Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why Do I Waste Time Arguing With Unreasonable People Online?

My son just put the question to me (I was commenting on Facebook at the time), and I thought some here might be interested in my answers:

1. As an excuse not to work on my current book. The chapter drafts I have just been looking at are in worse shape than I thought, which is depressing.

2. In the hope that by putting ideas out, some of them will spread, with some (small) effect on the world. Posts here probably get more readers, but comments on Facebook reach a different audience, one less likely to be familiar with the ideas.

3. In the hope of finding someone reasonable to argue with, which might result in changing his views, or mine, or both, in a desirable direction, as well as being fun. It happens very rarely, perhaps once every few months, but I'm an optimist.

4. Because arguing with unreasonable people online, and watching unreasonable people argue with each other, gives me useful, if depressing, information about what such people are like and (I hope an exaggerated) picture of how common they are. Like most people, I live mostly in a bubble, interacting with a very nonrandom set of people, and this gets me a view outside it. The same is true of reading trade chat in WoW, also depressing.

5. For the same ignoble reason that people spend time beating up on NPC's in WoW and similar games.


At 1:09 PM, October 25, 2015, Anonymous Frank S said...

I stopped arguing with people online a few years ago, and I don't regret it. I think the reason I had previously enjoyed it was because I generally only commented on forum threads where the arguments had obvious problems- in other words, where the contributors weren't as familiar with the topic and/or weren't as good at formulating arguments as me.

What made me stop was when I finally realised that I was only ever arguing to feel clever. With respect David, that could be one of your motivations too. By the way, what's your new book about again?

At 1:42 PM, October 25, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even arguing with unreasonable people can be useful, I think. They typically have a grain of reasonable argument, but presented poorly and buried under layers of nonsense. If you are willing to do the work yourself of considering what might be the most defensible version of their argument, you can either convince yourself that the argument has some merit, or work out what the core issue with the argument is.

It's not as good as arguing with reasonable people but I don't think it's a total waste of time.

At 3:47 PM, October 25, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

Frank: I think you are giving my (ignoble) reason 5.

The book is on legal systems very different from ours. There is only one more system chapter that requires much work, so I've been looking at the thread chapters, which deal with issues that run through multiple legal systems. They read more like lists of everything I might want to say on the subject than like enjoyable essays. They also duplicate too much of what's already in the system chapters where it belongs.

At 4:36 PM, October 25, 2015, Blogger Joseph Miller said...

I'll admit that ignoble reason 5 makes me want to follow David on Facebook.

At 6:43 PM, October 25, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If it counts for anything, I'll buy that book once it's finished. Consider yourself as having secured one sale.

At 9:08 PM, October 25, 2015, Anonymous Peter said...

About killing NPCs in WoW:

Don't forget to click on the red button below the comic.

At 11:11 PM, October 25, 2015, Blogger noballgame said...

I've read a bunch of those drafts and they are very interesting and I enjoy it. I look forward to buying the finished product. I hope either the book will be very different from what I've read or that those drafts will be expanded, because it's more fun to read something I haven't already read.

At 2:20 AM, October 26, 2015, Blogger George Haley said...

I'm much better informed because you argue with unreasonable people online, including myself.

At 2:20 AM, October 26, 2015, Blogger George Haley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6:16 AM, October 26, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...

Other reasons:

6. Online comments features are designed (often by people with cognitive psychology training) to reward your pleasure centers when you complete an interaction.

7. Some people are just used to debating stuff all the time. In my experience this is especially common in Jewish households, where the buttering of a piece of toast can escalate into a debate that makes Intelligence Squared look like a cockfight.

8. Online comments/forums are the perfect storm of a) lots of opportunities for exposure to people with different opinions; b) the ability to make all your points without being interrupted, and your opponent having no excuse not to read them all; and c) anonymity if you want it.

I think all of these explain my behavior right now for example.

At 6:26 AM, October 26, 2015, Anonymous GregS said...

