Counterspells

post by Virgil Kurkjian · 2019-04-27T23:37:09.353Z · score: 86 (28 votes) · LW · GW · 24 comments

Contents

  Graham's Counterspells
    Ad Hominem
        Forms:
        Examples:
    Response to Tone
        Forms:
        Examples:
    Contradiction
        Forms:
        Examples:
  Alexander's Counterspells
      Noncentral Fallacy
        Forms:
        Examples:
    Gotchas
        Forms:
        Examples:
    Single Facts
        Forms:
        Examples:
    Single Studies
        Forms:
        Examples:
    Isolated Demand for Rigor
        Forms:
        Examples:
    Disputing Definitions
        Forms:
        Examples:
  Other Counterspells
    Argument from Authority
        Forms:
        Examples:
    Straw Man
        Forms:
        Examples:
    Tu Quoque
        Forms:
        Examples:
    Appeal to Popularity
        Forms:
        Examples:
None
24 comments

Back in the early days of the internet, when New Atheism was king, people would collect and catalogue various logical fallacies. Then, when getting into an argument on some forum, they would identify and call out all the logical fallacies being used by their opponent; Ad Hominem! Appeal to Emotion! Tu Quoque! Post hoc, ergo propter hoc!

These days we tend to know better. Appealing to these lists of logical fallacies and their Latin names doesn't help you, and it doesn't help the conversation. The problem is that to the person you're talking to, throwing around the names of these fallacies just sounds like an Argument from Authority—

Wait! I mean, it just sounds like you think you're smarter or better educated than they are, which isn't relevant to the argument. If you really had something to contribute, you would explain the problem with their reasoning, rather than just throwing out a Latin term they've never heard of. Even if they have heard of it, you should still take the time to tell them why you think it applies to what they said.

Logical fallacies are all sound complaints. But when disagreeing with someone, they deserve to hear the arguments those complaints are based on. More than that, you're not going to convince someone of your position unless you actually try to convince them.

Fortunately, logical fallacies are such bad arguments that most of them can be rebutted in a few simple sentences. And the form of each fallacy tends to be so consistent that these rebuttals can be highly formulaic.


In accordance with the Rationalist tradition that requires everything to have a nerdy sci-fi or fantasy name, I am calling these formulaic rebuttals Counterspells.

Like I mentioned, I know that by now everyone knows how to avoid using these fallacies themselves. Most of us can also recognize when other people are using these bad arguments against us. Somehow the next step doesn't come as easily.

You might think that an intelligent person, recognizing a bad argument they've seen a hundred times before, would be able to provide a knock-down counterargument. But for me at least, I still regularly crash and burn in my attempts to extemporize rebuttals. I see a lot of you all make the same problem.

Some writers have proposed some great Counterspells, but no one has collected them. To begin with, I'm going to review some excellent Counterspells by Paul Graham and Scott Alexander. I've lifted many of their examples directly, as these examples were carefully considered and strongly written; check out the links to see the original pieces.

Graham's Counterspells

Paul Graham's How to Disagree is an old favorite. Part of what I find so appealing about this essay is how Graham not only lays out several forms of unproductive disagreement, but includes clear examples of the sort of thing one should say in response.

Without further ado, Graham's Counterspells:

Ad Hominem

Forms:

Examples:

If there's something wrong with the senator's argument, you should say what it is; and if there isn't, what difference does it make that he's a senator?

The question is whether I'm correct or not. If the fact that I'm just a college student caused me to make mistakes, what mistakes did I make? If there aren't mistakes, then my age isn't a problem.

Response to Tone

Forms:

Examples:

It's clear that OP is pissed off about this issue, but it matters more whether OP is wrong or right than what their tone is. Do you think they're wrong, or just an asshole?

Ok, maybe I was too flippant, but I still think my points are correct. If you think I'm actually wrong, could you point out where you disagree?

Contradiction

Forms:

Examples:

I think you're just stating that you oppose gun control, without explaining why you think it should be opposed. What is it exactly about gun control that makes you so strongly against these policies?

