Worth Promoting to Its Own Post: Notes on Arguing

Here’s a comment I made in a thread, which I am promoting to its own post (with some edits for context) because I think it says something relevant about discussions here, especially (but not limited to) political ones:

1. One is entitled to one’s own opinions, but not one’s own facts. Commensurately, anecdote may be fact (it happened to you), but anecdote is usually a poor platform for general assertions, since one’s own experience is often not a general experience.

2. If you make an assertion that implies a factual basis, it is entirely proper that others may ask you to back up these assertions with facts, or at least data, beyond the anecdotal.

3. If you cannot bolster said assertion with facts, or at least data, beyond the anecdotal, you have to accept that others may not find your general argument persuasive.

4. This dynamic of people asking for facts, or at least data, beyond the anecdotal, is in itself non-partisan; implications otherwise are a form of ad hominem argument which is generally not relevant to the discussion at hand.

5. If you offer evidence and assert it as fact, you may reasonably expect others to examine such information and to rebut you if they find it wanting and/or find your interpretation incorrect in some manner.

All of which is to say that asserting from anecdote without being able to bolster said assertion with actual facts is likely to get your assertion discounted; if you present facts without rigor, you’re likely to see those discounted as well. Again, this is neither here nor there as regards one’s personal politics; this is simply about making a robust argument.

People here have a low tolerance for general assertion from personal anecdote because rhetorically speaking I have a low tolerance for general assertion from personal anecdote, and over time that rubs off on others who comment here regularly. That low tolerance is in fact non-partisan on my part, as I have called out liberals for bad argument when they have offered one, and I have called out people in non-political threads for the same thing (when one’s politics are not in evidence). There are indeed a lot of liberals here; there are also quite a few conservatives as well. Everyone gets dinged when they argue poorly.

In a general sense, if one wants to have one’s arguments and assertions taken seriously here, they need to be serious arguments and assertions. There’s nothing wrong with making an observation from personal experience; I do it all the time. But I also note the anecdotal nature of the observation; and when I don’t, guess what? People here call me on it.

This is all to be noted for future reference.

125 thoughts on “Worth Promoting to Its Own Post: Notes on Arguing

  1. I nominate John Scalzi to be the Whatever Party candidate for U.S. President!

    We need a SuperPAC, stat!

  2. Hmmm…. why stop at the USA? Let’s go global. Actually, despite the attractions of Scalzi-ruled society, I just quite like the idea of evidence-based debate. In whatever sphere: domestic, political, religious, educational (declaration of interest: I’m a teacher), sport, development, economics….

  3. Sometimes you scare me John. I was about to make a comment to the same effect on the Buffett post. While your political posts don’t lack for comment volume one reason I tend to tune them out after awhile is that people seem unable to agree on such basics as anecdotes not being facts. If we can’t accept that an argument with supporting facts showing an assertion to be wrong wins (presuming the facts are verifiable), then we can’t have an intelligent discussion. Too often, people seem unable to accept that their opinion might be based on wrong facts and, well, that’s a frustrating conversation.

  4. Anecdotes may or may not be factual, but it’s harder to verify an anecdote than hard, published data.

    And of course the best data can be mis-construed.

  5. I recently found out that I am related a William O Booth. I have a postcard with his photo on it and a poem he wrote to his sisters daughter. His sister Millie was my great Grandmother. I heard that you may have some other writings of his.if this is correct is it possible could I obtain copies of them. Thanks for your help. Robert Burton

  6. Might I suggest that this post get ‘stickied’ up at the top? I’ve been reading this blog (off and on) for three years and even I didn’t realize that you had such a low tolerance for argument-from-anecdote. Or maybe it’s just part of your (growing) general displeasure with how political discussion finds a way of spiralling to the point you need to intervene too often for it to be any fun anymore. Either way, I accept the burden of the elevated discourse.

  7. Thanks, Brad.

    And as noted, anecdotal experience can be interesting and useful; it’s not to say there’s never a place for it. But it’s nice to acknowledge that it’s one’s own experience only. This is why, incidentally, I find the Internet acronym “YMMV” (for “Your Mileage May Vary”) to be one of the better Internet acronyms out there.

  8. “People here have a low tolerance for general assertion from personal anecdote because rhetorically speaking I have a low tolerance for general assertion from personal anecdote, and over time that rubs off on others who comment here regularly”

    Well, umm. I don’t think that’s necessarily the reason.

  9. Repeating talking points is not acceptable proof of a fact. In fact, people should always investigate their points and provide either numbers or references.

    This includes people from that same side of the aisle as you.

  10. Drachefly@10:

    True. We would need to see a study linking decreased tolerance for general assertion from personal anecdote to prolonged exposure to the Whatever.

  11. Bill, did Scalzi say “hey, people I usually agree with, this doesn’t apply to you”?

    Pretty sure he didn’t.

  12. I can hear my old logic professor saying “That is not an argument, that is an argument by generalization and is not valid”

    And yes, he said to me quite often the first few weeks of class. Not very often after midterms.

    Besides YMMV being an excellent acronym, I also like IMHO (in my humble opinion) It lets people know that I’m not stating facts, just the way it seems to be working out for me. Which is when you use YMMV. Gee John, you’re right,YMMV is most useful.

  13. I love this post and it actually might get reposted on my blog (with due credit of course) as good rules of the road when it comes to debating. I am currently in a one year Command and General Staff College in the Army and when we have debates, it is amazing to me what people do when asked for facts and data to support their positions. Particuarly if politics are involved, they either 1) accuse you of being a Liberal and/or a Dolt because why can’t you POSSIBLY see it their way and question them, and/or 2) Repeat their original position louder and with more passion, ignoring the call for data, because if you can FEEL it more than the dissenter, than surely that makes it right. I come across this so many times that it is bizarre. One of the reasons why I find arguing with Tea Party folks terribly easy (intellectually, that can’t argue their positions without contradicting themselves) and terribly frustrating (because they will just ignore contradictory evidence and argue louder).