I spend much less time than I used to arguing with unreasonable people online, but I’ve benefited from the exercise. If nothing else, unreasonable people serve as a good “’why’ boy,” as in someone who says “Why?” after every explanation. You have to learn to articulate your thoughts very clearly and very carefully, and it forces you to examine your assumptions. It also gives you some insight into how other people think, or fail to think as it were, which is your point 4.
Of course, some people don’t play along *at all*, and that can be a real waste of time. My favorite comments are when someone drops a whopping non sequitur or recites a standard talking point (often the very talking point that’s being disputed, as if to miss the point that their assumptions are being questioned), and adds some snark as if the comment were obviously devastating. I picture them dropping the mic and walking off-stage after saying something silly.
I’m also looking forward to your book, although having read some of the chapter drafts and listened to your class lectures (which are excellent), I have a rough idea of how it will go.

At 12:42 PM, October 26, 2015, Anonymous LH said...

Although I rarely argue with unreasonable people online, I agree with the logic of your five points, and also with GregS about it forcing the reasonable party to articulate his points very clearly. It also trains self-control while engaging in an argument (i.e. not lashing out with ad hominems, etc.).

The reason I usually do not engage in online arguments (or debates, or discussions) on Facebook is not so much that other parties are unreasonable, but rather that they are people I know upon whom I thought I could count to be reasonable, and instead face logical fallacies, ignorance, and very acute hostility.

I had almost abandoned engaging in those sorts of arguments for good because I find them so disheartening. I recently changed my mind about that, though, because of an experience that I believe provides another good reason to argue with unreasonable people. I witnessed an argument on Facebook between an old friend and an acquaintance, both from school years ago. The friend defended her position calmly, with commendable insight and reason, and even provided source after source of data to refute her opponent. For her efforts, she was met with repeated insults from multiple parties and (when people could deign to address the topic of dispute) fallacy after fallacy. The stakes, by the way, were very small - the argument was about whether a film's failure to receive a prominent award constituted racism on the part of the award voters.

At one point in the argument, someone who could not appropriately address the substance of my friend's points interjected with an attempt to silence discussion: "Why do you care, anyway?" Her reply, to the best of my recollection, was that she "cared about reason and the truth." Her entire side of the argument, and that phrase in particular, were a comforting reminder that there do exist reasonable, thinking people. I think that reason - providing a modicum of comfort to those who feel besieged by halfwits - is another good one to engage in these arguments.

At 8:25 PM, October 26, 2015, Anonymous Scott G said...

Love the honesty Prof. Friedman.

At 1:20 AM, October 27, 2015, Blogger Berna Bleeker said...

I've learned a lot from following those discussions. Thank you for being a voice of reason.

At 6:07 AM, October 27, 2015, Anonymous Daublin said...

It depends on what you mean by "argue" and "unreasonable person".

For the word "unreasonable people", the only such people I really encounter are people who are enemies for some other reason, for example people who you out-competed for a promotion. For people like that, there's little reason to engage whenever you can avoid it. More commonly, though, even the most strongly stated stupid opinions are really just coming from ignorance. If you tell people you love them and respect them, and then share some of what you know, they will often jump for it. Just make sure you are sincere and that you are setting them up to feel smarter and insightful than they did before you got involved. They have to be able to picture *themselves* passing on those comments to their own friends.

"Argue" is trickier. On the charitable interpretation, it's great to point things out to people who have never even encountered an argument for a position and then drop out of the conversation. In Go terms, if you make them make the last comment, you have "kept sente", and you are now free to comment on any arbitrary issue you like. If you instead feel like their reply is devastating to you, then really your error was on your opening move. If you have to reply and get the last word, you are leaving them with the initiative to go do whatever they like--including log out of Facebook--and you are stuck with the miserable job of defending yourself as not being a complete idiot. Don't do it. Every comment should be such that you are happy to leave the other person with the last word.

I run into lots of people who have never even encountered, say, the concept that capitalism might be a very good thing for society. Many people have never considered the concept of "honest business" and "honest work" as admirable personality traits. Many that I encounter truly believe that NRA members are against *any* gun control. Many people think that Mormons practice polygamy, and a few even think that Christian churches are filled with monologs about how maybe another Crusade would be great. Few people know what the going rate is for an Obamacare-approved insurance plan. Lots of people have never encountered the make-work fallacy, or Ricardian comparative advantage, or the benefits of price gouging during a natural events such as a year of low precipitation. If you point these things out politely, people will get it, and they'll realize that their reading diet has been turning them into assholes.

