The most persuasive writing neutrally surveys both sides of an argument


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Robert_Wiblin

A piece of advice for people posting here and elsewhere: what you write will be more convincing and higher quality if you set out to survey the considerations on both sides of a disagreement.

This is because readers will be able to weigh the arguments on either side against one another in a single place. It also means you yourself will have to consider a wider range of angles in reaching your conclusion, rather than making a one-sided search for arguments in favour of whatever you believe at the start.

A example of the problem with the alternative is Peter Hurford's post on 'EA Falling into a Meta-Trap' which is one of the most up-voted posts ever written here. I don't mean to pick on Peter in particular because most people naturally write 'the case for conclusion X', including me. Fortunately, as Peter is one of the most popular EA writers I don't feel like a jerk using him as an example.

Conveniently I disagree with Peter's conclusion and believe that EA has been, and is likely to continue, to under-invest in meta-charity. I don't intend to convince you that I'm right about that here - instead simply imagine the voice in my head as I'm reading that post:

  1. Here are some arguments against spending too much on meta-charity.
  2. Hmmmm, I've already heard most of these considerations before, but think they face very strong considerations on the other side.
  3. Oh, the blog post ended without considering the overall weight of the arguments on either side.
  4. And it didn't try to measure what fraction of our resources go to meta-charity, what fraction might go to meta-charity in the future, and what would be an appropriate fraction all things considered. It's completely consistent with everything in this post that the primary risk is actually spending too little.

Unfortunately, this means I didn't update my views that much in either direction, despite it being a very important issue to me. Which is a shame, because everything Peter wrote was sound in and of itself.

Here's an alternative structure for a post:

  1. Currently many people believe something like X (including me).
  2. Here are the best arguments that people offer in favour of that belief.
  3. Here are the best arguments / counter-arguments I can think of pointing in the other direction.
  4. Overall I think points A, B and C should be given most weight, which means my overall judgement is now Y.
If the goal is to help others form sound views, putting all of this in one place makes the whole more than a sum of its parts. Everyone will feel like they have been heard so they are more open to updating in one direction or another.

Furthermore, if you write this way you may well change your mind in the process. Phillip Tetlock's research has found that people who use something like this approach, instead of the 'write a strong case for conclusion X', produce more accurate forecasts about the future.

What are the best arguments against writing in this way?
  • It's more boring to read because you usually won't offer a strident view that people disagree with, and it takes longer to read.
  • It's at least twice as much work.
  • Commenters will offer the counter-considerations anyway.
These are true to some extent, but I think they are outweighed by the benefits.

Though it's more boring and creates less emotional investment, that's a pro as far as getting people to form accurate beliefs. Our goal here isn't primarily our own entertainment. People who care and make decisions based on a question will usually still read a comprehensive post about it. However, if your goal is just entertainment and attention, then you should aim to write things that are as biased and inaccurate as possible.

Posts like this take twice as long to write, but only because they contain twice as much information, in a package that makes that information more than twice as valuable. You are saving someone else the hassle of writing a response with everything you left out.

Commenters will often provide counterarguments if you don't. However, this is less satisfactory than putting them in the original post. Firstly, many readers will not dig into comments and will only read the original post, causing them to get a biased view. Secondly, comment threads tend to rapidly become messy and hard for observers, and even participants, to follow. They rarely extend to more than 2 responses from each side so we want each one to count. Thirdly, if you have already provided the main considerations in favour and against something in the original post, then the comments jump to how they should be weighed against one another, which is more interesting and typically the real source of disagreement.

In conclusion, anyone who makes the extra effort to write up an all-things-considered judgement gets an up-vote from me.

Update: People are mostly only taking issue with whether single-sided posts are more persuasive. I disagree, at least for myself. But if single-sided posts are more persuasive, that strengthens the argument for not using them here. Being convincing in the service of less reliable views is no virtue.