In Defense of Tone Arguments

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.

172 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:22 AM
Select new highlight date

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 they wanted to have happen. Turns out, for many of them, no one had ever asked them that in their entire lives. That question usually stopped aggravation cold, even if what they wanted to have happen wasn't possible.

Does tone matter? You bet. Tone matters so much I question myself when I get answers that seem to work this well, to try and detect unknowingly adopting pretty / useful answers instead of truthful ones.

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.

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.

Also, might be nice to get a source who has less of a history of writing nonfiction books embracing a variety of parapsychological woo than Colin Wilson.

So what would happen if you did this with religious fundamentalists?

I have had similar conversations with religious believers (I'll not comment on whether they were fundamentalists or not). Listening quietly, asking questions, and pointing out contradictions has changed specific parts of their beliefs that were less considered or more harmful. They remained religious believers. On occasion, I've had to revise my beliefs about religious beliefs as well - mutual benefit, both of us hopefully less wrong.

Homilies on the evils of religion have their place as well - for me, in essays. Conversations go better with quiet listening.

I did that with mormon preachers one time because I was seriously bored. Doesn't seem to work. They can repeat themselves infinitely, especially if faced with contradictions.

I think there's a crucial difference with the nazi officers: the nazi officers were more or less sane guys in an environment where they had to profess a belief in belief and rationalize other's errors of thought; they didn't really face a lot of alternatives, and furthermore had pretty damn good deep survival related reasons to drop their beliefs. The religious folks are self selected true believers, or children of self selected true believers, and however strong was the propaganda it is but a drop in the ocean compared to upbringing. Some believers genuinely possess the failures of thought that create their beliefs; some merely imitate this; and among the self selected there's much more of the former.

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.

Do you think it is ill-advised for homophobes to pretend to be okay with gay people? Are you okay with Klan rallies? Or does your support of people making their beliefs clearly, publicly, and loudly known extend only to beliefs you share?

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 so they can push their agenda. Whenever you misrepresent your goals, in order to further your goals, you are tricking people. It's tempting, when you have some great revelation you think everyone should share, to think in terms of winning people over. But what if you're wrong? What if your manipulative talking points backfire? Imagine how much worse it would be, if Westboro Baptist Church had come up with some ingeniously subtle way to spread their message, that actually gained converts? Honesty is always the best policy, because it's self-correcting. I'm glad when people I disagree with loudly, publicly speak their opinions, for the same reason I'm glad when people I agree with loudly, publicly speak their opinions: it allows others to judge those opinions on their merits.

I would prefer that homophobes (and other people with opinions) express their beliefs in some way other than, say, rudely interrupting funerals.

I don't think that the world in which that were reliably true would be worse than the one I live in.

Yeah, probably. But that's way more extreme than anything atheists do anyway. OrphanWilde was asking if I have a double standard, and I don't.

I already have a judgment of the opinion of homophobes.

I agree with you on this for slightly different grounds; hatred grows in the dark, and shrivels up in the light. Which is to say, I don't see any particular value in agreement or disagreement or judgment, per se, but I do see value in the ability to offer counterargument. I might not be able to change the opinion of this particular person, but those who might grow to share their opinions otherwise.

(That being said, I wish -my side- would shut up most of the time, particularly on political matters. I have to put up with the reputation their nonsense engenders for us. Sturgeon's Law means free speech is best left for your opponents to hang themselves with.)

You're looking at this very strategically. You want people on your side to be more discreet, so that "your side" can "win". This seems inappropriate, because your side is defined by a set of beliefs, not a group of people. It's almost as if you want people with whom you share some beliefs, to help your side win, by promoting those beliefs while holding back their other beliefs.

For example, it sounds like you disagree with most self-identified rationalists/ atheists on political matters. If so, how are they on your side, anyway? They have their own agendas, which don't align perfectly with yours. So shouldn't you be glad that they've given you enough rope to hang them with?

They hang part of my agenda along with themselves.

There are always casualties, but the more of my agenda I can salvage, the better.

