Why do long, uninspiring, and seemingly-childish debates sometimes emerge even in a community like LessWrong?  And what can we do about them?  The key is to recognize the potentially harsh environmental effect of an audience, and use a dying debate to fertilize a more sheltered private conversation.

Let me start by saying that LessWrong generally makes excellent use of public debate, and naming two things I don't believe are solely responsible for fruitless debates here: rationalization biases and self-preservation1.  When your super-important debate grows into a thorny mess, the usual aversion to say various forms of "just drop it" are about signaling that:

  1. you're not skilled enough to continue arguing, so you'd look bad,
  2. the other person isn't worth your time, in which case they'd be publicly insulted and compelled to continue with at least one self-defense comment, extending the conflict, or
  3. the other person is right, which would risk spreading what appear to be falsehoods.

"Stop the wrongness", the last concern, is in my opinion the most perisistent here simply because it is the least misguided.  It's practically the name of the site.  Many LessWrong users seem to share a sincere, often altruistic desire to share truth, abolish falsehood, and overcome conflict.  Public debate is a selection mechanism generally used very effectively here to grow and harvest good arguments.  But we can still benefit from diffusing the weed-like quibbling that sometimes shows up in the harsh environment of debate, and for that you need a response that avoids the problematic signals above.  So try this:

"I'm worried that debating this more here won't be useful to others, but I want to keep working on it with you, so I'm responding via private message.  Let's post on it again once we either agree or better organize our disagreement.  Hopefully at least one of us will learn and refine a new argument from this conversation."

Take a moment to see how this carefully avoids (1)-(3).  Then you can try changing the tone of the private message to be more collaborative than competitive; the change in medium will help mark the transition.  This way you'll each be less afraid of having been wrong and more concerned with learning to be right, so rationalization bias will also be diminished.  As well, much social drama can disintegrate without the pressure of the audience environment (I imagine this might contribute to couples fighting more after they have children, though this is just anecdotal speculation).  Despite being perhaps obvious, these effects are not to be underestimated!

But hang on...  if you're convinced someone is very wrong, is it okay to leave such a debate hanging midstream in public?  Why doesn't "stop the wrongness" trump our social concerns and compel us to flog away at our respective puddles of horsemeat?

The usual necessary condition for you to wind up in a pointless online debate is that you're very convinced your co-poster is wrong, but isn't obviously wrong enough to attract negative comment Karma.  So you keep posting in an attempt to "clear up" the issue for everyone else, or at the very least dilute the false content.  But somewhere along the line, you might end up with something that looks to you like:

You (1 point):  Very smart/correct response to the parent discussion.
Other (1 point):  Convincing but wrong/vague/irrelevant comment that somehow got upvoted.
You (0 points):  Correction, or return to parent discussion.
Other (0 points):  More trickily wrong/vague/irrelevant stuff.

If you've read these from the outside, it often looks more like

User A (1 point):  «something that mildly interests you»
User B (1 point):  «tolerable response»
User A (0 points):  «quibbling you don't care to read»
User B (0 points):  «yup, definitely don't care»

By now, or with very little practice, you should be able to tell from the inside when a conversation is entering a public failure spiral.  When that happens, no matter how smart and right and well-intentioned your responses might be, your co-poster's responses are still going to show up at around the same density.  And since the average non-negative-scoring comment on LessWrong is pretty correct, if your assessment is accurate, then your opponent's wrong comments are going to drag down the average rightness more than you're going to raise it.  And you're certainly not helping the situation if you're wrong.  And, on LessWrong in particular, the Recent Comments feed just diverts more attention to the trickily wrong ideas the more you argue against them.

So, in the unfortuate event2 that a debate starts going awry (which thankfully is a relatively rare occurrence here), the task is to stop the spiral without looking bad, and not making the other person look bad is a necessary ingredient (else they'll continue the spiral in self-defense).  The "switch to private message" signal I suggest above is a pretty self-sufficient way to do that.  Though it stands pretty well on its own, it becomes more effective the more we send and interpret it consistently as a community, and the more we follow through with posting conclusions to the resulting private debates.

Thus, above all, "switch to private" requests must be neither presented nor interpreted as an insult to either debater.  Not everyone is as courageous as cousin_it to publicly change their minds.  We must praise the effort of a debater who aims to work through a contentious argument privately.  We must consider "switch to private" as a sign of respect for the other debater: it shows value for his/her interaction.  We must not judge "winners" or "losers" of a debate as a function of who requests privacy first.  Then perhaps awkward social battles can become collaborations as routinely as mulched weeds can become crops.


1 Regarding rationalization biases, most posters here know the difference between trying to learn what right is and trying to change what right is in an attempt to escape confirming past errors.  Regarding classic self-preservation, in this case it yields a desire to signal intelligence at the cost of deceiving the audience.  This is pretty misguided, not just because it's usually immoral, but because the LessWrong audience isn't easily deceived...  especially by a long and uninteresting-looking debate.  I'm sure these factors are present too, but the last one most needed addressing.

