With colleagues at CMU, we've been looking at the ways in which people make arguments. The goal here is to look at what we call "argument making in the wild", i.e., to try to build a taxonomy of the different ways people make arguments, whether or not those methods are good, truth-preserving, consensus-building, etc. This is building off of prior work we've done on explanation-making (a different task, but see https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(20)30228-X for an example of what that might mean). 

To be clear, we mean "argument" in the neutral sense where people are "making arguments to each other", not something like "you're just arguing"; we're interested in both "epistemic arguments" (e.g., the argument two scientists might have about how cancer works) and more "normative arguments" (e.g., the argument about something like when abortion ought to be prohibited) — although the distinction between fact and value is difficult, we don't think it's possible to easily separate them, and a wide range of philosophical theories suggest that it's hard to draw a line between "good reasoning about facts" and "good reasoning about values".

I'm curious to hear people's thoughts on potential taxonomies, or patterns of argument-making. These can be either normative taxonomies (properties that are good/bad) or neutral ones (properties more generally). So my tl;dr is "tell me patterns you see in arguments!"

More on what would really help us:

(1) We're particularly interested in "surface patterns" (i.e., things that are immediately visible in the text itself, without reference to the more hidden "metadata" of the agents involved, for example, like relative power or state of mind). That's not because we're not interested in the underlying causes but because we want to understand the connection between underlying cause and surface level pattern.

So, for example, we think we're able to identify (in a large corpus, r/ChangeMyView) a pattern associated with people engaging in clarity-goals: I'm going to query your definition, for example, or say that we'll get further if we use definitions, or propose my own definitions; or point out an equivocation on a term, etc. Now the reasons why you might do that are manifold, and might have to do truth-seeking goals, or not — but it should be possible to talk about the surface patterns in terms other than their (efficient, process-like) causes.

(2) We're particularly interested in patterns that can be combined, or that don't necessarily exclude other patterns. We're less interested in binaries ("logical vs emotional") and polarities and more interested in different things that could be happening simultaneously.

(3) We're particularly interested in patterns that exist at the level of lexicon and syntax, e.g., turns of phrase that might signal something deeper. That's in part because these are particularly amenable to more quantitative study. It's not that people don't use irony, for example — but rather that the signals of irony might be in particularly subtle strategies of how surface elements are combined.

(4) We're not super-interested in "bad faith" situations, where one person is deliberately arguing to troll, confuse, upset — that's really a separate study. We certainly are interested in situations where that might happen accidentally, or unintentionally, and we're definitely interested in argument patterns that form as a consequence of a break-down in cooperation (e.g., because one person things the other is begin deliberately obtuse, etc).

If (1), (2), (3), (4) are too constraining for you, please ignore them.

(Why help us this way? Because you find the problem interesting to think about, perhaps — but also because if we understand how people make arguments in the real world, that tells us a great deal about how information exchange happens where people disagree, and if we understand that we might learn about how to make disagreements more productive.)


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It would be funny if the taxonomy of good arguments ended up quite similar to the taxonomy of logical fallacies. I mean, what is a typical "logical fallacy"? A weak evidence... in favor of a conclusion I disagree with.

For example, if scientists believe X, but Y is popular among crackpots, this seems like a good argument in favor of X... unless you happen to be a fan of Y, in which case it become a logical fallacy of argumenting by authority.

These seem to be also arguments that don't fit this schema, for example, explaining in detail how stuff works. Problem is, these can also be constructed out of thin air, for example many pseudoscientists are able to provide models in favor of their theories that explain the effects using various "energies" and "vibrations" and whatever.

Interesting. It’s not clear that conspiracy theorists would disagree with scientists about the quality of an argument that touches on neither of their domains. It’s entirely possible that both are able to agree about good and bad arguments for (say) abortion rights, even if they have opposing positions. (E.g., they may well be able to agree that “X is a better argument than Y”, even when one disagrees with both, and the other agrees with both.)

Good arguments as in persuausive arguments address the concerns of the other party, use the definitions of the other party, and so on.

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