a reasonable choice.

DH2 and DH3 are sometimes valuable as well, because we can do some ... (read more)

Good post.

I wonder if it'd be out of place for us on LW to start explicitely noticing these argument levels in disputes here. Though it'd probably be a better norm to use this positively (point out "good DH7 argument there") rather than negatively, which... come to think of it, would just be something of a DH2 argument in itself, harmful ammo for the sophisticated arguer.

Do I understand right, that the difference between DH4 and 5 is that DH4 doesn't directly engage the previous person's argument? And if only DH6 is "refuting the central po... (read more)

Ad hominem attacks do constitute some Bayesian evidence. However, human beings tend to dramatically and unconsciously overweight them (because our powers of reasoning are optimized for navigating social battles rather than seeking abstract truths), so the proper rationalist norm among humans should be to eschew them.

2thomblake9yIndeed; this can probably be a stronger claim: Even when attempting to discount evidence like ad hominem, we will overweight them.

This is not a statement of disagreement, but merely a stylistic concern. I understand that prefacing one's work with a quotation from a respected figure is often good form. However, if it does not interfere with our purposes too much, could we not make a habit of it at Lesswrong?

0roryokane9yI personally don’t really care whether posts have quotations at the top or not, but could you clarify why you don’t like those quotations? Is it something to do with appeal to authority being a fallacy?
0J_Taylor9yI did not mentally categorize the Gandhi quote as being an appeal to authority. Rather, I categorized it as a decoration which contains irrelevant, and potentially false, information. However, in all honesty, I cannot appeal to any higher principle for why I dislike essays being preceded by, let us say, generic quotations from certain figures. My dislike is probably merely due to aesthetics.

I note that a DH7 argument requires suspension of disbelief.

I also propose a DH8 argument, which is a collaborative version of DH7: Work together to improve both arguments, identify the strengths and weaknesses of each, and if one cannot be collaboratively chosen as the winner, identify what experiment can be conducted or what information can be obtained to move forward on the issue.

The reference to Wielenberg's argument as an example of DH7 is an interesting one. This anlysis might be a bit off-topic, but the poster mentioned it so here goes.

Wielenberg is saying a couple of things in the article:

  1. Dawkins' central argument won't work if God is conceived as a necessary being, rather than a contingent being.
  2. Also, it won't work if God is conceived of (or just defined as) a simple being rather than a complex being.

Now on point 1, to be fair to Dawkins, he probably has not met real theists who have wanted to seriously defend (in an op... (read more)

I came up with something like DH7 out of a rather irrational reason: that is, I hate disagreeing with people, and I used to especially hate criticizing people, but I also get (perhaps understandably) annoyed by people being wrong about things. So my typical strategy has been to point out the things that they are right about to them, and look for a version of their central argument which is right, whether because its claim is weaker and its area of interest is narrower, or because there was a logical flaw which was simple to fix.

I know there's at least one... (read more)

An application of this hierarchy:

Jack the Scarecrow. My crystal healing pills will give you eternal life. For $50.00 each, you need never die, suckers.

--

DH0: "I'm not interested for myself, but can I buy you a border collie and give her some? If you're going to live forever, you're going to need a smart friend to make the really tricky decisions."

DH1: What, exactly, is your profit margin on these crystal healing pills? If we don't live forever, would you still make money off of them?

DH2: Any post that ends in the word "suckers" directed... (read more)

5Xom9yThe DH tier seems to correspond to an upper-bound on the effectiveness of an argument of that tier.
0kpreid9yYour example makes me wonder where "Their argument is not even wrong." (i.e. semantically incoherent) fits. It seems to me to be in the vicinity of DH2 and DH3, but not exactly either one.
3GilPanama9yI'd say that the incoherent speaker is arguing at DH(-1). DH0 would be an improvement. You would be counterarguing at DH(No) - argument by pointing out conversational emptiness. (edited to clarify that it is the person who makes the incoherent argument who is arguing badly, and the person arguing against that who is doing something entirely outside the hierarchy. Other DH(No) arguments-that-are-about-non-argument include "We aren't actually arguing about the same thing" and "let me take some time to do more reading before I reply.")

These are 7 useful rules of thumb but the "Art of Controversy" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_Being_Right) is always going to be slippery. The tract by Schopenhauer is useful to read to see how more subtle moves can be played out. It is recommended not as a handbook but to be better armed against the spectrum of ploys that an opponent may play.

