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To tell someone they're wrong, first tell them how they're right (qz.com)
489 points by jonbaer on Sept 13, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 299 comments

Learning how to do this is an essential skill. Most people are not idiots. If they disagree with you, it's probably not because they are being irrational, but because they're starting from a different premise, making different assumptions, or assigning different values to different aspects of the problem. Only when you understand their argument well enough to articulate it in your own words can you effectively present a counter-argument that has a chance of being persuasive.

Someone could also disagree with me because they are correct and I am in error. They may have knowledge or perspective that I lack.

My first step is to try and find something they know that I don't before crafting persuasive arguments. Maximize for total knowledge not winning arguments.

What I really dislike is when I calmly convince them that I am correct to just check later and find out that I was completely wrong.

If you are interacting with the right people, a review of events will reveal that they gently led you to discover this.

I'm kind of pissed that I guy I disagreed with seems to have been banned here, for example. I was curious where he was coming from and whether my foundation was as shaky as his appeared to me. (I think it was a guy, but I'll never know)

The best teachers I've ever had simply laid out all the evidence they deemed relevant and had us make up our own minds. The conclusion was never really in doubt by the teachers, but the process of arriving at it independently was more important than the destination.

Unfortunately laying out the evidence is pretty powerful too. You have so many choices, from omission/overplaying of evidence to mislead the availability heuristic, to picking and choosing what sources are good and bad.

this is also why critical thinking is more important than specific technical skills. The former allows you to generalize the latter, making them more powerful.

I started out as a chemist (undergrad), became a statistician (grad), and finally realized that I had to design, run, analyze and fund my own experiments if I wanted something resembling "the truth", 9 times out of 10.

But my undergrad English teacher made me realize that it's more powerful to plant the seed of an idea and water it with evidence (selectively presented or not) than to try and outright convince people, when you have the luxury of time. I hope that my students are smarter for it; I let them sink or swim by their own wits and I expect them to ask for help if they find they're out of their depth. It's how the real world tends to work anyways.

That's happened to me a few times. Kind of annoying. :)

Yeah, that's the worst.

"So my current understanding (or perception) is..." Is one way that I like to open disagreements. It isn't ambiguous about the fact that we disagree, but it indicates that I am the open to changing my understanding based on new information.

EDIT: verb tense agreement

The problem is that many people arguing think they are doing just that, going for total knowledge and not seeking to win arguments. It just happens that they believe they have better understood the point being discussed, and it is their duty to convince the other party, for the sake of knowledge.

This is a great policy, but notice that the GP didn't mention correctness at all ;)

As an aside, this approach fails badly when responding to an attack on a paper presentation at an academic conference.

The problem with that is sometimes you are arguing about a solution to a problem and eventually some solution must be chosen.

That's an unexpected sentiment for the username John Galt. I was all set to write a rebuttal, but now I'm not sure what to say beyond expressing my surprise.

Usually I try to resolve disagreements by asking questions. Either they end up poking holes in their own arguments or I learn where I made a mistake.

Telling someone they're wrong is useless. After that they can only think of reasons why they're correct.

I am not sure where I read the psych study (citation anyone?), but I remember reading that a really effective method for getting someone to change their mind was actually to get the other person to frame their argument as a question.

E.g., "What questions would you ask me to convince me that you are correct?" It opens up the argument so they are less defensive, since they started with a question instead of an argument.

I've learned plenty (and changed my mind many times) from having people simply tell me that I'm wrong.

I have found programmers to be far more receptive to blunt criticism than my other non-programmer friends. I think it's just a frame of mind to accept that will be wrong a lot and that is fine.

It would take a whole lot of cognitive dissonance to get through a decent sized software project and imagine it is all flawless or couldn't be even slightly better in some way.

I have also found a "reverse" effect. Engineers in general (not just software guys), tend to not assign blame to errors, especially in panic situations. People declare errors as a matter of fact ("the database load is beyond the roof"), not as a result of wrongful actions ("your commit thrashed the database").

Both ends of behavior are the result of being confronted often with error, be it caused by wrongful action or caused by externalities. When a circuit goes up in smoke, its just physics being a harsh mistress; getting angry about it is useless, so we just skip the blame/anger part.

I'm afraid I have to disagree, partially. In any given situation, you're right.

But it's often necessary to get programmers to change their behavior, since what they are doing is causing the problems, and programmers are no better than anyone else at changing behavior in response to criticism.

Design and code reviews are particular hot spots, which is why most I have seen had become just check offs.

> I have found programmers to be far more receptive to blunt criticism than my other non-programmer friends.

The work of a programmer is to sit in front of a soulless machine that has no inhibition in telling the programmer made a mistake on his code at regular intervals.

You need to be pain intolerant to be a programmer, while in other roles pain avoidance is the norm.

Actually, a machine never accuses you of being the responsible of that error. It usually says "there's an error in the line..." but never addresses it towards the programmer even though they know that they are the responsible ones of that mistake.

And in fact, that is one of the techniques of conflict management between partners, addressing the problem instead of finding the responsible of it.

Sounds like an opportunity for a more opinionated error logging tool...

"@Dave, you seem to have made yet another type error on line 56. @jon recently committed code that didn't fail any integration tests. Why can't you be more like @jon?"

Hmm... I wonder what would be the implications of one with positive reinforcement:

"Wow @Dave! that's the smartest code I've ever seen! just one thing, there's a probably-not-that-important error on line 56"

Positive reinforcement which is perceived as insincere will at best have no effect and at worst be seriously insulting. I can't imagine how an automated system which says vaguely positive things about code that it cannot understand would be seen as anything but insincere.

If you build a system which successfully encourages actual humans to say nice things about one another's code _and mean it_ while incorporating constructive feedback, it would work beautifully, but that is a markedly more challenging problem...

If you think you are wrong, and someone tells you that you are wrong, you are being proved right.

It's not much different to my mind, and I fall into that camp of people who always think they're wrong.

Try to tell me I'm completely right, I'll argue with you why I'm not

Yes, but even then, they are often even more receptive to criticism that goes beyond calling them and their work stupid.

I employ that tactic as well, though even it fails to proceed with distressing frequency.

>Most people are not idiots. If they disagree with you, it's probably not because they are being irrational, but because they're starting from a different premise, making different assumptions, or assigning different values to different aspects of the problem.

This is probably one of the most insightful things you can ever read. Internalise this and your whole way of approaching others will be changed. This is valid for arguments and discussions, but really for interpersonal relationships in general.

I too agree wholeheartedly. It took me many years (35yo now) to learn this, the very hard way, on internet and specially in life. A MD in Philosophy helped a lot, or it's been actually essential for my life path.

Interesting, given that I'm a 'creationist idiot' (I won't go into details), I never actually debate this with anyone that doesn't have the theological (and hermeneutical skills) necessary to understand WHY on this old Earth someone would think it's young. It's a complex problem, touching on many areas and, yes, very stupid arguments can be brought up in favor and against specific flavors of creationism.

BUT, regarding ID (which is often breathlessly conflated with creationism), when I talk with people that have the philosophical expertise to understand it (but not agree with it), I have only met respectful attitudes. This is not to say that it convinces me I'm right in what I believe. I'm still the kind of skeptics that gives plausibility percentages to his beliefs.

Regarding life in general, no amount of patience will harm you.

> "ID (which is often breathlessly conflated with creationism),"

I think you do a misfavor by using the phrase "breathlessly conflated" in a comment which supports being aware that others may be "starting from a different premise", etc.

It doesn't help that the authors of a "Of Pandas and People", an ID textbook, effectively did a search and replace in early drafts of "creationism" with "intelligent design", and "intelligent creator" to "intelligent agency", after Edwards v. Aguillard settled that teaching creationism in public schools was not constitutional. One of the famous examples is how "creationalist" became "cdesign proponentsists". https://ncse.com/creationism/legal/cdesign-proponentsists .

Quoting the judge in Kitzmiller v. Dover:

> By comparing the pre and post Edwards drafts of Pandas, three astonishing points emerge: (1) the definition for creation science in early drafts is identical to the definition of ID; (2) cognates of the word creation (creationism and creationist), which appeared approximately 150 times, were deliberately and systematically replaced with the phrase ID; and (3) the changes occurred shortly after the Supreme Court held that creation science is religious and cannot be taught in public school science classes in Edwards. This word substitution is telling, significant, and reveals that a purposeful change of words was effected without any corresponding change in content ....

While certainly ID is different from creationism (it can allow extraterrestrials as the intelligent designer, and not just a deity), it "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents." (Quoting Dover.)

Those starting from a different premise from you, that is, that ID is a smokescreen for creationism which uses the language of science to get around constitutional restrictions of what can be taught in schools, would not consider this as a real distinction but rather a deliberately introduced confusion. For them, it would not be a breathless conflation, but an indicator that the social and religious basis of ID as a creationist movement is more relevant than the details of its doctrine, which they also believe to be a incorrect interpretation of the evidence.

There are no constitutional restrictions on what can be taught in schools.


"Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987) was a U.S. Supreme Court case concerning the constitutionality of teaching creationism. The Court ruled that a Louisiana law requiring that creation science be taught in public schools, along with evolution, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because the law was specifically intended to advance a particular religion."

In the spirit of the OP's article, let me say that I wholeheartedly agree with you, but you might want to look at this from another perspective... ;-D

Brown vs Board of education overturned Plessy vs Fergusson. The court eventually overturned itself agreed that US citizens have the right to write pamflets arguing against a draft was not shouting fire in a crowded theater (rather than outlaw that, one would think it would be better to make them safe from fire, but that is an aside).

Point being SCOTUS can even agree with itself. It has the power of the gun, which means we may care about its position, but hardly that it is right.

The constitution has meaning apart from whatever a given Supreme Court says. They try to decipher it, but they don't create its meaning.

We may be bound legally by their ruling, but that is simply a matter of law and tradition. The Supreme Court does not itself have a constitutional mandate to decide on the meaning of the constitution and the constitutionality of laws. It started when a chief justice decided that is what the court was going to do in 1803, and everyone went along with it.

The concepts of case law and judicial review are simply traditions of our legal system.

The constitutional clause in question says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." That to me seems to say the government shouldn't be screwing with it one way or the other.

While we could have an engaging conversation on judicial review in the US, including the implied powers derived from Article III and Article VI, the Federalist papers, the state ratification debates, and English common law, I prefer to point to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judicial_review_in_the_United_... .

I do disagree with your statement that Chief Justice Marshall 'decided that is what the court was going to do', as the everyone in the ratification debate, including the Anti-Federalists, believed that federal courts could find a statue to be unconstitutional. Marbury v. Madison was the first to exercise that power. The 1796 case of Hylton v. United States, under Chief Justice Ellsworth, shows that judicial review for constitutionality was not new to Marshall.

My earlier comment was "after Edwards v. Aguillard settled that teaching creationism in public schools was not constitutional". I believe this is clearly in the context of the post-Marbury v. Madison tradition of the last 200 years.

Your followup comment was "There are no constitutional restrictions on what can be taught in schools." As you are coming from a different tradition, and a distinctly minority and non-influential one, I think you would have been more clear had you written "The Constitution doesn't say the Supreme Court has the right to decide what can be taught in schools."

Otherwise, we were under the incorrect belief that summarizing Edwards v. Aguillard would be enough to show that your statement was incorrect.

Under the US legal tradition since the early 1960s, schools are not part of a free exercise of religion. See Engel v. Vitale, Abington School District v. Schempp, and related cases dealing with prayer in school for the logic.

It seems a little unreasonable to insist on a way of thinking about Constitutional law that has been moribund since John Jay's term and this role of the Court's fits fairly well into the common-law framework we've inherited from England.

It also doesn't seem clear to me how setting up a curriculum (a legal act, after all) can't be covered by that text, unless you want to go back and argue it is only concerned with preventing a church becoming literally "established" like the Anglican Church is in England.

> The Supreme Court does not itself have a constitutional mandate to decide on the meaning of the constitution and the constitutionality of laws.

I disagree. The judicial branch, within which the Supreme Court is established as the paramount actor, has the Constitutional role of resolving all cases and controversies arising under the Constitution and laws of the United States, which cases and controversies often, in their resolution, require determining the meaning of the Constitution and laws of the United States.

> There are no constitutional restrictions on what can be taught in schools.

There are Constitutional restrictions on both what government can cause to be taught in public schools and the techniques which government can direct be used to teach those things, arising through the various provisions of the Constitution that constrain the powers of States, particularly the 14th Amendment.

I'm curious what your position is. Young-Earth creationism plus evolution? Or something different? I can't quite discern it from your post.

It's probably best not to go any further down this discussion tree in this thread. This issue has a tendency to dominate the discussion whenever it appears, derailing the original conversation entirely.

Perhaps you could post a link to some place that expresses a view similar to yours.

>Regarding life in general, no amount of patience will harm you.

It depends on what you consider "harm", while you may not physical be harmed, you can sure waste a lot of your life trying to explain concepts that people are not willing to hear.

> Only when you understand their argument...

I couldn't agree more.

As a lifelong believer in science, raised in the Midwest among creationists, I have come into many conversations with intelligent people who somehow place faith in front of evidence. It's demoralizing to realize the frequency that this phenomenon occurs. I've recently scheduled a trip to the Creation Museum to observe the message at its core (half for a laugh, half to better understand my opponents in future debates).

Of course, a visit to the Natural History Museum, NY, is on the same itinerary for balance.

Imagine that there's a meteor heading towards earth. All evidence suggests that it will hit in three days, and wipe out all multicellular life - it's a big one.

What do you do? How do you live your life your last three days?

One school of thought says, disregard the evidence. Assert, against it all, that the meteor is going to miss. Or if that's hard, decide to trust someone who asserts it (this is usually easier).

This is arguably rational. If you're wrong, it won't matter, and you'll probably feel less awful your last three days.

I think creationist's thinking is something like this:

1. If evolution is true, then God is not. 2 Without a creator's purpose, existence is meaningless. 3. If existence is meaningless, you might as well assume it has a meaning, (because that's no less meaningless than anything else!).

To argue against a creationist, it's probably best - or at least, most efficient - to argue against the first stage in that chain of reasoning. If you want to argue against all theists, you can argue against the second.

If you want to argue against all non-nihilists, I guess you can argue against the third, but that is ... literally pointless either way.

So the third point is a good thing to concede in arguments with creationists (and theists, if you insist).

"I think creationist's thinking is something like this: 1. If evolution is true, then God is not."

Serious question - is this US-specific line of thinking? Because I was raised in Poland, which is ultra-religious and if you aren't a catholic you will be ostracized from your community, and yet evolution was NEVER questioned in my education, and I went to private catholic schools. It's widely accepted by everyone, I think even the pope supports it. Obviously, it's accepted in the line of "evolution is real, but God probably helped a bit along the way", but still, I don't know anyone crazy enough to say evolution is not real. And yet the assumption I always hear on HN and reddit is that if you are religious you don't believe in evolution - how come?

This is mostly a US affliction, but spreading. Not catholic though - about two popes ago the pope issued a paper saying evolution was god's method and that the science was revealing the glory of God's work.

The problem in parts of the US is that some religious leaders decided, quite explicitly, to use evolution to drive a wedge between modern, 'materialist', scientific thinking and their followers. I think this is because they could forsee their congregations falling as more people became better informed and drifted away from religion. So they found a way to make it "us or them" and forge a new sort of unity through opposition. Unfortunately it took hold quite well and has been spread outside the US by US influenced churches and pastors.

Edit - this is part of it - https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedge_strategy

In Europe, even religious people don't take their religion seriously. It's rather a personal, cultural thing, something that makes one's soul feel good, something that creates communities, gives hope and consolation etc. It's put in a totally different sphere than worldly matters, like science, physics, biology etc. Religious talks even at ceremonies is always about how humans feel (and of course endlessly repeating the story of Jesus). But they don't usually touch topics that "smell" scientific and fact-like.

But this is quite a new development. It's hard for us to appreciate it, but there are other conceptions of religion's role in life. In the US, many religious people believe that things in the Bible literally describe how stuff is, it's not just an allegory or metaphor to help people in their lives. (Or similarly in Islam, the religion is not separate from all other aspects of life, but an inseparable part, without which nothing else makes sense).

is this US-specific line of thinking?

Indirectly. Creationism is really only a thing within certain subsets of baptist and evangelical branches of Christianity, and these branches haven't take a large hold in Europe, whereas in the US they've flourished. Catholics have never really gone for it, even in the US, as far as I'm aware.

> Catholics have never really gone for it, even in the US, as far as I'm aware.

Catholics haven't gone for it the way certain branches of Protestantism have because adhering to Young Earth creationism in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary is largely, in those branches of Protestantism, a defense of a particular extreme form of a sola scriptura (a Protestant doctrine which directly contrasts with Catholicisms dual role for scripture and tradition) with Biblical literalism (which is likewise not a Catholic doctrine.)

There are Young Earth Creationists in the Catholic Church, but its a matter of personal belief that is far removed from the core doctrine and identity of the Church.

I was raised Catholic. There is a subset who have definitely gone for creationism. They know that they are not obliged by the Church to believe in the literal story of genesis, but they still prefer it for various reasons.

I have read that there are Muslims, at least in other countries, who are young-earth creationists and anti-darwinists.

> I was raised in Poland, which is ultra-religious

I grew up in Italy. No comment needed, I suppose :-)

Still science is science, and religion is religion. They manage to live together in (enough) harmony. But idiot thesis like creationism are never given any more credit than a promise by a politician in the last days before an election.

It's one of the usual arguments for ignoring the "simulation argument".

I think there's a bigger problem with the religious version that you presented. Namely, for any religion/concept of God, you can imagine another one that wants you to do opposite things. How do you know which God's existence to assume? You're back to trying to find evidence for one God against another God. In practice, this would probably also provide evidence against the claim that "no Gods exist". It's hard to think of evidence of the form "If there's a God, it probably wants X as opposed to not X." that really needs that pre-condition.

So the religious person may just as well go back to trying to gather evidence for God against no-God, because they need to gather evidence for God against the God-that-desires-opposite-things anyway.

>Namely, for any religion/concept of God, you can imagine another one that wants you to do opposite things. How do you know which God's existence to assume?

In some religions, the relation with God is a tangible and personal one. God "speaks to you" so to speak.

So you just "know" -- you're not starting from evaluating random entities against each other as if they're all equal.

Exactly. But then this is already "evidence" to them about the existence of God. Such people have no need to ponder that "If evolution is true then there's no meaning in life so that case is uninteresting, so therefore let's believe in God since then life is meaningful".

If God "speaks to you", you already "know" he exists. This was precisely what I tried to point out in my previous comment. If you have a method to pick out a particular God out of all possible Gods, then this method (or something related) can also be used to reject atheism directly. There's no need for the elaborate argument that I responded to.

> If evolution is true, then God is not.

By the way, this is disputable. I'm not denying that idiots/creationists use this argument; I question the argument itself.

If evolution is true, a literary interpretation of the Bible is not. Still, evolution can be seen as a wonderful present from a "superior intelligence".

I'm a Christian who finds evidence for evolution pretty strong. http://biologos.org/ is an organization promoting this general view.

I also find the evidence for Christ's resurrection quite strong. "The Case for Christ" by Lee Strobel is a book that lays it out well (though I'm not a huge fan of the literary approach).

Catholic Church is OK with evolution if you make humans a special case; as long as you believe God gave ("created") humans a spiritual soul.

This is one of the simplest, and most useful, explanations for religious belief I've seen. Thank you!

There's a tendency to write off creationists and theists as completely irrational and stupid, without giving any thought to their motivations.

It sounds like a variant of Pascal's Wager - and Pascal himself is widely regarded as extremely intelligent, as the article states :)




edit: I missed jahnu's post inmediately below, with a similar theme "That's the essence of Pascal's Wager"


edit2: and mcguire


So I guess I should say "me too"

I assume you speak about the third step, that if you suspect existence may meaningless, you might as well assume it has a meaning, because if you were correct it doesn't matter that you are wrong anyway (by definition).

I don't think it's like Pascal's wager, because there's no need for probability here, and you're not trying to avoid any bad outcome. I think it's more like how Pascal rejected the concern that he might be insane (if you ask yourself "how do I know I'm not crazy?" you're basically already assuming you're not crazy).

But, I haven't actually read all of Pascal's Pensees. What extracts I have read of it suggests to me that he's heavily straw-manned both by later philosophers and people writing about it today, so for all I know the "wager" was more like this, too.

It's interesting that they haven't been well-presented here, so we shouldn't get too self-congratulatory.

That's the essence of Pascal's Wager.


Isn't using Pascal's wager to support faith kind of broken due to the idea that for any possibility that there's a God who rewards you with a happy life for belief in them, there's an equal possibility that there's an evil God, who punishes you for belief in them?

Pascal's wager also supposes that faith is "free". It doesn't factor in the cost like having to dismiss all modern notions of Biology in certain cases. You have to weigh the chance of eternal damnation against the possibility of wasting your only life (no afterlife) laboring under false pretenses.

I'm all too used to my argument being put in a box and dismissed with a standard argument for that box. But please don't do that, OK?

Hell is nowhere in this chain of argument. God arguably is, but that's in step 2. It's step 3 which may kinda, sorta remind you of Pascal's Wager, but it's only an argument against nihilism, not even for theism.

Yes, conceding step 3 leaves wide open the question of what to believe in instead of nihilism. Even conceding step 2 leaves open the question of "what sort of god are we talking about". But this is precisely the point. That means you can argue these things separately, while still acknowledging your opponent's ultimate concern.

I'm not dismissing anything. Just pointing people to a relevant interesting page. Try not to be too hasty to read arguments into comments where there are none :)

The point of article is if you start any discussion with outright declaring someone wrong, there is no chance of you changing their thoughts. So you are right we have to start by conceding some points. Like in any negotiation you win by little bit of give and take.

Existence IS meaningless, this is the very beauty of it: you can give it any meaning you want.

You can even give your superego a face and think there is a big guy in the sky that loves you and cares about what you do.

> Existence IS meaningless, this is the very beauty of it: you can give it any meaning you want.

Although you have to concede quite a lot. When you feel awe at the stars, or the exhilaration of love, or burning anger at injustice, you must tell yourself, "this feeling is just an adaptive delusion; there's nothing good about caring or wrong about rape and murder per se, I just happen not to like them because I'm That Sort of Mammal".

If you say "existence is meaningless, morality doesn't exist" and in the next breath say anything about what people should or shouldn't do, including whether they should believe in God, I respectfully submit that it's inconsistent to do so. (Not that you should mind inconsistency.) This is my beef with people like Dawkins: if he's right, everything he says is utterly pointless.

That is why I never talk about what people should or should not do - I talk only about some mind tricks that work for me.

That said, I can concede a lot without pretending the universe somehow cares for me. I eat good food, and drink good wine, and just enjoy everything I have.

If you have no meaning, how can you have any to give?

You just make up some meaning from thin air. All meaning is made up. Meaning is a human construct, as any other concept.

Even if you disagree with me, you may concede that for all practical means the universe is infinite and the human mind is finite. Since something finite can't contain the infinite, how foolish would I be if I pretend to understand the universe?

Not that I agree with the creationists, I would love to believe that I'm special because some big guy in the sky gave me life. It is a comforting idea, but in order to accept the concept of an anthropomorphic god you have to believe that humans are somehow special, and this is very pretentious. I'm living in this tiny little rock floating in space which existence is barely a drop in the ocean of time. I'm not special except in the minds of the few people that manage to like me.

But I will not pretend my own version of god is less made-up: the Tao we talk about is not the real Tao.

Hey! That's Pascal's wager.

>I have come into many conversations with intelligent people who somehow place faith in front of evidence.

Which can be a very intelligent and rational thing to do. It all depends on the end goal ("discover how the world actually works" vs "calm your soul through belief in a higher power", etc.).

People can do very stupid things (dangerous to them, to the detriment of their health, social relations, etc) in pursuit of evidence. And very smart things based on faith.

Again, it depends on the end goal.

If the goal is irrational, the method to achieve it does not matter.

Ex falso quod libet.

>If the goal is irrational, the method to achieve it does not matter.

That's actually patently false. I might have an irrational goal of driving a Ferrari while pouring ketchup on my head, but not all methods are equally capable of realising it.

And of course, if I break into a bank and steal money as the method to get the Ferrari I could be put to jail (either before or after realizing my dream) -- so the method absolutely does matter.

>Ex falso quod libet

That is about logical statements -- it says nothing about methods of realising a goal, except if your goal is to build correct logical propositions.

Your worldview informed by contemporary scientific theories is faith-based. What we believe in today will eventually be proven fundamentally flawed and we'll look no better than the average church goer.

"Modern science is based on the principle: ‘Give us one free miracle, and we’ll explain the rest.’ The one free miracle is the appearance of all the mass and energy in the universe and all the laws that govern it in a single instant from nothing"

That's nonsense.

Modern science is based on gathering information and forming ideas and hypotheses around it. The origins of matter and energy are an active area of investigation, not a guilty secret.

    <post class="devils-advocate"/>
And yet, that information is not forthcoming, and those hypotheses effectively infinite.

"Guilty secret" is an uncharitable reading of the parent post, I'd say more out of the realm of scientific inquiry and more the philosophical. It's like asking "what was there before time existed?" - the scientific answer is null because that's a nonsense question - "before" implies the existence of a "time" to count it.

And yet, if the universe suddenly exists at T+0:00, it'll be impossible for science to understand the conditions at T-0:01 because that information does not exist given consensus understanding of time.

Still, we can comprehend the concept of "before time existed" on some abstract level, but the sciences cannot, absent some external source of information that a scientist must necessarily reject until it appears.

It rather depends. There are branches of physics (m-branes, multi-universe, some offshoots of string theory) that could possibly have answers to this, should they figure out ways to test and measure such things. They are somewhere in the realm of philosophy or mathematical conjecture until that point though.

And potentially that pushes the question back further - so where did all that come from?

I took issue with the initial post because it sounded conspiratorial, and it also sounded like there was a huge cop-out at the centrw of everything that people were trying to ignore. On the contrary - it's very interesting and it's no shame or revelation to say "we don't know yet, and we don't know if we ever will"

>sounded like there was a huge cop-out at the centrw of everything that people were trying to ignore.

Yes, like that of the post which I was directing my response towards:

>As a lifelong believer in science...

Science is fundamentally hypothetical, not something to be sure of.

Believe: to accept (something) as true; feel sure the truth of.

