How not to move the goalposts

post by HopeFox · 2011-06-12T15:45:44.127Z · score: 6 (54 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 73 comments

There are a lot of bad arguments out there. Fortunately, there are also plenty of people who stand up against these arguments, which is good.

However, there is a pattern I observe quite often in such counter-arguments, which, while strictly logically valid, can become problematic later. It involves fixing all of one's counter-arguments on countering one, and only one, of the original arguer's points. I suspect that this tendency can, at best, weaken one's argument, and, at worst, allow oneself to believe things one has no intention of believing.

Let's assume, without much loss of generality, that the Wrong Argument can be expressed in the following form:

A: Some statement.
B: Some other statement.
A & B -> C: A logical inference, which, from the way B is constructed, is a fairly obvious tautology.
C: The conclusion.

Unfortunately, most of the arguments I could choose for this discussion are either highly trivial or highly controversial. I'll choose one that I hope won't cause too much trouble. Bear in mind that this is the Wrong Argument, the thing that the counter-arguer, the person presenting the good, rational refutation, is trying to demonstrate to be false. Let's designate this rational arguer as RA. The person presenting the Wrong Argument will be designated WA (Wrong Arguer).

WA: "Men have better technical abilities than women, so they should get paid more for the same engineering jobs."

WA relates a terrible sentiment, yet a pervasive one. I don't know anyone who actually espouses it in my workplace, but it was certainly commonplace not so long ago (musical evidence). Let's hope that RA has something persuasive to say against it.

Based on what I've seen of gender discussions on other forums, here's the most likely response I'd expect from RA:

RA: Don't be ridiculous! Men and women are just as well suited to technical careers as each other!

... and that's usually as far as it goes. Now, RA is right, as far as anyone knows (IANAPsychologist, though).

However, WA's argument can be broken down into the following steps:

A: Men, on average, have better technical skills than women.
B: If members of one group, on average, are better at a task than members of another group, then members of that first group should be paid more than members of the second group for performing the same work.
C: Men should be paid more than women for the same work in technical fields such as engineering.

Trivially, A & B -> C. Thus RA only needs to disprove A or B in order to break the argument. (Yes, ~A doesn't imply ~C, but WA will have a hard time proving C without A.) Both A and B are unpleasant statements that decent, rational people should probably disagree with, and C is definitely problematic.

So RA sets about attacking A. He starts by simply stating that men and women have equal potential for technical talent, on average. If WA doesn't believe that, then RA presents anecdotal evidence, then starts digging up psychological studies. Every rational discourse weapon at RA's disposal may be deployed to show that A is false. Maybe WA will be convinced, maybe he won't.

But what about B? RA has ignored B entirely in his attack on A. Now, from a strictly logical point of view, RA doesn't need to do anything with B - if he disproves A, then he disproves A & B. Attacking A doesn't mean that he accepts B as true...

... except that it kind of does.

What if WA manages to win the argument over A, by whatever means? What if WA turns out to be an evolutionary psychology clever arguer, with several papers worth of "evidence" that "proves" that men have better technical skills than women? RA might simply not have the skills or resources to refute WA's points, leading to the following exchange:

WA: Men are better engineers than women, and should be paid more!

RA: That's ridiculous. Men and women have identical potentials for technical skill!

WA: No they don't! Here are ten volumes' worth of papers proving me right!

RA: Well, gee, who am I to argue with psychology journals? I guess you're right.

WA: Glad we agree. I'll go talk to the CTO about Wanda's pay cut, shall I?

RA: Hang on a minute! Even if men are better engineers than women, that's no reason for pay inequity! Equal work for equal pay is the only fair way. If men really are better, they'll get raises and promotions on their own merit, not merely by virtue of being male.

WA: What? I spent hours getting those references together, and now you've moved the goalposts on me! I thought you weren't meant to do that!

RA: But... it's true...

WA: I think you've just taken your conclusion, "Men and women should get equal pay for the same work", and figured out a line of reasoning that gets you there. What are you, some kind of clever arguer for female engineers? Wait, isn't your mother an engineer too?

Nobody wants to be in this situation. RA really has moved the goalposts on WA, which is one of those Dark Arts that we're not supposed to employ, even unintentionally.

The problem goes deeper than simply violating good debating etiquette, though. If this debate is happening in public, then onlookers might get the impression that RA supports B. It will then be more difficult for RA to argue against B in later arguments, especially ones of the form D & B, where D is actually true. (For example, D might be "Old engineers have better technical skills than younger engineers", which is true-ish because of the benefits of long experience in an industry, but it still shouldn't mean that old engineers automatically deserve higher pay for the same work.)

