Argumentation, descriptive and prescriptive

Handy terms and concepts in the realm of argumentation and persuasion. 🏗

Why we work by rhetoric

Are our brains intrinsically social? Do we reason best by social means?

Henry Farrell:

Mercier and Sperber’s basic argument is, as I understand it, as follows. First — that reasoning has not evolved in the ways that we think it has — as a process of ratiocination that is intended independently to figure out the world. Instead, it has evolved as a social capacity — as a means to justify ourselves to others. We want something to be so, and we use our reasoning capacity to figure out plausible seeming reasons to convince others that it should be so. However (and this is the main topic of a more recent book by Hugo (Mercier 2020)), together with our capacity to generate plausible sounding rationales, we have a decent capacity to detect when others are bullshitting us. In combination, these mean that we are more likely to be closer to the truth when we are trying to figure out why others may be wrong, than when we are trying to figure out why we ourselves are right. …. We need negative criticisms from others, since they lead us to understand weaknesses in our arguments that we are incapable of coming at ourselves, without them being pointed out to us.

Mind changing

Miscellaneous remedial argumentation (slightly spammy): Eric Barker’s This Is How To Change Someone’s Mind: 6 Secrets From Research advocates some self-awareness:

If absolutely nothing else works, they might just be a totally unreachable zealot. Or it could be that…

You’re the zealot. And if you are unwilling to give any serious consideration to this possibility, that’s a big red flag. Nobody thinks they’re the problem — and that’s the problem. After all, you’re the one reading articles about how to change people’s minds, aren’t you? (Yes, I plead guilty to being an accomplice.) It’s just a possibility to consider, but if you’re serious about having fewer arguments to the death, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re really a victim and not Patient Zero. So what do you do if you think you might be Typhoid Mary?

Consider the beliefs you usually argue about. Now ask yourself disconfirmation questions. Write down the answers. Show them to a friend who has a different perspective than you on the topic. Does your pal feel those responses pass the implausibility sniff test?

Derek Black the ex-storm front white supremacist who changed his mind and wrote about it.

Interesting case study, Change My View:

A place to post an opinion you accept may be flawed, in an effort to understand other perspectives on the issue. Enter with a mindset for conversation, not debate.

Dylon Marron’s Conversation with people who hate me

a podcast where he calls up the people behind negative comments on the internet.

Weak man

Picking the weakest of the opposing arguments to refute rather than the strongest. There are handy discussions of that by e.g. Julian Sanchez or by the original taxonomisers, Talisse and Aikin. There are some interesting hypotheses about how this might interact with coalition and identity by Scott Alexander.

Rhetorical standards

I am not invested in the details of the the Harris-Klein Controversy for themselves, but I think the case study is interesting, because it identifies Rational Style and Activist Style in arguments, and the friction that can arise when you do not (even if you think of yourself as above the internet of dunks dogpile):

Harris isn’t doing identity politics in this sense. He doesn’t expect his identity to be an input to his arguments’ evaluation function, and from what aspects of his psyche they’re coming isn’t relevant. Not according to tradition Rational Style debate rules anyway, where evaluation functions only take the content of the argument. Identity politics means refusing to stay in this sandbox and the result is Activist Style, based on traditionally disallowed moves.

Ordinary politics and political journalism play dirty too, because when you really want to win you get out of the sandbox as soon as you think it benefits you. I think strategic use of Activist Style techniques is so normal in politics and political journalism (and frankly, everywhere except among philosophers, scientists and technologists who I, in a fit of typical-minding and wishful thinking, want to see as the norm) that members of those professions don’t think of it as playing dirty at all. At least not as playing dirtier than generally accepted and expected.

This is likely why Klein appears so surprised at Harris anger (to the extent that his surprise is honest). To him, political logic and its tactics are a fact of life and Harris being angry about him using it feels bizarre, like it would feel bizarre for a regular person just having a job to hear an anarchist yelling at them about “collaborating with the system”.

Related: conflict theory.



Ajduković, Dea. 2007. Attitude change and need for cognition in debaters and non-debaters.” Diploma Thesis, Filozofski fakultet Sveučilišta u Zagrebu.
Cook, John, Stephan Lewandowsky, and Ullrich K. H. Ecker. 2017. Neutralizing Misinformation Through Inoculation: Exposing Misleading Argumentation Techniques Reduces Their Influence.” PLOS ONE 12 (5): e0175799.
Kerkhoff, Lorrae van. 1996. “Through the Looking Glass: The Role and Analysis of Metaphorical Language in Interdisciplinary Science.”
Kim, Yonghwan. 2015. Does Disagreement Mitigate Polarization? How Selective Exposure and Disagreement Affect Political Polarization.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 92 (4): 915–37.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. University Of Chicago Press.
Mercier, Hugo. 2020. Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe. Illustrated edition. Princeton University Press.
Nyhan, Brendan. 2021. Why the Backfire Effect Does Not Explain the Durability of Political Misperceptions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118 (15).
Raley, Yvonne, and Robert Talisse. 2008. Getting Duped.” Scientific American Mind 19 (1): 16–17.
Reyna, Valerie F. 2021. A Scientific Theory of Gist Communication and Misinformation Resistance, with Implications for Health, Education, and Policy.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118 (15).
Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. 1996. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Wiley-Blackwell.
Spranzi, Marta. 2004. Galileo and the Mountains of the Moon: Analogical Reasoning, Models and Metaphors in Scientific Discovery.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 4 (3): 451–83.
Talisse, Robert, and Scott F. Aikin. 2006. Two Forms of the Straw Man.” Argumentation 20 (3): 345–52.
Tan, Chenhao, Vlad Niculae, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, and Lillian Lee. 2016. Winning Arguments: Interaction Dynamics and Persuasion Strategies in Good-Faith Online Discussions.” In Proceedings of the 25th International Conference on World Wide Web, 613–24. WWW ’16. Republic and Canton of Geneva, Switzerland: International World Wide Web Conferences Steering Committee.
Trouche, Emmanuel, Emmanuel Sander, and Hugo Mercier. 2014. Arguments, More Than Confidence, Explain the Good Performance of Reasoning Groups.” SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 2431710. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.
Vecchi, Gregory M., Vincent B. Van Hasseltb, and Stephen J. Romano. 2005. Crisis (Hostage) Negotiation: Current Strategies and Issues in High-Risk Conflict Resolution.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (5): 533–51.

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