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How to Argue With Zompist: Or Social-Skills 101 A helpful guide for online discussion and debate written by Mark Rosenfelder with some help from notmydesk and others.
posted by The Whelk (31 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
If an otherwise smart person says something dumb, assume you misunderstood.

Good advice is the opposite of the Internet.
posted by DU at 6:06 PM on February 11, 2009


I don't know what exactly to make of that website but I think I like it.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:13 PM on February 11, 2009


I was prepared to snark, but, upon reading it, I think it should be handed out for free to everybody the first time they get on the Internet.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:19 PM on February 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Man, the reason I come on to the internet is so that I can break rules like these, not keep abiding by them.
If there were an internet protocol for cockpunching, I'd be a sore, sore man.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:20 PM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The writing is excellent, but the page itself is a lesson in how presentation can cripple content.
posted by dydecker at 6:23 PM on February 11, 2009


Nice writup, Zompist! All very true. I wish more people thought through things that clearly and could express themselves as well.
posted by gemmy at 6:29 PM on February 11, 2009


I was prepared to snark, but...

So you're a Mindchangey Backflippist, huh? Gotcha.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:05 PM on February 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Mr. Rosenfelder has been on my "check this regularly" list for years. If you love Ayn Rand OK, if you wonder how long before they turn to canibalism at the objectivist version of burning man (I do!) you'll love this.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:07 PM on February 11, 2009


Hey! I am in some of those pictures!
posted by Faux Real at 7:25 PM on February 11, 2009


If all else fails, pounce on him and start clawing at his nipples.
posted by mrnutty at 7:39 PM on February 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


How to argue with Zombo is a much different article.
posted by Simon! at 7:48 PM on February 11, 2009


Christ what a reasonable fellow.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:13 PM on February 11, 2009 [7 favorites]


zompist is good people, and I don't just say that because of all the times he's knocked zombies off me.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:22 PM on February 11, 2009


And he's mighty handy with a flamethrower, at that. Nice one, zomp!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:23 PM on February 11, 2009


Ha! The irony of some Mefite trying to teach us how to have a debate.
posted by mr. strange at 8:24 PM on February 11, 2009


Your only limit to arguing with Zombo is yourself.

Now that's out of the way, this is brilliant. Really just well-thought-out gold from top to bottom. One of my favorite bits:
For some reason, in a failed argument people behave like Lewis Carroll characters, focussing minutely on word choices and surface meanings. “You said that was unforgivable. Fine, since you won’t ever forgive, there’s no use talking.” More than once I’ve got into an argument on a thread, and when I finally figure out what the problem is, it’s the precise wording of the very first paragraph I posted, wording I’ve half forgotten since I’ve stated my point better since.

If you’re one of the people who does this... er, well, don’t do that. Do-overs are allowed. If you watch carefully, you’ll often find that people’s positions converge to some extent in the course of an argument, as people add missing qualifiers and adapt to attacks.
Please, please, please could we add this under the response bar for MeFi? Like where "everybody needs a hug" goes in MeTa?

Another personal one for me is:
Many people, venturing outside their field, are convinced now and forever by the first book they read. It’s nice that they’ve read a book; but it’s not enough to argue with experts in that field who’ve read many books.
I am constantly guilty of this. As a person with a very large and varied field of interests, I would (charitably) describe myself as sort of a "Jack of all trades, master of none." That tendency means that I can get my ass kicked in a lot of conversations here which touch upon something I'm interested in, and which I might know more about than the average man on the street, but about which many MeFites will know a great deal. I promise you all I'm trying to break free of that habit. The ass-beatings help, to a degree.

Which brings me to my final point, and one which he doesn't actually bring up, maybe because it's just not the way he argues: It's not uncommon for a MeFite to enter a thread with a fairly well-informed and possibly passionate opinion about the subject matter, and to subsequently find out from another MeFite that there's information that they didn't have about said subject, which might change their mind entirely.

