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The Worst Argument In The World (lesswrong.com)
212 points by jmillikin on Aug 28, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 143 comments



I read the interesting submitted article and its comments right after it was submitted here on Hacker News. The worst argument in the world (a general FORM of argument) is described this way in the submitted article:

"I declare the Worst Argument In The World to be this: 'X is in a category whose archetypal member has certain features. Therefore, we should judge X as if it also had those features, even though it doesn't.'"

This recalls many cases on Hacker News when someone has disagreed with someone else by saying, "Your argument is an example of [name of rhetorical or logical fallacy]." Perhaps it is carrying out the worst argument in the world to identify one part of someone's statement as a logical fallacy, if the fallacy doesn't vitiate the statement, and if sound evidence is still in view to support the statement. Sometimes facts of the world are as they are even if they are mentioned by people who argue inaptly, so it would indeed be a bad argument to ignore the message because of infelicities of expression by the messenger. If we look at pg's essay "How to Disagree,"

http://www.paulgraham.com/disagree.html

we see advice that a better way to disagree is

"Refuting the Central Point.

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

So I guess my central point here [smile] is that while it may be interesting to identify a general form for many particularly bad arguments, it is even better to be specific in grappling with the evidence for the core factual assertions of the person with whom you disagree. That takes abundant knowledge of the world, and a willingness to look up facts. I always appreciate people on Hacker News who can point to carefully gathered facts, analyzed by people with appropriate domain-related knowledge, as we discuss issues here.


I think pointing out a logical fallacy is not a refutation. Rather than saying "your argument is wrong", it says "your argument is not well-formed". This is much like the difference between a program that has a bug and a program that has a parse error.

To take the most glaring example: "my point is true because my point is true". Obviously, nobody actually says this seriously. But some arguments are isomorphic to this. And any argument like that is not wrong per se--it is literally meaningless.

Other fallacies are more subtle and complicated, but the idea remains the same: using a fallacy does not invalidate your point but merely renders your argument meaningless. I can say that "the sky is blue because everybody says so" and I would not be wrong--given the sky is actually blue, of course--but the argument would still be a fallacy. I think to point this out is valuable even (perhaps especially) if you do not disagree with the point in question.


As long as you say that this what you are doing, I agree. Too often, however, people content themselves with just pointing out the flaw or fallacy. This gives the impression that they mean to argue with the central point.


Fallacious arguments (of which circular arguments are a subset) aren't literally meaningless. "My point is true because my point is true" is perfectly comprehensible, it just fails to establish the fact that "my point is true". You can disagree with it reasonably by pointing out the fallacy, so it has linguistic substance, and it is not meaningless.

It is very different from, say, "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" which is literally meaningless.


A logical fallacy does imply that an argument is wrong. It doesn't mean that the conclusion is wrong, but it means the argument is wrong. If an argument rests on a logical fallacy, then it does not provide evidence for its conclusion.


As humans, we can do better than a compiler that gives up at the first missing semicolon. We can keep reading and respond to the rest of the comment with more than a link to the wikipedia article on ad hominem.


Sure, if there is a 'rest of the comment'. Usually, there isn't anything else to go by. There's just the fallacious argument. It doesn't matter whether you can think of all kinds of ways to support the point of view the other espouses: you're not in his head and you can't know whether he thought all the things you can think of in favour of his position. There's only the fallacious argument and that needs to be struck down. If someone else wants to support the position, he'll come along.


That's certainly reasonable. But this does not mean you should ignore fallacies either. Usually when I see people talk about fallacies it's part of a point-by-point rebuttal against some post--you refute some of the points in order, perhaps agree with others and also point out any points that are actually fallacies. I think this is perfectly reasonable, but I can also see how solely pointing out a fallacy would usually not be terribly useful.

Also, ad hominem is a special case: not only is it a complete fallacy but it is also often quite rude. Minimizing personal attacks is important in keeping discussion pleasant and civil even ignoring their logical implications.

If I could only have one rule for some discussion forum, that would probably be it: no personal attacks.


I have to take issue with this. I think it's an important and useful rhetorical tool that, while sometimes can be used in a petty way to score points, can elevate the debate. If half of your counter-argument is "compiler warnings" for your competitor's argument, I think that's valuable.

I, for one, would wildly prefer a world where every debater was a nit-picking SOB when it comes to logical fallacies and the average debate "compiled cleanly without warnings". It would be like heaven compared to where we are today.


If we're talking about the formal fallacies, I agree, but my experience with people name-dropping compiler errors for informal fallacies is that they're often not very useful or accurate diagnoses. Ad hominem is one that is often useful, mostly as a sort of meta-rule about debate etiquette. But things like "slippery slope" are used to characterize a wide range of arguments of which only a subset are strictly fallacious. And some informal fallacies are only fallacies in the specific context of purported logical proofs, but not necessarily in other kinds of arguments. For example, it's true that an "appeal to authority" in an argument means it's not a valid logical argument that proves its conclusions from its premises. But people sometimes raise that objection in contexts where the authority is being invoked as an epistemic authority that raises the likelihood of its conclusion being true (because we have reason to believe that the authority's judgments have non-zero epistemic value), not as part of a logical proof. For example, while it's true that "the consensus of physicists is that X" doesn't prove anything about X, if I'm not a physicist and have a background belief that the consensus of physicists is generally a good guide on what is likely to be true about physics, it's a good inference that I should at least provisionally believe X.


In fact, even computers can often do better these days. Classical logic as implemented by theorem-provers is not anywhere near the state of the art in AI argumentation systems.


I find the most enjoyable form of argument is to listen to what your opponent is saying. Instead of poking holes in bad word choices or minor factual inaccuracies, reconstruct in your head the person's argument to be as strong and clear-headed as possible. Then refute that argument, which is probably closer anyways to what the person was thinking than what they actually wrote.

Going all out against someone's point of view does have its uses, of course. But it's never good for genuine intellectual exploration (which is, honestly, often not our real goal in confronting someone).


There is really no point in this unless you are arguing with someone who is trying to be honest to begin with. In that situation you don't need so much artifice anyway.


Well, I'd say there's a continuum of honesty. And intellectual generosity tends to beget intellectual generosity in the other person--and, for thoughtful undecided onlookers, makes them more amendable toward considering your side.

For instance, speaking from both sides of the experience, someone who is engaged but being sniping or nasty in a political debate might well see that you're giving their point an honest go of it and in response clean up their act.

And even if they're lost beyond all hope, there's only a limited amount of fun to be had in poking holes in the small without really addressing their motivating concern.


note: I'm not refuting your central point, I agree with it, but this line made me smile...

   there's only a limited amount of fun to be had in poking 
   holes in the small without really addressing their 
   motivating concern
The internet and tv news would disagree with you that the fun is limited. It appears definitely unlimited.


This idea pretends that all arguments turn on factual assertions - never framing or non sequiturs - and don't have any meaningful social context.

For example, in a public argument, if you get too far drawn into proof that you don't STILL beat your wife, you will inadvertently establish in the minds of the audience that you used to do so; moreover, your excess of protest may actually be taken as evidence that you do beat your wife.

If someone poses such framing you are really remiss not to address the framing or refuse to dignify such a malicious and dishonest line of argument with response.


Yup, this is also known as the argument from fallacy or the fallacy fallacy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_fallacy

Which is the false notion that when you refute a single false point, the opponent's whole argument is false.


If one part of your argument is refuted, but the others stand, you should simply acknowledge your mistake and point out the remainder of it is still valid.

Pointing out flaws in your argument is not "the worst argument in the world". It's logically valid, whereas the worst argument in the world is not.


> The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone's central point.

Which is denied you when the person's argument is so ill-formed that it does not have a central point. At that point, you either point out the flaws or you walk away, apparently conceding the point to the pointless one.

(Also: I love the word point, apparently.)


That's a good, uhhhh, point. There are many people who form their arguments so poorly that it can be hard to refute them because they'll just move the goal posts or completely change the playing field.


This seems disingenuous to me. Already by calling what's essentially rhetoric "arguments", he's building a huge strawman.

Take abortion - according to opponents a fetus is a living human being, and actively and purposefully killing a living human being is murder in the Charles Manson style. The argument for abortion isn't that it's somehow OK to kill really young human, it's that fetuses aren't independent human beings, they're an extension of the mothers body. It's really not a relevant metric for wether murder is murder if there are grieving friends and family, or if people live in fear - it seems every other crime show deals with the murder of a miserable, lonely homeless guy or a prostitute. According to this argument, that's not murder at all.

