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The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb (medium.com/seanblanda)
144 points by landonshoop on Jan 10, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 123 comments

Yes but what if the other side doesn't extend you the same courtesy? What if the other side sees your thoughtfulness as weakness, your careful consideration as waffling and flip-flopping and leaps onto the opportunity to push even more extreme views, becomes even more absurdly divisive?

On the whole in terms of writing, social media, op eds, etc I feel intellectuals (left and right) have taken this advice too much and been stomped all over because of it. Be polite, respectful, but firm and unyielding. Don't concede points without needing to. Don't give credence where credence is not due. Don't allow people to exploit your willingness to respectfully consider their arguments to shift the Overton window and win before you even open your mouth.

Because the person who is arguing back doesn't want to win the argument. He just wants the audience to consider his ridiculous, extremist views just as or almost as reasonable as yours. So you can meet in the middle, which has been pushed so far towards him that it was where he wanted to be in the first place.

I think this is excellent advice if you're talking to someone you know and respect in real life.

A lot of this in media is scientific laziness on the author's part. Which I admit is partially science's fault in saying "the facts speak for themselves" and failing to engage in a responsible manner (e.g. Sagan, Nye, or Tyson).

But I feel as though at some point in journalism school, it's drilled into students never to say "this thing is, and I stand behind it."

Instead, we get either the global negative ("People who are not me say this thing is") or an artificial alternative ("Some say this thing is, others hold this [uncredible but nevertheless presented] view").

Scientists issue retractions all the time - that's how the process works. Media should be comfortable with the same when it's interfacing on science questions.

> Yes but what if the other side doesn't extend you the same courtesy?

Extend it anyway. It's the only way not to make things worse, and neutral readers will respect you more.

Prisoner's Dilemma?

The "Other side" is scared, not dumb. Molly Ivins used to point this out. For the white lower middle class, life has been a slow downhill slide since the mid-1970s. Those are the people who support Trump and the Tea Party.

Unfortunately, exploiting that fear is politically effective. This is a problem with a long history. There are records of it back as far as Cicero.

It's not their fault that they don't know what to do. Nobody knows what to do. We have all this productivity, and we don't need that many people to make all the stuff. Economic policymakers don't know how to deal with that. If you want to look for dumb, look at what comes out of economists. There's a sizable faction that says there can never be a shortage of demand. Tell that to Wal-Mart's CEO, who says their customers are spent out.

(Sometimes they really are dumb, as in that Oregon "militia" group camping out in the bird sanctuary.)

The "Other side" is many things. Some are scared, as you point out. Others simply don't believe authorities anymore. They had their trust broken enough many times, and so they assume that anything that's being pushed on them is someone's corrupt attempt at making money.

A good example would be anti-vaccination movement. If you talk to them and try to actually listen, it becomes clear that it's not about science at all. It's about the background assumption that (corrupt people in) governments and corporation seek to make money and don't mind hurting ordinary people in the process. Mainstream science is obviously in cahoots with the corporations and/or the government.

Obviously, throwing papers at anti-vaxx crowd doesn't work. Science is already complicated enough that most people can't really grasp the details of things they hadn't spend years on studying. People on both sides - a lot of pro-vaccination people trying to explain science to antivaxxers are actually fooling themselves by thinking they understand what they're talking about. They may be saying the right words, but often for totally wrong reasons.

What's most scary in this is that the "Other side" is totally justified in their lack of trust. I mean - between media exposing corrupt politicians and doctors every day, companies trying to scam you on everything, and several fields of science turning out to be mostly made of bullshit - I sometimes wonder why do I trust the mainstream opinion. I like to tell myself it's because of the general knowledge and broad understanding of scientific principles I acquired over the years that let me sanity-check claims. But honestly, a big part of it may be simply because I grew up to trust authorities, and my trust hasn't been destroyed completely yet.

The "other side" applies both ways, though. The left has a lot of humor and satire which innately belittles those right wing views (the Onion, The Daily Show, Tom the Dancing Bug, etc).

While I identify largely as a liberal, I do conservatives a disservice by mocking these views in my actual interaction with them. Their views may indeed be based on fear, but treating them not as scared humans deserving of being engaged with as human beings, but as idiots who deserved to be mocked, does just as much damage to reaching them as the rhetoric coming from Trump and the tea party.

I highly recommend the Moral Politics talk by Linguistics professor George Lakoff: http://youtu.be/5f9R9MtkpqM

In short, the two sides of the debate speak different language representing different world views rooted in upbringing and triggered / exploited by metaphors. This talk changed my view on political speech and narrative dramatically.

Well, at least we know what "side" you're on.

> For the white lower middle class [...] Those are the people who support Trump and the Tea Party.

There's another white lower middle class - the educated but underemployed left (think literature majors waiting tables), and they're also terrified.

They're terrified that we're just an election away from mandating every rape victim be violated with a penetrative ultrasound, or that they're guaranteed to be shot on sight by some redneck if we allow open carry.

As someone holding both liberal and conservative positions, I'm always dumfounded when the left believes the right has the monopoly on fear.

Everyone likes to think about their ingroup as victims of oppression, and their outgroup as the oppressors. In extreme cases, this is what drives the social justice movement on the Internet.

There's also the 130+ IQ group of neoreactionaries who like Trump from a perspective informed by history.

I had not heard the term. The current top post in their subreddit is "How to genocide inferior kinds in a properly Christian manner"

Sounds like a great group of folks.

Here's an article that summarizes the ideas of reactionaries, attempting to present them in most charitable way the author can:


There's also the same author's attempt at rebutting the most common neoreactionary beliefs, although per disclaimer at the beginning, the author doesn't endorse everything he wrote there anymore:


A long read, but should clear things up :).

You just made the classic mistake of conflating evil (or differently moraled) with dumb.

I didn't call anyone dumb. Read "great folks" as "good people". (Also with sarcasm)

They're opportunists at best.

Demagoguery isn't exactly a new art. It has been a driving force to centralize power since the dawn of human civilization.