  14. I would just like to point out that once I heard a rooster give a speech in which he soundly refuted everything that was said in the comments and post above. I’m pretty sure the rooster was a Democrat, or maybe a Libertarian. Roosters give far better speeches than most politicians, and are far smarter too. This all conclusively proves my point. If you don’t agree with me you are clearly a moron.

  15. Thank you, John. But unfortunately I think the problem is more that when people have arrived at an erroneous position, or one based on emotion and personal experience, they don’t want to give that up just because some uppity facts get in the way.

  16. @Redski #2. Regarding evidence-based debate in the domestic sphere, remember Heinlein (paraphrased from memory): if you ever win an argument with your wife, apologise immediately.

  17. Another useful tip: Citing fiction (for example, ER, CSI, The Wire, Big Love) in support of an argument is one step worse than citing anecdote. At least an anecdote represents something that may actually have happened.

    I run into this far more often than you’d think. Readers of Ayn Rand are huge offenders, but they’re not the only ones, just the most prominent; readers of Edward Abbey are sinners, too.

  18. Suggested:

    — Attempting to rebut facts with anecdotes is generally not very convincing. Anecdotes may illuminate flaws or limitations of the facts, but rarely more than that.

    — Personal anecdotes may have some value in a discussion, but supposedly “common knowledge” anecdotes almost never do.

    — It’s certainly true that studies and statistics are sometimes flawed, manipulated, and/or dishonestly framed. That does not mean that one gets to dismiss any inconvenient study or statistic out of hand.

    — The source of (and especially the money behind) a study isn’t by itself proof or disproof of any conclusions, but it’s worth being aware of it, especially when said source has a clear history of good or bad studies.

  19. Jim @ 27:

    The Heinlein (as Lazarus Long) quote is:

    “In a family argument, if it turns out you are right — apologize at once!”.

    Which I’m being nit-picky about because the unbiased nature of the original pleases me.

  20. @5 Robert Burton – a declaration of family fact: our relative was Wm K Booth and was an engineer and sometimes poet. If you feel you are still related to him you are free to contact me.

  21. @ Otero
    “One of the reasons why I find arguing with Tea Party folks terribly easy (intellectually, that can’t argue their positions without contradicting themselves) and terribly frustrating (because they will just ignore contradictory evidence and argue louder).”

    This would be an example of an anecdotal generalization, correct? lol And I’m neither disputing nor agreeing with you. That’s not the point.

    It’s really difficult not to insert our own experience as fact, because to us, it is?

  22. I demand facts to back up your assertion that facts facilitate meaningful discussion!

    I’m sorry, I will go stand in the corner now.

  23. @Levi #32,

    You are correct. I am not contesting your point and in fact not at all threatened by owning up to it nor do I think it seriously effects the core of my argument. I believe though that my experience tends to be the common one when dealng with Tea Partiers or their ilk and and in order to suport my position I would submit several Youtube clips of Tea Party debates, clips from FOXs anchors talking over people with viewpoints they disagree with while being absolutely supportive of people who agree with their positions. Let me know and I will send the links via email because I am not sure that is the direction John would have this thread go. The real point though is that I don’t think utilizing personal experience in the course of the argument (in fact, I think my verbage indicated that I was acknowledging that), it is when folks try to substitute as fact and get bent out of shape when it is pointed out, can’t construct a logical rationale that could possibly support their personal experience, or refuse to concede the point that personal experience is not fact and close themselves off from alternative viewpoints.

  24. This should be required reading for anyone wishing to post anything anywhere. Really. Very well done. And thanks for sharing.

  25. Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!

    –Homer Simpson

  26. Levi @ 32: “It’s really difficult not to insert our own experience as fact, because to us, it is?”

    I was pleased to see that John essentially included that in his part #1, and in his second-to-last paragraph as well. Personal anecdotes *are* facts, they just have a more limited scope of usefulness in reasoned discussion than many people seem to realize.

  27. John,

    If I set up a big giant stage on the National Mall, complete with speakers and giant jumbotron-style screens, will you come read this post? Pretty please?

  28. Levi @32: as Bearpaw says, anecdotes are facts. The question is what they are used to prove and how good a fit they are as proof.

    So, if I say “In my experience, Canadians are lousy husband material,” that’s absolute proof as to my subjective experience. But if we’re trying to formulate immigration policy to determine the number of Canadians who should be allowed to immigrate as spouses of US citizens, it’s useless.

    And it would be especially useless if, in the face of actual facts showing that US citizen/Canadian immigrant marriages are pretty average by a variety of metrics, I were to say that my anecdata STILL trumps your data and by the way you’re being a frownyface for insisting otherwise.

  29. While we’re talking about facts, something I’ve seen on other forums (so far, not here) is the tendency to offer a list of “facts” which are nothing of the kind. Quite often, it includes the word “fact” followed by a colon and then an opinion, conclusion, or supposition.

    So, one can can say, quite accurately,

    FACT: President Obama is fifty years old.

    But one can’t say:

    FACT: Obama’s nature will cause him to raise taxes.

    (Well, one can say it but calling it a fact doesn’t make it one)

  30. “The plural of anecdote is not data.”

    mythago @46: I wouldn’t say that’s even a valid statement about one’s personal experience, barring the possibility of having been married to such an unreasonably large number of Canadian and non-Canadian people as to constitute a valid statistical sample. The speaker’s experience is more likely to have been that their ex-husband was lousy husband material and was Canadian. Generalizing from that to Canadians is at least as much an error when interpreting personal experience. (And yeah, people can make errors at that.)

  31. chaos @48: Sure. But it’s a valid statement about the speaker’s personal experience. So if you were to respond “Actually, that can’t be true because independent metrics show that Canadian men have lower rates of adultery and domestic violence than all other nationalities” that wouldn’t negate my anecdata – in other words, those facts would not prove that the Canadian ex-husband was a fine fellow after all. My anecdata is useful to show my opinion or experience – but as you say, not the same as generalizing (“therefore, Canadian men are more likely to be crappy husbands and damn you and your footnotes”).

    And of course anecdotes can be informative – the personal is political, not in the sense of statistical proof, but in the sense that if a whole bunch of other people have similar experiences, maybe something bigger really is going on and it’s not just me.

    But that is all very different than “I work with a lot of business-school graduates and they’re all sociopathic assholes, which should tell you why Big Business needs to be put on a tight leash.”

  32. Mythago, I have to take exception; as you say – it is your subjective experience, which makes it an opinion. Facts are not subjective, they are objective. I come back to a favorite line from My Cousin Vinny when the Marissa Tomei’s character says, on the stand, that the wheels of the defendant’s car could not have made the tire tracks in the photo. The judge asks “Is that your opinion or a fact?” and she emphatically replies “That’s a FACT!” and then goes on to explain why in a litany of objective points that prove her statement. Beautiful example of the difference between the two (and was used as such in a class on argumentation I took several years ago, probably why it sticks with me!)

    This doesn’t mean your experience is invalid, many great scientific theories have been borne out of an experience, that lead to a hypothesis, which lead to a theory or a fact (and just as many, if not more, led to a hypothesis that when tested, was proven to be wrong). It just means that your experience is just that – your experience. And then we can get into the sticky world of what makes social science experiments valid or invalid and thus somewhat unwieldy.

  33. I have to take exception; as you say – it is your subjective experience, which makes it an opinion

    You’re misreading what mythago’s saying. The fact part is that _his opinion is that Canadians make bad husbands_ not that Canadians make bad husbands.

    Facts are not subjective, they are objective.

    I like a nice set of facts and statistics as much as the next person, but let’s not be too firm about this. Just to take a historical example, a question designed to elicit a simple fact–what year did World War II start?–would lead to deeply subjective answers.

  34. mythago @49: I’m with you, provided that the statement is “my Canadian ex was a crappy husband”, not “Canadians are crappy husbands”. The speaker has matrimonial experience with hir ex-husband; sie doesn’t have matrimonial experience with “Canadians”, any more than with “white people” or “people with blue eyes” or “Transformers fanboys”.

  35. The more I think about this post, the sadder I become. Not because I disagree, but because it was actually needed to remind people that anecdotes, opinions and facts are different things and that a story from one’s life doesn’t count as a fact.

  36. I would like to propose a hypothesis called “Scalzi’s Theory of Diminishing Comment Content” in which I assert that the substantive content of any comment on a Whatever thread–as well as intrinsic merit and relationship to the original post–decreases along with the number of comments. In other words, after a certain point comments generally deteriorate with respect to their intrinsic quality as argumentative points.

    There will be many exceptions to the Scalzi Theory, of course–which only serve to prove the rule.

    The proof of the correctness of this hypothesis will be determined by analyzing all posts with comments in excess of, shall we say?, 200 in number. Please show your work.

  37. Unfortunately I fear that in many environments these principles are considered liberal in and of themselves. I’ve heard the term ‘liberal nit-picking’ used to describe actual refutation of asserted “facts.”

    That’s anecdotal, of course, but it explains my fear, which is an opinion, not a fact.

  38. David, I think it is difference again between theory and fact. You have a variety of historians who have theories on when WWII started and they can point to a number of factors to back up that theory as in historian A posits the theory that the start of WWII was event X. I have no problem with theories. I have no problem with opinions. I do have a problem when theories and opinions are presented as irrefutable facts.

    I think that maybe we are a little too in love with “facts” and like to use the word too often. I think it is the curse of the talking point. There is absolutely nothing wrong in saying “in my experience” or “my opinion is” and if you can bolster that opinion with enough evidence – anecdotal or otherwise, so much the better. It shows me that a person has not arrived at that opinion hastily or prematurely; that they have thought about it and have good reason to hold that opinion – even if I don’t agree with the opinion, or my experience has been radically different.

  39. I think that maybe we are a little too in love with “facts” and like to use the word too often. I think it is the curse of the talking point. There is absolutely nothing wrong in saying “in my experience” or “my opinion is” and if you can bolster that opinion with enough evidence – anecdotal or otherwise, so much the better.

    No. It’s NOT OK when you’re talking about factual issues e.g. ‘most government spending is wasted on inefficiency’ etc. There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘in my opinion/experience’, but one has to recognize that an actual, verifiable fact that contradicts that point trumps someone’s personal experience or opinion.

    For example, a recent survey showed that a substantial number of people believed that 5% of the federal budget went to public broadcasting – that’s easily refutable via actual, citable facts. So if someone says, based on their mistaken belief about the level of funding for public broadcasting, that it gets too much funding and then are shown the real levels of funding, they should accept that their opinion was based on erroneous information. They might still want to cut funding for that program, but they cannot base it on the incorrect information that it eats up 5% of the budget.

  40. David, I think it is difference again between theory and fact. You have a variety of historians who have theories on when WWII started and they can point to a number of factors to back up that theory as in historian A posits the theory that the start of WWII was event X.

    My point is that what seems to be a simple fact (the year World War II started) is actually highly dependent on a number of quite subjective things. So the blanket statement that “facts are objective” is quite often wrong.