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:

Dr Baggini, among others, has claimed that the “new atheists” are too strident, and that they only antagonise moderate atheists (see The New Atheist Movement is destructive, though there is something of a recantation two years later in Religion’s truce with science can’t hold).

I disagree, for two reasons.

Firstly, people like Richard Dawkins are really not very strident. Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, is quiet and scholarly. It takes each of the arguments put forward by religious people, and dissects them one by one. It’s true that, having done this, he sets forth his conclusions quite bluntly. That seems to me to be a good thing. If your conclusions are stifled by tortuous euphemisms, nobody takes much notice. Just as in science, simple plain words are best.

The second, and more important, reason that I like Dawkin’s approach is that I suspect it’s the only approach that has much effect. There is a direct analogy with my own efforts to stop universities giving BSc degrees in subjects that are not science. Worse, they are actively anti-science. Take for example, homeopathy, the medicine that contains no medicine. I started by writing polite letters to vice chancellors. Usually they didn’t even have the courtesy to reply. All efforts to tackle the problem through the “proper channels” failed. The only thing that has worked was public derision. A combination of internal moles and Freedom of Information Act requests unearthed what was being taught on these courses. Like Westminster’s assertion that “amethysts emit high Yin energy”. Disclosure of such nonsense and headlines like

“Professor Geoffrey Petts of the University of Westminster says they “are not teaching pseudo-science”. The facts show this is not true

are certainly somewhat strident. But they have worked. Forget the proper channels if you want results. Mock what deserves to be mocked.

Or, as H. L. Mencken put it nearly a century ago:

One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.

Making people feel comfortable and being effective are not necessarily linked.

What this debate about the strategically best tone needs is some experiments. Are there any social scientists in the LW house?

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:

Someone willing to put in a day's work would surely be able to find better and much more studies and reviews.

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 better studied than religious argument, and is similar enough, dynamically, that an argument tone effective in one area is probably comparably effective in the other. That search led me to:

Arceneaux finds that exploiting in-group bias and loss aversion make for effective political arguments. Croft cites psychologist and political consultant Drew Westen for the claim, among others, that tone matters, and that in particular, condescension or know-it-all attitudes are trouble. However, Croft does not cite specific studies or explain any findings.

Nice, I like the Arceneaux paper. (Published version and online supporting material.) It cites a lot of papers too, so given its recency, it'd make an excellent base for a backward citation search.

[Edit: I have retracted the strong claim, incidentally.]

"Quiet and scholarly"? It compares a religious upbringing to sexual abuse - and finds sexual abuse too mild to compare.

Public derision should not be your first resort, however. It has a bad tendency to backfire, and depends pretty heavily on a public agreeing with you to begin with.

Your last paragraph is true, but somewhat vacuous in context: no-one's particularly disputing that diplomacy is a useful persuasive tool. Your article comes across as elevating tone considerations above all else when the aim is effectiveness, and I think that you simply haven't substantiated that.

  • Your article comes across as elevating tone considerations above all else when the aim is effectiveness

The summary sentence of the article: "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."

You were, in another comment, talking about insubstantiable claims? I believe in a manner that suggested they were a bad sort of thing to be making?

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.

It occurred to me that US TV news reporting is full of tone arguments.

I'd argue that it's more a warning sign about an author that they're incapable of being tone-neutral about a subject.

Having difficulty reading past an extremely hostile tone, particularly about a matter sensitive to you, is -human-. Having difficulty being civil to a group you have an -honest- intellectual disagreement with, less so.

The God Delusion utterly destroyed his effectiveness at convincing people against religion.

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?

Not exactly. One was already an atheist, the other was, at strongest, an agnostic. I would be honestly surprised if The God Delusion converted anybody from a held religious belief. And considering the number of people out there, that's a pretty strong statement of my opinion of its ability to convince anybody of anything.

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.

I've been forced by brute-force evidence to concede this point.

Would you recommend it to other people with currently held religious conviction? (I'm still convinced it has a pretty strong net negative value. I'd like the opinion of somebody for whom it did make a difference.)

