Yet another one of Paul Graham’s essays – read it here. As usual, it’s full of good stuff:
“What does it mean to disagree well? Most readers can tell the difference between mere name-calling and a carefully reasoned refutation, but I think it would help to put names on the intermediate stages. So here’s an attempt at a disagreement hierarchy:
DH0. Name-calling. [...]
DH1. Ad Hominem. [...]
DH2. Responding to Tone [...]
DH3. Contradiction [...]
DH4. Counterargument. [...]
At level 4 we reach the first form of convincing disagreement: counterargument. Forms up to this point can usually be ignored as proving nothing. Counterargument might prove something. The problem is, it’s hard to say exactly what.
Counterargument is contradiction plus reasoning and/or evidence. When aimed squarely at the original argument, it can be convincing. But unfortunately it’s common for counterarguments to be aimed at something slightly different. More often than not, two people arguing passionately about something are actually arguing about two different things. Sometimes they even agree with one another, but are so caught up in their squabble they don’t realize it.[...]
The most convincing form of disagreement is refutation. It’s also the rarest, because it’s the most work. Indeed, the disagreement hierarchy forms a kind of pyramid, in the sense that the higher you go the fewer instances you find.
To refute someone you probably have to quote them. You have to find a “smoking gun,” a passage in whatever you disagree with that you feel is mistaken, and then explain why it’s mistaken. If you can’t find an actual quote to disagree with, you may be arguing with a straw man.
While refutation generally entails quoting, quoting doesn’t necessarily imply refutation. Some writers quote parts of things they disagree with to give the appearance of legitimate refutation, then follow with a response as low as DH3 or even DH0
DH6. Refuting the Central Point.
The force of a refutation depends on what you refute. The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone’s central point.
Even as high as DH5 we still sometimes see deliberate dishonesty, as when someone picks out minor points of an argument and refutes those. Sometimes the spirit in which this is done makes it more of a sophisticated form of ad hominem than actual refutation. For example, correcting someone’s grammar, or harping on minor mistakes in names or numbers. Unless the opposing argument actually depends on such things, the only purpose of correcting them is to discredit one’s opponent.
Truly refuting something requires one to refute its central point, or at least one of them. And that means one has to commit explicitly to what the central point is. So a truly effective refutation would look like:
The author’s main point seems to be x. As he says:
But this is wrong for the following reasons…
The quotation you point out as mistaken need not be the actual statement of the author’s main point. It’s enough to refute something it depends upon.
What It Means
Now we have a way of classifying forms of disagreement. What good is it? One thing the disagreement hierarchy doesn’t give us is a way of picking a winner. DH levels merely describe the form of a statement, not whether it’s correct. A DH6 response could still be completely mistaken.
But while DH levels don’t set a lower bound on the convincingness of a reply, they do set an upper bound. A DH6 response might be unconvincing, but a DH2 or lower response is always unconvincing.
The most obvious advantage of classifying the forms of disagreement is that it will help people to evaluate what they read. In particular, it will help them to see through intellectually dishonest arguments. An eloquent speaker or writer can give the impression of vanquishing an opponent merely by using forceful words. In fact that is probably the defining quality of a demagogue. By giving names to the different forms of disagreement, we give critical readers a pin for popping such balloons.
Such labels may help writers too. Most intellectual dishonesty is unintentional. Someone arguing against the tone of something he disagrees with may believe he’s really saying something. Zooming out and seeing his current position on the disagreement hierarchy may inspire him to try moving up to counterargument or refutation.
But the greatest benefit of disagreeing well is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier. If you study conversations, you find there is a lot more meanness down in DH1 than up in DH6. You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.
If moving up the disagreement hierarchy makes people less mean, that will make most of them happier. Most people don’t really enjoy being mean; they do it because they can’t help it.”
Another one of Paul Graham’s essays. A very, very good read, so I’ve quoted extensively from the essay below:
“Let’s start with a test: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?
If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you’re supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn’t. Odds are you just think whatever you’re told. [...]
What can’t we say? One way to find these ideas is simply to look at things people do say, and get in trouble for. 