Now, one path is to acquiesce to the greater expertise (or perceived greater expertise, whichever) and bow out gracefully. Another is to dig one's heels in anyway, regardless of whatever infomration comes next. I've tried both and neither is satisfying. The middle path, the one that seems most sensible to me, is to ask questions about this new information and try to apply it so as to form a better-informed opinion and understanding of the matter at hand.

The problem that arises from the middle path is that, because you're coming in with a formed opinion to begin with, any questions you ask about those who argued against you are likely to be received as confrontational heel-digging. This sucks. I guess really everything he's talking about sort of gets to this point in one way or another, but to effectively argue in a way that's beneficial to all, one should listen to everything, take whatever was said last as the most important thing, and don't get pissed off at other members just because you're looking for a target.

Finally, for anyone who didn't read it, his disproof of Searle's Chinese Room is the best thing I've read in ages. For my taste, probably better than the FPP link, actually (though probably not for anyone who hasn't studied Philosophy of the Mind.) Seriously, though, it's worth reading just within the context of a treatise which is almost treated as gospel in some philosophical corners being completely, brilliantly eviscerated at every turn, and then seeing the little bits of value of it explained as well. It's simply amazing.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:54 PM on February 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Zompist! I love zompist.com. It's one of the great sites of the internet. Makes me wonder how Justin B Rye and Matthew White are doing.

And yeah... I think everybody should be handed this essay when they go on the internet. A good, common sense essay.
posted by Kattullus at 9:01 PM on February 11, 2009


In fact, hell... I've been on the internet forever (it seems) but I should really print this out and tack it to the wall above my computer. There's a few behaviors he describes which I've found myself engaging in while being emotional online, never to a good effect.
posted by Kattullus at 9:15 PM on February 11, 2009


Awesome, I now play games with not one, but TWO internet famous people.

Zompist is good people indeed. Way to go man!
posted by Chan at 9:36 PM on February 11, 2009


I'm not that famous.
posted by Cyrano at 10:04 PM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Zompist: I don't know how the hell you hid this from me but your entire site is great.
posted by flatluigi at 10:16 PM on February 11, 2009


I'm not that famous.

He meant me.
posted by mrnutty at 10:26 PM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I read the title as How to Argue With Zombie: Or Social-Skills 101 and thought "You can argue with a zombie? There are social skills involved?"
posted by eye of newt at 10:30 PM on February 11, 2009


Very good info, but there is one point on which I will disagree: sarcasm when directed at one's opponent may provoke only angry defensiveness or dumb incomprehension from him, but there are likely to be many other people reading, and if there's an actual counter-argument in the sarcasm, I would argue that they are more likely to follow it, because they are amused by the comment. Sure, some will think "what a nasty thing to say, you must therefore be wrong, I'm gonna defend your opponent now", but many more who will think "whoa, way to scorch that jerk, and I think I see now why he was wrong". It doesn't matter how correct you are, if you bore your readers you will fail to make your argument.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:54 PM on February 11, 2009


You can't stop Zompist, you can only hope to contain him.
posted by First Post at 11:10 PM on February 11, 2009


Win the special olympics in style.
posted by pompomtom at 2:40 AM on February 12, 2009


oh, no way - flamethrowin' MeFightClub zompist is THAT zompist? Awesome!
posted by xbonesgt at 8:54 AM on February 12, 2009


Superb, like just about everything on zompist. I liked this aside:

It’s said that H.L. Mencken replied to all correspondents with the same statement: “There may be something in what you say.” Not a bad policy, unless the recipients compare notes.

And yeah, it should be required reading for everyone on the internet.

there is one point on which I will disagree: sarcasm when directed at one's opponent may provoke only angry defensiveness or dumb incomprehension from him, but there are likely to be many other people reading, and if there's an actual counter-argument in the sarcasm, I would argue that they are more likely to follow it, because they are amused by the comment. Sure, some will think "what a nasty thing to say, you must therefore be wrong, I'm gonna defend your opponent now", but many more who will think "whoa, way to scorch that jerk, and I think I see now why he was wrong".