Dawkins is a biologist, not a philosopher. His book is definitely a no go because It has a huge deal-breaker: Its central argument, 'Who created God' (which embarrassingly was the one that swayed me) is false. If I had promptly found out back then that this particular argument was false, I would have probably stuck with the theist position.

I like have discussions with religious people, so I have a sense of what works and what does not work. I have tried many approaches and I think for an approach to work, you have the present the strongest argument in the simplest form with the least amount of offence.

The best argument that fits these criteria IMO is that the universe in its current form is different than the way it would have been if an intelligent entity had created it. For example, why are there billions of billions of stars and planets without any purpose? Why did God wait 4.5 billion years since the inception of the universe to create the Earth, and another 9 billion years to create humans? Why does the human body have an appendix, whose only purpose is to inflame and rupture, killing many people before the invention of surgery? Why is the human heart, a vital organ, incapable of adequately rebuilding itself after a heart attack?

This line of arguing is great because

It is strong You can spend hours giving examples on how poorly the universe is designed, and I have debated many theists and none so far has managed to provide a good counterargument. It is simple The theist already knows the universe is vast. The theist already knows the heart does not regenerate well after a heart attack. You don't have to show him scientific papers. You don't have to waste time explaining a philosophical argument. It is non-offensive You are just saying his God is a poor designer. You can do much worse than that.

This reminds me of a 30-minute lecture lukeprog gave long ago, which communicated a similar message: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3Sli34Dw3U

Of course, lukeprog has evolved a lot since then. He has recently launched a great website www.worldviewnaturalism.com, which apparently concludes/summarizes his efforts at commonsenseatheism.com. I am pretty sure he also made a post here in lesswrong about this topic.

Edit: Forgot to add. According to this source: http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2012/02/results-of-the-.html Theists perceive the argument from evil as being very powerful. So I think you should use the argument from evil too, but in the very end of your discussion, because the theist might be offended and decide to terminate the conversation.

Don't want to debate Luke's video here, but I also disagree with you about "who created God?" being the God Delusion's central argument. The central argument is the "Ultimate Boeing 747", which essentially argues that the Bayesian prior for the likelihood of God should be very low. This applies whether or not God is "necessary" or "non-contingent", and has nothing to do with how good an explanation for anything God is.

What's wrong with the "who created God?" response? Remember, it's not an argument against the existence of God, itself. It merely nullifies an argument for the existence of God: That we need God to explain the universe.

Watch the video I linked to earlier. lukeprog explains it better than I ever will: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3Sli34Dw3U

I've always regarded the arguments that Luke cites against Dawkins' central argument as being awfully weak.

Yes, theists believe that God is eternal and necessary, a "non-contingent" being, as they say. But you could just as easily say that the universe itself is necessary and non-contingent. It doesn't seem to have existed in its current form forever, but that doesn't mean that the process which gave rise to the Big Bang ever had to be caused by anything, or could possibly have not existed.

Maybe the universe is necessary and non-contingent, maybe not. But the fact that it exists is established beyond reasonable doubt. We're not taking up a big unnecessary complexity burden by positing the existence of the universe. God, on the other hand, is a big complexity burden. You can say that he's non-contingent, that he couldn't possibly not exist, but you could say that about anything, and we don't have any actual evidence for that assertion.

When dealing with a causal chain, you're ultimately going to end up with an infinite regression or an uncaused cause. What Dawkins argues is that if you're going to posit an uncaused cause, God, as an intelligent being, is a far more complex explanation than a simple uncaused cause, such as some sort of basic physical principle.

Some believers will respond that God is simple, he has no moving parts and is ontologically basic. But of course, again, there's no end to the hypothetical entities you could posit and say that they're ontologically basic, but they can't even establish that intelligent ontologically basic entities is a coherent idea, and even if they could, it would leave the question of how we single out their conception of God as the specific ontologically basic causal agent to believe in. He has qualities attributed to him which you could not attribute to an ontologically basic causal entity, so as an explanatory hypothesis he can't be minimally complex.

