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How to Disagree (paulgraham.com)
183 points by PieSquared on March 29, 2008 | hide | past | favorite | 224 comments

Great article. Paul provides a useful illumination of the issue. The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas operated at level DH6, often with devastating effect. He would formulate and state the argument he planned to refute with clarity, depth, accuracy, and precision. He often would make his opponent's case better than the opponent had done! I believe his secret was that he was humbly interested in the truth wherever it led. Given his lack of a pre-conceived agenda, he could take a proposition and explore its implications 20 plies deep, giving it the benefit of the doubt and making the best case for it at each step. Having fully plumbed an idea and 'grokked' it, then he could unwind the stack as it were, and state his conclusions in a powerfully convincing manner. Humility, detachment, an agenda-free willingness to listen and follow the truth where it leads, and strength in defending hard-won truth when found all seem to be good places to start.

Aquinas wasn't quite so thorough in all his works. It's mostly the Summa Theologica which is so rigorous. I agree with the application however, for one to brook disagreement with another, one should usually understand the subject better than that person. This implies understanding your opponent's arguments better than your opponent. If don't understand your opponents arguments better than he, who are you to say that he is wrong in making them?

(trivia about Aquinas: his handwriting was so bad, that there are only about 10 people or so in the world today that can read it.)

I am glad that people are thinking of Aquainas in this connection. In fact, I _still_ think his book on logical fallacies is one of the best. For example, he is the _only_ one to get the defintion of "amphigology" right.

Unfortunately, when you look at the link where you can find it online at http://www.corpusthomisticum.org/dp3.html, you will see why so few people still read this book:(

Do you find anything wrong in that online edition of the original Latin text?

This reminds me of Karl Popper's in his critique of Marx. Anyone have the quote?

Mind if I extend your Disagreement Hierarchy?

DH-1. Flamebaiting.

This is when you preempt that with which you would disagree by stating your case in such a way as to elicit quick disagreement (in the form of DH0 to DH6). Usually done by noticing a subset of all data, forming a hypothesis to explain only that subset, and presenting it as a conclusion. Often done without even realizing it.

   The relational database model is dead.

   There is no future in enterprise software.

   <Language du jour> is clearly the best.

   No one else is doing <xyz>, so it must be a deadend.

I think the Flamebaiting category is a useful addition to PG's hierarchy.

The new category brings to mind an interesting property of this hierarchy though, namely that it seems to be difficult to respond to an "argument" with a higher order technique than that which was originally presented. For example, if one were disagreeing with a purely ad hominem rant, one would find it futile and nearly impossible to disagree with the rant at any higher level; how can one truly refute an argument that has no central point? It's somewhat depressing because, if true, it implies that a discussion is upper bounded at the level of discourse that initiated the discussion.

The way out of this, as far as I can tell, is recognizing that statements are not made in a vacuum. Sometimes the only way to raise the level of discourse is to engage in a sort of meta-disagreement. In other words, sometimes the point of a statement is not the content, but the context. While it works to classify criticisms of tone, for example, as weak if one were dealing with a substantive argument, the metadata (tone, speaker, etc) around the content of a non-argument may allow one to say something intelligent about the statement by tying it to the broader context in which it was made.

It's possible, you just have to remember that there are many more lurkers than posters in any given discussion and write for the benefit of the lurkers that have not yet chosen a DH level.

Actually, I've used this as a fairly effective technique for arresting flamewars. It doesn't always work, but when it does, subsequent posts are usually at the DH level of your own response rather than that of the parent comment.

The key seems to be drawing 3rd-party onlookers in before the original flamer responds. If someone else responds to your comment at a high DH level, the original flamer has a choice. He can respond to your comment with another flame, which makes him look stupid and petty because there's a sibling comment that's much more well-reasoned. He can respond with a real argument, in which case you've raised the level of discourse. Or he can go away, which seems to be what happens most of the time. Regardless of what he does, you're free to ignore his reply and continue responding to the person who engages you with actual arguments.

A corollary is that educated, rational lurkers hold a lot of power on discussion boards. If you don't get directly involved in arguments but instead cherry-pick the comments you respond to, you can set the whole tone for a community.

BTW, the same trick works in face-to-face conversations, as long as there are more than 2 people involved. The person who asks the questions controls the conversation, by virtue of which questions they choose to ask. And the person who sits back and shuts up controls whose ideas get developed, by virtue of who they choose to respond to. That's why the quietest person at a meeting usually controls it, as long as they're not just a passive onlooker.

Your comment gave me a crazy idea. What if one was to respond to a flamebait with a counterargument or refutation, and then create another username and add another intelligent comment that contradicted the first one you posted? So then the thread would look like this:

1. Original flamebait

2. Congent response to flamebait (posted by you using username 1)

3. Congent response to post 2 (posted by you using username 2)

This might be slightly unethical, but it means that the original flamer will always be dissuaded from posting again, and you're more likely to get more congent discussion participants.

If using multiple usernames bothers you, you could probably just check yourself with a small counterargument at the end of post 2, and it seems likely that the original flamer would still be dissuaded.

The problem with this proposal is that it ignores the fundamental problem behind any flamebait: that flamebait qua flamebait is not _intended_ as serious discussion, nor as a prelude to serious discussion.

The proven technique for dealing with flamebait is to tag it immediately for what it is, and not waste any reader's time with a detailed discussion of an idea that is not even worthy of refutation.

And yes, even Aristotle in the Topics agreed that there are propositions/arguments that are so silly or vain, they are not worthy of a serious refutation. Flamebait certainly counts as one of these. (BTW: I see there are Aquinas fans here, so I will point out that Aquinas expressed his agreement with this in, of all places, his commentary on the Ethics: I think it was Lecture I).

The only problem is that there really are people who are too quick to tag someone else's post as 'flamebait', even when it is not. This happens on those very topics that most need to be seriously discussed, simply because they are so important, yet so many people hold strong opinions on them, opinions that are not founded on sound logic, but on passionate attachment of one kind or another. So they are strong opinions, but they are wrong opinions. These are the discussions that are the most difficult. They should not be attempted by amateurs. But there is no enforcing of _this_ principle on the Internet;)

One way to crank up the level is not to rise to the bait, but instead to politely ask them to be more specific.

Unfortunately this rarely works in the sense of eliciting a reply. But when it doesn't, it does at least tend to shut them up.

Another way out is to simply ignore poor arguments and spend one's scarce time responding to the intelligent ones instead.

(Admittedly, this is not always possible or desirable.)

Another way to not lose your time is to stop posting in troll infested comunities; I don't post on Digg anymore for that and I am now slowly fading out of Reddit for the same reason.

The problem on those sites is that their is not only poor comments but also tons of users who upmod them.

The problem on those sites is that their is not only poor comments

This is a legitimate problem, and ironically it is a symptom that a news concentrator is becoming a victim of its own success. As the signal-to-noise ratio attracts a progressively larger crowd, the types of information that are viewed as 'signal' broaden to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It's similar to hiring in a small company -- but at least in that situation you have control over the purse strings. (Even the trolls get dumber as time goes by and a site grows more popular.) Thus the comments on an arbitrary story suffer, and it requires more work to pick through them. However, if you 'listen' to subcommunities (eg. economics, programming, math on reddit) you find that (unsurprisingly) the baseline rises again. If you have no interest in those subsets, however, you're kind of out of luck. (But if you're here you already knew that)

You could probably model this as a logistic process, provided that you account for renormalizations (such as the literal renormalization that took place on reddit recently).

but also tons of users who upmod them.

This part (or at least its independent, non-interaction effect) is irrelevant; if you focus solely on people who have strong and demonstrated critical thinking skills, you can learn a great deal, and also gain a different perspective. Their input is much more harmful when it comes to filtering in or out the news to be concentrated.

Most of the interesting threads in which I have participated eventually lost the interest of the masses because they had descended into minutiae. But that's where the interesting bits lay, so that's where they went.

Ignore the riffraff. Lord knows they'll usually ignore you if you're presenting anything challenging. Even in a swamp like Slashdot, there is occasionally a perspective-changing comment that is worth reading.

If you want to expose yourself to a wide variety of opinions, you have to be willing to do a bit of work yourself, and determine which ones hold merit. It's a two-way street, in many respects, and your priorities (in addition to your time pressures) will determine how far you are willing to take it.

It appears to me that the 'social news' sites on the Web are simply recapitulating the arc of the special-interest BBS nodes and Usenet cliques of years past. Everything old is new again.

More and more I'm starting to believe that this is the best approach. It was a wise person who said never to argue with fools because, from a distance, you can't tell who's who.

It was also a wise person who said: "Never argue with an idiot, they drag you down to their level and beat you with experience".

Seasoned trolling pros are usually very good at this. I think it helps a lot to look at their underlying motivation and to crank up the bullshit detector.

I think this concept was best present here: http://xkcd.com/406/

It's easy to at least get to DH3 in reply to anything. For example if they say, "you are an idiot" you can contradict them (close enough) by saying, "you haven't supported that statement". If they question your tone or authority, you can contradict by saying that isn't relevant to what position is true.

edit: btw my experience is that more often than not i get downvoted if i do this

About the downvoting, maybe it's because they feel you're making a predictable contradiction to a painfully obvious inane trolling? If somebody says something like "you are an idiot", just let them get downmodded alone.

Text-based disagreements aside, I'd like to do an arc off this comment - to talk about the importance of perspective. Guess which two perspective(s) can fuel disagreement...

The God perspective (Yeah, you the expert?) "This restaurant is the best in town"

The 2nd person perspective (Why should you know what I should do) "You really should try this restaurant."

The 1st-person perspective (the only one you can truly own) "I really like this restaurant. I like the cooking and I feel like I am welcome here."

I don't think perspective is that much relevant. If someone says "This restaurant is the best in town", it means that of all the other restaurants the person tried, that one is the one he likes best. You don't need to be an expert to have opinions and feelings toward things. If you don't agree that restaurant is the best you can provide info why you think the statement "this restaurant is the best in town" is wrong.

The second person perspective is just a suggestion. Of course you're free not to go there if you don't want to.

