Argue The Point, Not The Person

There’s no end to the number of scenes in movies and television series in which you’re told to play the man, not the hand, when it comes to poker.

This is because the objective is to win, and poker is, by definition, a zero sum game.

But arguments are not zero-sum games, although most (all?) of us tend to think so, at least when we’re actually arguing. We get so caught up in winning that we often choose to defeat the person making the argument, rather than the argument itself. And we’re much likelier to do this if we realize that our own argument is unlikely to carry the day. The fancy-pants word for what we are likely to do next is ad-hominem. We’ve all used this strategy, if nowhere else, at least in school while growing up. And I’m not proud of this, but I’ve used it well into adulthood too.

And the reason this happens is because we think the point of an argument is to win it. Which is wrong, of course. The point of an argument is to figure out what is right (or true). But this simple point is hard to remember, and so we end up turning arguments into a battle for preserving our egos.

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle in a subset of Twitter in the recent past, and while you will be able to click your way through and figure out what it has all been about, I’d much rather you didn’t, not right away at least. Focus, instead, on what the thread is telling you about how to argue:

While the thread itself doesn’t mention it, my biggest takeaway from reading it is to ask myself what the point of an argument is. Or, to put it in a way that resonates with one of my favorite questions, what should one be optimizing for in an argument? And my own answer is that one should be optimizing for figuring out what is right (or what is true), rather than winning the argument.

Note that this is hard to do, and note that the person dispensing this gyaan to you right now (i.e., me) often isn’t very good at following his own advice!

But that being said, it still is advice worth pondering over.

By the way, if you’ve been wondering why I’ve been careful to distinguish between that which is right and that which is true, I have a movie recommendation for you.

And on a related note, learn to read the news in such a way that you end up updating or changing your beliefs, rather than being in a rush to confirm them. Statisticians will say that I’m simply asking you to be more Bayesian in your outlook, and they wouldn’t be wrong (click here and read hansn’s answer).

I’d urge you to spend some time in thinking through the paragraph immediately above this one, making sure you understand what Baye’s theorem is and why I bring it up in the context of reading the news, and then read this excellent post by Tyler Cowen. It is excellent (to me) precisely because it isn’t clear the first time you read it.

But the reason I bring that post up here is because I would argue that the Twitter thread and this post are making the same point: arguing should not be about feeding your ego, and neither should learning more about the world be about feeding your ego. Arguing and learning more about the world should, instead, be about figuring out that which is right (or true).

Note to self: this is, of course, much easier said than done.

Let me be clearer: whether while reading something or while arguing with someone, continually ask yourself this question: in what ways might I be wrong? How does this article/video/movie/podcast/argument help me update my understanding of how the world works?

And if you find yourself resolutely saying “it doesn’t! I’m obviously right!”, be very afraid!

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