The eugenics example is even worse. In the 1930s, people were absolutely certain eugenics was the best thing since sliced bread, then Hitler showed the world how bad that could go. To deny "Those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it" as a guiding principle seems rather hubristic to me.

"Evolutionary psychology is sexist!" is a different beast: some people have decided, not through science, but though politics, that material differences between men and women (or the races for that matter) doesn't exist. Thus science finding otherwise is unacceptable. Of course it's a bad argument to reject science because it doesn't fit your political agenda.


> The eugenics example is even worse. In the 1930s, people were absolutely certain eugenics was the best thing since sliced bread, then Hitler showed the world how bad that could go. To deny "Those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it" as a guiding principle seems rather hubristic to me.

Erm, well, what we saw was that using social programs to engage in eugenics was a problem. Allowing individuals to change their genetic destiny, or allowing parents to try and use genetics to reduce the risk of disease is significantly different.

Of course, the stronger argument against eugenics is that narrowing the human genepool is dangerous. Genetic diversity is strength across successive generations. Then again, I'm not someone with a genetic disease, or the parent of a child with one, so I don't feel that I have any authority to say what should or should not be done. I'll limit myself to trying to make people aware of the issue.

> "Evolutionary psychology is sexist!" is a different beast: some people have decided, not through science, but though politics, that material differences between men and women (or the races for that matter) doesn't exist. Thus science finding otherwise is unacceptable. Of course it's a bad argument to reject science because it doesn't fit your political agenda.

Evolutionary psychology is a valid science, however, and this is an enormous however, untrained individuals attempting to use it to enforce social norms is absolutely 100% sexist. The arc of society is to eclipse our biology. Attempting to enforce it because of misunderstandings, willful or otherwise, of a novel field of science concerned primarily with our past is something I find personally disgusting.


>Evolutionary psychology is a valid science, however, and this is an enormous however, untrained individuals attempting to use it to enforce social norms is absolutely 100% sexist.

I personally believe that sexism is not immediately a negative thing, but neutral. Sex based discrimination is useful and can hold a lot of value in determining our next course of action.

Using sexism as a moral axiom is illogical. What's worse, it's censoring free thought through intimidation of social irrelevance.

Logic should be followed through without unnecessary moral burden. Observations should be made without the need to justify oneself purely for making them.

Just despairing with how the word sexism is conflated with so many other things in the internet rhetoric. Maybe this is more of an American thing.


Sexism implies discrimination. Every single word in your statement could substitute racism or ageism for sexism and it wouldn't make anything you're saying any more meaningful.

Does racism also mean something else in the dialect of English you speak?


I don't see conflating racism, sexism and ageism very useful. They all have different causes and validity, depending on context. Does attaching -ism after the word "nerd" make nerds suddenly an oppressed group?

There's nothing wrong with discrimination as such. Dividing two things into separate compartments gives us the ability to process their differences instead of trying to fit two thing together that do not go together, again, depending on context. But discrimination definitely is a very useful mental tool.

A word about racism. I see it mostly as an in-built defense tactic for territory and one's own genetic line. Is this outdated? Perhaps. Does this have anything to do with sexism? Not really that I can see. Other than the -ism at the end.


Yes, I suppose what you are saying is correct, but what you're talking about is not the main form of sexism in modern cultures. It is nearly always is used to keep women down, merely because they are women. Likewise for race. Often people who talk about evo psych are trying to justify why its ok to forcibly have sex with someone who is wearing a skirt of some defined length.

We haven't gotten rid of the "bad sexism" stuff yet, so you're theoretical sexism free utopia is purely theoretical at the moment.


however, and this is an enormous however, untrained individuals attempting to use it to enforce social norms is absolutely 100% sexist.

Here here. There are loads of people who "know the truth, and are jufdt trying to find the evidence" to support their beliefs about gender. This isn't real science, but cargo cult, pseduoscience for political goals.

Don't try to mask your politics in sciencey sounding arguments.


This seems disingenuous to me. Already by calling what's essentially rhetoric "arguments", he's building a huge strawman.

You're being funny right? I mean it has to be intentional that you are opening this contrary reply with a statement in the form of what TFA calls "The worst argument int he world" .

In case you aren't, or other posters don't see it:

The term argument has a technical and colloquial meaning. Technical means it is a well thought out, logically built position in a debate. Colloquially it means roughly "a statement in opposition". Rhetoric as used above largely means "statements meant to sway a person to one position, based on a mixture of fact and emotional response". Of course this is regularly a big part of rhetoric, but it also is the act of clear communication via careful composition of words. My rhetoric classes in college never taught me to pander to emotion, but rather lay out my statements in a clear way to make my point - techniques that are required for both clear logical argument (technical sense) and populist panderings (the common connotation of statements like "mere rhetoric"). So how does the parent's statement follow the form of WAITW? Well it says that the "arguments" (second form) are mere rhetoric, therefore discussing how to deal with them with logic must also be mere rhetoric. It completely misses the part where these types of 'argument' are common to daily political discourse in the US and many other places as well, so learning to not make the argument and to counter it is productive in helping people understand the actual issues.


Evolutionary psychology isn't valid science: it is not falsifiable. Evolution is a series of accidents that happened to produce the observable outcome. Trying to retroactively assign causality between those outcomes and other simultaneously-evolving outcomes is ridiculous because there is no control condition.


> The argument for abortion isn't that it's somehow OK to kill really young human

Not true! At least, if you asked me to make an argument in favor of abortion, that's the argument that I would make.

No human within the first year or so after conception has any of the distinguishing features which give intelligent beings a higher moral status: Tool use, language use, abstract thought, logical reasoning, permanent memory.

Therefore, the moral status of a human immediately after the time of conception t_0 is akin to that of an animal. It's not okay to torture, abuse, or injure them for fun; it's not okay for people outside their family to interfere with them; it's morally and socially acceptable and even admirable for individuals to form very deep emotional attachments with them and spend enormous resources helping and protecting them; but it is okay to kill them humanely if there simply isn't a place for them.

The moral status of the very young human rises from that of a proto-human animal to that of a full human at time t_I, the time when they become intelligent.

The problem is that t_I is extremely difficult to measure. It depends on your definition of intelligence and can be very different for different individuals. (For severely brain-damaged individuals, it may even be the case that t_I = infinity.)

To deal with the difficulty of measuring t_I, our culture and laws have instead picked a deadline t_D, such that t_D is much smaller than t_I in all cases (regardless of differing definitions or individual cases). We have declared that we should assume humans younger than t_D have proto-human legal status roughly equivalent to animal status, and humans older than t_D have full-human legal status. Killing before the deadline is legal if done in a humane way with the consent of the mother; killing after the deadline is treated the same as killing an adult would be (only allowable in very limited circumstances such as self-defense). Therefore our society can avoid some of the drains placed on it by humans who, it is known, will be born into far-from-ideal circumstances, while hopefully staying far away enough from t_I to avoid sanctioning the killing of anyone who has the moral status of a full human. (Obviously, t_D is the time of birth plus delta, where delta is less than one day (I'm not sure exactly what delta is, but I'm pretty sure it's less than one day). Delta is necessary to account for partial-birth abortions.)

The problem with many pro-abortion arguments is that they are of the form "It is our belief that all humans have souls, and therefore full-human moral status, from the time of conception." It's not a problem that those are their religious beliefs; the problem is enshrining those beliefs into law in prohibitions on abortion. Logic and facts, not religious beliefs, must be the basis of our laws; to do otherwise would open up the very can of worms that we try to avoid by separating church and state. We can't observe souls, but we can observe intelligent behavior, and the latter seems not to preclude existing abortion laws in any way. (Existing abortion laws also don't interfere with the religious beliefs of abortion opponents; if you believe abortion is morally wrong, you don't have to have one. The law only steps in to the extent that anti-abortionists wish to impose their beliefs on others.)

Hypothetically, if the laws were expanded to legalize infanticide as "extremely late abortion" at any time up to, say, age three, then a moral argument would hold weight; many two-year-olds do use language and can exhibit surprisingly intelligent behaviors. Likewise, if the laws were expanded to require abortions in certain circumstances (for example, to enforce a one-child-per-family policy like China has), that would also be wrong and almost surely unconstitutional; for it would interfere with the religious beliefs of most abortion opponents. (I say "most" since I suppose it is possible there is some faction whose religious beliefs, if any, don't forbid abortion, but bases an opposition to abortion on non-religious grounds. If they even exist, they're surely very small and not very vocal.)

Of course, everyone (myself included) regards such expansions as extremely morally repugnant; I know of no one who would even consider supporting them. I'm just offering them against a hypothetical opponent who would say, "If you would sanction the killing of innocent babies, you clearly have no moral compass!" This worldview does have limitations on what is allowed; it just draws the line between "unallowable atrocity under any circumstances" and "the lesser of two evils" in a slightly different place than pro-lifers.

