Flowsheet Logic and Notecard Logic

by moridinamael4 min read9th Sep 201528 comments

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(Disclaimer: The following perspectives are based in my experience with policy debate which is fifteen years out of date. The meta-level point should stand regardless.)

If you are not familiar with U.S. high school debate club ("policy debate" or "cross-examination debate"), here is the gist of it: two teams argue over a topic, and a judge determines who has won.

When we get into the details, there are a lot of problems with the format. Almost everything wrong with policy debate appears in this image:

Flowsheet

This is a "flowsheet", and it is used to track threads of argument between the successive epochs of the debate round. The judge and the debators keep their own flowsheets to make sense of what's going on.

I am sure that there is a skillful, positive way of using flowsheets, but I have never seen it used in any way other than the following:

After the Affirmative side lays out their proposal, the Negative throws out a shotgun blast of more-or-less applicable arguments drawn from their giant plastic tote containing pre-prepared arguments. The Affirmative then counters the Negative's arguments using their own set of pre-prepared counter-arguments. Crucially, all of the Negative arguments must be met. Look at the Flowsheet image again, and notice how each "argument" has an arrow which carries it rightward. If any of these arrows make it to the right side of the page - the end of the round - without being addressed, then the judge will typically consider the round to be won by the side who originated that arrow.

So it doesn't actually matter if an argument receives a good counterargument. It only matters that the other team has addressed it appropriately.

Furthermore, merely addressing the argument with ad hoc counterargument is usually not sufficient. If the Negative makes an argument which contains five separate logical fallacies, and the Affirmative points all of these out and then moves on, the judge may not actually consider the Negative argument to have been refuted - because the Affirmative did not cite any Evidence.

Evidence, in policy debate, is a term of art, and it means "something printed out from a reputable media source and taped onto a notecard." You can't say "water is wet" in a policy debate round without backing it up with a notecard quoting a news source corroborating the wetness of water. So, skillfully pointing out those logical fallacies is meaningless if you don't have the Evidence to back up your claims.

Skilled policy debators can be very good - impressively good - at the mental operations of juggling all these argument threads in their mind and pulling out the appropriate notecard evidence. My entire social circle in high school was composed of serious debators, many of whom were brilliant at it.

Having observed some of these people for the ensuing decade, I sometimes suspect that policy debate damaged their reasoning ability. If I were entirely simplistic about it, I would say that policy debate has destroyed their ability to think and argue rationally. These people essentially still argue the same way, by mental flowsheet, acting as though argument can proceed only via notecard exchange. If they have addressed an argument, they consider it to be refuted. If they question an argument's source ("Wikipedia? Really?"), they consider it to be refuted. If their opponent ignores one of their inconsequential points, they consider themselves to have won. They do not seem to possess any faculty for discerning whether or not one argument actually defeats another. It is the equivalent of a child whose vision of sword fighting is focused on the clicking together of the blades, with no consideration for the intent of cutting the enemy.

Policy debate is to actual healthy argumentation as checkers is to actual warfare. Key components of the object being gamified are ignored or abstracted away until the remaining simulacrum no longer represents the original.


I actually see Notecard Logic and Flowsheet Logic everywhere. That's why I have to back off from my assertion that policy debate destroyed anybody's reasoning ability - I think it may have simply reinforced and hypertrophied the default human argumentation algorithm.

Flowsheet Logic is the tendency to think that you have defeated an argument because you have addressed it. It is the overall sense that you can't lose an argument as long as none of your opponent's statements go unchallenged, even if none of your challenges are substantial/meaningful/logical. It is the belief that if you can originate more threads of argument against your opponent than they can fend off, you have won, even if none of your arguments actually matters individually. I see Flowsheet Logic tendencies expressed all the time.

Notecard Logic is the tendency to treat evidence as binary. Either you have evidence to back up your assertion - even if that evidence takes the form of an article from [insert partisan rag] - or else you are just "making things up to defend your point of view". There is no concession to Bayesian updating, credibility, or degrees of belief in Notecard Logic. "Bob is a flobnostic. I can prove this because I can link you to an article that says it. So what if I can't explain what a flobnostic is." I see Notecard Logic tendencies expressed all the time.

