Weird Internet Ideas: A case of Scott Adams

I’ve not the skill or insight for a full discussion of Scott Adams, the lite-alt-right wannabe of Dilbert fame, but this piece crossed my path http://blog.dilbert.com/post/160696999931/how-to-know-you-won-a-political-debate-on-the and informal reasoning and rhetoric are on my list of required blog topics.

It is far from the worst things Adams has ever written but it does exemplify the profound shallows of his style of analysis. The piece is a guide to knowing when you have won an argument on the internet. I should put a mandatory statement about arguments not being about the winning but, well honestly sometimes they can be about the winning rather than the journey. Having said that…any time spent talking to people on the net should be judged against an informal cost-benefit otherwise you can waste your days trying to convince a Twitter bot that it’s wrong about pi being ‘fake news’. So this opening section from Adams is not terrible advice:

“Do you remember the time you changed a stranger’s political opinion on the Internet by using your logic and your accurate data?

Probably not. Because that rarely happens. If you were paying attention during the past year, you learned facts don’t matter to our decisions. We think they do, but they don’t. At least not for topics in which we are emotionally invested, such as politics.  (Obviously facts do matter to the outcomes. But not to decisions.)”

Of course, Adams is missing that in any net discussion there are rarely just two people. Bystanders and other people commenting play a role and sound arguments do help shape their thoughts. Also, not every internet argument is between people with entrenched immutable viewpoints. Nor is a change of mind necessarily immediate – people shift positions in their life, sometimes radically and exposure to alternate ideas can play a part in that. Additionally, strong arguments can shape the behaviour of people whose core opinion doesn’t change – they may avoid advancing a particular argument in that space again or they may adapt their argument over time. There is no simple test of whether continuing with an argument is worthwhile. My own criteria usually amount to “am I bored yet” or “are people I like distressed by this argument continuing”, rarely is it “I’ve won” although I can think of some occasions…

Adam’s continues:

“I propose the Cognitive Dissonance test. If you can trigger your opponent into cognitive dissonance, you win. “

I’ll not get into his use of the term “cognitive dissonance”, I’m not sure it is important but the general gist of Adams use is along the lines of: if your opponent is discombobulated then you’ve won. Yeah, maybe not.

‘You can detect cognitive dissonance by the following tells:

Absurd Absolute

An absurd absolute is a restatement of the other person’s reasonable position as an absurd absolute. For example, if your point is there is high crime in Detroit, the absurd absolute would be your debate opponent saying something such as “So, you’re saying every person in Detroit is a criminal.” ‘

This is not terrible advice in terms of identifying a weak counter-response but it is not a particularly good indication that the person you are arguing with is discombobulated. It may even be present as an idea when the argument starts and it is also a revealing argument – it shows where a misunderstanding (intentional or otherwise) exists in the opposing position. It may well reflect what a person has been told about your generic position. More maliciously, it is an argument that may be offered to intentionally wind you up. Of course, if somebody is just trying to push your buttons then it is worth considering whether your time is being well spent.

In addition, arguments may often turn to broader absolutes even when two parties are arguing with open minds and in good faith. The process of argument can lead you to a better understanding of what assumed & unspoken principles you are appealing to. On occassion, this may help clarify other issues inadvertently. Consider the use of some ‘absurd absolutes’ by defenders of “Obamacare” repeal when responding to the notion that people have the right to free-at-source healthcare – US conservatives have parodied the notion with spurious strawmen claims that this would be like demanding a right to food or a job or housing or…oh wait…, those really are being advanced as strawmen by the right but I agree, people should expect the government to try and ensure people have those things along with healthcare! The absurdity is not what they think it is. Extrapolation and generalisations of arguments and ideas is a productive process in thinking.

Analogy

Analogies are good for explaining concepts for the first time. But they have no value in debate. Analogies are not logic, and they are not relevant facts.”

This is an ignorant point. Analogies are deeply baked into nearly all aspects of our thinking. It is nigh on impossible to avoid them, as Adams then immediately demonstrates by resorting to an analogy about a plumber. Yes, analogies are unreliable, have limitations and are hard to formalise but thinking without analogies is like swimming without water when you are a cake or something else that can’t swim or think or use analogies.

Analogies are not logic? Yeah, sort of – I’ll give it a pass. What I’d say is that the main role of mathematics and logic in human thought has been to find ways of codifying/formalising analogies. It’s why we use the concept of ‘models’ i.e. formalised analogies with known limitations.

