Saturday, February 4, 2017

YCombinator's Paul Graham On How to Disagree

Well, YCombinator's Paul Graham at the time. This essay is nine years old and Mr. Graham has since turned over the day-to-day operations to Sam Altman while maintaining an advisory role for YC's startups.

We disagree with Mr. Graham's rankings in his hierarchy of disagreement but that's just personal idiosyncrasy, preferring instead Schopenhauer's order of strategems in "Die Kunst, Recht zu behalten" -which see after the jump- but Graham is a sharp guy and his essay is justifiably famous.

HT up front to Alpha Ideas Weekend Mega Linkfest.

March 2008

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? Most readers can tell the difference between mere name-calling and a carefully reasoned refutation, but I think it would help to put names on the intermediate stages. So here's an attempt at a disagreement hierarchy:

DH0. Name-calling.

This is the lowest form of disagreement, and probably also the most common. We've all seen comments like this:

u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!
But it's important to realize that more articulate name-calling has just as little weight. A comment like
The author is a self-important dilettante.
is really nothing more than a pretentious version of "u r a fag."

DH1. Ad Hominem.

An ad hominem attack is not quite as weak as mere name-calling. It might actually carry some weight. For example, if a senator wrote an article saying senators' salaries should be increased, one could respond:

Of course he would say that. He's a senator.
This wouldn't refute the author's argument, but it may at least be relevant to the case. It's still a very weak form of disagreement, though. If there's something wrong with the senator's argument, you should say what it is; and if there isn't, what difference does it make that he's a senator?

Saying that an author lacks the authority to write about a topic is a variant of ad hominem—and a particularly useless sort, because good ideas often come from outsiders. The question is whether the author is correct or not. If his lack of authority caused him to make mistakes, point those out. And if it didn't, it's not a problem.

DH2. Responding to Tone.

The next level up we start to see responses to the writing, rather than the writer. The lowest form of these is to disagree with the author's tone. E.g.

I can't believe the author dismisses intelligent design in such a cavalier fashion.
Though better than attacking the author, this is still a weak form of disagreement. It matters much more whether the author is wrong or right than what his tone is. Especially since tone is so hard to judge. Someone who has a chip on their shoulder about some topic might be offended by a tone that to other readers seemed neutral.

So if the worst thing you can say about something is to criticize its tone, you're not saying much. Is the author flippant, but correct? Better that than grave and wrong. And if the author is incorrect somewhere, say where....

Here's a graphic version of Mr. Graham's hierarchy via Wikimedia:

We've posted the Schopenhauer a few times, here's 2010's "The Greatest Soccer Match Ever!":

...The first time we used this was in "How to Win Any Global Warming Argument" (I especially like 'The Ultimate Stratagem'):
This was recollected while watching Monty Python's "Philosophers World Cup" (always good for a yuk). I had made mention, en passant, of Schopenhauer's little gem "Die Kunst, Recht zu behalten" in another post, I've Looked at Climate From Both Sides Now, but it really is stand-alone post-worthy.
So gather round kids as Uncle Arthur tells you how to fight back against any rhetorical bully.
Here's the table of contents, I'll put the link to the side-by-side Deutsch/English translation at the bottom of the post.

Controversial Dialectic
The Basis Of All Dialectic

The Extension
The Homonymy
Generalize your Opponent's Specific Statements
Conceal Your Game
False Propositions
Postulate What Has To Be Proved
Yield Admissions Through Questions
Make Your Opponent Angry
Questions in Detouring Order
Take Advantage of The Nay-Sayer
Generalize Admissions of Specific Cases
Choose Metaphors Favourable to Your Proposition
Agree to Reject the Counter-Proposition
Claim Victory Despite Defeat
Use Seemingly Absurd Propositions
Arguments Ad Hominem
Defense Through Subtle Distinction
Interrupt, Break, Divert the Dispute
Generalize the Matter, Then Argue Against it
Draw Conclusions Yourself
Meet him With a Counter-Argument as Bad as His
petitio principii
Make Him Exaggerate his Statement
State a False Syllogism
Find One Instance to The Contrary
Turn The Tables
Anger Indicates a Weak Point
Persuade the Audience, Not The Opponent
Appeal to Authority Rather Than Reason
This is Beyond Me
Put His Thesis Into Some Odious Category
It Applies in Theory, But Not in Practice
Don't Let Him Off The Hook
Will is More Effective Than Insight
Bewilder Your opponent by Mere Bombast
A Faulty Proof Refutes His Whole Position
Become Personal, Insulting, Rude (the Ultimate Stratagem)

And that, children, is why we study philosophy.
(and watch Monty Python)
Thanks to for keeping the Art of Controversy on the web.
You'll note the great philosopher has placed as his paramount argumentum the same tactic that Graham has as the basest. I suppose we'll just have to leave it to the philosophs and speaking of same: