Suppose, for a moment, you're a strong proponent of Glim, a fantastic new philosophy of ethics that will maximize truth, happiness, and all things good, just as soon as 51% of the population accepts it as the true way; once it has achieved majority status, careful models in game theory show that Glim proponents will be significantly more prosperous and happy than non-proponents (although everybody will benefit on average, according to its models), and it will take over.
Glim has stalled, however; it's stuck at 49% belief, and a new countermovement, antiGlim, has arisen, claiming that Glim is a corrupt moral system with fatal flaws which will destroy the country if it has its way. Belief is starting to creep down, and those who accepted the ideas as plausible but weren't ready to commit are starting to turn away from the movement.
In response, a senior researcher of Glim ethics has written a scathing condemnation of antiGlim as unpatriotic, evil, and determined to keep the populace in a state of perpetual misery to support its own hegemony. He vehemently denies that there are any flaws in the moral system, and refuses to entertain antiGlim in a public debate.
In response to this, belief creeps slightly up, but acceptance goes into a freefall.
You immediately ascertain that the negativity was worse for the movement than the criticisms; you write a response, and are accused of attacking the tone and ignoring the substance of the arguments. Glim and antiGlim leadership proceed into protracted and nasty arguments, until both are highly marginalized, and ignored by the general public. Belief in Glim continues, but when the leaders of antiGlim and Glim finally arrive on a bitterly agreed upon conclusion - the arguments having centered on an actual error in the original formulations of Glim philosophy, they're unable to either get their remaining supports to cooperate, or to get any of the public to listen. Truth, happiness, and all things good never arise, and things get slightly worse, as a result of the error.
Tone arguments are not necessarily logical errors; they may be invoked by those who agree with the substance of an argument who nevertheless may feel that the argument, as posed, is counterproductive to its intended purpose.
I have stopped recommending Dawkin's work to people who are on the fence about religion. The God Delusion utterly destroyed his effectiveness at convincing people against religion. (In a world in which they couldn't do an internet search on his name, it might not matter; we don't live in that world, and I assume other people are as likely to investigate somebody as I am.) It doesn't even matter whether his facts are right or not, the way he presents them will put most people on the intellectual defensive.
If your purpose is to convince people, it's not enough to have good arguments, or good facts; these things can only work if people are receptive to those arguments and those facts. Your first move is your most important - you must try to make that person receptive. And if somebody levels a tone argument at you, your first consideration should not be "Oh! That's DH2, it's a fallacy, I can disregard what this person has to say!" It should be - why are they leveling a tone argument at you to begin with? Are they disagreeing with you on the basis of your tone, or disagreeing with the tone itself?
Or, in short, the categorical assessment of "Responding to Tone" as either a logical fallacy or a poor argument is incorrect, as it starts from an unfounded assumption that the purpose of a tone response is, in fact, to refute the argument. In the few cases I have seen responses to tone which were utilized against an argument, they were in fact ad-hominems, of the formulation "This person clearly hates [x], and thus can't be expected to have an unbiased perspective." Note that this is a particularly persuasive ad-hominem, particularly for somebody who is looking to rationalize their beliefs against an argument - and that this inoculation against argument is precisely the reason you should, in fact, moderate your tone.
On convincing others to change their minds:
"[Alfred] Reynolds was in Army Intelligence during the war, and in 1945 was given the almost impossible task of ‘de-Nazifying’ young Nazi officers who had been captured. Reynolds has described how, when he first entered the room, there was an atmosphere of cold hostility. They stared at him, prepared - like [Dr Jerome] Bruner’s cat - to ‘cut out’ anything he had to say at the level of the ear-drum. To their surprise, there was no homily on the evils of Nazism. Instead, he asked them to explain to him what they understood by National Socialism. Once they were convinced he really wanted to know, they began to talk. He listened quietly, asked questions, and pointed out contradictions. Within a matter of days, there was not a Nazi left among them." - Colin Wilson, "A Criminal History of Mankind"
A similar technique worked on Ingo Hasselbach (described in his autobiography "Führer Ex"). A TV crew asked him to explain neo-nazi philosophy, and the more he saw himself in repeat on TV the less he believed himself.