"Believing in science" or "believing in creationism" are both opposed to your statement (which I agree with), because they do not leave room for doubt:

>we don't know yet, and we don't know if we ever will

Sorry, most people are indeed not idiots, but that doesn't apply to creationists.

It's one thing to go to a church (there even might be purely social reasons), and it's another thing to discard overwhelming scientific evidence and believe something based on the principle of not needing any evidence at all. I become especially sad when I think of the confused minds of the poor children of these people.

On the topic, I've found The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins a very enlightening read if one wishes to understand the arguments of religious people.

The point is not that creationism is an obvious case of twisting the facts to fit theories.

It is that, if you want to have any hope of bringing a creationist over to your side, you need to be able to understand and articulate both their arguments, and their point of view.

If you can establish that you understand them, they are going to be a lot more receptive to you asking the hard questions about their beliefs (this is best done by asking them to convince you to be a creationist, and then asking those hard questions).

Calling those people idiots does nothing other than give them a legitimate reason to dislike both you, and by extension, other people that "believe in evolution".

Somewhat related to that, creationists tend to be deeply religious, so books like The God Delusion -- which I very much enjoyed, by the way -- are almost guaranteed to turn off a creationist. It would be better to recommend books that explain evolution through a Christian world-view, as they will have a much easier time relating to the material.

If we replace "creationists" with "Apple users" in the first sentence, is this still acceptable comment here on HN?

Personally I think the God Delusion by Dawkins is as far from my perspective as could be possible, so I would not recommend it as a book for people to understand "religious people" (as if you could pigeon hole people like that!). Blanket stereotyping forgets about individuals.

>Sorry, most people are indeed not idiots, but that doesn't apply to creationists.

You'd be surprised.

You can easily find creationists with higher IQ than you, that can out-solve problems in your field faster than you.

And the same for most categories one can dismiss as "idiots", except people with verifiable cognitive impairment.

I think the post you reply to is saying that the fact that someone believes fervently in creation over evolution actually makes them an idiot, regardless of IQ.

This would be because it is a firm rejection of scientific evidence in favour of belief. Not all forms of faith and belief require you to reject evidence, mind, but this one most certainly does.

I knew a very smart and successful scientist doing biochemistry research at a pharma company who fell squarely in the Intelligent Design camp. Rather than seeing it as a wholesale abandonment of science they simply felt that the evidence of the prevailing scientific view was not that strong, and that ID offered firmer theory for the beginning/evolution of life than any other theory.

In which case they were wrong, and most likely trying to reconcile their religious leanings with their self-image.

Well sure, but that doesn't make him an idiot.

Depends on your definition. People called me an idiot (well, my partner did) when I hit myself in the hand with a hammer, really hard, while fossil hunting. So hard I had to go to hospital...

But in other respects I'm at least a reasonably intelligent software engineer!

>I think the post you reply to is saying that the fact that someone believes fervently in creation over evolution actually makes them an idiot, regardless of IQ.

That stretches the definition of an idiot considerably.

>This would be because it is a firm rejection of scientific evidence in favour of belief.

That could be beneficial for one's emotional health (belief in higher power and all that) and thus the smart thing to do in some cases.

Who said "identifying reality correctly" is the smarter thing to do? Sometimes, not being too logical can have great benefits.

Here's an old argument for this:

>Origin of the Logical. — Where has logic originated in men's heads? Undoubtedly out of the illogical, the domain of which must originally lave been immense. But numberless beings who reasoned otherwise than we do at present, perished; albeit that they may have come nearer to truth than we! Whoever, for example, could not discern the "like" often enough with regard to food, and with regard to animals dangerous to him, whoever, therefore, deduced too slowly, or was too circumspect in his deductions, had smaller probability of survival than he who in all similar cases immediately divined the equality. The preponderating inclination, however, to deal with the similar as the equal — an illogical inclination, for there is nothing [100%] equal to another — created the whole basis of logic. It was just so (in order that the conception of [a shared] substance should originate, this being indispensable to logic, although in the strictest sense nothing actual corresponds to it) that for a long period the changing process in things had to be overlooked, and remain unperceived. The beings not seeing correctly [and saw similar things as "same" and static] had an advantage over those who saw everything "in flux". In itself every high degree of circumspection in conclusions, every sceptical inclination, is a great danger to life. No living being might have been preserved unless the contrary inclination — to affirm rather than suspend judgment, to mistake and fabricate rather than wait, to assent rather than deny, to decide rather than be in the right — had been cultivated with extraordinary assiduity. The course of logical thought and reasoning in our modern brain corresponds to a process and struggle of impulses, which singly and in themselves are all very illogical and unjust ; we experience usually only the result of the struggle, so rapidly and secretly does this primitive mechanism now operate in us.

(Friedrich Nietzsche, Gaya Scienza -- with small edits in [] to make the excerpt clearer)

And here's a newer one:

>Hoffman: Right. The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions—mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction. The mathematical physicist Chetan Prakash proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.


The specific problem with creationism and "ID" is that they claim to have objective facts but are actually faith. They do not embrace the irrational as you seem to be encouraging. Quite the opposite - they dress up in the clothes of scientific argument whilst actually rejecting the method, yet claim to have objective truth.

And personally, yeah, I think anyone that can't cope with reality as it is, that needs comforting fictions of higher powers, is de-facto weaker and worse off.

The scientific method has advanced our society immeasurably. Evolutionarily speaking our rationality and logical thought has given us such amazing success it's hard to see how that is supportable at all. It's also not clear what they mean by "tuned to fitness" there. He seems to consider that abstractions and shortcuts are the same as unreality, which appears orthogonal to this debate.

You might want to remember that while scientific method is pretty useful, it does has a weakness. It has all the bases covered except for the hypothesis.

Where do hypothesis come from?

From hunches, partial observations, suggestions from prior research, various other sources of questions about what may or may not be correct that warrants further investigation.

I'm not sure how that's a weakness?

My point is to make you think about bootstrapping the hypothesis issue.

Yes, an intelligent agent will do exactly what you suggested. And by the way, what you said was exactly a hypothesis. What exactly did you do to generate it? Where did that text/ideas come from?

When you come to the bottom of it you'll probably find something that you can't explain. You'll have to think about something and that will lead to something else and so on.

The scientific method is just a means of communicating ideas to other people. But, can you use scientific method on itself? That is, can you communicate a scientific method to generate scientific methods (basically only the hypothesis) for a particular subject? What about "hunches"? Can I have them?

If you can, you hit jackpot. But if you don't, then you might want to think more about discarding the unexplainable.

Go beyond that and try to imagine an 4d or 5d space. Then extrapolate and do a bijection from that to understanding what God is. Why do you think that you can do that? What does this prove about all this thing?

I'm sorry I don't know what you're talking about any more.

You seem to be trying to say that the use of hunches and soft knowledge to form the basis of inquiry and test somehow contradicts or weakens the idea that the world around us can be best understood by the scientific method.

"Hypothesis" is not knowledge, nor are such generated by magic, and they only become knowledge when tested (or contradicted).

As for the last bit, sorry you've degenerated into talking nonsense.

Let's go from "hypothesis" are not being generated by magic.

I'm asking: how can I generate hypothesis? Are you in possession of a scientific method for generating hypothesis? Can you share it?

Scientific method can do so much but I guess you have made up your mind already.

And I'm asking you why that's important?

Hypothesis is not knowledge until tested.

Without hypothesis you don't have scientific method on a particular subject. This is the weakness I was talking about.

Since you can't use scientific method to bootstrap itself - as far as anyone can tell - this is enough to question scientific method's ability to resolve _all_ issues and declare any result on things not applicable to it.

Is this important? You tell me. You may find it useful not to apply unsuitable methods to all situations.

Why does a hypothesis need to be defined by the scientific method? I can pull an idea out of my butt (all grasshoppers are blue!), state it formally as a hypothesis and then apply scientific investigation to it. I don't see this bootstrap problem you're talking about.

Scientific method likely cannot resolve all possible categories of question, no. Empiricism is a fundamental assumption, that things are repeatable and hold true under investigation.

However this is a very different sort of assumption to the rejection of evidence based on faith that is implicit to creationism. One is our best effort to understand the world around us, the other is wilful ignorance.

Why does a hypothesis need to be defined by the scientific method?

Because a thing which you believe and yet is not defined by the scientific method (or rather, empiricism) is known as "faith", a concept which you and the rest of this thread has spent a good deal of energy attacking.

A hypothesis is not something that you believe though, it is something subject to test.

And yet before you test it (if you get around to testing it, and you have the ability and resource to do so), it's just another thing you believe might be the cause of some effect.

In other words, it has no empirical base. It's an idea. A thought, held in the belief that some future action by you or others may prove it correct.

Sure, it's an idea, it's not something you believe anything about though, that's a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept. A hypothesis is a statement of a possibility to be investigated and either upheld or invalidated. It is in no way equivalent to a belief.

I'm not seeing the substantial difference between those two things, aside from the unrelated-to-my-point variable of how much the idea-holder wants it to be upheld.

