How to debate when authority is questioned, but really not needed?

by [anonymous]1 min read23rd Feb 201541 comments

4

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Especially in the comments of political articles or about economic issues I find myself arguing with people who question my authority about a topic rather than refute my arguments.

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Examples may be:

1:

Me: I think money printing by the Fed will cause inflation if they continue like this.

Random commenter: Are you an economist?

Me: I am not, but it's not relevant.

Random commenter: Ok, so you are clueless.

2: 

Me: The current strategy to fight terror is not working because ISIS is growing.

Random commenter: What would you do to stop terrorism?

Me: I have an idea of what I would do, but it's not relevant because I'm not an expert, but do you think the current strategy is working?

Random commenter: So you don't know what you are talking about.

----

It is not about my opinions above, or even if I am right or not, I would gladly change my opinion after a debate, but I think that I am being disqualified unfairly. 

If I am right, how should I answer or continue these conversations?

41 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:06 PM
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Honestly, the only "winning" strategy here is to not argue with people on the comments sections of political articles.

If you must, try and cast the argument in a way that avoids the standard red tribe / blue tribe framing. Doing this can be hard because people generally aren't in the business of having politics debate with an end goal of dissolving an issue--they just want to signal their tribe--hence why arguing on the internet is often a waste of time.

As to the question of authority: how would you expect the conversation to go if you were an economist?

Me: I think money printing by the Fed will cause inflation if they continue like this.

Random commenter: Are you an economist?

Me: Yes actually, I have a PhD in The Economy from Ivy League University.

Random commenter (possible response 1): I don't believe you, and continue to believe what I believe.

Random commenter (possible response 2): Oh well that's one of the (Conservative / Liberal) (pick one) schools, they're obviously wrong and don't know what they're talking about.

Random commenter (possible response 3): Economists obviously don't know what they're talking about.

Again, it's a mix of Dunning-Kruger and tribal signalling. There's not actually any direction an appeal-to-authority debate can go that's productive because the challenger has already made up their mind about the facts being discussed.

For a handful of relevant lesswrong posts: http://lesswrong.com/lw/axn/6_tips_for_productive_arguments/ http://lesswrong.com/lw/gz/policy_debates_should_not_appear_onesided/ http://lesswrong.com/lw/3k/how_to_not_lose_an_argument/

Honestly, the only "winning" strategy here is to not argue with people on the comments sections of political articles.

Exactly.

For a handful of relevant lesswrong posts:

I would also include Is That Your True Rejection?

[-][anonymous]6y 3

Thank you so much for your comment, it is really helpful!

I use the internet to put in practice what I am learning about critical thinking and argumentation (critical thinking course on Khan Academy). In environments like the Reddit Ethereum page it is much more reason centered and there are less dishonest participants so when my arguments are refuted it is very productive and I learn a lot. But on newspaper sites and blogs its more like a jungle.

I think what you say "the challenger has already made up their mind" is the key.

I will read the articles of the links you posted, thx!

I use the internet to put in practice what I am learning about critical thinking and argumentation (critical thinking course on Khan Academy).

I understand that meatspace doesn't frequently offers opportunities to test skills like that, but when looking for those opportunities online you should be very picky on where to look. Avoid newspaper sites and (most) blog comments. You need to find environments in which disagreement is a way to find the truth and where changing your mind is encouraged. These are pretty rare. Although if you want to practice argumentation, you might want to check out /r/changemyview on reddit

If you're looking for well-policed blogs, you can try Slate Star Codex and any of the other "rationality blogs" listed in the LW wiki.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

You simply need to debate in places that have a certain highbrow barrier to entry. For example, places where people self-identify as economists, such as comments in Marginal Revolution, because they want to signal not only blue or red tribe membership, but also the economist tribe membership. And that makes them want to focus on arguments of the better kind.

but I think that I am being disqualified unfairly.

I disagree.

Experts in any given field almost certainly believe the actually sensible part of what you believe, and do not believe the parts that seem sensible to you but aren't for non-obvious reasons.

Something special and weird needs to happen in order for a smart outsider to outthink an entire community of experts. This does happen sometimes, but extremely rarely.


Why not just learn stuff instead?

In both cases, your opponents have points, up to a point.

  1. You need some sort of justification for the claim, even if it is not personal authority. In particular, if you are actual talking about quantitative easing, that is something much more complex than literally printing money.

  2. There's no actual point to saying that something isn't working, unless you have something better in mind. Consider the many people who believe that the whole of society is horribly broken.

Since your claims arent flawless, and their responses arent completely invalid, one thing you could do is pretend they made better versions.

