A Hierarchy of Disagreements

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 14, 2010 in How-To

In a classic essay, Paul Graham writes:

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… when you agree there’s less to say… 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.

How, then, can you disagree well? Graham offers the following Disagreement Heirarchy:

  • DH0. Name-Calling. The lowest form of disagreement, this ranges from “u r fag!!!’ to “He’s just a troll” to “The author is a self-important dilettante.”
  • DH1. Ad Hominem. An ad hominem (“against the man”) argument won’t refute the original claim, but it might at least be relevant. If a senator says we should raise the salary of senators, you might reply: “Of course he’d say that; he’s a senator.” That might be relevant, but it doesn’t refute the original claim: “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 someone lacks authority is another kind of ad hominem.
  • DH2. Responding to Tone. At this level we actually respond to the writing rather than the writer, but we’re responding to tone rather than substance. For example: “It’s terrible how flippantly the author dimisses theology.” As Graham says: “Is the author flippant, but correct? Better that than grave and wrong. And if the author is incorrect somewhere, say where.”
  • DH3. Contradiction. Graham writes: “In this stage we finally get responses to what was said, rather than how or by whom. The lowest form of response to an argument is simply to state the opposing case, with little or no supporting evidence.” For example: “It’s terrible how flippantly the author dismisses theology. Theology is a legitimate inquiry into truth.”
  • DH4. Counterargument. Finally, a form of disagreement that might persuade! Counterargument is “contradiction plus reasoning and/or evidence.” Still, counterargument is often directed at a minor point, or turns out to be an example of two people talking past each other, as in the parable about a tree falling in the forest.
  • DH5. Refutation. In refutation, you quote (or paraphrase) a precise claim or argument by the author and explain why the claim is false, or why the argument doesn’t work. With refutation, you’re sure to engage exactly what the author said, and offer a direct counterargument with evidence and reason.
  • DH6. Refuting the Central Point. Graham writes: “The force of a refutation depends on what you refute. The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone’s central point.” This refutation usually takes the form of: “The author’s central point appears to be X. For example, he writes ‘blah blah blah.’ He also writes ‘blah blah blah.’ But this is wrong, because (1) argument one, (2) argument two, and (3) argument three.” Even better, present the author’s argument in it’s most persuasive form as if you were trying to convince others of it, and then refute its central claims.
  • DH7. Make the Argument Better, and then Refute Its Central Point. This highest level was added by Black Belt Bayesian. He writes: “When an argument is made, you learn about that argument. But often you also learn about arguments that could have been made, but weren’t. Sometimes those arguments work where the original argument doesn’t. If you’re interested in being on the right side of disputes, you will refute your opponents’ arguments. But if you’re interested in producing truth, you will fix your opponents’ arguments for them. To win, you must fight not only the creature you encounter; you must fight the most horrible thing that can be constructed from its corpse.” But of course this takes the most effort of all.

Even a DH6 disagreement could be wrong, 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.”

The benefit of this Disagreement Hierarchy is that we can quickly label disagreements, and this will help us to choose what to bother reading and responding to. If this is done by enough people, it may even improve the quality of internet disagreement.

Graham concludes:

But the greatest benefit of disagreeing well is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier. If you study conversations, you find there is a lot more meanness down in DH1 than up in DH6. You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.

If moving up the disagreement hierarchy makes people less mean, that will make most of them happier. Most people don’t really enjoy being mean; they do it because they can’t help it.

I’m going to give it a go. Feel free to join me, and link back to this explanation (or Graham’s) when you label disagreements according to this heirarchy.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Kaelik December 14, 2010 at 4:40 am

“Even better, present the author’s argument in it’s most persuasive form as if you were trying to convince others of it, and then refute its central claims.”

Generally speaking, I’d say you should try to avoid this.

The most persuasive way that William Lane Craig can present an argument for atheism is:

1) I really feel like there is no God.
2) All of my feelings directly correlate with reality.
Therefore: There is no God.

Because Craig already believes premise 2, because he’s a retard.

Presenting someones argument in the most persuasive way to you can easily be less persuasive to every but you, or just less sound/valid.

