The futility of contrarian arguments

Since I was very young, I used to want to tell people exactly what I think about something. Most of these views would be contrarian, and I would assume that I am adding value to the conversation by presenting an alternate view. Needless to say, I often had trouble making friends in middle school, high school or college. I would thrive on trying to spot holes in people’s arguments, presenting a contrarian view with some “evidence”, etc. I would share inflammatory posts on social media trying to “present an alternative view”, politicize issues, and then take exception when people couldn’t see why my opinion was correct.

This has slowly changed over time. I realized how I was only needlessly antagonizing people by trying to be contrarian all the time. However, I truly began to understand the issues involved when I read “Trapped Priors as a basic problem of rationality” by Scott Alexander. Let me try and explain some salient points of this phenomenal article.

People argue about all kinds of issues in person or online (of course smarter people mostly stay away from such things). We now have unprecedented access to all kinds of opinions both online and offline. However, it is extremely rare to see anyone change their opinion. With a greater access to information, we are only seeing people further entrench themselves in their opinions. One example of this is that Trump supporters only became more entrenched in their support for Trump after the media flurry of anti-Trump articles early on in his presidency. One explanation of this is confirmation bias: if I already have a particular stand on an issue, I will have a tendency to accumulate information that supports my stand, and cheaply dismiss information that contradicts it. Although Eliezer Yudkowsky thinks that this is a defect of the brain, I’ve also seen a research paper that says that this is actually a feature and not a defect, and helps us form a coherent world view (which was historically important for survival).

Hence, whenever I argue with someone about an issue, I am mostly trying to defend my opinion by sharing cherry-picked facts that support my stand, and omitting facts that don’t. Moreover, when the person I’m arguing with shares their own opinions and facts, I try desperately to find a way to poke holes into their arguments so that I can “win” the argument and claim “intellectual superiority”. Let us assume that I’m successful in doing so: that I’m able to poke holes in my opponents’ arguments, and that they’re not successful in doing so. Does that mean that I’ve managed to convert them to my opinion?

You’ve obviously guessed that the answer is a resounding “No”. But why is that? Is it just out of spite that my opponent would not like to accept my stand as the only correct one? I don’t think so. An opinion is a manifestation of many conscious and unconscious inferences about the world, and being able to contradict one inference does not mean that all inferences have been contradicted. For instance, if my opponent supports Republican politics, they might argue that Republican policies have generally been better for the layman’s income than Democrat policies. In response to this, I might bring up a research paper that claims that this is only a myth, and that Democrat policies are in fact slightly better for the layman’s income than Republican policies. Does that mean that my opponent will understand that they’re wrong, and hence should morally accept my stand? No, because their support for Republicans rests on many other factors like how Republicans seem to be doing a better job of developing their area than the previous Democrat candidate, how a lot of Democrat policies seem ineffective and counter-productive, how Republicans don’t carry the “holier than thou” attitude, etc. These opinions still stand unchallenged. Moreover, because research papers contradict each other all the time and often reflect vested interests, bringing up one research paper that disproves their point doesn’t really prove anything. It only shows that I was pretentious enough to bring up a research paper in a casual conversation about politics, probably as a means of signaling awareness.

Essentially, if I try and poke holes in the arguments that my conversation partner is making, I’m not really trying to understand the deeper reasons for their stand. Curiously, this was something I first came across in Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, and have since come across in many places like Yudkowsky’s Sequences on Rationality and Scott Alexander’s blog. We only antagonize people further by trying to argue with them, and not attempting to understand their deeper values. What is the solution to this? Should we just agree to disagree on everything that we don’t agree on already? Do people’s opinions never change?

I don’t know. However, I do know that our only responsibility is to listen carefully to other’s opinions, strengthen them instead of trying to poke holes into them, and then see how we should change our opinions in order to fit the facts that the other person has presented. Of course it is entirely possible that the other person has said only incorrect things, and that we should not change our opinion at all. However, what is much more likely is that we will try to cheaply dismiss their opinions despite the value inherent in them, and look for reasons to stick to our previous opinions. We should avoid that temptation.

I grew up thinking that my main aim was to be right. Very, very slowly, it has (partly) changed to understanding how and where I’m wrong, and possibly changing myself/my opinions in order to form a more accurate view of the world. Writing this essay has hopefully been a step in that direction. In Yudkowsky’s words, our main aim should be to create a “map that reflects the territory“.

Published by -

Graduate student

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: