As the host of this blog, I am also the de facto moderator. I try to do so with an extremely light touch but there are occasions when I feel tempted to step in and lay down the law by banning people or shutting down comments. I have done so very rarely. One such situation is when a thread continues for much longer than I feel is necessary. As is almost always the case in the online world, all useful information and arguments have been presented within the first few exchanges. It should be obvious to everyone at that point that there are only two possibilities: either you are are terrible at making a persuasive argument and have to come back and try making the same point over and over again in different ways or, as is much more likely, the other person is determined not to have their mind changed and is simply deflecting your argument. Once that point is reached, we enter salami-slicing territory in which finer and finer distinctions are made which serve no purpose except that some people feel that they must have the last word or they have lost the argument, which is a fallacy but one that they cling to.
In such cases, as moderator I have to choose between letting people go on and on or shutting down the comments at some point. I have chosen to shut down the comments on only one previous occasion and am thinking of doing so again for the most recent case involving the rights of the transgender community. I try to avoid shutting down comments because on rare occasions, a newcomer comes across a very old post and adds interesting new information or insight.
I avoid such wastes of time by following the advice of Arnold Arons, a professor of physics at the University of Washington, who had a tremendous influence on the way I taught the subject. He taught physics in such a way as to develop the critical thinking skills of students. Back in 2012, I summarized the list of qualities that he said a critical thinker displays and I try to develop those skills in myself as well as well as inculcating them in my students. One in particular that prevents me from having endless sterile discussions is #8 on the list that says “Be able to recognize when no firm inferences can be drawn and when an argument has ceased to be fruitful and requires either new evidence or information to advance.”
Attending academic meetings provides good practice for recognizing when discussions have “ceased to be fruitful” because academics are expert salami-slicers, able to persuade themselves that they are making a significant new argument when they are merely making a distinction so fine that nobody else but them can see it or, if they do see it, thinks it adds nothing worthwhile. The salami has been sliced so thin as to be almost transparent.
In personal interactions, when I see that such a state has been reached after a couple of exchanges back and forth, I try to change the subject because I know that I am never going to change the other person’s mind by arguing with them. Failing that, I simply walk away. People rarely change their minds because an argument persuaded them at that moment. People’s views do change, but only later when they reflect in their quiet moments. True change, as the saying goes, comes from within. And even then the change may come very slowly, even imperceptibly, because people resist thinking that they were wrong.
What puzzles me is why people feel the need to belabor a point that they have already made. So I would urge discussants to realize that the best policy is to walk away after you have made your point. Let the other person have the last word. In their own mind, they may think they have ‘won’ the argument but they really haven’t.