  41. David – I know what you’re saying, but the issue for me is that, by citing a fact and agreeing to separate fact, conjecture and opinion, you can have a meaningful discussion. For example, if you ask “When did WW2 start?” and someone gives a simple answer, you can then evolve into ‘well, what does it mean to start a war? Is it when the first shot is fired? First border crossed?…” and out of that discussion comes useful insight as people consider not just the answer to the question but the factors that influence that answer. Additionally, once you agree on a definition, you can find a real answer.

    I do have to disagree with the assertion that the blanket statement that “facts are objective” is quite often wrong. too. In many ways, facts are not facts unless they can be objectively verified. You might need to agree on definitions as noted above, but the whole ‘facts are relative’ argument isn’t borne out for the most part.

  42. In many ways, facts are not facts unless they can be objectively verified.

    How does one objectively verify something?

  43. With facts of course!

    Ok, seriously…

    1) via measurement or direct observation. Distance to the sun, speed of light, etc.

    2) by documentation. Say that a group of people discussing your WW2 question agreed that the definition of the start of WW2 was to be the first declaration of war by one European power on another. You can look that up. It’s documented. So would events like the first cross-border movement of troops, etc. In political debates, see my example above of the funding level of public broadcasting. That’s a fact that can be looked up – you might need to define what year you’re looking at and that ‘public broadcasting’ is taken to mean CPB, but once you do, the funding level is a matter of documented fact.

    Some facts are strongly inferred – this is where my declaration above was a bit too absolute. Much of particle physics is this way – as I read about the search for the Higgs boson the articles seem to be saying that we won’t observe the Higgs directly but instead will see events that imply its existence and at a certain level it becomes improbable that the events are data errors or have other causes.

  44. @59 David: My point is that what seems to be a simple fact (the year World War II started) is actually highly dependent on a number of quite subjective things. So the blanket statement that “facts are objective” is quite often wrong.

    And again I would say that there are many theories on when, or possibly more accurately – what started the Second World War, which then leads to the debate. If someone posits that it was X event, that happened in X year, etc. The same can be said about most historical events. History is, indeed, quite often subjective as the view from the victor is usually quite different from the defeated. However, history is often taught as a laundry list of facts and dates, usually linked.

    @58 Rick No. It’s NOT OK when you’re talking about factual issues ” We are talking about different things, I think.

    I agree that it is not ok when you are stating your opinion as fact. But I think there is also a place in discussion or argument for opinion – as long as it is stated as opinion. There is a difference in saying, in my opinion most government spending is wasted on inefficiency” and stating that same sentence as a fact. If my opinion is based on what I have read on the subject, on what I consider inefficiency (i.e., having four separate branches of the military is wasteful, why not just put them all under one with one command staff for all – an actual argument I have heard…), it is still an interesting and valid discussion/argument.

    In my view, the problem lies in this love of facts – because facts are tangible and irrefutable. So we state our opinions as facts. And when people we view as authority figures state opinions as facts, or worse – flat out lie about what is a fact – we want to then repeat that statement as fact. Because heck, Respectable Person said it, and (to paraphrase my dear, departed Grandmother) They wouldn’t DARE say it if it wasn’t true. I guess what I am trying to get at is that opinions are not automatically invalid. What it comes down to is how you arrived at that opinion and how well you can defend that opinion. Again, if that opinion is based on something as flimsy as “well, Respectable Person said it, so it must be true” you probably won’t get much purchase with me. But give me a nice, well reasoned explanation and even if I don’t agree, I am going to respect how you got there.

  45. via measurement or direct observation. Distance to the sun, speed of light, etc.

    Ah, and measurements and direct observations are 100% accurate?

    by documentation

    Is documentation reliable?

    You may guess, of course, that my answer to both of those questions is that neither of those things are 100% accurate and reliable, and that produces an element of subjectivity to what you are asserting is objective.

    Say that a group of people discussing your WW2 question agreed that the definition of the start of WW2 was to be the first declaration of war by one European power on another

    But that definition is subjective, and that means that your objective fact only becomes objective because of a subjective agreement.

    Even more, you can’t prove that either observation or documentation are reliable as methods because the only way to do so is by using more observation or documentation.

  46. 4. This dynamic of people asking for facts, or at least data, beyond the anecdotal, is in itself non-partisan;

    Also, it’s not a trap. Who knows, you might actually have a reasonable point but you’ve not quite closed the deal. Stranger things have happened…

  47. David – Yes, within very fine tolerances, measurements are accurate. Documentation can be too. Responsible people will note margins of error with measurements and any relevant caveats with a piece of documentation (that the original was lost and the document being cited is a copy, etc).

    Say that a group of people discussing your WW2 question agreed that the definition of the start of WW2 was to be the first declaration of war by one European power on another

    But that definition is subjective, and that means that your objective fact only becomes objective because of a subjective agreement.

    Um. No. It’s perfectly valid to define terms and doing that doesn’t mean the facts are subjective. defining terms ensures that people aren’t talking past one another. The FACTS however, are perfectly objective, i.e, a declaration of war, a crossing of a border. War WAS declared by Nation A on Nation B on a certain date. You can argue that the war really started with the first border crossing by hostile troops, but that doesn’t render the declaration of war a subjective event at all.

    However, you’re doing precisely what I detest in these debates – instead of engaging in discussion, you’re being pedantic and insisting that your opinion must be right without presenting good logic or evidence. It’s amusing you’re doing so on this particular thread, but it’s not amusing enough to keep me here.

