How to spot a losing argument a mile off

In this age of endless online discussion it is difficult to avoid encountering holy wars over all manner of subjects, from the truly profound to the profoundly trivial: liberal versus conservative, pro-life versus pro-choice, X-Box versus PlayStation, Emacs versus Vi. When faced with this dizzying array of virtual tavern brawls, how is an interested observer supposed to figure out whom they should be supporting?

The purely logical answer, of course, is to carefully research the subject matter, consider the arguments on both sides, and reach a rational conclusion based on the evidence. While there is a lot to be said for this process, and it should always be the approach taken when making important decisions, it would be prohibitively time-consuming to do this for every online dispute. Fortunately, there are a few red flags that can be used to identify the rotten apples without becoming an expert on every subject imaginable.

Hysteria out of proportion to the subject matter

There are plenty of topics that genuinely deserve outrage, such as genocide or terrorism. But contrary to what one might expect, the most acrimonious campaigns often involve utterly inconsequential subjects, with rabid zealots unleashing tirades of snarling abuse over such trivialities as video game reviews or lingerie adverts. Paradoxically it seems that people become all the more desperate to win an argument when there are no consequences beyond the act of winning itself.

This principle has even been given a name — Sayre’s law — after a political scientist who observed in the mid-twentieth century that “the politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low”. It is perhaps unsurprising that the same phenomenon can therefore be observed in the academic institutions of today, where student pressure-groups ignore serious worldwide injustices in order to screech hysterically about Halloween costumes or the lyrics of pop songs.

Why so serious?

In many discussions it quickly becomes obvious that one side considers the issue something of a joke, deploying liberal amounts of satire and ridicule to make its points, while those on the other side are busy getting offended, throwing tantrums and holding their breath until they pass out. In such cases it is best to put your money on the light-hearted camp. Being able to approach a subject with good humour is a sign of confidence, whereas pious outrage suggests a level of emotional investment that is likely to obstruct a considered analysis.

However, take care when employing this guideline to distinguish genuine humour from mere personal attacks phrased in a sarcastic way. Replacing “you are an ass-hat” with “your a fine person lol /sarcasm” does not magically turn the insult into an insightful observation. And, as with the previous section, some consideration of the topic is warranted. Debates over life-and-death subjects such as abortion or euthanasia are unlikely to be won with wisecracks and funny cartoons.

Censorship is the last resort of the incompetent

Remember that time when physicists rioted in the streets and demanded punishment for anyone who criticised Newton’s theory of gravity? Of course not. Sound arguments based on solid evidence are not threatened by disbelief and do not need to be propped up with censorship and coercion, which is why you rarely hear scientists calling for the introduction of blasphemy laws.

But while religions have historically been notorious for attempting to suppress dissent, there are plenty of modern secular movements that are more than happy to resort to the same tactics. The current fashion for banning speakers and demanding “Safe Spaces” on university campuses echoes the religious book-burning of years gone by, and serves exactly the same purpose: to artificially protect weak belief systems that cannot survive open debate. There is no clearer admission that one’s ideas have failed than clumsy and futile attempts to silence those who disagree with them.

Can’t debate, won’t debate

The other side of the censorship coin: people who don’t actively try to silence others, but nevertheless refuse to defend their own position or engage with any counter-arguments. These posers can often be identified by their use of tell-tale phrases such as “it’s obvious”, “you’ll have to figure it out” or “I’m not going to explain why this is stupid”, which they utter in the mistaken belief that it will make them sound like an intriguing and enigmatic sensei, rather than a condescending tool.

Of course there are limits to what any particular person is willing to debate — one does not expect rocket scientists to spend time pointlessly trying to educate the Flat Earth Society. But a rocket scientist certainly should be able to suggest where you might learn the basics of rocket science if you’re interested, rather than smugly declaring that they don’t have time to explain but perhaps you’ll understand when you’re older. Genuine experts usually enjoy sharing their knowledge; those who claim expertise but refuse to demonstrate it should be regarded with suspicion.

The tin-foil hat brigade

The echo chambers of the internet offer a fertile environment for elaborate conspiracy theories, which have the dubious honour of violating not one but two philosophical guidelines: Occam’s Razor, which suggests that one should not assume complex explanations where simple ones will suffice, and Hanlon’s Razor, which advises that untoward events are more often a product of incompetence than malice. In contrast to the religious nutters who protect themselves by discouraging logical analysis, conspiracy kooks employ an entirely different strategy of inventing ever-more-complicated and unlikely explanations while accusing skeptics of being part of the cover-up.

But while most of us would instinctively snort with derision at the more wacky beliefs — chemtrails, for example, or the 9/11 Truth movement — there are numerous ideas that share the characteristics of conspiracy theories without necessarily being considered as such. Vague, shadowy bogeymen such as “Big Oil/Food/Tobacco” or “the patriarchy” are frequently invoked by political campaigners to fulfil much the same role as the Illuminati or the Reptilians: powerful and malicious actors pulling strings behind the scenes, whose influence you would only dispute if you are secretly working for them. And just like with censorship, evading debate with allegations of bad faith and secret plots is an act of desperation and weakness.

Death is the only true freedom

Aaron SwartzThe recent suicide of prominent hacker and activist Aaron Swartz, who was faced with the possibility of an extensive prison sentence for an entirely harmless act, has prompted much commentary from politicians and the wider community. His family lay the blame firmly at the feet of the government, claiming that their culture of “intimidation and prosecutorial overreach” was the cause of Aaron’s death. There have been petitions to the White House to remove the officials responsible for the charges, and proposals to amend the law such that violating the acceptable usage policy of a website — which can include such innocuous activities as creating a Hotmail account under a false name — does not result in criminal sanctions.

Stupid laws and their overzealous enforcement is not a problem unique to the US. Prosecutors in the UK, for example, are fond of regulating online speech by employing nebulous legal concepts like “grossly offensive” or “insulting”, in some cases resulting in custodial sentences despite the lack of any actual harm. In Australia there have been convictions over illegal images of cartoon characters — despite being fictional and only vaguely humanoid, Bart Simpson is apparently still a “child” in need of “protection” from dangerous thought criminals. Even this pales into insignificance alongside the third-world kangaroo courts which hand out death sentences for homosexuals and adultery charges for rape victims like they are still in the 14th century.

As a campaigner for online freedom, Aaron Swartz would have been deeply familiar with the propaganda, back-room dealing and pandering to emotion that results in such legal insanities. With his programmer’s capacity for abstraction, he would have understood that the endless power-grabs and supine servitude to the whims of corporate puppet-masters are universal problems with the political system to which there is no easy solution. Even after the initial victory against SOPA, he must have realised that an entire lifetime of activism would hardly stem the flow of ignorant and censorious policy-making. Perhaps he reached the obvious conclusion, implicitly acknowledged by every authoritarian regime that outlaws suicide, that only the dead have seen the end of oppression.

We will never truly know why Aaron Swartz took his own life; despite the conclusion drawn by his supporters, he might well have killed himself irrespective of his legal difficulties. But it seems plausible that rather than an act of fear or desperation, his suicide was actually a statement — the most powerful statement any human can make — that spending another sixty years under the omnipresent thumb of the idiocracy was simply not an acceptable option.