Finally, the first person perspective is just one other way to put things. In this case it's more verbose and, before the second phrase, don't even give you as much information as the god's perspective (in god's perspective you know this restaurant is the one the person likes the most, in 1st person perspective you just knows this person likes it). Saying "This restaurant is the best in town. Cooking is great and it's very welcoming." gives you at least the same information as the 1st-person perspective.

I'm saying all that because I hate see people trying to debunk an argument by picking on the guy's perspective. Stuff like "you can't state that as an absolute truth", just because you said something like "this restaurant is the best in town". If you have information that may change that opinion, please give us, otherwise, don't flood the comments with "you don't know that much". That's about the same as DH2.

I considered making DH-1 be physical violence...

DH-3.5: Disagreeing with the author's Disagreement Hierarchy.

This category is particularly troublesome, as even when both parties agree, in principle, to disagree, they may still disagree on how to disagree.

One particular nuisance is the disagreer who seeks to impose a disagreement meta-hierarchy on the problem of agreeing on a disagreement hierarchy. That way is turtles, all the way down.

Where do we end up if it goes to DH-infinities?

You could make that DH0.

Honestly I think you'd have to move his DH0 to DH-1 and then put flamebaiting as DH0. The straight up 'u r a fag!!!1' insults require much less effort than flamebait.

Although really, flamebaiting is just a more subtle way to call someone (or their idea) retarded, so maybe it's just a special (more eloquent) case of DH0.

Very nice post, thank you!

Here's something to think about. According to Aristotle's Rhetoric, a person making a point to an audience has three things to offer:

-- Ethos -- who they are and why they speak with authority. -- Pathos -- empathy with the audience. -- Logos -- the substance of the argument.

So, an opponent can try to undermine any of these three.

Undermining a person's ethos can be nasty "yo' momma" style language, or it can be more sophisticated. If the person's argument relies on their ethos, however, it may be legitimate. For example, when Nobel laureate William Schockley argues for racial eugenics on the strength of his physics background, it's legitimate to say "Professor, your expertise is in physics, not genetics." This is helpful with anyone who says, effectively, "I'm a bigshot so what I say must be true."

Undermining pathos can also be helpful. For example, "thus-and-such software marketer doesn't want to help you and me, she wants to sell more software licenses for her company. Do not blindly accept her claims that her product is better."

Of course, undermining the logos -- the substance of the argument -- is a very effective way to disagree.

But, my point is, undermining a speaker's pathos and ethos are also legitimate, especially when their argument critically depends on those aspects of their rhetoric.

I don't think that undermining the speaker is a valid way of arguing. It is irrelevant who states the argument; an argument is as equally as strong whoever makes it. I can copy and paste another's argument verbatim, and then change all the "I" references to "person X" references, and the argument would be identical.

What you can do is refute evidence. So if the speaker presents one of their own claims as evidence, you can sometimes invalidate that claim by undermining the speaker's pathos and ethos.

NOTE: When I say valid, I mean it in terms of determining what is correct, not what convinces people.

Aristotle was speaking in terms of what convinces people. This is only his 'Rhetoric' however. His 'Logic' deals with correct arguments.

However, I do think that there are cases where an ad hominem is correct however. If someone's argument is based on his own authority, and his authority is widely acknowledged, then the only way to attack the argument is to attack the arguer. One example is the repeated misuse of Einstein as an authority om things like economics or theology.

Nice article.

Not sure if it's significantly different from DH6, but Karl Popper's style of debate might be termed DH7.

It's similar to DH6, but first you patch up the opponent's arguments to make the best possible case. Then you find the central point in that case, even if the author doesn't explicitly state it. It's what he really meant to say and might indeed have said if he was on good form. (If there's a stronger or more general version of that point you might select that instead.)

And _then_ you carefully demolish it.

Actually I thought of making DH7 something similar: not merely refuting what your opponent said, but also explaining what led him to make that mistake. But I wasn't sure, so I left it out.

Isn't psychoanalyzing the other person (and considering him an 'opponent'), rather than focussing impersonally on ideas, more the stuff of the low numbers than the top?

True it could help him, but only if appreciated. It frequently won't be in public, or between strangers. And it runs a danger of polluting the main discussion. Any personal help is strictly a separate issue than which of the original ideas is true -- the person being helped could still have been right.

If it's a logical argument, you can explain where he went wrong without psychoanalyzing him. Just point out the step in his reasoning that's fallacious, or the premise which is incorrect.

Most people don't take well to having their fallacious reasoning questioned, but they do appreciate having incorrect premises pointed out, particularly if it's done politely.

If you need to psychoanalyze the other person to explain the flaw in his ideas, then chances are you're arguing over opinions rather than facts or conclusions. Opinions, by definition, can't be right or wrong, so you're wasting your time.

I didn't mean studying his motivations so much as reconstructing his chain of reasoning all the way back to the faulty step.

That's a good point that you should patch up their argument first. But also, you shouldn't think of it as their argument. It is an argument. If you want to find the truth you should look for the best arguments on all sides, not refute a shoddy one.

Paul Graham does a good job outlining the different forms a disagreement can take and evaluating their effectiveness. I agree with his analysis. I'm going to expand on it.

It seems this piece was written in response to the various criticisms he received because for his "You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss" essay. In addition to objecting to the form these criticisms took, I think he could also have talked about one of the fundamental causes of most disagreements on the internet - lack of charitable interpretation.

Many interpreted his essay as an attack on big-company programmers - using as evidence the analogies he used, the frankness of his writing style, etc. - and reached the conclusion that he had an elitist attitude about his profession. Now, this may or may not be true (having met him, my opinion is a firm "not true"). But the point is that it doesn't matter. If we interpret charitably, we remain agnostic on what his argument implies about him (thus abstaining from DH1 and DH2 attacks) and instead focus on the actual argument. Some critics managed to do that. But many didn't. And the worst part is that the lack of charitable interpretation obscured their actual disagreements, so now we've wasted time talking about "how to disagree" instead of "what are the correlations/effects of company type on programmer happiness/ability/prospects".

Of course, an author should be careful to frame his arguments in a way that minimizes the danger from misinterpretation. In other words, an author should try to write well.

Many times people will enter a passionate debate if they feel their lifestyle or livelihood is at stake. It's the same reason news media have long focused on crime, sex, and scandal - BAD THINGS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU!

But in forming an actual dialogue, such all-or-nothing viewpoints make people defensive. The behavior of monopolies that have been obsoleted by technology is little different from that of the Luddites - they try to stop the change, even when it's irrational to try. "Irrational self-interest" is a pretty neat term to sum it up.

"You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss" strikes keenly and precisely at the employed, because it primarily lists benefits of startup life, presenting an unbalanced picture. The title certainly doesn't help matters. That PG's arguments are pretty strong, and he has some established weight in online communities, makes him hard to dismiss out of hand, which further increases the tension.

Internet discussion tends to stay low on the hierarchy because the people replying are mostly stuck in defensive mode. Pragmatic, nuanced thinking doesn't seem to come naturally to humans.

"an author should be careful to frame his arguments in a way that minimizes the danger from misinterpretation"

I find this takes more effort than any other part of writing. There is a point where this doesn't necessarily make the text better because it becomes less succinct since the author must clarify against every possible non-charitable interpretation.

One of the things I really like about YC news is the fact that it's a great place to disagree. I would even say that it is one of the sites defining characteristics. Whenever I hold an unpopular or controversial view here there will of course be replies - but very rarely do I experience namecalling, trollig or other fluff that doesn't add to the conversation. The replies are always tactful, and often very insightful. Sometimes I even have to take my words back, convinced by another user that I was wrong. And we all learn from it.

You don't see that in many forums.

Right behind you on this one. After reading the article I was terrified that YC.News would line up behind PG - how refreshing to see that the community is more than happy to dissent. I don't agree, but I really respect the forum which he was instrumental in creating.

I disagree! :p

Actually I do not. There are many good long replies here but Reddit, at least for some of the submissions, also has some good long discussions.

The author's main point seems to be x. As he says:

But this is wrong for the following reasons: Who is this guy and what authority does he have to write about these topics? I haven't read the essay, but there's no way anything so short and written in such an informal style could have anything useful to say about such and such topic, when people with degrees in the subject have already written many thick books about it.

You're obviously lying when you say you didn't read the essay.

You're obviously making a satirical criticism implying you aren't catching the satire in his/her post.

Meta-satire, well done sir/mam.

Well, the main problem with this essay is that sometimes mocking someone's argument is the best way to disagree with it. The parody of PG's last essay on having a boss was highly effective at this: http://www.jsequeira.com/blog/2008/03/24.html

Is this a lower form of disagreement than DH6? Most definitely, however, the English language has a rich tradition of satire and mockery going back at least as far as Jonathan Swift.

I thought about the relation to parody, and the answer is that it's an orthogonal issue. Parody can be DH1 or DH6 depending on how well it's done.

I'd say that (good) parody and satire frequently make use of DH1-4 in order to effect an argument that's usually at DH6. It's the matter of creating straw men or ad hominem attacks which are implicit criticisms on the actual content of the argument.

Depends on what you mean by "the best way to disagree". If you are preaching to the choir (and most disagreements on the web fall into this category), then mocking is the best way, because it entertains, whereas the alternative does nothing at all.

But if you care about making someone understand your argument for the first time, why would you put extra layers on it, which will have to be unwrapped to get to the inner logic?

I think I know why most people do it. The point made in the form of mockery is laborious to refute, so nobody bothers. And if somebody bothers, the refutation is laborious to follow, so nobody bothers to read it. Thus mockery, however idiotic, often stays unrefuted, and to the author and his camp that's close enough to "correct".

Have you been to Reddit lately? Half of all disagreements are in the form of (idiotic) mockery. It wasn't like this early on.

You ask, "why would you put extra layers on it, which will have to be unwrapped to get to the inner logic?".

There are two possible reasons:

1) you know your audience is not that logical to begin with, and need to be lured by illogical appeals to emotions etc.