    Kathryne –
    I think there is also a place in discussion or argument for opinion – as long as it is stated as opinion.
    But of course. it’s when one’s opinion isn’t bolstered by facts and is instead presented as fact that I roll my eyes. However…

    In my view, the problem lies in this love of facts – because facts are tangible and irrefutable. So we state our opinions as facts. And when people we view as authority figures state opinions as facts, or worse – flat out lie about what is a fact – we want to then repeat that statement as fact. Because heck, Respectable Person said it, and (to paraphrase my dear, departed Grandmother) They wouldn’t DARE say it if it wasn’t true. I guess what I am trying to get at is that opinions are not automatically invalid.

    What people want to believe doesn’t make an opinion a fact. The Respectable Person argument is a classic logic fallacy (appeal to authority). To reuse my example above, it’s perfectly fine to argue than CPB gets too much federal money. That’s an opinion. It’s not OK to make up a fact and present it as real (that CPB gets 5% of the federal budget). If one bases the opinion that CPB gets too much money on the 5% figure and it’s shown to that the 5% figure is wildly off, then one SHOULD reconsider one’s opinion.

    This entire post and thread wouldn’t be needed if people could accept the differences between verifiable facts, assertions, conjectures and opinions and also if people would understand the basic logic fallacies.

  48. Yes, within very fine tolerances, measurements are accurate. Documentation can be too. Responsible people will note margins of error with measurements and any relevant caveats with a piece of documentation (that the original was lost and the document being cited is a copy, etc).

    Uh, you’re conceding the point I’m aiming to make. That measurements have “margins of error” indicates the subjectivity of the exercise.

    As to documentation, my point is that you have no way of verifying that documentation is accurate except through other methods that have their own subjective problems, and that documentation is produced by people, who are subjective to the core.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Edmund_Backhouse,_2nd_Baronet#Accusations_of_forgery_and_fabrication

    is instructive. A lot of facts about the Dowager Empress Cixi that were known to be objectively true were, in fact, not at all true.

    The FACTS however, are perfectly objective, i.e, a declaration of war, a crossing of a border. War WAS declared by Nation A on Nation B on a certain date

    But the only way you have of knowing those facts is through subjective methods (documentation, etc). If you were German in 1939, you would have known–as an objective fact–that Poland had invaded Germany that year.

    However, you’re doing precisely what I detest in these debates – instead of engaging in discussion, you’re being pedantic and insisting that your opinion must be right without presenting good logic or evidence. It’s amusing you’re doing so on this particular thread, but it’s not amusing enough to keep me here.

    Have a nice day.

  49. Also, it’s not a trap. Who knows, you might actually have a reasonable point but you’ve not quite closed the deal. Stranger things have happened…

    Of course, if you’re absolutely sure I could never change my mind despite any argument you put….you’re probably fulfilling your own prophecy….

  50. Can there be a corollary for statements that begin with, “I’ll bet….”?

    It’s a really speedy, useless derail that is often an outgrowth of arguing from anecdote. Example: A thread about someone whose house burned down. A commenter says, “I’ll bet the owner was a smoker,” because they knew (or knew of) someone somewhere at some point whose house fire was caused by an unattended cigarette.

    Result: some nontrivial percentage of the thread suddenly is about smokers and smoking, all because someone decided that some random experience is universal.

  51. I wanted to apply these thoughts to a thread in Television Without Pity before I thought better of it and decided to leave the crazies alone.

  52. Well said, well spake.

    I am sure you’ve seen the argument made before, that people who like science fiction tend to be liberals, but I happen to believe in that trope. Science Fiction gives us the opportunity to examine ideas outside of “the real world,” bring back our conclusions and see how they work.

    Case in point: the latest “Planet of the Apes” movie. I went to see it with my sister and later, while discussing it, I pointed out that one of the big themes of the movie is that “humanity” is pretty much indistinguishable from “consciousness.” Caesar is injured because his humanity is injured, and his humanity is found in his cognition and not in his genotype.

    This, of course, is an old story is science fiction (is Data a life or is he merely a tool, for example), but it isn’t difficult to extrapolate ideas like this into recognizable political situations in real life. (Does a petri dish filled with undifferentiated stem cells qualify as a “human” if there isn’t the slightest possibility it could possess consciousness? If the building is burning down and you can save either 100 petri dishes, or one 5 year old girl from dying in flames, which would you choose?).

    Me? Meh . . . I tend to believe the correct answer to any really difficult question is only to be found in the context of that moment. But I also believe that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” because – well, hell — that kind of screening mechanism is the only thing that let us get as far as we have.

    So, you wanna advance an idea? Fine, let’s here it. If it sounds weird or “out there” . . . be prepared to back it up. That is the nature of the Human Condition.

  53. Theophylact @# 71: Ferrier’s Law: As a comment thread on the Whatever grows longer, the probability of the discussion verging into epistemology approaches 1. You’ve never heard that one?

  54. Great fodder for debate practice this week. Thanks, John.

    Were you ever a debater? There are times I think you must have been.

  55. There’s a saying on another interwubs site I used to frequent.

    “The plural of anecdote is not anecdata”

    Meaning, even multiple anecdotes do not add up to universal applicability.

  56. David @#67, I sincerely hope you aren’t saying that because data analysis is always subjective, that we can never know anything with 100% certainty. That’s simply sophistry, and for some values of ‘knowing’ I can live with an amount of uncertainty. The amount of uncertainty you’re willing to tolerate varies with many factors. YMMV.

    “If you’re going to go on about objective vs. subjective reality, I swear I’m going to come down there and bite you on the leg.” Badly misquoted from Spock’s World, but you get the gist, I hope.

  57. I sincerely hope you aren’t saying that because data analysis is always subjective, that we can never know anything with 100% certainty. That’s simply sophistry

    TheMadLibrarian@76, I sincerely hope you aren’t saying things in a prejudicial way. That’s simply cheap debating hall tactics.

    data analysis is always subjective, that we can never know anything with 100% certainty

    I’m saying exactly that, and I’m fascinated by the fact that you’re conceding it in the sentence above. If data analysis is “always subjective” then what, exactly, can we know with “100% certainty”? If it’s “always subjective” then where does the certainty come from?