Furthermore, and again IANAP, but it seems possible to me that if RA keeps arguing against A and ignoring B, he might actually start believing B. Alternatively, he might not specifically believe B, but he might stop thinking about B at all, and start ignoring the B step in his own reasoning and other people's.

So, the way to avoid all of this, is to raise all of your objections simultaneously, thusly:

WA: Men are better engineers than women, and should be paid more!

RA: Woah. Okay, first? There's no evidence to suggest that that's actually true. But secondly, even pretending for the moment that it were true, that would be no excuse for paying women less for the same work.

WA: Oh. Um. I'm pretty confident about that first point, but I never actually thought I'd have to defend the other bit. I'll go away now.

That's a best-case scenario, but it does avoid the problems above.

This post has already turned out longer than I intended, so I'll end it here. The last point I wanted to raise, though, is that an awful lot of Wrong Arguments (or good arguments, for that matter) take a form where A is an assertion of fact ("men are better engineers than women"), and B is an expression of morality ("... and therefore they should get paid more"). There are some important implications to this, for which I have a number of examples to present if people are interested.

To summarise: If someone says "A and B are true!", don't just say "A isn't true!". Say "A isn't true, and even if it were, B isn't true either!". Otherwise people might think you believe B, and they might even be right.

73 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-06-12T16:24:15.707Z · score: 40 (44 votes) · LW · GW

Both A and B are unpleasant statements that decent, rational people should probably disagree with

*cringe*

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-06-13T12:22:16.518Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Looks like a good use case for separating the agreement button. Everyone agrees that the cited text is cringe-worthy, but my comment is hardly the best item of feedback to the post. In fact, it responds on the same analysis-free emotional level that caused the problem in the cited text.

comment by Manfred · 2011-06-13T13:02:55.328Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure what separating the agreement button would do here though. We can generally figure out peoples' intentions - though downvotes are more mysterious than upvotes (though fixing that would require more like three or four categories). I don't see it being worth the "confusing cost" of having several scores. Maybe a slashdot-type categorization along with votes would be a good compromise.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-06-13T14:10:37.859Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If we sort top-level comments by Karma votes, and count agreement separately, my comment won't be the most upvoted and won't be prominently located at the top of the comment list. It's wrong that this mostly content-free trivial point is given such importance, even as, being trivial, it meets universal agreement. On the other hand, it's good to know that Less Wrong on the same page here, so some way of signaling agreement is useful as well.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-06-13T13:44:13.670Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

downvotes are more mysterious than upvotes (though fixing that would require more like three or four categories)

What categories did you have in mind? I'm thinking "This post is harmful," "I disagree," and "I don't like you." Of these, I think only the first is really something you'd want a button for. It seems to me that anytime I would hit a disagree button, I could more usefully make a reply, or simply agree with someone else's reply. And "I don't like you" seems awfully mean, although I guess it might serve some purpose.

comment by Manfred · 2011-06-13T17:26:43.585Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"I disagree" might be split into subcategories (e.g. "fallacious") to not leave people guessing, like I've been left when I've received mystery downvotes. But on thinking about it, posts that get downvoted for wrongess don't generally have a single reason for it, and downvotes might be categorized falsely if there's some social reason.

So I revise my earlier prognostication - mo' categories is maybe not mo' better.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-06-13T14:13:45.665Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You can't so easily define Quality, even as you can extract some of its well-defined aspects.

comment by FreedomJury · 2011-06-13T23:17:01.670Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I know: allow people to highlight paragraphs or sentences of text that they like, right-click them, and rank those highlighted sentences (or portions of text between two periods or bullet points or numbered points) from -10 to +10.

When someone highlights a specific portion of the text, they get to see what "Less Wrong" users think about it. Right-clicking allows them to contribute their input. This might be a dog to program, but geepers, it sure would make Less Wrong look even Less Wrong. When the ranking dropdown appears, a comment field also appears, when the rank (ie: +8 or -2) is selected. If "zero" is selected, it would still allow a comment.

PS: I'm curious to know how many less wrong users are "small-L" libertarians, how many are "voluntaryists", how many are aware of the history of jury rights erosion in the USA and commonwealths, and how many participate in electoral politics. Of those who are not libertarians, I am curious to know how many believe stealing is wrong. There, that oughtta inflame everyone. Feel free to email me or call me to discuss strategy for making the USA more free. I believe this would amplify everyone's entrepreneurial efforts thousands of times, if we could accomplish it.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-06-13T18:59:50.896Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

How about not allowing voting unless a reply is made? Then downvoters would be pretty well forced to say what the problem is. Spam and trolling could be handled with the report button.

comment by Perplexed · 2011-06-12T16:52:11.301Z · score: 24 (26 votes) · LW · GW

Good choice of topic, but ...