On the other hand, it's really poor to join in on team politics and just go through sentence-by-sentence arguments with people. Such posts are the verbal equivalent of getting drunk and getting into a fist fight in a bar. Nobody learns anything except maybe how to suck slightly less at fist fights in bars. Everyone involved looks pretty bad to all their acquaintances.

I will also diverge from many commenters and say that citing evidence via a URL is pretty useless. People usually won't even click the link. It's much better to state your case in plain English and then use phrases like "from what I've found on the web...". Let them look it up if they want to; if they do their own web search, they'll actually trust the results.

At 7:16 AM, October 27, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...


I agree with and like what you said. I disagree with your last paragraph though:

If you're really thinking realistically about the interaction, the point of posting links isn't so the other person will go read them and come back and say "Oh, I see now. You were right." It's to remove his plausible deniability of the existence of evidence for your position and against his.

I'll grant you that this often has the effect of shutting the person up but not changing his mind. But in a best case scenario he might go off hunting for his own evidence, and find only yours. Then he will have to change his paradigm--and even if he doesn't change it to match yours, he's at least swallowed the notion that his paradigm needed changing and he now theoretically has one based on more information.

The question then, of course, is whether your evidence might also be used to support his point instead.

At 7:18 AM, October 27, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...


BTW I have often clicked on links only to find that upon closer inspection they don't actually support the other person's argument, usually because the other person either misinterpreted their content or overvalued their trustworthiness.

At 8:05 AM, October 27, 2015, Blogger jimbino said...

David, why not get some free editing and proofreading by posting a draft here?

At 8:06 AM, October 27, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...


"I run into lots of people who have never even encountered, say, the concept that capitalism might be a very good thing for society."

Absolutely. Personally, I learned why capitalism doesn't work at about age 13, and didn't learn why it does work until about age 20.

@Daublin, Power Child

Regarding links, my main opposition to them is that they often amount to "I don't understand the argument I'm making, but someone apparently intelligent makes it here, so go read that". In response to which the other person can almost certainly find another apparently intelligent person who disagrees, post a link to them disagreeing, at which point the argument is over.

If you cannot argue your ideas yourself, in your own words, there is no point in arguing them at all. The fact that some authority figure disagrees with an argument, even disagrees eloquently, is not a good reason to dismiss the argument, for the reason I've given: you will quickly reach a stalemate because there are eloquent authority figures on all sides. Ultimately I think you have to accept that there is not and never will be a worldwide consensus on complex issues, and all you can do is look at the arguments for both sides yourself and see which you personally find most convincing.

This doesn't apply to links that are just evidence, but I don't put much weight into evidence without a plausible, consistent theoretical argument it is supposed to be evidence of. In the absence of that it seems to me more likely that the evidence is faulty, or does not really show what the person providing it thinks it does, than that it backs up their argument in spite of there being no particular reason to expect that argument to make sense.

At 10:09 AM, October 27, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...


I was only thinking of links to evidence for a point I'm making (as you said, with a plausible consistent theoretical argument of what it's supposed to be evidence of), not links to other people making a point. (Unless the argument I'm having is over whether that other person in fact made that point.)

I would never, for example, in an online argument about immigration in which I'm arguing against it, link to Steve Sailer making an argument against immigration. (This is in spite of the fact that Steve Sailer argues against it much better than I usually do.)

The one exception might be a situation in which I link to a post where Steve Sailer provides a whole bunch of other links that I think my opponent might want to read--but I wouldn't do this unless my opponent had told me he was interested in reading those links or at least knowing where he could find them, in which case he's probably less of an "opponent" and more someone I'm just sharing information with.

At 9:05 PM, October 27, 2015, Blogger Trey said...

#2 explains why I post comments. Boy am I naive.

At 3:24 AM, October 28, 2015, Blogger Lliam said...