2) you know they could be persuaded by logical argument, but need help summoning up the will to persist in following it. In that case, you mix logic with entertainment and exhortation. But you must mix carefully, to keep from falling into the trap of merely luring by illogical appeals (or even seeming to do this). Unfortunately, few have the patience for this, so many take the easy way, (merely luring).

Plato took course 2) often in his dialogs. Augustine did the same in both sermons and treatises. Aristotle never did, at least not in his surviving works (his dialogs are lost).

The more things change... http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/sophistical...

Edit: and on a more recent (and cynical :-) ) note: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_Being_Right

These lists of rhetorical techniques are not quite the same thing. They're tactics. What I was trying to figure out are the categories of tactics.

I think there's more from Schopenhauer than just a list of methods.

In his Eristic Dialectic, he described a system of stratagems, see http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eristische_Dialektik (unfortunately, this hasn't been translated to english yet).

The 38 Methods are said to have been added merely to provide examples. It is also interesting that he wrote the manuscript around 1830, but never published it. It was first published in 1864, four years after his death. See http://coolhaus.de/art-of-controversy/ for the full manuscript and an excellent translation to english.

The original title of Schopenhauer's “Art of Controversy” could be more accurately translated as “The Art of being always Right” (Die Kunst, Recht zu behalten). The reason why he described those stratagems was to prove his point: that the goal of a controversy is not finding the truth. According to him, it was like a fight where you just want to win.

PG advocates for controversies that help find the truth. Thus he makes a difference between fallacies and real arguments. To Schopenhauer, real arguments are actually fallacies, because mere humans have other goals than the truth. Ironically, in http://www.paulgraham.com/philosophy.html, PG followed Wittgenstein in that “most philosophical controversies are due to confusions over language”. In a philosophical context, at least, this should lead to a similar conclusion as Schopenhauer's.

Now, whether the case of philosophy should be extended to the rest of controversies is an interesting question. My answer would be yes. I wonder what PG would say. The fun part is that, whatever he says, Schopenhauer will still be right (look: he doesn't care of the truth, he just wants to win the argument!). That's the whole fun of controversies about controversy...

I'll assume "To Schopenhauer, real arguments are actually fallacies, because mere humans have other goals than the truth" is an accurate summary of Schopenhauer's viewpoint. In that case, I _still_ have to say this is just a more thanaverage level of sophistication for a form of solipsism. But I cannot see it any other way than as solipsism.

That alone is reason enough to reject it. But here is another reason: his point about other goals is irrelevant. Why? Because though yes, we "mere humans" have other goals, at least _some_ of the time, those other goals require that we get to the truth of some matter. And those are precisely the fields of endeavor where rational argumentation still has some influence in our confused and irrational society.

That said, we _do_ have to take great care: the dishonest dissemblers who strive so hard to deceive us are _legion_, the honest reasoners who wish to persuade us of the truth by legitimate means are rare gems. But they have not disappeared completely yet.

It might be worth expanding the lower levels to include more than name-calling and ad-hominem, then. There's a huge variety of dirty tactics that can be used, and name-calling and ad-hominem are just two of the more obvious ones. A good list can be obtained at:


Perhaps it's worth adding a link in the article, clarifying that DH1 actually includes a whole set of techniques described at that URL (and other places).


I was not dissing your essay, just giving more information. I agree with you that most intellectual dishonesty is unintentional, and that knowing these things is important in avoding them. I was just pointing that there are other sources to draw upon, as this subject is timeless. But your essay is a much easier read than Aristotle's treatise. :-)

The authors are idiots. Of course they would write something like this, they probably make their living off selling these sorts of pie-in-the-sky ideals to people. The whole tone of this article is pretentious and insulting. Personal attacks are perfectly valid forms of argument and communication. If you look at these things in terms of effectiveness, they are usually more practical approaches that yield results, especially in the political realm. One thing they write is:

'If you can't find an actual quote to disagree with, you may be arguing with a straw man.'

That isn't true. Using analog-situation arguments and reductions to absurdity to point out the fallacies of a point is a long-used, valid practice. The central point of their writing seems to be that addressing substance using reason is the most effective way of arguing. They write:

"The force of a refutation depends on what you refute. The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone's central point."

and point out that refutation is the strongest from of argument against some other point, Well, "strongest" is a subjective evaluation and I would like to point out that in the history of argument and in particular political discourse, usually it is the loudest, angriest, and downright scariest people in the argument who win; for example, look at the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s So these people have it just plain all wrong.

There, now, did I miss anything? =)

Great piece, really, I loved it. Thanks for putting it out there!

Yeah, nice parody.

Your reference to Nazis is apposite. I once heard veteran Labour politician Tony Benn destroy an opponent's point of view in a televised debate by saying "That's a fascist idea - it's exactly what the Nazis did in Germany in the 1930s". Thereby he simultaneously implied that his opponent in the debate was a fool for not knowing this and made the suggested course of action untenable by association.

In politics, but also in many other spheres of human activity, we have to ask ourselves whether an argument is being advanced in pursuit of the truth or simply to silence an opponent who could get in the way of reaching an ulterior objective.

Stalin, Hitler, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe and countless others had a very straightforward way of dealing with opposition. I'm sure that any D6 or D7 disagreement would have been water off a duck's back for them.

One thing that isn't mentioned in this essay is an appreciation of the concept of having a "preponderance of evidence." In U.S. law, for example, this concept is introduced directly through the burden of proof hierarchy (terms like reasonable suspicion, clear and convincing evidence, reasonable doubt, etc.).

While only DH4-DH6 can strictly prove an argument wrong, there are many, many situations in which it is infeasible to unilaterally determine "truth." In these cases, DH1-DH3 can be used to determine the probability of a statement being true.

Take ad hominem. Sure it's a weak form of argumentation, but it is reasonable to exercise a certain amount of skepticism based on the nature of the speaker. For example, the New York Post tends to be a more conservative newspaper, while the New York Times tends to be more liberal. Obviously, neither of these facts can definitively prove or disprove a statement, but they can inform an analysis of these papers' claims.

If I'm making a counter-argument I care about, I try to take a "defense-in-depth" approach and attack the original statement at all levels that are useful and try to establish credibility in all the ways I can. I don't think arguing well maps directly to using a higher form of rhetoric. At the end of the day, it depends on your audience. Just ask Karl Rove and James Carville. ;)

"At the end of the day, it depends on your audience. Just ask Karl Rove and James Carville. ;)"

I believe their area of expertise is propaganda, not argument.

(But I suppose both could be a form of rhetoric.)

Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote a great book on tricks people use to "win" arguments. You could call it the Bible of sophistry: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/controve...

"Conversational terrorism" outlines more techniques used by conversational bullies: http://www.vandruff.com/art_converse.html

I thought this was a pretty good essay. Timely as well. There was considerable disagreement over PG's last essay. You could see the hierarchy of responses on both sides, including straw man arguments.

If comments could be tagged with hierarchy levels, it might raise the general level of argument.

"Such labels may help writers too. Most intellectual dishonesty is unintentional."

I totally agree with this, particularly on YC News where there are a lot of smart people. When the words fly, there's a tendency to overreact and say things that wouldn't occur if we were face-to-face. I admit having done this. It would be great if some optional tagging feature were built into a comment system, so writers could get some feedback when others thought they strayed.

Hmm... Doesn't Slashdot sort of do this? Not completely, but to some extent, it does have "Flamebait" or "Interesting" or "Insightful" 'ratings' for comments.

I don't really think that's too useful, because it's usually pretty obvious what category the comment falls in after reading it anyway...

Those kinds of tags are too broad. I was thinking of some javascript to let you highlight subparts of a comment then tag it with a more specific label, like "Straw Man Argument."

People would probably view the comment differently, but readers (and the author) could then see 60% of people thought part of his comment wasn't useful. Ad hominem and straw dog attacks, for example, might be unintentionally inserted in the heat of argument. Right now, comment rating is very blocky.

Startup idea!

Make it so you can tag arbitrary pages from within your browser, and other people visiting the page can see the tags if they wish. Imagine the fun of doing this with the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, in addition to blogs and discussion forums, etc. etc.

That's actually a very interesting thought. It might be hard to implement in a graphically pleasing manner though.

What I would love to read is an essay about "absolutism": the belief that there's only One Truth and that it can be really proved. I think many people disagree precisely about this, they think that being an absolutist is bad. Among programmers, the incidence of absolutism seems to be much higher (the closer to math, the higher?).

So I think that PG's essay is quite good (as most others), in that it looks for this "absolute truths", he tries to analyze stuff and make a contribution, say something that will last. I find this very scientific, which is good in my opinion. The problem is that many people don't see it that way. It is very difficult to stick to the principle of "egoless disagreement".

I'm really looking forward to seeing this hierarchy applied as a meme on news.yc.

A meme? How about a feature? I want to be able to rate things by DH level.

I've thought of doing that. Maybe. But not all comments disagree, and frankly I wouldn't want to do anything that increased the proportion that do.

You seem to imply in the essay that disagreeing comments are more valuable than agreeing ones, though:

"And when you agree there's less to say. You could expand on something the author said, but he has probably already explored the most interesting implications. When you disagree you're entering territory he may not have explored"

That does not imply they are more valuable; rather, it is human nature to respond to a statement that you feel you can "correct". It is an ego boost, if nothing else.

To me, cooperative, exploratory statements are the most valuable.

"That is a interesting opinion, I've never heard that perspective. But what about case xyz, have you considered that."

In that context, it is much easier to build up interesting information trees, rather than simply staying stuck on one (often minor or irrelevant) node.

I'm not really looking forward to seeing this hierarchy applied as a meme on news.yc.

(DH3 ftw!)

Edit: Irony.

I got it... I thought about refuting you with a higher order argument but couldn't figure out how. Would upvote you, but we all know how that goes.

Oh I wasn't worried about you getting it.

It was just that when I checked back in on this about half an hour later it had already been downmodded, and that just seemed really ironic to me. Glad someone is out there stomping DH3... I would be.

Perhaps it could also work as a help to peer review in academia, or even used to rate the standard of debate in journals?

Is this the right room for an argument? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3HaRFBSq9k

Thank you for that. A full six minutes of mindless humor.

I wish more people wrote stuff like this. There are a million writing books on grammar and style, but god forbid someone ever write something about what makes good ideas...

As mascarenhas already posted, Aristotle spent quite a bit of time on the topic, and his ideas are still studied, though perhaps not as widely as they should be.

The way I read it, the PG essay was meant less as a statement about the absolute nature of reality and more as an attempt to get people to suck less. Even if Aristotle came up with some superset of these ideas 2400 years ago, I think there is still some value here.

I thought the essay was quite good. I wasn't trying to say that I thought pg was being redundant.

My point was merely that there has been plenty already written on the subjects of rhetoric and logic as ways of expressing ideas, and that the topic isn't as neglected as you seemed to believe in the post I responded to. If you're looking for more resources on the topic, they're out there.

Yet Whitehead says that even Aristotle's writings are mere "footnotes to Plato". So perhaps we should be spending more time with Plato's instead.

That's a fine hierarchy and all. But I have the feeling that a more efficient way of conversation is to get rid of the notion of 'winning' and argument and move to 'solving' the problem. That goes beyond the intellectual and into the cultural - and that is makes it harder - but it would have also more leverage.

Winning is only a problem if your definition of it is fucked up. Winning an argument means you have found or are closer to a particular truth.

The poisoning of various phrases and words leads to you focus on the emotions that are evoked rather than the definition.

This is why I dislike arguing about politics or anything else. No one wants to really argue (where the argument is a logical and reasoned debate), they want agreement or acknowledgment that their beliefs are okay.

"Winning an argument means you have found or are closer to a particular truth" - no, it means that you convinced others that you are closer to a particular truth.

Definition of win from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/win

transitive verb

1 a: to get possession of by effort or fortune b: to obtain by work : earn <striving to win a living from the sterile soil>

2 a: to gain in or as if in battle or contest <won the championship> b: to be the victor in <won the war>

3 a: to make friendly or favorable to oneself or to one's cause —often used with over<won him over with persuasive arguments> b: to induce to accept oneself in marriage <was unable to win the woman he loved>

4 a: to obtain (as ore, coal, or clay) by mining b: to prepare (as a vein or bed) for regular mining c: to recover (as metal) from ore

5: to reach by expenditure of effort

For me the only matching definition is 2a - the argument is the contest and what you gain is the recognition that you were right.

This is a nice catalog of some common forms of disagreement, but I'm not convinced that this set of six is exhaustive, nor am I convinced that if other forms are added that the set will remain well-ordered.

I agree that it's nowhere near exhaustive, most obviously because it doesn't address the ways that writers try to directly deceive the audience (appeals to flattery, conservatism, etc).

I remember being part of an Academic Games league in high school. One of my favorite games was simply called "Propaganda." Everyone sat in a big room, listened to arguments, and identified the type of rhetorical technique being used. It may sound lame, but it was actually pretty fun and cultivated some useful skills.

Anyway, here's the technique list they used: http://mlagonline.org/Prop_ABCE.pdf [pdf]

and a more detailed but somewhat different list of logical fallacies: http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/

They should teach these skills at school, no later than right after kindergarten and with no less stress than any other subject. I'm convinced that's amongst the most important things that could be done to make the world a better place.

The Nizkor list _is_ pretty good, but some of their definitions, and even examples used to discuss them, are not very convincing. Please see the separate reply where I gave three other lists of definitions.

Actually, one of my long time favorite such sites is:


How do you directly deceive the audience via appeal to conservatism?

In that case it wouldn't be deceit as much as it is manipulation. To avoid any political insinuations, I could recast this as appeal to status quo. It's common to argue against new ideas in this way.

How can you question using conservative arguments? They have been used for centuries, and they've served us pretty well. :)

Funny. :D

Each level (DH0,1,2,etc.) could include a variety of forms of disagreement, instead of just one. The resulting chart would become a rough guide to their relative strengths: move "up" the chart for better forms, and "down" for the bad ones (eliminate the one-to-one relationship between "DH-level" and "Form of Disagreement").

It would become more comprehensive, but also harder to present in a simple, compelling, immediately understandable way. Not sure if it'd be worth it.

How do you account for disagreeing, not with someone's conclusions, but with the means that they used to arrive at them?

I usually think it in vain to post a comment on something that I fundamentally disagree with, because I rarely find an author with a strong point of view who has not already found a choir to preach to, so that speaking up would be futile—I would be drowned out, or villanized.

The only kinds of comments which seem to me to be worth making are those in which: You agree, and offer some novel corroboration; You agree with the conclusion, but disagree with the means; Or you raise a question, without treating of the conclusion at all.

The obvious possibility would be to reproduce the entire hierarchy, but to a different purpose.

DH0: "Stop agreeing with me, you're making me look bad." DH1: "You should let someone else make that argument." DH2: "That (arrogant,presumptuous,juvenile) tone won't go over well." DH3: "You're going to offend people who believe X." DH4: "I heard an argument Y against this," or "How do you solve problem Y"? DH5: "Have you considered solution Z' to problem Z?" DH6: "You're formulating your own belief incorrectly."

But I don't think that your bounds hold here. DH0 is still maximally unhelpful, but DH6 may be just as bad. DH1 may be the wisest advice that you can receive. DH3 is less helpful than DH2 (better to be asked to express your beliefs more politely, than to be asked to conceal them). And DH4 is more polite than DH5 (better to solicit the author's opinion on a difficulty, than to obtrude your own).


Sometimes when you shout "shut up, you water buffalo", people misunderstand.

It might have been more effective to simply shout "shut up" and leave out the part that can be misconstrued or misunderstood.

In other words, calling programmers "lions", referring to "zoos", and anointing a certain set of activities as "natural".. do these things help or harm the underlying message in the essay?

This is all very well. However, an argument can be based on sound principles and be can be totally supportable, and yet due to limited speaking or writing abilities of the adherent, not be convincing. Of course the other is also true, a good writer or speaker can successfully convince a reader or listener of a totally false premise.

I see several skills necessary to successfully and accurately lay out a position. They are:

1. Ability to write or speak 2. Depth of knowledge about the subject 3. Ability to listen to or read material and understand it to a depth beyond the superficial. 4. Ability to analyse--this implies an IQ at least as high as the speaker or writer. 5, Access to additional material pertinent to the subject 6. A world view relatively free from preconceived notions of reality.

I am reminded that when I have arguments about politics, conservative versis liberal; ie which is a better philosophy--the question has to be asked, compared to what, for what purpose, etc. The argument to me can have no resolution.

People aren't defined by their arguments. They are defined by their perspective. Winning arguments change no perspectives (unless you are arguing with saints).

The reason they don't is that ideas are not trees. There is no root node. We are not deductive thinkers. We do not trace out the implications of ideas to their ends because they have no ends.

More often, we learn ideas that ripple a little in the neighborhood while the rest of our knowledge remains unchanged. Further, in some cases, the evidence may be mixed, and our idea graph won't change at all.

Kuhn would probably say that there is no way for a scientific revolutionary to argue with a conventional scientist because the purpose of a revolution is to change the context to a different set of concerns, a different language, a different problem.

Einstein couldn't argue with Newtonian physics in Newtonian terms. The point of general relativity isn't to refute the central point of Newtonian physics (whether you think that's the inverse square law or gravitation or the laws of motion, etc.). You might say Einstein was "refuting" some naive conceptions of space and energy, but no one had proven they were naive before he exposed them.

Einstein provided a fertile perspective that allowed others to see the old science and data in a new way. But this has nothing to do with winning arguments. It's DH{NaN}.

Acting like Einstein's work is a rung up the ladder to Final Physical Knowledge is a positivist view akin to the belief that evolution is creating the ubermensch (in some objective sense). There are lots of local minima out there. There is always another perspective to take on the same data.

Refutation should be reserved for stuff that's obvious to clear-thinking people.

Of course, that begs the question...

Correct me if I'm wrong here, but saying that a senator would vote for a senate pay raise because they're a senator is not an ad hominem attack. This argument is saying that there's a conflict of interest regarding what they're requesting; that's not a personal attack that has nothing to do with the argument, which is what an ad hominem attack is.

It's an ad hominem attack if you are attempting to refute an argument they made for the pay raise.

For example, if a senator gave a speech detailing why senators needed more money and someone dismissed the arguments based on the senator's sentatorness rather the quality of the argument's themselves.

Also, an ad hominem is not merely a 'personal attack.' For example, an insult is not an ad hominem. An ad hominem is an attempt to discredit an argument based on qualities of the arguer instead of the argument itself. Pointing out a conflict of interest is an ad hominem attack if you are using it to discredit an argument.

I think that the argument given could definitely be considered ad hominem, but as I read it definitely stuck out that a better examples of ad hominem could have been given (that has much less to do with the subject matter at hand).

For instance: "Why should we give creedence to his position on the origin of the universe? He has been divorced twice and is cheating on his current wife... Surely we can't trust what he has to say."

Here the argument is attack by attacking the person. The attack on the person has no direct translation to the dispute at hand.

These are good distinctions, and all categories (especially the lower ones) are well-represented on sites like digg, reddit, and this one.

But there's at least one more dimension to this that seems completely orthogonal, and that's identity. If you want your opinion to be appreciated, then I think that you should be willing to identify yourself. With so much information competing for my attention, I'm much more willing to pay attention to people that give me a way to track back to some background on them, whether they are famous or not. So unless you're worried about your opinion triggering a nighttime visit from the secret police, don't hide your identity. Mine's here: http://blog.neontology.com/about.

This is similar to my stance that I took last November in my own blog. I no longer allow anonymous comments. It doesn't matter as much for me because I don't get many comments, but I have to be able to identify you through an established web site or via email as a real person before I'll allow comments.

There's a form of disagreement that I don't think fits into the hierarchy - where, rather than arguing that the author is incorrect, you argue that the author should not be saying that at all. This relates to the ideas in http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html.

It can be the simple "Hey! I put my braces on the next line, and I take offense at that!", to the "Arguing that all left-handed programmers write unmaintainable code is irresponsible because ...".

It's like responding to tone, but you are responding to what is being argued, rather than how it's written. It might not really be a disagreement since you aren't saying that the author is incorrect, but neither is "u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!".

