More About Arguing

It’s not that we disagree, it’s that we do it poorly.

I wrote a piece here some time ago called “A Good Argument”. I want to take this subject up again. I see no reason to abandon my basic premise — most of us do not argue well, and think we argue better than we do.  This latter assertion is supported by a more general psychological quirk we all share — the complacent sense that we know more about things than we actually do (the Dunning/Kruger syndrome). 

One can’t blame this problem entirely on our wiring. Before the advent of the 24 hours news cycle, and the triumph of the internet, it might be fair to say that many of us knew a lot about a little. We used to be more locally focused. My brother-law (not an internet sophisticate) devours our local newspaper and his opinions about political goings on in our town, whether I accept them or not, are very solidly based. Now, courtesy of the media’s global reach, we know a little about a lot. The world is our media oyster. Unfortunately, we cannot digest the sand in the shell — even the smartest of us cannot properly internalise all this information and turn it into thoughtfully reasoned opinions supported by carefully sifted evidence. Because we know a little about a lot, we frequently get into conversations, wherein, were we but more self-aware, we’d realise we start to drown about two sentences in.

Must We Argue?

Should we argue at all? Is it not an inevitably frustrating exercise?  Have we not all had the experience of making several excellent (to our minds) points in a discussion with someone, and having these points bounce off the other person like a rubber ball thrown at a brick wall? Do we not risk damaging friendships when people take disagreements personally?

Granting the above does not persuade me. We must argue. Social beings that we are, we learn a huge amount of what we know in conversation with others, and much of what we can and should learn comes in the form of vigorous disagreements about issues and ideas. We must argue, we just need to do it better. I have a prescription, but venture no opinion as to it’s likely acceptance. Frankly, I don’t care. A struck match does not always light. It might be wet, you may not have applied enough friction, there may not be enough oxygen in the room; but no match lights if it is not struck.

I divide these points into two categories — attitudinal items and process-oriented suggestions.  This discussion is about the process of good argument.

Let Me Finish!

An argument is not a debate — it is not a competition in which someone wins and someone loses on points; but we can all learn to argue more successfully by borrowing some things from the way debates work.

The first and most holy rule is the ban on interruption, oh so hard to implement in informal conversation, but standard in the rules of a formal debate. When someone is making a case for something, interruption is a fundamental sign of disrespect.  The interruptor is saying, “ I don’t need to let you finish, I pronounce you already stupid or trivial or wrong.” Does this not seem an absolutely graceless social transgression when stated this baldly? Yet all of us, including yours truly, do this all the time. One simply cannot have a reasoned, useful dialogue about anything when people are talking (often yelling) over top of each other. My wife once suggested (knowing what we were in for in a particular social gathering) that we use a baton (I think it was a large pepper mill) to signal the appropriate behaviour for speaker and listeners.) Chronic interruption also reduces many thoughtful people to silence, giving an illegitimate and unearned victory to the loudest voices. This ‘victory of the loud’ corrodes the free expression of opinion essential to democracy. I would add that I don’t maintain that all interruption is malicious, although it is always rude. I have noticed that many chronic interrupters are betraying a peculiar insecurity about their own viewpoints. The thought they have, has to be expressed immediately or it may disappear because it is not attached to a coherent and interlinked chain of reasoning that will still be there when the other person is finished talking. 

Do I Get You Right?

Now, let us say we are living in the happy, and probably utopian, Land of Non Interruption. Here  is something else almost never found in informal discussion that debater’s use — let’s call it recapitulation. Arguments would be much more civil if, after person A was finished, person B did this: “Let me see if I understand your argument — you made the following points in support of your scepticism about man-made climate change. Do I have that right?” One could take this further and say, “I hadn’t considered that point”, or, “I didn’t know that”. I know this seems a rather fussy and artificial thing to insert into the flow of an informal conversation, but it would have a dramatic effect on the emotional connection between arguers. You have listened, and in so demonstrating this, you have signalled respect for the person with whom you disagree. And, in spite of the fact that we all think we are wearing the Cape of Absolute Rightness, truth is seldom all on one side of an argument; so it makes sense to recapitulate. You may even strengthen your own case by doing this and meeting an unexpected challenge.

Let Me Prove It With Thousands of Stories

A final thing with respect to process that practised debaters have over the rest of us is a much firmer grasp on what constitutes good evidence for the truth of an assertion. One does not have to go through a gruelling course in formal logic to grasp some very basic aspects of the rules of evidence. Here we go in simplest outline:

  • An anecdote is not a fact, it may be untrue;
  • An isolated fact is too random to have much weight in an argument, the world is a blizzard of facts;
  • When facts are accumulated into something we can call statistical data, this data is more compelling, but still does not constitute good evidence if this data does not exclude differing interpretations of what it means

Good evidence has this exclusionary character. It makes alternative interpretations difficult. If someone says to Canadian me that the United States has handled COVID just as well as we have, and I show him well-sourced data demonstrating that the U.S death rate is much higher proportionately than the Canadian equivalent, he may try hard to find an alternative interpretation of this statistic, but it will not be easy. Statistics can be notoriously slippery, but Mark Twain went too far when he said there are lies,damn lies, and statistics. Good data is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, most human beings are in love with stories. They resonate in our psyches, the way numbers do not outside the rarified world of higher mathematics. But stories are just extended anecdotes like the one about your uncle Fred who smoked three packs a day and lived to 104. Such tales never rise to the status of evidence. For the greater good of good argument our fairly widespread statistical illiteracy is a real problem.


So far, three straight-forward but difficult suggestions are proffered for the purpose of improving civil discourse;

  • Don’t interrupt;
  • Recapitulate — pay attention and give respect to opposing viewpoints by demonstrating that you are listening, and perhaps even granting some of their points as new and unconsidered by you;
  • Better understand what comprises strong evidence.

Next time we’ll talk about attitude and argument.