Unfortunately, most of the arguments I could choose for this discussion are either highly trivial or highly controversial. I'll choose one that I hope won't cause too much trouble.

I think it may be the worst possible choice. First, for suggesting that the question of compensation for engineers should be approached as a moral issue. Second, for failing to make the point that differences (between the sexes) in engineering aptitude in the general population says nothing about differences in engineering skill among people who have already been hired as engineers. Third, because gender differences between groups say little about differences between individuals. Fourth, because gender is a problematic subject in this forum, even when you do everything right.

I also second Nesov's cringe at the implicit conflation of unpleasant and suitable-to-be-disagreed-with.

comment by cousin_it · 2011-06-12T21:12:03.391Z · score: 15 (15 votes) · LW · GW

differences (between the sexes) in engineering aptitude in the general population says nothing about differences in engineering skill among people who have already been hired as engineers

I think Bayes would disagree a little :-) If your prior says blue weasels are generally better at C++ than red weasels, then a red weasel's high test score is more likely to be a random fluke than a blue weasel's equally high score.

ETA: it seems Robin made a similar point a while ago and got crucified for it because he didn't use weasels!

comment by Wei_Dai · 2011-06-12T22:13:54.336Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

The problem seems even worse than that. Suppose I can somehow magically determine the actual C++ ability of any weasel, and hire the first ten I come across that is above some threshold, then someone who doesn't have my magical ability would still (rationally) expect that the average skill among red weasels that I hire is lower than the average skill among blue weasels that I hire. (And I would expect this myself before I started the hiring process.) Similarly if decide to gather some fixed number of candidates and hire the top 10%.

One way Perplexed could be right is if I have the magical ability (or a near perfect test), and I decide to hire only weasels whose C++ ability is exactly X (no higher and no lower), but that seems rather unrealistic. What other situations could produce the result that Perplexed claimed?

comment by Perplexed · 2011-06-12T23:56:39.717Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Ouch. I wish I had read this before dismissing cousin_it's citation of Robin's point.

Ok, my nothing was unjustified. Though I will point out that if I hire for a second-tier engineering organization which pays no higher than it has too, then the blue weasels that I hire will probably not be much better than the red weasels. All the blue super-weasels will get jobs elsewhere. In fact, it will be found that they are not weasels at all, but rather martins or minks.

comment by prase · 2011-06-14T16:28:35.958Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

True, under the assumption that the weasels are selected only by the threshold test. Actually, since time immemorial red weasels program in Fortran and C++ is thought to be a blue weasel domain. Therefore few red weasels actually plan to be hired as a C++ programmer, only those who are extraordinarily apt apply for such a job. As a coincidence, among the weasels who apply the average C++ ability is significantly higher withing the red subset.

comment by FAWS · 2011-06-12T23:45:39.210Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Depends on the distribution of C++ ability. Suppose C++ weasels are a mix of normal weasels and geniuses, that geniuses have far higher ability than normal weasels, and that across both groups blue weasels are on average better by a constant considerably smaller than that difference. Your test could leave you with mostly genius red weasels and a mix of normal and genius blue weasels such that the average ability of red weasels who pass is higher.

Alternatively if far fewer red weasels learn C++ and the red weasels who do are selected for aptitude the average aptitude of red weasels who learn C++ could be higher than that of blue weasels.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-06-12T22:26:10.408Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Suppose I can somehow magically determine the actual C++ ability of any weasel, and hire the first ten I come across that is above some threshold, then someone who doesn't have my magical ability would still (rationally) expect that the average skill among red weasels that I hire is lower than the average skill among blue weasels that I hire.

Note that this holds even if the skill distribution of red and blue weasels is exactly the same, but red weasels are rarer (or, say, red weasels that qualify are rarer, but the ability distribution among the red weasels that qualify is exactly the same as for the blue weasels). (Or, you could just apply this to the class of weasels named John.)

comment by cousin_it · 2011-06-12T22:19:59.219Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks! You could produce Perplexed's claimed outcome by fiat: use your magic detector to hire weasels so that they fit the desired distribution :-) Or you could set the threshold higher for red weasels and get the same result. Both options seem unsatisfactory...

comment by fubarobfusco · 2011-06-12T21:34:54.871Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If you successfully design your C++ hiring criteria to be colorblind — to not notice the color of weasels, but only to notice how good they are at C++ — then performance on the hiring criteria will shadow weasel color as an indicator of C++ ability.

You might end up with 99 blue weasels hired for every one red weasel hired; but you will have successfully filtered out all the red weasels that are bad at C++, just as you successfully filtered out all the blue weasels that are bad at C++. After all, only a tiny fraction of blue weasels meet your C++ hiring criteria, too.

So at that point, you should actually trust your hiring criteria and compensate weasels with no regard for their color.

