On arguing well

Why Missionaries Must Learn Language notes the critical importance of truly becoming fluent to be an effective missionary to a culture. The same principle applies to reaching across other divides. One reason that the average young-earth or anti-evolution advocate so spectacularly fails when trying to convert scientists to their belief is that they do not actually speak the language of science - they do not understand how science works and usually are just relying on a collection of shouting points, frequently with major errors. Political and other social divides likewise require learning to communicate well and accurately. The fact that the people on both sides are linguistically speaking the same language tends to conceal the fact that they are often not communicating any better than if they were talking in different languages.


And as tribal silos work toward ‘geographic’ isolation from each other (in terms of recognized valid information sources), there probably comes to be some linguistic evolution in play toward your observation there. When your new “anchor point” becomes your own echo chamber, you’ve just made a drifting balloon your foundational standard.


But this is not true in this forum where we have plenty who speak both languages. Because if you are arguing that creationism has a language of its own or that these languages barriers cannot be crossed, I think you are going too far with this. In some sense, science is a language. Likewise Christianity is a language. And it is not just a difference in terms but a difference in the questions they ask and answer. And other religions are very different languages also, each answering their own set of questions – very important to understand if you want compare religions objectively. But if you are going to use this language metaphor then different denominations of the same religion are at most a different dialect of that language.

Another resource that’s well worth pointing to here is the Disagreement Hierarchy, first outlined by tech entrepreneur and writer Paul Graham. He identified seven different levels of disagreement, ranging from name calling and ad hominem arguments at the bottom, all the way up to refuting the central point at the top. The different levels were:

  • DH0 - name calling: the lowest form of argument. It means saying things such as “u r a fag,” though it can also be expressed more articulately (and pretentiously) for example, “The author is nothing but a self-important dilettante.”
  • DH1 - ad hominem: questions the author’s characteristics or authority rather than addressing the substance of the argument. For example, if a senator wrote an article saying that senator’s salaries should be increased, responding by saying “Of course he would say that. He’s a senator.” Another form of ad hominem argument is appealing to someone’s qualifications (or lack of them). The important point is not whether or not they are qualified, but whether or not they are correct.
  • DH2 - responding to tone: at this point, you start to respond to what is being said, rather than to who is saying it. Graham gives as an example, someone saying “I can’t believe the author dismisses intelligent design in such a cavalier fashion” without any discussion of the actual merits or otherwise of intelligent design.
  • DH3 - contradiction: going beyond discussing tone to merely stating the case without providing any supporting evidence. It may build on a DH2 type argument, for example saying: “I can’t believe the author dismisses intelligent design in such a cavalier fashion. Intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory.” But doesn’t provide any evidence to back up such an assertion, nor does it address the question of what constitutes a legitimate scientific theory and what doesn’t.
  • DH4 - counterargument: this is where you start to provide evidence and reasoning to back up your claims. However, it may end up with both sides arguing about different things without realising it.
  • DH5 - refutation: this is where you find real or perceived mistakes in the author’s arguments and address those, often by quoting something the author said. But this can often result in refuting side issues or aspects of the subject that don’t have sufficient weight to overturn the whole edifice.
  • DH6 - refuting the central point: this is where you identify a point that is essential to the author’s argument and address that directly, with evidence and careful reasoning. As such, it is the most convincing and decisive level of the hierarchy.

I think it’s more correct to talk in terms of discourses and discourse communities. Christianity has associated discourses (which can be broken into sub-groups of differing discourse communities with different goals). Science has a discourse and various discourse communities. Sometimes terms and concepts are used very differently in different discourses and discourse communities. If you are unfamiliar with the discourses that inform the discourse community, communication will be hard. (The forum software here is aptly named.)


Reminds me of The Poisonwood Bible.

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In addition, we need to carefully keep in mind the difference between “this person is not qualified” and “this person is known to be less accurate than some others, and hence reports of theirs should be treated with more caution”.


It seems there are more personal attacks lately along the lines of the DH0 and DH1 arguments described above. It seems true of our society in general as well. We can do better than that, and perhaps as a moderator I need to be more aggressive in editing and deleting comments. Certainly, if someone feels a post is beneath them, they should refrain from replying, rather than chastising the poster.

Often in threads discussing the validity of [mainstream] science, folks here will ask “please can you tell me whether or not you have studied science to XYZ level?” or “What are your qualifications in ABC field?” This often gets people’s backs up - and I can appreciate why that might be.

I imagine like many of you who have dabbled in apologetics, I was taught in seminary class that someone asking whether or not one is qualified in a certain field of study is an appeal to authority in disguise. A fallacious way form of discourse that detracts from the face-value validity of your argument and ideas.

However, I think this video highlights not only the importance but also the legitimacy of such questions.

In the video, astrophysicist Dr Janna Levin, PhD, explains the concept of gravity at five different levels of complexity. The video is quite long so if you want to watch it, but are short on time I suggest beginning with the first (0:32) and then the last (24:51).

In the first section, Dr Levin talks about one object pulling on another, the moon pulling on the oceans, and the earth orbiting the sun. In the final section, she discusses black hole event horizons, holography, relativity vs. quantum theory, and whether gravity is in fact a macro-illusion produced by quantum mechanics.

I think the video illustrates that whilst all opinions on any particular subject are welcome, not all opinions are right, valid, or of equal weight. And if one wants to overturn the accepted beliefs, norms, concepts, of a particular field one needs to be able to discuss it at the level of the expert. If one is not an expert, humility dictates that we should be open to correction by the experts and further study before going off half-cocked with more objections.

Arguing well requires a person to meet a specific knowledge and fluency level, the more technical the subject, the high the barrier for entry.

Ps. Gravity is super cool :star_struck: :heart_eyes: :nerd_face:


That can work at the margins, but not with any deeper alienation from rationality, which is fixed beyond moral development in the vast majority. The only way to move people morally beyond that is by appeals to eusociality masked in enlightened self interest. There is no chance of doing that with folk religion including anti-science.

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Examples of all this can be found throughout this and every other forum I have ever been a part of,
(I have been a victim of at least three of them recently)

I wonder if there is any way to avoid them?


This is a very helpful article, as well as @jammycakes’s hierarchy of argumentation.

Honestly, added in to the challenge of learning and speaking a foreign language on the fly, while attempting to strip away the multitude of assertions made to actually get to the central point, any discussion these days requires SO much teaching.

It’s exhausting having to justify each separate information source one uses as valid, for example, while detecting (and explaining) the garbage employed by the discussion partner. It feels like what I imagine the jury-selection process is like.

I’ve had conversations, where any reference or resource I’ve attempted to use is simply dismissed as “main stream media” because it disagrees with the assertions made by the other person. (This is much like the argumentation AIG uses.) Clever. Show stopper. It’s hard to ever even get past arguing over information sources to the “stated” topic. And maybe we need to have the discussion about information resources and information literacy. But that’s about all one ever gets to talk about sometimes

And even an appeal to expertice and experience (I’m a librarian with two very different master’s degrees and years of experience vetting sources for my own work as well as others’.) is dismissed in a moment: “Yeah, at godless, secular, LIBERAL universities…bla bla…MSM.” I really don’t know where to go after that. (If anyone has suggestions, please make them!)

Slowing things down helps, at least it should. I had thought that doing things in writing would help, forcing me to slow down, understand what the other person said, gather needed information, check my facts, and then hear back, only to receive: “I disagree. Signed—John”


You’d think that being a student, faculty or community member at a religious institution would inspire more self honesty and higher standards, rather than excusing intellectual laziness. You are a saint. Where does one go from there?

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I call this kind of argumentation a “magic shibboleth.” Basically, a line that gets trotted out by someone who uses it as a catch-all to try to dismiss anything and everything that they don’t like.

I generally respond to these kinds of arguments by pointing out that that’s what they’re doing and that it’s dishonest. As for experience, I point out that some kinds of experience are gained from having to apply it in situations where getting it wrong has consequences, and in some cases those consequences can be severe. Some of us have learned to take the consensus of experts seriously the hard way.


I have been told by several moderators, several times that this is not a debating forum which sort of means that the “rules” of argument or debate do not apply here. This rather limits the scope of any thread because it can get shot down by ad hominem, refutation and so on before it ever gets started (see my thread on philosophical argument of Evolution)
It is a shame really because all i want to do is toss around a few ideas and have fun, but everything is turned into a battle for the truth or who is more adamant!

One thing that seems to have been overlooked in all this theoretical discussion of argument. That is the element of certainty. If your certainty is absolute there can be no argument. You are right, everyone else just has to step in line!

It takes a very brave person to approach with the notion that they may actually be wrong…


"Well, at least I am on the mission field rather that holed up in an insular cult!":tired_face::confounded::wink:

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I agree with you to an extent, in theology one should always approach discussion with humility and the willingness to be shown new things. In that regard there but by the grace of God go any of us.

But we cannot apply this universally. Should I look out the sky and ask ‘it is wrong to be certain about the colour is see up there?’ Or whether 2+2=4. I am not open to being convinced that I have been hookwinked on any of those things. Or at least the burden of proof is so high it is unlikely to ever be met.

We live our lives with this kind of certainty about a 1000 things every day. Do you put a dipstick in your car petrol tank every morning to check that the fuel gauge is accurate?

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No one was talking about Universality, only topics here. I cannot imagine anyone starting a discussion on the colour of the sky, even though it is not actually blue… hmph.
Creation? Evolution? Are they certain? No. But can people be certain what they think about it? Yes..
I could mention Nested Hierarchy but that might be considered trolling!


Not that conspiracists will listen or understand, but the dreaded MSM consists of commercial enterprises that are in competition with each other. If they make mistakes, they have to publish or broadcast corrections or retractions. If they are frequently in error, they lose market share. They have investigative journalists trying to scoop their competition for the next big story.

On the other hand, the echo chamber pots have no such self-correcting mechanism to inhibit their borscht and the true sheeple follow in line, and noisily.

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That is a really valuable question, Mark. Unfortunately, it’s so easy to get stuck in the Debate Team mode, feeling like we’re scoring points for Jesus, and fantasizing that we are defenders of The Truth. We often forget where the Gospel ends and the pet thing we think we’re certain of begins. Then we end up fighting with an ugly vigor for both, turning everyone off and away.
No one is impressed (at least in a favorable way). No one is listening. People are appalled. Jesus is defamed.
“But we scored 13 points today.”

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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