Once you have developed a mental paintbrush handle for these tendencies, you may see them more as well. This awareness should allow you to discern more clearly whether you - or your interlocutor - or someone else entirely - is engaging in these practices. Hopefully this awareness paints a "negative space" of superior argumentation for you.

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I've heard similar things about the line-by-line nitpick style, which originated on Usenet and now flourishes in places like Reddit. It got even worse when people learned to name-drop logical fallacies. But pockets of intelligent discussion always exist and a genuinely curious person would do better to find them, which is easier today than ever thanks to the internet. Why spend your time trying to fix stupid discussions? It's a thankless task and might make you stupider as well.

pockets of intelligent discussion always exist and a genuinely curious person would do better to find them

Maybe I don't qualify as a sufficiently curious person (I tend to give up easily), but before LessWrong I couldn't find a reasonable debate. Reasonable individuals, yes. But never a group, a community where rationality would be norm. Not even online community.

Also, many highly intelligent people around me did things that I now see as obviously irrational (things like mentioned in this article), and used them as a signal for high intelligence. I suspected that something was wrong, but wasn't able to pinpoint the problem, so my explanations were something like "I'm sorry, but this way of reasoning feels intuitively wrong", which of course was only taken as an evidence of my insufficient intelligence. (I admit that being able to describe the problem precisely would be more impressive, but not even noticing the problem is less impressive. But again, this is my opinion; my friends would prefer having all opinions explicit, even if it would mean they ignore some part of reality. The same problem, on a meta level.)

Why spend your time trying to fix stupid discussions?

I admit I do not know how much the "desire to think and act rationally" is a long-term character trait, and how much it depends on the environment. Is the preference for "win debates, instead of reflecting reality" something we start to aesthetically prefer in the childhood, and once that happens, the person is forever locked in this mode, because when they hear about rationality afterwards, they will only approach it as "yet another verbal tool that may help me win some debate in future"? And analogically, is the preference for "reflecting reality" an aesthetic preference formed in childhood that will make the person feel disgusted by all clever debate-winning techniques? Or is this all mostly about learning and copying our friends?

If rationality has a strong long-term-character-trait component, we cannot fix stupid discussions. We can only drop hints for all the "rationality preferring" people that another kind of debate is possible, and where to find it.

If rationality is about learning and copying, then we could improve some less stupid discussions by showing them how to do it correctly.

If I would have to make a bet, I think I would bet on the long-term-character-trait model. I do not remember seeing a person become more rationality-loving in result of exposure to rationality materials. I have only seen already rationality-loving people become more confident that their approach is correct; and debate-winning people add a few new keywords to their toolsets.

Also, many highly intelligent people around me did things that I now see as obviously irrational (things like mentioned in this article), and used them as a signal for high intelligence.

Sometimes it's rational to value signaling your intelligence more than coming up with the right answer to an inconsequential question :-)

Your usual kitchen debate about politics is predominantly about signaling (both tribal identity and facility at arguing).

It's just... people who cannot stop signalling, even when you tell them: "look, I see that you are signalling, but now please stop doing that for a minute and let's talk seriously"... annoy me a lot.

(Yeah, it would be easy to say that what I want is also signalling, just of a different kind. Whatever. Either way, I hate that kind of signalling.)

even when you tell them

The ability to easily go meta -- that is, stop and take a look at yourself "from the outside" is not common, probably more rare than "just" high intelligence.

Sometimes it's rational to value signaling your intelligence more than coming up with the right answer to an inconsequential question :-)

The problem is that "inconsequential" questions can be consequential to someone, who then gets labeled an idiot (or worse) for attempting to approach it rationally.

I guess I agree. In fact, if I mentally register that my interlocutor seems to be employing one of these algorithms, it mainly just triggers a little "aha, I don't need to waste more time arguing with this person, they are operating under counterproductive assumptions of how arguments work."

Just a personal preference, but I would rename the "Flowsheet Logic" to something like "Checklist Argumentation"; i.e. your opponent's arguments are a checklist, and you have to address each of them briefly.

This sort of reminds me of Paul Graham's How to Disagree.

I'm currently in debate and this is one of (minor) things that annoy me about it. The reason I can still enjoy debate (as a competitive endeavor) is that I treat it more like a game than an actual pursuit of truth.