(It's true that red weasels are likely to, at one or two times in their career, need a couple of months off for frenzied weasel dancing. But it's also true that blue weasels are more likely to get trodden on by a cow and need medical leave, because they're less careful when walking through pastures on the way to work.)

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-06-12T21:38:17.827Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

But if you then additionally learn the color, you can make further conclusions which the test failed to deliver because of the color blindness.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-06-12T22:04:15.916Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe. It depends on the distributions over programming ability that the test and color, respectively, provide. [ETA1: I should have written, "the test and the conjunction of test and color, respectively...". The point is that, conditioned on test results, color could be independent of ability.] [ETA2: Though, if your "further conclusions" was meant to include things beyond what the test tests for, but which correlate with color, then you're definitely right.]

The test's being colorblind doesn't mean that its results don't correlate with color in the population of subjects. It means that, were you to fix a test subject and vary its color while holding everything else constant, its test results wouldn't correlate with the color change.

comment by taryneast · 2011-06-13T13:07:06.165Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Learning the color means you can make further predictions about the general distribution of ability over the general populace - not over the populace you have already selected/hired.

comment by taryneast · 2011-06-13T15:10:15.104Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I have no problem with being wrong... but I do like to know why :)

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2011-06-14T18:14:37.578Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You didn't give a reason for your wrong claim, so it's hard to guess why you held it.

Maybe this will help: only if the test is infinitely long (produces an infinite amount of evidence as to the actual skill of the tested subject) will the prior evidence be completely irrelevant.

comment by taryneast · 2011-06-15T08:40:50.477Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ok, but I had the sense that, one you've already hired, based on skill, learning the colour will no longer give you any help in determining the skills of the people you have already hired... but will only give an indication of what percentage of each colour in the general population has the level of skill you hired-for.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2011-06-15T16:23:16.166Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Instead of thinking "I perfectly measured his skill level; it's 14", think "I obtained X bits of evidence that his skill is between 13 and 15".

comment by taryneast · 2011-06-16T09:02:03.251Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Um - I'm not sure how this relates to what I said... can you please expand/clarify? :)

What I mean is: once you learn the colour, you can reason backwards that "oh, given we have X people with a skill roughly between 13 and 15... 90% of them are blue... this must imply that in the general population, blue weasels are more likely than red weasels to score roughly between 13 and 15 on skill tests at a ratio of roughly 9 to 1"

I don't know that you can prove much else base don just that data alone.

comment by cousin_it · 2011-06-12T22:01:47.448Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If you successfully design your C++ hiring criteria to be colorblind — to not notice the color of weasels, but only to notice how good they are at C++ — then performance on the hiring criteria will shadow weasel color as an indicator of C++ ability.

My comment kinda assumed that hiring criteria meeting your strict standard of colorblindness are unexpectedly hard to design. Let's say all red weasels and most blue ones suck at C++, but some blue weasels completely rule. Also, once a month every weasel (blues and reds equally) unpredictably goes into a code frenzy for 182 minutes and temporarily becomes exactly as good as a blue one that rules. Your standardized test will mostly admit blue weasels that rule, but sometimes you'll get a random-colored weasel that sucks. If you're colorblind, you have no hope of weeding out the random suckers. But if you're color-aware, you can weed out half of them. Of course it also works if a tiny minority of red weasels can code instead of none.

comment by taryneast · 2011-06-13T13:12:46.185Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The problems begin when the ability-distribution of red/blue weasels change, and the hiring-committee is still using restrictions based on the old distribution. eg red weasel ability has been steadily increasing, but the old hiring criteria still says "don't hire red weasels as they have no technical ability to speak of!"

but yes I agree - it's all difficult because it's hard to create a test that is as accurate as actual real-life working with a person. That's why the popularity of those awful "three month probation periods".

comment by taryneast · 2011-06-13T13:04:54.139Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

at one or two times in their career, need a couple of months off for frenzied weasel dancing.

+1 for this amusing and surprisingly accurate description of pregnancy and early post-natal care :)

comment by Perplexed · 2011-06-12T23:44:35.746Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with Robin's point. But completing 4 years of Engineering school and then getting hired is a bit different than scoring high on a single test. I stand by my italicized nothing as mild hyperbole. Milder, in fact, than "crucified".

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-06-12T22:58:12.603Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

then a red weasel's high test score is more likely to be a random fluke than a blue weasel's equally high score.

How likely is this if the test involves writing programs that work?

comment by cousin_it · 2011-06-12T23:10:26.456Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If the test is not susceptible to flukes, then my argument doesn't work. That said, flukes aren't necessarily extreme outliers. The red weasel you hired is more likely to be a slightly-below-standard performer that was having an unusually lucid day when you interviewed it.