    The amount of uncertainty you’re willing to tolerate varies with many factors

    I’m perfectly fine with tolerating a certain amount of uncertainty and saying–as good scientists do–that “this is the best description we can currently manage.” But that’s not the same thing as knowing anything with 100% certainty.

    Are you sure that you’re not a butterfly dreaming of being a human?

    (Google is your friend)

  58. You are wrong-wrong-wrong-wrong-wrong-wrong! And here’s a laundry list of why-why-why-why-why!

    That is all.

  59. @David: I never understood the draw of solipsism. It’s so fruitless as a philosophical tool… it’s kinda the Intelligent Design of epistemology, making no useful predictions and is essentially just throwing up one’s hands and desparing at actual understanding. Even if it’s true, it’s pointless.

    (The added Nirvana fallacy as a cherry on top didn’t exactly win me over, either.)

    — Steve

  60. @steve, it’s not actually going to make the world a simpler place if you deny it’s complexities.

    And Heisenberg/quantum mechanics got similar reactions (notably from Einstein) until it turned out that that solipsism had actual real life consequences.

  61. Steve C. @ 47: “one can say it but calling it a fact doesn’t make it one.”

    I encountered the following item in my youth, supposedly a favourite of Lincoln’s*:

    “If you call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs does a sheep have?”

    “Five,” is the expected answer.

    “Four. Calling a sheep’s tail a leg doesn’t make it one.”

    *Apparently the ‘riddle’ was popular in abolitionist works of the early 19th century, so it’s likely that Lincoln would at least have known it in some form.

    And on that note, I enter my anecdotage.

  62. No matter how well you support your argument with facts and data, it’s likely to be discounted. This is the internet, after all.

    Or, to quote the old adage, “Arguing on the internet is like competing in the Special Olympics. You might win, but you’re still retarded.”

  63. Facts are objective. The interpretation of them, not so much. Two people can examine the same exact set of facts and reach two entirely different conclusions … both of which are wrong.

    Anyone seeking the consistently and honest application of logic in arguments on the internet is in for a long search.

  64. Facts are objective.

    The problem is that the above is an interpretation, which then runs into this:

    The interpretation of them, not so much

    I do wonder if the same butterfly dreaming of being a man is also the one that flaps its wings in China and sets off a hurricane in Texas?

    /chaos theory

  65. I do wonder if the same butterfly dreaming of being a man is also the one that flaps its wings in China and sets off a hurricane in Texas?

    No, because an object cannot contain more than its own capacity; a butterfly’s neural network is vastly less complex than a human’s. Therefor a butterfly’s mentation, a product of the interaction of neurons within its network, cannot adequately model the complexity of a human’s (the difference being so large that I feel comfortable saying that even high levels of compression and interpolation cannot reduce the model sufficiently) and therefor cannot dream it is human in any meaningful sense. Therefor there is no butterfly dreaming it is human in China, and a nonexistant butterfly cannot flap its wings.

    (Also Texas is apparently immune to climate change, particularly from outside its own borders, or so I’m told by its native sons. Emphasis on “sons”)

    — Steve

  66. No, because an object cannot contain more than its own capacity; a butterfly’s neural network is vastly less complex than a human’s.

    That’s what the butterflies want us to think.

  67. The fact that a butterfly would be unable to model a human’s mental states does not preclude the butterfly from dreaming that it is a man.

    Since a butterfly would have no experience of a man’s mental states for comparison, it could conceivably have a mental state which it believed was that of a man, regardless of whether that state mapped onto the actual mental state of a man in any particular.

  68. “Also Texas is apparently immune to climate change, particularly from outside its own borders, or so I’m told by its native sons.”

    Steve – well our temperature hasn’t varied much (daily highs around 105F) for several months, so they might not be too far off. Though I doubt that’s the kind of climate change you were talking about. ;-)

  69. David, do you accept that as 100% certain that the sun is more than 8 feet in diameter? I do. The existence of error estimates doesn’t mean that measurements don’t imply hard facts.

  70. David, do you accept that as 100% certain that the sun is more than 8 feet in diameter? I do.

    Excellent! How do you know that?

  71. David, let us think what it would mean for the sun to be less than eight feet in diameter.
    Solution 1) Descartes’ demon is punking us.
    Solution 2) … anything that lets the sun be 8 feet in diameter basically qualifies as solution 1, so let’s go with that.

    Now, you may have noticed the theory-ladenness of observations. That is, when you observe something, you only take it to mean something because you have a theory to understand it by. It’s a bit of a leap, for example, to get from the definition of the ampere, which involves the deflection of two wires, to an actual flow of current. Alternately, we see the sun and conclude it’s much more than 8′ in diameter based on its apparent angular size and distance.

    This is the same idea as what you were talking about with difficulties in interpreting. But there is a flip side to it – the theories are about the phenomena defined in the theories. If you change the implementation layer drastically – if we’re in a more perfect variant of the matrix, for instance – the referent of the theory’s definitions changes, but the content of the theory does not.

    So, what we mean by ‘foot’ has a definition, and within the system, the sun is clearly larger than 8 of them, by a large margin, and is not going to ever get that small.

    If it does, then the system has changed to the point where the term ‘foot’ is no longer meaningful, and likely ‘sun’ has lost its meaning. ‘Diameter’ and ‘larger than’ could well in trouble too.

  72. Drachefly, Within the framework of your theory, the sun has to be larger than eight feet, because if it wasn’t the theory would be wrong. But there’s no guarantee that the theory is correct, and no way of objectively proving it, as all the elements of the theory are observed, reported, and described by humans, who are subjective.

