When to know to stop arguing

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.


  1. Sam N says

    Wow, it’s at comment 100. I tapped out about 25 comments ago. It’s been a useful thread for me, and if the topic comes up again, I will feel prepared to much more concisely explain my view point. But I had been feeling I should step away for a while and allow my mind to more slowly integrate, accept various arguments.

  2. blf says

    This sort of thing — and Mano’s comment about the advice of Arnold Arons — reminds me of a story Dr Feynman told in Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman?. I cannot find my copy at the moment, so this is from memory, but basically: Los Alamos (during the Manhatten Project), at a (possibly the first) meeting Dr Feynman attended. Also attending were a host of famous physicists. The meeting, as Feynman described it (as I remember) went very simply: Around the table, each person offered made their points and offered their view. Then a brief discussion — and what amazed Feynman — with the participants discussing the various views, using notes or memory about what was said, with very little of the usual faffing-about and repetitions. A decision was (as I recall) reached (no recollection of the process used), and that was that. Meeting done.

    I’ve been too-often “stuck” in a meeting, or similar, where I wish people would define terms and state their case, etc., neither faffle-about nor move the goalposts, and basically, know when to stop. (And yes, I know that at times I’ve been “guilty” of each item I’ve mentioned.)

  3. kestrel says

    Years ago I used to post on this One Forum. There were these Two Guys who absolutely hated each other, and would go at each other hammer and tongs in the comments, and did so in many, many threads. Posts would end with long streams of these two people bashing away at each other, talking past each other until it drove one mad. It was one of the reasons I quit that forum started following this blog group: I just could not stand reading these two people ranting at each other to no purpose, even though the topic itself was interesting.

    And, in this group, there are posters I just simply skip over. I already know they have nothing useful, interesting, educational or fun to add. I am reading here to educate and entertain myself, and that sort of dialogue does not help out at all in those pursuits. Easy enough to scroll past.

    I am grateful that there are those who have to make the difficult decision to stop a thread when it reaches that point. Thank you for doing that. It makes reading this blog much more useful and relevant.

  4. says

    You may as well. That thread has reduced to nothing but that one guy showing more and more of his ass via palpably bad faith semantic screwing around while nobody, nobody else buys any of what he’s feebly selling.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    WMDKitty @4: It’s as though they learned that ‘strategy’ from creationists, climate deniers and anti-vaxxers. Good company!

  6. John Morales says

    Sorry, Mano. I know I abused your tolerance in that thread you did shut down.

    And I pushed it a bit on this most recent one.

    I’ll try to do better.

  7. Deepak Shetty says

    But but but something was wrong on the internet!
    Yeah I know I should have bowed out about 30 comments earlier but got sucked in again. I think Massimo Pigliucci had something like a self policied make no more than 5 comments on any thread.

  8. says

    @9 Crip Dyke

    I found it heartening because of just how much absolutely everyone was calling out the dishonest interlocutor for being exactly that and there wasn’t a shred of space for his bigotry and lies.

  9. A Lurker from Mexico says

    I kinda wanted to respond, since Holms addressed my one comment early on, but I figured the conversation was on the verge of just running in circles… and oh boy was I right. Still don’t know what is it that’s so concerning about a fraction of a percentage of a minority being allowed in the girls club ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  10. Holms says

    The problem I have is when people start lying about my point, my mind, my goals, my own thoughts… this is shit up with which I will not put. Also, Silentbob: read your article before citing it!

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    Holms @12: The problem I have is with people who make mountains out of molehills. You write a lot about transgender women in sports, to the point of obsession. For many (including me) that does raise bright red flags. It’s a variation on “that time a transgender person assaulted someone, therefore…something”.

    In the last year or two, I’ve gone from giving you the benefit of the doubt to feeling contempt for you.

    You feel hard done by? Suck it up.

  12. mnb0 says

    @12 Holms: funny that you a few weeks ago exactly did that with my answer to MS’ question. Thanks for so nicely demonstrating that CripD (@9) is right.

    I never cared about winning arguments, because internet is one of the least suitable media to change other people’s minds, specifically including mine. Say 10 years ago I enjoyed extensive quarreling (literally, I thought it great fun), but not anymore since three years or so. These days I usually try to summarize my views in one single comment. Most other comments don’t interest me enough to read completely; I read them diagonally, only the first few words or not at all.
    Everyone can feel free to skip my comments as well, I fully empathize..

  13. says

    Sounds like Holms is upset that something he considers to be a personal experience of himself is being ‘observed’ and ‘assigned’ by others. I wonder if that applies to any other issue at hand.

  14. Silentbob says

    @ 12 Holms

    Silentbob: read your article before citing it!

    Give me strength. Hey buddy, how about you learn to read the title of the very post you’re commenting on. I haven’t even commented in this thread so what is this shit?

    That link even included a picture to make it easy for you. If you can’t see that the red and dotted lines converge for strength exercises, I don’t know what to tell you.

    Except this: I’m not replying to you anymore so don’t bother moving the goalposts someplace else. You have un unhealthy obsession and Mano closed that thread for a reason. And it wasn’t so you could just start up again here. Drop it.

  15. Holms says

    If people reply to me, or talk about me, they are likely to get a reply. Especially if they pose a question to me.

    #14 Rob
    Your contempt would bother me if yours was an opinion I cared about, that’s not the problem at all. I will just respond to snark with snark, if the mood takes me. The problem arises when someone that is contemptuous of me takes that as an excuse to assume I am wrong, without even checking the reference I’ve provided and quoted. If I am wrong on the merits of what I’ve said, then I am wrong… but the reverse also applies, and in either case, that requires looking at the merits of what I’ve said. This could all have been settled one way or the other if people only bothered to look at the citations.

    The problem was actually caused by you skipping over people’s replies 🙁

    I addressed the issue with your citation in that thread.

  16. Rob Grigjanis says

    Holms @18:

    The problem arises when someone that is contemptuous of me takes that as an excuse to assume I am wrong

    You’ve got that arsebackwards, and your citations are irrelevant. The best possible spin on what you’ve written is that you are giving permission for trans women to consider themselves women outside of certain contexts. Even that best possible spin is utterly contemptible. And harmful.

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