On the other hand, Wei's argument works even if the test has no flukes. Here's one way to reformulate it: your binary decision to hire or reject a weasel is not informed by gradations of skill above the cutoff point. If blue weasels are more likely than red ones to hit the extreme high notes of software design (that weren't on the test because then the test would reject pretty much everyone), you'll see that inequality among the weasels you hire too.

comment by asr · 2011-06-12T21:44:08.110Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I'd like to defend HopeFox here.

Whenever the people around you treat something as a moral issue, I think it's wise to consider it that way yourself. When somebody says "I have a terminal value that says 'I want my society to have X/~X', and therefore I will vote to ban it", it's usually time to decide how valuable you consider X/~X to be.

You might decide that the given thing is morally neutral, but you can't easily evade the question. And my strong sense is that a large fraction of the public in the US and other western countries does consider wage equality a moral issue. There may be deep disagreement about whether equality of gender outcome is good or bad, but the question is certainly on the table.

My experience has been that gender is a problematic subject in nearly any social setting. But it's worth at least tiptoeing slowly towards it, since it won't become less problematic in the near future if we don't at least accustom ourselves to thinking about it.

comment by Perplexed · 2011-06-13T00:08:02.969Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted. If I were to rewrite my critique of the OP, it would be to complain that he/she treated compensation equity as if it were only a moral issue.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-06-12T17:51:32.763Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted for for being an accurate diagnosis of the problems in the original posting.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-06-12T20:14:54.396Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

This whole post treats arguments as soldiers. It's as though you're saying, "Don't focus all of your attention on just one enemy soldier. Otherwise, the other soldiers might get through! You must attack all enemy soldiers simultaneously."

And (seconding Vladimir Nesov's cringe):

Both A and B are unpleasant statements that decent, rational people should probably disagree with ...

At this point, the "rational arguer" ought immediately to think of the Litany of Tarski: If A and B are true, then I want to believe that A and B are true.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2011-06-13T07:14:56.432Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This whole post treats arguments as soldiers.

If you want to influence non-rationalists, treating arguments as soldiers is what you sometimes need to do.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-06-13T14:57:22.249Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If you want to influence non-rationalists, treating arguments as soldiers is what you sometimes need to do.

That is an empirical claim. How strong is the evidence for the claim that forensics-style argumentation, matching each point with a counterpoint, significantly influences people to favor your position? Wearing my Robin Hanson goggles, I can see that it's one way to look like a formidable thinker, which might make some audience members want to affiliate with you for status reasons. But it's not clear to me that this style of debate is the best way to do that.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2011-06-13T18:00:50.581Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I wouldn't claim that this style of debate is necessarily the best way. But if we presume that one does try to use this style of debate for that purpose, then the post's advice can be useful.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2011-06-13T18:04:39.136Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I wouldn't claim that this style of debate is necessarily the best way. But if we presume that one does try to use this style of debate for that purpose, then the post's advice can be useful.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-06-13T15:57:04.808Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I see a lot of disadvantages in having the thought burning bright in my mind that women are not as mathematically able as men (slightly on average and solidly on the right end of the curve), but I don't see advantages. However, I am fairly convinced that that thing is true.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2011-06-13T20:09:22.236Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I see a lot of disadvantages in having the thought burning bright in my mind that women are not as mathematically able as men (slightly on average and solidly on the right end of the curve), but I don't see advantages. However, I am fairly convinced that that thing is true.

I agree that we don't need to have the thought "burning bright" in our minds. A thought needs to burn bright only if it is very important to keep it in mind while making decisions. But a sober and unflinching look at the evidence seems to indicate that the difference in innate ability (if there is any) is too small to take into account in practically all decisions.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-06-12T19:24:04.042Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

The main point of the article might make sense, but the example is awful. What you present as "logical inference" involves statements that are formulated so imprecisely that no accurate logical operations with them are possible at all. You also seem to operate with a puzzling notion of "equal work" performed by people whose skills differ, as well as an altogether inadequate model of how wages are determined in practice.

Also, of all charged and controversial topics, gender-related ones cause by far the most problems on LW in the sense of people being unable to handle them calmly and rationally, so you have actually chosen the very worst sort of example. (This is an interesting phenomenon, considering that other even more charged topics are usually discussed in a commendably rational way here.) Obviously, this is excusable for a new participant, considering that this warning isn't really spelled out anywhere, but you should be aware of it for the future.

comment by cousin_it · 2011-06-12T23:48:06.907Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

I don't understand your post. Why does RA move on to claim B? If RA was convinced of claim A by WA's stack of research papers, then RA should update instead of arguing further. If RA thinks WA was being a "clever arguer" about claim A, then RA should continue arguing about claim A.

