The Hallmarks of a Bad Argument

From Jane Friedman:

We need more debate.

I’m a firm believer that one of the biggest issues in our society—especially politically—is that people who disagree spend a lot less time talking to each other than they should.

Earlier in June, I wrote about how the two major political candidates are dodging debates. The next week I wrote about how a well known scientist (or someone like him) should actually engage Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on his views about vaccines.

In both cases, I received a lot of pushback. There are, simply put, many millions of Americans who believe that some minority views—whether it’s that the 2020 election was stolen or vaccines can be dangerous or climate change is going to imminently destroy the planet or there are more than two genders—are not worth discussing with the many people who hold those viewpoints. Many of these same people believe influential voices are not worth airing and are too dangerous to be on podcasts or in public libraries or in front of our children.

On the whole, I think this is wrongheaded. I’ve written a lot about why. But something I hadn’t considered is that people are skeptical about the value of debate because there are so many dishonest ways to have a debate. People aren’t so much afraid of a good idea losing to a bad idea; they are afraid that, because of bad-faith tactics, reasonable people will be fooled into believing the bad idea.

Because of that, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about all the dishonest ways of making arguments.

The nature of this job means not only that I get to immerse myself in politics, data, punditry, and research, but that I get a chance to develop a keen understanding of how people argue—for better, and for worse.

Let me give you an example.

Recently, we covered Donald Trump’s fourth indictment, when a grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, indicted former President Donald Trump and 18 others over allegations of a sprawling conspiracy to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory in Georgia. As usual, we got some feedback and criticism from our readers—which we welcome. A couple people asked why Hillary Clinton isn’t also getting indicted, since she also has disputed that she lost a fair and open election.

This, of course, got me talking about the differences in these cases. Clinton conceded the election the night it was called, Trump didn’t. Clinton’s supporters didn’t swarm the Capitol hoping to overturn the results while she—as president—was silent. Trump’s supporters did, and he was.

Then we started having a conversation about what Hillary Clinton did do. She did say that the election was illegitimate and that Russia tampered, and continues to. She did use a private email server…

And now the topic of conversation has changed, from “did Trump deserve to be indicted” to “should Hillary Clinton have been indicted?”

This is an example of “whataboutism,” where the person you’re talking to or arguing with asks you about a different but similar circumstance, and in doing so changes the subject.


This is probably the argument style I get from readers the most often. There is a good chance you are familiar with it. This argument is usually signaled by the phrase, “What about…?” For instance, anytime I write about Hunter Biden’s shady business deals, someone writes in and says, “What about the Trump children?” My answer is usually, “They also have some shady deals.”

The curse of whataboutism is that we can often do it forever. If you want to talk about White House nepotism, it’d take weeks (or years) to properly adjudicate all the instances in American history, and it would get us nowhere but to excuse the behavior of our own team. That is, of course, typically how this tactic is employed. Liberals aren’t invoking Jared Kushner to make the case that profiting off your family’s time in the White House is okay, they are doing it to excuse the sins of their preferred president’s kid—to make the case that it isn’t that bad, isn’t uncommon, or isn’t worth addressing until the other person gets held accountable first.

Now, there are times when this kind of argument is useful, and sometimes even enlightening. If we are truly asking where the line for prosecutable conduct is for a presidential candidate, it’s useful to find precedent and see where it is being applied inconsistently. If we’re asking “is the government consistent,” comparing Clinton, Trump, Biden, Nixon—it’s all on the table. The same is true if we’re asking about the bias of media organizations, and seeing if they cover similar stories differently, if the subject of the story is the major element that’s changing.

But if I write a story that says your favorite political candidate answered a question in a very poor way, and you respond by saying, “Well, this other politician said something bad, too—I think even worse. What about that statement?” That wouldn’t be helpful, or enlightening.

Furthermore, context is important. If I’m writing about Hunter Biden’s business deals I may reference how other similar situations were addressed or spoken about in the past. But when the topic of discussion is whether one person’s behavior was bad, saying that someone else did something bad does nothing to address the subject at hand. It just changes the subject.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

The OP is more political than PG’s usual selections. He requests that any disagreements in the comments not involve any personal attacks against anyone, candidate or not.

21 thoughts on “The Hallmarks of a Bad Argument”

  1. “What about” is a valid argument when you are pointing out the differences. In Clinton vs. Trump, the point IS the differences – and why they exist. The question is not about indictments, but whether there is corruption in the DOJ that is the cause for the differences in treatment.