Ok, it's good to know that you're concerned about genetically engineered crops specifically, but I actually still disagree. What evidence makes you think that these crops aren't safe?

Alexander's Counterspells

Noncentral Fallacy

One of my favorite pieces by Alexander is his description of his candidate for the Worst Argument In The World, what he calls the Noncentral Fallacy [LW · GW].

One thing that I like in particular about this piece is that he clearly explains how one should respond to this type of argument. This sets us up nicely for Counterspells.

Forms:

Examples:

The typical case of murder is Charles Manson breaking into a house and shooting someone. Abortion differs in that the victim is an embryo or fetus with less biological complexity and intelligence than the average rabbit.

The typical example of theft is someone mugging you in a dark alley and taking your pocketbook. Taxation technically qualifies as theft if you define the latter as "taking someone's money through implied threat of force", but it also differs from dark-alley-mugging in several important ways, like that it's levied by a democratically elected government, that it's supposed to be spent on useful programs, and that it's collected in an orderly and predictable fashion. These differences seem to be important enough that most people support taxation even though they don't support dark-alley-muggings.

Well, obviously. That's kind of the point. And the typical example of racial discrimination - the Ku Klux Klan burning your house down or something - is pretty bad. But a lot of the reasons KKK-house-burning is bad - living in fear, locking downtrodden groups into a cycle of poverty, totally locking qualified people out of any job - don't apply to the wildly atypical case of affirmative action.


Alexander has an essay called Varieties of Argumentative Experience, written as something of a response to Graham's essay. This is excellent for my purposes, since it means that it has a very similar form. Here are some Counterspells drawn from this source.

Gotchas

Gotchas don't share as much structure as other things on this list, so the form of their Counterspells are not as reliable as some others. I think that Alexander would also tell me that Gotchas aren't worth engaging with, and maybe he's right. But I hold out hope for people who are still playing gotcha, and a calm response can help to refocus the conversation on the issues, so here is an attempt.

You'll notice that my approach here is to deadpan accept the fiction that they are making an honest contribution. Other approaches might also be possible.

Forms:

Examples:

Well, I don't want to move to Cuba, but that's because governments can vary along dimensions other than how big they are, and even though Cuba has a big government there are a lot of things about it that I don't like.

Yeah, but I still support serious gun control measures because I think there are bigger issues than criminals having guns, like suicide rates and murders by private citizens.

Single Facts

Forms:

Examples:

Trump lying about his grades admittedly does support your argument that he's sometimes dishonest, but things with some bad features can be good overall. Trump can be dishonest as a businessman sometimes, but he has other good qualities.

Obviously foreign intervention does cost American lives, and that's something I worry about too. But the issue is larger than that, and I think we should be prepared to make these sacrifices sometimes — things like genocide and religious dictatorships are much worse.

Even if we all agree that Hillary is crap at email security, you're only pointing out one bad quality of hers. I don't think it's such a big deal. Why is her email security cred so important?

Single Studies

There are a lot of ways in which sharing a single study can be a nonproductive contribution to a discussion, so here are a few varieties of Counterspell.

Forms:

Examples:

On any controversial issue, there are usually many peer-reviewed studies supporting each side. In just 15 minutes, I was able to find 7 articles (links here) that conclude that raising the minimum wage decreases unemployment. If we want to answer this question, we need to take a look at the literature as a whole.

I think this study investigates whether trigger warnings affect certain beliefs about trauma in the very short term rather than whether trigger warnings are helpful or harmful in college courses, which is the thing most people actually care about.

Isolated Demand for Rigor

This actually can be countered in a variety of interesting ways; see this essay for a more complete treatment. Most examples lifted from there.

Forms:

Examples:

Republicans have also been against leaders who presided over good economies and presumably thought this was a reasonable thing to do; “it’s impossible to honestly oppose someone even when there’s a good economy” is a fake rule we never apply to anything else.

Presumably there are lots of government programs you support (maybe PBS?), but you would never dream of demanding that we defund them in the hopes of donating the money to malaria prevention. But since you don't support air strikes, suddenly that plan has to justify itself according to rigorous criteria that no government program that exists could possibly pass.