That variable certainly exists - it's why we have blind-controlled trials as the gold standard of research.

Surely that's the whole point of a belief - here is something I know to be true.

As compared to a hypothesis - here is an idea that should be tested by investigation, I make no prior judgement to its truth

The underlying issue is that having faith in Empiricism(1) is reasonable but having faith in God is ignorance.

Quoting Hamming: "A man was fishing with a net in the sea. He concluded that there is no smaller fish in the sea than what he caught". (s/fishing net/scientific method)

(1)Empiricism modulo quantum effects - and here we go again.

The other thing that strikes me as a conundrum here is that, if one is aware of deliberately choosing unreality over reality, are you really choosing unreality?

I.E. how is it possible to choose fiction as fact in the knowledge it is fiction?

I don't really understand the mindset...

>I.E. how is it possible to choose fiction as fact in the knowledge it is fiction?

That's just the moment of choice though. Given enough conditioning and getting used to it yourself, it can become as convincing (to your own self) as any reality.

Besides, don't people chose convenient truths over reality all the time, creationists or not?

Even the belief in science, which usually is a belief in fiction (an ideal of how it should be conducted) as opposed to how it's practiced and what interests and motivations are in play (from corporate tampering to "I'll review this peer reviewed paper favourably, because that guy is a friend of a friend, or they might help with my grants, etc." -- which can even function at a subconscious level, e.g. instinctively being more positively predisposed to papers by people you know or can help your career).

But you would still know that you had a moment of choosing unreality.

Don't people choose convenient fictions? Not people worth knowing, IMHO, no. People that choose inquiry over ignorance are the ones thay actually make stridea out of the darkness and got us where we are today.

"Belief" in science is the wrong way to think about it. Understanding that the scientific method has flaws but is still far superior as a tool to discover what is, rather than proclaim it without evidence or shy away into comforting fictions, seems the best way to approach knowledge.

>Don't people choose convenient fictions? Not people worth knowing, IMHO, no.

That's a convenient fiction to believe, but I haven't found it to be true in anybody.

That would be an opinion of mine, not a belief, that people worth knowing try not to hold on to fictions.

Whether they end up doing so is less important, they choose not to whenever the choice is apparent.

Not so sure about those "people worth knowing".

I've known wonderful artists and creative persons who absolutely could not give a flying duck for the "reality".

Was the person here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0319061/ worth knowing?

A fun story, but not making pretensions to objective reality, which creationism certainly does.

There is a particular video of Feynman about scientific method where he describes the dual slit experiment. He notes that the "scientific method" should have been able to reproduce exactly where the electrons will go, in different experiments. The experiments are not reproducible in that sense, but only "statistically" which is a completely different thing. Feynman beliefs are irrelevant.

There is also the argument that if you yourself do not accept evidence that creationists do, that does not mean that evidence is not there.

You might also want to read/see Hamming about science and how mathematics is not exactly free from presuppositions.

And there is also the Goldbach conjecture where you find that a system generates facts about itself that can be demonstrated only by going outside the system - ad infinitum.

I did not read the paper you mentioned but God does not exactly work like people regularly assume, that is "you pray and God will do you good".

The idiot argument is convenient but weak. It just gives a quick way to dismiss counter arguments

Too late to edit...

That would be The Incompleteness Theorem of Gödel - not Goldbach

Creationist, son of creationists here :-)

Although I guess there are creationists and there are creationists:

If you ask me about science I will answer with science. I did well in school, including biology and introduction to astrophysics.

If you hold a gun to my head and ask if I still belive this nonsense about the world being created I'd guess I'd say yes (if I can't get around to disarming you, I don't like armed people with strong ideological beliefs going around trying to convince people :-/ )

On a more serious note: For me, the distinction between belief and science disappear somewhere around "all models are wrong, some are useful". For me, both models have been very useful.

My favorite explanation has been: science answers What/How, religion answers Why. It's when we start asking one a question for the other that we get into trouble.

Which is what I don't like about [some] creationism. It tries to use a Why tool to answer a How question.

And as long as you take Biblical stories to be metaphors and/or best-effort explanations from before we had the data that we have now, they're perfectly fine stories that make plenty of sense as an explanation.

Adam&Eve for instance. If all you know is that it takes a man and a woman to produce a baby, it stands to reason that at some point there had to have been the first pair.

The NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria argument/How vs. Why) position is useful to try to coexist peacefully while establishing a more solid rapport, but is not itself universally accepted[0]. For example, philosophy is also capable of answering "Why" questions with or without the help of religion, and neuroscience, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology can explain a lot of the "How" that actually drives what we perceive as "Why".

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-overlapping_magisteria#Rec...

To display my ignorance: I'm not sure philosophy is that different from religion. At least much of philosophy that hasn't spun off into harder sciences.

Could religion not be considered a philosophical framework?

Thanks for showing me there's a name for why vs how. I had no idea.

I think the atrength of this distinction also varies between people. I know many religious atheists who believe in the value of religion, in its teachings and traditions, even in some hybrid concept of heaven and hell, possibly god, but who do not believe God exists as a factual entity or that anything from any religious text is fact rather than metaphor.

But I also come from a country that is 68% christian but only 32% of the population says they believe in there being some sort of god.


Edit: Apparently "Catholic Atheism" is a thing that exists: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_atheism

No snark, but I guess white supremacists also find their model pretty useful. The obvious question is, does anything go, provided it makes some people feel good somehow?

I'm obviously biased but I feel the comparison is a bit weird.

> On a more serious note: For me, the distinction between belief and science disappear somewhere around "all models are wrong, some are useful". For me, both models have been very useful.

What useful model does creationism put forward?

Mostly not creationism specifically but my religion.

Useful perhaps, in that it makes you feel good. But like another poster pointed out, nazi ideology made its followers feel pretty good.

More useful though in that it made me stop hating and get control over my impulsiveness.

One of the arguments for evolution involves some very non-trivial calculation on probability of whether it could result in the world we're in right now (not the maths itself, but the sequence of reasoning). It has been a while since I read Dawkin's books, but I don't think the books cover those kind of arguments. I think there are quite a bit of writing on lesswrong on the topic.

I've met creationists that believed in micro evolution: microbe can evolve to get certain resistance. But not the macro one, that is natural selection can result in human as we are right now. I was absolutely not able to justify the probability that it can happen.

If you shake a bucket of all kinds of different marbles for five minutes and then record the exact configuration they end up in, you'll find it was extremely unlikely that they'd end up in exactly that configuration.

Is that an argument for the current state of the marbles being created from nothing?

No, but what if you shook a bucket of marbles and out came the Statue of David?

The probabilities cannot be calculated as we do not have interstellar travel required to inspect worlds that evolve separately from our own. So, that is no argument, just speculation. Same problem as with Drake's equitation and aliens.

A stronger argument is that we have managed to create building blocks of life from basic physics and chemistry. No superpowers required for that.

At least we can see how the stars begin, change and die.

> A stronger argument is that we have managed to create building blocks of life from basic physics and chemistry. No superpowers required for that.

No. Just some creators.

No, just a few known laws of physics and chemistry. The conditions required are expected to happen spontaneously during planet formation.

We just don't have a handle on how common those conditions are. And many other subsequent conditions, for cellular life, for multicellular, for tissues and organs. Finally, for intelligence and sapience.

The point is that we cannot prove there is no creator by creating life. There is still a creator involved.

The 'best result' (assuming we're itching to disprove God) would be to show an origin of life is plausible. But even that doesn't prove where life on Earth actually came from.

> I've met creationists that believed in micro evolution: microbe can evolve to get certain resistance. But not the macro one, that is natural selection can result in human as we are right now. I was absolutely not able to justify the probability that it can happen.

At that point they aren't arguing against evolution so much as they are cosmology, geology, physics etc. The only difference between micro/macro evolution is the timescales involved and the timescale is what they don't accept.

If you want to understand the arguments of religious people you should probably listen to them and not a polemicist against them, but it's a mistake to equate "religious people" (or even Christians) with "creationists" in the first place.

Since creationism is fundamentally a metaphysical premise, attacking deism through induction and observation is inconclusive but maybe a fun thought experiment.

Succinctly, if miracles exist, they violate natural laws. Claiming that natural laws and observations (carbon dating, say) do not allow for miracles is begging the question.

You're right that creationists are pretty deep into idiot territory.

But alsetmusic's fact-finding mission could still be useful! Right now he doesn't even know where to start on how to construct an argument, because he doesn't know what creationists have been told.

There are probably many pieces of evidence in the creationist museum that are valid "holes" in science, that we're still looking to fill. He'd be able to acknowledge certain fossil gaps and irregularities, while describing how they still fit into the great scientific theory.

> There are probably many pieces of evidence in the creationist museum that are valid "holes" in science

From what I've seen the arguments aren't that sophisticated, they start with an outright rejection of most branches of science. Amusingly, evolution is the one they criticize the least.

The creation museum posits that dinosaurs and humans existed at the same time before the great flood a few thousand years ago. They also say that dragons were real.