    The main thing that prevents debate is when one or both parties have “facts” that are not factual – and that they will not surrender in the face of actual facts. Such as in the OP – President Trump was not silent about the events on J6; he exhorted the rally attendees to peacefully make their concerns heard, and he issued statements calling for peace even while the riot was in progress. The OP has a false “fact” in her head propagated by the leaders of her ideology (and conveniently suppressed in every presentation by prosecutors and the major media).

    • In fairness, given the rather obvious mood of the crowd it should have been plain as a pikestaff that telling them to go anywhere near the Capitol, even peacefully, was a Really Bad Idea bordering on criminal incompetence/negligence, and arguably Trump was a little slow on the draw for calling for things to be peaceable when things went from protest to riot.

      That having been said, the idea that disputing election results should come even close to being a criminal offense is absolutely bonkers, and based on what I’ve seen any competent defense attorney would have a good chance of beating the Fulton County charges with a jury that wasn’t hopelessly biased against the defendant

  2. My ten foot pole broke.
    So I was going to give this one a hard pass.

    But the op choosing this topic with this example reminded me that there is a difference between a political debate and a partisan debate, just as a story can be about political issues without sinking in the quicksand of partisan issues.

    A difference commercial fiction writers would be well advised to at least consider.

    To me, the textbook example of how to deal with politics–which is fair game for story building given that humans are a tribal species and politics is about the interaction of said tribes–comes from all places, a masterpiece of superhero comic book storytelling, Timothy Truman’s masterpiece HAWKWORLD and its equally good, eponymous followup series by John Ostrander which takes the protagonists to Earth, another Hawkworld in the making, but still with the potential to do better:

    “Here is a man, Katar Hol, who begins his journey as an exuberant youth with high ideals. But when he is thrust into the morass of real life, he suddenly finds he must surrender his soul before he can ultimately reap redemption and pave a path toward absolving his sins.
    “The saga of Katar Hol is also the story of his people and his planet, Thanagar, the famed Hawkworld of the series’ title. It’s an apt name for the book; so much of what happens to Katar revolves around how his society has sunken into a dark era where the gap between the rich and poor is enormous, a theme that reverberates with as much relevance today as when the story was written nearly 20 years ago.”

    Textbook example of presenting a political issue without preachiness, naive “solutions”, or demonization. Just human nature at work. And work as vibrant and readable (and selling!) today as thirty years ago.

    An example worth considering–take a step back, consider the big picture, the “other guy’s” motivations, and avoid partisan prescriptions, while exploring a specific human in story.

    There is room for political thought in enduring fiction but not partisan thought. Self defeating, the latter.


  3. I clicked through to see what engagement was being espoused between the scientist and Kennedy. It was an invitation to come onto Joe Rogan’s podcast and debate. This is an old, old scam. Scientists don’t, as a rule, have either the aptitude or the training for live debating. That’s not how scientific progress works. So someone who does have that aptitude and training will challenge a scientist to a debate, and in the event will go full ‘baffle them with bullshit’ mode, followed by a victory lap. There is no point to engaging this way.

    • Makes one wonder how they got through their thesis defense, though – where their assumptions, evidence, and conclusions are SUPPOSED to be challenged on every particular.

      As RAH once noted, however, a thesis defense is more about stroking the egos of the panel. Which is how we end up with scientism instead of science.

      • Perhaps I am an optimist, but I would expect the committee not to indulge in intentionally disingenuous bullshit. This is a different experience from engaging with bad-faith arguments.

    • That’s not how scientific progress works.

      Say, how does science progress, anyway? Via the Accumulationist model? The Kuhnian model? The Baconian model? Or, as some of the white coat brigade privately say after two or three stiff drinks, one funeral at a time? The few scientists these days who possess a broad enough education to grapple with philosophical questions can’t even agree on an answer to that question.

      Scientists who seek to influence public policy but who refuse to engage in debate with members of the public whose lives will be affected by the policies they advocate–I’m looking at you, Niall Ferguson and Michael Mann–are rightly regarded with suspicion, especially since so many if them now seek also to suppress any expression of doubt in the name of combatting disinformation.

      At some point, treating the same people who fund their dubious computer models and meta-analyses like lab rats is going to drive the public into a murderous frenzy, quite possibly sooner rather than later.