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David Thomas December 14, 2010 at 4:40 am

It might be interesting, on some forum or the like, to make people select what category they consider their own writing to be residing in as they post. I would wager that even if the information were not displayed or used, it would improve the quality of discourse.

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BJ Marshall December 14, 2010 at 5:00 am

I will try to do this. I have read in books the virtue of taking a charitable stance toward an opponent’s arguments, where one tries to show it in the best light possible. It makes presenting a solid refutation all the more enjoyable.

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Tshepang Lekhonkhobe December 14, 2010 at 5:30 am

What’s interesting is that you blog about this article a few days after I read it. I’m glad that you are sharing your thoughts, for I was curious what others thought of it. Thanks.

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Alexandros Marinos December 14, 2010 at 5:46 am

That’s a great article. I always recall it with the addendum of DH7 by Black Belt Bayesian:

“When an argument is made, you learn about that argument. But often you also learn about arguments that could have been made, but weren’t. Sometimes those arguments work where the original argument doesn’t.

If you’re interested in being on the right side of disputes, you will refute your opponents’ arguments. But if you’re interested in producing truth, you will fix your opponents’ arguments for them.

To win, you must fight not only the creature you encounter; you must fight the most horrible thing that can be constructed from its corpse.”

http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/steven/?p=155

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Joel December 14, 2010 at 6:08 am

There seems to be a misunderstanding over what constitutes disagreement.

DH 0 – 3 basically list fallacies of irrelevance; there is no disagreement. I may well be an uneducated ignoramus, but my argument may well be true. This is noted (“Is the author flippant but correct?”) but its consequence is not. There is in fact nothing (brought up) that we disagree about regarding the topic; a person who agrees with me may still say “ur a fag”.

This reminds me of the old critique of emotivism. If moral statements are mere expressions of emotions, then Alice (“Abortion is right!”) and Bob (“Abortion is wrong!”) aren’t having a disagreement at all. They’re reporting their own feelings regarding abortion, and trying to impress it upon the other person.

Real disagreement, that brings out the essense of “ubi dubium, ibi libertas”) involves a clash over the issue, so I really wouldn’t call ad hominem techniques disagreement.

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Markus December 14, 2010 at 6:14 am

@Kaelik
I think we had the same idea when reading DH6: rewording as straw man arguments to refute. Shorthand that to DH6:Strawman? Would the better response be to post a more robust definition of atheism (DH6) or to dismantle the faulty argument peice by peice (DH5)?

Also, just to practice this new labeling…
Calling DH0/1 on: “Because Craig already believes premise 2, because he’s a retard.”

Am I doing it right? :)

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Tony Hoffman December 14, 2010 at 6:29 am

What? DH0. Name Calling, and DH2. Responding to Tone, are like the necessary lubricants to all discussions. You take those away and the interweb goes quiet.

Just as Jeopardy would be a lot less fun to watch if Alex Trebek wasn’t riffing on the, “No, sorry, if only you’d studied more as a child,” commentary on every wrong answer, I think we’d all participate in these discussions a lot less if we were to strip bare psychological speculation of those whose views are clearly insane.

What a retarded thing this list is, and delivered so pompously. :)

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Kip December 14, 2010 at 6:53 am

It’s funny to see the various disagreements to the list of types of disagreements. :-) I can’t help but wonder if those disagreeing stopped to ask themselves which type of disagreement they were putting forth before they hit “submit”.

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MKR December 14, 2010 at 6:58 am

The Calvin and Hobbes cartoons make it seem as though all the fun is at DH0.

“You’re a bat-faced, booger-nosed, baloney-brained beetle-butt!” —Calvin to Susie Derkins

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Kaelik December 14, 2010 at 7:03 am

Calling DH0/1 on: “Because Craig already believes premise 2, because he’s a retard.”Am I doing it right? :)  

More like DH3/DH4/DH6. I am contradicting his moral argument for God by pointing out that one of the premises is false. I’m just phrasing it in the most effective way, instead of hiding premises.

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Kaelik December 14, 2010 at 7:04 am

It’s funny to see the various disagreements to the list of types of disagreements.:-)I can’t help but wonder if those disagreeing stopped to ask themselves which type of disagreement they were putting forth before they hit “submit”.  