  73. David, your arguments may well be technically correct in terms of strict, formal logic and abstract scientific theory, but I fail to see how they can be of any use in the real world (assuming it exists) of interpersonal discussion. It seems to me that trying to apply them to everyday human discourse would make that discourse effectively impossible. If that is so, and I am open to being persuaded otherwise, your continued insistence on them does not seem (again, subjectively) to me to be useful, and might even be mistaken in a poor light for behaviour of a sub-pontine nature, though of course our malleficacious host has the absolute and only entitement to a call in that respect.

  74. your arguments may well be technically correct in terms of strict, formal logic and abstract scientific theory, but I fail to see how they can be of any use in the real world (assuming it exists) of interpersonal discussion

    If I were uncharitable, I would translate this as “you’re right, but I don’t like it.” What on earth does “technically correct…but” mean?

    But let’s not do that. The use is that the subjective nature of everything leads to interesting discussions about how the world is constructed and mediated subjectively through language, through the senses, and so on.

    As a final note, I fail to see the use of living in denial. I would think that, of all people, those who like the idea of objectivity would be able to deal with the world as it is, not as they wish it to be.

  75. “Within the framework of your theory, the sun has to be larger than eight feet, because if it wasn’t the theory would be wrong.”

    Not quite what I said. The theory that we live in a 3-dimensional manifold with nearly Euclidean metric over the local region is spectacularly validated empirically, to the point that:
    1) if you try to do a “but it’s all an illusion!” trick, then we’ve just got a different referent than the naive one, and
    2) If this somehow changes, then we have left the domain of applicability of the theory. This does not mean the theory is wrong, but it does mean that its referents have ceased to have meaning. Right now, here, a foot has meaning and the sun is bigger than 8 feet.
    If tomorrow it isn’t, then the old definitions of foot and/or sun have no meaning, and new definitions will need to be devised.
    In the mean time, our notion of ‘sun’ and ‘foot’ are perfectly reconciled such that the sun is well over 8 feet in diameter, period.

    “But there’s no guarantee that the theory is correct, and no way of objectively proving it, as all the elements of the theory are observed, reported, and described by humans, who are subjective.”

    Ah. Which theory? The theory I’m talking about is simply that:
    1) there exists a physical world, or a reasonably consistent representation of one
    2) we can perceive elements of 1, albeit imperfectly
    3) elementary geometry is a reasonably accurate description of this part of the physical world (and the deviations don’t interfere with the notion of ‘sun’ or ‘foot’)
    4) The sun is effing huge (as deduced from data by way of 3). Way over 8′.

    If you object to 1, 2, or 3, you’re being willfully obtuse to the point that the train of thought is useless – but, more on point, see the response above.
    If you discard 4, well, umm, maybe you live underground, or are from deep space. Maybe you’re only let out at night.

    Additional 100% fact:
    I am not implemented on a single 4 state Turing machine with a 20 location cyclic tape. I’m bigger than that.

  76. If you object to 1, 2, or 3, you’re being willfully obtuse to the point that the train of thought is useless

    Please drop the “willfully obtuse” phrasing, as it’s hostile. I do object to 1 & 2. You are evaluating (what you think is) a physical world through subjective impressions and using those impressions to make arguments. You don’t have anything other than those, or the report of those, to go on. That subjectivity means you can’t make 100% guarantees about anything.

    . I’m bigger than that.

    Or so you think.

  77. Please drop the “willfully obtuse” phrasing, as it’s hostile. I do object to 1 & 2. You are evaluating (what you think is) a physical world through subjective impressions and using those impressions to make arguments.

    I’m afraid that I concur with the “willfully obtuse” observation.

    In order for you to be able to maintain your assertions you have to ignore the very real ability to use observations to predict future effects. If a theologian annoys a philosopher enough with “Plato’s cave” maundering that the philosopher strikes the theologian, we can be sure that the theologian will exhibit certain behaviours that match those we exhibit when experiencing pain.* If all observation was merely subjective, then such predictions would be much less reliable than is observed.

    That our observations can never be guaranteed to be identical to some Platonic form does not mean that anything goes. Even with quantum mechanics’ probabilistic nature, I can still use it comfortably to guarantee that you will not be smashed flat by a spontaneously-appearing pink unicorn falling out of the empty sky, for instance.

    — Steve

    * Samuel Johnson was refuting this sort of sophistry more than a century before there was post-modernism… po-mo is great for literature and other socially-constructed phenomena, but it breaks down badly when applied to natural phenomena. Or, to cite Phillip K. Dick, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

  78. I’m afraid that I concur with the “willfully obtuse” observation.

    Well, look, if the way you want to handle disagreement is with insults, there’s not a lot I can do about it. I do think it suggests rather more about you than it does about me.

    My point is that even the natural world is mediated through subjective mechanisms–our senses–and reported and discussed through subjective mechanisms–language, definitions, and cultures. The conclusion of that is that you can’t get away from subjectivity at any time.

    Philip K. Dick also said (in the same essay):

    “I offer this merely to show that as soon as you begin to ask what is ultimately real, you right away begin talk nonsense.”

    and

    “As I said to you earlier, my two preoccupations in my writing are “What is reality?” and “What is the authentic human?” I’m sure you can see by now that I have not been able to answer the first question. I have an abiding intuition that somehow the world of the Bible is a literally real but veiled landscape, never changing, hidden from our sight, but available to us by revelation. That is all I can come up with—a mixture of mystical experience, reasoning, and faith. ”

    I don’t think he’s being willfully obtuse.

  79. I do think it suggests rather more about you than it does about me.

    That is, in essence, your rebuttal for everything mentioned so far in this thread.