An actual reply: The question "How did the universe arise?" is equivalent to "How did God arise?". You do not have to explain how the universe came into existence in order to accept that the universe exists, and the same applies to God.

Your main point in your reply is that God fails occam's razor. He does not help us understand the universe nor the physical phenomena; He is just a less embarrassing replacement of the word magic. God has poor explanatory power, and this is a good argument.

If from the beginning you do not accept that God is a good explanation for our existence, you do not have to play the theist's game. If you do, then you cannot afterwards tell the theist to provide an explanation for his God or you won't believe in Him, because 1)this question is irrelevant as shown earlier and 2)his theology already provides an adequate answer for this question once you conceded/entertained the thought that God could provide a good explanation for our existence.

2)his theology already provides an adequate answer for this question once you conceded/entertained the thought that God could provide a good explanation for our existence.

I'd contest that it provides an adequate answer, although it certainly offers answers.

I will just leave this paper here, which lukeprog mentioned in his Better Disagreement article:

http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Wielenberg-Dawkins-Gambit-Humes-Aroma-and-Gods-Simplicity.pdf

To quote:

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.

Why does the human body have an appendix, whose only purpose is to inflame and rupture, killing many people before the invention of surgery? Why is the human heart, a vital organ, incapable of adequately rebuilding itself after a heart attack?

I agree with the general thrust of this, but note that specific case of the uselessness of the appendix is controversial.

My list for this argument starts with the fact that it would be much better if the trachea and esophagus didn't intersect, with the nostrils on the side of the neck -- no one would ever choke, a circumstance of death usually associated with children (typically exemplifying the morally blameless for most religious people).

I can argue back that each of the two discrete pathways would be narrower than the one common pathway we have, so having a common pathway is not as stupid as you are making it out to be. This answer is poor because the risk of choking is much more problematic than having a narrower airway.

Earthquakes are also mildly useful in that they bring out precious metals to the surface of the earth. I am pretty sure an omnipotent god could have brought out such materials without having to kill millions of people each time he did it.

Regarding the appendix, I frankly don't care if a handful of doctors claimed the appendix had some trivial functions. The way I see it: people without an appendix are indistinguishable health-wise from people with an appendix, while until a very recent time, people with an appendix had to worry about dying when it inflames and ruptures. Humanity would have been much better off without an appendix.

I've been forced by brute-force evidence to concede this point.

Recommended reading: http://yudkowsky.net/rational/virtues/

I've read it. That comment was an attempt at levity.

You've already made plenty of strong statements of your opinion. What makes you think that your opinion is calibrated to the world?

My prior was based on my initial reading of the book; I came away thoroughly disappointed, and quite certain that the book would be useless due to its offensive nature (not to mention the careless way Dawkins discloses his biases, such as his feud with his ex-wife), and probably damage Dawkin's reputation to boot. I've since updated on the responses I have encountered, which were only sporadically positive among atheists and even more sparsely positive among agnostics, and universally negative among the religious.

universally negative among the religious.

Did you check with them a year later? Were they still religious?

The "It's not our responsibility to teach you" bit never fails to amuse me. Until humans stop dying, somebody's gotta keep doing it.

This...it is pretty frustrating when I see people who are supposedly on my side say things like "it's not my duty to educate people" or "allies get no cookies for doing what we tell them to".

It's like they gave up with actually convincing anyone to be less evil and just want to yell at people.

I even made a blog labeled as being a bit about social justice, without knowing people there had given "social justice" such a bad name...I try to be nice and reasonable instead, maybe I can surprise a few people with that and actually help.

Yelling at people is high-status. Talking with people politely signals respecting them as equals.

If (I believe) I am wise and good, and the other people are ignorant and evil, it feels completely natural to act high-status towards them. Treating them as equals could even lower my status in the eyes of my friends.

Monkeys all the way down...

Yelling at people is high-status.

Depends on the context. Not yelling can also be a high-status. Consider a CEO talking in soft tones when faced with grim news during a large meeting, signifying that he doesn't even need to raise his voice to command all others to listen to him.