As much of a tendency as it is among liberals to put all conservatives in the same boat, both on HN and everywhere else the left gathers, abortion is possibly the best place to draw the line between libertarians and social conservatives: The latter favor prohibitions, while the former should oppose them as unwanted government intrusion (although many do not, I suspect, due to simple realpolitik -- a sacrifice of a non-core position by a weaker leg of the stool to support a core position of a stronger leg to maintain the conservative coalition, presumably a compromise to be "renegotiated" -- possibly unilaterally -- when/if their relative strength ever changes.)


> Therefore, the moral status of a human immediately after the time of conception t_0 is akin to that of an animal. It's not okay to torture, abuse, or injure them for fun; it's not okay for people outside their family to interfere with them; it's morally and socially acceptable and even admirable for individuals to form very deep emotional attachments with them and spend enormous resources helping and protecting them; but it is okay to kill them humanely if there simply isn't a place for them.

However, the human at t_0 will become a person at t_I and the animal won't; the fact that the human is a potential person seems to be very important to the anti-abortion side of the argument.

Besides saying "well, potential things don't count because I say so", is there a strong argument for rejecting the idea that we should consider the human at having the moral status of the person they'll later be? (Clearly we do this already in law, starting at birth or soon before.)


> "well, potential things don't count because I say so"

I would say I don't care about potential things. This is a fairly fundamental moral principle for me and if you disagree with it perhaps we do not have a true disagreement but simply different preferences.

I could point out that a moral principle involving caring about potential things has a high complexity which may be convincing to some people:

If you care about potential things you will also have to draw a line to avoid say, outlawing changing your mind about having sex because that prevents the conception of a potential person.


>To deal with the difficulty of measuring t_I, our culture and laws have instead picked a deadline t_D, such that t_D is much smaller than t_I in all cases (regardless of differing definitions or individual cases). We have declared that we should assume humans younger than t_D have proto-human legal status roughly equivalent to animal status, and humans older than t_D have full-human legal status. Killing before the deadline is legal if done in a humane way with the consent of the mother; killing after the deadline is treated the same as killing an adult would be (only allowable in very limited circumstances such as self-defense). Therefore our society can avoid some of the drains placed on it by humans who, it is known, will be born into far-from-ideal circumstances, while hopefully staying far away enough from t_I to avoid sanctioning the killing of anyone who has the moral status of a full human. (Obviously, t_D is the time of birth plus delta, where delta is less than one day (I'm not sure exactly what delta is, but I'm pretty sure it's less than one day). Delta is necessary to account for partial-birth abortions.)

That's a very arbitrary time at which to draw a line, and it's not even applied consistently. Everyone would consider the deliberate killing of a 22-week foetus being kept alive on an incubator to be murder, so clearly t_D must be <= 22 weeks after conception. A 26-week foetus is much closer to t_I, but there are those who consider it acceptable to kill such a thing, solely because it happens to be inside someone's body. That's the part I can't understand.


I think your premises are incorrect. Create a machine that is like a human in all respects that you cite, tool use, language use, abstract thought, logical reasoning, permanent memory, and if it is just comprised of that, we will call it a very amazing robot. You could even add self-preservation routines, and we will call it an amazing robot that knows its own value.

But unless you add emotions that are recognizable to humans, you will find a very hard time convincing people that it is a person.

Similarly, I believe that emotional response is the reason why humans agree that it is not correct to destroy babies, but that some find it fine to destroy embryos. Those that disagree feel that the potential for emotions overrides any other concern.

Now, personally, I would hate to be a rationalist. Emotions provide the depth that make being alive worth experiencing. Divorcing my emotions from every decision making process would just be disgusting... well, see, I can't even describe it without emotion.


Rationality and emotions are not dichotomous. If you take the time to rationally choose your value system, your emotions will direct you towards rational objectives. Your emotions do not become divorced from decision making, they become analyzable and adjustable so that they can work for you, instead of against you.

Or to put it another way, if your emotions seem irrational, then you're probably doing something wrong.


"Contrary to the stereotype, rationality doesn't mean denying emotion. When emotion is appropriate to the reality of the situation, it should be embraced; only when emotion isn't appropriate should it be suppressed."

http://lesswrong.com/lw/hp/feeling_rational/


> Create a machine that is like a human in all respects that you cite, tool use, language use, abstract thought, logical reasoning, permanent memory, and if it is just comprised of that, we will call it a very amazing robot. You could even add self-preservation routines, and we will call it an amazing robot that knows its own value.

I disagree. Much science fiction (for example Asimov) deals with the social positions of intelligent robots. I would assume, based on the number of people that find the arguments these works make compelling or at least interesting enough to buy them, that if such robots did exist, they would quickly gain at least a small faction of human political supporters. Eventually, through normal human social and political processes, our society and culture would hopefully reach some kind of position on what exactly makes something morally equivalent to humans, in a way that assigns some definite and logically consistent moral status to these robots.

> Similarly, I believe that emotional response is the reason why humans agree that it is not correct to destroy babies, but that some find it fine to destroy embryos.

It's probably true that emotional responses are a big part of the reason for much of the support behind most laws and policies, from the least controversial (murder is illegal) to the most (abortion, Obamacare, death penalty, affirmative action, welfare...). But that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't come up with abstract intellectual justifications for them.

> Divorcing my emotions from every decision making process would just be disgusting...

Emotions are basically heuristics which the human brain has evolved. They quickly give you guidelines for how you should act in a given situation without wasting valuable time and intellectual effort creating an elaborate argument as a justification of the obvious.

Emotions are usually right, but sometimes they lead us astray. And we're at a complete loss when we have to make a law that goes either one way or the other on something, but different people in our society have different emotional responses that lead them to different positions on the issue.

And besides, emotions can lead to things like racism or Nazism if followed blindly. (Godwin's Law, I know.)

That's where debate and argument come into play.

In a good debate, your empathy should let you experience the emotions on both sides of the issue, freeing your brain to decide which argument has a good logical structure and is adequately supported by facts.

Once you've decided, you should try to partially (but not totally! -- your brain can be wrong too!) suppress your empathy for the losing side and encourage your empathy for the winning side. You can actually train your emotions -- basically calibrating your heuristics to agree with your intellectual decisions, so in the future you can remember your position on the issue in your gut, without having to remember and fully reconstruct the argument you made. Yeah, I've found that hacking my own brain is awesome :)

By the way, using emotional heuristics as a shortcut is something I relied on in my reductio point against using emotions as your sole means of political decision-making -- your emotions immediately tell you that racism and Nazism are bad things, because you've been trained to think of them that way. While you can probably come up with a sound argument that racism and Nazism are bad, your emotions tell you those are bad things without you having to consciously construct or remember a justification of why they're bad. So you can immediately sense that the structure of my argument -- "relying blindly on emotions without consulting reason is bad because it leads to bad things" -- is sound, without having to go into an entire sub-argument about whether racism and Nazism are good or bad, and why, and whether the logical structure of the sub-argument is okay, and mentally fact-checking the facts cited by the sub-argument against what you know of the history of Hitler and World War II and slavery and Jim Crow and Martin Luther King...and then more sub-sub-arguments about fundamental moral questions like whether genocide is morally okay, or whether slavery is morally okay, or whether it's morally okay to treat people badly based on a certain set of genetic traits without actually enslaving them...without those emotional shortcuts to help us out, we'd never be able to communicate moral ideas efficiently or make moral decisions fast enough for them to matter in a fast-moving real-life situation.

(FYI, I suspect this feedback mechanism is what Terence Tao was talking about when he discussed how mathematicians train themselves to quickly decide whether something is true or false without constructing an airtight proof [1].)

[1] http://www.quora.com/Mathematics/What-is-it-like-to-have-an-...


> "Those who don't learn history is doomed to repeat it"

Even when they have learned from history?

We understand more now about exactly why the Nazi eugenics was wrong than we've ever known. Comparing the quest for a mythical Aryan Superman (Super-Duper-Superman!) to the hunt for a method to eliminate Tay-Sachs is useful how?


Well, for starters, because to properly eliminate genetical diseases, you will eventually need to forbid carriers of undesirable genes to procreate. That gets nasty.

So you have a voluntary regime, and the rich and well-educated (generally) make sure their children are free of genetical disorders, while the lower classes (generally) don't. Two generations later, you have "clean" people and "dirty" people. Why should the "clean" people, who did as they were encouraged to by the Department of Health, pay high insurance premiums/health tax to subsidize the totally preventable diseases of the "dirty" people?


