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Shoddy Argument Pattern

There’s a standard pattern where people want to refute what you said, but it’s hard, so they do this:

  • Come up with a new argument that you didn’t preemptively address that says you’re wrong (and often also dumb).
  • The argument is extremely shoddy and wouldn’t hold up in debate.
  • But they avoid debating it.
  • Then they think they’re right and that you can be dismissed.

Using a low quality argument works well here because people try to think of and address potential high quality objections. And other critics will likely have already told them every reasonable objection that’s easy to think of. But no one can anticipate and pre-answer every dumb objection. It may be hard to think of a reasonable criticism that other people haven’t already brought up, but it’s always easy to think of a dumb new criticism. Coming up with dumb criticisms is easy, and you can probably think of one that no one has already pointed out is dumb.

Dumb criticisms don’t do very well in debate. You need to think of it, declare victory, and then avoid debate. There are several standard tactics for avoiding debate:

  • Do this to an author who put an argument in a book, so you aren’t actually in a conversation with them.
  • Be too busy to talk more.
  • Insult people who want to debate. Say they’re too dumb or unreasonable to be worth debating.
  • Refuse to discuss for other reasons, e.g. saying you don’t owe this person answers or saying that they should go debate with someone else.
  • Don’t tell anyone your argument. Just think it in your head, decide you’re right and your opponents aren’t worth engaging with, and move on.

People frequently do this to me using the unstated arguments technique. They come up with some reason in their head that I’m wrong, don’t say it, and use it to justify not respecting me, ending discussion, believing they’re right, etc. The unstated arguments are usually very shoddy. They often do this after they are losing a debate. Then they come up with worse arguments than the ones that were losing the debate, but keep those arguments to themselves and pretend the arguments are great.

Economics Example

Another part of the pattern is sometimes people use arguments that you did anticipate, and pre-refute, in writing. They just ignore that you did that. They can rely on most of the audience being ignorant and not well-read. For example, from the introduction of The Critics of Keynesian Economics by Henzy Hazlitt (page 2):

… I have included two selections— those from Jean Baptiste Say and John Stuart Mill—that long antedated the General Theory [by Keynes] itself. The truth of the basic propositions of the General Theory rests (on the contention or admission of most Keynesians) on the truth of Keynes's "refutation" of Say's Law. But when we turn to the original statement of this law in the words of the economist after whom it is named, and to its elaboration by the classical economist who argued it most fully, we find that these statements in themselves, particularly the one by Mill, anticipated the objections of Keynes and constituted a refutation of them in advance.

Keynes made shoddy, pre-refuted arguments and has gotten away with it, and become the most influential economist in the world, due to the lack of rational discussion and debate in the world today. See also Hazlitt’s book-length, detailed refutation of Keynes (from 1959) which, as far as I know, no Keynesian has ever made a serious attempt to refute with counter-arguments. (Note that Hazlitt was pretty famous and prestigious. He published two dozen books and wrote for major newspapers for decades, including 12 years at The New York Times. But opponents still wouldn’t even try to answer his arguments.)

Listening to Keynes instead of Ludwig von Mises has made humanity many trillions of dollars poorer. Doing it when Keynes made pre-refuted, shoddy arguments … and despite Hazlitt’s books and other attempts to point that out … is really sad. And it’s a really important fact about the world. It implies e.g. that if people were a bit more rational it would have a huge impact. Better rationality could easily have changed this one thing, and many other things too. And this is still an ongoing problem: as I write this, Keynes is still the most influential economist on government policy and it’s still doing massive economic harm every year. Rational debate over the matter is still not happening.

AI Alignment Example

Another example of the shoddy argument pattern is an AI Alignment researcher (Olle Häggström, a professor and author) responding to David Deutsch’s arguments about universal intelligences. His response is that even if Deutsch is right, and AGIs won’t have super intelligence or inhuman capabilities, and there will be no singularity … it doesn’t matter. Human/AGI equality regarding intelligence is logically compatible with military inequality, so they might wipe us out. But how will the robots get a huge military advantage without being smarter than us!? We’re told that humans are currently imperfect and flawed, so I guess the claim is the robots will lack human flaws somehow despite having equivalent mental capabilities to us? Why?

This is a vague, shoddy argument. Deutsch criticized a major, important claim of his side and he didn’t even try to defend that claim. He just carelessly said that it doesn’t matter because that was easier than attempting to refute Deutsch’s argument. He changed the topic away from the arguments Deutsch made to a dumb side-issue that Deutsch hadn’t already written about. And he put it in a book, declared victory before Deutsch could respond, and insulted Deutsch’s ideas, intelligence and rationality. I don’t mean it’s an insult by implication. He just directly put an insult in his book: “Deutsch seems to have fallen in love with his own abstractions and theorizing to the extent of losing touch with the real world.” He also focused more on insults than arguments when he talked in his blog comments.

If Deutsch actually refuted the super intelligence and singularity ideas, but then got something else wrong, that’d be worth praising and engaging with. It’d be a major contribution to human knowledge. It’d be really impressive, not insult-worthy.

Insulting Deutsch also helps prevent a debate with Deutsch from every happening. Being a jerk can be an effective strategy so that the people you’re avoiding debating don’t actually want to talk with you anyway.

Elliot Temple on January 7, 2023


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