A similar technique worked when I was employed at a homeless shelter. I'd ask aggravated clients what the... (read more)
Really? De-Nazified all of them in days? I notice I am confused; I deny this data - either that, or I really want the videotapes.
The tapes are archived right next to the chat logs of the AI-Box experiment.
I used to be a young-earth creationist. I was convinced that young-earth creationism was wrong by old-earth creationists. I was convinced that old-earth creationism was wrong by theistic evolutionists. I was convinced that theistic evolution was wrong, not by Dawkins, but by equally bombastic atheists before the God Delusion was published. I was never convinced of anything by mealy-mouthed atheists pretending to think that religion was a reasonable position that they just didn't personally agree with.
There is a case to be made for "easing people into it", when it comes to advocating ideas. That doesn't mean atheists should advocate Intelligent Design in an attempt to lure in YECs, obviously. And I think it would be equally ill-advised for people like Dawkins to pretend they see religion as anything other than transparently stupid and evil. Better to have the people who actually hold moderate positions advocating those moderate positions.
I don't think criticisms of tone are necessarily fallacious. But I am suspicious whenever anyone says "stop advocating your position so stridently, or you'll only drive people further away from your position", because such claims are usually unfounded, and often associated with sinister ulterior motives.
I'm glad you asked this.
I actually get really angry when I hear people mindlessly badmouthing the Westboro Baptist Church (the "God Hates Fags" people). I even get annoyed when I hear people defend WBC on free-speech grounds, because they always say the same thing: "Sure, I wish we could throw these people in jail, but gosh darn it, we gotta defend free speech!". As if the only reason we let people with odious opinions speak their minds is because of some slippery slope belief that otherwise we ourselves will be censored.
The truth is I'm grateful for WBC's honesty. I don't just reluctantly support WBC's right to free speech, while really wishing they would shut up. I wish they didn't hold the opinions they do, because I think they're wrong, but given that they do hold those opinions, I'm glad they're forthright about it. I don't think anyone would be better off if they kept their hateful views to themselves. Their children are arguably better off being exposed to mainstream culture, knowing how controversial their family's views are, rather than being quietly indoctrinated.
And yeah, I think it really sucks when homophobes pretend to be okay with gay people... (read more)
I would like to see your data on Dawkins' actual effectiveness. You've made a strong claim there.
While diplomacy is certainly an important consideration in getting an argument across, it's very far from the whole story. I think you're confusing people's self-reporting on whether they like an argument with whether the argument is actually effective. These are very different things. I quote again David Colquhon on getting homeopathy out of UK universities, and Dawkins' tone:... (read more)
Why redo what has already been done? The information is out there – we need but someone to read and summarize them. A ten-minute search yielded the following:
Wow, nice start! Unfortunately none of your citations, except maybe those behind paywalls, seem to address our main issue directly. They do, however, provide much useful background about the emotional and interpersonal dimensions of persuasion and deconversion. Streib's book, for example, uses personality tests (the 5-factor measure, a measure of "well-being and growth", and such) to study deconversion. Jacobs writes that "severing of socio-emotional bonds to the religious leader" is important in deconversion. And Ullman writes that "Emotional factors were more closely associated with religious conversion" than cognitive personality features like tolerance of ambiguity. Max Heirich disputes the emotions-and-relationships focus however.
Cobb and Kuklinski do examine argument styles for effectiveness, but the only dimensions they study are Pro/Con and Easy/Hard (to comprehend). From other browsing, I got the impression that Hard to Comprehend means that the arguer actually explains how the policy will lead to great or terrible things, rather than simply asserting that it will. Ah, democracy!
It occurred to me that political argument is probably bet... (read more)
PZ Myers has been collecting anecdotes entitled "Why I am an atheist" from various folks. Several of them mention Dawkins, and at least two I've found with a casual search mention The God Delusion:
Evidence to update on?
I've already said this before but I'm certainly someone who became an atheist largely through Dawkins' works, and particularly with the help of The God Delusion. Before, I was firmly religious, along with my family, peer group, and community.
Anecdotal evidence and all, but just as a data point for you -- especially given how falsifiable your (strong) statement is.
It converted me.
You've already made plenty of strong statements of your opinion. What makes you think that your opinion is calibrated to the world?