I am curious though whether you think this actively harms peoples ability to reason or whether this just provides more numerous examples how most people reason - i.e. is this primarily a sampling problem?

The best debaters who I knew personally really identified themselves with debate. Two of them went on to coach debate in college. The better you are at debate, the better you think you are at arguing. For them, believing that policy debate and real logical argumentation are substantially different things would imply that the thing they're good at is a mere game, rather than a pragmatic generalizable skill. Psychologically there's a powerful motivation to want policy debate to be more real.

So I think it's harmful to the degree that the debater doesn't keep in mind the artificiality of the format.

All that said, it's fun, it teaches you to think and speak on your feet, you get to socialize with other likeminded people, and you learn a thousand times more about politics and history than you would learn in any other class.

If they have addressed an argument, they consider it to be refuted.

A common way to do it is saying "It's more nuanced than that" without showing if these additional details change anything.

Try steelmanning these two argument styles, and you'll see that they're perfectly valid. Notecard Logic is only problematic when it turns into isolated demands for rigor; rejecting a position somebody promotes because they can't provide any evidence at all for it is perfectly valid. Flowsheet Logic is only problematic when you deliberately avoid re-raising a point in order to score "points" in an imaginary contest; failing to address meaningful points entirely is sloppy.

Downvoting because this, to me, is just an entirely undesirable expansion of the fallacy fallacy.

I think you've misunderstood my intended usage of Notecard Logic. It is actually almost the exact opposite of what you have said. Notecard Logic would be believing that you are proven/justified in believing something because you have a citation, regardless of the trustworthiness of that citation. Of course you should be able to find good sources backing up facts you believe.

You ... also seem to have completely inverted my intent regarding Flowsheet Logic. Casting a barrage of small, petty, irrelevant arguments and believing that "winning" consists of getting your opponent to give up on refuting them would be Flowsheet Logic. I'm not sure if I'm parsing this sentence correctly: "Avoiding re-raising a point in order to score "points" in an imaginary contest". How would avoiding re-raising an argument score any points even if you believed in Flowsheet Logic?

edit: Also, I think we may have reached Peak Fallacy Fallacy. At what point are we allowed to start critiquing the logic of argumentation again without being accused of this?

I think you've misunderstood my intended usage of Notecard Logic.

Possible, but I doubt it.

It is actually almost the exact opposite of what you have said. Notecard Logic would be believing that you are proven/justified in believing something because you have a citation, regardless of the trustworthiness of that citation. Of course you should be able to find good sources backing up facts you believe.

I call motte and bailey on this. Your bailey is dull and uninteresting. Your motte is the -offensive- form of this argument - the -alternative- to the "you have evidence to back up your assertion - even if that evidence takes the form of an article from [insert partisan rag]" formulation, the "you are just 'making things up to defend your point of view'" formulation, as a fallacy.

You ... also seem to have completely inverted my intent regarding Flowsheet Logic.

Again, possible.

Casting a barrage of small, petty, irrelevant arguments and believing that "winning" consists of getting your opponent to give up on refuting them would be Flowsheet Logic.

That would be a Snow Job. You don't differentiate in your Flowsheet Logic description between somebody raising valid points and somebody raising invalid points, rather, you treat them -both- as Flowsheet Logic, whose characteristic is the -number- of arguments, rather than their validity, which is of secondary consideration and unimportant to the characteristic of Flowsheet Logic.

I'm not sure if I'm parsing this sentence correctly: "Avoiding re-raising a point in order to score "points" in an imaginary contest". How would avoiding re-raising an argument score any points even if you believed in Flowsheet Logic?

Go look at your spreadsheet [edit: flowchart image, my bad]. Any argument that remains unaddressed is scored for the team that raised it, no? So, if you're arguing like a debate team, you don't want to bring back arguments that were left unaddressed, because those are free points.

Also, I think we may have reached Peak Fallacy Fallacy. At what point are we allowed to start critiquing the logic of argumentation again without being accused of this?

I do not accuse you of the fallacy fallacy, I accuse you of contributing to the fallacy fallacy, by producing new, usefully-ambiguous labels to slap on inconvenient arguments.

I guess I ultimately didn't do a good job in my original article.