> Well, for starters, because to properly eliminate genetical diseases, you will eventually need to forbid carriers of undesirable genes to procreate. That gets nasty.

I'm not sure I agree here. We can use fertilisation treatments to ensure that the fertilised eggs lack the mutation causing Tay-Sachs. Give couples the choice as to whether they want to have children the old fashioned way or go a genetically screened IVF route to avoid it and it'll be weaned out in a few generations.

> So you have a voluntary regime, and the rich and well-educated (generally) make sure their children are free of genetical disorders, while the lower classes (generally) don't.

Not here in the UK you wouldn't. Nor in most of Europe. People in the lower classes would be told about the genetic markers and given the option to have the screening, depending on the cost of treatment and impact of the disease.

> Why should the "clean" people, who did as they were encouraged to by the Department of Health, pay high insurance premiums/health tax to subsidize the totally preventable diseases of the "dirty" people?

Why should the "dirty" people suffer, or even exist in the first place? It seems like the combination of a medical system predicated on insurance and a selfish view (by which I mean orientation towards the self) is the heart of the creation of a two-tier system, not the combination of a well-run public healthcare system and a moral obligation for all people to support each other.

I realise this doesn't answer your question, but I wanted to highlight that your use case doesn't apply in quite a few parts of the world, although sadly it does in many.


> Not here in the UK you wouldn't. Nor in most of Europe. People in the lower classes would be told about the genetic markers and given the option to have the screening, depending on the cost of treatment and impact of the disease.

People in the lower classes are told about, and (in the UK) offered for free, birth control. Yet unplanned pregnancies are common, and much more common in the lower classes. You're not going to get fertilisation treatments if you're not planning to get pregnant.

> Why should the "dirty" people suffer

Why should anyone suffer? Yet some do, and we have finite resources and have to prioritise them - it's not an artefact of private health insurance, public health care has to be paid for as well. A very common argument in fighting smoking is that smokers are a drain on the public health system - that's selfish, yet reasonable, on part of the non-smokers. Every once in a while, a variation on the theme of "we should put alcoholics/narcotics/morbidly obese/obese/overweight at the end of the queue for 'lifestyle diseases'" surfaces in Denmark. It hasn't gone anywhere, but all health services (private and public) are under pressure from increasing costs from more advanced treatments, and prioritisation is a constant issue.

> or even exist in the first place?

Why they exist? Well, that's very existential, but they do, and short of sterialisation, they will continue to for a number of generations. The problems with eugenics isn't what happens when you're done, it's how you get there.


So you have a voluntary regime, and the rich and well-educated (generally) make sure their children are free of genetical disorders, while the lower classes (generally) don't.

This is the general situation with all sorts of positive interventions one can make with one's children.

For example, you can have a voluntary regime of teaching your children a work ethic/engaging in education/not abusing drugs. The rich and well educated will teach their children such things, while others will not. In one generation, the children of the rich will work hard while the children of the poor will not.

Your argument against eugenics applies equally well to basically any intervention one can make to improve one's children. That suggests it is overly broad, and perhaps invalid.


First, I didn't actually mean to make an argument against the usage of genetics in eliminating disease, merely to point out how good intentions could disintegrate into something more dystopic.

Second, I think there is a big difference between something that's irreversible at the point of conception and something that, while giving you a disadvantage, can be fixed later.


I hate to say this, but I found this article absolutely terrible.

All of these "Martin Luther King IS ...", "George Washington WAS ...", etc. statements (form: Noun TO BE Adj.), really remind me of the arguments in favor of E-Prime and its associated benefits: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-Prime. The author likely intended this, of course, but reinforces exactly the same kind of thinking and tone in nearly every other sentence! (Do a quick scan for the verb to be)

Some might call E-Prime a fairly extreme philosophy / didactic tool, to be sure ;), but one shouldn't overlook that this article undermined its very own core point ("don't make a certain class of categorical / binary Aristotelian statements") through its very language (e.g., the phrase 'Now, because most arguments are rapid-fire debate-club style, sometimes it's still useful to say "Affirmative action isn't racist!"').


How do you indicate category membership in E-Prime?

What if I want to say "A dog is an animal"?


I wonder if there's some sort of way to definitively defeat someone's argument in issues other than math and science. I doubt it -- I suspect all arguments essentially boil down to moral relativism based upon gut feelings (environmental or genetic factors).

I guess a more optimistic question is whether there's a statistically significant process to convince* your opponent that your argument is correct. I would actually be more interested in knowing this.

*By process, I mean a general purpose algorithm that someone could follow that's more effective than alternative algorithms at making your opponent say "you know what, you're right".

EDIT: While I'm at it, I would really like to see more articles/analyses on the nature of arguing. It seems like argument could be a study in its own right, though I doubt there exist any strong efforts in the field.

EDIT 2: You know what, if someone got really good at analyzing the way people argue, they could optimize their own argument strategy to become a very powerful/dangerous person. I suspect this happens naturally (political leaders) but I think there's a huge potential if someone were to go about this consciously and objectively.


> arguments essentially boil down to moral relativism based upon gut feelings (environmental or genetic factors)

There are many pieces of this problem. A few of them at random:

1. The US education system doesn't do a good job of teaching people to think rigorously and analytically. Up to 12th grade, math is largely memorizing specific algorithms, science is memorizing vocabulary words, real programming courses are usually optional and don't exist at most schools.

2. Our education system actively beats down original critical thinking and encourages people to do what they think the teacher wants.

3. In college, a vast majority professors and students are very liberal. I have never heard or come up with a satisfactory explanation for the causes of this; for me personally, many of my innate leftward biases actually declined through high school and college as my logical reasoning abilities became more acute through application to harder problems, and I gained more experience of the world.

But the prevalance of a single political point of view in our institutions of higher learning may actually cause great damage to our country's political problem-solving abilities: Many people who are highly intelligent and formally trained to think critically avoid questioning liberal ideas because everyone they know and respect thinks the same way, while they are overly dismissive of conservative ideas because many of their proponents don't have the tools to effectively argue their positions.


> to point one: In Germany its more or less the same, my best guess as to why it is so is that it is easier to do exams on memorized knowledge than independant thinking and because you need some basics to beginn with. This doesn't mean I wouldn't like to see more critical and analytical thinking

> point 2: largly depends on the subject. in maths, physics chemistry and biology (tough field given the whole evolution story) it's more about facts and not about opinion (generaly speaking, in the higher levels of it I guess it changes, but even then more on execution questions). In "softer" (lacking a better word) subjects I completly agree.


> By process, I mean a general purpose algorithm that someone could follow that's more effective than alternative algorithms at making your opponent say "you know what, you're right"

I'm 99% sure that there is such thing, that it was studied, described and used. It has it's own name even. I'm not talking about propaganda, rhetoric or marketing, it's something deeper, from which these emerge. I'm even sure there is a book considered 'canonical' on this topic.

Unfortunately, I don't remember any specifics. I more or less remember how I came to know this, but it was a blog post of a journalist, and, unfortunately, his archive spans multiple years and thousands of posts and I couldn't find the one about this topic now.

Summary: the process your looking for is well defined, although not widely known; and I will try looking for relevant info some more and I'll post it when I find it.


This is an ancient field and its name is rhetoric.


And as far as I can tell, it's never been objective.

Where's the studies comparing multiple styles of argument and determining which had the highest percentages of "wins"?


How do you objectively pin down the concept of "win"?


By having a panel of judges and a formal debate, with strict rules. The panel then decides who is the "winner".


You get elected


The article could use some more neutral and left-leaning "Worst argument in the world (TWAITW)" examples. I'm fairly neutral politically, and the piece sounded left-biased to me. Note that I'm not stating my opinion here; the author even apologizes for it in the article.

Perhaps he is simply at a loss for examples? We could help. Here's a neutral one (from the comments):

- "George Washington was a traitor!" (should probably be used BEFORE the Martin Luther King argument; in extremely conservative circles, even mentioning Dr. King's name rings the "ding! ding! liberal!" bells)

Here are some left-leaning "argumentoids" that you sometimes hear and that have elements of TWAITW:

- "But guns kill people!" I realized shortly after reading the article that this is not only an instance of TWAITW, but shows the logic behind the retort "Guns don't kill people, people kill people". This might be rephrased as saying "yes, guns kill people, but not in the way that murderers kill people, which is to say, with malicious intent. That requires a person, so let's concentrate on whether removing guns from the economy will prevent those with malicious intent from obtaining them."

- "Evolution is a fact!" Yes, but maybe not in the "totality of the truth is plain for all to see" perspective. It is true that PARTS of evolution are plain fact, but the creationist has a point that some of the more fantastic parts of evolution are harder to directly observe in the same way as, say, gravity.

