Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.
Learning how to participate in on-line discussions
Published on September 3, 2004 By Draginol In Politics

Oye it gets old debating with people who are..well newbies to the on-line scene.

Here's a few brief tips:

A good debater will put an argument in the following form: <Assertion><Evidence>.

<It's hot outside today>, <my thermometer says it's 89 degrees.>

No one expects others to be robots. The assertion is almost always expected to be subjective (hence the debate).  Most things can't be proven. But if you ever hope to convince others of the validity of your point of view, your assertion, even if it is subjective, needs to be backed by evidence.

Evidence comes in many forms. Sometimes your own expertise is the evidence.  If a rocket scientists posts that faster than light travel is very unlikely in our life time, he doesn't need to link to anything. He's the expert as long as he can prove (or convince others) of his credentials.

Sometimes the evidence can be alluded to at which point the opponent can demand what we call "substantiation".  For example, if someone says "Statistically, boys are more likely than girls to succeed at suicide" the person is saying that he does have a source for this but doesn't have that source handy. If you really disagree with him, you can say "I don't believe that's true, do you have a source for that?"  But it's generally considered rude to make someone trot out every source if they are arguing that they had a source. Only if you are quite certain they're wrong should you demand sources -- after all, this is an on-line debate, we're not being paid.

Sometimes evidences comes in the form of third party analysis.  For example, if someone argues "Poverty is the leading cause of crime." they may include a link to some analysis.  You can't "prove" porverty is the leading cause of crime but you can link to a third party analsys that makes a good case of that.

Sometimes analysis isn't the way to go. You shouldn't use third party analsys on something that can be proven.  For intance, if you make an article asserting that Bush "lied" about WMD and your link is to a third party analsys that essentially just argues the same thing, that's worthless. Instead, you would link to quotes of Bush (well first you would have to argue that you're not saying that Bush wasn't just incorrect about his belief about WMD in Iraq but that he actually intentionally stated something he knew to be false which is the definition of lying) that would prove your contention.  Because someone else is likely to link back with a quote from the 9/11 Commission report that concludes Bush wasn't lying.

Often times you need to link to the actual goods. If you are arguing that the wealthiest 1% pay over a third of the federal taxes, you can assume you're going to be challenged on that. You should have a source handy. Or at the very least, have given this source in prior conversations (personal note: If I've linked to a source countless times I'm not going to keep linking to it every time I speak on the topic. If you're new to my blog don't start insisting on sources until you've read my other articles a bit, I'm not your personal researcher <g>).

Avoid name calling.  And avoid being thin skinned at the same time.  There is a big difference between someone attacking you and someone attacking your message. 

Keep an open mind.  My own opinions have dramatically changed over the years thank to on-line debating. People who put forth compelling arguments do make a difference. Make your arguments compelling, interesting, and reasonable. And have fun!

Comments (Page 1)
on Sep 03, 2004
Hear, hear.

Nice to see some suggested guidelines. Thanks Brad.

on Sep 03, 2004
There sure are a lot of master-debaters around here . . .
on Sep 03, 2004
"But it's generally considered rude to make someone trot out every source if they are arguing that they had a source. Only if you are quite certain they're wrong should you demand sources"
I'd disagree, if something is not obvious to both parties it should be cited.

" -- after all, this is an on-line debate, we're not being paid."
Yeah, but as you said if you don't make your argument 'compelling' you are wasting your time. At least for my self as soon as I see uncited stuff the I have doubts about, my estimation of the argument is significantly lowered.

I'd also add that one should familiarize oneself with logical fallacies ( One can easily tear apart most arguments based upon logical fallacies contained within.
on Sep 03, 2004
Is it possible to disagree without turning it into a debate?
on Sep 03, 2004
Here's a good site on how to define Fallacies .
on Sep 03, 2004
It's hot outside today, my thermometer says it's 89 degrees.

Sorry but my thermometer says 67 degrees, hehehe.
Another good article Draginol, guess I need to always keep stating evidence anytime I make an argument.

on Sep 03, 2004
On JU, youd most likely have a dozen people then claim that 89 degrees is NOT hot at all, and demand other information like relative humidity, dewpoint, barometer reading, sunshine index, wind speed and direction, and start a debate over whether or not your air conditioner is working properly, the relative meaning of the word "hot",(complete with dictionary definitions) the existance of god, the plight of the poor, the unfairness of taxes, and whether Bush or Kerry is most likely to fix the problem.