So you think that no one should ever be forced to pay for something they don’t like?Wouldn't that imply liberals shouldn’t have to pay for wars? That seems like a weird consequence you probably don't support.

You're probably happy to talk about speed and blood pressure and comas and the crime rate, but somehow you switch to a position that we can’t talk about IQ at all unless we have a perfect factor-analytical proof of its obeying certain statistical rules. These seem equally rigorous, so why are you ok with one and not the other?

Disputing Definitions

Alexander correctly notes that this is one of the hardest issues to rebut; both because it's easy to be seduced by this sort of argument, and because thinking critically about words and definitions is a very difficult skill to learn, a point not readily communicated in a few sentences.

Even so, here are my own attempts at a Counterspell for this issue:

Forms:

(Note that this has a lot of overlap with the Noncentral Fallacy.)

Examples:

I'm not sure it matters whether or not being transgender is a mental illness. People might even disagree how to define what is and isn't a mental illness. Some people still don't think depression would count! I think we both care a lot more about things like whether or not transgender people should be allowed to change their legal gender, and whether they face discrimination.

You can define communism so that the USSR doesn't count if you want, but that's not usually what people mean by communism. I think the factual and moral issues stand, regardless of what words you use.

You can define war as "a formal state of armed conflict between state governments" if you want, but I'm much more concerned with the fact that people are dying in this conflict, whatever we call it.

Why can't the chef call a tomato a vegetable? He just wants to think about whether or not to put it in a salad or on a burger. What's wrong with that?

Other Counterspells

And here are a few of my own design, for some common fallacies:

Argument from Authority

Forms:

Examples:

Pinker being a Harvard professor and generally a smart guy isn't relevant to his position on AI threat. Sometimes experts are wrong and make mistakes. What part of Pinker's arguments do you think refute my position?

Straw Man

Forms:

Examples:

Well I can't speak for everyone else, but I don't actually want to ban all private ownership of guns. Are you sure you understand what my position is? All I'm suggesting is that we enforce the laws we have, and close some loopholes related to purchasing firearms at gun shows.

Tu Quoque

Forms:

Examples:

It's possible be against something and still sometimes participate in it. Sure, it's hypocritical for me to eat meat, but that doesn't make me wrong about animal rights.

Sure, it's hypocritical for me to smoke and tell you not to, but I'm still right that it would be bad for your health, and I can still want you not to start!

Appeal to Popularity

Forms:

Examples:

The majority has been wrong all the time. People used to think that the sun goes around the earth! I don't care how many scientists believe in global warming, I want to know whether the evidence is strong enough to think it's a real threat.

I don't care if everyone on that subreddit thinks it's right, I want to know why YOU think it's right.

Come on, if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?


There are, of course, many other things that can go wrong in the course of a conversation. There will be other concise, effective rebuttals, which can be added to this list.

24 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Benquo · 2019-04-29T04:11:23.178Z · score: 33 (11 votes) · LW · GW

A lot of the concrete suggestions seem good, but if someone is motivated to generate lots of faulty arguments for something, something's wrong about the conversation, and I've made a lot more progress trying to address that directly than trying to attack the nonsense. Often this has to involve some level of trust, and it can be helpful to make it explicit that you're asking for that kind of trust, and to be a bit gentler, go slower, and try to help the other person articulate their true objection, and express genuine solicitude if you can, before responding with your own perspective. Sometimes their true objection is even persuasive!

comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2019-05-05T03:12:02.304Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You're entirely right! Like you said, these are sort of concrete suggestions to be used on a case-by-case basis. I don't think a conversational strategy should be based around them, and what you describe is much more appropriate.

Sometimes, though, you'll be talking to someone you know and trust, and notice that they introduce an isolated demand for rigor or respond to tone, and you'll think, "I notice that's wrong, how do I disagree in a respectful way?" This is intended to help fill the gap in such situations. One tool in the toolbox.

comment by gilch · 2019-04-28T01:36:24.981Z · score: 23 (10 votes) · LW · GW

While I do think that rhetoric is a skill worth developing, don't forget that rhetorical tricks are Dark Arts.