Some time ago I tried to create a discussion forum software which embodied this kind of classification. Users could write what they liked (including trolling and name-calling) but all responses had to be given a"type" which readers could use to sort and filter the threads. "Moderation" was only through type-changing (ie. the supervisor could reclassify a reply from "counter-argument" to "name-calling" meaning that it would probably get filtered, but not delete it entirely)

The software didn't really make it, but there's some interesting discussion here : http://www.nooranch.com/synaesmedia/wiki/wiki.cgi?TypedThrea...

"Even as high as DH5 we still sometimes see deliberate dishonesty, as when someone picks out minor points of an argument and refutes those. Sometimes the spirit in which this is done makes it more of a sophisticated form of ad hominem than actual refutation. For example, correcting someone's grammar, or harping on minor mistakes in names or numbers. Unless the opposing argument actually depends on such things, the only purpose of correcting them is to discredit ones's opponent."

How do you measure the spirit? An author may detect bad spirit everywhere and take all DH5-but-not-DH6 disagreements as effectively DH1.

Anyway, the quoted paragraph seems very harsh on many small-point DH5 disagreers. Some people just feel the "duty" (xkcd.com/386) to correct mistakes, without being deliberately dishonest. And there is a lot of uncharted importance space between grammar mistakes and the central point. As an example, what if the central point were correct and worthy but illustrated by two examples, one of them bad? The argument doesn't depend on it, but is it still clear that the only purpose of correcting the author is to discredit him?

Why not generalize DH6 from "stating the central point and refuting it" to "refuting a point and commenting on its importance"? Then you could even correct grammar mistakes, just add explicitly that you're aware that as a grammar mistake it's minor. DH6 would no longer imply power or effort, but, as pointed out in the essay, it already doesn't imply truth.

What you are asking for pg is civil discourse. This does not come from enumerating a disagreement hierarchy. It comes from a learned, well-read education where public speaking and debate is a part.

In our wonderful country, even in our wonderful wider world, this is sorely lacking. While your contributions are consistently wise and useful, we need to work together as a society to fundamentally change the climate for education, we need to ensure that an excellent education is enjoyed by all, that will make your hierarchy moot.

Great article! I'm struggling with how to respond to an argument from a customer. The customer wrote me a long email, refuting an article I wrote on the pros and cons of using CSS in web design--setting the priority to high, no less. In her letter, she tooted her own experience and skills. Your article helped me realize why her letter rankled me. It wasn't that she was disagreeing--I'm not passionately for or against CSS and could care less what she thinks about it. But by citing her credentials the way she did, I felt she was calling my own into question and using that as her basis of an argument. So I'd put her debate in the Variant of the DH1. Ad Hominem category.

And I've decided not to respond to her letter, customer or not. Not only because it was demeaning, but also, because I don't have the time or energy to launch round two.

This all got me thinking about how tired I am of the way that people on the net feel they absolutely must write and argue about something-- anything--they disagree with. So many out there are quick to express their contempt for other people's ideas and opinions. Most such arguments seem pointless and are usually fruitless.

If I read something I disagree with on the net, I take from it what I think is of value and ignore the rest. Time is just to too short.

I think people disagree mainly for two reasons: 1. rational objection 2. bad feelings

For rational objection we have a great system (logic) in place to work it out and come to a conclusion. This can be very hard and take a lot of time, but it works--as long as you stick to the path of rational arguments and objective truth.

So let's take a look at the feelings side of things. Feelings are always true and subjective. They are inherently irrational and often steer us towards dumb actions we regret later. They interfere with rationality and usually distort arguments.

My impression is that people get into emotional discussions and become mean in order to feel better about themselves by a) expressing bad feelings caused by a statement b) abreacting bad feelings rooted in something else (merely triggered by a statement) c) getting positive attention from others (gain value)

In order to add weight to their statement, people usually pretend to object on rational grounds. Flamewars can be fun, but from a rational perspective, they are a waste of time.

Looking at the underlying motivation can help to clarify a messy discussion. The Harvard Negotiation Project provides an excellent framework for analyzing and working what's behind the surface.

In the long run, I think we need forms to express bad feelings without attacking the other or pretending to provide a rational argument. Forms to say something like: "That hurt (and I don't even know why) and I'm afraid you're right". This is really hard. The natural reaction would be to feel attacked and fight back. It also requires trust. Being open about wounds increases vulnerability and can only work with people you consider to have good intentions in the first place.

' The author is a self-important dilettante.

is really nothing more than a pretentious version of "u r a fag."'

This really illustrates to me how fuzzy the border between some of the hierarchy levels (particularly those that involve orthogonal aspects of the disagreed piece). If that statement was simply changed to "The author comes across as a self-important dilettante," I'd classify it as DH2. Even without the change, "is" can still be interpreted as "seems to probably be based on what I've just read," and thus that statement can still be placed in both DH2.

As dfranke said elsewhere, rather than being a true linear hierarchy, this is just hierarchies of various general classes of disagreement forced into a linear hierarchy, and thus it's possible for a statement to have aspects of one of DH0-DH1, DH2, and one of DH3-DH6 all at once. E.g.: "How can this idiot so adamantly argue for intelligent design in the quoted paragraph, when the presence of vestigial organs proves to the dullest that species descended from ancestors where the full functions of the organ were beneficial?"

Perhaps the answer is separate hierarchies for the various aspects, or fuzzy set theory.

" A comment like The author is a self-important dilettante. is really nothing more than a pretentious version of "u r a fag."

Well, such a comment is only " a pretension version " if it is not true... and in fact becomes trenchant if, in fact, the respondent IS a self-important dilettante. Which would have bearing on whether or not to engage the person at all... I would not disagree with a person because I thought them a faq, mainly because I don't think a faq is either a bad thing or a thing relevant to many issues I would normally discuss. I would most likely not engage with someone if I thought they were a self-important dilettante, because I DO think that both self-importance and dilettantism is bad. Or, at least, I would say to them, "I think you are a self-important dilettante and I don't have hopes that the conversation will be either enlightening or productive. If we are to engage, you have to rise above your self importance."

Of course, the accusation of dilettantism might be as baseless and rude as that of 'u r a faq' and likewise deserving of scorn. But not always and dismissing it with equal scorn in every instance may be a way of avoiding scrutinizing your own sense of importance and the meaning of dilettantism.

Graham also elides a whole cateqory of 'disagreement' with the implicit assumption that everybody has something worthwhile to say and is therefor deserving of being engaged. "u r a fag" is neither agreement nor disagreement, but simple bad manners. "You are a self-important dilettante" might be a necessary thing to say, especially if the dilettante in question may be in possession of a good brain and otherwise discerning intellect (say on matters not bearing on his/her self-importance...) Intellectual endeavor is approached at with different skill sets, attitudes and skin thickness...

What do you gain by talking to someone on the internet anyway? Why am I even responding to this essay, or to your comment?

It's probably because it's interesting for me to do so, to see others' views. When I disagree, I tend to enjoy it if people come back and argue. I don't really do it because I care whether the other person comes to see my point of view - although it is more fun when they do, of course. Maybe some people enjoy yelling things such as, "u r a fag!!!!", although personally I can't say I understand those people...

It's useless to try and convince them otherwise for the most part - I don't think they'd listen to you in the first place.

As for the essay itself, I just wish more people would consciously THINK about how they talk to others. It would make the internet and the world a nicer place. (Oh, and that first part, DH0, seemed to me as if it was addressed directly towards Jeff's of Coding Horror response to PG's last essay. But I can't say I disagree - I was actually rather shocked to see such a, umm, 'vehement', response. Another instance of what people probably wouldn't say in person.)

It's the other way around. Moving up the DH-hierarchy doesn't make people less mean. It's just that less mean people have a tendency to move up the DH-hierarchy. This is based on my personal experience. Since you're the one making the original statement without supporting evidence, I feel that the burden of finding evidence should be on you, that's why this isn't a DH3-statement, but DH7. ;)

Thanks for the read.

"It's just that less mean people have a tendency to move up the DH-hierarchy."

How did you intend for that to be parsed, (fewer (mean people)) or ((less mean) people)?

((less mean) people)

Indeed, to really address someone's arguments well enough to try to change their opinion takes a lot of time and effort. The question is, what is the benefit to you of doing that? If it is a real live friend that you are going to spend a lot of time with it may be worth the effort as they become perhaps a more enjoyable friend to spend time with (e.g. a friend who keeps telling you what a Great job George Bush is doing may begin to grate on the nerves). However, a stranger on the Internet you only know by a fake name, if you refute their arguments and win them over, it is not clear that you gain much. They go away. So, in casual conversation such as in these responses here or in Reddit, where everything is anonymous and long term relationship is not likely, it is easier and perhaps more satisfying just to call them an ass. Perhaps this would change in a reddit embedded withing a facebook where there is more relationship context for the conversation and where perhaps, there is more to be clearly gained by changing someones mind about something.

An interesting article, expanding from means of disagreeing to methods used I'd add a few observations. There's the shotgun refutation where a poster quotes almost every part of a post with a weak disagreement making responding to every point almost impossible and there's the essayist who writes a needlessly long response making finding and responding to their central point much harder. Essayists often use deliberately ambiguous passages so they can claim you don't understand rather than explaining clearly.

Another internet or more general debate strategy is to refer to the voluminous works of others as if you've read them and behave as if your opponent cannot respond until they've read every last page, often with little attempt to explain or apply the supposed arguments and facts that come from those sources.

Most internet posters are unable to state things clearly, partly because people are taught to obfuscate and because they're embarassed to put their points in view so nakedly.

ix: <i>"Most internet posters are unable to state things clearly [...] because they're embarassed to put their points in view so nakedly."</i>

This is even more true of politicians. From Orwell's <i>Politics and the English Language</i>:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.

Nicely done, and thank you as always for the thought provoking read. Absolutely love your essays.

Enjoy your weekend!

Another thing, along the same web conversation line is the dodge. I have found this very curious and am always fascinated by it.