IMHO, it's sick and pathetic that many who are capable of having the greatest positive impact on society often squander it on vanity and narcissism.

Trump is hardly a Tea Party favorite. If you're thinking Trump supporters and Tea Partiers are one in the same, you misunderstand the goals of one, if not both, groups.

Sometimes they aren't scared. Sometimes they are downright confident, down to their core confident. That is when they are most dangerous.

Nobody can argue with a true believer. Such people adopt views so strongly that no rational evidence can counter the irrational mystique they have written. Trying to change their minds directly, through conversation, only ends in violence. The willingness to cling to such beliefs, to take anything onboard as an absolute truth, is akin to an addiction. They have to fix themselves over an extended period of time.

Fear makes you dumb.

As a former card carrying Debate Club member, I suppose this article may be helpful for people who aren't used to having these arguments. But I don't believe it is very helpful for most interactions on anything really controversial right now.

Most people making arguments for "the other side" haven't actually had to defend them against real criticism. They also are usually not the originators of their position, they're forwarding the ideas from someone else, so they don't necessarily even understand what it is they are articulating.

Trying to engage with someone who doesn't know how to argue and doesn't actually grasp their ideas is about as productive as trying to argue with a 4-chan meme. I've long ago decided to just put my 2-cents in a single time, if I feel they're saying something really stupid, then move on.

This attitude ignores the other 90+% of people who read your replies: people who aren't actually engaging, just reading and considering. I think the meme of 'debate online is pointless' is wrong because the vast majority of people who read anything you write publicly will be able to read from a position where they could have their mind changed, maybe. Write for those people.

This is explained in Thank You For Smoking, and illustrated every day on C-SPAN

Interesting, I didn't know that--is it worth watching?

Isn't this kind of the reasoning the article is talking about?

I mean, I assume you think your positions are reasonably thought out. Perhaps other people also think their positions are reasonably thought out?

My takeaway from this article is to give people this benefit of the doubt. Sometimes this means acknowledging that _I_ am the one who is parroting something I heard from someone I agree with generally.

On a practical level, Onion articles aren't going to stop people from Trump/Cruz/Le Pen/Farage(well nobody votes for Farage anyways ;)). Though sometimes there's good fun in circlejerking, if you're legitimately worried about the other side's positioning, not taking them seriously from the outset you won't be able to do much convincing/persuading.

I think that it's useful to distinguish between arguments that are, and are not, put forth in good faith.

But I think the point is to assume good faith on the other's part -- that there should be a very high bar before you can assume an argument is not made in good faith.

> Most people making arguments for "the other side" haven't actually had to defend them against real criticism.

If you go into a conversation with a condescending viewpoint like that, don't be surprised if you don't get anything out of it.

Even if the person you're arguing isn't an expert on the issue you're talking about, they are an expert on why they feel that way. And understanding that can be helpful.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a right winger in rural Indiana. We somehow ended up talking about global warming and he told how me how he didn't believe in it. I probed a bit further. He told me when he was younger people were talking about a food crisis and then he saw wheat yields increase by a factor of 3 or something. His main point was that we've heard stuff like this before and somehow it all turned out okay, so we'll probably be okay this time too. And this viewpoint is a lot more reasonable than he's just a fool who is repeating what Trump and his cronies are feeding him.

> Even if the person you're arguing isn't an expert on the issue you're talking about, they are an expert on why they feel that way.

Not always. Sometimes we may be experts on knowing that we feel strongly one way or another without having thoroughly explored the potentially complex ideas and experiences that have shaped us. I was just having a conversation tonight with a family member about self-destructive patterns that we both get into and trying to analyze where they come from. Our society doesn't really cater to deep self reflection and a lot of times a response may be fairly reflexive if not deliberately considered. That doesn't mean the person making the argument would change their mind after further deliberation. Just that a lot of people actually cannot explain their feelings out loud.

Protip: It's spelled 4chan, no hyphen, and if they're memeing at you then you've already lost their interest. As a banner on 4chan once explained, "post things we like and we'll post things we think you'll like; post things we don't like and we insult you with image macros."

Having grown up in West Virginia and now living Silicon Valley, I see extremes from both sides. And they both _really_ think the other side is dumb. And that the president (Obama or Bush) is purposely trying to destroy the country. It is like two people in a marriage that has gone bad. Is there any way to fix it?

My two cents is that a place to start is to try to make a single news source that both sides can read, to help us try to get on the same page. The news source would have to not generate viewers by inciting them to anger. Maybe some thing like a newspaper but with peer reviewed articles by people from both sides?

That's a culture shift (I've got family who worked DNR in WV).

The "single news source" came up heavily in pg's recent writing on inequality et al. The cogent point he made, I think, was that the important part is not whether the source is authoritative or accurate but that it's universally experienced.

And I don't think we'll get that back. I think the best we can hope for is benevolent mix algorithms in Facebook, Google, etc that incorporate reliably sourced articles by people with different viewpoints than our own.

"the important part is not whether the source is authoritative or accurate but that it's universally experienced."

This is very well said. In Silicon Valley, for example, there has been only one major newspaper publisher for over 60 years.

My experience is that such a news source would quickly be denounced as irretrievably biased by both sides.

I think you are right. But maybe it can be made such that some segment of both sides of the population could buy into what it says. After all, contrary to the popular saying, there are not just two types of people.

Having lived in very conservative and very liberal areas of the US, the rhetoric is hilariously similar from both sides.

People in liberal areas talk about the south as if it were some backwards place, yet most have never even visited.

People in conservative areas think California is full of hippies, yet again, have never been there.

Guess what? People just disagree on politics! Always will. It doesn't mean one side is right and one is wrong.

Can somebody please start "Useful News"?

Tagline: "Useful News. We optimize for your outcomes, not your outrage."

Joke aside: "News for your benefit" would be something I'd actually buy.

Every article has an annotation listing the chance that the topic will affect you if you're [list of population groups]. Every cite is sourced, every paragraph optimized for how you can make use of this information. If there's nothing important to say, we'll leave the page blank.

God damn I want this.

Nearly ño one on the left ever accused Bush of purposely destroying the country. The accusation we a mix of incompetent mismanagement and cynical exploitation for profit.

Really, it comes down to what you mean by "America"; my understanding of the "[president] is destroying America" crowd is that they're commenting more on destroying America's "America-ness" than actually dismantling the nation.

Right now, on the right, you have people making claims that Obama is a closet authoritarian bent on dismantling the constitution, taking away our guns, and forcing your small town to not have a nativity scene afront their courthouse this year. Turning back the clock by a decade, those sorts of claims are not very far off from the claims of people (like a rather-younger me) on the left that Bush (or, perhaps, Cheney) were intentionally using the September 11th attacks as a tool for stripping us of our constitutional freedoms. Although obviously not a majority opinion; those sorts of views were definitely not uncommon during the Bush era.

That is true the left did not accuse Bush or purposely trying to destroy the country. But they did accuse that of Cheney and some others.

I recall one time talking with a guy in the back of a church after the service was over (back when I attended church). The sermon had been about acceptance and had specifically touched on gay acceptance.

The man had only come to the church twice, and we were talking, and he was quoting the bible in support of his view that homosexuality is a sin. I listened and was engaging him in conversation. Multiple people came up to me and tried to "help me escape" the conversation because they had no interest in engaging with someone who didn't agree with them.

I read this article and I couldn't help but see lines like this, "To be sure, there are hateful, racist, people not worthy of the small amount of electricity it takes just one of your synapses to fire." Really? It just seems like the same old play at being accepting and open minded, but not really. I would also say that this IS a political correctness issue. This isn't really a problem for the political right because they don't mind being offended, and they don't feel the need to pretend to be open minded (at least in the US).

This seems very much in the vain of when Jon Stewart had the "Rally to Restore Sanity." It claimed to be about being open minded, but it was really just about presenting the notion that "we" (see people on the political left) value being open minded.

Another observation about the "Other side" (that is, really, about all of us) to add to excellent points made by others here.

Most disagreements happen around things that have no direct impact on day-to-day life. People can hold widely different opinions about politics because... it's politics. Most of it is bullshit, and rest doesn't affect your daily life anyway, at least not immediately or directly. Take two people who are in fierce disagreement about the balance between government intervention and market freedom - take them, and go see how they manage their personal checkbooks or how they maintain their homes and cars. Suddenly, you'll see agreement, similar solutions, and both people being generally smart.

People are pragmatic. We tend to invest in knowing the actual truth proportionally to how the issue is actually important to us. Hence most disagreements are about things that actually cost us nothing when we get them wrong.

>>People can hold widely different opinions about politics because... it's politics. Most of it is bullshit, and rest doesn't affect your daily life anyway, at least not immediately or directly.

I completely disagree. Most political issues have a direct impact on people. Affordable Care Act is requiring millions of people to buy health insurance. Defunding Planned Parenthood would cut aid from millions of young women. Gun control laws have a direct impact on our nation's safety from internal threats. Legalized gay marriage is allowing tons of gay couples to finally get married and enjoy many of the benefits (especially financial) of the institution.

I can go on.

The only debates that don't have a direct and immediate impact on people are the abstract ones, such as the example you gave about government intervention vs. market freedom. But even those debates happen within the the context of concrete issues, proposed laws or ongoing lawsuits.

Ask yourself - how many of those issues affect you directly? And by directly I mean something you'll suddenly have to account for in your daily life and spending patterns.

Personally, their equivalents in my country don't affect me at all. I'm young and relatively healthy, my employer pays for my health insurance. Yes, accidents can happen, but it's an abstract possibility. Gun control - when have you last seen people shooting each other on the streets in real life? It's another topic that's just abstract for most people. Gay marriage is something that naturally affects only LGBT people. The opposition argues against same-sex marriages mostly from a moral standpoint, which is again something abstract.

Say, on the other hand, that we'd have confirmed reports about zombies (or evil commie nazi aliens) showing up in various places in the US. I'm pretty sure the gun control debate would be resolved unanimously in a single hearing.

That of course doesn't account for all policy disagreements. But the most I've seen so far always involve at least one side with no immediate, tangible stake in the issue.



Replying to the three (so far) responses.

Thanks for sharing your perspectives. I guess I might be underestimating the direct importance of some of those issues to people, as well as the amount of disagreements that are about conflicting interests. I will reevaluate my opinions on this topic.

I have a friend who would probably be dead if it wasn't for the ACA's expansion of dependent health care coverage. I had another friend who might still be alive today if guns had been harder to acquire.

The fact that my gay and lesbian friends can get married is important to me, as is the fact that they are protected from workplace discrimination (in my state). As a result, it's important to me that gay, lesbian, and trans people in other states don't have the same protection.

For a cisgender straight white high-SES male to disregard things that don't directly affect him isn't rational, it's solipsistic.

>>Ask yourself - how many of those issues affect you directly? And by directly I mean something you'll suddenly have to account for in your daily life and spending patterns.

Me directly? Probably very few. But that's because I'm a gainfully employed single white male and I have an incredible amount of job security. However, I'm definitely in the minority.

Besides, it's difficult to think of certain issues such as gun control in terms of direct and immediate impact. I mean, is lack of gun control affecting me right now? No. Will it affect me tomorrow when I'm watching a movie at the theater and some guy comes in and opens fire on the crowd and kills me? It's a very real possibility.

Your post betrays multiple kinds of immense privilege. A large portion of America have attended a shooting victim's funeral, been gay themselves or had a close friend or family, or didn't have health insurance.

> Say, on the other hand, that we'd have confirmed reports about zombies (or evil commie nazi aliens)

seriously? so you read a piece whose thesis is "talk rationally and empathetically with people that hold different points of views" and your next thought was "okay, zombies and evil commie nazi aliens, yeah"


> I'm young and relatively healthy

great for you, I'm not. daily survival is contingent on remaining employed. yippee! the opposition to ACA sees a reminder of why they should oppose this issue every two weeks when they look at their income tax deduction and wonder how much they would get back if a few people that they didn't really know suffered some more. what is more immediate than money missing from your own pocket?

> when have you last seen people shooting each other on the streets in real life?

growing up, guns were a part of every day life. they were tools that you used to accomplish concrete goals. sometimes those goals were defending yourself from wildlife, sometimes they were getting dinner. sometimes, they were for ending your own life. people that are for gun control have seen one too many accident, suicide, or homicide. people that are against gun control see an immediate threat to a utilitarian tool or a way of life. it's very visceral and you're deluding yourself if you think otherwise.

> Gay marriage is something that naturally affects only LGBT people

I guess you don't know or care about any LGBT people in your life, which is okay, but totally overlooks anyone for whom this is the case. in the south, if you walk around in the wrong town with the person you love, you're liable to have someone yell "FAGGOT!" or "DYKES!" at you just for being you. to the people doing the yelling, they are on the front line of a culture war and they see an insult to their moral fiber every time they encounter someone that loves another of their own gender. they get a reminder of why to keep fighting every week or so.

these aren't abstract concepts, these are issues where the parties involved have real skin in the game. the abstract issues you're thinking about are probably things like "foreign policy" or "defense spending" but even there the reason to support them is visceral - every time a redneck sees someone on the street that isn't white, they get reminded of the "other" and are filled with a desire to keep them out. every time a family living near a base hears about BRAC they develop an immediate fear for the vortex of pain that is about to fill their lives, require their relocation, and destroy the property value of their home.

you are a fool if you think the people involved in these debates consider the issues abstract. they're quite concrete.

> seriously? so you read a piece whose thesis is "talk rationally and empathetically with people that hold different points of views" and your next thought was "okay, zombies and evil commie nazi aliens, yeah"

Not the parent commenter but in what way is using a mildly humorous hypothetical even remotely contrary to either rationality or empathy...?

"Defunding Planned Parenthood would cut aid from millions of young women."

No, the "defunding Planned Parenthood" amendment would have simply removed their status as a preferred (and overpaid) provider of abortion services. Overall funding of family planning (including abortion) would not have been reduced, and Planned Parenthood could have still competed for such patients on level ground with all other providers.

I am pro-choice. Why do our opinions differ? Because I actually bothered to read the legislation. It's right there, freely accessible, on congress.gov.

There is a larger lesson here: major media agencies (including the big names like the New York Times, AP, Washington Post, etc.) generally never read legislation at all. A given reporter simply prints what a preferred legislator's staffer tells him/her to print. A great example of this was when pretty much all of the major media outlets claimed that "Republicans voted down a provision the (Feinstein Amendment) to deny gun sales to those on the terror watchlist", which was an outright lie. That amendment would have instead wiped out the ObamaCare repeal language.

"(Sec. 3) This bill prohibits, for a one-year period, the availability of federal funds for any purpose to Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc., or any of its affiliates or clinics, unless they certify that the affiliates and clinics will not perform, and will not provide any funds to any other entity that performs, an abortion during such period." [0]

Additionally, Planned Parenthood already does not receive any federal funding for abortion services, because, under the Hyde amendment, no federal funding goes to abortion (excluding rape and incest).

"No funds authorized or appropriated by Federal law, and none of the funds in any trust fund to which funds are authorized or appropriated by Federal law, shall be expended for any abortion." [1]

[0] https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/3134...

[1] https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/senate-bill/142...

> No, the "defunding Planned Parenthood" amendment would have simply removed their status as a preferred (and overpaid) provider of abortion services. Overall funding of family planning (including abortion)...

Are you saying that the federal government is funding abortion services in violation of the Hyde Amendment?

> People are pragmatic. We tend to invest in knowing the actual truth proportionally to how the issue is actually important to us. Hence most disagreements are about things that actually cost us nothing when we get them wrong.

This is even worse! You're substituting malice for stupidity. Someone who doesn't bother learning or even thinking about a topic but then takes actions that affect other people (like voting) should be ashamed of themselves: to me they're culpable in the same way as someone intentionally causing the same damage (tho I suppose it would be 50% as culpable for a binary policy). It's even less excusable when you consider that in your construction, the policy doesn't even affect them.

I've pretty firmly condemned lack of intellectual rigor for a long time, and by far the most common response I've gotten is "not everyone has the time or will to try to become informed on every issue". I fully agree, but I personally don't talk confidently about or act on any issue that I haven't at least attempted to learn about, and I don't understand why this is considered so difficult. The only reason I can imagine is wanting to feel and seem informed without putting in any of the time to become so. It's pretty despicable to me when that tendency ends up having real life policy impacts.

> I've pretty firmly condemned lack of intellectual rigor for a long time, and by far the most common response I've gotten is "not everyone has the time or will to try to become informed on every issue".

Yeah. A lot of people don't seem to realize that not having an opinion is also a viable, and in those cases the right, option. But it ties to:

> The only reason I can imagine is wanting to feel and seem informed without putting in any of the time to become so.

I'll give you another one - signaling. Especially in debates that have some audience, it's a way for people to show their allegiance. The argument doesn't even have to convince anyone. It seems that most arguments on social media go like this.

This is an excellent article. It occurs to me that it would be good if someone put up a web site where pairs of people could publicly or privately practice the sorts of respectful interviewing and dialogue that he is advocating.

Let me add that I have found the active listening skill of just saying back to the other person what they said is very useful here. I have run workshops where people did this and it is remarkable what a difference it makes. I also like Marshall Rosenberg's book Nonviolent Communication.

I think part of the problem is that people don't realize there is a more productive way of going about things, and in addition there certainly are many parties today that profit from having people screaming at each other.

I frequent two sites that do something like this. I found them from this article (which was also very helpful for me): http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/read-intelligent-content-2016-3...