No. I know sarcastic jerks love to think this—"Whoa, I scorched that guy! Everybody's gonna worship me! I am SO FUNNY!"—but you know what? Just like self-links are never as interesting to anyone else as they are to the linker, sarcasm is never as funny and effective to anyone else as it is to the sarcast.*

*Yes, it is too a word, going back to 1654; Gladstone called Disraeli "a great sarcast."

It doesn't matter how correct you are, if you bore your readers you will fail to make your argument.

While there's some truth in that, you'd be surprised how very many ways there are to avoid boring your readers without descending to sarcasm, which is to argument as the pun is to humor, viz. the lowest form thereof.
posted by languagehat at 9:22 AM on February 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


"While there's some truth in that, you'd be surprised how very many ways there are to avoid boring your readers without descending to sarcasm, which is to argument as the pun is to humor, viz. the lowest form thereof."

But but but I LOVE puns!
posted by klangklangston at 12:38 PM on February 12, 2009


sarcasm is never as funny and effective to anyone else as it is to the sarcast.*
This doesn't mean that it's not funny to anyone else. Also, it's applicable of all jokes, in that if you didn't think the joke was funny, you wouldn't have told it.

On the other hand, others may find your joke more funny than you yourself did, and that is true of sarcasm too. I'm sure we can all recall times when we've made some remark that we thought was mildly amusing, made some of our hearers snicker, and struck at least one as uproariously hilarious.

While there's some truth in that, you'd be surprised how very many ways there are to avoid boring your readers without descending to sarcasm, which is to argument as the pun is to humor, viz. the lowest form thereof.
Yes, but it's usually more fun to be sarcastic. As you know very well, languagehat. ;)

Look, I don't disagree with zompist's point, and I don't think he means his essay as an earnest exhortation to kumbaya and holding hands, the kind of exhortations that show up in every MetaTalk thread on this subject. The point I'm attempting to make, is that the essay is written entirely in the context of Person A (the reader of the essay) arguing with Person B (their theoretical opponent) about Point X, and makes the assumption that A's goal is to attempt to convince or at least to persuade B to accepting A's point of view vis-a-vis X. This is fine advice as far as it goes but it is not the whole story. Internet fora are not places of private arguments, pretty much by definition. Whether or not A converts B to his point of view--and chances are he will not--it is C, D, E, F and the whole alphabet of bystanders whose mindspace is the real turf of the A-B war.

Conversational techniques applicable to a private one-on-one conversation do not directly transfer to crowd situations. Even if A's explicit sole goal is the conversion of B, (ie, A doesn't really care much about C's and D's opinion), it is still a potentially successful technique to convert C and D, which adds an effect of social expectation onto B. This doesn't need to be a harangue of B, of course. It could just as well be a sermon, or a lecture. Any form of "conversion" to a point of view (be it an evangelical meeting, a scientific conference, an educational lecture, a drug addiction support group, etc) is always more successful if the room is filled with those who understand and agree with the point. This is a major reason why, once converted, one is expected to continue to go to church (a question that I must admit puzzled me as a child). It's an interesting question how much that effect applies to internet fora.

I think we've gone off manners into group psychology, but to bring it back to the main point: sarcasm, or for that matter sincere upbraiding and cussing-out of a wrongdoer, is not a useless activity. While there may be some objections to it on the grounds of its worth as a technique for argument, it is disingenous to put this forward as a reason for not using it: the reason is, people find it uncomfortable on the one hand, and on the other hand they find it so comfortable that it becomes an incitement to unproductive (ie, zero information content) bickering.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:22 PM on February 12, 2009


Your general point that arguing can have as a goal the conversion of the audience as well as (or rather than) the interlocutor is a good one. Sarcasm is a terrible way to accomplish this.

it becomes an incitement to unproductive (ie, zero information content) bickering.

Yup, pretty much.
posted by languagehat at 5:27 PM on February 12, 2009


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