Of course, we’re not just looking for things we can’t say. We’re looking for things we can’t say that are true, or at least have enough chance of being true that the question should remain open. But many of the things people get in trouble for saying probably do make it over this second, lower threshold. No one gets in trouble for saying that 2 + 2 is 5, or that people in Pittsburgh are ten feet tall. Such obviously false statements might be treated as jokes, or at worst as evidence of insanity, but they are not likely to make anyone mad. The statements that make people mad are the ones they worry might be believed. I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true. [...]
In every period of history, there seem to have been labels that got applied to statements to shoot them down before anyone had a chance to ask if they were true or not. “Blasphemy”, “sacrilege”, and “heresy” were such labels for a good part of western history, as in more recent times “indecent”, “improper”, and “unamerican” have been. [...]
We have such labels today, of course, quite a lot of them, from the all-purpose “inappropriate” to the dreaded “divisive.” In any period, it should be easy to figure out what such labels are, simply by looking at what people call ideas they disagree with besides untrue. When a politician says his opponent is mistaken, that’s a straightforward criticism, but when he attacks a statement as “divisive” or “racially insensitive” instead of arguing that it’s false, we should start paying attention. [...]
Moral fashions more often seem to be created deliberately. When there’s something we can’t say, it’s often because some group doesn’t want us to.
The prohibition will be strongest when the group is nervous. [...] To launch a taboo, a group has to be poised halfway between weakness and power. A confident group doesn’t need taboos to protect it. It’s not considered improper to make disparaging remarks about Americans, or the English. And yet a group has to be powerful enough to enforce a taboo. [...]
I suspect the biggest source of moral taboos will turn out to be power struggles in which one side only barely has the upper hand. That’s where you’ll find a group powerful enough to enforce taboos, but weak enough to need them.
Most struggles, whatever they’re really about, will be cast as struggles between competing ideas. The English Reformation was at bottom a struggle for wealth and power, but it ended up being cast as a struggle to preserve the souls of Englishmen from the corrupting influence of Rome. It’s easier to get people to fight for an idea. And whichever side wins, their ideas will also be considered to have triumphed, as if God wanted to signal his agreement by selecting that side as the victor.
We often like to think of World War II as a triumph of freedom over totalitarianism. We conveniently forget that the Soviet Union was also one of the winners.
I’m not saying that struggles are never about ideas, just that they will always be made to seem to be about ideas, whether they are or not. [...]
To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that’s in the habit of going where it’s not supposed to.
Great work tends to grow out of ideas that others have overlooked, and no idea is so overlooked as one that’s unthinkable. Natural selection, for example. It’s so simple. Why didn’t anyone think of it before? Well, that is all too obvious. Darwin himself was careful to tiptoe around the implications of his theory. He wanted to spend his time thinking about biology, not arguing with people who accused him of being an atheist. [...]
When you find something you can’t say, what do you do with it? My advice is, don’t say it. Or at least, pick your battles.
Suppose in the future there is a movement to ban the color yellow. Proposals to paint anything yellow are denounced as “yellowist”, as is anyone suspected of liking the color. People who like orange are tolerated but viewed with suspicion. Suppose you realize there is nothing wrong with yellow. If you go around saying this, you’ll be denounced as a yellowist too, and you’ll find yourself having a lot of arguments with anti-yellowists. If your aim in life is to rehabilitate the color yellow, that may be what you want. But if you’re mostly interested in other questions, being labelled as a yellowist will just be a distraction. Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot.
The most important thing is to be able to think what you want, not to say what you want. And if you feel you have to say everything you think, it may inhibit you from thinking improper thoughts. I think it’s better to follow the opposite policy. Draw a sharp line between your thoughts and your speech. Inside your head, anything is allowed. Within my head I make a point of encouraging the most outrageous thoughts I can imagine. But, as in a secret society, nothing that happens within the building should be told to outsiders. The first rule of Fight Club is, you do not talk about Fight Club. [...]