The Conversation https://theconversation.com/

Aeon http://aeon.co/magazine/

The EconTalk podcasts are great examples of this, though with an economics flavor.

This article has it exactly wrong. Most people on the other side ARE stupid. Most people on your side are stupid also.

The thing that someone who has a firm grasp on an issue will often find is that most people on both sides don't actually know what they are talking about.

This is a painfully true observation.

I think the first time I really realized it was when I was drifting away from my religion of birth, and actually started to listen to atheist people around me. I soon discovered that the only difference between most of them and the religious people I know was the value of $religion variable. For one group it was "God", for the other it was "no God". The thought patterns were exactly the same. Neither of them could actually justify their beliefs.

I don't think this is very true--what significant/majority of religious thought patterns are the same in atheism? The only one I think you could make a case for is ingroup/outgroup thinking, but that is not a majority of religious belief.

Acquiring the belief because it's popular in your ingroup, along with a strawman-based view of the outgroup(s). No real effort spent on thinking the belief through; lack of any real argument against the beliefs of the outgroup(s).

Ah yes, the old "prove that something doesn't exist" argument.

Most people are complete morons when it comes to anything they don't have to deal with on a day to day basis. They know what they need to know to continue existing any maybe they know or learn enough to get ahead but beyond that people are generally ignorant and clueless to their ignorance.

For example, I personally have a stake in the gun control issue. I'm against "banning assault weapons" because I'm against a bunch of bureaucrats having a chance to define "assault weapon" because last time we gave them a chance they banned a bunch of things that make firearms look scary. Ditto for background checks but to a lesser extent. Existing implementations suck, a lot. The same goes for tougher laws in general, they don't seem to have done much of anything for the positive and there's anecdotal evidence they may be negative (look up some of the pro-gun number crunching exercises f you want an example). Why would I or anyone else who wants to go to the range want to encourage more of this? We see it as the firearm equivalent of security theater.

However people who aren't well informed on the details have had these two carrots danged in front of them as a cure to a problem in our society and they'd be fools not to reach for them when they're framed in that context. Meanwhile they can't be bothered to wonder why anyone wouldn't want these things. After all, some poll says $large_percent of people support $thing, yet they can't be arsed to even wonder why that $small_percent is holding out.

You find this sort of problem on both sides of any controversial issue.

Most are uninformed (often due to intellectual laziness) rather than stupid.

"Stupid" implies that they make bad choices after being fully informed, which is often unproven.

> "Stupid" implies that they make bad choices after being fully informed, which is often unproven.

I don't think this is a particularly universal definition. Willful ignorance that negatively impacts your own understanding of the world has always seemed to me to be very reasonably defined as stupidity.

This is a very crude version of reality :) Ironically, blanket statements like these cause arguments in the first place.

Accepting epistemic uncertainty is very difficult and unsettling but totally worthwhile.


> A dare for the next time you’re in discussion with someone you disagree with: Don’t try to “win.” Don’t try to “convince” anyone of your viewpoint. Don’t score points by mocking them to your peers. Instead try to “lose.” Hear them out. Ask them to convince you and mean it.

I'm going to dream about what that world would look like tonight.

There have been a few articles posted to HN pointing out the folly of assuming your competitors are stupid. You're better off assuming that for reasons unknown, they rationally have made the decisions they did.

I like that he mentions the Ideological Turing Test, though not by name (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ideological_Turing_Test)

"As any debate club veteran knows, if you can’t make your opponent’s point for them, you don’t truly grasp the issue."

That's bullshit though. On many issues, one or both sides don't have any argument beyond "me not like". But that's enough, if you can find enough people that feel the same way.

No, that's actually a very insightful observation. The process of taking your opponent's argument, improving it and defeating its stronger form is sometimes known as "steelmanning"[0].

"If you’re interested in being on the right side of disputes, you will refute your opponents' arguments. But if you're interested in producing truth, you will fix your opponents' arguments for them. To win, you must fight not only the creature you encounter; you [also] must fight the most horrible thing that can be constructed from its corpse."[1]

If the other side's argument boils down to "me not like", then you have your job made even easier for you. Seeing the stronger arguments for their position and how (and where exactly) it still falls apart can be enlightening to your conversation partner.

Conversely, if you can't fathom why a reasonable person could hold the opinion your partner holds, it means you don't understand the issue itself at all. Most people are not dumb, their beliefs always form some structure that's plausible for them. It usually doesn't take much work to build yourself a model of someone else's beliefs, if you're willing to do so.

The only requirement, obviously, is that the other person at least tries to be honest. I think most people are, but sometimes you need to first work around their (and yours) ego issues.

[0] - https://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Steel_man

[1] - http://lesswrong.com/lw/85h/better_disagreement/

I have heard that that is an Augustinian trait or method. But I have not been able to find any reference to St Augustus advocating this.

Can anyone help me out? Perhaps I have the wrong saint or philosopher.

This reaction feels to me to be exactly what the article (and even the old debate club maxim) is hoping to have us consider.

On most of the pressing social issues of our time, I can at least identify a considered point from the other side - [a]theism, pro-[life|choice], gun-control, liberalism/conservatism, you name it. I often disagree heavily with the other side, but that doesn't invalidate their particular perspective. It always comes down to some axioms each side assumes that are inviolate, in tandem with a personal utility function judging certain outcomes more important or more just than others.

Take pro-life/choice for instance; here I am personally very strongly on the pro-choice side, but I can't deny that the other side at least has these points which they evaluate differently from me: - at what point do we consider an embryo alive and sentient? We reduce lifeforms to black and white like this all the time, yet we know there to be a wide range of grey in between - considering it is valid for people to consider a fetus as alive and sentient, where do we draw the line on saying it is okay to terminate its life? - even as we accept that it is okay to abort a fetus and a future potential life, does it not come down to a value judgment whether a woman's right to her own body, and her right not be held in thrall to rapists, supercedes that of a potential human life?

Acknowledging an argument on its merits does not automatically put it on the same level playing field or "elevate" it to be equal to the other side. Some arguments can have holes picked through them and can be successfully dismantled if not substantiated fully against all attacks. But this can only happen when both sides play by the rules to evaluate each other objectively, without weaseling out and dismissing the other side with reductionism. Granted, you have no control of the other, and can't compel them to play by your rules, but you will still be able to come to your own truths if you can internally argue on their behalf, and be more satisfied your reasoning for it.

"or they don't grasp it".

This aphorism may be true for debate club opponents, where both sides actually care for proper structure and honest reasoning.

But outside of that group, many people prefer to cling to disproven and even logically inconsistent views, just to avoid ceding even a little.

Honesty is definitely not on the list of ddbate club priorities.

Ever think that on most issues, say 985 times out of 100, the other side is roughly 50% of those that are not undecided. If you look at the issue overall, and allow for shades of gray between the positions, then most people are in rough agreement around some central position.

I think that if you can construct a survey on the issue that correctly breaks out several shades of gray in the position, then the results will plot out on a normal curve. Only when the normal curve is heavily weighted to one side or the other, i.e. there is a larger group on one side of the median, do you have a winnable issue.

It's too bad that media just spends so much time groveling in the mud with everyone else, when they could actually be doing such surveys and illuminating the issue.

Take gun control for instance. How many of you have any idea what shape of curve would result from such a survey? And if you compared it to the results 25 years ago, how would it differ? If you had a series of such surveys over time, then what trends would they show?

Without this info, there is no point in debating. I don't doubt that somebody has done such surveys and does have this info. And those people do influence politicians. But that just reinforces an elite separate from the masses, and is fundamentally anti-democratic.

   ...say 985 times out of 100...
985 times out of 100, people in general will mistrust the data. ;)

What if the other side is actually rejecting factual reality, though? Are they still "not dumb"? What if facts have no hold on them whatsoever? Can we even have a productive conversation?

See: vaccine deniers/vaccine scheduling skeptics, climate change deniers, evolution deniers, etc.

The examples you provided have nothing to do with facts, actually. They're about trustworthiness of the fact sources.

Given all the shenanigans pharmaceutical companies pull, given how FDA itself is often reported in the news as unreliable or even corrupt, given that so many studies keep turning out to be unreliable - ask yourself, why do you believe you're right about vaccines? :).

Unreliable agents do not make something false. If you are lucky enough to have great grandparents go and ask them about the time before the polio vaccine. I asked mine and it was a nightmare.

Unfortunately, I'm not lucky enough.

I'm not defending anti-vaccination beliefs. All I'm saying is that with all the moral bankruptcy of our governments, corporations and journalists, it's no surprise movements like anti-vaccination started to appear. I believe the core issue has nothing to do with facts, or people being "dumb" or uneducated - that it's mostly about lack of trust in authorities. And so we won't solve it by throwing even more scientific papers at the antivaxx crowd.

I have to say I am not too sure why people become anti-vaxers, but I do agree with you that trying to convince them with science is not likely to succeed.

Anti-vax is worse than child abuse. If you don’t vaccinate your children you are not only putting them at risk (child abuse), but you are putting my children at risk through lowering the herd immunity. I have zero tolerance for crazy ideas that risk the health of my children.

The way we have tackled this problem in Australia is by tying the welfare system to vaccination - no vaccination, no child payments from the government. It is amazing how most anti-vaxers change their tune when it is going to cost them money.

Dogged skepticism is a good thing. We need more critical thinkers asking questions.

I'm sad that there is a "deniers" meme meant to attach visions of the holocaust to those who choose not to go with the flow. I would totally blush if I said something so faux-outrageous to someone's face.

Be careful in selecting your "other side" -- the examples you use to define it may have been brought by "your side."

I can't speak for the other two, but I'm guessing you're not thinking of Steve McIntyre. Eg, go here and have a productive conversation:


I usually think of this sort of thing in terms of cached thoughts: http://lesswrong.com/lw/k5/cached_thoughts/

Once you get over the smug thought of "ha! all those people and their cached thoughts!", you have to stop to think, which of your own principles have you actually really thought about?

I don't think it's so much about considering "The Other Side", instead it's about having clarity by knowing why you believe what you believe. Generally speaking, if it's "us vs them", you're being played anyway. Some tribe has a vested interest in playing you against another tribe.

>> I implore you to seek out your opposite. When you hear someone cite “facts” that don’t support your viewpoint don’t think “that can’t be true!” Instead consider, “Hm, maybe that person is right? I should look into this.”

Nooop. When the crazy uncle starts going on about how the lizard people at the US have formed a world government for the express purpose of using solar panels to take guns away from seniors ... no. There are ideas that are not worth my time to explore or disprove. So long as the crazy people stick to their crazy shacks, I am not going to engage.

Of course those crazies seem to be breeding uncontrollably. It may be time to reverse my position and actually start researching the vril.

Well, we all generally agree that there aren't 'lizard people' in the US (we do agree that, right? ...right?), but increasingly less crazy ideas are now being regarded as similarly crazy.

Like the US president is a secret muslim from kenya in office to take away the guns in furtherance of the global warming hoax? I see aspects of that narrative on TV almost every day. It's a daily reality for millions and millions of americans.

None of those concepts are as crazy as lizard people, are they?

Well they are both rather unlikely, but at least the lizard thing is testable. Poke the guy with a stick and see. Question answered. The other theories cannot be so easily disproved.

Practically speaking, you can't personally poke the guy with a stick, and you don't trust the people who claim they have poked him. That's the unresolvable problem in the debate, same as with Muslim, guns, climate, autism, etc.

This is a good analysis but it misses something. People on the "other side" in most social media conversations are either "red tribe" if you are "blue tribe" or "blue tribe" if you are "red tribe."

Scott Anderson gets into that filter-bubble issue: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/30/i-can-tolerate-anything...

I don't share links on social media, and I've basically blocked all news sources and link-factories so I don't see when others do either.