If you’re interested in being on the right side of disputes, you will refute your opponents' arguments. But if you're interested in producing truth, you will fix your opponents' arguments for them. To win, you must fight not only the creature you encounter; you [also] must fight the most horrible thing that can be constructed from its corpse.

This is amazing! I will def incorporate this into my daily arguments.

I really like DH7s.

When I'm reading through LW posts, they're pretty much the only arguments I'll update on. Otherwise, I'll reserve the possibility that the initial argument wasn't argued well. Especially when a position is just dismissed as 'silly', I'll assume that the inferential distance was too large between that person's point of view and ours. For example, here.

those who disagree should aim not for name-calling but for honest counterargument.

I agree that people can use the scale to sort among their arguments and filter out the lower ones, thus raising the level of discourse. But that is not the primary way I use the list. (I think I saw it on your site originally.)

People already subconsciously have a decent handle on what you explicated. What needs the most help is consciously understanding how good the various forms of argument are.

I say that people subconsciously understand these things because when pressed ... (read more)

2kwackarole9yOriginal Hacker News discussion is here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=149052 [http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=149052] This contains I think the first reference to DH7, by 'tungstenfurnace'. He attributes the practice of strengthening an opponent's case before refuting the central argument to Karl Popper. This practice is noted in Bryan Magee's Popper (Fontana, 1973) : http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=6sw1GGBUYjkC&pg=PA91&lpg=PA91 [http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=6sw1GGBUYjkC&pg=PA91&lpg=PA91]

I would switch the order of DH1 and DH2. A tone argument is very rarely relevant to the substantive dispute. In most cases, the tone of an article shouldn't lead you to update your belief in the conclusion. An ad hominem argument, on the other hand, is often substantively relevant, especially given the power of motivated reasoning. It is entirely reasonable to lower your credence in the conclusion of an article arguing that senators are underpaid once you discover that the author of an article is a senator. Of course, if you have already evaluated the argu... (read more)

4Nornagest9yLike a well-motivated ad hominem attack pretty much boils down to an accusation of motivated cognition, a well-motivated attack on tone usually amounts to an accusation of bad faith. While that shouldn't affect your conclusion given a constant set of evidence, it can certainly change your or your audience's weighting of evidence presented and shape the way you approach it rhetorically: if you suspect your opponents might be trying to score political points rather than to present a coherent argument, it behooves you to be more careful in parsing their arguments for dog-whistle phrases or known lines of rhetorical attack. If you suspect them of being deliberately inflammatory to provoke an emotional reaction, that's a good cue to disengage, and so forth. I don't know how I'd weight this relative to ad hominem, but I don't think I'd call it substantially less relevant in casual debate.
2TheOtherDave9yIf my primary goal is to come to a proper assessment of someone's conclusion, that's certainly true. Of course, in that case, this entire list only covers a vanishingly small fraction of the domain of discourse. The vast majority of my responses when that's my goal don't involve interacting with the speaker at all... I listen to what they've said, I assess it, end of process. The nature of this list suggests to me that we're not talking about proper assessment... rather, it suggests that the assessment has already taken place, and now we're talking about successful expression of that assessment to an audience. That is, it suggests that the OP is talking about rhetoric, not analysis. In which case proper assessment of truth may no longer be the important question.
1pragmatist9yOK, that helps. Perhaps this should be made explicit in the post, Luke?
1dlthomas9yUpdating beliefs regarding the conclusion of an argument based on discussion of tone is a poor idea, for sure. Discussion of tone is tangential, and doesn't do much to get you where you're going at the moment. I believe it is placed above ad hominem in the hierarchy because it is more likely to be adding something, however - updating beliefs about tone based on discussion of tone makes total sense, and may lead to better discussion in the future.

I'm not certain whether DH-central-point (DH6) is so much different from DH-improve-then-disagree (DH7).

If DH5 is nitpicking (I'll call it DH-nitpicking), then DH-central-point is not. So DH-central-point would mean attacking what the author really wanted to say. But then, what's DH-improve-then-disagree? It can't really be filling the holes in the arguments of the author because then we'd arrive at DH-central-point, wouldn't we? Are there examples that clarify the proposed distinction between DH-central-point and DH-improve-then-refute?