- "Reproductive freedom is a choice!" Perhaps, but you can't just dismiss the argument at that point. Choice can mean "choosy moms choose Jiff" or it can mean "the difference between life and death". Saying it is a choice ignores the fact that not all personal "choices" are accepted by society (i.e. it is your choice and you can make one, but sometimes there are consequences).

- "Tax breaks for the rich are unfair!" Perhaps, but there are many levels of unfair. You must argue why tax breaks for the rich are at the same level of unfair as, say, separate water fountains for whites and blacks and not unfair as in "it's unfair that I always have to pull the cookie jar from the top shelf just because I happen to be the tall one."

Note that all of these lean more toward "equivocation" than the author's technical definition of TWAITW. But then, perhaps that's what TWAITW boils down to.

Also, I note in all of these that they are all caricature arguments. They are all cliched. The arguments in the article have a similar nature.

This leads to a disturbing point: it is helpful to have TWAITW as an analytical tool when having a serious debate, but if you are "debating" with a person who shouts soundbites like these in your face, do you really think they are going to understand or care if you try to explain to them that they are using TWAITW? Seems like more preaching to the choir, unfortunately.


Wow. The number of people who are responding to any of my little strawman arguments on their merits is surprising, and frankly disappointing on Hacker News. If you have replied to any of these "arguments" and asked me how I could possibly believe them, then you:

- Have not understood the meta-topic of the post

- Are unable to resist attacking silly arguments even when it is stated in my post that they are caricatures

- Failed to read the comments on the original article, in which many others also noted the examples' lack of balance

- Have provided an entertaining case in point of the argument made by http://lesswrong.com/lw/gw/politics_is_the_mindkiller/

Particularly in regards to my extremely silly and vacuous evolution example, I can not honestly believe so many of you not only thought that I believed what I was writing, but then went on to expend energy attacking me on it.

When I read the original article, I was amused at the disclaimer he put up front saying "I don't necessarily believe these things, they're just for the sake of example." I thought I could leave something so obvious out in a place like HN. Apparently I was wrong.


I'm not sure why you thought it was constructive to turn HN into a sounding board for your personal complaints about 'left-leaning argumentoids'. Setting aside the utility of providing more 'examples' of inflammatory political statements on HN, why maintain such thoroughgoing political bias? If the intent is to discuss forms of argument then the bias is only distracting. If the intent is to catalogue stereotypes or caricatures of 'left-leaning argumentoids' (with the drift that the left is stupid) then your post is directly on target.


Wow, this is quite possibly the most disingenuous thing I've ever read, or it is the most brilliant troll ever:

Poe factor: 1.

The poster said "look I'm afraid too many people will miss the point about the form of argument because the article has a lot of examples against a common set of opinions representative of political collective of people. As such, here are some other arguments that follow the exact same pattern, but representative of a common set of opinions representative of the opposing political collective".

It is so very very awesome that you are too emotionally driven to see that things you agree with could possibly follow poor form - It really highlights the underlying problem the author is working with: emotional response is illogical and, to put it bluntly, stupid. Blasting someone because he shows examples that are bad arguments you agree with even though you will gladly discuss the same fallacy applied to the points you disagree with is the human political problem in a microcosm.

You know what? I agree with the general position represented by a lot of the gp's argumentoids, but completely disagree with the form they take. When my fellow left-leaning people make these points, I cringe, and even argue against them because the form is so piss poor.


"emotional response is illogical"

To compound the problem, emotional responses are faster, with rational arguments developed after the fact. The neocortex likes to think it's hot shit, but the lizard and mammal brains still control us to a surprising extent. Well, surprising to the neocortical parts of us at least.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, for example, developed a series of short scenarios designed to 1) trigger the disgust response of taboos and 2) pre-answer the typical logical objections. Even when reminded that their "reasons" for disapproving of a scenario didn't actually fit the story as presented, the subjects still felt that the described behaviors were wrong even if they couldn't articulate the exact reason why.


I think we can all agree that as far as understanding the unimaginable complexity of life, the universe, and everything goes, the human race is pretty much Screwed with a capital F.


Sounds like he's trying to make the original article more neutral-sounding to me. He is merely saying that some people may immediately dismiss the author's article as trying to show that right-wing arguments are flawed. Hence, he proposed a few additional examples which are not so right-wing.


Just to expound upon this a bit, I think it's important the GP gave counter-examples. The implication of the article being all right-wing straw men is that anybody who holds a view point that could be supported by the argument is actually living in a fallacy-filled fantasy land. Truthfully, these should have been fairly non-political examples to drive the point home, but c'est la vie.

Given the immense amount of replies trying to tell the GP that evolution is fact, the very fact that these examples are politically charged help obscure the author's point.

Implications are important, and as we see time and again, people read whatever they want to read in these articles. I wonder how many people will read this and think I'm an ultra-conservative.


It's funny, the overall article is not about "how do we disarm conservative arguments" it's about a certain type of argument and how it is used. The examples were "liberal" but that is irrelevant, the point is identical.


Oh boy. Even when someone makes it clear they are trying to fill in the bias of the original article with an opposite bias, people still think you're doing it as a personal argument.


That was exactly his point. It was illuminating to hear some Worst Arguments in the World that I have sometimes used without realizing. I don't see why everyone is getting so riled up.


Except for the first one (and even that's debatable - if memory serves me correctly, "George Washington was a traitor" is generally used by the left-wing to demonstrate why categories like "traitor" aren't useful, rather than as a serious argument against Washington) they're not actually examples of the Worst Argument in the World though.

For instance, the fact that guns kill people is still just as effective as an argument for gun control even though not all guns kill people. Or take his point about how only parts of evolution have been proved - that's actually a particularly obnoxious kind of fallacious reasoning that creationists use a lot. There's always going to be gaps in our knowlege of the exact details of evolution because not all transitional forms survive and because there aren't enough researchers out there to investigate every single gene and biological pathway. But not (yet) knowing the exact details is not evidence that evolution is impossible - indeed, pretty much all of the supposedly "irreducably complex" features that creationists claim couldn't have been created by evolution have been proved to have evolved.


But isn't that exactly the argument? Evolution itself isn't a fact. Parts of it are a fact, and the other parts can be reasonably deduced from the facts. It's a bit presumptuous to say that it's a fact, as you could probably say that about Newton's laws too, which were proved to be inaccurate in the end.


Wow, way to miss the point! He was merely saying that the examples given seem a bit slanted, and I would be more effective to use some other examples to illustrate the point of the article!


Wow - evolution has been directly observed and is the overwhelming consensus among biologists, if not among fundamentalists whose theology is threatened by it... yet you have carefully impugned its existence by referencing "fantastic parts," as if evolution were a matter of unicorns or Roswell or something.

Go learn about Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, then come and lecture us on how evolution isn't really a fact.

I will never understand why basic facts of biology are supposedly left-wing.


I replied in general to this and other comments above, but I wanted to directly respond to this:

> I will never understand why basic facts of biology are supposedly left-wing.

It does seem to be the case that "reality has a liberal bias", but you really have to embed yourself in the culture of the religious right to fully "grok" it.

I've lived in the Bible belt all my life, and quite frankly the reason basic facts of biology are left-wing to so many people (and I wouldn't even waste my breath talking about it if it weren't SO MANY people) is that these basic facts of biology simply aren't taught. Well, if by "taught" you mean "talked about with a derisive sneer" then yes, I suppose they are "taught".

Most of us can simply be angry at this sad fact of our current reality, but the number of people who believe in creationism over evolution seems to be going UP, not down. This should tell you that what the other side lacks in intellectual curiosity or rigor, they sure as hell make up for in marketing and charisma.

That should make people WANT to understand why something so basic as evolution is flatly denied by about half the population. You should want to do something about it!


I was reading an article on the BBC that was an opinion piece wondering why the level of people identifying as Christian in the US was going down and the number of identifying atheists was going up. I don't want to dig for that article back (it's irrelevant in this argument). My point is, while it might seem like the number of people denying evolution is going up, its entirely plausible that they may just be getting louder out of desperation.


Of course, it's also entirely possible that both the number of atheists and the number of evolution-denying people are rising at the expense of a third group, religious people who believe in evolution.


As my grandparents always said, there's no other thing like a good education...

Sadly we forgot about it in the last couple of decades.


This post has so much flame-bait in it I almost wonder if it's a meta-post-- a practical joke to see how many people go after these various politically-charged statements rather than comment on the article itself.