Talking about tone is not necessarily a bad thing. As the OP says, the tone in which arguments are presented can be an important thing. Discussions can often proceed more fruitfully if participants maintain a moderate tone, and strong arguments are often more persuasive when they are framed less antagonistically.
The problem is when a focus on tone takes the place of a focus on content. There is a large class of bad arguing which involve pretending to engage with someone's argument, while in fact ignoring it. One way to do that is to focus on their tone. When agreements break down into two sides, criticizing the other side's tone can be an easy and relatively content-free way to say "Yay us, boo them!" and suggest that the other side is not worth listening too. Or, if you want to portray yourself as a reasonable person who is not attached to either side, then criticizing the content of the views of one side and the tone of the other side can be a convenient way of portraying yourself as above the fray while barely engaging with the views of some of the main participants in the fray.
Focus on tone can also be a problem more broadly if, whenever you think about a topic, you habitually think about one side's tone rather than the actual content at stake. In many places, whenever the topic of atheism/vegetarianism/feminism/homsexuality comes up, people will complain about how proponents are too in-your-face about it. If that is someone's most accessible response to the topic then that is a warning sign.
, of course.
I look forward to your substantiation, on a more robust basis than personal feeling.
Amongst the sophisticated theists I know (Church of England types who have often actually read large chunks of the Bible and don't dispute that something called "evolution" happened), they will detail their objections to The God Delusion at length ... without, it turns out, having actually read it. This appears to be the religious meme defending itself. I point them at the bootleg PDF and suggest they actually read it, then complain ... at which point they usually never mention it ever again.
The problem with tone arguments, from a Bayesian standpoint, is that the arguer is declaring "I don't have to update on your evidence because I don't like the tone with which you present it." This is a form of rationalization for maintaining one's previous position against evidence to the contrary; as such, it is bad epistemic rationality.
(In some cases, it goes so far as "I don't have to update my view of humanity and human value on the evidence of the fact of your existence because I don't like the tone with which you present yourself." Which implies, "your tone in speaking to me is more significant to my values than your existence is.")
I'd like to pool thoughts on what books we do recommend to get people out of religion.
I consider myself a Dawkins fan, but I personally wouldn't recommend The God Delusion to, say, a creationist. To a creationist, I'd recommend Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth, along with Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True and the website TalkOrigins.org. The other Dawkins book I most frequently recommend is The Selfish Gene, but I'd recommend that mainly to people who aren't opposed to evolution but may need more help really understanding evolution.
I suspect The God Delusion would be of greatest help to someone on the fence about religion, but I'm not sure I'd necessarily recommend it over, say, Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian. The main advantage of publishing The God Delusion, as I see it, is that Bertrand Russell wasn't going to make it back onto the bestseller list anytime soon.
I don't have many books I really strongly recommend to people with total confidence, but I do frequently give strong recommendations for Bart Ehrman's books, particularly Jesus, Interrupted.
A: worked on me. I thought, "Okay, I realized I don't know that much about my religion. What's the deal?" So during church I'd actually read the bible. It didn't take long.
B: Well, I once was on a discussion board that was primarily for evangelical Christians. In the natural course of discussion, I mentioned the tribe of Benjamin. You know, the one with clearly-God-sanctioned mass murder and rape.
Some of them came up with some pretzel logic justifications. The rest of them backed away quietly.
Incidents like that were a big contributing factor to why the site was shut down.
Often what is called a "Tone argument" is someone who is saying "I have trouble considering your argument because of factors which are irrelevant to your content. If you wish to communicate with me, stop including things which impair communication."
It comes out more along the lines of "Did you really need to compare the comparing opinion to Stalinism to make your point? That's just rude.", or "You really should provide a warning when you are likely to trigger PTSD.", which can be rejected as tone arguments even though they identify specific failures of communication that could be remedied by the previous speaker.
It's also tied up in status. Often, when someone is protesting their condition of lower status, any argument they put forward will initially be interpreted as rudeness and bad tone, without regard to the content. This is what the protest "that's just a tone argument" conventionally refers to.
Suppose you and I are scheduled to debate some topic.
Suppose further that my supporters have defined the rules of the debate, and have done so in such a way that I have a number of concrete advantages.
