Saturday, August 23, 2014

Good Arguing: the low-hanging fruit

So I've talked in the last few posts about making good arguments by addressing the substance of your
opponent's position rather than attacking irrelevancies. I described the practice of strawmanning, which is constructing an inferior version of the argument you're trying to demolish because it's easier, and how that shouldn't be mistaken for actually defeating the position you oppose.

But what about when you're addressing a whole group of people who share a belief, and you deliberately choose to address only those who are saying the worst things, making the worst arguments, if they're bothering to make arguments at all? That is, what if you only pay attention to the low-hanging fruit? Is that also a kind of strawmanning?

Well, yes and no. It could be, but not necessarily.

Because here's the thing-- life is not philosophy. Philosophy is what humans do when they get time to stop and think without anyone trying to kill them or ruin their reputation, when there's food on the table and a bed to sleep in and there are no pressing issues at hand like legislators trying to pass laws that make it illegal to do things like philosophy. Steelmanning, for that matter, is something philosophers do when those philosophers are feeling particularly chill. An angry philosopher cannot be counted upon to steelman. Even though they should.

In real life, people are constantly making terrible arguments for terrible things, and horrifyingly, many of those people are influential (I would say "They're called 'politicians,' but politicians are merely the most visible of this sort). When that happens, it's important to point out those terrible arguments and say "Look at this stupid, hateful thing this person is saying," to minimize the potential ideological damage they can cause.

That's what a lot of bloggers do, and I respect them like crazy for doing it, because it's a tiring, endless, and often thankless task. My friend Ed Brayton has been pillorying terrible arguments on religion, science, and politics on his blog since 2003, or maybe longer. And he's never going to run out of material, because there will never not be people making these arguments. Often the same ones, for years upon years, sometimes re-skinned in order to continue arguing badly for a slightly different position. That's fighting the good fight. I don't believe in a Lord, but if I did, that would be the Lord's work. You know the quote usually attributed to Mark Twain, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes"? We will always need people who help the truth put on its shoes.

There is something incumbent upon these pickers of low-hanging fruit to do, however. If you're going to do the-- again, very necessary-- task of addressing the worst arguments out there for the sake of diminishing their power, you must be careful to not pretend that these are the only sort of arguments that people who hold that position, people in that same ideological group, are capable of making. Unless, of course, they are.

What I'm saying is that you should not effectively straw-man people who hold position X as a group by deliberately choosing to destroy only the arguments of people who agree with position X but are crap at supporting it, and then acting as if you have defeated position X itself by doing so. You have not proven, for example, that man-made climate change is a lie by laughing at people who think that every time you drive somewhere, a polar bear starves to death. These people are wrong, but they do not speak for the truth or falsity of man-made climate change. Proving that there are environmentalists who are idiots does not prove that environmentalism is idiotic. Tugging at the low-hanging fruit doesn't bring down the tree.

Which is why, if you are asked to evaluate the merits of a position in general rather than to address specific arguments in favor of it, I'd say you are obliged to not restrict yourself to considering only the worst arguments. In fact, you really should ignore those arguments entirely and focus on the best arguments, because it's only fair to consider a position invalid if no valid arguments can be made in support of it. It's not the fault of someone who holds a legitimate position if there are people who share that position and are troglodytes, mentally or morally or (as is often the case) both.

Like steelmanning, this is not always easy to do. It's really, really tempting, especially when considering an issue that is personally relevant, to pick out the loudest and most obnoxious of those who oppose your position and make them the standard-bearers for the other side. But that is the seed of prejudice, isn't it? That's how people come to believe that all members of ideological group X are stupid or immoral by virtue of holding X position, on the grounds that some members of that group are stupid/immoral. That requires ignoring the existence of the more intelligent or moral members of that group and their arguments in order to maintain the belief that position X is untenable.

But it goes against our tribalistic impulses to think this way. It feels good to have ideological kindred who are in the right, and those who oppose us who are wrong, placing individuals on one side of that line or the other and leaving them there. Alliances of this sort are shaken up all of the time when it's discovered that somebody has views in common with people in that group, and that group isn't this group, but it still matters because people in that group are horrible and this group is good. Oh, you're a vegetarian atheist feminist...who owns guns? Go to hell! Gun-owners are a bunch of angry psychopaths. None of your other positions matter now.