There's a mind game aspect to it; for nearly any high-status move I can think of, doing the exact opposite is an even higher-status move (if you can pull it off), emphasizing that you don't even need to rely on giving off high-status vibes in the conventional way. Consider e.g. Silicon Valley CEOs in casual clothing, or "old money" foregoing the usual trappings of status.

Depends on the context.

Absolutely. The CEO's soft talk in your example is impressive because no one else dares to interrupt them. If you imagine a commision of dozen people, where one starts speaking with a soft voice, and is immediately interrupted by someone else yelling, and people show their agreement with the yelling person... that would send a completely different message about status within the group. -- To an outside observer, the first person could seem more sympatetic. But within the group, the second person is the winner, at least for the given moment.

There's a mind game aspect to it; for nearly any high-status move I can think of, doing the exact opposite is an even higher-status move (if you can pull it off),

And you can usually pull it off only if you have already accumulated enough status through other means. (I do X and conspicuously abstain from doing Y, to emphasise the power of my X.)

My model of a typical "people enthusiastic about fixing the rotten world" group is that most people there focus on looking good in the eyes of their peers. (If that actively harms the goal, most of them don't realize it. And if the world does not improve despite the effort of the group, that only confirms that the word really is rotten and the group is superior to the outsiders.) If you have very high status, you can afford speaking politely with the ignorant evil outsiders, because your peers know that despite your polite facade you truly despise them in your heart. But only a few members have status this high. Most people work actively on gaining it by signalling their loyalty to the group values, for example by yelling at people who disagree. And, for obvious evo-psych reasons, yelling at outsiders, especially the meek ones, when you have a full backup of your tribe, feels good.

(Note: Despite the tone of this comment, in the past I was a member of groups that tried to make other people see the light -- although I didn't yell at anyone -- and I was yelled at or otherwise shown contempt by groups who tried to make me see the light. In one case it was the same group, a few years later. I consider yelling and other forms of contempt unproductive when spreading ideas, but I understand the temptation of a monkey brain to do that.)

Yelling at people is high-status. Talking with people politely signals respecting them as equals.

I think that in certain cases (e.g. when your opponent is already very low status) it's the other way round.

Yelling at people is high-status.

A homeless tramp yelling at every passerby is not high status. Fact is, yelling can mean anything (an instance of the general rule that anything can mean anything). It can imply that you are in a position of weakness, having to yell to get anyone to pay attention. In can imply that you are in a position of strength, being able to get away with yelling at people. It can imply you're just an asshole.

Talking with people politely signals respecting them as equals.

Talking with people politely signals respecting them, period.

If (I believe) I am wise and good, and the other people are ignorant and evil, it feels completely natural to act high-status towards them.

What feels natural to you is a fact about you.

Treating them as equals could even lower my status in the eyes of my friends.

You need a better class of friend.

A homeless tramp yelling at every passerby is not high status.

Being a homeless tramp is low status. Said tramp using a social move that constitutes a status grab does not thereby change the principles of social dynamics.

Fact is, yelling can mean anything (an instance of the general rule that anything can mean anything).

This theory is worse than useless.

Talking with people politely signals respecting them, period.

Period? What happened to your 'general rule that anything can mean anything'? Is that the kind of fully general counterargument that applies only to your rivals, and not yourself?

What feels natural to you is a fact about you.

Non-sequitur one-upmanship.

You need a better class of friend.

Disingenuous and rude. You are attempting to distort Viliam's counter-factual illustration into a confession of weak social alliances. That would be untenable as a sincere interpretation of the meaning.

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.")

But why think that the targets of persuasion are epistemically rational? Why think they are Bayesians doing careful updating on only relevant information?

I take it OrphanWilde's point (or part of it) is that if your goal is persuading the majority of ordinary, fallible, often irrational people, then tone is worth considering. That is, if ordinary people irrationally care about tone, then you still need to care about tone when trying to convince them of something, even if your only goal is to get them to stop caring about tone. Otherwise, you are failing in the same sort of way as Hollywood portrayals of rational or logical people, who are perpetually surprised when the people they interact with are not rational or logical.