Many so-called "Logical Fallacies" are unfortunately applied to arguments that are valid inferences. On priors, you are better off trusting experts in their field than laymen. But this is called the "argument from authority fallacy". The correct counter is Argument Screens Off Authority [LW · GW]. And so on. Learning Counterspells is no substitute for grokking Bayes, and may even be harmful if they just give you excuses not to listen or more ammunition to shoot your own foot with.

Also, someone should totally make a card game out of this.

comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2019-04-28T15:10:34.873Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that rhetoric can be dangerous, but I'm actually not sure how it applies in this case. Don't these Counterspells strictly dominate, "You used X logical fallacy against me"?

It's true that many complaints about "logical fallacies" are mistaken, but I think that one of the nice features of Counterspells is that because their forms are so tight, they can actually help you realize when you're misapplying them to something that is a valid inference (or something that is a different fallacy than you first thought). In the process of developing this idea, more than once I have gone to use a Counterspell against something, only to find in the process that my interlocutor was saying something very different than what I had initially imagined.

I think their formulaic, fill-in-the-blanks nature forces you to engage with the material more than you might otherwise; I think they're the opposite of an excuse not to listen. And since they only make sense in response to certain invalid inferences, I don't think there's much opportunity to shoot your foot off. Many of them include a request for elaboration, and in a respectful discussion where no one engages in rhetorical tricks, they will never come up.

comment by gilch · 2019-04-30T02:28:47.313Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Dominate by what measure? In terms of scoring debate points with the audience, no. "Fallacy X" takes less time to say. People who don't know what "X" means may still assign you higher status because you named something in Latin, and assume people who can reply quickly are smarter, and therefore right.

Counterspells seem more effective when arguing in writing than in person, when the slower response time isn't as costly. You also wouldn't have to memorize them.

If the goal is to get a single interlocutor to actually change their mind, something like Street Epistemology might be better. Politics is the mind-killer [LW · GW]. When a position is tied to identity, direct confrontations are simply attacks to be resisted. You have to cut sideways and undermine their foundations. Don't focus on the reasons why they believe (where Counterspells seem to be focused), but how they come to beliefs. If their epistemology is broken, don't expect more evidence to sway them--because they're just not listening.

But all of the above are still Dark Arts, because they're rhetorical tricks that can be selectively applied to anything you don't like. Yes, there has to be an opening. The interlocutor has to have at least appeared to have made a "mistake" in reasoning or at least the presentation of it, which may make it less Dark than more underhanded rhetorical tricks, but which openings you choose to attack shows your own bias.

If you care about the truth, don't reach for any formulaic gotcha ammunition. Steelman. Take the most charitable interpretation of the opposing argument you can muster, and then cut it down. If you can.

comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2019-04-30T04:28:04.302Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that they are most useful when actually trying to change someone's mind.

I originally thought that they would be more effective in writing than in person, but after making the list some I've been surprised at how quickly and naturally they can be used in conversation. It took a few seconds the first few times, but I didn't really need to practice. YMMV.

I actually have a pretty narrow range of uses in mind, and I think some of our disagreement comes from thinking I intend these for general use. You correctly point out that Counterspells don't make any positive progress in the debate, they just swat things down (like a... counterspell?). And yeah, that's all they are. They don't do much heavy lifting and you need other tools to actually change someone's mind (most of the time).

All I'm saying is whenever you would say, "That's invalid because [Fallacy Name]", instead say, "[Counterspell]". It has to exist within the framework of better rhetorical skills, and yeah, if someone is the kind of asshole who pulls them out as underhanded tricks, these won't save them.

comment by MakoYass · 2019-05-01T22:03:32.360Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Counter counterspells for argument from authority:

  • It's not that I believe that anyone who disagrees with [Expert] is wrong, it's just that the proper procedure for determining whether you are right should involve engaging with [Expert] instead of engaging with me
  • It's not that I believe that anyone who disagrees with [Expert] is wrong, it's just that from my perspective, anyone who disagrees with [Expert] is probably wrong, and I have to be careful about where I put my time
comment by mr-hire · 2019-05-02T20:23:33.753Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

We can probably do counter-counter spells for all of these

Ad Hominen:

Based on my previous experience, the fact that this person is (x) provides evidence against their argument, and I have a limited amount of time to analyze every argument that comes my way.