      • Niall Ferguson? Are there two of them? Because the one I am familiar with is a historian, not a scientist.

        In any case, live oral debate is not the only, or the best, way to engage. It emphasizes public speaking skills over command of facts and logic. The usual technique is for the bullshitter to throw out a constant stream of made-up “facts.” His opponent has to either spend his time as a fact checker, or let the bullshit go unchallenged. It is not hard to bullshit your way through something like this, if you are shameless.

        The written word exists. It can be put to use here.

        • Niall Ferguson the British epidemiologist. As influential as he is dodgy. The sort of scientist who thinks that the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments in That Hideous Strength would be a good idea.

          The planted axiom in your contention that scientists are ill-suited to oral debate is that they are just too honest to mix it up with the hoi-polloi. Were this the case, then Google autocomplete would not suggest “crisis” as the very next word whenever I type “replication.”

          Up to a third of science papers these days, especially in the biological and medical fields, are fraudulent. That is something to keep in mind the next time your doctor offers you a new pill or the latest vaccine. Even the mother of all sciences, physics, is far from incorruptible–a disgusted physicist who wasted two years working at the multigazillion-dollar ITER fusion project in France assures me that the top-ranking scientists there know quite well that their Tokamak cannot possibly work for a host of reasons, but hey, the money is good.

          As for engaging in written debate, where? Nobody reads newspapers or magazines any more. No, we are left with social media. And job number one of social media platforms is not, contrary to what we hear, profit but rather to manufacture consent the way Skynet cranks out T-800s.

          A look into the role that In-Q-Tel has played in the rise of various tech companies, or how CIA and FBI computers are freely allowed to rewrite Wikipedia articles on sensitive topics like Iraq and Ukraine, or the way Reddit algorithms artificially boosted the account of one “u/Mxwellhill” so that she became that site’s eighth-most powerful mod until she was busted for human trafficking, might be instructive in this regard, but I digress.

          • Korrekshun: I should have written “u/Maxwellhill.” While the scandal that she was involved in received a lot of coverage, the media remained tellingly silent on this sensational aspect of it.

  4. HA! Politics is about debating the merits of the local school bond issue, it’s not about the Talking Points that the Paid Trolls are pushing.

    The author totally fails to mention that everything that we are exposed to is being directly manipulated by the “Evil Geniuses” and their minions. Vast armies of Paid Trolls speaking Talking points.

    – The Twitter files showed much of that.

    We’ll have to see what kind of pushback Jane Friedman gets.

    Since she turned off her comments, I’ll post this here because I know she reads TPV.

    Hi, Jane,

    To understand what is going on, read the book “Evil Geniuses” by Kurt Andersen. He goes into detail about how the “Evil Geniuses” have spent the past sixty years dismantling society.

    Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History

    – Harvest the book sample and see what I mean.

    • There was a time when I would have scoffed at the claim that “everything we are being exposed to is being directly manipulated,” but a lot has happened since then.

      • I know, that was a shock to me too.

        I don’t see how regular people will ever know, since there is no source of mainstream information that isn’t controlled by the “Evil Geniuses” and their minions.

        In a sane world, PBS would be telling everything, educating us the way their mandate requires. That mandate was abandoned in 2016 because their “sponsors” demanded it, if PBS wanted to keep getting “donations”.

        PBS is ours. We own it. The Government, both nationally and locally, needs to force PBS to follow its mandate again.

        – We need to put the “Public” back into PBS.

        See, that’s my idea of talking “politics”, rather than people.

  5. Clinton conceded the election the night it was called

    She called Trump Tuesday night. She did not make a public concession until Wednesday. The crowd at the Javits center that had anticipated a victory party instead listened to John Podesta rather than Clinton Tuesday night. She was a no-show.

    • In a sense, Trump’s foes never conceded the 2016 election, given the constant claims that Putin (currently designated the next Hitler) subverted Our Democracy.

      These claims had their origin in a dossier paid for by those very same foes, which dossier then made its way into the hands of the FBI, which then leaked said dossier to the media. This in turn allowed the Justice Department to use the resultant news reports of Trump-Kremlin collusion as a pretext for a two-year probe that derailed all attempts by the administration to improve relations with Russia, thereby setting the stage for the World War which is just now getting underway. As the saying goes, the third time’s the charm.

      Of course, in generations to come, the above tale is bound to undergo a few tweaks here and there as it gets retold around the camp fire, over skewers of roasted possum or long pig.

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