Some of that tribalism and low-hanging fruit picking was, disappointingly, on display by Daniel Dennett in this article on Richard Dawkins's pattern of stirring up enmity on social media:
I thought Richard’s responses were right on target. If some radical feminists (and others) think that all rape is equally bad, do they think it is not quite as bad as murder? If so, are THEY condoning rape? And if they think rape and murder are always equally bad, they really have lost their bearings and do not deserve our attention. Richard has been immensely important.
The problem is, most of the people I saw reacting with hostility to Dawkins's tweet that "“Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think," didn't think that at all. For that matter, I didn't actually see a single person claim that all rape is equally bad, "radical feminist" or no.

What I  saw was a lot of people saying things more along the lines of Ashley Miller's position, which was basically to point out that making blanket declarations about the relative significance of other people's suffering (out of nowhere, as in a tweet) as a supposed attempt to deliver a lesson on logic is a really callous and bizarre thing to do. Especially when those declarations might arguably be factually incorrect (i.e., that some victims of aquaintance rape, which is the majority of rape, actually suffer more than they might've if raped by a stranger, because of perception and treatment by others after the fact, and having to live with the violation of trust that acquaintance rape represents). And of course, that has precisely nothing to do with whether Dawkins has been "immensely important" or not. It seems clear that Dennett's only intention was to support his friend, and the most expedient way to do that was by picking some seriously low-hanging fruit.

Which is, I hasten to point out, a more reasonable assumption than to say he was simply strawmanning. You could say that literally nobody, anywhere, was claiming that all rape is equally bad. That Dawkins was strawmanning in constructing this person who allegedly holds this position, and then Dennett joined him in beating that strawman to death. But when you're talking about a position rather than a specific argument or person, you can pretty much count on there being somebody out there who does authentically hold it. I'm sure there are people out there who think all rape is equally bad. I'm equally sure that they're the least important people to consider when answering the question "What do you think of the criticism of Richard Dawkins's tweet?"

Again-- nobody is immune to doing this.

But it's still unfair and logically sloppy to do, and that's what I'm driving at. By all means, tear apart bad arguments when you see them. Practicing critical thinking is doing yourself and the world a service, and I'm sure you know that we could all, always, use more of it. But be careful, and be precise in doing so. Don't act as though you've taken down the queen when you've merely eliminated a pawn, even if the pawns in this game seem endless. Taking care to remember that there are good, intelligent people who hold positions you oppose, and their arguments are very likely to be better than others, is a good way to avoid ideological prejudice. When you are arguing against a position in general rather than a specific argument or person, steelman the hell out of that position.

And then when you've done so, keep that thought in the back of your mind whenever talking to people who hold that position, because hey-- most arguments people make in favor of anything, even the beliefs they hold most dear, happen in real life. Most people argue on their feet, with the weapons they've got at hand. As a consequence, they probably won't offer the best defense of that position possible, and they certainly won't do so all the time. And yeah, that includes you too.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Good Arguing: How to steelman (and why it's hard)

In the last couple of posts I've been exploring different ways in which it's possible to make bad arguments against someone's position by ignoring the substance of their argument in favor of some distraction from it or distortion of it, even a completely fictional version of it. The tactic of constructing an inaccurate version of an argument in order to demolish it is called strawmanning.

Strawmanning is easy to do, and advantageous when the only people you care about impressing are people who already agree with you, and who also aren't particularly concerned about you representing your opponent fairly-- they just want to see you rip him/her apart, or at least a sufficiently convincing facsimile thereof. And since it's very likely that the image of your opponent is already more of a caricature in the eyes of those who agree with you (that's tribalism, in a nutshell), the chances are relatively low that someone on your side is going to pull back from basking in the warmth and comforting glow of the effigy which you've just set ablaze to tug at your sleeve and point out-- hey man, that's an effigy.