And at least one of our users complaining that it was hot because of the manipulation of electronic surveillance
on Sep 03, 2004
good article, brad. i'm learning ... slowly !.

vanessa/mig XX
on Sep 04, 2004
Huh? A good debator? Yes a good article but I sure disagree. Humbly and respectfully of course. "9/11 Commission report that concludes Bush wasn't lying." Do go back and review this as I followed everything in great detail. I could give you all links to everything I mentioned in my own posts instead I challenged everyone to go out and find this info that is there for anyone to find. I come on here and see your post which is a good insightful post met well. I will not discredit you at all well done. The fact is I have barely enough time to be in here posting my "opinions" and how I found out things.

Now I am not certain if I am one who you wrote this article for. If it was, well I still say the same things, I am a very honest person, never spouting crap, I speak the truth as I read it after conducting extensive research. Frankly I will not share links to where I go for all my info. This is my own way I found to locate data on anything. A program you could use to find this info is called Copernic Professional the best search tool ever made. My number one source for all my info is straight from the .GOV websites. Bush has lied many times over, or let me rephrase, he gave "misleading" information as does most all the Bush Admin especially Dick! Now he is up against the wall with his daughter being Gay.

Bush jr I am sure is a good guy with a good heart, but he is not the man for this country he has lead us down the wrong path totally. He has created the worst climate for our country and no one around the world likes him nor respects him. Tony Blair maybe. I am sorry if anyone was offended by my own personal comments I am here to have fun and enjoy the debates. Still I see your point, but do you see mine? It would be easy to give out links, but much better to challenge those who doubt what I say, and find the info to disprove me from a valid source????? Anyone? Please find one article from a legitimate source, no party related material, good solid evidence to disprove what I say. Thanks it has been fun. Now I am back on track working on my site. Peace!!!
on Sep 04, 2004
The most important thing about good debate is to carefully and openmindedly read what your opponent says.

The most frustrating thing about debating online is when your opponent decides that you're saying something completely different from what you actually intended to say. I tend to think this is usually unintentional, rather than deliberate straw-man abuse--and of course sometimes it's the writer's fault--but it's still annoying as hell when it happens.
on Sep 04, 2004
Let me put it this way, Desert Fox - rightly or wrongly, I don't think you'll be convincing people of your point of view any time soon.
on Sep 04, 2004
Good article, Draginol. It might also be worth pointing out that we are talking pretty colloquially here about debate. Really, what takes place on-line is more accurately a discussion or, as they are named here, "forums" (technically, the plural should be "fora" -- but let's not be picky!).

What's the difference?

Debates usually operate under a time constraint and are judged by a moderator(s) such that an actual winner can be picked. Debates take a dialectic form, breaking issues down into two sides -- usually affirming or negating a resolution. Discussions (Forums) tend to be more open ended and don't lend themselves to picking "winners." Discussions also allow multiple "sides" and perspectives on a broad issue (i.e. no resolution to affirm or negate). In academic debate circles we identify four charactersitics of argument in a debate:

1) Development -- through which arguments are advanced and supported.
2) Clash -- through which arguments are properly disputed
3) Extension -- through which arguments are defended against refutation
4) Perspective -- through which individual arguments are related to the larger question at hand.
(adapted from Robert James Branham, "Debate and Critical Analysis")

On-line discusions (qua "debating") at best get through the first three but rarely moves to the fourth. Again, this may be because there is not a "neutral" judge to whom you can explain why your arguments beat the other guy's. The "Perspective" aspect of debate is where you point out which of your arguments have been left unadressed, for example. It is also the place where you take a step back from the debate and summarize what both (all) sides have said and why your side has made the better, more comprehensive arguments.

To be fair, though, I think the debates (qua "discussions") here are more in keeping with "true debate" than the campaign debates we are likely to see in the next two months. In 1988 CBS News tried to rename the "debate" between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle a "joint appearance" for exactly this reason. The name, of course, never caught on. Why? Because debating is an important part of US history and tradition, especially in politics. We are loathe to implicitly criticize (by abandoning the term) our political process as lacking in debate. And yet, I think the resulting form of political debates that we are left with are really chilling. We have the pretense of debate without actually doing the work of debating. And we (usually guided by the media) decide the winner on some pretty arbitrary evaluations.

The point of your article, though, is a reminder to many of us how to debate issues on-line rather than get into a flame war or a big game of "I know you are but what am I?" I appreciate your advice and agree with all of your points. I would also like to see on-line debaters/discussants push themselves to go the extra step into some perspective arguments. Those include: acknowledging (and analysing) clash, conceding a particular line of argument when appropriate IN ADDITION TO claiming victory (however partial) for a line of argument when appropriate, and embracing an openness to learn from others (especially others whose views are different from your own).

Thanks for the advice and reminders. I'll do my best to follow them.

on Sep 05, 2004
IT works both ways. Drs. and research scientists are very analytical people yet they often are found arguing for liberal causes. And one might say that the religious right, who act solely on the word of "God" are acting on the analysis of someone else or being driven by something very much akin to propaganda. As an "agnostic" I would think that you may have read some books on the origin of the worlds religions. If someone from the right looked at the "data" they might come to the conclusion that an abortion is more fiscally responsible over the long run than welfare benefits to raise a child. I'm not saying I'm for abortion, but I am saying your average republican voter is no more motivated from data than your average democrat. The majority are in a specific party because their parents were (or because their spouse is) and the majority who have not followed in their parents footsteps are now independent of any party affiliation.

The analysis of the data "is" what is important though. Take for example the latest jobs or unemployment report. The numbers themselves are useless unless you analyze them. For example, are there fewer unemployed because many have dropped out of the job market; or is the jobs number keeping up with the number of people graduating from school and entering the job market?
So the problem exists on both sides. It's obvious that the economy is not as bad as the Democrats would like the voter to think, but in the same sentence it is not as healthy as the republicans claim. I personally believe we may have finally "come around the corner", but the adminstration has been saying this for over two years now. Neither party has been fiscally responsible at the federal level for some time and this truly needs to change. But the "facts" undelying the voting decision of a business owner are very different from those of say an unemployed laborer in Ohio or employee of a small business in Pennsylvania whose employer is not providing health insurance. And I personally know several small business owners who will benefit more from Kerry's health benefit credit than from the portion of their tax cut they might lose, as well as others who sit on the other side of the fence.

During election season people tend to quote specific references that are skewed towards the party they support. So a democrat might cite Michael Moore's manipulations of the facts while a republican will just as quickly cite the manipulations of Ann Coulter. No Michael Moore types in the republican party...that's total BS. There is no shortage of liars,truth benders, spin doctors, etc. in either party. Both parties are manupulating the facts. I've seen you cite the chamber of commerce, which is one of the largest republican lobbies, for your economic "facts" when in truth you would get a better unbiased analysis at the Feds website. The fact is people take a side for whatever reason benefits them and ignore the opposing facts pertaining to why that side may not benefit others. They also tend to just quote the party line on the issues that don't concern them, because the truth on those issues is irrelevent to them. We are in general a very selfish society who for the most part does not vote for the greater good of all.

Just as some argue that FOx is GOP TV others claim The NY Times is a liberal rag. I would agree the Times has a lot of liberal content since that is the market it caters to, but sensationalism sells media and most media outlets (including the Times and Fox)do not discriminate when it comes to trashing politicians no matter what party they are affiliated with. Unfortunately the media is all about 30 second spots so you don't get much in substance any more. They tend to just show what the politicians say and no longer disect what is said to seperate the spin from the facts. You no longer get thorough investigative reporting, but instead get the sorts of O'reilly and Matthews who tend to promote emotional abrasiveness as opposed to well presented reasoning of the facts. No spin zone my ass. They are fair and balanced though... they give you the spin and not the truth from both sides. It seems the media no longer wants to sell the truth to the viewer but would rather keep you guessing so you'll come back for more....A cliffhanger of sorts.

The truth is both parties are distorting the facts and in many cases spreading lies. And I would say it is being done just as much by one side as the other. So let's be fair.....If you want to mention you really need to balance the playing field with the swift boat veterans for truth. John O'neill is a product of the Nixon administration, who if you are old enough you saw debate Kerry on the Dick Cavett show so many moons ago. He was also on GHB's list of potential supreme court appointments.

So we know you have watched FoxNews, but have you seen Farenheit 9/11? Seems every republican politician I have seen trash it has said they did not even see it? It's obviously heavily biased, but does leave it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions. So if you take its content and mix it with the White House press releases on the same subject from the past couple of years you may come to the conclusion that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. After all no one is perfect, but you don't win elections or wars by revealing your mistakes and oulining your weaknesses.