In this Better Arguing Series, I have argued that one of the ways that we can exercise due diligence in argument with others, is by acknowledging that counterarguments to our position exist and taking them seriously. But what does taking them seriously really mean? We aren’t going to agree with those counterarguments, right? Otherwise we’d be on the other side of the argument! How sure are we allowed to be that we can dismiss the counter argument? More broadly, what does taking counterarguments seriously really entail?
I’m so glad you asked! For this express purpose, I’ve made a quiz!
The Better Arguing Quiz: What To Do When You Encounter a Counter(argument)
Step 1: We start with a number. It could be your birthdate, 6 times your favorite number from 1-10, or the number of windows in New York. It’ll be most helpful, though, if it’s the probability you put on your belief being true. What do I mean by that? Well, what odds would you put money on if someone was betting on this belief? Or how biased would a roulette wheel have to be before you felt more comfortable spinning it than betting on the belief being true?
Put your number here ___
Step 2: Mark all that apply:
__ The person disagreeing with you is or appears intelligent/rational
__ The people agreeing with you…don’t
__ The argument is one you’ve never heard before
__ You learn of any evidence that doesn’t agree with your point, from the argument or elsewhere
__ You realize that in order to maintain your current position and confidence, you’re avoiding thinking about the weak parts of your argument
__ You realize that in order to maintain your current position and confidence, you’re avoiding thinking about certain arguments or facts
__ The person disagreeing with you agrees with one or more of your core values
__ The person disagreeing with you agrees with you on related issues
__ You forgot why you believe the thing you currently believe (don’t laugh, it happens to me all the time)
Step 3: How many did you get?
0 marks: You’re good! Keep your position as is, and remember to keep arguing well!
1-3 marks: You should consider restructuring your position so it takes these things into account.
4-6 marks: You should consider spending some significant time with websites or books or other places with arguments against your position so you can see if you can come up with defenses to them.
7-9 marks: You should consider re-evaulating your position from scratch. Go back through all the arguments, facts and research you can find, and see where you land.
I’m a little bit kidding, but mostly not. If someone who is as smart as us and who shares our premises disagrees with us on something, probability theory really does say that we should have a higher expectation of being wrong than we did before. And if we hear an argument that we haven’t heard before that sounds similar to one we have heard and don’t like, then we’re more likely to dismiss it (something called the inoculation effect). So we should be extra sure to remember that that behavior is a red flag, and that for every argument, if we haven’t heard it before, it counts on its own.
As a result, these red flags end up being really informative about how sure we should be about our positions. For example, they don’t tend to come up when I argue with Flat Earthers (not that I do that much) or Creationists. They occasionally come up when I talk about feminism. And they come up a lot when I talk about politics or economics. Wonderfully, that’s precisely the decreasing order of sureness with which I hold positions in those areas.
When we argue, we shouldn’t just be able to change our minds, we should also be able to change our confidence. So let’s use this checklist (and any expansions if people want to suggest things in comments) as a way to remind ourselves to always be questioning our sureness in our positions, so that we can be sure we’re getting as much truth out of every argument as possible.
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