Having layered defenses against unwelcome conclusions is a bad sign (though not necessarily wrong). As the joke goes, "I didn't borrow the iron, and it was fine when I returned it, and it was already broken when I borrowed it". As another joke goes, "It wasn't me, and I won't do it again". When I find myself having a layered defense against something, I pick the strongest point of that defense and focus the argument on that. When/if the other person successfully convinces me that the strongest reason for my belief is invalid, I try to force myself to update instead of moving on to the next reason.

comment by Oscar_Cunningham · 2011-06-13T00:06:03.317Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If RA was convinced of claim A by WA's stack of research papers, then RA should update instead of arguing further.

The point was that RA can see in advance that even updating on A won't much change the probability of C, because B is also false.

comment by cousin_it · 2011-06-13T00:26:57.698Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

That's a valid point and I don't want to dispute it, only note that claims A and B in the post are sort of emotionally intertwined. If RA really truly updates about claim A, their position on claim B is likely to change as well. It's often like this for me: when someone refutes my strongest argument and I take the time to update, I tend to notice that my other arguments aren't as strong as I thought.

comment by DanielLC · 2011-06-13T03:50:20.970Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I really don't see that. They're not even useful for the same things. You'd use A to tell if it would be a good idea to start a business that hires only women (they get payed significantly less, so you might save a bunch of money and do really well). You'd use B to tell if you should have a free market or command economy.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-06-13T08:35:43.092Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Not really. I fully agree with B as written- if you separate people into "high experience" and "low experience," people with high experience should be paid more!

That also shows how updating on one argument can influence you position on others. If you start off thinking that sex is like the first letter of your name and then end up thinking that sex is like years of experience, then a policy that pays people based on sex makes about as much sense as a policy that pays people based on years of experience. Obviously knowing actual skill would be better, but when you have to use proxies you just go for the best proxies you can.

comment by DanielLC · 2011-06-13T20:55:46.460Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But you agree with B regardless of A, right?

comment by Vaniver · 2011-06-14T09:31:29.977Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes. I suppose I should have seen a clarifying question like that coming, given the original article.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2011-06-12T20:23:31.846Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Like most things, it's a matter of trade-offs. In order to raise all of my objections simultaneously, I'd have to think of all the objections before I communicate any of them. Perhaps my opponent could use the time I spend thinking up the second objection to ponder the first one? Maybe he would be quickly convinced by the first objection so that I don't have to keep thinking? (I do think the post does a valuable service of pointing out a strategy that can be applied on a situational basis.)

It also seems worth pointing out that two rationalists debating with each other should perhaps avoid accusing each other of "moving the goalpost" in order to not impose the cost of having to think up all objections before communicating them.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-06-12T23:15:10.951Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It also seems worth pointing out that two rationalists debating with each other should perhaps avoid accusing each other of "moving the goalpost" in order to not impose the cost of having to think up all objections before communicating them.

Or, operate on the assumption that one might have to make multiple goals in order to win a game.

I do think that the idea of moving goalposts is useful - it would be problematic if "RA" responded to "WA"'s evidence about gender differences in engineering skill by questioning the validity of the evidence or saying that that didn't matter somehow. But bringing up a different argument about a different aspect of someone's claim is not the same thing.

comment by Emile · 2011-06-13T08:01:43.554Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Bad choice of example, but I think I agree with your main point - it's a common mistake to focus on one component of an argument when it isn't your main objection, where that fact being true or false will not change your final conclusion much.

However, I'm not a big fan of the general argumentation/"arguments as soldier" context. In such a situation, I would not try to find the argument that best demolishes the other person's argument, I would try to work out on what exactly we agree and on what exactly we disagree. For example, if someone says "Fact F is true, therefore we should support Policy P" and I disagree, I would wonder whether that person would support policy P in a world where F was not true, I would wonder whether I would support P in a world where F was true, I would wonder whether we have different evidence for F, etc.

At least like that the argument can focus on something more specific that we actually disagree on, such as "in a hypothetical world where F was true, would policy P be a good thing?" or "Is F actually true?" - or we may even realize that we don't disagree at all, that we were just using terms a bit differently (For example "Male engineers should get higher pay than female engineers" was being interpreted as "Companies should give extra money to engineers who happen to be male" by one party and "The fact that the average salary of male engineers is higher than the average salaries of female engineers is not in itself evidence of discrimination" by the other).

comment by Psychohistorian · 2011-06-13T04:20:32.667Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think that the author here is bending over backwards and trying not to offend people. They weren't exactly successful at this, but I think that people should be charitable in interpreting this. They're new and apparently ended up over-qualifying some statements in an effort to be more agreeable.