I'll assume it's not though. In which case, I really don't see how adding more politically-charged examples to this discussion, or any other for that matter, is at all productive.


He's suggesting adding them to the article which would have made it less off putting for the other side of the author's political fence....which wouldn't be a bad group to target if you want to actually change anyone's mind.


I think in this situation the politically-charged examples were perhaps useful. To me they demonstrate the contrast between that argument type when expressed abstractly - which many people quickly dismiss as invalid - and when expressed in the context of something with emotional content where the same argument structure may somehow 'feel' more valid.


Truly entertaining bashfest. I am already looking forward to all the copy-cat blog posts trying to ride on that wave.


Pot, kettle, black.


It's pretty disappointing to me that people would downvote you for saying what seemed so obvious.

Conservatism in America is always associated with a decision making process dictated by religion. He attacks creationism with evolution and the Christianity's disapproval of euthanasia and abortion. These generalizations are neutral since the right will stand by these fallacies.

Where the bias comes to play is when he says "affirmative action is racist" and "taxation is theft". This is not what conservatives believe but instead either skewed to easily argue a liberal point of view or just a lack of understanding of what the right thinks.

Most of the right don't support affirmative action not because it creates a disproportionate amount of minorities but because it creates a disproportionate amount of smart people. For every average minority that gets into an above average school, an above average non-minority must now go to an average school. This aligns with the liberal ideal that "Since life isn't fair, we must intervene to make it so".

When Republicans get elected to office they don't try and put legislation into place that does away with all taxation. Simplified: the left supports a higher less equal taxation and the right supports a lower more equal taxation. When the right is lowering taxes that's only because they are balancing out programs implemented by the left that don't align with their economic policy.

It's a tired argument. The left finger points that wealthy Republicans are selfish for not being willing to support people that are poor. The right says "It creates a net negative because it results in a lack of economic incentives for individuals. Feel free to support them yourself if you're so selfless". The left reply "No, were only going to help if you do".


..."affirmative action is racist" and "taxation is theft". This is not what conservatives believe...

You must not get much chain email. Not to disagree that some examples of lefty dumbness would have improved the article. Plenty of dumb in the world to go around. But I've seen those exact points argued by conservatives on Hacker News, let alone the fox news discussion forums.


Well, Gmail has a good learning algorithm :) I definitely agree with you that these points are argued but I don't believe, or perhaps hope, that they represent the majority of conservatives.

I think it's considered fact that right media is significantly more sensationalist. Naturally, this turns "I humbly disagree" points of view into "You should hate because" arguments. In the same sense that they don't report on the moderate right, they also don't report on the moderate left. It could just as easily be said that I heard "in a liberal America, everyone will drive a Prius" in a chain email. Of course you wouldn't hesitate in believing that is false.

It's not that Fox News doesn't actually report the news (despite a perpetual joke deeming otherwise) it's just that it skews points to make them more approachable for socially conservative voter. They must say that "abortion is murder" to their party because it consists of people vehemently against murder and more importantly, people against redefining their definition of murder. Conservatism itself is defined by this a lack of progressivism and without it, most of the social stances are blurred if not completely flip flopped.

As you know, most voters aren't that informed. Nearly nobody, left or right, ponders real solutions to the problems facing the government. Instead they have a belief, usually predetermined, and look for information to support that belief. Arguments are reenactments of actual debates with more swearing mixed with regurgitation of often incorrect statistics.

The left and right is saturated with bigots. A fractional amount of voters even consider both candidates. To the left, Obama can do no wrong. To the right, if he says run, they walk - if he says walk, they run. In my experience, the only people who are informed enough to vote are those who consider voting bi-partisan, and who classify themselves as independent, libertarian, etc. This all goes back to why you see these points blanketed over all conservatives which I think is because these moderates don't want to associate themselves with the extremist nature of the right media. A moderate, even someone who considers themselves mostly Republican, cannot possibly seem partial when he is next to someone using religion as political justification and partial people don't like appearing impartial. Just know that just because someone votes Republican, doesn't mean they have tunnel vision and belong the Westboro Baptist Church any more than a voter of Democrat is expected to be on the newest season of Whale Wars.


I think you're suffering from a bit of david broderism. "I want to look reasonable, so I'll say both sides do it".

Fox News viewers are the least informed viewers in every survey ever conducted. They thought that Saddam had been caught with WMDs in like 2007. Almost a majority thinks Obama wasn't born in America. These are scientific surveys, and it's completely different from a liberal being biased to explain away facts that they acknowledge.

If Fox News is saying something, and people are repeating it, I think we're doing them a disservice by saying they don't really believe it.


I think your just bit too accustomed to extremists on the internet. I had no intent about looking reasonable but I'm happy you think I am.

I'd be interested in reading your sources though I don't have to stretch my imagination to believe them. I want to make it clear that I never said right media doesn't believe what they are saying only that what they are saying doesn't represent every conservative voter. The people who believe everything on fox is fictitious are equally as ignorant as the people who believe everything on fox. Most of the stories are the exactly the same as CNN... perhaps less informative, definitely with a rightist point of view, but news nonetheless.


> Conservatism in America is always associated with a decision making process dictated by religion.

That seems to be the case today, but I don't think it was always that way. The original idea of conservatism as I understand it is basically to avoid seeing everything as an emergency and to avoid seeing every emergency as the exclusive domain of the state. Conservatism is about moving slowly (conservatively) to avoid making unnecessary changes that turn out to be mistakes. In short, to defuse alarmism with calm, reasoned debate. In fact, today, arguing that we should tear down vast amounts of the government simply because they were erected by liberals is also a dramatic change that an old-fashioned conservative would have some trouble agreeing to.

It's pretty sad that both political parties in this country are mostly defined by not being the other one. I would appreciate having a conservative party of this stripe to choose. I think the closest thing we have is the Modern Whig party, which is tellingly considered centrist.

Edit: I'm having trouble imagining how the above could merit downvotes without replies.


I don't know the history of the word conservatism but I do know there was a time when Republicans were more progressive than Democrats. Eventually they switched.

I agree that having a more popular moderate party would be nice, granted, I feel like many people who are forced to vote Republican or Democrat are just Libertarians (which seem to express the views of most moderates) and must decide between the lesser of two evils. Of course, that's due more due to the stranglehold of the two-party system on elections rather than people thinking outside of those parties.


> but the creationist has a point that some of the more fantastic parts of evolution are harder to directly observe in the same way as, say, gravity.

Honest question: which parts?


Well from a personal perspective it's hard for me to distinguish, because evolution seems pretty incontrovertible to me.

But I have many creationist friends, and the parts they don't seem to accept as "fact" are:

- Speciation (how given any amount of time we could get things as distinct as flowers and dogs and humans from a common ancestor)

- Emergent complexity (how given any amount of time, small changes in the genetic code could have led to things as complex as eyes and brains and so forth)

- Sentience and self-awareness (how given any amount of time our brains could have evolved to possess this seemingly magical and qualitatively different trait)

Again, I want to emphasize that I don't personally think any of these are great mysteries solvable only by appeals to spirituality. However, I hope everyone reading this could see how there's a bit of a jump from the 'fact' of (say) evolution of drug resistance in bacteria to the 'fact' of longer-term cumulative evolutionary effects like speciation and the eventual emergence of "eyes from non-eyes", etc.


Most of these points rely on the belief that evolution is always made up of slow, small changes in the genetic code. While this is the case most of the time (and enables the fine tuning that we see in many species), evolution can happen very quickly.

Population bottlenecks cause species that were once very fit to no longer be fit for an environment, enabling vastly different organisms to become dominant very quickly.

Then there are phenomena like Chromothripsis[1] (only discovered last year), whereby the genetic code of a cell is literally smashed into thousands of pieces and seemingly randomly reassembled. No one is saying that Chromothripsis is a major driver of evolution, but it is interesting in that massive rearrangements of this nature can still provide cells capable of reproducing. In the case of cancer, where it was first discovered, these cells are even able to reproduce faster than normal cells.

The other thing is that even advanced life like mammals and humans have more than 10 times as many bacterial cells than human cells[2]. Since bacteria can evolve very quickly, they play a very important role in evolution.

The eyes from no eyes makes no sense to me, since the entire array of light sensing capabilities are seen in nature. From eagles to plants. The same is true for many of the examples of emergent complexity that are thrown out there.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chromothripsis

[2] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=strange-but...


>The eyes from no eyes makes no sense to me, since the entire array of light sensing capabilities are seen in nature. //

A few articles addressing eyes from a creationist perspective, the first addresses your point most directly. I'll give author and credentials as it seems fitting.

