Once upon a time, I delivered devestatingly precise deconstructions of points, complete with on-the-spot productions of analogies and the contstruction of crystal-clear absract descriptions of the important principles of reasoning most relevant to the discussion at hand.

I wasn't one to try and aggrandize myself thusly; it's just that I was right, you see, and considered my correct understanding to be something worth sharing and also worth receiving. At the same time, I didn't want my interlocutor to feel bad or anything, so I tried to compensate for the fact that they were wrong with various social graces. I pointed out all the ways my interlocutor was right; I presented my rebuttal in an even, non-triumphant tone; I used the language of uncertainty as much as I could without becoming actively dishonest.

The expected result: My interlocutor traces the lines of my thoughts, notes that they are correct, and adopts them as their own, in great part because they feel respected and appreciate how politely their errors were revealed to them.

The real result: They thought they were right and I was wrong.

For years I banged my head on this brick wall by supposing that, strange though it seemed, I just...must not have been clear enough. Ever more precise, more devestating rebuttals did I prepare, ever so politely expressed, gifted to my interlocutor with a bow and ornamented in the wrapping paper of deference.

Right, so here's the thing. Most of the time, people weren't even listening to my explanations, not really. It didn't matter how clear the explanations were to them, any more than it matters how clearly you speak English to one who speaks no English. They're speaking another language, you see? And they thought I was speaking their language as well; they heard me speaking their language, garbled, weak, and pathetic as it was. That bit about being polite and using even tones? As far as they were concerned, that was the message. For me, it was just packaging; for them, the packaging was the message. The medium was the message; the presentation was the content.

And my "content" was weak. I thought I was balancing things out: strong points, weak presentation. But, since they weren't really listening to my points, all they heard was the weak presentation. In their language, this kind of presentation indicated my lack of confidence and the weakness of my mental fortitude; they perceived I would crumble before their riposte. (I'm sure the whole dynamic was as confusing to them as to me, as I would bat aside their rejoinder and explain my points all over again, just as calmly as before, never crumbling before their might. On my side, I never realized there was any might there, for I judged according to content, and was blind to the significance of their presentation. Eventually, they gave up on convincing me by flexing their social muscles, and I gave up on convincing them by analyzing their reasoning).

Think of an arm-wrestle. You're both speaking the same language, so to speak. A match approached by both sides on equal terms; may the best man win! But if one person thinks it's a staring contest, and the other an arm-wrestle, both sides will consider themselves the victor. Both sides will consider the other a pathetically incapable competitor. Both sides will be confused that the other doesn't act quite like they ought to after having been so thoroughly defeated.

Well, I don't have a lot of hope for, in the middle of a conversation, anyway, convincing an ill-disposed interlocutor to step into my world of evidential analysis and abhorrence of the conjunction fallacy. Instead, I have learned to step into their world. I've discovered, in fact, that though this game is new to me, I'm actually quite naturally good at it. I think a lot of nerdy people would be; their weakness at it until now is more because they're playing a different game than because they're ill-suited to it.

Here's how the game works. Arguments are like mental arm-wrestles. You flex your mental muscles, and whosever arm gives out first loses. What is the measure of strength in the game? It is a simple display of mental ability, especially creativity, combined with emotional resilience and stability. It is, essentially, a BSing contest. Whoever can make up the most BS wins. Whoever runs out of BS to respond with first loses. It's not what you say; it's how you say it. Confidence suggests you're emotionally strong; you can be at ease in the midst of a socially tense situation, because a weaker heart would falter under the pressure, you see? And elegance in expression, wittiness in reply, rapidity in rejoinder, all of these display mental quickness and power. Imagine the difference between the witty rejoinder that comes immediately and the one that comes 15 seconds later. NO! If you can't say it within 2 seconds, don't say it all, and better if you're ready to say it before they even finish speaking.

Examples pf this are very easy to generate. Think of anything anyone might ask you to do, or any opinion they might express that contradicts your own.

Bill: Hey, make me a sandwich.

Steve: Sorry, man, I've got a lot on my mind.

Bill: Well, you know, it might help you relax a little. Can't always be up in dream land, don't you know? (Note how very BS-ey this reply is. It's not even so much wrong as just next-to-meaningless. Only a nerd would take the content seriously; the point is that Bill's not backing down; he's forcing Steve (and himself!) to resist the social pressure that comes from asking again; who can last longest? Whose mind shall shut down first because of the pressure?