Response to tone:

People who speak with (tone) usually aren't taking other arguments seriously or making good arguments, and I have a limited amount of time to analyze every argument that comes my way

Non-Central Fallacy:

This thing is of class (x), things of class (x) are usually bad, and I have a limited amount of time to analyze every argument that comes my way.

comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2019-05-04T13:32:37.253Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

All of your proposals miss my point, as does the idea of counter-counterspells. They may be epistemically virtuous, but they are what Alexander would call Meta-Debate, discussion of what can be debated, who is a trusted source, and how the discussion can be held. As Alexander points out, there's nothing wrong with Meta-Debate, and it can be useful. It's still not part of the actual debate.

I’ve placed it in a sphinx outside the pyramid to emphasize that it’s not a bad argument for the thing, it’s just an argument about something completely different.

Ultimately they have no bearing on whether or not the topic of discussion is true or false. Certainly I could tell someone, "Your belief in a flat earth makes me not interested in trusting your thoughts on homeopathy", and I would be right to do so. But homeopathy is still true or false regardless of this person's other unconventional beliefs.

Even beyond that, assuming the goal of a discussion is to change your partner's mind (I know it's not always, but let's assume), then these do a terrible job of that. Counterspells are designed with the assumption that you want to convince someone discussion in good faith, and designed to engage with their (incorrect) arguments directly. What you propose are all dismissals.

Even so, I don't think they're great meta-arguments. Certainly you can see the problem with, "Martin Luther King was a criminal, criminals are usually bad, and I have a limited amount of time to analyze every argument that comes my way."

comment by mr-hire · 2019-05-04T16:17:49.758Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
Ultimately they have no bearing on whether or not the topic of discussion is true or false. Certainly I could tell someone, "Your belief in a flat earth makes me not interested in trusting your thoughts on homeopathy", and I would be right to do so. But homeopathy is still true or false regardless of this person's other unconventional beliefs.

But the purpose of our discussion is to change my mind about homeopathy. There's something of a frequentist epistemology behind saying that homeopathy is true or false regardless of your other beliefs - it's certainly true, but that doesn't help me make up my mind about:

1. Whether or not it's true.

2. Whether or not it's useful to discuss this specific aspect.

Counter-counter-spells are a way of pointing out when a bias is actually a heuristic. Your Martin Luther King example isn't such a case, but there are certainly many cases where it is a good heuristic.

comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2019-05-05T03:07:32.523Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You seem to be thinking of a case where Counterspells would be used against honest epistemological heuristics. I agree that this is inappropriate. But in such a case you just need to tell them that you were making a call about the discussion rather than their position (this is still meta-debate), something like: "I didn't suggest that your tone makes you wrong, but it does make me not want to engage with you." Though frankly in such a case I can't see why you would want to engage further, making me even more skeptical of the idea of these double counters.

The idea of a Counterspell assumes (by definition; I invented it) 1) That the original speaker made a true logical fallacy, 2) That the responder is choosing to engage and respond in good faith, and 3) That the Counterspell response is appropriate, i.e. that it really does point out why the original argument was incorrect in that it didn't provide good evidence for some conclusion. If they fail at that, it's not a Counterspell. Because of this, the very idea of counter-counterspells is wrongheaded. The suggestion is to make a dismissive response to an honest, correct, and good-faith attempt to engage with someone. That's something I'm not interested in.

Another way to put it is that Counterspells are intended to move discussions away from meta-debate. Rather than calling someone out for violating norms and trying to rack up hits against their credibility, Counterspells help you to engage with the content of someone's complaint even as you are disagreeing with it. I think that's incredibly helpful.