* http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2009/01/13/eyes-hav... DeWitt (Ph.D in neuroscience);

* http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2010/09/14/darwin-a... Mitchell (MD, FACP, BA (cell bio & biochem)

* http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/cm/v18/n4/eye-for-c... interview with Marshall a PhD in Opthalmic science

These, indeed the first alone, should make sense at least of the argument from Christian creationist scientists against Darwinian evolution providing a convincing argument for the undirected formation of the eye.

Interestingly this, http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v3/n3/seeing-eye, answers a question that I've seen raised about the development of the retina and cornea+lens and how they can possibly combine if they develop separately; it gives a very brief acknowledgement of the retina and rearward parts forming from a brain "bud" and the cornea and lens forming from the over-covering flesh of the to-be-formed eye socket. Of course Haeckel's fraud makes one rightly nervous about assuming 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny' but it at least provides an insight in to a potential evolutionary process.

I found this http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v3/n3/seeing-eye from the same source quite interesting, on microscopic eye movements that are apparently essential to proper functioning.


I'm an atheist and believe in evolution but I find these three things hard to grasp as well. I just find it fantastic that seemingly random mutations which grant marginally better chances to survival can lead to all these things.


Those are partially hard to grasp due to lacking knowledge of biology. For example almost all the possible steps between non-eyes and eyes exist in animals currently living today. Simply having a patch of light sensitive skin is better than no eyes at all.


Examples from Michael Behe's book Darwin's Black Box:

Blood's ability to coagulate is a cascading system with over 30 parts. Remove one part and it's fatal for the individual. How could a system like that evolve gradually over time?

He lists quite a few such systems. Bacteria having motors, the cell's operational system, the anti-body system (again a cascading system of large complexity).


The motors are not just motors, they just happen to be motors right now. I think it is the selfish gene that describes the path from a protein structure that facilitates the movement of molecules across the cell's membrane into a motor with a flagellum attached.

These things that are claimed to fall apart when a single step is removed were not there from the ground up to provide that specific function, separately they would have provided different functions and when they fell together in a certain way provided a huge benefit. The little bones in our ears were a part of our skulls before they were requisitioned by the ear.

The issue seems to be that the argument looks at how things are and assumes that it was the only thing that these parts have ever been working towards. That any steps in between were useless until put together in this way. Where it is more accurately a bunch of different things coming together to perform all these different functions.


Don't you think what you're writing as a reply is a bit vague? How would you describe the evolution of the coagulation system? What different systems existed before the coagulation system that fell together into the current system?

From what I remember from the book the coagulation system looked to be one monolithic piece and not built up of smaller systems.


His reply is a bit vague, but as I recall this has actually been studied and it turns out that (for instance) other animals have blood coagulation systems that are lacking several of the 30 supposedly essential parts and still work fine - see e.g. http://creationwiki.org/Blood_clotting_is_irreducibly_comple... and the usual anti-creationism resources. Similarly, the supposedly "irreducably complex" bacterial motors turn out to be made of components that originally evolved for other purposes and were repurposed.


Thank you for the link. Was really interesting to read Behe's response to the critique.


I agree that I was vague, however my response was not intended to be an absolute refutation of every argument that follows that pattern, otherwise I'd be playing whack-a-mole with arguments forever. It was meant to be a general explanation of how the argument makes a large assumption that would be pretty easy to refute with further research. As the person above did with a link.

Also, I did give further reading with the selfish gene for a specific example of a bacteria's flagellum.


If we came from monkeys, why are the monkeys still there??


The answer is simple -- the fact that one species branches off from another species doesn't mean the initial species must die off. There are any number of counterexamples.

Also, the simian species from which we evolved in fact no longer exists. I emphasize this is just a coincidence and doesn't prove one or another point about evolution.

Darwin's finch species from the Galapagos Islands all coexisted, even though most of them branched off from each other, or from a single initial species. There is no reason to assume a priori that species B, which branches from species A, requires that species A must go extinct.


Humans and monkeys came from a common ancestor. The evolved independently from that point.


Because we didn't come from monkeys, we both came from a common ancestor that is no longer around.


Ha, and here I thought it was too libertarian leaning so I must really be off the deep end. Maybe the author should have stuck to non-political examples since the examples are really not the point of the article, though I know all the fun ones are political.


Which is why it's so funny, given that the very article on the same blog he linked to in his apology [1] is why we're even having this conversation!

[1] http://lesswrong.com/lw/gw/politics_is_the_mindkiller/



I think it's on purpose. LessWrong does not aim to be an academic discussion forum, but a practical real life provider of thinking tools. Using real-life, emotionally charged examples is probably part of the training.


Actually it's kindof taboo on LW, hence the apology.

Thinking straight about politics is hard, so it's not a good practice case.

"learn programming by writing an industrial-quality OS"


I have two issues with your comment:

1) It is a blog post not a scientific study or an article in the newspaper.

2) Everyone knows republicans can't read.


You certainly aren't helping anyone on HN except Republicans with vapid remarks like 'republicans can't read'.


I have to agree. At most the comment was an extremely poor attempt at humour. At worst, it's a pointless ad hominem attack. Not helpful.


I've found that most people believe x thing is true because other people also believe x thing is true. They won't say that's the reason but deep down it provides emotional support for their belief. So I've found it's best to not try to "rationally" argue with people and just change the subject.


I recall a good pg opinion somewhere that reflects a sort of inverse of this point. We should reject abstract categories for our identities because once we do define ourselves by them, we start reconstructing our thoughts and beliefs to actually fit the stereotype for that abstract category. Much better to focus on the actual specific beliefs without committing to a tribal identity, both for your sake and so that other people are less likely to commit the submitted article's fallacy against you.


Slighty more reasonable, but perhaps more insidious is the "slippery slope" argument. So the first example, about Martin Luther King being a criminal - could be more subtly argued by saying something like "well obviously he doesn't count, but where do we draw the line between 'good' criminals and 'bad' criminals, and invoking slippery slopes. Then the argument ends up basically being the same, but seems on the surface to be less dogmatic.


Certainly some slippery slope arguments are good, though!

For instance, suppose a terrorist starts demanding a large sum of money not to blow up a plane. Suppose also that the direct risk-corrected value of the plane, even excluding passenger lives, also exceeds the price the terrorist is asking for. We still make it policy not to negotiate with the terrorist, because doing so would create a positive feedback loop that pushes us down a slippery slope.

When you think about it, it's a fairly insidious argument to say that slippery slope arguments should be rejected because they fall into a category of arguments that are subtle and hard to refute because they are so insidious. An amusing implied prior of the slippery slope fallacy is that once we start accepting valid slippery slope arguments, what's to stop us from accepting the really terrible ones that take the same structure?


> it's a fairly insidious argument to say that slippery slope arguments should be rejected

Of course it is insidious (and no true Scottsman would say such thing!) This is because the actual fallacy is a false slippery slope. The essence of the error is failure to demonstrate that the actual slope exists. If you demonstrate the causal relationship between the first step and the rest of the slope then it is no longer a false slippery slope.


The internet seems to be a fan of being overreaching in proclaiming fallacies in my experience. Sometimes it feels like you can find at least one misuse of "ad hominem" on every comment thread on reasonably popular sites. Similarly, many people like to dismiss arguments by just saying "slippery slope" and moving on.

As you mentioned, slippery slopes are not inherently invalid. In fact, the real fallacious use of a slippery slope is hardly related to it being a slippery slope at all!

Assume a slope A->B->...->Z. Further, assume that each step of this chain is known to be true with 100% accuracy. That is to say that we can perfectly predict that if A happens then B will happen and if Q happens R will happen. Thus, simple transitivity shows that if A will happen Z will definitely happen. If Z is complete destruction of the Earth you probably won't find many people saying that it will be perfectly okay if we do A because slippery slopes are invalid.

However, slippery slope arguments often have a much smaller probability of occurring at each step of the chain. You often get things like "if we don't have a death penalty then people won't be afraid of killing people so murder rates will go up so you'll get pregnant and die". Clearly there is no part of this chain that occurs with probability 1 (except, as Mean Girls tells us, getting pregnant->death). In fact, most of the chain is fairly low probability and composing them as such makes it even smaller.

To make this a bit clearer again, let's take our A->B->...->Z chain and make each step of the chain have a .9 probability. If A happens, B will occur with .75 chance and if Q happens, R will occur with .75 chance. Since there are 25 hops on this we can see that the probability of Z occurring given A is actually .75^25 = .00075 (ish). Even if each individual step seems reasonable (I mean, hey, it will happen 3 out of 4 times!) the full composition is just laughably unlikely.

However, it seems that GP was actually talking about a continuum fallacy rather than a slippery slope as we've discussed.