Steve: Yeah, could be. Hey, another time, though, cool? I'm not really a sandwich kind of guy, you know? (Utter nonsense. Completely valid rejoinder)

Bill: Well, practice makes perfect, you know. Some time in one's life, a real man ought to learn to make a good sandwich, don't you think? (Somehow, Steve's manhood has come into question)

Steve: That's one kind of real man, sure. But a real man has a lot going on in his life. Sometimes, those sandwiches gotta wait; everyone knows that. (Oh-ho! An accusation of ignorance. What a splendid match! What magnificent players!)

And so on. Whoever runs out of something to say first loses and loses social status. They may very likely end up making the sandwich (if Steve loses, anyway) as well.

I've started to come at such arguments from this angle. Just spout out some BS, free-associating off of the words (the words, not the ideas (necessarily)) in my interlocutor's sentence. Can they think of a snappy reply? No? Haha, victory! (I used to think that it almost seemed like no one was understanding the concepts in my sentences, like they weren't even trying! Almost like they were just...free-associating...off of some of the words I used...)

It was just a curiosity at first, then I came to enjoy it. We were creating opportunities for each other for on-the-spot verbal creativity and I was pretty good at it, so yeah, it's become fun. But now I'm just astounded. I guess I kind of expected...I don't even know. But what really happened...

People started doing things for me. Seriously! I'd spout some nonsense line and they wouldn't know what to say back (within the 2-second legal playing field ;) ), and...they'd agree and go make me a sandwich (or whatever)! Absolutely astounding. What possible reason could they have for making me a sandwich? What difference did it make (all of it, as it turns out) that I could make a snappier reply than them?

All my study about proper analysis and clear expression held no power over my fellows, but as soon as I made a generic display of verbal ability and emotional resilience...apparently they respected that. Like, a lot! Enough to do things for me.

It's still weird to think about. But, this is how it seems to work. So be it...

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:37 AM

One thing missing from this model is an explanation of why the BS is so often close enough to actual arguments to confuse people who are persuaded by arguments for so long. Some partial explanations:

  • One of the rules of BS is that challenges to well-defended parts of shared narrative are expensive, which limits which things someone can say in a way that will often locally look like logical consistency.
  • It's tough to use literally no logical inference or structure, so valid inferences will always be at least a little appealing, especially short concrete ones.
  • Making things look like arguments is a cheap way to trick naïve truthseekers into thinking you're on the same team at least some of the time, so long as it doesn't compromise any of your other political goals.
  • Many common narratives, especially in formal contexts, either are or used to be controlled by people who care about logical coherence, so people are conditioned to think of the appearance of argument as a type of desirable flair in more formal contexts.

Excellent points. My model above happens, but it's not the only kind of argument. As usual, there's a spectrum, and I was mostly just describing one extreme of it.

It's also worth pointing out that logic or proper reasoning don't weaken this kind of argument. They're unnecessary, but if you're well-put-together enough to use them without having to stop and think, they'll make you seem all the more impressive. So, logic doesn't ruin this kind of social grandstanding; it's just not necessary

A wonderful example of this is Richard Dawkins (nerd) meeting with Bill O'Reilly (competent political player) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FARDDcdFaQ&t=1m27s

The great point is when Dawkins uses a reductio ad absurdum to point that Bill's argument proves too much, it can be used just as well for Mithras and Thor, and Bill's response is "Man, I saw Apollo over there; he's not doing so good. You don't want to go with Apollo." PERFECT example. Repulsive nonsense; perfectly effective political rejoinder.

A nerd might think that a 10-second pause before changing the subject is no better or no worse than such an absurd reply like the above, but politically, socially, there's an immense difference. Immense. If Bill had paused, lost for words for 10 seconds, and then changed the subject, it would have made headlines and would be a famous meme to this day. The content is no different, but the content doesn't matter; the competent BSing is different, and that's what most people care about.

I think this misses out on changing peoples' minds. I've learned that a real mind-changing argument doesn't need to work fast. If someone sees you as an opponent, you're probably not gonna get them to change their mind on anything within one conversation (at least not without using some better skills than just saying your side). But you can give them things to think on that will continue to do their work long after you've finished talking to them.