2 I can't praise LessWrong enough for the fact that its debates tend to be much more fruitful than elsewhere.  I very much don't want to stifle the open and productive arguments that go on here; only to encourage a way out of the undesirable ones.


27 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:18 AM
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We must consider "switch to private" as a sign of respect for the other debater: it shows value for his/her interaction.

But if I don't value the particular interlocutor enough, public debate may well be a necessary motivational condition for me to intervene and try to change their mind. Most people may not be interested in any given debate, but still many people are, and probably will learn something, judging correctness of arguments by the arguments themselves. Truth doesn't easily get diluted. Also, public argument often allows the community to support the debate after I lose interest, bring up better arguments I couldn't, or fill in the blanks where I won't elaborate.

Good observations. When a public debate is useful in the ways you describe, it doesn't fall into the useless-to-others category that I recommend privatizing.

And one more time for good measure,

I can't praise LessWrong enough for the fact that its debates tend to be much more fruitful than elsewhere. I very much don't want to stifle the open and productive arguments that go on here; only to encourage a way out of the undesirable ones.

The problem is finding a way to "objectively" tell the difference. Often, people say that a debate is "useless" when what they really mean is that it makes them uncomfortable. (Anyone who has ever argued about religion will know what I'm talking about here.)

I may be in a minority, but, at least on LW, I am strongly inclined to err on the side of allowing people to argue in public at length. I would be disappointed if an argument that I was following were removed from public view; while on the other hand those who aren't interested in a particular argument (or who are made uncomfortable by it) can simply choose not to read it.

One solution might be a "designated area" for hashing out disagreements. (I've already attempted to create one for a specific debate.) Maybe a monthly "argument thread"?

One solution might be a "designated area" for hashing out disagreements

I think this is a better idea than just having people taking it to PM..... maybe we could have a "dead horses" thread - an alternative open thread specifically for these kinds of things. That way they don't drown out the signal to noise ratio on article's comments, but still allow debate to visible to the subset of the public that's interested.

The problem with telling people to take it to PM is that it then becomes a 1 on 1 debate, and a lot of these debates involve more than 2 people... and even if they start out 1 on 1, it can sometimes be useful to have other people's perspectives.

Dead horses are much better dealt with using top-level posts presenting the arguments as clearly as possible, in a reusable form. This allows to stop the rehashing with a link, and simplifies getting into the debate for newcommers.

I think we're using different definitions of "dead horses" here... I was referring to the OP's reference to "long, uninspiring, and seemingly-childish debates"... i.e. about things that don't directly relate to human rationality. The implementation could be via top-level posts, but if so, they should be posts segregated into their own section, not included in the main article flow.

The only worse use of my LW time than participating in a dead-horse debate, would be participating in a debate about how to continue dead-horse debates.

(Doh! I think I just did.)

I think we should definitely start a flamewar about this. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about you to be able to effectively launch any ad hominem attacks or personal insults in your direction, so maybe you could go first, just to get the ball rolling.

Note for the humor-impaired: this is not a serious suggestion.

I don't know much about you either; and I don't know much about Hitler. Ergo, you are like Hitler.

Are you honestly trying to suggest that you know just as much about me as you do about Hitler? Really? Have you ever watched a documentary about me on the History Channel? Read about me in school? Compared people to me on internet message boards? I think not. Obviously this ridiculous assertion is the product of an irrational mind!

Often, people say that a debate is "useless" when what they really mean is that it makes them uncomfortable.

Also, I would guess, when they're not personally interested in the argument, so they don't want the ongoing argument distracting them from stuff they do care about.

I've been thinking about this issue for awhile. There are certain debates that crop up again and again. The same points are made with the same counterpoints. Why not have a wiki for this? This wiki would have a very specific and neutral structure. This is not to say that both viewpoints are valid, I clearly don't believe this. Neutrality is necessary for both sides to feel comfortable using the site as a reference, otherwise it would be ineffective. The point is not to convince one side or another or to say both sides are equally right. The point is merely to save space, time, and emotional "energy" repeating the same points over and over.

If done right, this could serve a purpose not too disimilar to Snopes. The difference is that the site would be a curated, authoritative record of both sides of the debate, not an authoritative answer. Instead of wasting a lot of time composing a rejoinder, just say, oh yes, this is degenerating to "static typing vs. late binding," then copy & paste a link, which, if things go as planned, would point to a well organized, edited, and generally well curated entry. (*) Such a site could probably make a modest ad revenue.

I'd also like to see a Wikipedia-style website for errata of public record. If a person or publication makes a mistake which is published or stated in a venue like a press conference, it would be added to a curated (and fact-checked) record. (With an opportunity for that person/publication to recant or respond, of course.)

These two sites would be complimentary, of course. (Unfortunately.) If only the errata wiki existed, then it would be gamed for political purposes. We cannot eliminate such manipulation from the Internet, but I think we can at least avoid a lot of repetition. Those gaming public debate will continue to do so, but no one has an inexhaustible supply of energy.