It took some time, but my facebook is now more or less back to inane chatter and cat/baby/both pictures.

Everyone else is free to get on with signalling their hearts out, I don't want to know.

You seem to be describing what is commonly known as a "conversation".

I find it hilarious that western society has gradually devolved itself to such an extent with fear-fear mongering, hate-hate speech, and an absurd amount of righteous indignation that people are literally terrified to have opinions outside the groupthink; and you not only have to invent a game to feel human again, but that game is apparently novel enough to reach the front page of HN. This is literally an analysis of how to have a disagreement without reacting like a fourth grader.

Be it as it may, the fact is that quite a lot of people tend to react like a fourth-graders when facing disagreement. Try to ask a random family member about vaccines, GMOs or nuclear power and see how it goes.

I don't think it has anything to do with "Western society", but rather the nature of internet discussions. They're impersonal. They're amenable to favoritism and the echo chamber effect. You can't interrupt somebody in the middle of a soapbox lecture to ask for clarification or offer counter-arguments. The atomic unit of discussion is the paragraph, at best, and your audience numbers in the hundreds. Basically, it's Permanent Debate Club.

In my experience, people in the real world are far more kind and open even when discussing the most controversial of topics.

I disagree. I think it has a great deal to do with part of western society -- particularly, the rhetorical strategies that social movements of the left have deliberately adopted.

Sure enough, just about anyone can get caught in the idea "Well, if my opponent thought about it, then surely they'd agree with me. They don't agree with me, so therefore they're not thinking people, and I need to use something other than reason to make them change their mind." But the difference is that the left are currently much more willing then to apply theories of social norms instead of arguments.

Terms such as "climate denier", "evolution denier", "free-thinker" (you wouldn't want to disagree with our opinion on religion, and show you're not a free thinker, now would you?), etc, were coined deliberately for rhetorical effect. Similarly, social movements on the left are usually quicker to play the game of rhetorical escalation. Can I find some rhetoric by which to portray my opponent's opinion as "sexist" or "ignorant"? So that regardless of what their reasoning is, the pressure to avoid being socially viewed as ignorant is an incentive for them to change their mind.

The same exact thing happens on the other side with words like "SJW". It's fairly idiomatic of internet rhetoric in general, and it's bad news for reasoned debate.

Most of my friends are very liberal, and literally none of them use this kind of rhetoric in real life. I'm convinced it's an emergent property of internet discussion, not an intentional strategy (for the most part).

This seems to me to be even more true online, although we like to think that information technology has the opposite effect.

It is more true online, and for a lot of reasons.

I meet someone at a party and we become Facebook friends. I then post some sort of political article or comment to my feed. They see it, disagree with it, and (likely) either comment on it in a non-polite manner, or stay silent, but either way categorize me in their head as a crazy right/left winger. Why? Because these are what is easiest to do for 'crazy' opinions coming from strangers.

Compare that with what can happen in real life. I get to know someone over the course of multiple interactions; all my political comments are kept to those I already know and trust. Eventually we get to a point we know and trust each other, and I venture an opinion, one they disagree with. They say "I disagree with that", and we discuss it. Why? Because we already know each other, value each other, trust each other, and are seeking legitimately to understand and/or sway one another, while also preserving the relationship.

The internet has essentially made it so the thoughts we used to reserve for those we knew in depth, are becoming aired to strangers, and responded to accordingly.

While it means that insular bubbles of thought (the rural family who doesn't know anyone who believes in gun control, say) are encountering people who disagree with them, those people are strangers, and there's no reason to give them any credence. If anything, it just makes one even more vociferous, because now you can preach to people who -aren't- in the choir.

So why do you publish your innermost thoughts to a bunch of strangers on Facebook like that? Even in the online world it is possible to find many different forums where you can discuss things with people who are open for real discussion and conversation. Don't let Facebook grind everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Use many forums.

Become a regular in the comments section of certain blogs. Create aliases and join web forums or email lists or a Reddit subcommunity or something. And encourage diversity of discussion groups.

Just being on HackerNews is already a step in the right direction. And maybe some of us will build apps and sites that encourage people to form smaller groups to discuss issues without having to fight off trolls and uninformed newbie types.

The Internet used to have a lot more of that when mailing lists were the main way to have discussions. And there were services like the Well, and Compuserve that put a lot of effort into managing interest groups with sysops who kept them from getting out of hand.

The WELL in particular, put a lot of effort into the psychological aspects of humans in groups, in writing their guidelines for users and for the sysops managing the groups.

I have a tiny hope that after experiencing this phenomenon from both sides - both seeing and being the lunatic stranger - most people will learn to embrace that their beliefs may not always be correct or universal.

It's a tiny hope.

I wish I had that hope. I've seen people who in person I've had intelligent, rational discussions with on areas we disagree, then post virulent political posts that tear apart strawmen arguments. I actually quite like this article because it paints this out as why we do it. With someone we disagree with in person, they're still part of our tribe. We know them, we like them, we trust them. With someone on the internet, they're 'the other'.

Yeah. I've seen those people too. It's about signaling, I think. Hell, I often have to stop myself from resharing stupid strawmans on Facebook just to "stick it" to the outgroup.

I don't know. I had one or two friends come out as anti-vax IRL and we didn't have a discussion, instead my opinion of them just plummeted.

Does someone who opposes media-driven thinking (with supporting science to show why) about any one vaccine get lumped into "anti-vaxxers" in your mind? Because that all-or-nothing thinking fallacy is a key symptom of the problem.

If they have a factual basis for their views that's fine.

But in general I was talking about folks who have, for whatever reason, said things like "oh we're not vaccinating our children", meaning all vaccines.

There is no reasonable basis for this outlook.

Try to have that discussion. It's enlightening.

In what sense?

The only thing it can really do is inform me what sort of bizarre misinformation they have bought into. Unlikely ever to repair the drop in my opinion.