When you start looking into terrorist incidents, however, you find that ransoms are indeed often paid (even by governments, even by the US government). They try to keep this secret; sometimes it works, sometimes not. One example is Iran/Contra, but there are many others (e.g., http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,48779,00.html , http://minnesota.publicradio.org/collections/special/columns... , http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/03/18-10, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maritime_history_of_the_United_...)

Secretiveness, in this case, is a mechanism to avoid the slippery slope. As a sister comment to your comment points out, often other effects will step in so we don't go all the way down the slippery slope, and the "secret ransom" is one such effect.


I like how your example of a secret ransom completely failed at being a secret and proved the fallacy of secret ransom.


The article links to a great article about that too. http://lesswrong.com/lw/ase/schelling_fences_on_slippery_slo...

Personally, I feel slippery slope is among the worst rebuttals to an argument and brought out way too frequently on HN. "Y is wrong, and X comes before Y, therefore X is wrong too."


If someone points out someone else I admire is a criminal, I would approach it a different way. It has less to do with what I want to call archetypal and more to do with the historically observable fact that what is legal is not always what is moral. Murder, torture, slavery, etc. These have all been legal in some past (or present) context. The possibility that someone who is acknowledged as a decent person could be a "criminal" is no surprise to me, and I'd rather argue to that point than dismiss the whole argument.

And even if I support abortion rights, the act is technically killing. A 'life' is terminated. Regardless, I'd point out that murder holds a different connotation that implies hatred or ill-will (or "malice aforethought") toward the victim. Same with euthanasia.

Why not take these as opportunities to explore the meanings and limits of a word? One person's definition of what is the archetypal murderer or thief or racist may easily differ from yours depending on their own experiences.


Thanks to this article, I can finally put into words what bothers me about "Copyright infringement is theft"!

Yes copyright infringement share some of the properties of theft, but they are sufficiently different that we shouldn't apply our intuitions about theft to copyright infringement, just like we shouldn't apply our intuitions about theft to taxation.


When someone says that piracy or taxation are theft, they are not necessarily appealing to intuitions about theft. They may literally hold and mean to state that they share with carjacking whatever makes carjacking theft, WITHOUT sharing other properties of carjacking... in effect, this is a thesis statement rather than a knock-down argument.

Of course, it is also possible that it is not even an honest appeal to intuition, rather just an emotional tarring which will never be substantiated. This is usually what is irritating about hearing those arguments.


Unrelated (but related to lesswrong.com) If you haven't heard of "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" I highly recommend it (hpmor.com). It is written by Less Wrong author Eliezer Yudkowsky. I am about half way through and it is a great read. It is a fan fiction about the Harry Potter world except Harry Potter is a boy genius and a trained scientist. Each chapter is a new lesson in some method of rationality and it is an amazingly easy read and especially enjoyable if you liked the Harry Potter series to begin with. It is a work in progress and new chapters get added every once in a while. Definitely check it out if you like lesswrong.com and/or Harry Potter.


This is a logic shortcut (heuristic), with its origins in decisionmaking under incomplete information and time constraint. Yes, in the context of manipulative pre-meditation (and perfect information) it takes on a new character.

Edit: Clarification/simplify


But when such a heuristic is challenged it should be reformed into a proper argument.


I have to disagree with his first example. He says "X is in a category whose archetypal member has certain features".

The first example is "Abortion is murder". He then says, "If you define murder as 'killing another human being', then abortion is technically murder."

The problem is that in this case, his "if" applies to roughly 56% of the US population, as they define murder that way. In other words, he needs to select a category that has a unanimous agreement about its features instead of selecting a category that has a myriad of definitions and then choosing his own favorite definition and its corresponding archetypes.


How else do you define murder?


Murder (n) - The unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another.

Nobody is debating the definition of murder, the debate is over the definition of "human". When does an unborn child get the rights of a human? Is it at conception? At 3 months? At birth?


When I reached "Taxation is theft!" I was moved to come here and comment on it. It only took about a second for me to stop myself and laugh. Apparently others here weren't quite so levelheaded.


I'm not sure what your comment is trying to imply, but this is also where I stopped reading.

"Taxation keeps the first disadvantage, but arguably subverts the second disadvantage if you believe being able to fund a government has greater social value than leaving money in the hands of those who earned it."

Using this argument, at least with the US Government, taxation is most certainly theft.


Yeah, my comment was a lot clearer in my head. I meant that I was about to launch into a minirant about fair taxation in the US. I did a double take and realized that I had hit an emotional trigger very similar to the kind the article is calling out. I think it's very valuable to examine our emotional attachments to words, and I think that's the best thing to take away from the article.


Great point!

But stop reading when you come to the examples, they just derail the whole thing and everyone forgets what the original point was.

"..the urge is to respond "Martin Luther King? A criminal? No he wasn't! You take that back!" This is why the Worst Argument In The World is so successful. As soon as you do that you've fallen into their trap. Your argument is no longer about whether you should build a statue, it's about whether King was a criminal. Since he was, you have now lost the argument"


I experience this argument all the time for being both an atheist and a libertarian, except replace "archetype" with "stereotype". People assume all atheists fit into some stereotype they saw on TV, and therefore I must be exactly like that. Likewise, they assume all libertarians are like the stereotype they saw on TV, and I must be exactly like that. Since I'm not like the stereotypes, it's frustrating.


I'd reckon that most people experience this argument all the time with regards to their religious and political preferences or lack thereof.

Christian. Muslim. Jewish. Buddhist. Hindu. Republican. Democrat. Moderate. Independent.

Odds are most people who read the above section had some sort of archetypal or stereotypical vision of most or all of those and all of us can identify some of the associated types. And most of us can also realise that not all Christians are fundies (or even vocal), that Jews are greedy with roughly equal proportion of more general populations, that not all moderates have weak political views, etc. But we all get to live with these, though admittedly some are worse than others.


I don't think his post is about generalizations of people. I thought it was at first, and perhaps they're included in the general idea, but every single example he gave was not of that kind.


I must point out that from a logical point of view "Because you don't like criminals, and Martin Luther King is a criminal, you should stop liking Martin Luther King." is correct.

Let us assume you like Martin Luther King. Then one of the 2 premises must be wrong. Is it "you don't like criminals" or is it "Martin Luther King is a criminal"?

I'm sorry to say that Martin Luther King was a criminal, and let us assume that means he still is in the strictest sense. Therefore, "you don't like criminals" cannot be correct.

However, "You don't like people who you consider to be a criminal" could still be correct, since you would probably accept that you don't consider Martin Luther King to be a criminal.

Sometimes you just need to teach people a little bit of logic.


This is great, but who does this appeal to? The small minority who actually takes the time to reflect on their own assumptions, is open to refactoring their own thinking and possesses the maturity to accept the wrongness of their own arguments?

Almost all public "debates", on topics of any importance, are merely shouting matches where two or more sides reiterate rationalizations for their already-held notions of the world. Rarely is anyone ever convinced to change their mind, and the philosopher who crafts valid and cogent arguments almost always has circles run about them by someone who can distill compelling emotional appeals into clever soundbites.


> The small minority who actually takes the time to reflect on their own assumptions, is open to refactoring their own thinking and possesses the maturity to accept the wrongness of their own arguments?

Well, yes, that would be exactly the target audience of Less Wrong. Do you have a problem with that?

(Of course (1) posting this isn't going to make bad arguments disappear from the world and (2) someone whose goal is influence rather than accuracy or integrity may well prefer to go on saying things that, when considered as rational arguments, are very wrong; but so what?)


I disagree that it is the worst argument in the world, or even that it is a bad argument in most cases.

There is something to be said for the simplicity of rules we adopt. If we say, "X is never allowed", then it is less likely that someone who wants to do X for their twisted purposes will be able to get away with it, than if we said, "X is not allowed, except when it does more good than harm."


I suggest amending the argument:

"X is in a category whose archetypal member has certain features. Therefore, we should judge the past behaviors of X as if it also had those features, even though it doesn't; or assign future behaviors to X even though it cannot develop those features."

That said, I disagree this is a worse argument than its ideological opposite, A is not A.


So basically, this is saying "don't generalise". Or am I just generalising?


No, the point is more specific than that. A better summary would be “don’t generalise the opposing position to a category where it’s an outlier”. Admit all important ways in which your generalisation unfairly “taints” the subject with negative connotations. Feel free, on the other hand, to generalise positions accurately, in a category which the position generally represents.


This game seems very appropriate http://www.argumentchampion.com/


thanks for posting the article. was interesting, though long-winded. for all the rest of you, shut up. you're making the internet worse. go away.




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