HowTo: disagree (on the web)

The web is turning writing into a conversation. Twenty years ago, writers wrote and readers read. The web lets readers respond, and increasingly they do—in comment threads, on forums, and in their own blog posts.Many who respond to something disagree with it. That’s to be expected. Agreeing tends to motivate people less than disagreeing. And when you agree there’s less to say. You could expand on something the author said, but he has probably already explored the most interesting implications. When you disagree you’re entering territory he may not have explored.The result is there’s a lot more disagreeing going on, especially measured by the word. That doesn’t mean people are getting angrier. The structural change in the way we communicate is enough to account for it. But though it’s not anger that’s driving the increase in disagreement, there’s a danger that the increase in disagreement will make people angrier. Particularly online, where it’s easy to say things you’d never say face to face.

If we’re all going to be disagreeing more, we should be careful to do it well. What does it mean to disagree well?

Thus begins Paul Graham’s latest essay which attempts a disagreement hierarchy — beginning with Name calling, and ending with Refuting the central point — with Ad Hominem, Responding to tone, Contradiction, Counterargument, and Refutation in between, and in that order.

Graham, is of course careful to warn

One thing the disagreement hierarchy doesn’t give us is a way of picking a winner. DH levels merely describe the form of a statement, not whether it’s correct. A DH6 response could still be completely mistaken.

But while DH levels don’t set a lower bound on the convincingness of a reply, they do set an upper bound. A DH6 response might be unconvincing, but a DH2 or lower response is always unconvincing.

Of course, since we are on the topic, I should at least let you know that I am not in complete agreement with that last statement. For example, recently, PZ disagreed in the following fashion to this abominable post of Nisbet:

Fuck you very much, Matt. You know where you can stick your advice.

Now, this response, might be at DH0 level according to Graham’s classification or lower; however, I think (as also most of the commentors on this post for example), by dismissing Nisbet, and the fashion in which he dismissed, PZ is making a strong point: hence, the correct way of putting it would be

A DH6 response might be unconvincing, but a DH2 or lower response is always almost always unconvincing.

Have fun!


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