Exactly. It's pure fantasy. Looking for shreds of intelligence in it is foolish. To

If a new fossil is found that fills one of those gaps, the museum will then proudly claim there are now TWO gaps there!

>> If they disagree with you, it's probably not because they are being irrational...

It's interesting to compare this POV with the Scott Adams'. In his school of thought all people are mostly irrational, even if they think otherwise: http://blog.dilbert.com/post/147595892021/how-persuaders-see...

Oddly enough, I think that both of these viewpoints work together very nicely.

Human beings are, generally speaking, irrational. We have a sort of flashlight'o'rationality that we can shine on specific things for periods of time, but most of how we behave is guided by a mixture of instinct, culture, emotion, and our life experiences.

It is pretty well-established that even highly rational people tend to choose a position and then build chains of logic to support it. As a very strong case in point, look at how the world of mathematicians worked to "correct" Marilyn vos Savant's solution to the Monty Hall problem.

And while we can work to change our habits, to instill more rational behaviors, we are still operating from within a system that is mostly irrational and emotional. And more importantly, we have to either want to change, or be made to want to change.

This is rarely accomplished by telling somebody that they are wrong.

Personally, I tend to think of human beings as being rational-at-the-core, but with that rational core being surrounded and filtered by a wall of culture, emotion, and experience.

So when people disagree with me, it is because their chain of logic is based on a different cultural-emotional-experience state than mine.

And if I can not understand where they are coming from -- listening is a superpower here -- I can not hope to either learn the thing that they know and I don't, and nor can I hope to change their minds.

Now, when it comes to arguing for a viewpoint, it is our natural instinct to defend ourselves -- a verbal challenge to what we believe is still very much an "attack".

The simplest way to bypass this reflex, is to start from a position where you are on the "same team". To agree with where they are right, and to validate the parts of their position that you share.

From there, you can then work in small steps and gentle pressure to engage both their rational core, as well as their culture-emotion-experience filter.

Heh, but unconscious instincts can be quite rational, just in non-obvious ways.

In other words, they are responses to internal and external states, which means there is a reason for them. To find the actual source, we have to delve into many branches of philosophy and science.

It is generally better to live your life irrational and do decisions irrational, because this usually indicates decisions based on values, humanism and real human empathy. Rationality in it self is autistic and schizophrenic, a closed system that is doomed by Gödel to always try, but never achieving completeness and consistency. A never ending lie that we can know it all rationally.

I actually think that humans work the other way around. At our core is a giant GPU parallel computing system that deals in emotions and our culture. Slapped on to the system is a slow weak single core trying desperately to control everything. I can recommend the book "The Master and His Emissary" by Iain McGilchrist.

Notice especially in the Schizophrenic Paranoia in the link in the GP. Most people are dumb, but there are the evil "Persuaders" who are out to get you. And you are the enlightened one who has figured out the "truth". Classic delusion.

I think the whole reason "first tell them how they are right, then how they are wrong" works is that most people are irrational.

Wrong, they rationally prefer hedonic feeling.

How did you feel about this post? ;-)

Valid logic, different premises.

Good point! What you say looks logical. In my opinion though, the fact that they find first telling them how they're right as a prerequisite to be told how they're wrong hedonic, is irrational :).

(So tell me, have I mastered it now? ;) )

Is that actually true? The entire literature on cultural cognition, and the myside bias, and all the other failures of rationality seems to point to it being pretty common for people to disagree irrationally. The advice given here is rather one-sided: one must assume the other person disagrees rationally. That's a huge assumption that is sometimes, maybe often, not justified, yet it's not mentioned. Furthermore, the second part of your comment about articulating their own argument is not related to the first, it's independent of the rationality and quality of their argument.

Often people are not as irrational as you'd think. It's just they only connect the dots one or two at a time. So, much of the knowledge they already have is not questioned. More often than not people appear to be irrational because they have learned something that is either false or perhaps true but very different to a false belief you hold. They appear irrational when assessing the same situation as you but arriving at different conclusions, because they are holding to a very different set of assumptions. People (my self included) are not very good at being aware of our underlying assumptions.

I guess that is being irrational given that you are not taking all the assumptions into account, but it's the level of rationality that most people operate at.

However if your talking about an emotionally charged situation, yeah rationality be damned emotions are running that show.

They may disagree irrationally, but they still disagree with causation. This is basically saying; figure out what causes them to believe what they believe, acknowledge the validity of that causal chain, and then introduce new information.

The new information could be about being less wrong (updating the rules of their causality) or it could be a new situation on which to apply their existing ways of thinking.

Also very rarely do beliefs exist in isolation. They're usually a part of a framework or ideology. Seeing that greater context, I would imagine, helps to empathize with the other party's POV.

i would argue that most people are in fact idiots

That depends on how you define an idiot.

It's true that one half of people literally has less-than-average intelligence...

If defined traditionally (from the Greek), it's the literal truth.


Depends on the distribution. And which average.

IQ is distributed normally.

That's begging the question.

what do you mean?

The definition of IQ says that it assumes a normal distribution, with half either side of the mean. To use the definition of IQ as a justification for the statement "half of all people have less than average intelligence" assumes that the distribution of intelligence matches the distribution of IQ.

I would argue that most people simple love to argue.

Well I would argue that I'm rubber, and you're glue.

> Most people are not idiots. If they disagree with you, it's probably not because they are being irrational, but because they're starting from a different premise, making different assumptions, or assigning different values to different aspects of the problem

I agree with the spirit of what you're saying, but I think you're conflating two orthogonal dimensions.

There is someone's level of intelligence, and there is the degree to which they have different starting assumptions to you on the topic.

Indeed, and since nobody has posted it yet, and while it's not perfect, this is so far the best-written readily acessible simple guide for anybody about the tactics of practical modern discussion: http://paulgraham.com/disagree.html

I couldn't agree more. How tiresome it is to watch two people completely talk past each other.

And also one might be wrong in the first place and one's opponent in fact be correct.

Or change your own mind.

While this is an important skill to have, I've also learned over time that there are certain types of people where it's easier to let them "be right" and accommodate the consequences. I didn't always think this way. In the past, I would say that people are reasonable, it's always possible to figure out what the truth is, especially if I acknowledge the possibility that I am often wrong. But now I realize that some people have a very skewed view of the world around them, either built up from a lifetime of emotional trauma, undesirable upbringing, or something else. edit: it is unfortunate when their own skewed perspective causes self-infliction of additional emotional trauma, it's a very negative and constant feedback loop. And that skewed perspective causes any and all disagreements to be perceived as personal attacks or worse. Every time I feel like I make progress with these people to earn their trust enough to get them to talk with me, it's back to square 1 when a new issue crops up, and then it's once again obviously because the world is out to get them, and there is no possible other explanation.

Eventually, I get to a crossroad: either I accept what these people are saying as right (even when it's wrong and would require some absurd actions on my part), or I navigate to exit that situation so I can minimize my future interactions with those people. If neither are possible, it's perhaps time to find new work. Of course, I'd love to get onto the same page as them. But I think we have to acknowledge that sometimes it's not possible. I say this as someone who believes that he has gotten pretty good at this skill after years of experience.

As would probably be expected, these types of people are lifers at organizations where they have used political means to entrench themselves, and would likely not survive on the open market if they ever needed to look for new employment.

> While this is an important skill to have, I've also learned over time that there are certain types of people where it's easier to let them "be right" and accommodate the consequences

Generally when that happens to me I've come across what I like to call a "fundamental argument." Where neither party is correct and neither party is wrong. A good example of this is "do you believe in religion" because nobody can prove or disprove the existence of a higher being or a religion. But some people will fundamentally be okay with believing in a higher power though. So whatever side of the debate I'm on, when the conversation comes down to a fundamental argument I let both parties be right.

The type of people I am discussing don't have these "fundamental arguments" as you describe them. They have diametric arguments like: "the reason you chose the system you did is because you hate me" or "you're trying to sell me this product because you want to see me suffer", etc. I am the center of the world, the world revolves around me, and anyone who disagrees with me about anything is out to get me, and every situation in the world is designed to be a detriment to my personal and professional well-being; therefore, I must always be in attack mode to prevent the world's population from hurting me. That type of skewed perspective. I did not used to think that these types of people existed. I do now.

When it's that strong it could be called narcissistic personality disorder. Sadly it tends to be prevalent in domestic abuse.

I'm all for "fundamental arguments" as you call them, but they are probably the least interesting arguments imaginable. Their only claim to being interesting, from my point of view, is because they tend to arise as the last bastion of a belief system that has been whittled away by evidence.

Let's take your example a little further, starting with the perhaps more general: "Do you believe in a higher power?".

I agree that it is impossible to disprove the existence of a higher power, however I do think it is possible to prove (not that I think it will be proved, ever). Things that were previously taken as evidence of such a proof are now generally accepted as natural phenomena (lightning as a crude example).

The nature of what would prove the existence makes for a much more interesting argument than the mere possibility of existence.