So what is Adams actually thinking of? Well, probably forced or spurious analogies. But what do they indicate? They can arise at any point in a discussion and I’d generally take them to be firstly an interesting insight into what the other person is thinking that may be more revealing than they realise and secondly an indication that the other person might still be making some effort to argue in something at least vaguely like good faith,

“Attack the Messenger

When people realize their arguments are not irrational, they attack the messenger on the other side. If you have been well-behaved in a debate, and you trigger an oversized personal attack, it means you won.”

Um, no. OK, yes, yes we can all think of personal examples where this was the case. You engaged in an argument and the other person flips out. Yet even a basic understanding of human behaviour tells us that people can lose their temper for many reasons beyond “cognitive dissonance”, discombobulation or the humiliation of having their argument pulled apart by a keyboard warrior.

What’s really toxic about this point from Adams is how you see it working with some species of troll. If you get to ‘trigger an oversized personal attack’ from your opponent then ‘it means you won’ is a trollish strategy based on following some shallow conventions of civility while finding buttons to push. That would be taking Adams’s point the wrong way as far as causality goes but it is easy for people to convince themselves that they are being reasonable and that their opponent is being emotional.

It is rather like winning a chess game by being so annoying that your opponent refuses to play anymore and walks away, thus forefit the game to you. That does not make you a canny chess player.

Put another way “winning an argument” is arguably one way of being so annoying that a person insults you gratuitously but it is just one way and is also comorbid with “being a smug pedantic git” which can often overlap with “arsehole”. I try to stay out of the last circle of that Venn diagram but not always with success. [Of course if it is Vox Day et al insulting you then yes, you won 😉 ]

More generally there are many ways of annoying people whilst simultaneously following the superficial formalities of polite debate and not making a “winning” argument, not least of which is treating some other kind of social interaction as if it were a debate.

“The Psychic Psychiatrist Illusion

The Psychic Psychiatrist Illusion involves imagining you can discern the inner thoughts and motives of strangers. I’m talking about the unspoken thoughts and feelings of strangers, not the things they have actually said.”

Maybe. It’s the least weak of Adams’s points and I’d broadly agree with it with exceptions.

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9 comments

  1. delagar

    I only read Scott Adams’ blog on the rare occasion that someone links to it, but that’s been enough to make me suspect that his entire reason for writing this post was to make the point about the Psychic Psychiatrist.

    Wanna bet someone (more than one someone?) has made comments about the implications or meaning of what Adams has said in some argument or some post, and he has made the classic troll defense of “That’s not what I said,” because it wasn’t the *literal* meaning of his words?

    As in,

    Adams: “Nice family you have there. Be a shame if something were to happen to them.”

    Other person: “Are you threatening my family? Jeez, man, that’s low!”

    Adams: “That’s not what I said. Where did I say that? I said you had a nice family. You liberals! Always making things up!”

    (Obviously a fictional example. But exactly how I’ve seen trolls argue.)

    I can imagine Adams being called on the semantic content of his writing, and then getting all pissy because that wasn’t the literal meaning of the words, and writing this post — the entire post — to soothe his wounded ego.

    And now look. I’m a psychic psychiatrist!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Scurra

      Yes, that’s last point is the one that comes over most strongly to me too – it took me years to understand that I couldn’t live inside someone else’s head, and anyone who claimed that they could (usually by saying “you can fix all the things you think are problems with you by just doing what I do”) had not yet understood that.

      It’s also really just an alternative formulation of the observation that all arguments turn out to be definitional arguments, especially those on the internet.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Contrarius Est

    “Of course, Adams is missing that in any net discussion there are rarely just two people. ”

    This is the point that I try to keep in my mind the most in any net debate. I read somewhere once that on most forums there are around ten lurkers for every poster. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly true that there are usually more people reading than writing. So the value of debates is not in changing the mind of your debate opponent, but in educating the lurkers. And whether or not they “change their minds”, if you do a good job in your debate you have shown them the facts of whatever issue you’re debating.

    Knowledge is power. It needs to be spread around!

    Like

    • camestrosfelapton

      It also shapes discourse (for good or ill) in whatever space/community the argument is taking place. People will prefer the views that are closest to their own but also they would rather aspire to be on the side of the witty, personable, civil, clever and well informed all other things being equal.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jenora Feuer

      Heck, you could argue that the lurkers are more likely to change their minds than the person you’re arguing with. If for no other reason than that the person actively voicing an argument probably already has an emotional investment in it, which would make that person less likely to change their mind than somebody listening in at random.

      Liked by 1 person