(Also I can't see why this is at all frequentist in perspective. Bayesians can believe in true states of the world as well.)

comment by MakoYass · 2019-05-03T02:52:40.060Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

While this is true (most fallacies are actually legitimate heuristics), if I heard the same person say all of these things I would have to step back and get them to ask themselves if they're really in the mood for discourse right now, heh.

It's easy to get sucked into discourse when you don't have a lot of time for it and half-ass everything.

comment by rossry · 2019-04-28T04:40:42.545Z · score: 16 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Strong approval of the overall goal of the post, but here's a semantic criticism:

In accordance with the Rationalist tradition that requires everything to have a nerdy sci-fi or fantasy name

I parse this as an in-joke (and appreciate it as such), but I do think that regularly minting new jargon that's likely to carry substantial, conflicting(!) contextual baggage (not all of it appropriate[1]) is...a bad norm for an epistemic community to have.

I also think that the deeper tradition of jargon-forging (as Eliezer practiced it) involved names that sounded nerdy, but _not_ sci-fi or fantasy -- _cf._ Knowing About Biases Can Hurt [LW · GW] People [LW · GW], which uses "Fully General Counterargument" in much the same way(?) as you're using "Counterspell". "Fully General Counterargument" is slightly more unwieldy, but apart from that is a better piece of jargon -- it's less loaded and by leaning even harder into the implicit snark that winks at the fact that the purported counter- isn't working at all, makes it even more clear that no, this is not a useful thing.

[1] To belabor this point, MtG counterspells are fully general (edit: okay, not **fully** general, and see Slider below), and a reasonable fit for the term as you're using it, but D&D (3.5e, at least) counterspells are based on negating a spell by casting a copy of it, which is not what you mean at all. I don't actually know what "counterspells" are in WoD/Mage, but the risk that they're even further afield from your intention should be another strike against using the already-loaded handle.

comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2019-04-28T14:54:58.945Z · score: 11 (6 votes) · LW · GW

You're right to read it as an in-joke, and I'm glad that you saw it that way. I think your comment actually goes on to capture the rest of what I was trying to say with that quip. The deeper level of the joke is that this community regularly mints new jargon which can get pretty weird — if we're not careful, someone will go off the deep end and try to call a new idea something stupid like, I dunno, "Counterspells". (I was thinking of this comment when I wrote the joke.)

On a more textual level, I came up with the term as a personal joke, but the name stuck, and now I can't think of them as anything else. Feel free to call this idea whatever you want.

I don't think "Fully General Counterargument" describes what I've done here, though. Eliezer points out on that page that 'you are a sophisticated arguer; you have used your intelligence to trick yourself' is an argument that you can use "when you encounter a seemingly intelligent person who says something you don’t like". (So technically his example is not FULLY general.) But each of the Counterspells I present here are coherent arguments only when someone has made an argument based on a specific logical fallacy. If someone makes an ad hominem against you, it doesn't make sense to pull out a Counterspell designed for Straw Men.

comment by rossry · 2019-04-29T14:30:12.832Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

cf. my comment cousin to this one; I misunderstood what the term was pointing at at first, though I stand by my complaint that that's a problem with the term.

comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2019-04-29T23:57:35.957Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, understood! Yeah, the term is imperfect. Call them whatever you like.

comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2019-05-18T19:03:05.855Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ok, actually I was just going back through one of Alexander's posts from 2014 and found a case of him using the term "counterspell" in exactly the way I use it here:

The proper counterspell to such nonsense is Reverse Causal Arrows – could it not be that states with more marijuana users are more likely to pass proposals liberalizing marijuana laws? Yes it could.

I wasn't aware of this when I wrote the post, but apparently there is some precedent for my usage.

comment by Slider · 2019-04-28T12:10:01.585Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"Counterspells" are supposed to be useful.

MtG counterspell is a card but it's also a spell category. Spell in that category usually cost less the more specific their target restrictions are. They also all accomplish the same thing in that ultimately nothing happens (ie a cancellation).

