How to know if an argument is worth having

There are, in my experience, two good reasons to have an argument, with sub-reasons of those reasons:

1. Actually convincing people
2. Refining your argumentation

You can narrow down whether an argument is worth having by asking yourself questions about the debate, starting with

#1. Actually Convincing People:

* How many people are watching this argument?

If it’s private / 1-on-1 then the answer is obvious: one person. If it’s public, like on the internet, you are almost always not trying to convince the person, but people watching, since any more than 2 audience viewers means you will benefit from convincing others. (One “like” on a facebook status usually means between 5 and 10 viewers. One “share” is between 20 and 100. I have these figures from a marketing firm I used to intern at that recruited clients with this information.)

* What is the hostility toward your position?

I can almost always advocate pro-rationality positions in rationality groups, because they’re on-board by default. But in groups that think “objectivity is just another word for male bias” (yes, people believe this) I will not be so successful. This is obvious, but there’s one less obvious point to consider.

* What’s the meta-audience / the audience of your audience?

Say I’m posting about evolutionary psychology in a group hostile to evolutionary psychology. I make lots of very reasonable arguments in favor of evolutionary psychology. I then receive a lot of belligerent hostile responses that cannot respond well to my arguments. At that point I screenshot the argument and send it to groups that are neutral about the evolutionary psychology debate, who are far more likely to see my position as favorable given the unfair attacks toward it. You don’t need to start out with the motive of baiting anyone, but it’s a good trump card to know exists.

Convincing people will always be a numbers game, so you can measure performance quantitatively. The next category is not so objective and involves more introspection.

#2 Refining Your Argumentation:

To understand how your arguments can be refined you first need to understand what arguments are. This will be somewhat long compared to what most people read on the internet, but I’m giving extremely rudimentary, bare-bones information that allows the minimal necessary understanding. This could be a LOT longer. I’m starting and ending the explanation of arguments with a line in case you know all of this, but unless you’ve studied philosophy yourself you probably don’t.

Any declarative sentence using “is” or “are” is an argument, or at least the conclusion or premise of one. People will ironically say something like “I’m not arguing with you” or “I’m just stating my opinion” to mean “I’m not trying to conflict with you” or “I’m not emotionally invested in a conflict with you” but this is, amusingly, an argument on its own.

(If I argue with my mother, I’m “arguing” with her. If she responds, she’s “stating her opinion.” For some reason (lol), “I have a degree in studying arguments” has never seemed to matter here.)

Arguments are made to justify a conclusion. If you want people to believe a conclusion you need to provide reasons for it. This:

“The lolicans are a corrupt party.”

is unjustified — there is, literally, not a reason given to justify it. (“lolicans” is a name I made up.) You cannot accept it as true and say you have a reason to do so, because you have not been given one. Accepting it would be, literally, unreasonable.

When someone leaves an argument and says they’re done or whatever, that’s fine, but this is a concession that any viewer has no reason to accept their stance. Most people who say they are “done” with arguments are not actually (or they would have just stopped replying), and they expect the rhetorical weight of their exit to convince audiences in lieu of reasoning, as if they’ll go “oh, wow, this smart person left out of fury, surely with *this* standard their opponent must be wrong.” It’s the equivalent to leaving and slamming the door, only to open it again to hear what other people said.

If you want to be right and expect to be taken seriously you need to give supporting reasoning. If you don’t care about being right or being taken seriously that’s absolutely fine, and if you secretly know you’re right you’re allowed to believe that, but earnestly communicating to other people your stance is, on some level, an attempt to get other people to believe it.

Arguments usually follow two categories of justification (proving true): inductive and deductive.

Inductive arguments will be probabilistic and so something like Bayesianism (which deals with probability) applies, but deductive arguments are not probabilistic and so Bayesianism will be irrelevant. Legal arguments tend to be deductive. Most arguments are a mixture of deductive and inductive claims. Contemporary philosophy for example is often a mixture of empirical (inductive) and analytic (deductive) arguments.

For more on this, see episodes #2 and #3 on CrashCourse philosophy:


Philosophy (and philosophical logic) is the central domain for studying arguments for several reasons:

* mathematical logic is more directly applicable to, well, math, and does not translate as well to everyday sentences; logic studies in CS are similar.

With that said, philosophy and CS and math publish in a lot of the same journals, and many logic scholars often tend to be educated in philosophy and math or philosophy and computer science, or heavily read on both in their own time outside of some sanctioned/official context. (This is much more possible now in an age of Library Genesis, epub conversions, tablet PDF readers, Google Books hacks to read a whole book online, Sci-Hub, etc.)

But a much more crucial reason is this:

* most arguments actually use *informal* logic, which doesn’t mean “casual” or “layperson” — informal means non-symbolic/explicitly symbolized.

So if I have the exchange:

A: My dog died. I saw Lucy die.
B: You were dreaming. She’s in the kitchen.

This is a bitch to put into symbolic logic. It’s certainly possible; in fact, a chapter of Virginia Klenk’s “Understanding Symbolic Logic” tasks you with doing this. The counterargument in B might go something like “it is not true that Lucy died because Lucy is alive. Lucy is alive because I saw her alive. You did not see Lucy alive because…” (and so on — you get the idea.)

The more contextual your argument, the more ‘informal’ it is.

This link contains a taxonomy of fallacies. Notice that way more are informal. This does not even *begin* to capture the full extent of informal fallacies. If it did, the informal list would dwarf the formal list.

Most people do not make formal fallacies. The most common formal fallacy I see people make is thinking A –> B entails B –> A, or A –> ~B (not-B) entails ~B —> A.

A->B: If you are liberal then you are smart.
B->A: If you are smart then you are a liberal.

I don’t think either of these things are necessarily true.

I chose this because it nags at people’s biases and causes you to reflect on it if you don’t see anything wrong with it. Back in 2008 it was common to see people endorsing specifically this kind of reasoning when republican candidates denied evolution. To see why it’s more obviously wrong switch the terms:

A->B: If you are a wrestler then you are strong.
B->A: If you are strong then you are a wrestler.

(Clearly, many strong people have never been wrestlers before.)

You can replace “wrestler” and “strong” with “it’s raining” and “I’m not dry” to test the terms negated.

Most fallacies are not explicitly formal errors; people are actually fairly quick to correct their formal errors. Rather most fallacies are informal errors and people are not as quick to correct these because they involve information that needs to be precisely read without much bias.

A: If you are a wrestler then you are strong.
B: Oh, okay. Everyone who isn’t a wrestler is just some beta cuck now? Got it.

(I hate “got it”; so much. It’s an annoyingly reliable predictor of snotty and self-righteous personalities I’ll probably despise.)

In the same way that most arguments are informal, most arguments are non-quantitative or do not hinge on quantitative error; even with probabilistic conclusions this will be the case, since a lot of philosophers have adopted Bayesianism or a modified version of Bayesianism anyway for probabilistic claims. (“Understanding Arguments” by Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin is one of the best argumentation texts and it educates the reader about Bayesian reasoning.)

So, most arguments are studied in the field of philosophy. It’s the domain that has the skillset best equipped for it.


Ask yourself this question:

* am I learning any new patterns (rhetorically or logically) from this argument?

If you think yes, make two categories

Rhetorical patterns (language techniques):
Logical patterns (i.e. reasons provided):

If you can’t think of anything to fill these categories, abandon the argument.

A new reason that someone gives is a logical pattern. “Have you considered that people oppose gun control not because they like guns, but because they think no banning policy is effective, much like the drug war” — this is a new reason. Information pertaining to this (such as how effective bans are at keeping people from getting what they want) would be pertinent to it, so you can include that in “logical patterns.”

Rhetorical patterns are structures of language. New and interesting ways to distort language or otherwise bullshit others are included in here. So, the Noncentral Fallacy, popularized by Scott Alexander, is a new kind of rhetorical pattern. The pattern match argument (what he calls a “superweapon”) is also one too:

Other things that fall into this category:

* Truncating the Y axis when presenting a graph

* “10/10 chefs polled agree you could do same thing with less dangerous knife” (when asked, chefs said “yes, but…” and journalist said “ok that’s all I needed bye”)

* a very exaggerated “WHAT THE FUCK?!” reaction, on purpose, in attempt to shift the overton window of acceptable emotional responses to a position (if you don’t know what Overton Window is, fucking click the link, acting like you maybe-know is how false understanding starts)

Note that in both categories you are looking for universal information. Information that’s specific to a person (i.e. person does not accept argument because his girlfriend doesn’t like it) is not very valuable since it’s just specific to one person.

It’s a common misconception that people who argue a lot like arguing *period*, i.e. just conflict on its own is amusing.

Maybe for some, but not most.

In my case, I will categorically stop replying to arguments once an argument is down to reading errors or corrections of reading errors. I might make one reply in attempt to correct the errors, but if I’m doing two in a row I’m done. Reading errors are usually idiosyncratic and localized to a person’s individual quirks or background. Not only do I not gain anything more universal that can be learned from this, I’ve been paid lots of money in the past to teach people how to boost their scores on reading sections of standardized tests,  so on top of being a waste of time it feels like I should be getting paid and I’m not. If I wanted to whore myself out, I’d just do that.

Also, the categories “rhetorical patterns” and “logical patterns” are not set in stone. Those are just what I use. If you want to make it more fun, you could rename them “Dark arts” and “Light arts” to make it like Harry Potter or Star Wars or something.

Regardless, arguments are not chaos. Some books provide more information, or insight, or whatever per page than others, and by extension so will people. In the same way that “Thinking Fast and Slow” will in almost all cases be a better use of your time than “Sylvia Browne’s Lessons for Life“, some arguments will provide you more benefit than others. Using these methods, you’ll be able to figure out what those are.

(P.S. just a heads up, I’m gonna add Amazon affiliate links to this, but they’re not currently on there now. My book recommendations aren’t influenced by that, though.)

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