Essentially, there is a conversation going on. Somebody has posted up something they characterize as factual, the truth, majority view, correct, etc... Somebody else then has their say and after some banter back and forth, it's clear one or the other just isn't correct.

This does not mean the other parties are correct either, just that we have one that is known not to be correct in the conversation.

At this point, we should then expect to see some acceptance, but we don't. That's the dodge right there. A successful dodge means being able to bring that battered point up, in a given venue, over and over and over again.

Frustrating, and also highly entertaining, if you like seeing new forms manifest!

Some that I've seen play out: (some are likely subsets or minor variations of others -->this is just a list compiled over a coupla years talking politics with a close circle of people)

1. Subject change

2. Claim of too many opponents

3. Claim to either be a member of, or opponents of discussion being members of club, with said membership somehow required to complete what is otherwise a non-rational conclusion.

4. Silence

5. Claim of overall subject and or implications of subject complexity being greater than scope of discussion

6. Invoke false comparison

7. Transform rational argument into emotional one

8. The Bible says...

9. Invoke redefinition of common words

10. Invoke slippery label to redefine winners primary point at hand

11. Claim of invalid higher authority / Claim of no high authority

12. Obsfucation, where some degree of acceptance is seen, but wrapped in difficult to reference terms

13. "I forgot, could you remind me again?", used to force other parties to tire of the subject and move on.

14. Necessary party unavailable for comment.

Some of these could be valid, depending on the context. I've got those listed here, with the assumption that it's really a dodge and that context is not at issue.

This is a good basic model and reminds me somewhat of the levels used in spiral-dynamics and similar systems, see the table in: http://www.spiraldynamics.org/aboutsd_overview.htm

However, only levels DH3 and upwards follow the model of including the previous levels and adding enhancements, the first 2 levels are another mini-hierarchy, and DH2 is almost a category on it's own. Perhaps this might be modelled better with a dimension-level mapping. This also follows the ethos, pathos and logos.

This will allow analysis and levelling of each form of argument: DH0 -> DE:0 DH1 -> DE:1 DH2 -> DP:0 DH3 -> DL:0 DH4 -> DL:1 DH5 -> DL:2 DH6 -> DL:3

I also like the concept of DH7 which explicitly argues against the strongest form of the statement. DH7 -> DL:4

The style of argument you call "Ad Hominem" should really be called "Attacking the author's credibility". The original meaning of ad hominem was not attaching the author but rather appealing to the readers emotions rather than logic. Hence, "think of all the children who will starve due to biofuels", which contains the embedded assumption that biofuels will cause starvation but does not support that argument. In most cases attacks on the author's credibility are useful and valid, since the reader will tend to rely on evidence as presented. In addition, the motivation of the author is relevant since most people decide their position on an issue and then seek supporting evidence rather than surveying all of the evidence before making up their minds.

Attacking someone's credibility has no bearing on that person's argument. A true statement spoken by the devil doesn't make that statement false. Next, it's very hard for someone to correctly divine the motives of another. It is often the case that it's easier to make up base motives and assign then to an opponent than it is to refute their argument. Finally, that people "decide their position on an issue and then seek supporting evidence" simply shows that "people" are idiots.

You say "The original meaning of ad hominem was not attaching the author but rather appealing to the readers emotions rather than logic."

I don't think you're right here; "Ad hominem" in Latin means "to the man", implying attacking the original author.

appealing "to the man", perhaps?

Interesting guess, but no. The preposition 'ad' in "ad hominem" carries an _adversarial_ connotation. In this sense, it is like "adversus".

Epic. In my dreams, this article will become so popular that political commentators will use your Disagreement Hierarchy to evaluate political speeches. (Most political debate rarely rises above DH4.)

I'm going to reference your article every time I respond to criticism. Thank you.

Love your other stuff, too, Paul.

I wonder if the scale doesn't go high enough. It's hard to say because it's not clear what the goal of "disagreeing" is. If it's to convince the other person of your own perspective, then I humbly submit that none of these is likely to get you there.

What about the dialectic? What about appealing to common values or goals, and drawing connections between these common values or goals and your own argument? Maybe these approaches are too large in scope to be contained -- or, for that matter, likely to succeed -- within a single comment or comment thread, but I believe it's "higher" on the scale and, when practiced well, more likely to pursuade others than simply demolishing their arguments or employing the other tactics on down the list.

Or perhaps I've missed the goal of the essay?

As well as having a hierarchy of disagreement it seems to me useful to have a categorisation of statements (both in original essays, and disagreements with those essays). Such a categorisation might include:

* [1] statements of how the world is. These are statements that can in principle be tested by experiment. e.g. "broken glass is good to eat"

* [2] statements of how one would like the world to be. These obviously can't be tested. e.g. "Everyone should like cats."

* [3] definitions of terms. Where people describe how they are defining a term they'll b e using for the rest of the essay.

It seems to me that with poorly-written arguments, it's often hard to decipher which category a particular statement belongs to; and i suspect in many cases the writer doesn't know either.

In economics they call type [1] positive and type [2] normative - the implication being that economics only deals with positive questions and tells us nothing about normative questions (how should the world be). When I studied a bit of sociology they took an approach borrowed from philosophy in categorising methods (and effectively split up type [1]): they were interested in how the theory (substitute argument here) addressed the questions of [a] what is the nature of the problem (ie ontology or how the world is), and [b] what can we know about it (ie epistemology). How you answer questions of type [b] determines whether type [1] statements can "be tested by experiment" - ie not everything that is in the world can "in principle be tested by experiment". For example, often whilst we can say that A is generally followed by B, and so infer that A at least partially causes B (whilst causation does not imply correlation we usually infer it does if we have some plausible mechanism in mind for why it should), but that in itself can not reveal precisely to us exactly why A causes B - ie how the mechanism works exactly. Most writers tend not to explicitly reveal their views on [b] and so we are left to infer them. As to identifying type [2] statements, the verbs "want", "should", "prefer" are dead give-aways but the problem lies when they are dropped from the sentence - eg cabalamat's example becomes "Everyone likes cats". Using [b], we can ask whether it is possible to know this, which might help identify it as a type [2].

kerrynitz: but the problem lies when they are dropped from the sentence - eg cabalamat's example becomes "Everyone likes cats"

Or even better a statement like "all decent people like cats". This has the form of a type [1] statement but the meaning of a type [2] statement.

I think there's a lot of useful criticism of arguments that falls outside this hierarchy. You can attack an argument without ever disagreeing with it, such as by challenging its interestingness or applicability or its relevance to the rest of the discussion. Where does this comment fall in the hierarchy?

I think what's really going on here is that the hierarchy isn't actually a hierarchy. In a proper hierarchy, each level should necessarily entail the previous. Here DH1 entails DH0 (I call DH0 "ordinary ad hominem" and DH1 "circumstantial ad hominem") and DH6 entails DH5 entails DH4 entails DH3. But DH2 has nothing to do with any of the others, and DH3 has nothing to do with any of the previous.

As I began to read Paul's essay, I couldn't help but be reminded of a book I read about a year ago, "Crimes Against Logic" by Jamie Whyte. DH1 Ad Hominem almost defines our political system. From the book: "The motive fallacy is so common in politics that serious policy debate is almost nonexistent. The announcement of a new policy is greeted, not with a discussion of its alleged merits, but with a flurry of speculation from journalists and political opponents regarding the politician's motives for announcing it. He wants to appease the right wing of his party, or is trying to win favor in marginal rural states, or is bowing to the racist clamoring of the gutter press, or what-have-you."

The next level up we start to see responses to the writing, rather than the writer. The lowest form of these is to disagree with the author's tone.


Just so we have some variety on the DH's:

DH1: Hmm... Same author of the article and of the comment... :)

Honestly though, I don't think you should be too insulted. Everyone has moments when perhaps they aren't particularly prime to good comments, although I suppose it would be a bit better had pg said something along the lines of, "Support that instead of just saying it" or asked for an actual discussion instead of what seemed like a loud (from the caps) one-line outburst.

He's right. This is a weak form of disagreement. I wasn't trying to disagree convincingly, just to discourage people from using all caps on News.YC.

Aside from what appears to be an intentionally combative post, it's interesting that this illustrates how difficult it can be to avoid the trap of responding to the tone of a post, especially if you read the post you're responding to as impolite.

If anything, this illustrates the point from the current essay that it's easy to fall into the trap of responding to the tenor of an argument instead of the substance unless you pay careful attention. I expect we've all been guilty of this at one time or another.

You may or may not have meant it way, but thanks for the observation.

Edited to add: I hadn't seen pg's response when I posted this. Perhaps the observation is indeed superseded by the fact that pg's post wasn't intended as a refutation.

What about objections? Specifically, what about implicit objections of the form "What about [thing you did not mention but by implication ought to have, in light of which your argument is incomplete and/or inelegantly articulable and therefore as good as refuted for the purposed of this forum]?"

Also, do you not believe in refutation by reductio ad absurdum? I'm thinking your system is liable to classify a reductio as a mere contradiction, if not "mean."

And how about "meta" comments regarding the framing of the issue or whether an assumed issue really is an issue or can be addressed properly prior to some other issue?

Speaking of disgreeing, I found a lot to disagree with in this article. But since I see many of my objections have already been stated by others adding comments, I will restrict myself to a few comments:

1) I have been surprised at what a _variety_ of definitions I have found the for terms PG uses to describe fallacies. People do _not_ agree on the definition for, say, "ad hominem". See, for example, the differing definitions on the following sites, which purport to give definitions for the major fallacies:

a) http://theautonomist.com/aaphp/permanent/fallacies.php#adhom

Ad hominem fallacy - (against the man). Ad hominem is the attempt to impugn an argument by attacking the arguer's character, motives, personality, intentions, or qualifications. b) http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/logic.html#hom..., which gives not only a very different definition, but a much wordier one. c) http://www.galilean-library.org/manuscript.php?postid=43794

No two give the same definition!

2) That " u r a fag" is NOT equivalent to " The author is a self-important dilettante." has already been mentioned by others, and it hardly requires more substantiation.