The underlying point is actually one of the best I have read here in some time; if this retains few upvotes, I may write something closely related to this topic, if doing so is not inappropriate. There are a lot of rather significant political issues that would have been far better resolved by pointing out, "The moral framework you are applying those facts to is abhorrent" rather than, "those facts are wrong." This is precisely because focusing on the latter causes people to not want to believe the truth. Rejecting an argument on all proper grounds is a useful practice; this is particularly true when it relies on an appealing but deeply flawed moral premise.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2011-06-13T07:19:41.144Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Since there are lots of negative comments out here, I should say that I liked this post and upvoted it. Yes, I agree that the example was poorly chosen, but that doesn't change the fact that the main message is useful.

comment by AlanCrowe · 2011-06-13T19:41:13.390Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Abstract arguments need to be grounded in examples. This is obviously true and yet we all tend to leave off the vital examples. Why?

This post offers a nice example of the problem. HopeFox has a point he wants to make. If you are evaluating an argument in the form of a conjunction and you think that neither leg is true, it is tempting to pick just one leg and refute that. If the argument bogs down, returning to the other leg, which is also doubtful, looks shifty. Worse, while disputing one leg one might accidently wander into an unconscious acceptance of the other leg, even though it never looked plausible.

HopeFox attempts to provide an example. That is the right thing to do. It turns out that it is also a tricky thing to do. Are commenters rushing to provide better examples of their own? No. The are rushing to criticize the example provided by HopeFox. That is quite revealling. Although the underlying point is simple and true, finding a good clean example is still hard.

There are two morals I could draw for my own writing

1) Examples are more trouble than they are worth, I shouldn't bother, nobody else does anyway.

2) Examples are hard, and the bigger the enemy the greater the honour. I should strive to find good examples because they will make my writing stand out as being done properly.

I chose 2 and reject 1.

comment by jimrandomh · 2011-06-12T20:21:29.749Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

There are actually two things being conflated into (C) "Men should be paid more than women for the same work in technical fields such as engineering." This statement could either mean that we shouldn't worry that there's something wrong if we observe that men are being paid more, or it could mean that we should consider sex when determining a candidate's salary. The first statement is true, but the second statement is wrong, because even if it were true that men have greater technical skill on average, hiring processes are supposed to measure technical skill directly. Directly measuring technical skill screens off any salary-relevant information that sex (or any other demographic information) would provide.

comment by DanielLC · 2011-06-13T03:58:17.286Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Adding an extra test would still help. They can't perfectly measure skill, and if men are better than women, then a given score is more likely to err low if it's for a man then a women.

Also, directness means nothing. If you have a bad enough test, it's entirely possible that checking only there gender will be more accurate then checking only the test. All that matters is the correlation between their skill and the result of the test.

comment by fburnaby · 2011-06-14T13:33:43.394Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This makes me think of Steven Pinker's argument in the blank slate. Don't argue against racism/sexism/etc by claiming that that all races/sexes/etc are identical. They could turn out not to be identical, yet racism/sexism/etc would still be wrong.

comment by TrE · 2011-06-12T17:35:00.868Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Pro tip: A and B should be completely false in the first place.

While I, too, am of the opinion that indeed A is horribly false, B doesn't sound so-very-false to me, just a bit ill. Surely claiming that women should be paid less for the same work is a kind of negative applause light, but continue reading. The argument B is stated above as:

B: If members of one group, on average, are better at a task than members of another group, then members of that first group should be paid more than members of the second group for performing the same work.

This is certainly not something desirable, but how about this one:

B': If members of one group, on average, are better at a task than members of another group, then members of that first group should, on average, be paid more than members of the second group for performing the same work.

This transforms a bad argument into a different, not-so bad one. Now, C only states that men should, on average, be paid more for one hour of engineering. We might as well re-formulate B':

B'': Everyone should get paid for a task according to his abilities, for what he actually gets done.

This seems much better, and while I think this is more true (although not taking into account other arguments that will probably shift this position more to a more social point of view, but I don't have the time for that right here), it also avoids shooting beyond the goal by falsely coming to the conclusion that "Everyone should get paid the same for the same task!". The good: you did not do this here; The bad: I saw other people do this, especially to disprove RA's position (or whatever the argument is about). The ugly: It worked.

I'd conclude that it's often best to take a middle path, the wisdom of others is not random, and while it's not true, it's most certainly not completely false. In real life, however, I rarely see people doing this, because it's not a good way to "win" arguments.

Or did I miss something here?

comment by DanielLC · 2011-06-13T04:05:03.182Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Pro tip: A and B should be completely false in the first place.