I think I mainly do it for reason 5, but there's an important difference: NPCs in WoW have the decency to realise when they've been killed.

At 11:51 AM, October 28, 2015, Blogger Baconbacon said...

6. Forcing yourself to stay reasonable in the face of an unreasonable person is good practice.

At 12:48 PM, October 29, 2015, Blogger J Oliver said...

That is about how I feel about it.

At 1:28 PM, October 29, 2015, Blogger Tibor said...

I gave up on facebook entirely and only use it as a reminder for cultural events I am invited to and a IM service with a few people. I deleted my profile, started an incognito one inviting about 10 people to be my "friends on facebook" and disabled anything to be posted on my wall there.

I've grown quite fond of SSC comments section (except for the horrible redacting system which makes it quite messy...also for some reason the function "show comments since" does not work and always says "date invalid" no matter what date I put there...I use Firefox and Ubuntu 14.04 as the operating system). The percentage of reasonable people is so much higher there than anywhere else on the internet (maybe save for the commenters here, but there are not so many of them and most of them are libertarians, which means my posts are not as challenged as I would like them to be). Not all people are reasonable there, but compared to Facebook it is heaven. And Twitter seems to be the proper Evil. The 120 characters format makes it ideal for ad hominem insults and tribal signalling but pretty much nothing else (except for sharing links to interesting articles if you make a good choice of who to follow, I guess).

At 6:56 PM, October 29, 2015, Anonymous Mark Bahner said...

I don't mind unreasonable people. Dishonest people bother me. Fortunately, I have learned a trick to point out when a person is being dishonest:

A bet offer

Folks might ask why I would spend money ($30) on something so trivial. The basic answer is that I don't think there's much risk. ;-)

At 2:36 AM, October 30, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it depends on what you are trying to achieve. It may very well be a waste of time to argue with unreasonable people if the aim is to convince them of something. But if the aim is to spread your arguments and ideas to others who are observing the discussion, arguing with unreasonable people may not be a waste of time at all.

At 2:42 AM, October 30, 2015, Anonymous Colombo said...

Writing is difficult. Good literature is more difficult than medicine and physics, but not as difficult as economics, IMHO.

I recommend to anyone who wants to take a break from the gloomy internet to read something from the past. Tom Sharpe's books are fine. And this poem by Lewis Carroll also helps (but economists should not read it):

One can only change the opinions of someone who already wants to change their opinions. Everyone else is just in it for the fight. They don't seek anything else. The sad truth is that Reddit is just a text-mode version of WWE.

This morbid pleasure we all seek and find in online debates is just as stupid as watching wrestling shows and soap operas. But different people have different needs. Philosophic types want philosophic-grade gossip and superficiality. I have opted to install extensions in my browser to block commentary sections. But I'm thinking in using text-mode browsing to avoid all images too.

Another method to gain control and stop wasting time in debates is to write only with your left hand (or the right hand if your are a lefty). It is tiring to use only one hand to write. And you can push it to use only one finger. That should help some people a little.

The most difficult question every person has to answer is: How do I spend my waking hours?

I have found more joy in learning music than in debates. I will not become a professional musician, but it is an activity less damaging to my soul. But who am I to criticize people who choose to harm themselves by spending too much time on the internet, where human interaction can be very wild and unsightly.

And with today's technology one can buy a midi guitar and make it sound like a saxophone. Or buy a midi saxophone and make it sound like a guitar. Or a xylophone. Or an ocarina. I would like to play a Hang drum.

The problem of internet-based human conversation is this: "ex abundantia enim cordis os loquitur". People with good heart avoid harming others and also stay away from people who are likely to cause harm. And a good heart is something one has to grow and care for. Heart, soul, psyche, character, however one calls it. I am responsible for what I do, and, to some extent, for what others do to me.

At 12:37 PM, November 03, 2015, Blogger Jonathan said...

I've long been tempted to argue with people, and I used to spend quite a lot of time doing so, but as I got older I realized that the only effect of argument is to cause bad temper: in my experience, no-one ever seems to change an opinion as a result of argument. Though I've sometimes changed my own opinions as a result of reading books.