3) I am by no means convinced that the proposed hierarchy of disagreement even sets an "upper bound". There is too much overlap, the boundaries are vague (as has already been pointed out by others), and it is much, _much_ too easy to make your argument _look_ like DH6, when it is really nothing like it.

Surely this is a common experience. I have often seen some public speaker make a rousing speech to encourage people to do something, yet the _entire_ speech had only either exhortation or fallacious arguments, yet his intended audience swallowed it whole, taking it for a DH6 level refutation.

4) Finally, it is too easy to sink to a low level of non-argument, lower than even DH1, without fitting into any of these categories. If you don't know how to do this, go into advertising; you will learn quickly;)

Friendly greetings! Just wanted to say thanks for writing this, it raises many good points, some which I wanted to see articulated a lot more. I'm not a fan of "BLAHBLAHBLAH WORDWARS" on forums and such where people are vehemently disagreeing and not getting anything done... what a sucky time-sink.

The "Name-calling" section is terribly true, as there are sadly mistaken folk who think gussying up words will make for more "refined" insults, but in the end, it just shows contempt and is not an actual barometer of intelligence or purpose.


In high school debate, DH4:Counterargument is displayed all the time by novice debaters. The phenomenon on my team was taught and cautioned against as "two ships passing in the night." Imagine a debate: each case was strong and big and impressive but the debaters' responses to one another were off the mark. Their arguments never met and rebuttals hit upon phantom contentions as each debater misunderstood or misconstrued the essential points of the opposing case/debater like "two ships passing in the night."

Who the hell does this guy think he is? A background in programming does not make somebody qualified to broadly classify and stereotype as invalid entire classes of arguments. Frankly the entire piece can be summarised as a self-gratifying ego inflationary tripe that serves only to reinforce the authors misguided belief that people care enough about what he says to discount anecdotal evidence and millenia of debating technique evolution.

Can someone else continue through levels 4-7 ?

Paul, I like your DH scale. Something too little appreciated: the DH1 argument: Dr XXX is wrong because he's a tool of the YYY industry is an "ad hominem" argument but so is Dr XXX is right because he's a Distinguished Prof at ZZZ University.

People who can't understand an argument are reduced to "who ya gonna believe?" Then we begin to hear about sources of funding, motivation, nationality, religion etc.

I'm glad to see that you place all these arguments down near the name-calling level.

I enjoy your essays, Bill Drissel Grand Prairie, TX

Ah, another example of how A"ad hominem" is misused;) Please see my other reply listing three different sites using three different definitions of "ad hominem". None of those definitions support your example. Rather, saying it is so because "he's a distinguised prof" is an appeal to authority, which is not _always_ a fallacy.

As I read this, I now feel an even stronger need to take exception to DH4. Graham has used the same 'DH4' to classify both the legitimate counterargument, and the fallacy, so well described by another commentator as "two ships passing each other in the night".

Then again, this particular form of DH4 cannot happen unless generously supported by some _other_ fallacy or fallacies. Otherwise it would be too obvious that they were "passing each other in the night", and no one would be convinced by the arguments.

On my to-do someday list is a site for recording and organizing debates. Arguments would appear as boxes of text, organized into a tree structure. Opposing arguments could be added as children to a parent node. Arguments could be filtered by up/down voting or some other system. Debate trees could be searched. Etc...

Somebody really should make this. I remember messing with some Flash site somewhere that did something similar, but the interface was pretty lowzy.

I think you're on to something here. If the debates weren't structured (e.g. on a single site) but distributed across blogs.

Something that can automatically categorize the blogosphere discussion - e.g. who's agreeing/who's disagreeing (what's the median level of agreement/disagreement). I'd like it for the sole feature of finding/filtering out the (sometimes useless) echo-chamber opinions - to surface the divergent disagreements/opinions

User-originated voting is good but combining it with intelligent algorithmic appraisal (what they are voting by what they are saying) might be interesting

My partner and I have been working on something similar at thinklinkr.com. We are currently (3/31/08) showing our crude version to friends and iterating rapidly. Drop me a line at vishu at thinklinkr.com and I'll send you an invitation.

Personally, I think the essay is a poor abbreviation of "A List of Fallacious Arguments" with too much emphasis on eristics and not enough on human nature and psychology.


Then again, the essay was written with a specific audience in mind. As it happens, I'm pretty sure I'm more a part of that audience than not.

Thank you for your good advice. However, I respectfully disagree with your last point: "...the greatest benefit of disagreeing well is ... that it will make the people who have them happier." While disagreeing well undoubtedly does remove ill temper from discussions, I see a much greater benefit, one that everything else in your illuminating article leads towards: reasoned disagreement helps us arrive at the truth.

One type Paul hasn't mentioned here is the who-are-you-to-talk. Particularly when responding to a moral argument, plenty of people love to point out how the author herself may have transgressed at some stage in life. It is as if honest confessor has no business opining strongly against what he once did. This appears to me as the most tangential of all forms of disagreement. Thoughts?

Curiously, I've heard DH1 (ad hominem) invoked in Computer Science circles. More than once, I've heard someone say that it's likely that P != NP, because lots of Very Smart People who've Worked Very Hard on the problem, and haven't able to collapse them. Of course, this isn't really a use of ad hominem argument in disagreement, it's a use in support of a claim.

On a related note, I saw an old interview with William F Buckley about his show Firing Line. He mentioned that he had a chapter in an earlier book that described various debate tactics used by his guests. He described a few in the interview that I immediately recognized in online comments, too. Sadly, I don't know which book has this chapter.

I saw a diagram for Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement on wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Resolving_disputes). I typed the title into Google search engine and found this article. This is going to make my life better. Thanks!

I find not only the essay itself delightful but the fact that there are apparently many people around still (as the comments which have already come in show) who are still able and willing to argue sensibly, politely and in an informed manner over serious things! Many thanks, Paul. Mind if I link your blog to mine?

I believe the author, who is self-important, is calling me a dilettante (clearly he would say that, he's a writer). He's wrong. He thinks people shouldn't argue. His main point seems to be that people will be happier if they agree with him, but I'm enjoying this post anyway. And he said, "people are getting angrier". Jerk.

For anyone interested in learning about arguments and how to spot common logical fallacies like the ad hominem attack i would recommend the podcast "LSAT Logic in Everyday Life" from the Princeton Review.


Great post by the way!

You might want to consider adding:

DH2.5. Denial

The form of this response is the basic "no, it isn't", without any other supporting details. As such, it falls below "DH3. Contradiction", which at least tries to advance the argument, even if not very well. Monty Python's "Argument Clinic" provides a well-known and amusing example of this.

I think the interesting part about this is how simple it is. It's easy enough to call someone out on a bad argument, but having this implies that we could simply point people to a reference number, thus saving intelligent people from being forced to reexplain logical errors made over and over again.

While some of the lower forms may not be effective in refuting an argument, they may be effective in its discussion. For example, pointing out bias may be considered an ad hominem attack. However, it may also be useful to others while forming their own opinions on the validity of a statement.

If you want DH5-DH6, my advice is: stay away from metaphors! People will react to your metaphor first ("so-and-so is dead", "so-and-so is a lion in a cage" etc) instead of your main thesis. Metaphors aren't "isomorphisms", sorry. They make things more colorful but can't be refuted rationally.

The word "mean", has contradictory means: "the more mean [a person is], the less means [it provides]". This creates a new type of contradiction: language disagreement; with the easiest solution translation in a second language.

English is an awful language; Paul, I would prefer to read you in Latin or Greek.

Sed quare? Latina autem lengua tenet haec difficultates.

I definitely appreciated this articulate and concise article.

I feel quite strongly that what you've described about "the web" is in fact symptomatic (probably not causal, however) of what ails communication as a whole, in this country - with regard to coherent dialog & debate, or lack thereof.

u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!

What's the hierarchy level for failed attempts at humor?

DH1, but against oneself.

It might have been a little obvious, but it was still funny.

It was pretty nub. You forgot the 1's mixed in!!!1!111

I pasted from PG's article, but yeah, there should be some 1's.

rucursion is always funny, u fag!!1

On a related note, I have a friend who tried to argue for Ruby on Rails in his workplace and one of the Perl guys there literally said "Whatever dude, frameworks are for fags." He was dead serious.

I mean, where do you go from there?


LOL. Yeah, he did peace out and become an independent contractor shortly thereafter.

If you wish to see DH6 in action and completely for religion, Berkeley, Kant and the scientific exploration of the grand unificaiton theory at LCH, purchse "The Nightmare Treacheries" by Scott St. Clair Henderson

The Disagreement Hierarchy has now been included in Wikipedia. Please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disagreement_Hierarchy .

Check out this essay in the form of a graphic: http://blog.createdebate.com/2008/04/07/how-to-write-strong-...

I can't disagree. Your first paragraph seems like an extension of Linus's Law ("Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow") from the realm of software development to the realm of public discourse.

Very informative article. Even most of the comments here provide good insight into the matter. I, for one, would surely pause for a few seconds from now on before submitting comments.

Lovely essay, I have translated it into swedish: http://kyrkansframtid.se/2008/07/hur-man-ar-oense/

If you wish to read DH6 in action and completely for Religion, Science and the grand unification theory at LHC, read the Nightmare Treacheries by Scott St. Clair Henderson

I thought this was one of PG's best essays. A lot of the other ones are motivational or thought-provoking, but in terms of usefulness and clear thinking, this was it.

Just looking at these comments, Paul should follow up with an article on how to be succinct. People can be such drags when they are trying hard to sound intelligent.

Nice article, and timely. But I believe your senators' salary example is technically a genetic fallacy, not ad hominem. Could be wrong - it's happened before ;-)

Wow! So needed, but probably only 1% of those who need this will read it. Helps me understand why there is so much negative response on the internet. markaa

It's a brilliant essay, but then what do you expect from Paul Graham? It's eloquently put and finely crafted. This is a really interesting analytical tool.

I think there's some amusement to be found in an agreement hierarchy:

  AH-0: Raw compliments.
  AH-1: Ad hominem compliments.
  AH-2: Compliments on style.
  AH-3: Agreement with the main point.
  AH-4: Extension of a minor point.
  AH-5: Major corollary; extension of the main point
  AH-6: Citation to make another, more overarching point.
Can anyone beat me up the ladder to AH-5?