0[anonymous]9yDH6 means attacked the central point of what the author actually said. Just filling in holes in their argument would still fall under that, I think. DH7 means substantially improving the overall structure of their argument (introducing totally new supporting reasoning, for example) and then attacking the result. In the ideal case DH7 is about attacking the version of an argument that would have been presented by a superintelligence trying to convince you of something, since that's presumably the version of the argument that best relates to the truth.
1lessdazed9yNot always, not even too often.
0[anonymous]9yPerhaps amend that to "an honest superintelligence." If you still disagree with that I'd like to hear your reasoning.
0TrE9yThe person who applies DH7 is not a superintelligence? Just a rough guess.
0[anonymous]9yHence "in the ideal case." I'm guessing that they're referring to the idea that someone very much smarter than you could convince you of anything by simply lying very convincingly.

Even DH7 presumes that the argument is wrong to begin with, which is not overly rational.

How about:

DH8, Clarifying When the Central Point is Indeed Valid. E.g. "A model of a supernatural entity as an ancestral simulator can be derived from the Simulation Argument framework. The validity of this framework and its approach to the question of Origin is now examined..."

or even

DH9, Update Your Model Based on Opposing Views. E.g. Given the , which appears to be valid provided the hold, I have updated my priors to account for the Universe as described... (read more)

6JoshuaZ9yOne problem with your proposed DH8 and DH9 is that sometimes they just aren't possible. Sometimes people are just wrong and no update is necessary. The rest of the hierarchy is always possible regardless of the strength of the argument. DH8/9 not so much.
4shminux9yAs I mentioned [http://lesswrong.com/lw/85h/better_disagreement/5361], unless your opponent is stupid or trolling, in which case any level of engagement is probably wrong, there is a high chance that there is something to their claims, limited in applicability though they might end up being, so DH8/9 (and maybe higher?) are worth at least considering.
4pedanterrific9y("DH" stands for disagreement hierarchy.)
2JoshuaZ9yThat doesn't seem to diminish shminux's point. The highest level of disagreement should be when one no longer has a disagreement. That should be the goal.
1pedanterrific9yI understand the basic idea, AAT and all that. I'm just saying that if I set out to describe and rank the ways in which people express disagreement, "I agree" wouldn't be on the list. Edit: That is, it's not that DH7 assumes the argument is wrong, just that you disagree with it. As long as you disagree, it's generally "better" - less logically rude - to use higher levels of the hierarchy than lower. If you find that you can't, then it might be time to update towards your opponent.
5JoshuaZ9ySo maybe rename it a dialogue hierarchy?
2Nornagest9yI see what you're saying: opposing arguments should not be parsed from a presumption of falsity, which amounts to writing the bottom line and working backwards from there. Which is quite true as far as it goes. But it seems to me that your proposal contains an implicit bias in the opposite direction: by placing situations where the opposing argument is valid above all disagreements but on the same scale, you're privileging concordance relative to dispute. Now, I suppose you could argue for doing that consciously, on the grounds that people generally find it difficult or embarrassing to update based on their opponents' positions and need all the help they can get. But doing so would strictly be a psychological hack, so I don't think we should be arguing for it on rationality grounds.
4dlthomas9yI thought psychological hacks leading to better practical rationality was a big part of what this site is about.
2Nornagest9yIt is. But hacking your mind by applying some countervailing bias is a workaround, not an actual fix, and referring to that workaround in isolation with terms like "overtly rational" risks overcorrection or misapplication: if you convince yourself that pushing for a DH8 or DH9 solution is generally rational, there are situations where that can actively mislead you.
2shminux9yUnless your opponent has proven to be inferior and stupid time and again, it is reasonable to assume that their proposal has some merits. This may turn out to be false, in which case it ends at DH6 or DH7, but, more often than not, a disagreement between two smart and people can be traced to their priors (e.g. Talmud is the ultimate source of wisdom vs Experimental evidence is the final judge), and those are worth arguing over, not the specific argument, which tends to be many levels removed.
  • DH8 - Find the truth you didn't know in the other guy's argument.
  • DH9 - Find out where you're wrong.

  • If you're intent on serving a meme, you're looking to spread your meme, and squash competing memes.

  • If you're intent on social work, you're looking to fix the other guy's head.
  • If you're intent looking on getting value for yourself, you're looking to add truths and remove falsehoods from your own head.

That's a lot of big talking from me, as I have other memes that kick me in the butt, call me bitch, and send me out whoring, but I try to pay attention to these memes instead, which take better care of me.

Love the memes that love you back.