Sure, these are reasons for an individual to consider the tone of their own arguments.

But that's not what "tone argument" usually refers to ...

It's also reason to care about the tone of arguments whose substance you endorse, and which are being offered by other people -- which is exactly the tone argument (assuming that the person offering the argument is sincere and not concern trolling or worse). The scenario being imagined supposes that you and I both support the same agenda, but while you are being persuasive, I am turning people off with my tone. In that case, you really ought to point out to me that I am hurting my own cause with my tone.

The scenario being imagined supposes that you and I both support the same agenda

That's not the scenario in which I have most often seen people objecting to tone arguments.

I could be making a mistake, but I'm working off of the first incognito google hit from "tone argument," which is this.

As I understand it, a tone argument is a suggestion that someone change tone in order to improve his or her chances of persuading. And the common objection is that such tone arguments are disingenuous. They are "concern trolling" or offering fake support in order to hurt the cause.

So ... are we really disagreeing here or are we talking past each other?

Talking past each other. The conventional use is to protest tone being used as an excuse not to listen to an opponent. Dissent being perceived as rudeness.

I've seen it split. You need to pay close attention.

For example, if Alice and Bob are both arguing in favor of the same proposition for some time, then at one point Bob suggests that Alice has just had a tone problem... it's much less likely to be concern trolling.

Alternately, if Bob, while mentioning Alice's tone, restates Alice's argument in such a way that it still means the same thing, but is more palatable, she might want to consider the possibility that he's not trying to undermine her arguments.

Lastly, if Bob has come across Alice and Carla arguing against each other and says that they're BOTH messing up the tone, assuming he's on one side or the other seems a mite premature.

Instantly deducing that someone is a concern troll for mentioning tone, prejudicially to all other evidence, is a mistake.

Potential scenarios:

1: Alfred and Bob really do support the same agenda, but Alfred thinks Bob's tone makes him unpersuasive.

  1. Alfred pretends to support Bob's agenda, but is just a concern troll.

  2. Alfred is open about disagreeing with Bob's agenda, and directs his criticisms at Bob's tone rather than engaging with Bob's actual argument.

I interpret the opening sentence of that page as referring to scenarios 2 and 3, in that order:

sometimes by Concern trolls and sometimes as a Derailment

Here's some more stuff from that page which seems to describe scenario 3:

If you tread on someone's toes, and they tell you to get off, then get off their toes. Don't tell them to "ask nicely".

And:

some men label any feminist thought or speech as hostile or impolite

On that page I don't see much reference to scenario 1, which is what you seem to be talking about.

In my experience scenarios 2 and 3 are where tone arguments most often come up and are objected to.

I'm a male who has commented on feminist thought which I agreed with, but found so hostile as to be antipersuasive - the attitude demonstrated seriously made me reconsider whether or not I even agreed with them - and was promptly called a concern troll, among other invectives.

(I will add that that particular post rapidly turned into a shitstorm which resulted in several readers, including myself, ceasing to read the blog in question. I've seen commenters on unrelated blogs link to it as an example of why the author shouldn't be taken seriously.)

"Derailment" and "concern trolling" are rationalizations; they're an author seeking a mechanism by which to justify ignoring criticism.

No doubt; trolls will utilize any behavior effective in eliciting a reaction. The grown-up thing to do is to realize the trolls are a fact of the internet and deal with them on an individual basis; categorically eliminating every troll behavior in turn doesn't lead to an end in trolling, only an end to honest debate. I've seen requests for clarification being treated as troll behavior, for an example of where that leads.

Fair enough. I think the way I was thinking about it was this: the tone argument as such is the claim that some argument would be more effective if it were presented with a different tone. I think you're right that the tone argument is typically given either disingenuously or as a distraction from the real issues. But those are motivations or tactics or something for making a tone argument. I suppose there is a preliminary question of whether a tone argument can ever be made sincerely. Assuming that a tone argument can be made sincerely, I think we get the original question. Does it matter whether that question is about typical tone arguments? Should we use a different term instead of "tone argument"?