This is superb; thank you for taking your time to write a meaningful post that is not only applicable to the internet, but normal life!

I really shouldn't comment because I haven't read through this mountain of comments. So I won't. But thanks all the same.

there's also: Questioning the assumptions upon which an argument is being made. This isn't so much refuting an argument, central or otherwise. Rather it is exposing (potentially) flawed logic and/or uncovering fallacies or creative embellishments upon which a seemingly sound argument may rest.

I disagree with the article. I have no basis for disagreement other than the need and desire to be contrary.

i am loving this razor sharp thinking and critique; it must be emblematic of the hacker type but i appreciate it. i am from the music world where everything is fuzzy and sort of. i mean, who writes a critique of disagreements? coolest thing ever. nice contribution to elevation of species.

It seems that things you can't say seem to trigger the lower levels of the disagreement hierarchy the most.

Satire! You need to examine more the value of Mark Twain's ability to enlighten thru same.

Just saw the DH2.5 - Denial comment. That's where the list of dodges is aimed at.

EXXXXCELLENT. Thank you. Got here from Unfair Doctrine blog. Sail on!

Brilliant, worth a read "the Art of Controversy by Arthur Schopenhauer".

Maybe "DHH" could be responding with insults, like "f* you" ? ;-)

If you "win" an argument (especially in person), are you really winning?

I argue to learn more. If you disagree with someone, they usually spend their valuable time teaching you stuff that they would otherwise not. They get the satisfaction of winning the argument and I get the satisfaction of learning something.

Yes, by definition.

No, by definition (or at least English convention) if you "win" an argument you are not winning, but rather "winning" in the sarcastic "wink, wink" sense.

Uh, define "win". And stop using sneer quotes like that. If you want to say it's an alleged win then say so.

Are you questioning whether it's important to argue, or whether it's important to win?

I was hanging out the other day at a mixer and the subject of travel came up. There were some well-traveled people but it evolved into a pissing contest, their travel resume vs. the other person's. It seemed almost they were trying to one-up the other even when talking about their personal experiences (e.g. Punta Cana is alright for scuba. But. Have you been to Dominica? No? Well let me tell you...)

Reading this YC thread, I was reminded of observing this party talk/jousting and had the deep thought that if we hold an agenda (e.g. He's wrong or I'm better than that guy) we lose out when it comes down to it - we don't really listen or learn anything from the other person because we're too focused on proving the muzak in our head that we're right

if one side "wins" an argument that means the losing side gets ruled out. thus you both win in the search for the truth, because you've discovered that a particular position is false.

"The truth isn't always beauty, but the hunger for it is." Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize laureate

I can't say for sure what he's referring to, but maybe it's Dale Carnegie's philosophy that you can never "win" an argument because even when you "win" an argument, you haven't usually accomplished your objective of persuading the person. I looked for an excerpt and didn't see one. There's a small summary here, but the book says it best:


On a personal level, a relative of mine has alienated enough people that I have trouble bringing him out because he continually needs to be "right."

What good have you accomplished if you're "right", alone, and you've convinced no one.

The dynamic is different in a public debate, however, where you might be trying to persuade people other than the person you're debating, but Mr. Carnegie's ideas are still useful to remember.

Oh nice! Now instead of wasting all of that typing on "u r a fag" and other namecalling, I can just use:

author <- DH0;

Thanks Paul!

are you sure that's shorter?

Dear PG,

u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!

There. Somebody had to do it.

Impressed to see that no-one here is suggesting a Disagreement Hierarchy: DHH.

And no I didn't.

"You do not truly know someone until you fight them" Seraph, The Matrix

Pithy quote, but do you believe the substance of it in this instance?

In the context/situation, talking about disagreement, I think a little conflict/drama is necessary to demonstrate how a person reacts and reveal a little more about who he/she is.

I like the quote because it reminds me that even the most logical people may default to reacting non-logically/emotionally in a stressful situation (where they may feel their ego is threatened e.g. have to "fight" to protect themselves)

u r a fag!!!!!!

I couldn't disagree more. This cultivated and mannered ideal that you espouse is rarely practiced on any real blog or forum with a passionate community, or an intelligent community versed in the issues, and that's ok. And your effort to put this out here like the 10 Commandments is just a typical male, geeky bloggy power play. And there, that may be an intolerable insult; it may even be incorrect! but it's not an ad hominem attack, what would be an hominem is to say that your argument is discredited because your name is Paul or you are white. Geeks and males and bloggers need to be characterized, judged, and condemned where necessary, without fear of favour.

It's all about trying to control other people when you put up one of these classic manipulative blog how-tos deliberately in a format to guarantee constant Google-fetching and repasting. These various Internet memes like "OMG don't have a flamewar!" OR "OMG don't feed the trolls" -- these are just tribalist imperatives that lead to horridly dull conformity and spread an awful pall over most social media. Argument is very, very important, and if it gets heated, and sparks fly, good! It's real!

Times vs. Sullivan, the landmark Supreme Court case that is a keystone of a lot of media freedom in the US, says basically it is ok to call someone a name. It's ok. It is allowed speech. And that's the sort of robust speech that occurs in a democracy.

It's very important to respond instantly to tone. Tone is what people think they can smuggle in, often, in the emotional medium of forums and blogs, and imagine they can get away with leaving these emotional trapdoors around for people to respond to instinctively, and it's good to bring it to light. They need to be called on it. Instantly. And fiercely sometimes. The tone you are taking here is preachy and hortatory. But one can only say, oh, stop it. Are you smug about all the fanboyz below, about all the people who will cut and paste your link like some latter-day Dear Abby?

Neuralgic types often imagine there is an ad hominem attack, when in fact there's a quite unbiased report. And they often call "ad hominem" something that is a much needed judgement about a person that really needs to be made.

Gregfjohnson is good to remember Aquinas here. But Aquinas also conceived of a number of ways for virtuous men to reach Heaven even if they were not believers or baptised or following the scriptures; had the different categories of those "saved" met each other and converse, the one might be astounded at the heresy and dissent of the other!

Re-stating people's arguments often infuriates them precisely because they don't want to be summarized and fed back in stark form, or take consequence for the tone and the hidden agendas they try to smuggle into forums and blogs. So it's not a magic bullet.

The surest way for a forums discussion to go downhill is for some smug nit to go and pull up some "rules of rhetoric" and beginning banging on somebody's head that they are breaking some arcane "law of logic". Oh, do stop it. People need to express themselves. They know exactly what they are hearing in tone and implication, and they are right to respond to it.

I think you might be on to something, if you're saying that a personal or tonal response might be necessary to certain articles. Someone earlier mentioned the Ethos, Pathos and Logos vectors for disagreement, which I love. I read what you're saying as that just because an attack is on the person, doesn't mean it's irrelevant, which I think might be true. This means that there's different targets here and qualities of argument on each target. I've got a comment somewhere on adding dimensions to these levels and splitting them out, although the examples I gave can be improved on I'm sure. I think it's fair to say that most name calling on the internet is of a low level variety, hence why it might get munged into a single list like this and placed at a low level, however a personal attack may take a higher and more-legitimate form, although I've not come to any examples of that. There is a question on the legitimacy of arguing against anything other than the actual logic of the argument - I'll leave that to others to work out, I'm happy to say that there are different lines to attack on, and different qualities of attack on each level. I'll assume that the relevant line is dependant on the post and the respondent. What I think is worth taking away from this is that the level of argument raised in the response should be as high as possible.

u r a fag

"Geeks and males and bloggers need to be characterized, judged and condemned where necessary."

Here is where I believe you're wrong. There is no need to judge and condemn individuals in a web discussion, in fact it's counterproductive. When an argument becomes heated and sparks fly, that heat and fire should be directed at the content of the argument. Otherwise you're just insulting someone, who will then insult you back, and bingo, a typical message-board or blog-comment back-and-forth name-calling session has begun.

I agree that it can be necessary to point it out when someone is using tone to leave "emotional trapdoors for people to respond to," but if the way you do it is to attack the person's character rather than by showing that the appeal to emotion is a poor argument, then you're just heading towards a flame war.

You say that attitudes such as "don't feed the trolls" lead to dull conformity. Don't you think that the dismal sameness of all troll-provoked flame wars is far more dull than an atmosphere of simple courtesy in which people actually listen to each other? I would go further than "don't feed the trolls"--in any web discussion that has descended into acrimonious personal attacks, one should unilaterally withdraw. You cannot have the last word on the Internet and the smart way to avoid flame wars is to leave them.

It's trolls and flamers that are the surest way for a forum discussion to go downhill. The best way to help a forum be interesting and lively is not to remind everyone of "rules of rhetoric" or of conduct but to follow them oneself. But many people haven't thought about it in a systematic way, so it can be helpful to read a set of recommendations and apply whichever of them you wish. Publishing such things is not an attempt to control, but to persuade. You may have a beef with the attitude of "smug nits" who tell you what to do, but that doesn't mean that their recommendations aren't good ones.

Some thoughts. I often wonder what is Paul Graham currently doing, what captures his interest at the moment. I have developed a "social consequences" approach to both the planning and observation of human interactions -and I think Paul does as well, in his own way. [So does Clay Shirky too.]

Recently we've seen comments and motions here that, on hindsight, explain the new article: Paul is working on keeping this forum healthy, creative, useful, attractive, alive. Thanks man, I am learning.

"You can't call me an idiot", cried the idiot. That's Ad Hominem, y'know!



I like where you are going with this business of disagreeing. I'm drawn to the subject.

Question is - what are you (and now, we) really trying to accomplish here - the issue/concern disagreeing?

As Well: What's the context (purpose) for all this disagreeing you talk about? For bringing this subject up for view, in the first place?

   Is it to be right (a bit of arrogance) and try to make the other guy wrong? 
   Is it to get to what works - to learn to say or do something better together (personally or professionally)
What are you looking for - what do you want to change or happen - as an end result of the discourse - disagreement?

John McLaughlin, Day Traders - Consultant / Coach www.DayTradersWin.com

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