These days I'm still tempted to argue, but I often try to restrain myself, as it's basically a waste of time -- especially when the two parties disagree about fundamentals. If they agree on fundamentals and disagree only on details, there may be some point to it.

There would be more point to argument in general if everyone were like yourself: highly intelligent, honest, and scrupulously polite.

At 8:48 PM, November 05, 2015, Anonymous Joel Aaron Freeman said...

I never argue on the internet. There was this one time, though, where I tried to convince David Friedman to stop arguing on the internet.

Despite all my good arguments, David didn't listen. The man is completely unreasonable!

At 3:18 AM, November 06, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't had to argue on the internet after I won the internet argument in 1998.

At 2:55 PM, November 06, 2015, Blogger Richard O. Hammer said...

Milton Friedman argued with people all the time, wherever he went. With the cashier at the grocery store, for example. Or at least that is what I heard someone say.

But also, as I understand the persona of my adopted Uncle Milton, he argued without rancor. Never attacking a person, only attacking a lack of data or a doubtful interpretation.

Twenty-five years ago I had mostly learned how to keep my mouth shut. That is safe in a way. But I suspect a better man would be able to argue and build friendship in the same interaction. There are circumstances, I guess, in which I can show more regard for another person by arguing with that person than by remaining silent in disagreement. This is my goal, if I live long enough, to learn that.

At 10:43 AM, November 07, 2015, Blogger Tibor said...

Jonathan: We had a similar conversation here before and David pointed out that his father used to say that the point of an argument is not to convince the other person but to supply the arguments with which he later convinces himself.

It takes an admirable lack of egoism and pride to admit that you were wrong and your opponent arguments are just batter in the middle of a conversation, at least if it is something fundamental that you disagree about. It also takes quite a lot of quick thinking. If you hear about something very different from your view of the world, it is not easy to fully digest the idea in the few seconds one has to react in the middle of a conversation. Admittedly, online you have more time, but discussing things online is more akin to speaking on at a forum than talking alone with just the person you're talking to, so people feel like they have to "defend their tribe". And of course, you do not have that much time to reply either (and there is again the pressure to "show them", so you want to respond quickly), the attention span in most online discussions does not exceed days.

I agree that it is usually a better strategy to argue with people who do not differ in their opinions that much. But what matters even more is that they are reasonable. I would argue with some libertarians who disagreed on not more than 5% of things with me in matters of actual proposed policy, but who were very unreasonable and I often felt like talking to a wall (it was at an online forum by the way). At the same time, I can have a fun debate with a friend of mine who disagrees on maybe 25% of the things with me or even people who disagree possibly a lot more in the SSC comments section (the only thing I dislike about that is the format, clearly not designed for hundreds of comments).

At 2:12 PM, November 07, 2015, Blogger Jonathan said...

Tibor: I'm sorry if I've been repeating myself; I have a bad memory.

I mostly agree with your comments.

Yes, it is possible that some people may convince themselves to change their minds in the wake of an argument; but I don't think it's a common occurrence.

At 7:59 AM, November 12, 2015, Blogger Gordon said...

Some comments have touched on what I call the "argument effect", named after the Monty Python argument sketch. In the sketch, the person who comes for an argument ultimately articulates a serious claim even though the "professional" arguer is simply disagreeing at every turn. This is not so helpful for positions you have already thought a lot about, but can help you better think through positions you are not so clear on.

At 2:56 PM, April 19, 2016, Anonymous said...

you (and I) argue with people online because we want so bad for others (instinctively) to see our point of view. The fact is, that probably will never happen. And a conversation can end up name calling, etc etc. Either people want to engage or they disengage, disengaging is being passive. Either way, a conversation doesn't continue because the people involved in the conversation don't agree. We will never "all agree" its impossible and unrealistic.

At 9:36 PM, October 22, 2016, Blogger Gena F said...

The amount of times I have been at my keyboard, typed a lengthy reply only to delete it before hitting "post"... On the occasion that I do hit post, I end up getting locked into a long debate and at the end of the day, that is time wasted. That's why I try stay out of online debates now.

Gena F | Vantaggio HR


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