I am trying to point out widespread human tendencies in argumentation toward treating both argument and evidence as semantically empty tokens in some abstract game of Mancala. "If I get my tokens across the board (meaning, you ignore certain arguments because you find them petty or irrelevant, etc.) then I win!" It is a natural category of bad-arguing that I'm trying to highlight.

I think you may simply lack a referent for the phenomenon I am describing. In which case, consider yourself lucky. Again, I see this ramshackle logic on my Facebook feed all the time because many of my Facebook friends were debaters. I was a debater, and I learned to recognize the difference between "debating logic" and "actual logic" in my own thinking. It is highly salient and singular to me, and having recognized its failure modes, I now see it elsewhere as well.

Perhaps a clarifying point would be this: The purpose of argumentation for a flowsheet-arguer is to "win" by getting their argument to the "right side of the page". In other words, they value the appearance of winning above any other aspect of the argument. They don't particularly care whether it's a good argument, they just care that their opponent can't/won't refute it. They don't even need to believe their own argument. (Policy debate trains you to not need to believe your own arguments.) This is the problem with the mindset.

In contrast, I think a healthier purpose of argumentation would be to find truth, or to persuade, or even to exercise logical skill. Putting too much weight on the appearance of winning interferes with these loftier aims.

Fair enough. Downvote retracted.

I upvoted the whole chain up to here because it shows how a rational discussion should go: Point out flaws, clarify what is meant, summarize, update!

Good practice!.

Note: I think that OrphanWilde is uncheritably downvoted for standing up for an unpopular position on this. One could easily read that as voting against perceived dissenters.

One could easily read that as voting against perceived dissenters.

Downvotes are part of the system, not a failure of the system. Let's not make a drama when someone's comment gets into negative numbers.

I fully agree that downvotes in general are a necessary feature of the system and everybody has their own right to use them as they see fit.

I also agree that if some comments go negative the cause is often hard so determine and to make drama about it is a lost cause.

Mostly. Here this is less about the individual but what tha pattern of downvotes tells about the community: Voting against perceived out-group. Maybe I have not made that clear enough. I suggest reconsidering whether the downvotes voted down because of perceived in-group opinion or because of genuine reasons.

I got 90% of my upvotes because my opinion happened to align with the majority group's on a contentious topic. It's hard to complain overmuch about downvotes for the same reason. Granted, it's also hard to hold upvotes/downvotes in any kind of regard anymore; hell, my most upvoted comments of all time were social commentary on an issue 90%+ of the people involved were mindkilled on, rather than any of the meaningful contributions I've attempted.

Karma is a passable negative feedback tool, but it's a horrible positive feedback tool.

My intuition would have been the opposite. Can you explain?

Maybe an example will help.

If you take pictures and post them on photography websites, the "likes" will tell you that you should photograph sunsets, puppies, and well-lit soft porn. That's... really bad advice :-/

[-][anonymous]6y 3

I have not participated in such a debate, and I think that generally, the flowsheet/notecard logic can be useful to prepare a single volley of argumentation at the preparative stage. For example, I want to discuss X in an article; I pull up my references (notecards) and sew them onto my own points, trying to include both pro and contra, and then send the document to a friend, with an understanding that he might outright condemn such organisation. The main thing seems to be the judge and not a debater when you evaluate your own work, and to judge consistency, fullness and conciseness.

I think the point of notecard logic that someone using it doesn't care whether the argument was addressed appropriately. And the point of flowsheet logic is that someone using it doesn't care why an argument was unaddressed. I claim that this is a thing that happens and is very common; and is pretty difficult to confuse with legitimate desire to understand and discuss.

However, I think that fixing notecard logic doesn't get you that much closer to good epistemology. Even if your refutations are sound, if you miss the overall logical structure then you can refute anything you want. I think this is a frustrating problem here and in other online communities. Basically too many people are stuck in Stage 2.

Evidence, in policy debate

That's a misleading statement because you don't mean policy debate but the format of US high school policy debate. British Parliamentary Debate (BPS) the format in which the World Debating Championships are held should be considered as being a "policy debate".

In BPS you don't have to address inconsequential points but you focus on the most significant points the other party makes.

This feel a bit like an American complaining about how difficult it is to calculate with imperiral units while being oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world uses better standards.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

Top notch comments everyone! Thanks for introducing this OP.