That only holds true if that is, in fact, what the arguer is arguing.

What's more likely, however? A Bayesian rationalist who is rationalizing on a well-known logical fallacy, and publicly announcing it? Or somebody who is irritated with you for damaging the reputation of your in-group or the terms of the debate?

[Edit] Or, to put it more deliberately - read the final paragraph. You're starting from the assumption that the arguer is doing just that. You're starting from the unfounded presumption that a tone argument is a dismissal of the argument.

You're starting from the unfounded presumption that a tone argument is a dismissal of the argument.

Yes, that last bit is super-important.

And often true.

Edit: More thorough analysis here

The God Delusion utterly destroyed his effectiveness at convincing people against religion.

[citation needed], of course.

Consider it my opinion, and the whole of this article as the substantive argument for why. If you have an issue with the argument, of course, you're free to present it. Alternatively, if you know somebody who was converted from religious belief to atheism by The God Delusion, that would be an evidence-based argument as to why I am wrong on the matter as a whole.

Hm. The rest of your article explains that tone can be bad for effectiveness, and when it is, it's reasonable to act on that information.

You do argue that a confrontational tone will put people on the defensive. Which seems true on average, and ceteris paribus will result in persuading fewer people than a nonconfrontational tone. But there are "non-average" effects, for example if people who don't immediately become defensive are also more (or less) likely to be persuaded by confrontation, that gives a positive (or negative) term. And there are "ceteris isn't paribus" effects, where a confrontational tone might get noticed a lot more (or less) than non-confrontation, gaining a positive (or negative) effect that way.

Anyhow, one could find anecdotes both pro (yay google) and con (I guess we'll count you for that one. We'd prefer anecdotes of opinion because of rather than opinion on, but those will be scarce unless Dawkins actually makes people join religions). To get non-anecdotal evidence, maybe we could estimate some long-term impact on atheism? That gets awful theory-laden awful fast, though. I guess you'd need some persuasion studies on the marginal impact of tone, and a model that could account for effects like those I mention above.

Dawkins, of course, has a pile of them. While this selection is obviously lacking in arguments against, it is precisely the thing you just asked for.

I'll have to concede that point then. Most of those weren't strong believers to begin with, but the presence of one refutes my argument, leaving me with the weaker form "The God Delusion does more damage than good."

leaving me with the weaker form "The God Delusion does more damage than good."

I look forward to your substantiation, on a more robust basis than personal feeling.

I use the responses to my attack on Dawkins as proof of that attack on Dawkins; it put a lot of his supporters on the intellectual defensive, and caused them to respond to my attitude towards Dawkins rather than the substantive point of the article.

That comes across as an attempt at a witty answer, but it avoids the substantial question I asked: You have claimed "The God Delusion does more damage than good." How do you support this claim, with something more than personal opinion? I ask that you substantiate the claim on a more robust basis than "I feel like it does", given that you literally didn't think the book worked at all until this thread snowed you under with examples, suggesting your personal feeling on the book is not well calibrated with its effectiveness in the world (as others have already alluded to), thus putting into slight question the chain of logic you considered it a good example of.

I'm responding again: Short summary is, my apologies. I took out my irritation about the way the responses focused laser-like on something I didn't intend to talk about (note to self: people talk about what they want to talk about, not what I want to talk about) on you; you actually provided evidence, and put the argument to rest relatively quickly, and I should have tapped out explicitly then, instead of getting sarcastic and rude and hoping that would be the end of it.

Conservation of expected evidence applies here. If you believe that people responding to your attack on Dawkins constitutes evidence for that attack, then in order to be consistent you have to believe that if people had ignored your attack, then this would be evidence against the attack. Do you believe that?

Only provided Dawkins was not in strong support here. There's an asymmetry, because two things have to be true for people to ignore the substance of the argument in favor of the example - they have to care about the substance of the example, and then they have to be offended by the characterization of it. If they don't care about Dawkins, there won't be much to be offended about to begin with.

A implies B does not imply that B implies A.

