Advice for virtual bystanders

Whenever I tire of online debate, I remind myself who it is all for – the silent bystanders. Although there are some admirable individuals, such as David Didau, who have changed their views on education due to social media debate, the vast majority do not. Instead, the main purpose of debate is to test ideas so those who are following the discussion and who have not committed publicly to a position may develop an informed view.

In this post, I want to point to some useful sources for the bystander. What should you look for? If you are following a debate on Twitter, how can you tell the good points from the tactical ploys?

One of the best sources to turn to is How to Disagree by Paul Graham. Graham classifies levels of disagreement from the least valid to the best and so his guide is a handy one to apply to a discussion you may be observing. At the bottom is simple name-calling and at the top is refuting the central point. I think we can all easily recognise both of these when we see them, although a variant on name calling – calling people far-right adjacent, for instance – does seem to slip under the radar of some. However, the intermediate levels are worth naming and can be difficult to spot. Far too many comments I receive, for instance, are related to tone. This is what Graham has to say:

“It matters much more whether the author is wrong or right than what his tone is. Especially since tone is so hard to judge. Someone who has a chip on their shoulder about some topic might be offended by a tone that to other readers seemed neutral.”

Quite. I have a Twitter troll who is one of the most impolite people I have interacted with on the medium and yet who often calls for a better standard of debate. I suspect they feel justified in doing so.

I would suggest the vast majority of one-off criticisms I attract on Twitter are either a response to my tone, a general call for more nuance, as if nuance is always a good thing, or a personal attack (ad hominem). Often, one or more are combined as in this example:

It’s actually quite rare for people to provide counterarguments and especially rare to provide contrary evidence.

Personal attacks are particularly pernicious because we take them personally and I worry whether they stop some people from airing their views. I have developed a pretty thick skin and so I am now immune to the frequent claims that I lack sufficient expertise to comment on this or that issue or the regular references to my PhD studies. Presumably, if I did lack expertise, it would cause me to make errors that my critics could gleefully highlight and that would be far more devastating to my argument that any personal slight. The fact that my critics rarely do this suggests they cannot find such errors and that this is the best they’ve got. Watch out for it.

Graham doesn’t outline all of the possible fallacies you may encounter and so another good source is This lists all the most common logical fallacies. I would highlight two of these – ambiguity and burden of proof. The examples given on are not specific to education, but you see these a great deal in the education debate.

Ambiguity or equivocation tends to take the form of questioning the definitions of words or suggesting an alternative interpretation of something. On Twitter, this is a strategy people often deploy to avoid admitting they are wrong and its ready availability, and the face-saving that people think they achieve by deploying it, is one of the reasons why so few people admit their errors.

Burden of proof means that someone who thinks a thing is a thing is the one who is required to provide evidence, not the one who doubts it. It doesn’t matter how the conversation starts. If someone suggests, “This thing is not a thing,” then it is not their duty that show why.

Recently, I have come across another, older source – Arthur Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) The Art of ControversyThis is written ironically and takes the perspective of giving advice on how to win arguments without consideration of the actual truth of the matter. Some of these are spookily prescient of social media debate and therefore demonstrate that human nature is more constant than we make think.

Take this example:

“If you observe that your opponent has taken up a line of argument which will end in your defeat, you must not allow him to carry it to its conclusion, but interrupt the course of the dispute in time, or break it off altogether, or lead him away from the subject, and bring him to others. In short, you must effect the trick which will be noticed later on, the mutatio controversiae.”

It’s well worth a read.


6 thoughts on “Advice for virtual bystanders

  1. Andrew Bomberry says:

    Provided things align (well-meaning, informed person critiquing your post and dialoguing as opposed to trolls), do you find the medium of Twitter challenging via its format and restrictions to engage in in-depth meaningful disagreement, or would you say it’s just a matter of adapting to the medium?

  2. ijstock says:

    You are referring to nothing other than critical thinking skills, whose less-noticed role is to improve tbe quality of our own arguments, not just to rip others’ to shreds.

  3. Rob Craigen says:

    Spot on Greg. Although you and I appear to align pretty closely on education we both know that we disagree on a number of other issues and (I think) we’ve succeeded in keeping such disagreement civil and respectful though sometimes things can get “hot”. I value friendships (my term) in which vigorous but respectful disagreement is possible.

    I particularly appreciate the Schopenhauer find. Looks like a gem. That quote would be an appropriate description of any number of television interviews these days. I hardly ever watch TV interviews except for those with high information content, or by the few hosts who’ve proven capable of letting a guest complete their arcs of reasoning even when not favoured by the host, or when my purpose in watching is simply to confirm what I suspect about the character of the host. I especially dislike the “gang up on the guest” format in which a hostile interview has multiple hosts haranguing a single guest.

  4. Ann in L.A. says:

    I ran a very active, online discussion board for a couple of years. What I noticed was that people often spawned arguments, not because of what they meant, but because of a lack of precision in the way they wrote a comment. When you aren’t face-to-face, and all you have are words on a screen, it is remarkably easy to for others to misconstrue what someone has written and take it the wrong way. Lots of inferring what was never implied. Writing carefully, and looking for possible misinterpretation is difficult, and comments thrown away casually on a discussion board are rarely written with much attention.

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