  1. OK, I do need to back that up. Well, most economists believe...

  2. Ok, there is no point in just complaining. Maybe the government could put together a panel of experts to come up with alternatives.

Since your claims arent flawless,

What does that mean? I would expect no one's claims to be flawless, but even if OP claimed the sky is green, claiming that he is wrong because he's not a physicist is still wrong.

and their responses arent completely invalid

They seem pretty much like obvious examples of fallacies to me.

Your suggestions are possible ways to segue from what OP said into a better discussion, but the replies quoted or paraphrased above aren't conducive to such a discussion.

What does that mean? I would expect no one's claims to be flawless, but even if OP claimed the sky is green, claiming that he is wrong because he's not a physicist is still wrong.

Let's say you debate with multiple people "Why is the sky blue and not green"?
(a) A philosopher
(b) A linguist
(c) A physicist
(d) A five year old child

All those debates are different. It's very useful to ask at the beginning of the debate where the other person is common from when you want to target arguments.

Sure, but I think the follow-up responses make it clear the other commenter isn't looking for a real discussion.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

I think you are right, the follow-up responses are what indicate the fallacy intention (conscious or not).

I would expect no one's claims to be flawless, but even if OP claimed the sky is green, claiming that he is wrong because he's not a physicist is still wrong.

For some value of wrong. But the claim that the Fed is literally printing money js also wrong, for some value of wrong. Its like youre saying one side in the discussion deserves charity, and the other doesn't.

Random Commentator's comment was not "You are not an economist, so you are wrong", it was "Are you an economist?". That can .be read as a legitimate concern about understanding the topic.

Jumping on people for making "obvious fallacies" that actually arent explicitly stated at all , is probably a reflection of bias on the part of the jump-.er.

(The Ancient Geeks Law: Any comment by anybody in any discussion will look like an obvious fallacy under a sufficiently uncharitable interpretation)

and their responses arent completely invalidThey seem pretty much like obvious examples of fallacies to me

....when read without the charity you are extending to the OPs claims.

.Your suggestions are possible ways to segue from what OP said into a better discussion, but the replies quoted or paraphrased above aren't conducive to such a discussion.

What does that mean? Maybe you have decided that even if charity is extended, or middle ground sought, nothing good will come of it. But have you tested that, or is it all in your head?

In the paraphrased or hypothetical exchanges above, OP at least made a claim that could be evaluated, and the other commenters dismissed even the possibility that they had anything worthwhile to say for pretty poor reasons. They didn't make any actual argument to give any charity to. "What experience do you have with economics?" and "what solutions do you propose?" are perfectly valid questions, but the other commenters follow-up doesn't continue the discussion, it seeks to end it.

The OP made a comment that is evaluable, and comes .it as irrelevant when read uncharitably: no one is literally printing money. "What experience do you have with economics?" could charitably be read as the argument "you need to understand economics to have a worthwhile opinion on quantitative easing"

Who the OP is does affect the prior probability that he is wrong. If the majority of economics viewpoints held by non-economists is wrong (which is a big if), then the commentators would be justified in assigning near-zero amount of credence in what he's saying. If the OP presented a detailed, technical argument in favor of his positions, then this would "screen out" OP's level of experience. But barring such an argument, the commentators may have a point.

That being said, the average internet commentator may not be the best conversation partner.

Step 1 is realizing you're discussing with someone who's hostile by default to you. That's what's missed by all the types whose style of debating relies upon pointing out logical fallacies in arguments -- the fact that debate spaces have not been sterilized against problems of a social nature, and no amount of sound object-level reasoning will fix that. There's always going to be a crowd hanging around a comment section that's there to bring you down and for no other purpose.

From here, you can go in two different directions. Either play on the "battle of wits" mode, return the hostility, do your damnedest to humiliate the other in a way that makes you look good rather than petty, or try to bring the hostile arguer... well, not to your side, but to a neutral basis of discussion. Getting people to just give you a chance, let alone playing that chance well, is amazingly difficult. At least on LW there's a consensus that we should be aiming for the second mode of discussion, but if that's not a constant occurrence here, imagine how bad other places have it.

The attitude you listed is just one of the many tricks people employ to make your life hard, to narrow down the winning condition in an attempt to disqualify as many people as possible from passing the test. The only answer that would kick the asker down a step or two would be "as a matter of fact yes, I am an economist."

as a matter of fact yes, I am an economist

My favourite instance of this merely because of its antecedent improbability.

[EDITED to fxi tpyo]

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Ha!

"as a matter of fact yes, I am an economist"

That would certainly be very effective.

Either play on the "battle of wits" mode, return the hostility, do your damnedest to humiliate the other in a way that >makes you look good rather than petty, or try to bring the hostile arguer... well, not to your side, but to a neutral basis of >discussion.