I think you may find out that the "bizarre misinformation" is a bit more nuanced than you think, and the issue is not about facts at all.

I spent some time talking to antivaxxers; I've shared my impressions in a parallel subthread:


I understand all that, that's not enlightening. I am well aware of the emotional motivations behind the position.

They dropped in my estimation because they allowed this emotional reaction to endanger their children.

Here's what I don't understand, and I'm likely the weird one here: Why are political opinions considered private? Is it an anglosaxon thing? Is it a middleclass thing? It feels completely alien to me.

Where I come from politics (in one form or another) are the first thing you talk about with new people that you meet. It's the most fruitful ground for conversation that goes beyond mundane boring smalltalk nobody cares about.

I mean, isn't that the whole basis for democracy? That people discuss these things?

Hell, isn't most mainstream-but-not-quite-pop art political in nature?

> Here's what I don't understand, and I'm likely the weird one here: Why are political opinions considered private?

People often keep their political opinions private in polite society simply because of what this whole thread is about - it's very easy for people who don't know you very well to judge you by the political opinions you spout and then possibly treat you more poorly because of that. This is why I tend to keep my mouth shut about political stuff at my workplace. (It doesn't help that I know that, statistically speaking, my opinion will be at odds with most of the others in my industry and location.)


And if you differ because you are more informed about the topic than your peers, that only makes the social isolation problem worse.

I think it's an age-old custom. There are two things that are off-topic for casual conversations with non-family-members - political and religious beliefs. People tend to tie them to their egos, and it pretty much always results in resentment. It's a general population equivalent of inexperienced developers arguing about merits of programming languages or text editors.

'pg actually wrote an essay about it once.


One of the side effects of the Internet is that you can find pretty much any plausibly sounding justification for any view. Couple that with the modern world being insanely complicated - acknowledging which leads to feelings of helplessness - and there's no surprise people end up believing different things depending on what they happened to read. People want to feel they understand things. Nobody wants to feel stupid.

In the British tradition, university students used to participate in debates where two people argued the opposite sides of a question. The debaters got brownie points for winning the debate, not for arguing the RIGHT opinion. Often the debaters had to argue for a question which they themselves were against, or vice versa.

The audiences who voted the winner, paid more attention to the quality of the debate, not to the question itself.

In a culture where this type of debate is practiced in the schools, people of all ages will be more open to discussing an issue in a social setting without strapping on revolvers and a bulletproof vest.

It is not a question of identifying who is the enemy, it is a question of figuring out which path will lead to a better world 100 moves in the future. Because real life really is like a chess game. The outcome of the next move is not the be all and end all.

I always viewed this kind of debates as potentially harmful though. If you award brownie points for "debate quality", as opposed to "getting it right", you may end up promoting eristic over rationality.

But maybe British universities get it right. I don't know, I haven't had the experience. We had debates in my secondary school, and I remember that the best way to win those was to be the cleverest bullshitter in the room.

I think you're completely correct. It's politically poisonous because it promotes a legal/corporate view of the world where you win by being glib, emotive, and persuasive, over a scientific/rational view of the world where you win by modelling and predicting objective reality more accurately than the other side.

It's easy to see how this destroys any possibility of rational policy-making.

It doesn't help that most countries suffer from literally industrial levels of PR effort, media spin, and online astroturfing, all designed to persuade, influence, and manipulate, and not to inform.

See e.g. http://www.businessinsider.com/astroturfing-grassroots-movem... for a very incomplete list of examples.

The whole point of PR etc is to deny reality. So the idea that the other side might have a point worthy of respect is deeply problematic.

It would be true in a world where everyone had access to unbiased information, deliberately misleading the public was banned by law, and public education was a significant policy goal.

That isn't the world we live in.

Actually it is quite confusing for me as I am a moderate and liberals see me as a conservative and conservatives see me as a liberal and I get blasted by both sides for being dumb because I don't have 100% of their views.

I am for social programs so conservatives think me a liberal.

I am for freedom of religion and gun rights so liberals think me conservative.

However there can be like 30 different political viewpoints besides liberal and conservative. It is not a black and white issue but shades of grey and colors as well. The political charts they use are misleading and based on questions they ask I am either on the left or the right and never the same place.

I'm for basic income because people lose their jobs when websites automate stuff and AI programs and robots take over jobs. People need something to live on in order to get an education to qualify for a better job. You see new jobs are created but require a different skill set than the jobs that are eliminated. People used to learn how a typewriter worked and would have a room of 100 people typing letters and memos all day until the Word Processor and Laser Printer came into play and put them out of work. My own father had worked for AT&T with 1ESS Switches they had tried to convert to computers using Unix and he lost his job when AT&T was broken up, nobody else used the 1ESS they used IBM AS/400 systems instead or the PC and he wasn't trained in it. He struggled with finding jobs to make ends meet. Working as a janitor or working on factory machines for a pasta company. We went from being middle class to poor or lower middle class.

Anyway I never consider the other person I debate with on the other side of the screen is stupid or dumb. I figure they were educated in a different way than I was, grew up different, have a different view on life than I do.

The problem is citing sources to back up your claims, the Internet has websites that will support almost any claim. For even website I cite the other person can cite a website that says the opposite. Even more they can say the other website supports a contrary view to theirs so it must be biased, and thus discarded.

In college I had an Astronomy class, and the Professor argued with the book, and countered every theory with his own personal theory. The universe is not expanding, he would claim, Hubble is wrong about red shifts. Instead of a Big Bang, he claimed the universe always existed, etc. It as hard for me to learn from such a person. I was lucky to get a C from his class because I had to take notes on his personal theories to get test answers correct and not use the book to study.

At times I get voted down here because I write a comment that people disagree with. Then sometimes it gets voted back up by people who agree with me.

If this were in reference to France or Germany or the UK or Australia or New Zealand, it'd be very on point.

In reference to the USA, where just around half the population believe that God literally created the universe in six literal days, no, I'm sorry, the "other side" really is willfully, dangerously stupid.

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