But none of that matters, because that was a tongue-in-cheek response to somebody pursuing a line of argument about something I didn't care about. It was not a serious response.

I've met both sorts, people turned off by "The God Delusion" who really would have benefited from something like "Greatest Show on Earth", and people who really seemed to come around because of it (both irl and in a wide range of fora). The unfortunate side-effect of successful conversion, in my experience, has been that people who are successfully converted by rhetoric frequently begin to spam similar rhetoric, ineptly, resulting mostly in increased polarization among their friends and family.

It seems pretty hard to control for enough factors to see what kind of impact popular atheist intellectuals actually have on de-conversion rates and belief polarization (much less with specific subset of abrasive works), and I can't find any clear numbers on it. Seems like opinion mining facebook could potentially be useful here.

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.

This is part of why I tend to think that for the most part, these works aren't (or if they are, they shouldn't be) aimed at de-converting the faithful (who have already built up a strong meme-plex to fall back on), but rather for interception and prevention for young potential converts and people who are on the fence. Particularly college kids who have left home and are questioning their belief structure.

The side effect is that something that is marketed well towards this group (imo, this is the case with "The God Delusion") comes across as shocking and abrasive to the older converts (and this also plays into its marketability to a younger audience). So there's definitely a trade-off, but getting the numbers right to determine the actual payoff is difficult.

I think a more effective way to increase secular influence is through lobbying. I think in the U.S. there is a great need for a well-funded secular lobby to keep things in check. I found one such lobby but I haven't had the chance to look into it yet.

I think in practice, it has to be a movement and it has to, in its various parts, work all the angles at once. Which is pretty much the present state of things - there's plenty of work to go around.

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.

Wait, what? The Book of Judges in general and this part in particular has a lot of problems, and may well help to cure people of Christianity. (Perhaps I should say, 'stop them from annoying me with Christianity,' since without this factor I would feel inclined to leave them alone. Or at least focus on the ones smart enough to do something useful.) But the specific rapes that I think you refer to here occur right before the last verse of Judges:

In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

I'm pretty sure the author saw that as bad.

This whole "Destruction of Sodom" fanfic seems to condemn breaches of the rules of hospitality, rather than rape as such. But I do think the original audience would consider the rape of other Israelites, who didn't have permission from their fathers to be raped, a heinous crime.

This was a long time ago so I'm not fresh on which passages are which. I suspect I misremembered the context. Perhaps it was a discussion of how easy interpreting the will of god is supposed to be ('just read it! It's all there!' they say).

The author may have seen it as bad, but it seemed far more connected to lack of a king than the lack of the LORD - they were trying to do god's will in incredibly stupid and immoral ways through that episode. And in this particular case, there were definitely people in that crowd who tried to justify it anyway, saying that the men were evil anyway, and the women would be so glad to be free of them and hitched to good, god-fearing men, that it wasn't rape.

I wish I were making that up.

Anyway, there are god-sanctioned massacres - the Canaanites in particular get it really rough.

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.

...I see two. Both of which look like "my kind" of tone arguments; i/e, arguments that tone is detracting from a common purpose. I see two posts about the tone argument. And I see one comment with the extremely amusing implication that tone moderation is only valid when discussing certain topics. The closest thing to an example is somebody praising an argument for moderation in discussing a sensitive topic.

It lacks any examples of bad tone arguments at all, much less protestations of lower status being treated as rudeness as a product of their content. It is in fact exactly what I'm arguing against, in terms of discarding tone argument.

As a political aside which I'll probably regret bringing up, it argues that relative privilege should be used as the primary basis in determining whether or not a call for civility is genuine; i/e, I should be taken seriously because I'm a bisexual, but shouldn't because I'm male, but should because I'm an atheist. This is the kind of crap which has led me to stop taking most self-describing feminists seriously, and is also why most people take "Privilege" arguments as offensive at face.

"The key to understanding whether a request for civility is sincere or not is to ask whether the person asking for civility has more power along whatever axes are contextually relevant than the person being called "incivil", less power, or equal power."<