A strawman version of your opponent's argument is easier to demolish for precisely the same reasons that the first little pig's straw house was easy for the big bad wolf to demolish-- it's flimsy. It was constructed in haste with little thought put into it (who lives in a house made of straw, anyway?), and takes but a few forceful huffs and puffs and logic to blow it to smithereens. So if you, rhetorical big bad wolf that you are, could actually choose to have the person you're arguing against live in a straw house rather than something sturdier, you would, wouldn't you? It makes everything so. Much. Easier. And you're angry, because damn that pig for having the gall to say...whatever horrible thing pigs say. Why should he get the benefit of a charitable, sturdy interpretation of his house I mean, argument?

Well, because that's what logic-- and fairness-- demand. You want your opponent to engage the argument you're actually making, rather than some shoddy imitation that's easier to dismantle, so shouldn't you extend the same consideration? And if his/her argument is really so pernicious and threatening, doesn't that make it especially important to make sure that you're addressing it accurately, in order to publically demonstrate its problems to every witness, so that they can avoid being taken in by it?  Does the group of people you care about convincing of the problems with your opponent's argument include the opponent him/herself? And if not, shouldn't it?

This is why steelmanning is so important. And so difficult. And so important.

Steelmanning is exactly what it sounds like-- you turn the analogy of the strawman on its head, and imagine constructing a stronger, better version of your opponent's argument. Perhaps even better than the one he/she initially constructed. You take the time to contemplate your opponent's concerns, including the unspoken ones, and address them. You create the most convincing, best possible version of your opponent's argument, and you lay it out for everyone to see. And then-- only then-- do you you show why it's wrong.

To the best of my knowledge, use of the term "steelmanning" to refer to this practice originated with Chana Messinger. To quote her on the subject:
But Chana, you might say, I’m actually trying to get something done around here, not just cultivate my rationalist virtue or whatever nonsense you’re peddling. I want to convince people they’re wrong and get them to change their minds. 
Well, you, too, have something to gain from steelmanning. 
First, people like having their arguments approached with care and serious consideration. Steelmanning requires that we think deeply about what’s being presented to us and find ways to improve it. By addressing the improved version, we show respect and honest engagement to our interlocutor. People who like the way you approach their arguments are much more likely to care about what you have to say about those arguments. This, by the way, also makes arguments way more productive, since no one’s looking for easy rebuttals or cheap outs. 
Second, people are more convinced by arguments which address the real reason they reject your ideas rather than those which address those aspects less important to their beliefs. If nothing else, steelmanning is a fence around accidental strawmanning, which may happen when you misunderstand their argument, or they don’t express it as well as they could have. Remember that you are arguing against someone’s ideas and beliefs, and the arguments they present are merely imperfect expressions of those ideas and beliefs and why they hold them. To attack the inner workings rather than only the outward manifestation, you must understand them, and address them properly.
Now, of course, the concept of taking on the most robust version of your opponent's argument, even if you have to construct it yourself, has been around a lot longer than the term "steelmanning" itself. You could simply call it arguing charitably. You could, as philosopher Daniel Dennett has been known to do, actually insert a stand-in for your opponent in the text of your own elucidation of your position, to fire objections and criticisms of that position in "real time," giving you the opportunity to answer those criticisms. Of course, when you have multiple opponents, this means you probably won't have the time and space to answer all of their potential criticisms. But again, you can choose the best of these and answer them-- or at least, the best of them so far as you can honestly assess.

Dennett outlines the practice of charitable criticism in his recent book Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, attributing it to Russian-American psychologist Anatol Rapoport:
Anatol Rapoport… once promulgated a list of rules for how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent’s work. First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism. I have found this a salutary discipline to follow– or, since it is challenging, to attempt to follow. When it succeeds, the results are gratifying: your opponent is in a mood to be enlightened and eagerly attentive.
Sounds good, right? Sounds like a total "best practice" for argumentation. This is something everybody should be doing right? So....why is, when we look around, we see so few people actually doing it? So few people, when deciding how to depict a position they oppose, selecting materials by reaching immediately for the straw rather than the steel?

Well, I know one thing with certainty-- it's not because they're incapable.

There is no level of intelligence or education at which a person moves beyond having the incentive to strawman. The incentives, as I've described, include that that it's easier and faster, but also there is the fact that it's simply more satisfying to pin down and torture a good straw man when you're angry, and when you're speaking to people who are already angry for the same reason that you are, or whom you would like to make angry for the same reason.