I'm actually wondering if something highly controversial would be best. There will always be someone who believes it's true, and will end up arguing. If you intentionally pick something controversial, it seems like people would be more likely to accept that you weren't implying anything about the accuracy of it. They can't argue against you if they can't tell which side you're on.

comment by TrE · 2011-06-13T06:18:55.775Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I'd have taken the moon landing conspiracy or something of similar falseness, that would IMHO clarify the point of this post (which I think is actually quite good).

comment by rabidchicken · 2011-06-12T16:14:59.187Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Excellent post, I will keep these ideas in mind in future arguments.

comment by deeb · 2011-06-14T10:20:54.490Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I agree this is an excellent post. In fact, I just created an account and came out of lurking just to vote it up. Yes, the example came out a little forced and unnecessarily convoluted, but the point made is extremely important. To those who clamp down on the post on grounds of lack of formal rigour are missing the point entirely. You are so preoccupied with formulating your rationality in mathematically pleasing ways, applying it to matrix-magic and Knuth-arrow-quasi-infinity situations, that you are in danger of missing the real-life applications where just a modest bit of rationality will result in a substantial gain to yourself or to society.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2011-06-14T08:16:18.604Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm curious as to why this is being downvoted. (I already upvoted it from -1 to 0 once, but now it's back to negatives.) Positive feedback should be encouraged.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2011-06-14T18:17:13.616Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Run-on sentence? :) Redundant with the "Vote Up" button?

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2011-06-14T21:33:22.051Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Redundant with the "Vote Up" button?

Verbal comments have a much greater psychological effect than anonymous upvotes. (Especially when there seem to be a bunch of downvotes, meaning that most of the upvotes effectively become invisible.)

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2011-06-15T06:42:20.640Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Verbal comments have a much greater psychological effect than anonymous upvotes

Of course. I guess they may impose a cost on some readers, though.

comment by farsan · 2011-06-13T09:59:36.578Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that RA actually moved the goalposts. The goal is exactly the same: "Men have better technical abilities than women, so they should get paid more for the same engineering jobs."

The point that WA actually changed was from "Men and women are just as well suited to technical careers as each other!", which he conceded, to "If men really are better, they'll get raises and promotions on their own merit, not merely by virtue of being male."... But these points aren't located in the goal. They are points in the middle of the field, parts of a discussion. Losing one of those points shouldn't mean losing the whole discussion.

An example of actual goalpost-moving should be from "Men have better technical abilities than women, so they should get paid more for the same engineering jobs." to "People who have better technical abilities should get paid more for the same engineering jobs".

comment by Caravelle · 2011-06-22T14:35:20.904Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I've been thinking of this question lately, and while I agree with the main thrust of your article, I don't think that giving all possible objections is always possible (it can get really long, and sometimes there are thematic issues). Which is why I think multiple people responding tends to be a good thing.

But more to the point, I don't think I agree that RA is moving the goalposts. Because really, every position has many arguments pro or con where even if just one is demolished the position can survive off the others. I think the arguing technique that really is problematic is abandoning position A to go to position B while still taking A as true, thus continuing to make arguments based on A or going back to asserting A once B doesn't work out.

I think that if someone explicitly concedes A before going on to B, and doesn't go back to A afterwards (unless they've got new arguments of course) they aren't doing anything wrong.

comment by Steven_Bukal · 2011-06-13T08:34:37.290Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

RA really has moved the goalposts on WA, which is one of those Dark Arts that we're not supposed to employ, even unintentionally.

It would certainly be annoying and a bit questionable to bring up your points of disagreement one at a time like RA did, but as long as he stops to update after receiving the information from WA, I don't know if I'd call this moving the goalposts.

comment by Oligopsony · 2011-06-12T16:10:12.071Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Much of what you say is important - perhaps even obvious - but I'd like to stand up for RA here, at least with respect to this particular example. A is a factual claim and B a moral one. If your experience is that you can change people's beliefs about the world through argumentation but not their basic values, it makes sense to only dispute the former.

Probably RA should note the moral difference upfront, though.

comment by Peterdjones · 2011-06-12T17:41:25.708Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

B isn't essentially a moral claim,. If the only information an employer had about potential employees was their gender. it might make sense to offer starting (NB: starting) salaries on the basis of gender. But that is a purely instrumental argument, with no moral upshot whatsoever. It is also completely unrealistic: employers offer starting salaries based on the educational and employment histories of candidates. and offer rises based on subsequent performance. It would be instrumentally irrational to treat gender as a more important factor than actual performance. The fallacy in the Wrong Argument isn't moral at all: it is a logical error to treat gender as a predictor of performance over and above actual track record.

(It may be the case that male engineers as a group, or as individuals end up being paid more, but, that again has nothing to do with morality. There is no moral law guaranteeing equal outcomes for all. Opportunities are a different matter.).

(It is not clear whether the OP meant that one should criticise both premises of an argument, where they are both criticisable, or whether the intention was to remind people that moral presmises are criticisable as well as factual ones).