    To invert your assertion, why is my (and drachefly’s) subjective experience on this trumped by your own? Is there an objective means to disprove the shared subjective experience we have that your arguments are disingenous at best? If not, does this mean that the issue should be decided by majority vote?

    (You see, that’s where sollipsism collapses in my opinon. It fails entirely to explain commonalities of experiences by independant observers.)

    My point is that even the natural world is mediated through subjective mechanisms

    No, it’s not.. only our perception of it is, and even then that perception is constrained in manners that even non-sentients agree upon. (Gravity, for instance, works identically for humans and cats no matter how hard either pretends otherwise.)

    — Steve

  80. That is, in essence, your rebuttal for everything mentioned so far in this thread.

    No, it’s not. I don’t believe that I’ve been insulting to anyone in this particular discussion. I certainly haven’t called anyone willfully obtuse. If you can point to someplace where I’ve been insulting, I’d love to see it. You have been insulting, on the other hand, and I don’t appreciate it.

    No, it’s not.. only our perception of it is,

    Well, then we agree. If our perception of it is always mediated through the subjective, how can we decide on what is objective?

  81. (sorry for the double post)

    independant observers

    And you know these independent observers actually exist, how?

  82. Re: willfully obtuse: I was describing your behavior. If you don’t want your actions described that way, don’t act that way. You have not called anyone names, as far as I noticed. That doesn’t mean you haven’t been acting willfully obtuse.
    In particular concerning the 4 state Turing machine: my moment-to-moment qualia contain more information than that whole system can hold. I think, therefore I am. My perceptions are real (if you’re a solipsist, substitute your own). Are there more than 24 bits of information in your mental state? (hint: yes) Then you can deduce that YOU at least aren’t implemented on that Turing machine.

    Anyway, this last comment of yours reminds me of the approach that I have never seen refuted: We don’t know that these independent observers exist. But we can make certain conditional claims with 100% reliability.

    This statement is false:
    “Naive physical reality applies,
    And we didn’t screw up the math,
    And the relevant measurements are within 200 sigma of correct,
    And the sun is actually 8′ in diameter”

    This sort of reasoning excludes a lot of possibilities. It’s knowledge.

  83. I was describing your behavior. If you don’t want your actions described that way, don’t act that way. You have not called anyone names, as far as I noticed. That doesn’t mean you haven’t been acting willfully obtuse.

    Yeah, no. There are ways of describing behavior that are not insulting. You didn’t manage any of them.

  84. And, for what it’s worth, if you have somehow developed a state of mind in which denying the existence of a reasonably consistent representation of a physical reality is vaguely sensible, then
    A) I’m sorry for you in general, and
    B) I’m sorry for saying you’re willfully obtuse.

  85. So, how about the rest of that post?

    I didn’t see much point in engaging with someone being insulting.

    And, for what it’s worth, if you have somehow developed a state of mind in which denying the existence of a reasonably consistent representation of a physical reality is vaguely sensible, then
    A) I’m sorry for you in general, and
    B) I’m sorry for saying you’re willfully obtuse.

    Irrespective of the grade-school aspect of A), I’ll take the B) with thanks. The apology is appreciated.

  86. A) was meant in the sense that living with that degree of doubt must be very tiring, not that you must be insane/stupid/watever.

  87. A) was meant in the sense that living with that degree of doubt must be very tiring, not that you must be insane/stupid/watever.

    Good to know. Not tiring at all, I’m not sure why you think it would be.

  88. In any case, do you allow statements of the form presented in the end of 106?

    (Note about the sigma line – Observing a 6 sigma event is around 1 in a billion observations, while 7 sigma is one in a trillion. 9 sigma is around 1 in a quintillion. 25 sigma is 1 in 10^135th power. As you can see, it grows much faster than exponential. Even so, that 200 sigma value is way way too few. It’s more like 2500 sigma, just from one decent observation. Having every observation correlated in the same way multiplies the improbabilities to the point where scientific notation has a difficult time expressing the improbability. Point is, that statement is basically the null statement)

  89. I’m sorry, I was posting late at night and made an error in #111. A) was meant in the sense that if you actually don’t have any direct evidence that a reasonably consistent representation of a physical reality exists, then you are extremely disoriented all of the time because you don’t grok the 3-dimensional space we live in.

  90. A) was meant in the sense that if you actually don’t have any direct evidence that a reasonably consistent representation of a physical reality exists, then you are extremely disoriented all of the time because you don’t grok the 3-dimensional space we live in

    Occasionally, I trip over things.

  91. [Deleted because it’s a bit pathetic for someone to make a lazy ad hominem in a thread attached to an entry on how to argue better — JS]

  92. I ran across this; it seems topical here:

    “Sure, when the dust settles, it could turn out that apples don’t exist, Earth doesn’t exist, reality doesn’t exist. But the nonexistent apples will still fall toward the nonexistent ground at a meaningless rate of 9.8 m/s2.”
    from

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/q5/quantum_nonrealism/

  93. “Sure, when the dust settles, it could turn out that apples don’t exist, Earth doesn’t exist, reality doesn’t exist. But the nonexistent apples will still fall toward the nonexistent ground at a meaningless rate of 9.8 m/s2.”

    Or so you think.

  94. yeah

    As a matter of (something that resembles a) fact, sure.

    You know, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and I were having a four-way conversation the other day, and none of us could figure out why you’re so resistant to the idea that the universe might vary depending on how it’s perceived.

    But then Heisenberg’s cat wandered in and kept doing this weird seizure thing and we got distracted.

  95. Does the above hold true during arguments with significant and close members of your family? Your points aee well taken yet i worry about their unskilled application on my wife…

  96. Whatever, John. Based upon this really cool experience I had just the other day, NONE of what you have shared here is true.

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