That makes no sense. If you disagree with the list, you don’t file your disagreement under the list.

When I argue that God doesn’t exist, I don’t wonder what God would think of my argument.

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Patrick December 14, 2010 at 7:19 am

There’s an evangelical Christian blog from a liberal Christian who writes under the name Slacktivist.

http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2008/09/false-witnesses.html

http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2008/10/false-witnesses-2.html

You might want to read those posts before you embark on this project. It discusses his efforts at convincing fellow evangelicals not to believe certain libelous rumors that they passed around amongst themselves, in this case, rumors about Procter and Gamble being a front for Satanism. Here’s a quick quote.

“In trying to combat the P&G slander with nothing more than irrefutable facts proving it false, I was operating under a set of false assumptions. Among these:

1. I assumed that the people who claimed to believe that Procter & Gamble supported the Church of Satan really did believe such a thing.

2. I assumed that they were passing on this rumor in good faith — that they were misinforming others only because they had, themselves, been misinformed.

3. I assumed that they would respect, or care about, or at least be willing to consider, the actual facts of the matter.

4. Because the people spreading this rumor claimed to be horrified/angry about its allegations, I assumed that they would be happy/relieved to learn that these allegations were, indisputably, not true.

All of those assumptions proved to be false.”

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Kip December 14, 2010 at 7:23 am

That makes no sense. If you disagree with the list, you don’t file your disagreement under the list.When I argue that God doesn’t exist, I don’t wonder what God would think of my argument.  

DH4

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Patrick December 14, 2010 at 7:57 am

Uh, I didn’t quote the right Slacktivist entries, and I can’t find the one I’m thinking about.

The entries I quoted are great, touch on the conversation, and I highly, highly recommend them.

But what I really wanted was the one where he discusses the principle of charity, and how it fails. Charity generally tells us to assume that the people we talk to are sincere, and amenable to conversation. But as Slacktivist points out, there are some positions that clearly demonstrate that this is not the case. Some positions make it obvious that the person in question is either astoundingly ignorant, possibly to the point where they’ve devoted their own efforts to maintaining that ignorance, astounding stupid, because the position is internally inconsistent and even a modicum of intelligence would recognize that, or astoundingly dishonest, because no informed, intelligent person could hold that position with sincerity.

When you run across someone offering one of these arguments, responding with a higher level answer is going to miss the point.

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Garren December 14, 2010 at 8:17 am

Patrick

I’d like to hear examples of positions which can’t be held sincerely.

To preempt a possible answer, I do think Young Earth Creationism can be held sincerely by an intelligent person…though not by a sincere, intelligent, and well informed person. So in this case, simply knowing that someone holds a position is not enough to give up hope of fruitful conversation.

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Patrick December 14, 2010 at 8:48 am

Garren- Ok.

The claim that Barack Obama is a Secret Muslim.

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Joseph December 14, 2010 at 10:22 am

The other day I wrote this about Craig’s Reasonable Faith:
“And then he proceeds to counterpoint his strawmen’s beliefs, constantly reminding his readers that if objective morals exist that means God exists. He doesn’t prove this statement, just asserts it as if repeating something so many times, it will make it true. Not once does he ever attempt to show in his first premise(1), if God doesn’t exist, that this implies that objective morality doesn’t exist, IOW, does P implies Q in (1), Not even a smudgeon of an effort.”

At what level of disagreement was I saying this? Can anyone help? Thanks in advance.

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Kaelik December 14, 2010 at 10:39 am

Another problem with this system is that it takes no recognition of the fact that you can only argue against something to the extent that it is argued in the first place.

If I say “The sky is blue.” A mere assertion, you can disagree with that, but only “up” to DH 3 or 4. You can’t refute, because I gave no argument.

Also, the idea that refuting the central point is somehow better than presenting a sound argument with the contradiction of the central point as it’s conclusion… is confusing. D4 is different than, not worse than D 5 and 6.

Bottom line, just by posting first, or ignoring what other people say, you get to bypass the whole system, by simply asserting things, suddenly this doesn’t provide any value at all.