"Do you believe that the higher power interacts with this universe?"

"Do you believe that we can measure that interaction?"

"What would that measurement look like?"

"Why haven't we actually measured that?" (perhaps a loaded question!)

If someone chooses to believe in a higher power that is unable to interact with us, and has no impact on anything we do, good for them! Potential issues arise when people believe that the higher powers does interact with the world, and so I find that discussion much more interesting than merely if such a thing could exist or not.

> nobody can prove or disprove the existence of a higher being or a religion.

You don't believe in something just because you cannot disprove it. You must have some evidence to believe it in the first place. Otherwise, you would believe in all kinds of celestial teapots.

You're assuming that the need to be right overrides society and belonging - security. For most people it does not.

Ah, I see you too have learned how to have a happier marriage.

This is not the kind of comments encouraged at HN, but, that said, I laughed really hard at this :)

Wow, that's some an amazing way to succinctly summarize countless of people I know who come from less than ideal backgrounds. Thanks.

A very similar effect is the "backfire effect"


I've been spending a lot of time focusing on this with customer support. When a customer is hot about a problem it doesn't help at all to show facts about anything. It really helps though to begin with a place of empathy of how you understand how they feel if you were in a similar situation. For example, had a great experience with Indinero recently when I was hot about a problem. Their customer service rep though approached it exactly from how he would feel the same way as me in such a place and here's how they'll fix it. If he just started with the "here's how we'll do better" I don't think he have gotten through to me in the situation. I've been using this a ton with problems ranging from dealing with my 2 year old to hot topics for customer support, and it's really impressive how well it works.

Yes, in many ways it's simply practicing empathy. But for some reason without thinking about the tactic folks who want to be practicing empathy don't seem to get to that point.

FWIW: I talk about this topic more in depth in video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzGOdE92z9I

The simpering sympathising and apologising thing can go much too far as well. My reaction to that is "stop apologising and fix the damned problem".

Experience teaches that it's almost always a sign of someone who's not empowered, or worse, not capable, of actually improving the situation. At worst their role is to actively impede the process, a circumstance far too frequently encountered.

If you watch the video in GP, he talks about situations where he can't or doesn't want to fix anything. For example there's nothing to fix when customers send out spam, it's the customer who has to change their behavior. And people don't like being told that they are at fault. So the point is about how to ease them into understanding that without becoming angry at the company.

Of course, he is dead wrong about nothing to do. He just does not want to inconvenience his own customers.

I took a course this summer called "Design Thinking," which is about a methodology that emphasizes empathizing with the users of a product or service to improve that product or service. Empathy is an extremely powerful tool for communication between people, which is so fundamental to almost everything we do in life.

From a straightforward standpoint, having to think about how the other person is right, and then to incorporate in a rebuttal, simply takes more time. Which for me is helpful because that physical delay curbs the kinds of reflexive emotional responses that I regret later.

It takes more time and a lot more patience and some common-ground factual context. Which is why bomb-throwing is the game-theoretically preferred public debate tactic with a mixed audience, such as the practice of politics.

“The Relativity of Wrong”[1] by Isaac Asimov is a great read.

In it, he states that it’s possible to be mostly right, and partly wrong. Or mostly wrong, and partly right. Someone's argument or design can have components which are absolutely wrong while still ending up being right enough for all practical purposes.

[1] http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm

It's the complete opposite of what seems to be the increasingly reigning trend online at least, and all too often offline. That is to say this is good advice, but a really shocking number of people seem to unaware that the least effective teacher is the one who informs you that you're a pointless moron before trying to correct you. I'm constantly amazed at people who think their genius is so valuable that anyone would put up with their rancid personality.

It can get even worse when there is no genius in play, just power or money and a good social/professional bubble.

> I'm constantly amazed at people who think their genius is so valuable that anyone would put up with their rancid personality.

Devils advocate here; Isn't this an example of displaying a superior attitude and the sort of the thing you're claiming to be against?

Only if you think that I believe I'm dropping pearls of wisdom here, rather than just sharing an opinion, and doing so in a "rancid" way. Do you think that?

>I'm constantly amazed at people who think their genius is so valuable that anyone would put up with their rancid personality.

My opinion has been that if you really value truth, leave your ego at the door. Emotional intelligence is key to discovering things you don't know, from sources that may be less than friendly.

I am not advocating being needlessly toxic. This goes for both parties. But people would do well to learn when to A) Not expect respect B) Know how deal with someone who is disrespectful, but is correct in the current subject matter being discussed.

I agree, but we're all just human, and most of the time it's not truth that comes with rudeness, it's just more rudeness and a lot of opinions. Worse, people seem to think that being rude is a way to broadcast your important or genius, when it really does nothing of the sort.

I'm also not talking about "expecting respect", I'm talking about people who cross basic lines of conduct. "I don't feel I'm being treated as well as I should," is not in this, and yes, people who expect that need to ground themselves in reality a bit.

I definitely see what you're saying. I guess all I can really say is it's such a gray area for me personally, given the people I've worked with. There are people who demand respect for absolutely no reason, and then there are generally arrogant, toxic people like you're describing. It's an emotional minefield!

Agreed. In a way, I see both of those people as sides of the same coin, but probably at different stages in their career. Does that make any sense?

The goal of online conversation is usually not to convince the purported target of the rhetoric.

That's why I joined this site actually, to get away from that. So far so very very good.

If somebody calls you a pointless moron, they are probably not trying to teach you anything.

I used to think that, but amazingly enough some people either learned that by example, and others think you need to "break down" someone's resistance first. I think arrogance is the common factor, to think that would accomplish anything positive in most cases. Then again, there are people who truly want to teach, but they're frustrated or have a generally poor temperament.

Sometimes, a mental jolt is necessary, rather than soft diplomacy. Zen masters understood such things.

Calling someone an asshole isn't the path to 'satori', and ego has no place in a zen koan.

This is also known as the "shit sandwich" (when leavened with another helping of praise on the other end), and is instantly recognizable once you see the pattern. The risk is that your initial praise is seen as disingenuous by its recipients, or that it goes too far and reifies their underlying value system when it actually is contradictory to yours.

Incidentally, Barack Obama was particularly good at this construction in his first term, but fell victim to the first trap. Pre-Trump Republicans in general fall victim to the second, when they have any effective rhetoric at all.

Like most rhetorical devices, it works better in person than in print.

I hate this pattern. If something is fucked up, tell me, so I can fix it. Don't waste my time buttering me up first and patting me on the back afterwards, just get to the point.

It's one thing I do kind of miss about working shitty, dangerous construction and logging jobs summers in college. There's no time for pussyfooting around when a miscommunication means somebody gets crushed or mangled by heavy equipment. Brusque, unambiguous, often profanity-laced communication is more effective getting the point across rapidly...

I'm with you on most of that (the sandwich), but (the shit) it requires a community of trust, and some healthy functioning people, at least within that specific context.

I've had a recent online experience in a community in which all interaction is anonymous -- but the anonymity isn't persistent, rather, identities are created and assigned for each discussion.

This almost perfectly destroys any and all sense of community. It also interacts poorly with several other site dynamics, but the result is phenomenally toxic.

I do know online communities, usually smallish (5-50 people, occasionally more, but rarely >150) where that kind of banter can develop. I've seen it in workplaces, but rarely, and even then often only between a few people. Like you I've seen it in jobs involving physical work, close quarters, and danger, and those were some of the most awesome times of my life. There's a strong sense of missing that in much technology and online interaction.

I've also seen places which are almost the antithesis of this. Where there's no trust, or camarderie, or sense of shared purpose. Financial industry and political environments seem to be the epitome of this. In banking, the culture permeates inside organisations, in politics, it's usually confined to rivalries across party lines, though not always. In either case, though, you find that there's an excessive need for formality, protocol, and ego-buttering which isn't so necessary elsewhere.

And which apparently you and I both find tedious.

> I've had a recent online experience in a community in which all interaction is anonymous -- but the anonymity isn't persistent, rather, identities are created and assigned for each discussion.

I'd like to experience that, it's pretty much how I read reddit/hn anyway. I would be a good way to eliminate group think.

eh doesn't 4chan work that way?

I was thinking something more like Reddit with the curation voting provides, threaded comments, etc.

So, reddit with more throwaway accounts

Using automoderator and/or other moderation bots in your own sub, you could automatically only accept contributions from young accounts that haven't posted in other subreddits

Re: logging

I had similar experiences communicating with the guide in whitewater rafting.

Although I agree it can be <i>perceived</i> as disingenuous, I think it's perfectly valid to clarify areas of common thought before trying to adjust someone else's way of thinking. Furthermore it doesn't just make them feel better, but in my experience it makes me as the speaker feel good to openly acknowledge the respect I have for the person I'm dialoguing with, instead of just thinking of them as pure adversary.

Offtopic: not sure if you're aware, but wrapping text in * will make it italicised on HN.

For example, this text is wrapped.

I can't believe I had to scroll this far down to find someone bringing this up.

I work for a boss that went to a management school where they taught him a "retain/improve" method: first tell people which behavior they should retain, to stroke their egos, then tell people how they can improve, which is what you actually want them to do. So every time I hear praise come out of his mouth, I immediately get cynical and think "that's not what he really thinks, he's just saying that because he's been trained to say things like that first."

TL:DR of the original article is "show empathy to people." Empathy is not the same thing as flattery, and poor management doesn't know the difference.

>The risk is that your initial praise is seen as disingenuous by its recipients

Because if you're concocting praise to implement something you call a "shit sandwich", it probably is disingenuous.

A few more tips for arguing on the Internet:

1) Be polite. Nobody wants to listen to or learn from a rude person.

2) Avoid signaling your values, knowledge, or status. Write for the person you are addressing, not other members of your in-group. Proofread your writing and delete anything that does not serve this purpose.

3) Don't value winning more than understanding.

> Don't value winning more than understanding.

Over time I've learned that when arguing, some people are convinced they must win, and they value that over correctness or logic. With those types, I simply back off with a neutral stance and save myself the time of arguing with someone not interested in changing their position.

On the other hand, the fastest way to get people to teach you about their views is to be rude in an argument.

Daniel Dennett is a curious character. A philosopher at Tufts, he wrote this:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement). You should mention anything you have learned from your target. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

This is a classic technique for influencing people. The rule of thumb is nobody likes to be criticized in any situation whatsoever. The worst thing you can do is to tell them they are wrong. One way to get a difficult message conveyed is to get the other person say "yes" a few times before being told things as they are.

Anyone interested in learning more I would recommend reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Win_Friends_and_Influen...

There is a modification of this idea which forms a teaching technique that my parents used with me, and I use with everyone I teach or tutor. Essentially you ask them to make predictions (what will happen here). You then try to figure out their process of coming to that conclusion (why do you say that). It's important that you ask them this question even if they're correct. Then you emphasise the parts of their reasoning which make sense, and focus on the parts that were mistaken. You then ask them to make the prediction again with what they've learned. Bonus points if you give a third, different example to reinforce the concepts. Rinse and repeat.

While some people (especially children who aren't used to this method) might not enjoy it at first because it seems to be harder and takes longer than "just giving the answer", it actually helps people learn how to reason about things (which is something that is lacking in a lot of people these days IMO).

It would be incredibly difficult, but I've always wished we could develop a (formal) axiomatic system of morality, such that with independent axioms that each person takes as true by default, all of that person's positions on the major issues would be immediately derivable from the axioms and would essentially be indisputable. Heated emotional debates that last for hours would instead turn into each party running a short computer program to determine whether their views are compatible.

For example, one such axiom (not being rigorous here) may be "human life is valuable". If someone else takes "human life has no inherent worth", then you're kind of at an impasse, as each statement forms the basis of entirely different systems of morality.

Another example is the abortion debate, every one is quick to show the evils of the other side of the debate. But often they simply disagree on when human life starts and fail to ever identify that as the issue. Because of this most discussions on this topic become far more vitriolic than productive.

Even then the argument can actually be solved by the "famous violinist" argument (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hallq/2012/02/the-under-rated-f...) and by pointing out that humans are not forced to donate a kidney, even though doing so has a great chance of saving the life of the recepient, and a live-donation results in a much higher quality of life for the receiver. In this case we value the body integrity of the first person more than the life of the second - even though both are undeniably human.

OTOH in the case of abortion you have the difference that you take direct action against the fetus in favor of the mother, instead of just being passive and "letting nature take its course". In terms of ethics that's a huge difference.

In fact I'd argue that an uncontradictory absolutist position for body integrity is impossible in the case of abortion (assuming the fetus is considered human!), since the only absolute resolution technically isn't abortion, but rather premature birth and artificially keeping the fetus alive.

Of course the disagreement between camps remains on when a fetus becomes human...

One interesting observation was, that human life is continuous and has been for a million years. Don't know how that changes the discussion but its interesting.

This assumes that moral systems that people have are selfconsistent. It's really hard to have a selfconsistent moral system.

> (formal) axiomatic system of morality

See the entire history of philosophy and ethics.

Which is why there are so many formal or semi-formal systems.

This is one of the essential points outlined in Dale Carnegie's seminal "How to win friends and influence people". This should be required reading for EVERYONE before graduating high school, and revisited regularly. I read it at least once a year.

Begin with praise and honest appreciation. People will do things begrudgingly for criticism and an iron-fisted leader, but they will work wonders when they are praised and appreciated.

I had this failure to make a family member see a particular point of view. The person had taken a stance, that would be harmful to the family, but yet rational arguments did not work out. The person had something to gain, I don't know what, by causing this harm, the person went ahead with that.

Have you ever encountered this? If yes, does rational argument and persuation work with people who don't care?

Rationality is relative. People do tend to make decisions based on reason, even seemingly irrational people, but 1) people possess differing information, from which two rational actors can draw contradictory yet individually-logical conclusions, and 2) everyone is susceptible to flawed logic. In the case of the latter, trying to directly "correct" someone's logic is often unwelcome (especially in a heated emotional context). Furthermore, sometimes people become invested in a particular decision for foregone reasons, possibly due to information that is secret or inexpressible (e.g. the degree of suffering one experiences from a mental illness, which is very hard to intuitively empathize with for people who are neurotypical).

So the answer is no, rational argument doesn't always work. Sometimes the best that you can do is simply minimize harm to a relationship by not letting the argument escalate or letting anyone burn any bridges. Depending on context, sometimes it might even be worth yielding to a seemingly-irrational argument if it means preserving a valuable relationship (this should be done with caution, obviously). And sometimes things really are just irreconcilable (though hopefully not too often).

People often act according to heuristics rather than truly rational analysis. These heuristics are rational on their own, just misapplied at times.

If they're trying to get something and are willing to screw others over for it, then you have to give them an easier way to get what they want. Maybe they actually want something else? Or maybe they can get the thing some less damaging way?

If that all fails then you have to find other strings to pull. Figure out what currencies they care about (think social pressure) and see how you might be able to use them to help you make your case.

How Machiavelian. We're talking about people, not things. People are often inconsistent. You cannot reduce them to a simple stratagem without a risk of total mistake.

I didn't suggest a simple strategem, I suggested a way of thinking about how to dissuade someone who is willing to burn you or things or people you care about to gain something. How you implement what I said will vary from person to person. It can be Machiavellian if you're a student of the Jack Bauer school of persuasion, but for normal people it's just negotiation.

Everybody has that ledger in their head when they make a decision but what's on that ledger can vary dramatically. If you want to both dissuade an irrational actor and keeping things civil, then you need to figure out what's on that ledger and whether you have a way of adjusting those items, maybe by offering a more palatable (to you) alternative, or by changing the perception of the costs/benefits, or by actually changing the costs/benefits, and so on.

The particular family member that I mention, did not come for any negotiation. They wanted to have something irrespective of the cost (even at the cost of health) to others in the family.

It was a failed argument that I saw when rationalization was not helpful for my families welfare. I could not take it law either, as law does not cover many family scenarios.

It's funny, I remember from some years ago reading similar advice under the heading "How to disagree with Americans", the implication being that American speakers could not take direct disagreement, and required a little ego-massage first. And of course that we British had no such foolish pride.

I think probably it's a little more universal than that :)

I don't see how that's a trick. It just seems considerate to me. That's how I would prefer to be persuaded. First validate my thinking, and convince me that you understand it. Then your new perspective will be credible.

I also think Pascal made the point better in his quote than the rest of the article did.

This is very shallow. Negotiation theory is not helpful when you're plainly or partially wrong, or just in a very weak position to defend.

Here's a classic negotiation example that I just can't crack:

Her: I've told you, please don't leave your socks on the floor.

Him: (mirroring) Leave my socks on the floor?

Her: Yes. Please throw them in the laundry bin right after you take them off.

Him: (open-ended question) How am I supposed to do this if I'm in a hurry?

Her: After you take off your socks, pick them up. Then throw them into the bin. Two seconds and you're are done.

Him: (Pascal's empathy) Yes, you're right. Leaving socks on the floor is just annoying. But understand that when I get home sometimes I'm in a hurry or I'm tired and I don't feel like picking up the socks.

Her: Please just do it. It annoys the hell out of me.

There's just no good way to negotiate your way out of this. Typically negotiation courses and books always focus on how the reader will bargain to win, not to minimize losses or just accept to lose but compromise on an ongoing basis (give-and-take).

Sometimes, a game cannot be won. Negotiation cannot be done if the other party is not willing.

One way to break such a stalemate is to increase your empathy to the point you become the psychiatrist and the other party the patient.

Here he could debase Her argument as being a manifestation of an obsessive compulsive disorder. If she agrees to that "diagnosis" just a little, he might be able to move to a kill by proposing that the socks remain on the floor as a form of therapy that will help Her treat her overwhelmingly obsessive behavior.

So who's more wrong here? I don't quite follow the argument.

The argument is that some negotiations have no winning outcome

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