(*) I would let registered users pick one side or another of the debate, so they could see the debate presented from their POV, though the both sides would still be represented.

(This may not have much bearing on many debates on Less Wrong -- many of those do have a point and explore new ideas, but I was reminded of my old idea and thought I should post about it.)

[-][anonymous]12y 0

I like this idea!

There are others grappling with similar issues as we speak.

I found this bit amusing: "I think we need a rather simple solution, and luckily I think we’re pretty much the right crowd to implement it." It echoes some of the sentiments in the above.

As for me, I'm rather more skeptical. You might be underestimating the extent to which privacy would change the entire motivational structure of the "argument", and overestimating the extent to which people argue in order to establish some sort of truth.

Thanks! Very interesting link.

I used to debate creationists online. These people are typical of the crowd, "I'm right, your wrong, as long as I have the last word I win." Its like trying to play chess with pigeons. They knock over the pieces, shit on the board, show no signs of intelligence, then fly back to their nest and declare victory. At some point you have to ask yourself: "Why do I bother?"

Indeed, but that wasn't the problem this post was trying to solve. On lesswrong any users who are that irrational are down-voted into oblivion. In fact, they very rarely venture to post at all.

"Indeed, but that wasn't the problem this post was trying to solve."


"Why do long, uninspiring, and seemingly-childish debates sometimes emerge even in a community like LessWrong? And what can we do about them?"

So it is mostly focused on LW, but there is a deeper issue here: What are you supposed to do when engaged in a childish/fruitless argument? I have yet to here a good universal answer. Maybe "just walk away" is good enough most of the time, but sometimes its not. Sometimes you can't walk away. Sometimes the issue is important.

I saw this as more a "community norms" fix than a universal cure for "someone's-wrong-on-the-internet" syndrome.

ETA: On second thought, I didn't really address your question. I guess I see it as obvious that most Internet arguments (outside of well-functioning communities) aren't worth entering as anything besides entertainment.

Ya, but even beyond the internet, this is a universal problem. Sometimes its more then just a hobby to try to convince someone to do the right thing. Virtually any political debate would be a good example. And the fact that our court system is so inconsistent only testifies to this problem.

[-][anonymous]12y 2

By the time you're in an argument, you've already failed to change the other persons mind - their defenses are up, and you're not getting in unless you have some combination of unusually good debating skills, unusually high weight of evidence on your side, and an unusual willingness of the other participant to change their mind mid-tack.

An argument is a fight, and people struggle harder against losing fights than possibly anything else. On the other hand, if you just walk away, let their emotions cool down, give them time to consider your points when they don't feel threatened, you might be surprised as to how often they'll come around - especially if they can do it without losing face (ie: you don't gloat and rub it in their face). The only arguments I've ever "won", I've won like this.

I've noticed that very few comments that do not meet the criteria 1) very wrong or not even attempting to be right and 2) written in an inflammatory tone do not go below -2 regardless of what sort of monstrous thread they create.

My solution would be to downvote the 'catalyst comment' (the highest level where the dead horse discussion begins) down to -3 or lower, being the default for hidden comments, thus allowing visitors to see, "Name. comment score below threshold[+] (187 children)".

This solution has the benefit of using the existing moderator framework, providing a clear warning to anyone who wants to get in on the action, and allowing the main article to flow around it while still having the comments preserved in pseudo-privacy.

Not a bad idea, but whoever starts to do that needs to comment on the downvoted post saying "Dead horse", so as to distinguish the downvotes from the other causes listed above.


One of the hallmarks of unproductive arguments is that they keep going. Once almost everything has been said, and you don't believe you'll be convinced by the other person's position, it seems like being able to let it go is a good thing.

When things are going badly, taking it private seems unlikely to assist.

Slightly related, some general rules for internet debates which I think have merit:

  1. Arguments from Authority are only OK in limited circumstances - if the expertise you're claiming is clearly outside the expertise on the board. If it's a rationality board and the discussion goes to table tennis rules or online bridge cheating, actual expertise is useful. Otherwise, don't care.

  2. No ad hominem attacks. It doesn't matter if your opposite-side debater hurls puppies into wood chippers. (Well, it matters, but not to the argument.)

  3. Let it go. You don't need the last word. If the others can't tell... well, they probably can. If it's a clear personal attack on you, that's harder - I recommend an explicit statement that further lack of participation isn't a concession. But if you have two people who need the last word, that's quagmire city.

  4. If you might have been wrong, admit it. LW has a substantial number of people who follow this; it makes the debates much better. I generally consider silence after some opposing point to be disagreement, despite the fact that many people in many places only shut up after their position has been shown to be clearly mistaken.

  5. No troll-answering. Ever.

Finally, I agree with Academian that the discussion quality here is very good. Few people violate basic standards.

I approve of the proposed policy, with the addendum suggesting email as another non-public option.

Further suggestion - live chat (video or text).

If people want to switch to private with me, contact me at gmail. Replies using LessWrong's messaging are likely to get lost and never seen, since LW doesn't have "inbox separate from comment replies".