How to avoid pointless debates on Twitter

I have been on Twitter since 2012. In the early years, I felt it was my duty to try to engage with anyone who wanted a discussion. I thought that this would help me to form a more balanced perspective. To be fair, sometimes it did and sometimes it still does. This is when disagreement reaches the higher levels of Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement, when those involved in the discussion are genuinely trying to figure something out. As Graham suggests, “You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.”

Unfortunately, too many people are mean. If anyone insults you, I suggest blocking them. I didn’t block anyone in my first few years, but if someone calls me a name then they are now gone from my timeline immediately.

Most people don’t just hurl insults around. Instead, they rely on bad arguments. The whole set of logical fallacies are often displayed in Twitter debates, but there are two key things to remember. Firstly, most people will never concede that they are wrong and, secondly, some people start an argument without having the intellectual grunt to finish it.

Once you understand these points, two kinds of bad argument naturally flow. The first is to start arguing about definitions and the best way to explain this is with an example. I recently wrote a piece pointing out that a maths education professor had argued against a focus on teaching maths facts, such as that 5 x 5 = 25, and that she had also argued against timed tests. I then pointed to an article the professor co-authored that favourably referenced a paper where students with learning difficulties are taught maths facts with the aid of speeded practice.

In the real world, this is a direct contradiction. On Twitter, however, there is infinite scope for trying to tease out differences between ‘timed tests’ and ‘speeded practice’ – some of this even made it into the blog comments. It seems it is preferable to twist yourself up into semantic knots than to consider reevaluating your world view. My advice for any argument that descends into this kind of stuff is to mute the argument. If an individual continually engages in arguing about definitions then I also recommend muting that individual.

The surest sign that someone is out of their depth is that they will stop making any kind of case and suggest you read something. Often, this is a book that you don’t own. Nevertheless, even if it is an article that is available on line, why would you read it? Individuals who make such a gambit rarely explain what this piece can add to the argument. Instead, they hope to divert you down a rabbit hole and avoid having to defend their views themselves.

Do not be shamed by the suggestion that it is anti-intellectual to refuse to read the link. There is a lot to read in this world and much of it is dross. If someone wants you to spend your time reading something then the least they can do is explain exactly why you should read it and exactly what parts of your argument it refutes. Again, if people indulge in this practice then I suggest you mute them. Nothing good is likely to come of it.

But you may be concerned. How will I convince people if I don’t engage with them?

As I have suggested before, you are highly unlikely to ever convince someone you are arguing with on Twitter. Instead, the debate is for the benefit of those silent onlookers who can see both sides of an argument and then make up their own minds. Once the debate descends into one about definitions or ‘you should read x’ then nobody is going to benefit from it being extended. Cut your losses. Find someone else to talk to or focus on expounding your own ideas as clearly as possible on a blog.


4 thoughts on “How to avoid pointless debates on Twitter

  1. While I understand your frustrations about definitions most arguments seem to rest on them. What are we really talking about? What did they/you/me mean? Even your example shows that. Speed practice is likely synonymous with timed tests but the only way to be certain would be to see the questions which isn’t possible. Finally if your not arguing about a definition you have already assumed you have the correct understanding. Wether you are correct or not this is clearly going to bottleneck the discussion. I really can’t see how you can reason about most things without engaging in definitions.

    1. I would agree there can be useful discussions to clarify definitions. But that is often obviously not what going on. In the case of speeded practice and timed tests you have to really be trying to find a meaningful distinction. There is clearly a problem for Boaler and those that like her work. If nothing else she had all the details Greg and others had to dig up but failed to mention the obvious issues.
      Not dealing with an obvious issue is the biggest flag of bs. For that alone we can dismiss Boaler’s work until it does.

  2. Totally with Greg on this. A key point is to keep in mind the audience and explain for them why you are leaving the discussion. You don’t have to explain how you are leaving, block or mute or just no longer responding. People see a block as an insult. Even if it is accurate you don’t need to say it.

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