A rhetorical crime has been committed, and by golly we want someone to answer for it. We want to haul in some guilty party and hold them to account, and when the guilty party is an argument, the penalties for getting the wrong man tend to be few. Violation of due process of the laws of logic for suspect arguments is not an offense for which most really suffer. We're biased in a multitude of ways, perhaps most predominantly in favor of our own sense of being right. Being right feels good. Righteous indignation feels good. Watching people whose righteous indignation you share royally trouncing an argument that you find offensively wrong?  Gosh, that's nice. That's why we value an intelligent, caustic, sardonic ranter on our side so highly. Perhaps more than is really healthy on a sociological level, we value these people. There's a reason for that.

But there ways to make steelmanning a great deal easier and more likely. Here are some I can identify:
  1. A polite disagreement, where passions are low. 
  2. Time is not a highly significant factor. This suggests that strawmanning is much more likely in verbal debates than in print.
  3. Opponents know each other. It's much easier to represent your opponent's position charitably when you're familiar with his/her views on other things which aren't directly related to the topic of contention. 
  4. Space, or rather the lack thereof, is not a significant factor. If you take the time to recreate a better version of your opponent's argument before answering it with your own, there had better be some room to do it. Which means that you're more likely to find steelmanning in a book than an essay or blog post. A blog post or essay than a verbal argument. A verbal argument than a sound bite. 
  5. A reasonable expectation of continued interaction, on some level. 

Steelmanning is possible for all of us, though. It's a best practice for all of us. We're not terrible people if we fail to do it, but it's something to aim for. It's good arguing.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Don't do this either

Okay, so we've pretty well covered how not to talk to and about people you disagree with, right? It can be summed up pretty easily by asking yourself the following question: Does this thing I'm writing/saying/drawing/etc. actually address the substance of what the person I'm talking about is saying/writing/drawing/etc.? Or does it attack irrelevancies? Because focusing on what someone says and addressing that, rather than changing the subject to their looks, their credentials, or anything else isn't just polite-- it's good arguing. It's Lesson #1 on Good Arguing, perhaps Remedial Good Arguing.

Another way to attack irrelevancies rather than the substance of your opponent's argument is to attack arguments your opponent never made. This is typically called strawmanning, although if you go the lengths of flat-out quoting them saying something they never actually said, I think that's called plain ol' lying.

The quote is suspicious to me right off the bat for two reasons: 1) I know that Richard Dawkins considers himself a "cultural Christian," meaning that he acknowledges the extent to which Christianity has shaped the culture in which Westerners live, and sees no conflict in appreciating those elements of culture as an atheist-- a standpoint which I wholly agree with, although I don't really like the term "cultural Christian." It's too confusing without the explanation. 2) I have gathered, though I couldn't tell you from where, the understanding that Dawkins has close to zero knowledge of and interest in video games. I'd be surprised if he knows what "RPG" means.

However, that's not going to be obvious to everybody. All that a lot of people know about Dawkins, people who despise him and people who love him, is that he's an atheist who opposes religion. And there's no shortage of atheists who would most likely agree with the first part of the quote (or rather "quote," I suppose-- putting scare quotes around the word "quote" is so meta), if significantly fewer who would agree with the second part.

I don't know whether John the Secular actually created the meme he tweeted, or just found it and commented on it. If the latter, then he's just guilty of being credulous. But that's an important part of not attacking irrelevancies-- don't be credulous. Don't just assume that a statement you see attributed to someone you want to attack is authentic, especially if it seems too "good" to be true. As in, laughably easy to discredit and mock.

It's possible the meme was made as satire, but if it's intended to be satire then it fails-- no clever point is made, and gosh, if you wanted to satirize Richard Dawkins it would be so easy to do better. There's ample material out there-- no need to create new, false statements to attribute to him.

If it's an attempt to satirize Dawkins' That's not how you do that, either. If they believe the quote, then again-- they're just guilty of accidentally buying a lie. But if you created it, or passed it along, you're guilty of selling it to them.

Making good arguments requires skepticism. And skepticism needs people who can make good arguments.