Using magic here as a metaphor might be fitting as the point of such a move is to reveal that the machinery supposed to be employed actually doesn't do anything ie that magic doesn't work and is just wishful thinking. The worry would be that by acknowledging the attempted methods you "steep down to their level" ie employ magic yourself despite not believing in it.

comment by rossry · 2019-04-28T14:34:51.922Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks; I legitimately misunderstood at first read whether "counterspell" was intended to apply to the invocations thrown out by bad arguers or the concise and specific distillations the OP is presenting for use. On re-read, I agree that it's supposed to be a set of useful tools.

I remain convinced of the specific claim that "counterspell" is bad jargon (though I don't think it's good practice to cite my own confusion too strongly; the incentives there aren't great). I agree that MtG''s paradigm where more general counterspells are more expensive seems like a good fit for thinking about rhetorical (and perhaps epistemic) tactics, though I reiterate that that's not how they work in many other settings, and that ambiguous baggage is worse than no baggage for this sort of thing. The question of whether identifying counterspells with magic is supposed to be a positive or negative association is additional gratuitous confusion -- I think your claim that the magic metaphor implies they don't work is wrong, but I'm not 85% sure.

comment by gilch · 2019-04-30T02:35:30.441Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I actually thought the term was apt. If someone is "under the spell" of bad ideas, you need to "break the spell" somehow before they can think clearly again. This usage is not without precedent. A particular kind of spell needs a particular kind of Counterspell to break it. It's an antidote, not a panacea, so the D&D conception fits the concept better than the MtG version.

comment by philh · 2019-04-28T20:43:52.081Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Agree that this is a marginal improvement over just naming fallacies, or even (as I've sometimes done) naming and giving a link to the definition.

Proposed counterspell to Bulverism - "well, maybe Dr Robotnik is wrong about hedgehogs spreading tuberculosis, and if so, it's plausible that his hated for one particular hedgehog is clouding his judgement. But you still haven't actually convinced me that he's wrong."

To the fallacy fallacy - "you're absolutely right that GPT-2's argument for banning tofu is riddled with fallacies. But you seem to suggest that that means we shouldn't ban tofu; I still think there are good arguments for doing so".

Aside, I don't think any of your "typical examples" (of murder, theft, racism) are actually typical in the sense of common. I would rather say "a prototypical example", which seems more technically accurate and almost as legible.

comment by Jiro · 2019-04-29T22:09:57.622Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW
If there's something wrong with the senator's argument, you should say what it is; and if there isn't, what difference does it make that he's a senator?

Finding things wrong with an argument is not effort-free. The fact that someone may be biased may in some cases be enough to make me not want to spend the effort. Furthermore, most real-life arguments are not purely logical deductions and involve a certain amount of trusting that the other person has presented facts honestly and in a way that is not one-sided or based on motivated reasoning, especially when perceptions and personal experience are involved.

There's also a certain chance that someone will sneak a bad argument by me simply because I am human and imperfect at analyzing arguments. I can minimize the chance of this without causing other problems if I only argue with people who are relatively unbiased.

It matters much more whether [person] is wrong or right than what their tone is.

No, it doesn't. Imagine replacing "abusive tone" with "breaks the windows of my house". Whether someone is right or wrong is unrelated to whether he breaks the windows of my house, but I'd probably call the police and ignore his arguments.Abusive tone is negative utility for me and I'm not interested in getting negative utility when I can avoid it.

comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2019-04-29T23:54:08.326Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed; like many things, these are guidelines for a conversation with someone you want to have a conversation with. You'll notice that I didn't include Counterspells for things like Social Shaming from Varieties of Argumentative Experience or Name-Calling from How to Disagree. Alexander discusses the whole issue at length in his essay.

comment by Jiro · 2019-04-30T14:32:43.001Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That isn't enough, though. First of all, some of what I said applies directly to the quality of the argument--someone could be sincere, but biased, and I may have a reason to avoid arguments based on personal experience or personal expertise from him about certain subjects, without completely avoiding conversation with him. Second, what I said applies when you're arguing with person A (who you can have a discussion with) and they're referencing person B (who you can't), and you want to dismiss the reference to B--in the example above, someone is referring back to the argument made by a senator, but he is not the senator himself.