The mystery of my bad writing and debate skills

2013-01-11 02:02

Sometimes, when I am in an argument with some random person on the Internet, a thing happens which has always sort of mystified me. What will happen is, around the time that I conclude that someone is genuinely incapable of even basic logical coherence, they’ll turn to a variety of personal attacks. And what makes it mysterious is, the attacks are pulled from a small pool of things like “nothing you say makes any sense” or “you are too dogmatic” or “you are so authoritarian”, and…

Well, first off, they’re usually complaints that make no sense to me. I am totally aware that I have many annoying traits, but they’ll somehow cherry-pick for things that I can’t take seriously at all.

And second, they’re nearly always complaints that strike me as valid complaints about the people using them. And that … well, it’s not totally unthinkable, but it seems a little odd for it to be mere coincidence.

I think I finally got it. The key is that this only happens with people who appear to completely lack any distinction between persuasive and unpersuasive; there is stuff they agree with, which they regard as persuasive, and stuff they disagree with, which they regard as stupid. And here’s the thing:

To them, arguments must be pretty much magic. They can’t see a distinction between “things which make people think I am winning” and “things which make people think I am losing”. And since they are incompetent, and everyone else (well, everyone who has basic distinctions between sense and nonsense) can tell that, what they see is:

  1. There are a lot of arguments. It really seems like I am winning, because I am posting some great stuff and these people aren’t saying anything that would change my mind.
  2. Someone says some stuff about me.
  3. A bunch of people express the opinion that the other guy won the argument.

So… How to explain it? Simple! What that person said is a magic token that, when used in an argument, makes you the winner.

So when they feel like they are not making headway, they use the Words Which Win Arguments. Which are, not at all coincidentally, likely criticisms of their own argumentation. And it doesn’t work, and they get furious because how can that not work?

This is why people who never really advance an argument accuse other people of being unable to argue logically, and people who are aggressively telling other people how to live call other people arrogant. It’s not just “projection”; it’s their best attempt at behaving in the ways that work for other people. It’s cargo cult debate.

Peter Seebach




  1. I think you’re reading too much into it. People tend not to make much sense when they’re worked up. And they tend to get worked up when they’re losing an argument. Or when they’re discussing something with someone who just doesn’t understand what they’re saying. So what they’re saying has nothing at all to do with trying to make logical arguments to win a debate.

    Also, it is often possible to win an argument, not by putting forward logical reasoning, but by continuing doggedly until the other person gets tired of arguing. In that case, it doesn’t matter what you say at all, so long as you don’t concede an inch.

    Human brains didn’t evolve to win debates. They evolved to provide the greatest survival advantage in an environment dominated by other people. Rationality only helps to the extent that other people are rational and coherent. But even if we were rational, we wouldn’t be coherent.

    You see, networks of neurons work on a voice-vote-like system: the loudest works. And these neural networks join together into neural regions inside and outside the brain. And these join together into the various regions of your brain. And finally your consciousness weaves them together into the illusion of a coherent narrative. But at all levels, the loudest voice wins.

    I never expected to bring an argument for the existence of God into a discussion of neurology (particularly since I’m an atheist) but C. S. Lewis gave a great example in The Screwtape Letters. A demon instructs another demon that when an atheist contemplates religion, the best counter-argument is not a logical debate, but rather that it’s time for a snack. Although the demons don’t describe it this way, the voice-vote in the person’s head then consists of (a) present beliefs, which are hard to change, (b) the desire for a snack, and © the pain associated with struggling with a complex logical argument, all outvoting the desire to accept logic.

    In the same way, when someone lashes out with truly awful illogic and non-sequitors, it’s best not to see this as an argument against your position. Rather you are listening in on an argument within the other person’s mind between your beliefs and his/hers. And you are losing, not because of your logic, but in spite of it.

    Little known fact: when members of apocalyptic religions survive the date when they expect the world to end, the fact that it doesn’t end strengthens their faith, rather than diminishes it. The alternative— believing that they have sacrificed friendships, family, and much of their life for nothing— is simply not something they can live with.

    Dave Leppik · 2013-01-21 15:41 · #