I will have to practice this more, I think the third alternative is just to leave the discussion because the other person is just locked.

That would certainly be very effective.

The typical response to this is flat incredulity. This is particularly effective if your screen-name is not your actual name, and doubly so if you are the least bit reluctant to reveal your identity.

There are a few dark arts strategies that you can use, depending on the anonymity and epistemic hygiene of the forum.

Strategy 1: If someone asks if you are an expert, say you are. Assuming that you are talking about a subject which you actually know about, it is undoubted that there is an expert, and probably a bunch of experts, who agree with you. I happen to think you are wrong about printing of money leading to inflation, and I have some expertise in the field of economics, but I also know that there are definitely people considered experts who agree with you (not a large proportion of Ph.D. economists agree with your statement, but there are some, and many more self-styled economics experts working at various financial institutions).

I think this can be in service of good argumentation so long as you actually present an argument rather than simply relying on your claims of credentials to win the day. It could force your interlocutor to actually engage with your views, so it avoids them making a fallacious inference. This should be used with caution, obviously, as you should only claim credentials if there is an expert who would actually endorse them. Also, I don't recommend claiming excessive credentials ("yes, I am a climate scientist from MIT and I was on the IPCC"), because that's providing your argument with undeserved weight. The goal should be to clear their fallacious hurdle and get them to engage with your beliefs on their own merits.

Strategy 2: Say you agree with the hive mind on a related, yet different topic. I admit that I am guilty of this all the time on Reddit and Hacker News, and I am more than willing to use it preemptively as part of my initial post on a topic (generally as a reply to someone else's point). People will generally not carefully consider arguments that they view as coming from someone from the other team, as we all know so well. But they will possibly consider arguments about tangential topics which they see as coming from within their own team.

My thought on this strategy is three-fold. First, you can't argue every point in every argument, or else you will spend your entire life arguing. Choose what tiny thing you want to convince someone of, and feel free to let the world change the rest of their opinions in future arguments. It's better to try to get someone to make a baby-step and hopefully later realize that all of their opinions are built on a foundation of silly putty. Even that much is usually impossible. Second, your arguments on a particular topic in an ideal world shouldn't be evaluated based on your opinions of other topics, assuming you provide enough argumentation to screen off that information (which should be viewed as at least a minimal amount of information to provide in any case). Third, often you don't even really have to agree, it can be enough to utter the right shibboleth to signal group membership, and that shibboleth doesn't even need to point to a particular coherent belief to be at least a little bit disarming.

Depending on the anonymity of the forum, I would adjust how much preemptive agreement I would signal, however. If I'm using my real name, I would only say I agree with things that I actually agree with which are irrelevant, or that I kinda sorta agree with in its most uncontroversial form. This strategy doesn't actually work in some extremely factious communities, however, since people use it too frequently. If you tell a Tumblr SJW, "I'm totally a feminist, but that particular statistic you are using is actually made up," it's just as likely that their memetic antibodies are going to signal you as an anti-feminist terrorist as that they'll actually consider your evidence. Of course, if they didn't lead to broken communities, they wouldn't call them "dark arts."

Strategy 3: Provide a wall of text with links. On reddit you will sometimes see posts that get bestof'd with a title like "/u/PollyDoodlePants OBLITERATES climate denier with tons of FACTS" that are actually just posts with minimal argumentation but 30 links to standard arguments from people on their side, ideally without subtlety and nuance. In this form they are more likely to get accolades from people who already agree, rather than actually changing the mind of their debate partner or anyone in the audience. I've never actually done this before and consider it kind of pointless and annoying, so I don't recommend it, but if its just your emotional state you're concerned about it will probably make you feel better.

One thing I think you should consider, in general, is what Robin Hanson calls pulling policy ropes sideways. In general, argumentation is more fun and more enlightening for counterparties if you have a bunch of opinions you care about that aren't part of the established lines of war. Look for places they are a relevant third option, or just something to consider for other readers.

If the argument you're making has already been made in the New York Times, it's probably too late. You probably aren't bringing anything to the table that hasn't been argued at greater length and more effectively elsewhere. If you feel passionate about something that others don't care about (yet), your comments bring greater diversity of thought and are the true gems of Internet communities. Part of the fascination of Less Wrong is in these kinds of ideas, like AI risk, cryonics, decision theory. They aren't part of the culture war, so when people like us first read the site, they get a blast of new ideas that aren't discussed elsewhere. This isn't a dark art, this is the daylight art that makes communities better, stronger and more interesting. Just, please, for the love of God, don't try to shoehorn your pet belief into every conversation you have (this is the most common failure mode of this strategy, and what we sometimes see on Less Wrong). And of course, you may think you're pulling the rope sideways, but sometimes the battle lines actually have been drawn, even if just in your little community (neoreaction on LW), and then this no longer works.