In that hypothetical scenario, I would say that me requesting that you follow the rules, and you requesting that I follow the rules, are not symmetrical acts. And they are asymmetrical precisely because of the power imbalance between my supporters and your supporters, and how that power applies to the specification of the rules in the first place.
Would you agree or disagree? (Note, I am not asking whether the above is a reasonable characterization of real-world situations involving civility and power-differentials. Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn't. Right now I'm just trying to establish what your position is with respect to a simpler problem.)
You always want the tone to be effective, but just what constitutes effective is dependent on what you're trying to accomplish today. If it's not just to get people converted today, Mr. Nice Guy is not necessarily the best tactic.
Ridicule can be effective. Moral condemnation can be effective. Maybe both are not so effective at the moment of conversion, but a Bad Cop today can soften someone up for a Good Cop tomorrow.
Sam Harris had a wonderful smackdown of Christianity on moral grounds in a relatively recent debate with Craig. Comments like "evil&quo... (read more)
I think there's an issue in that people read in differently from tone arguments depending on the source. The argument response "I don't like your tone" coming from someone you know agrees with you would likely be seen as a suggestion of phrasing the same point better, from someone you believe disagrees with you it is probably an attempt to avoid the substance of the argument.
I suspect with minimal information about the other person people will assume the latter and go on the defensive.
A rationalist who doesn't consider the effects of tone when attempting to effect a change in someone's thinking is not dealing in reality. There is a reason Becker's Rules have to be asked for and agreed to, even among rationalists- we are not built to automatically separate tone from content, and there are times when even the most thoughtful of us are personally vulnerable to a harsh tone. We tend to simplify to "two Beysians updating on evidence", but in reality, we have to consider the best way to transmit that message, as well as the outcome ... (read more)
Of course. Dawkins preaches to the converted. I doubt that he ever seriously put himself into the mindset of a devout person for the purpose of writing a convincing argument.
I saw someone reading The Selfish Gene on an airplane the other day, and a similar thought came to mind. I thought, "Ah, I should say hello to this person when we get off the plane. Failing that, give the official rationalist nod of affirmation. Go science!" (I missed the person leaving while trying to get to my book bag in the overhead compartment).
After, I decided that I would have had a similar urge to express my admiration to anyone I saw reading any Dawkins book, except the God Delusion. I'm happy to have a conversation with a fellow science lover. Not nearly as much with a fellow God hater.
upvoted for this.
I thought The Greatest Show On Earth (2010) was fantastic, and I'm currently rereading it. (I recommend this book to everyone. If you thought you understood evolution, you'll understand it better.) The first paragraph of the first chapter summarises just why Dawkins is so generally pissed off with religion these days:... (read more)
This has come up before in other discussions, ... (read more)
I see less Tone Argument with atheism than with the sense of 'Privilege' that was introduced in The Invisible Knapsack, including its variant forms.
Some people the notion of 'privilege' is aimed at 'get it', and some don't, but I've never seen it mentioned without a raft of people making obvious facile objections because the idea is presented aggressively. People who 'get it' and also note that this approach is not maximally efficient... catch a tremendous degree of flak, and that includes complaints against using 'Tone Arguments'.
We have quite a few atheist converts on LW. How about a poll?
Upvote if you converted to atheism, and Richard Dawkins made the conversion neither easier nor harder.
Upvote if you converted to atheism, and Richard Dawkins made the conversion easier.
I object to the tone of this post
I think people's objections to tone arguments have often been misinterpreted because (ironically) the objections are often explained more emotively and less dispassionately.
As I understand it, the problem with "tone arguments" is NOT that they're inherently fallacious, but rather, than they're USUALLY (although not necessarily) rude and inflammatory.
I think a stereotypical exchange might be:
A says something inadvertently offensive to subgroup Beta B says "How dare you? Blah blah blah" ... (read more)
People actually do that? Those'd be crazy things for them to claim.
Hmm, I guess I can still shrug off tone disagreements, because my arguments are rarely intended to convince someone. I mostly just try to exchange information. If people don't want my information, or give me noise instead of information, that's ok and I go talk to someone else. Sorry, this is not meant as a statement of superiority, but it seems to work pretty well for me.