On Civility and Consensus

I've been involved in several long running discussions lately with different people in a variety of spheres - professionally and personally.

I've noticed in these situations completely different people are having the exact same problems holding a conversation.

The first is they are in a literal scientific sense, unable to think clearly.

1. They are trying to win an argument, not discuss objective facts and subjective opinions.
2. They have trouble with basic probability and interpreting data.
3. They instinctively have trouble trusting other people.
4. Their thought processes are subjected to a double standard.
5. And being presented with factual evidence causes them to dig into their position even more because they are emotionally vested in being correct.

(As a direct example, some of my blog readers might interpret the above facts and analysis of how human beings communicate as a personal attack against them (3, 4) and think that I might be saying that to discredit them (logical fallacies below) in order to make them lose an argument (1) because I have disagreed with them before in the past. THIS IS NOT THE CASE. The list of examples are scientific facts (i.e. subject to change as new research arrives) and apply to me as well as to my wonderful readers. It is partly my awareness of these that allow me to have actual constructive debates and conversations.)

There are also an astounding number of people who are unable to have a discussion without using logical fallacies.

Zak S wrote a simple explanation and series of instructions on how to have an appropriate conversation online. It is about how to have conversations that end, and possibly allow you to learn something you didn't know before.

Announce your belief in a fact to start a conversation.
Announce your personal taste to end it.

Why am I posting this? Because this week, we're going to deconstruct skills.

Each post will be short, succinct, and on one specific topic. Discussion not related to the specific area covered in the forum post will be warned and guided to the appropriate post. Continued off topic discussion will be deleted. 

I may not be able to do anything about politicians, my fellow countrymen, or even the people I work with that don't believe in science. But I've had the same conversation two times with two different people who had difficulty understanding my position on skills, and I've had similar trouble dissecting theirs. Why bother revisiting this old saw? Because my perception is that they interpreted my position incorrectly in exactly the same way, which is an indicator that my position isn't represented clearly.

Tune in tomorrow!


  1. I think to avoid falling into the sort of traps you mention, especially when arguing on the internet, it helps to have a clear idea of why you're arguing. Everyone falls victim to their more illogical impulses now and then, myself by no means excepted, but the more self-aware you are the more you can try to minimise it.

    For example, I have three fairly specific reasons for arguing on the internet:

    1. I enjoy debate. If I'm not having fun, I stop arguing. Since I find 2-3 below fun in themselves, if I'm not enjoying myself that's a pretty big warning sign that I'm not accomplishing anything.

    2. Arguing my opinion forces me to order my thoughts on the subject in a rational way, which helps me confront flaws in my own thinking and can lead to new insights.

    3. Likewise, my opponent's argument can give me new insights or expose flaws in my own thinking, which could cause me to change my opinion.

    Actually convincing my opponent of my point of view isn't a criterion, for me. Other people may have very different reasons for arguing, of course, but I think it's a good idea to know in your own mind what they are.

  2. Exactly, the idea is to achieve some sort of insight.

    Personal attacks, logical fallacies, and denial of facts work against that.

  3. "And being presented with factual evidence causes them to dig into their position even more because they are emotionally vested in being correct."

    Although I agree somewhat, I think there is even something bigger behind this type of behavior than simple emotional investment. All of us get emotionally invested in our opinions, but not all of us are hesitant to change them even if we find being wrong dissatisfying.

    I think many people build their concept of "self" around certain beliefs and that they are thus utterly unable to alter those beliefs without altering the "self."

    So when someone refuses to change an opinion about something when presented by factual proof that they are wrong (and we're all wrong about something - none of us know everything) I see that as indicative of someone who doesn't have a very developed concept of "self" because they're still (effectively) defining themselves by what team they support, what clothes they wear, and what ideas they believe true.

    I believe its that aspect which allows people to be wrong and not believe they are wrong. Because being wrong actually means that their "self" is not right. And that's a much, much bigger problem than what's actually being discussed that they are incorrect about.

  4. @Browning: While I agree that many people hold certain beliefs as fundamental to their sense of self (particularly religious and political beliefs) and interpret attacks on those beliefs as attacks on themselves, people can be obstinate about changing even the most minor opinions. Nobody defines themselves by the edition of D&D they play.

  5. "Nobody defines themselves by the edition of D&D they play."

    I'd have to disagree with that statement. I think there are many people who do, just like there are people who define themselves by what job they hold, what sports team they back, or how much money they have. Gaming beliefs are typically not as fundamental to the construction of self as are religion and politics, but I believe the irrational recalcitrance to admit being wrong has the same, basic source.

  6. People are also engaged in very complex strategies of ideation and symbol construction, the complete scope of which, they're not consciously aware. Sometimes, it goes way beyond "emotional investment." And at the depths of the psyche, what's "true" isn't always of immediate concern.

  7. @Joseph - I think the "edition thing" ties in to other beliefs, held about the self and not-self and that we're seeing more of a synergy. Zak S. had a marvelous post on this, not long ago, in regards to philosophy.

    Secondary Socialization is also key, here. I caught myself way over-identifying with the OSR culture online, chiefly because I was so ill, for an extended period of time, that for a while, it was almost my only social outlet. Going out was rather impractical. Wasn't getting along with my spouse, either. And, my closest friend dropped off the face of the earth.

  8. I think you all have the right of it.

    That's really why it's so disappointing when someone just rants, instead of having a rational discussion.


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