If someone asks if you are an expert, say you are.

The likely reputational consequences don't look too good.

Provide a wall of text with links.

Such a wall of text is unlikely to help you in making friends and influencing people, not to mention again the likely reputational consequences.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Thx for you comment and taking the time!

After reading some articles suggested here and learning about dark art, light art, the objective of seeking truth rather than status, debate strategies, and more, I see this whole issue is a world I didn't know existed at least with this depth.

It is frustrating to see that I have spent my life up to now in the dark, but it is obviously extremely rewarding to discover a space where honesty and truth are the priority rather than personal advantage and abuse of other.

Strategy 1: If someone asks if you are an expert, say you are.

I can do this since it doesn't require credentials (I am a dropout) but by dedication and work I have some depth about certain topics that can qualify as "expert".

Strategy 2: Say you agree with the hive mind on a related, yet different topic.

Strategy 3: Provide a wall of text with links.

These are useful when the counterpart is really expecting authority from you, I think many "discreditors" on the internet just have the objective of destroying you no matter what you bring.

Moral: Participate in communities and try to identify members who are really seeking answers and truth!

If I am right, how should I answer or continue these conversations?

Why are you having the conversation in the first place?


In both cases you didn't provide any deep arguments. If you want to have a productive discussion it makes sense to argue on a deeper level.

What it means for the current strategy not to work isn't straightforward. You could call reducing the oil price a lot a current strategy that damages the finances of everyone in the area. It's a fairly recent move and it's effects aren't yet clear.

There's also a lot of fog of war.

I'll take a bit of a counter to what others are saying. Debating and winning (as distinct from being rational and holding true beliefs) can be fun. Be very clear (with yourself) why you're engaging, and what you hope to accomplish from it, but you don't need to stay away entirely.

First, limit yourself to a few communities that you have at least a little respect for. Most sites you're better off just not looking at the comments, and certainly not responding. Even in good groups, there will be prolific posters you should ignore - just don't respond to them unless someone you do respect chimes in.

Second, don't engage with the portion of their arguments that you think is irrelevant. If the comment is purely about you, rather than your thesis, ignore it. If it's a mix of relevant and irrelvant comments, respond only to the relevant and ignore the rest.

Third, realize that in most cases the readers far outnumber the commenters, and your goal isn't to get another commenter to publicly agree or apologize or anything of the sort. Your goal is to convince the readers (or convince them to respect you enough to comment if you're wrong). Post in a way that is high-status to your intended audience, and let the others seem like the petty idiots they are.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Be very clear (with yourself) why you're engaging...

This is key because sometimes I just want to "win for the glory" and I forget why I started the argument in the first place.

Post in a way that is high-status to your intended audience, and let the others seem like the petty idiots they are.

This is a good strategy rather than focusing on the snotty comments that only irritate.

[-][anonymous]6y 2

Try this counter: "Are you a linguist?" (No) "Well, I will still grant you and I both the use of language to communicate. Let us continue." A silly argument to shed a silly light on a silly argument.

Or ask if the authorities have everything figured out in an actionable form (no) then let us help them out with our outsider perspective.

Or say yes, I am the very voice of authority on this topic but don't be so ashamed and embarrassed by your ignorance that you stop now - please, keep lecturing. If they are swayed by the argument from authority then it is okay just to mock them.

They are right, I think. People don't have endless time to discuss things with everyone. You put a statement on the table. Now I look at it and superficially see that it's some sort of economics statement. Now should I waste my time examining your standpoint further? Can I expect to get well founded opinions from you? Will I profit from this exchange? If I can verify that you indeed have spent a long time thinking about economics and other people have considered your economy related thinking processes good enough to give you a diploma, then I can expect to get valuable opinions from you.

It's not sure, but one has to filter out all the cranks. Asking for qualifications is one way. There are thousands of unqualified people who have their own refutations of relativity, or false proofs of P!=NP etc. Should we really give equal time to all of these people, just because they might be onto something?

You seem to look at yourself from the inside and say well I'm an honest and smart guy, why won't they listen to me? But for them you're just a random guy, nobody can see your inner qualities that you think you possess. If you want to become better than a "random guy from the street", you need to provide some evidence that you're worth listening to.

People always treat you for how you appear to the outside. It's the same fallacy that people commit when they say "I want someone to love me for who I am inside, not for any of my attributes like my body type, job, money, sense of humor, intelligence, musical talent etc., but for the inner me". There's no inner you for us. Only what you do.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

People don't have endless time to discuss things with everyone...