The trouble with keeping your thoughts secret, though, is that you lose the advantages of discussion. Talking about an idea leads to more ideas. So the optimal plan, if you can manage it, is to have a few trusted friends you can speak openly to. This is not just a way to develop ideas; it’s also a good rule of thumb for choosing friends. The people you can say heretical things to without getting jumped on are also the most interesting to know. [...]
Who thinks they’re not open-minded? Our hypothetical prim miss from the suburbs thinks she’s open-minded. Hasn’t she been taught to be? Ask anyone, and they’ll say the same thing: they’re pretty open-minded, though they draw the line at things that are really wrong. (Some tribes may avoid “wrong” as judgemental, and may instead use a more neutral sounding euphemism like “negative” or “destructive”.)
When people are bad at math, they know it, because they get the wrong answers on tests. But when people are bad at open-mindedness they don’t know it. In fact they tend to think the opposite. [...]
To see fashion in your own time, though, requires a conscious effort. Without time to give you distance, you have to create distance yourself. Instead of being part of the mob, stand as far away from it as you can and watch what it’s doing. And pay especially close attention whenever an idea is being suppressed. Web filters for children and employees often ban sites containing pornography, violence, and hate speech. What counts as pornography and violence? And what, exactly, is “hate speech?” This sounds like a phrase out of 1984.
Labels like that are probably the biggest external clue. If a statement is false, that’s the worst thing you can say about it. You don’t need to say that it’s heretical. And if it isn’t false, it shouldn’t be suppressed. So when you see statements being attacked as x-ist or y-ic (substitute your current values of x and y), whether in 1630 or 2030, that’s a sure sign that something is wrong. When you hear such labels being used, ask why.
Especially if you hear yourself using them. It’s not just the mob you need to learn to watch from a distance. You need to be able to watch your own thoughts from a distance. That’s not a radical idea, by the way; it’s the main difference between children and adults. When a child gets angry because he’s tired, he doesn’t know what’s happening. An adult can distance himself enough from the situation to say “never mind, I’m just tired.” I don’t see why one couldn’t, by a similar process, learn to recognize and discount the effects of moral fashions.
You have to take that extra step if you want to think clearly. But it’s harder, because now you’re working against social customs instead of with them. Everyone encourages you to grow up to the point where you can discount your own bad moods. Few encourage you to continue to the point where you can discount society’s bad moods.
How can you see the wave, when you’re the water? Always be questioning. That’s the only defence. What can’t you say? And why?”
I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short (Pascal)
I read Paul Graham’s essay some time ago, but I don’t think I’ve ever linked to it here. Since I recently had an excuse to read it again, I figured I might as well put up a link. It’s a very US-centric piece, but worth reading. A few passages from the post:
“And that, I think, is the root of the problem. Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular, certainly, but they want even more to be smart. And popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school. [...]
For example, teenage kids pay a great deal of attention to clothes. They don’t consciously dress to be popular. They dress to look good. But to who? To the other kids. Other kids’ opinions become their definition of right, not just for clothes, but for almost everything they do, right down to the way they walk. And so every effort they make to do things “right” is also, consciously or not, an effort to be more popular.
Nerds don’t realize this. They don’t realize that it takes work to be popular. In general, people outside some very demanding field don’t realize the extent to which success depends on constant (though often unconscious) effort. For example, most people seem to consider the ability to draw as some kind of innate quality, like being tall. In fact, most people who “can draw” like drawing, and have spent many hours doing it; that’s why they’re good at it. Likewise, popular isn’t just something you are or you aren’t, but something you make yourself.
The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about. Their attention is drawn to books or the natural world, not fashions and parties.
But I think the main reason other kids persecute nerds is that it’s part of the mechanism of popularity. Popularity is only partially about individual attractiveness. It’s much more about alliances. To become more popular, you need to be constantly doing things that bring you close to other popular people, and nothing brings people closer than a common enemy.
Like a politician who wants to distract voters from bad times at home, you can create an enemy if there isn’t a real one. By singling out and persecuting a nerd, a group of kids from higher in the hierarchy create bonds between themselves. Attacking an outsider makes them all insiders. This is why the worst cases of bullying happen with groups.”
I think he overstates the case here:
“In almost any group of people you’ll find hierarchy. When groups of adults form in the real world, it’s generally for some common purpose, and the leaders end up being those who are best at it. The problem with most schools is, they have no purpose. But hierarchy there must be. And so the kids make one out of nothing.
We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest. And that’s exactly what happens in most American schools.”
However I couldn’t really say for sure because I’ve never set foot in an American high school. I don’t think this is the case in Denmark.
A funny thing about reading the essay was that while it would be easy for me to use my own experiences to affirm the theory of the ‘unpopular nerd’ in the 7-8th grade, a period where I was periodically bullied in school, I find that it does not very well match the (Danish) high-school experience. I btw. didn’t much think of myself as a nerd before the age of, what, 20? Nerds were other people, people much more strange than me – in my self-narrative, I didn’t get bullied because I was a nerd but because those other kids were jerks. I wasn’t really all that different from anyone else (so I told myself). I was told sometimes that I was a nerd in high school, but I shrugged it off because it didn’t matter, because I wasn’t. I didn’t have much clue when it came to the social dynamics of the high school environment, but I don’t think I was ever unpopular. I don’t think I was all that popular either – if so I didn’t notice – it was just that I didn’t pay much attention to that kind of stuff (about this part Graham is right). But an important observation here is that I was allowed not to care by the others.
Graham’s treatment of status as a unidimensional variable is of course a gross simplification of the actual dynamics. One thing I’d add related to the ‘important observation’ above is that whereas status might not be too complex to be semi-reliably measured on a unidimensional scale, it should indeed surprise us a great deal if people who did not do all that well on such a scale would care much about their ordering on such a scale, at least if given any choice in the matter. Any sort of aggregate popularity function would have to be constructed by aggregating stuff that in many cases has little to nothing to do with each other and we should expect people, especially people at the lower ends of the status spectrum, to actually only really care much about the status markers on which they do well. Everyone wants be think that s/he is better than other people, more deserving, so most people just pick a narrative that makes this (…idea? …delusion?) come true, which is one major reason why most people care about but a few dimensions of the social hierarchy. The flip side of the ‘nerds don’t care about being (conventionally) popular’ is that ‘there’s a lot of stuff non-nerds also don’t care about which makes them less popular among nerds’ (and/or other sub-groups) – so why do you care so much about the popularity functions of non-nerds?
Graham spends some time on that one, on why nerds care about the opinions of non-nerds. You have a real problem when you can find no dimensions where you do better than others, or at least no dimensions that many other people care about in the status game. One thing Graham isn’t explicit about though (have thought about?) is that status – like safety (…and money, and…) – is something that people will very often start to care a lot about when they don’t really have much of it. This angle is not really explored in his piece and I find it quite important: A very unpopular nerd probably is more status-conscious than the higher-status bully who makes his life miserable, because he’s forced to confront this aspect of his existence all the time; the bully isn’t. As a general rule, bullied people spend orders of magnitude more time thinking about bullying and related status-stuff than do bullies. I think Graham is missing that part of the equation – being unpopular makes you status-conscious, just like being poor makes you care more about money (maybe I should write a post about that one too? It seems to me that a lot of people with abundant resources are unaware of the fact that part of the reason why they don’t much ‘care about money’ is due to the fact that they have a lot of it, which is precisely what enables them to not care). Anyway, moving along that diagonal; perhaps the people who are (conventionally) popular in the eyes of people who are not don’t really know that they are popular? Perhaps it doesn’t even necessarily take a lot of work to become (conventionally) popular? That would be unfair, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Perhaps some popular high schoolers are just likeable people who do not need to actually do much to stay popular? Perhaps some of them – many of them? – are quite smart and could have become ‘nerds’ but instead decided not to?
Update: I decided to just get rid of four paragraphs because I didn’t much like how they turned out. If you were wondering about that Pascal quote in the beginning, the post used to be a lot longer. It turned out I did have the time to use the mouse to select those passages and delete them.
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