Jun 10 2016

How to Argue in the Comments

duty_callsI love a good disagreement. I seek them out, sometimes to the annoyance of family and friends who may not be in the mood for a heated discussion. I would actually argue with people who came to my door to spread their religion.

Judging by the typical comments section beneath just about any article or video on the internet, I am not alone. People love to argue, and the relative distance and anonymity of social media seems to have a disinhibiting effect.

How to effectively engage in various situations is one of the more common questions that I receive, and in fact I did a workshop on this question at the last TAM and NECSS. One section of the workshops focused on how to argue online, in a forum or the comments section.

Here are some of my thoughts. Keep in mind, I am not saying this is what you should do. My goal here is not to be a “tone troll” or dictate how people interact, even in the comments to my own blog. Frequent readers will recognize that I rarely moderate the comments, and only for the more egregious offences. Rather, I am just providing my thoughts and perspective, in the form of, “If your goal is X, you might want to consider these factors.”

What is your goal?

The first question to ask yourself is, what are your goals in leaving a comment or engaging in an online discussion? Probably most of the time it is little more than a vague irritation that, “Someone is wrong on the internet,” or perhaps you just want to express your opinion on a topic about which you have opinions.

You may have more specific goals. Often my goal is to simply learn more about what a person or group of people actually believe. How do they justify their position, how do they respond to certain challenges, and why do they disagree with the position I favor?

Sometimes I comment (especially on my own social media outlets) because I want to set the record straight. Someone has left a comment with a false bit of information and I want to make sure anyone reading the comments has a more reliable reference and does not think I am endorsing that information by not opposing it (yes, people do sometimes think that).

You may also want to genuinely engage in a meaningful discussion of an interesting topic, to learn something new, to challenge your own thinking on the topic, to convince others and be convinced yourself.

Or you may want to have some fun by just getting a rise out of strangers on the internet. You can provoke people with a different world view than yours, or just say outrageous things, like throwing a rock into a pond so you can watch the ripples. This sort of behavior is generally referred to as trolling. I don’t find it particularly useful, although I know some people feel strongly it can serve a useful purpose in some contexts.

If you want to engage and learn

If your goal is not to troll, but to engage in a useful and meaningful discussion, here are some things to consider.


The most important thing is to actually engage. This means listening to what others are actually saying, trying to genuinely understand their position, and responding to their actual points.

It is very easy to talk at people than to or with them. I often find that people are not responding to what I actually wrote, but to some cartoon they have in their mind about what the “other side” thinks, or whatever side they imagine I am on (often falsely). Don’t assume that the person you are talking to has a particular position they have not expressed.

I sometimes catch myself doing this, and it does take awareness and discipline to avoid it. For example, if someone is arguing against evolution I might assume they are a particular kind of creationist and argue against that. It is helpful to give people the opportunity to make their position clear and then address that position.

Find common ground

If you literally have no common ground with someone else, then it is impossible to engage with them meaningfully. Most of the time, there will be common ground, even if it is just a respect for facts and logic. There may also be common ground on the details of a particular issue. It is a lot easier to engage once you have established what your common ground is, then you can build from there. It also is useful to create a constructive tone for the discussion.

Address their points

When someone makes a valid point, acknowledge it. Don’t ignore points they are making and move on to the points you want to address. If they make a point, you should either accept it, counter it effectively and directly, or at least state that you are not certain and will have to explore the point further.

Keep focused

It is easy for discussions to spiral out of control because one or more people involved keep bringing up more and more issues or expanding the scope of the discussion. This is often related to the point above – not addressing their actual points and moving on to new issues. Try to identify one or a few discrete claims or issues and then keep focused on them until you feel the topic is adequately addressed. Often, when someone starts repeating their points, I feel we have come full circle.

The Principle of Charity

The principle of charity is sort of the opposite of the straw man fallacy. The straw man fallacy is to not address someone else’s position but a weaker version of their position that is easier to knock down. The principle of charity is to address the best version possible of another’s position. It involves giving them the benefit of the doubt, interpreting their statements favorably, and trying to find if there is any way their position can make sense.

If you can effectively refute the best version of another’s position, than your position is probably solid and valid. If you have to assume the worst of someone else’s position, your own position may be weak, and you are probably trolling.

For example, if someone makes a small error that is inconsequential to their position, do not act as if that invalidates their position or indicates that they don’t know what they are talking about.

Don’t play the semantic game, parsing words and definitions in such a way as to reconstruct someone else’s position into something other than what it is. Work together with the other person to clarify definitions and uses of words, to be unambiguous, so that you understand what they actually mean.

Don’t play the fallacy game

Understanding logical fallacies is extremely important to being a critical thinker. However, I often find that people use their knowledge of logical fallacies not as a way to ensure that their own thinking is valid, but as a weapon against others.

It is also important to understand that the logical fallacies we are talking about are informal logical fallacies. This means they are not necessarily wrong or invalid, but can be in the right context. They are context dependent.

The argument from authority is perhaps the best example. It is fallacious to argue that because one person who has a degree holds a position, that position must be correct. It is valid, however, to respect a robust consensus of scientific opinion built on a large body of evidence and discussion. The consensus does not have to be correct, but it’s a good bet, and a reasonable default position unless you have a very good reason to doubt it.

It is easy, however, to frame someone else’s position in such a way that it can be portrayed as a logical fallacy. You can then name the logical fallacy and declare victory. This isn’t very useful.

It is also important to recognize that a position can be correct even if someone commits a logical fallacy in defending it. You have to fully address the logic and evidence for the position, not just fallacy hunt.

Don’t assume you are correct

If everyone in a discussion has the rock solid confidence that they are correct and anyone who disagrees with them is wrong, then the discussion is probably not going to be very productive (again, depending on your goals). When someone disagrees with me my first assumption is that I am wrong, that I made a mistake or did not properly state something.

Obviously, with some issues I have already explored them thoroughly. If someone says that vaccines cause autism, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I have already explored this issue. However, I will give them the opportunity to prove me wrong. Show me your evidence and let’s discuss it.

Otherwise, I find it helpful to start with the assumption I am wrong, to explore my facts and references and examine my own logic for error. I think it is extremely useful to want to be corrected. All of our heads are filled with misinformation and incomplete information, and I am always grateful to have one more misconception purged from my brain. I welcome the opportunity to understand an issue more deeply, and to incorporate new facts and arguments into my position.

Ideally a discussion will be a cooperative effort in which both or all parties are examining their own position and trying to work out the facts and logic together, starting from common ground and proceeding carefully to the best conclusion. I find that many people do this when they have effectively no emotional investment in the topic.

I would argue, it is best to have no emotional investment in any particular factual claim. Your identity should not be tied up with a specific ideology. Rather, it is better to value the process. This way you will be motivated to admit error, because that shows you are true to the process.

Humans, however, are tribal and we tend to plant our flags in specific ideological positions, and then defend them at all costs. You can transcend this default mode, however, by simply staking your claim in the process rather than the outcome.


There are probably more valid points to discuss, and feel free to add to the list in the comments. These are the points I find the most useful. I admit I don’t always live up to the ideal I espouse. It takes a lot of energy and diligence, and sometimes people piss me off. But it is useful to have goals and standards, and to at least think about the choices you make and how they relate to your goals.

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