You are right, many people just want to make sure they are not wasting their time, but when they come back with "if you are not an expert then your conclusion is false" I think they are showing that time was not their priority, but just to state the claim was false.

If they came back with "I prefer to talk to an expert" or "how can I believe you?" it would indicate what you say above.

Also, I simplified above with a simple claim as my starting statement. Normally a claim is below an article that already explains the issue and I may affirm that with the addition of my opinion.

For example after this article about the war on science on National Geographic:

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/science-doubters/achenbach-text

I may just write a comment:

We have a huge bias towards intuitive conclusions rather than taking the time to understand the facts.

Then someone might write "are you a psychiatrist?". I respond "no" and they follow with a "then you don't know what you are talking about".

Well, you need to decide if it's worth discussing further. Anonymous internet comment sections are often very low quality (tribalism, astroturfing, trolling etc.). If you think they are just trolling you, then ignore them. If you think they want to have a discussion, then you should defend your point or concede that you just stated a layman's opinion.

Comments don't have the space to put your own academic paper there defending what you claim.

Dunno how well this works in places that aren't Less Wrong, but when I enter an argument I try to include specific arguments or references to specific evidence from my very first comment. If I introduce evidence from the very beginning, I gain the right to spurn any response that doesn't address the evidence in some way.

I think these examples represent different sorts of fallacies. In the first, the person is making a variant on appeal to authority. In the latter, it's more like the Nirvana fallacy.

However, in either case the commenter doesn't seem worth arguing with. Especially if it's a random person on the internet.

how should I answer or continue these conversations?

"Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience." ― Mark Twain

It's a tactic to undermine your position without bothering to address the argument itself. Sometimes it comes up when the original post reeks of amateur hour or an individual has grown tired of debating self-proclaimed experts who read the Wikipedia page five minutes earlier. It's sometimes possible to get the debate back on track, but for the most part you're dealing with a debate tactic. You can have a meta-debate over whether such authority is necessary, but by that point you're far off course.

A logical debate can only take place when both sides agree and bind themselves by the appropriate rules. Unfortunately, many who debate online are not willing to engage on these terms.

Neither of these Random Commenters is bringing anything to the conversation: no claims of their own, no arguments of their own, no authority of their own, nothing. An Eliza program could do as well. Why bother with someone who is doing a successful imitation of a bot?

You should be less concerned with winning and what other people think about you. You should be more concerned with being honest with yourself and making sure your beliefs match the facts. If they say you are wrong, ask why.

[-][anonymous]6y 2

My fear of what others think about me is definitely a contaminant in my mind, but I agree if my beliefs match facts I shouldn't worry so much!

[missing the point]

Me: I think money printing by the Fed will cause inflation if they continue like this.

Not as long as interest rates remain at or near zero. The economy is in a weird place right now. Normally, people who have money but don't want to spend it immediately will lend it in order to receive interest. However, with interest rates so low, people who would normally be lending money - including banks - have little incentive to do so. Money is ending up under Apple Computer's proverbial mattress instead of being spent on things. Making things worse is that the Fed's normal method of "printing" money - giving people cash in exchange for short-term Treasury bills (which are currently paying near-zero interest) - only puts money in the hands of people who aren't going to be spending or lending their cash, and money not spent doesn't cause inflation. (If they wanted to spend or lend the money, they would have sold their T-bills to someone by now.)

Paul Krugman says it better than I can.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

This is an example of refuting my argument by actually arguing about it instead of discrediting me because I am not an economist.

My problem is when instead of your answer above you write "are you an economist? have you investigated this?" with the obvious objective of coming after my answer with an "ok, so your premise is false because you don't know what you are talking about".

This is an example of refuting my argument by actually arguing about it instead of discrediting me because I am not an economist.

Yeah, hence the [missing the point] label... ;)

My problem is when instead of your answer above you write "are you an economist? have you investigated this?" with the obvious objective of coming after my answer with an "ok, so your premise is false because you don't know what you are talking about".

Yeah. That's a pain in the neck.

Silly counter-rebuttal:

"Well, are you an economist?"

Not-so-silly counter-rebuttals:

No, but this is Econ 101 stuff you can look up on Wikipedia or whatever.
No, but that's what Famous Economist wrote. Here, go look at his stuff. (link)
No, so I might be confused about something. Can you explain where I went wrong?

Is that really the obvious objective? Maybe they are saying you should research the topic. "Printing money" is a red flag phrase, like discussing evolution in terms of your grandfather being a monkey.