An unusual counterargument

Oftentimes, the correct response to an argument is ‘your argument appears after cursory investigation to make sense, however the fact that many smart people have never mentioned this to me suggests that there are good counterarguments, so I remain unconvinced’.

I basically never hear this response, which suggests that there are good counterarguments. Or alternatively that it is unappealing to respond accurately in such cases. The latter seems very plausible, because it suggests one cannot assess any argument at the drop of a hat.

If so, what do people actually say instead? My guess is the first argument they can think of that points in the direction that seems right. This seems unfortunate, as the ensuing discussion of that counterargument that nobody believes can’t possibly resolve the debate, nor is of much interest to anyone.

11 responses to “An unusual counterargument

  1. I have heard a weaker relative: “I don’t have a good answer for that at present, but I’m not convinced yet.”

  2. A concrete example would have helped to make this post clear.

  3. To what extent do you mean something similar to “I haven’t heard anyone make this argument before, which suggests that people don’t consider this argument often, and so I wouldn’t particularly expect counter-arguments to be particularly salient to me right now, even if they did exist”?

    Responding accurately and deciding to think in more detail about it later seems somewhat psychologically unrealistic to me — most people don’t really have affordances for ensuring that they continue a particular chain of thought prompted by a conversation.

    Maybe flailing around through adjacent ideas until you hit a more productive line of counter-argumentation is the next-best thing for addressing ideas if you’re not going to write things down in a notebook?

  4. Really, you never hear this? Not even in a less developed form (“it seems very logical, but I never heard it before, so there must be something wrong/it cannot be that simple/there is something missing/you obviously don’t know what you are talking about”)?

    I get this all the time and I expected you to get it even more (given that you probably make more unusual but intelligent points that I do).

  5. Presumably in a lot of cases like this the response is not another argument but some kind of rhetorical gesture. When people offer an argument that no smart people have ever mentioned to you before, a lot of the time it’s going to be relatively easy to offer a kind of dismissive response e.g. portraying it as a fringe position that no smart/non-crazy people believe.

    This is, of course, assuming that it’s an argument that no smart people have mentioned to you and for a conclusion that’s not widely accepted/mentioned as true for some reason by smart people. If people present an argument that seems plausible for a conclusion that everyone agrees with anyway, then I’m sure people most commonly just accept it and say “Yes, that sounds about right”: all fuel for their confirmation bias.

  6. If someone presents an argument that “no smart person” has raised, usually it means he requests that you to take the argument seriously on its merits, despite its novelty. To give your response would betray a lack of understanding of the contexts of opinion and belief, and it would suggest you are overly reliant on authorities to figure out your own opinions. (On opinions and beliefs, see “Explaining deliberation”— http://tinyurl.com/6actzsr . ) Generally, this is a correct inference.

    • Exactly Stephen. It is close to being an appeal to authority fallacy.

      Additionally, there is nothing bad about losing an argument. I’d just say “It sounds wrong, but I don’t have any valid arguments against it.” Then I’d go research it.

  7. If I understand, possibly a better way of putting this would be “I haven’t assessed the truth of your argument, or maybe I think I have if only provisionally, but I won’t be making decisions based on it until I get more information from other sources.” The crucial thing is not to go jumping off of cliffs until you talk to a few other people you know and understand well to evaluate the antigravity field you were just told about.

    The fact is we MuST outsource a huge amount of our evaluation of arguments (as you stated would be the honest response) because we just don’t have the bandwidth. Also, having checks on novel arguments may be useful because it stops harmful ones from propagating too quickly; you don’t want to start basing your actions on something you just learned five minutes ago. In general we (not totally irrationally) use the heuristic of
    discussing the argument with someone who in the past has acted in ways that are in our self-interest. This is extremely important because a vast amount of things we know and make decisions about are not learned directly by experience.

    • you don’t want to start basing your actions on something you just learned five minutes ago.

      The dilemma arises because people and institutions insufficiently separate the deliberative context (opinion) from the action context (belief). The result is either ugrounded action or an impaired flow of novelty or, usually, both. (See “The distinct functions of belief and opinion”— http://tinyurl.com/4r9k5g3 ) The consequences include information cascades ( see http://tinyurl.com/ke2oj98 for application )

      The reason we sense that an example is necessary for understanding the OP’s point is that we aren’t really sure whether the context in the OP is deliberation or action. Is the interlocutor trying to test their opinion or spur you to action for their belief? Articulating the ambiguity requires a distinction between belief and opinion; public rationality requires understanding it.

  8. I would agree with the last several comments, that context here is of huge importance. We can expand this, are we talking about a formal debate? Are we talking about research paper vs. research paper? Are we talking about a casual conversation that suddenly took a deeper tone?

    However, one point I would like to make, is that this veering from the subject isn’t necessarily uninteresting or unproductive. Sometimes if the lens is too focused on the subject at hand perspective and creativity can be lost. A more free conversation can sometimes produce a solution in a round about way. Sometimes digressions can even be more interesting than the intended topic.

    On the other hand, I can understand frustration in the face of these kinds of situations, when someone acts like they’re addressing the subject, but really,just forcing it into more familiar territory. ‘I don’t know right now’ is certainly a courageous response. However, does that mean the conversation should end there?

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