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Hermes December 14, 2010 at 11:17 am

Patrick, I’ve had conversations with people that highlight the dishonest and self-deceiving aspects;

1. Dishonesty: The world-wide flood described in Genesis.

It is entirely possible that someone can honestly think that a world-wide flood happened as described in Genesis. What is not possible is that after discussing specific details that demonstrate why no flood could have happened, the person can reject the contrary details honestly. Some will put up blinders and shut off conversation at this point to shut out doubt, but not all do. The ones that don’t and actually understand what is being demonstrated are being dishonest.

2. Self-deception: The Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.

I’ve had one person — actually a mostly reasonable person — after weeks of discussion blurt out that the shroud must be the burial cloth of Jesus because it looks like him. Why is that self-deception? Nobody painted Jesus Christ during the time that he was said to have lived, so we don’t know what he looked like beyond a few scant details about his appearance written decades after the fact. The good thing is that when I pointed that out, the person realized their mistake and actually stopped to think about the issue.

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Kip December 14, 2010 at 11:51 am

Joseph: I think that’d be around the DH4. I’m not sure the exact argument you’re addressing in this instance, but in other cases, Craig does create an argument whose central conclusion is “without the existence of God, objective moral values cannot exist”. But, in this case, it sounds as if he’s using that conclusion as a premise in another argument.

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Joseph December 14, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Thanks Kip.

Just to clarify, I was referring to one of his chapter. He had the following argument:

(1) If God doesn’t exist then objective moral values don’t exist.

(2) Objective moral values exists.

(3) Therefore, God exists.

It was on premise (1) that I made those reflections: that he never proves it, instead he puts up strawmen in order to destroy the strawmen beliefs about morality. Later on, a few chapters down, he proclaims that he has proved that God exists (3).

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Garren December 14, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Patrick

Obama as a secret Muslim is a strong contender, yes.

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Godless Randall December 14, 2010 at 3:14 pm

i definitely see a lot of DH0 and DH1 around here lately and i want to add my 2 cents that i don’t benefit as a reader from it. aside from maybe a good laugh here and there but who cares it ^is^ the internet i suppose. everyone should aim for DH5 at least

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Godless Randall December 14, 2010 at 3:17 pm

not that i’m saying name calling is ^bad^ because i do it too at times. only saying that it is ^bad^ if we’re supposed to be having debates about what’s true. i would rather here why someone is wrong about something that why someone else thinks they are sophist, troll, immoral and so on

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Ralph December 14, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Am I the only one who thinks that DH0 and DH1 have a place in discussion for so long as you are able to touch on the higher levels? As explained by others on this thread, some people really can’t be reached by simply refuting the central point. A little ridicule may be in order… I know I’ve been ridiculed into clarity a number of times in my life.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 14, 2010 at 8:18 pm

Ralph,

Yup! I have, too.

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Justfinethanks December 14, 2010 at 10:02 pm

I too have experienced the benefits of well placed ridicule. If it wasn’t for a youtube commenter calling me a “dickless nOOb fag” I would still think that the William McKinley administration’s biggest foreign policy blunder was the Spanish American war, when in actuality it was the much less famous but much more destructive and foolhardy annexation of the Philippines as a result of the Treaty of Paris and the resulting Philippine–American War.

It’s hard to believe I was so naive.

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MarkD December 14, 2010 at 11:19 pm

Luke: Just saw the 2003 response by Paul G. to the invention claim and was heartened by it. It lifted a veil of hubris that had been shading his online ghost. I’ll pass on the link to some of the referenced folks…

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cl December 15, 2010 at 4:13 pm

From Luke’s interview with Brian Walsh:

BRIAN: I think [Dawkins, PZ Myers, et al.] could be a little off-putting, but your blog doesn’t strike me as being anywhere near that kind of direction. Same thing with Dan Barker, who I had on earlier – very approachable, very friendly, and that’s really beneficial. We need a lot more of that.

To those who say they’ve been ridiculed into clarity, how do you know you weren’t simply a self-conscious, thin-skinned person ridiculed into conformity? That is to ask, is it really rational to change your mind simply because somebody roasts you? I think that’s a very important question.

