Winning Arguments (Unfairly)

The following notes are from a 1982 book by Daniel Cohen called “Re:thinking: How to Succeed by Learning How to Think.” (Bookfinder link – this book is WAY old, people!) It struck me at the time I read it, sometime in the mid-90’s, as a coherent summary of the mind literature extant in 1982 for a mainstream audience, along with basic primers on logical fallacies and the like.

It’s rather interesting to read notes on a book that predates the computer and internet revolutions. In many ways, the brain’s hardware and software hasn’t changed all that much, and his advice and tips, particularly on creativity, ideas, and handling “information overload,” echo through lots of the “25 Ways to do/be/have X” posts the blogosphere is littered with.

What struck me the most from my notes were the following tips on arguing and how to unfairly win arguments. Cohen spent a bit of time in his book dealing with logical fallacies and illustrating how to break out of one’s default thinking habits. Arguing as a way to change other’s thinking habits never work, Cohen says; he characterizes them as street fights and asks the reader to consider the following before starting an argument:

  • I’m not going to change anyone’s mind and I’m probably not going to learn anything.
  • Can I walk away from this?
  • If I win, what will I win and what do I stand to lose?
  • If I lose, what do I lose and what do I stand to gain?
  • Do I know what we are really arguing about?

But if you find yourself in an argument, Cohen provides a handy checklist of ways to unfairly win an argument–or, if you’d rather, how others may pull these gambits on you. I’m unfamiliar with classic debating strategies so these may be old-hat, but I found it quite interesting to review in this political season, as the Reps, Dems, and Fox News pull these tricks in press releases, media statements, chatter-TV, and the like.

  • Appear calm. Decry the opposition for his “emotionalism.”
  • Well-directed show of anger can be effective as it puts the opposition on the defensive.
  • Be sure of facts if the opposition knows something about the subject; stick to generalities and attack the opposition on trivial errors.
  • Ask the opposition to cite sources–and then discredit the sources.
  • Ask the opposition to “define their terms” and then attack the definitions.
  • All-or-nothing: extend the opposition’s point to the logical (but absurd) extreme.
  • Claim the opposition has misstated your case, which puts him on the defensive.
  • If you’re trapped in a misstatement, claim your words have been taken out of context.
  • Deny inconsistency. Bring your previous statements in line with what you’ve just said.
  • Distract the opposition with a side issue.
  • Damn the alternatives.
  • Justify your position by insisting it’s necessary because of the evil deeds of the opposition.
  • Personal attack. “I never argue with such people.”
  • Be gracious, as it makes a good impression on the audience.
  • A tie is better than a loss. “You and I are basically in agreement.”
  • Declare the question not yet settled and that more investigation/thought/time is needed.

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Write what you feel

Advice for the creative writer, yes. But the student? My manager is taking a summer class and his teacher told the class, "Don't write down what I say. Write down what you feel about what I say." Interesting advice for a note-taker who's thinking about regurgitating the content for the next test. My reporting background feeds into my natural tendencies to observe and notate, to somehow duplicate what I'm reading or listening to in class; it's distancing. Paraphrasing what the teacher says during a lecture is a good idea, but the cognitive load of paraphrasing something said a minute ago in my own words as new content is also streaming in is too much for me.

But I like the idea of recording my reactions in class, even if they're baffled. It's fast, it's in the moment, it hooks me. Engage me on the emotional level, and I'm halfway there. That said, I can see this strategy applying more to issues-oriented topics than information retrieval algorithms. But it's a new tool I definitely want to try out this fall.

Links 18-Jul-08


  1. Even a tech writer learns to use dashed lines for impromptu diagrams, but it takes a designer to delineate more of its uses. (I probably got this link from the essential xblog, which is a must-read in my RSS library.)
  2. Convenience and impermanence. But look at the size of that keyboard! And her happy smile! This is one of the issues that’s ruefully discussed in some of my SILS classes, particularly the digital archiving and electronic records courses. It’s become one of those burdens we’ve chosen to shoulder, I think, without really examining why we do it in the first place. Or rather, we propose lots of solutions as we try to understand the problem, which is likely not a technological one at all.
  3. I love homilies and rules of thumb, and this Zhurnaly page collects a great set from Physicist David Stearn. It traverses the small (write yourself notes and index them) to the large (“Being a physicist is a great privilege. Be worthy of it. Most of humanity spends its life doing boring repetitive tasks.”). Here’s a  slightly different version by Stern from his web page.
  4. Desktop wallpaper-sized images of overstuffed bookshelves.
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