Techniques & Best Practices

There are many styles of argument and rhetoric that are not helpful for a group of people whose purpose is to learn the truth. The argument style most familiar in the West, the debate, is designed as a battle to persuade the audience, and is built on tricks and flaws in the audience’s mind.

Our goal at Adversarial Collective isn’t to win arguments, it’s a process of discovery and open-minded persuasion backed by evidence, without tricks. To that end, we’re collecting here techniques designed to take you away from combat and toward discovery. Please use these techniques well - as with all tools, they can be used with pure intent or ill.

The Principle of Charity

The Principle of Charity asks you to assume that the person you disagree with is acting in good faith, and has reasons to believe what they do, reasons that are worth understanding.

Steelman

The opposite of the Strawman fallacy. If you assume The Principle of Charity, when your adversary makes an argument, it is your responsibility to understand their argument in the strongest possible light, and then to argue against its strongest form. Pretend you were making their argument, and then make it better, and only then, when you have made it as strong as you can, is it fair to point out its flaws.

Taboo your words

When disagreeing with someone, there’s a good chance that your disagreement hinges upon the definitions of some of the words you are using. Try to identify one of those words and ban it from the discussion, forcing you and your adversary to define your argument more precisely, and often helping you discover how you differ.

Reflective listening

Few people want to listen to someone who is not listening to them. When emotions are strong, help your adversary understand that you are listening to them by reflecting what they are saying with different words, so that they know that you not just hear, but understand them.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

When you punch a wall, you know that you are doing so because of a recent anger-causing circumstance. When you see someone else punch a wall, you assume that it is because they are an angry person. Assume that someone’s beliefs and emotions are beliefs and emotions, rather than traits or aspects.

Calling someone a racist/sexist/homophobe/etc

It’s very difficult to be called a racist or other negatively slanted permanent trait. Calling someone racist is a good way to shut down the conversation. In the context of a conversation where you’re acting according to the Principle of Charity, it is better to instead, point out, gently, that the particular thing they said seems racist to you, and why. This gives them an opportunity to consider that, and allows the conversation to continue and both of you to learn.

Separate Exploration from Disagreement

Before you disagree, clarify. Seeking to understand before you disagree helps you with all of the above.

Evidence

When making a claim, especially a controversial claim, expect to be asked for evidence. Expect the evidence to be evaluated not just for its conclusion, but for its methods, its investigators’ biases, and other potential issues with it. Weak evidence is still evidence, and should be weighed based on its strength, not discarded.

Ask for evidence for anything you disagree with. Be kind and polite when asking for evidence.

In the event that you cannot find evidence that is strong enough to satisfy you, describe what evidence would satisfy you.

Remember that evidence that is weak may still be stronger than the evidence of your experience that you are presumably relying upon if you lack anything else.

Absence of evidence, if there’s reason to believe that investigation has occurred, is evidence of absence. For example, the lack of leprechaun videos on YouTube is evidence of a lack of leprechauns, given how much video is on YouTube.

Differentiate between a lack of evidence for something, and a lack of investigation of something. An absence of evidence is meaningless if no one appears to have investigated a topic.

Correlation can imply causation, but only when the math is done carefully, and it does not always imply causation in the direction that you assume. Spurious correlations are everywhere, especially in a culture that encourages publish or perish.