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Ralph December 16, 2010 at 10:13 am

From Luke’s interview with Brian Walsh:To those who say they’ve been ridiculed into clarity, how do you know you weren’t simply a self-conscious, thin-skinned person ridiculed into conformity? That is to ask, is it really rational to change your mind simply because somebody roasts you? I think that’s a very important question.  (Quote)

For me, the roasting/ ad hominems didn’t convince me of the arguments but it did set me up to listen more carefully.

I have yet to see anyone use ridicule as the sole strategy. More than likely, ridicule is simply a part of the entire repertoire. I’m merely arguing that it has its place in the war of memes. Too often, people are too entrenched in their ideas that they will not really bother to understand. Sometimes, ridicule helps in jolting people into paying attention. A lot of the mind-changing starts out with someone intent on disproving (annihalating) the other.

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Hermes December 16, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Well said, Ralph.

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Polymeron December 17, 2010 at 12:02 pm

I have to say I really like this list! It certainly gave me a new way to think of these things, though it’s definitely not new for me to ask people to actually address the points being asserted rather than all the DH2- stuff, it now seems quantifiable :)

As for the point people raised here – some of them like the DH0/DH1 stuff and some don’t – I think those *can* be ok as a stylistic choice, so long as actual arguments are also contained in there. It’s not usually my style, however. I prefer to mock ideas rather than people (and often I don’t do that, either).

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Hermes December 17, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Polymeron: I prefer to mock ideas rather than people (and often I don’t do that, either).

Ideally, yes. People who are playing games and being evasive are the ones I mock or am strict with.

As I’ve been talking with people for decades I’m less willing to let them drop into a game mode where they insist on using one set of rules for themselves while they insist on a much more strict set of rules. The most common is 100 questions or the Gish gallop where they ask a string of questions, often loaded with bias, while ignoring any questions posed to them. I’d rather have a conversation as that allows an actual exchange of ideas and not score keeping though I surely know how to dish it out if the menu demanded requires it.

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astrosmash May 11, 2011 at 10:57 am

Uh, I didn’t quote the right Slacktivist entries, and I can’t find the one I’m thinking about.The entries I quoted are great, touch on the conversation, and I highly, highly recommend them.But what I really wanted was the one where he discusses the principle of charity, and how it fails. Charity generally tells us to assume that the people we talk to are sincere, and amenable to conversation. But as Slacktivist points out, there are some positions that clearly demonstrate that this is not the case. Some positions make it obvious that the person in question is either astoundingly ignorant, possibly to the point where they’ve devoted their own efforts to maintaining that ignorance, astounding stupid, because the position is internally inconsistent and even a modicum of intelligence would recognize that, or astoundingly dishonest, because no informed, intelligent person could hold that position with sincerity.When you run across someone offering one of these arguments, responding with a higher level answer is going to miss the point.

Im loathe to use the word, but my base criteria for engaging online arguments
is that my opponent comes to the argument in “good faith”. This is one case in which I go with my instincts to determine wheter or not to engage…If it looks like a duck, walks like a deck…etc…

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Consensus January 2, 2012 at 1:23 am

There’s an essential step you should consider including – ‘charitable interpretation.’ When you read something, you often get this knee-jerk feeling of ‘I don’t like what this person is saying.’ Often, people the jump straight to disagreement. The smarter of those will jump straight to DH5 – but without taking the time to comprehend the argument. They find any sentence they feel they can directly refute, and post the refutation – wholly unaware of where the original statement fit into the larger argument structure. I’ve seen many people refute a hypothetical that completely fails to undermine the major thesis – and often the refutation actually supports the thesis.
And it’s important not merely to comprehend the argument, but to do so charitably. If there’s a clear error, make an effort to patch that error up. When posting a refutation, begin by restating the argument, and restating the *strongest* version of the argument you can put together. This affords your interlocutor an opportunity to clarify, or to correct a misunderstanding, and it shows you’ve taken the effort to undertake a charitable interpretation. The opposite way to handle the same approach, of course, is to present a straw man (to later kick over).

Donald Davidson had a lot to say about charitable interpretation. I feel he’s a vastly under-appreciated philosopher.

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