Stabbing Your Own Soldiers In The Back

Politics is an extension of war by other means.  Arguments are soldiers.  Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back providing aid and comfort to the enemy.”

  - Eliezer Yudkowsky, Politics is the Mind-Killer

So – someone just made a disturbingly inane argument that seems to support your opinion, but which is just utterly wrong.

Now what?

Do you ignore it? Support it, and hope nobody notices the critical flaw? Criticize it, at a risk of alienating a fellow supporter?

Ding ding ding! You’ve got to criticize it. Truth is the highest calling of the critical thinker. You’ll be doing your fellow activist a great favor in the long term by correcting him/her. And besides, how can you possibly maintain a high standard of personal intellectual integrity if you fail to fight back against illogic and garbage reasoning when it pops up right there in your midst? Insert your own flowery verse here. We all know what the right answer is.

But how often do we actually step in and say, “No, I’m sorry, but I don’t think your conclusion follows from that particular argument”? I hardly do it at all. Smile and nod; move on. It’s just easier. I can always be a rationality vigilante on the internet, right? That’s safer. I don’t have to see anyone frown. Nobody can raise his or her voice at me. The worst anyone can do is type a nasty word at me with the shift key held down.


There’s a real danger, here.  Bad arguments inoculate against good ones. When you let a non sequitur float off into the discourse nether unchallenged, you’re taking the risk that someone impressionable is going to hear it and think “Well, that’s a load of rubbish. Is that the best those people can do?” It’s all the worse when you’re trying to defend an unpopular position – godlessness, say. And consider that there’s a selection effect at play – if you’re actually hearing someone making a bad argument, there’s a good chance that he or she is the type of person who tends to be vocal about the position.

We’ve all got to be part of the effort to hone our arguments. And there are two parts to this:

First: If you hear a poor argument, call it out. Take a social hit for the team. You’re doing us all a service.

Second: If someone else takes issue with your argument, don’t punish them. Whether you agree with their assessment or not, thank them for being willing to raise the issue. Consider the criticism with an open mind. One of the most impressive traits a person can possibly have is the ability to be gracefully wrong.


This is a guest post by Katie Hartman. She is part of the team putting together the Skepticon convention next week. If you’d like to make a donation to the largest free skeptic conference in the nation held in Springfield, Missouri, you can do so here. We appreciate your support!

About Lauren Lane

Lauren Lane is the co-founder of Skepticon, the Midwest's largest skeptic student-run conference and remains a lead organizer today. She has not one, but TWO fancy art degrees and is not afraid to use them.

  • Philo Vaihinger

    If you are a partisan propagandist you support all arguments, even trash, for your side.

    That’s what partisans do on behalf of all parties and political movements, all over the web.

    Often, that’s related to the phenomenon of “spin,” which involves people “framing” events or issues in ways favorable to their own cause, no matter how great the distortion, shocking the fallacy, or egregious the lie.

    Yes, it’s pretty disgusting, a lot of the time.

    All the more so if you aren’t a full-frontal party-liner so that often the distortion, deception, outright lie, or fallacious argumentation favors some part of the agenda of your party that you don’t even approve.

    On the other hand, if you are writing personal commentary then I suppose you just call them as you see them.

    And that’s what I do at my blog.

    And that may partially explain why I have no readers.


  • Joe Mama

    Hate the argument not the speaker.

  • jdm8

    The bandwagon mentality doesn’t seem to appreciate correction but I’d much rather seek truth over the bandwagon.

  • Pawel Samson

    I hate that partisan mentality.  Like, if I correct someone who says Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet then I’m a radical leftist, but if I correct someone who says George Bush the First didn’t know what a supermarket checkout scanner was, then I’m a right-wing apologist.

  • mharbour

    Yup. I’ve been pilloried a few times for pointing out weaknesses in evidence presented for conclusions I agree with.  

  • George Wiman

    It is no disservice to me to point out weaknesses in my arguments. It’s like saying; “There’s a weakness in your armor – better fix it!”

  • Andrew Hall

    I follow the practice of praising whatever strengths there are in the argument and then gently point out the fallacies.

  • Nordog6561

    I don’t know who Yudkowsky is, but I can’t help wondering if the text quoted from his book represents his thinking, or is a type of thinking he rejects but is presenting as an example of thinking in the politically active world.

  • Sindigo

    You may get some more readers if you plug it. Link?

  • Sindigo

    Being wrong, and being able to admit being wrong is a fine quality. When I get corrected (which is often) I try and think of it as being wrong about one less thing and right about one more.

  • Eric

    He’s explaining the instincts that humans have about politics, not endorsing the opinions. Honestly, his writing on politics is some of the best I’ve read, as little time as he’s spent on it. Specifically, the three part series on voting is very good (like, “made me change my mind about who to vote for” good):

  • Octoberfurst

    I have had that happen too. People are so quick to think you are with the other side if you point out that something they said against a common adversary is wrong. I always have to say, “No, no I am not siding with him/her. I am just saying that what you just said was incorrect.”  >sigh<

  • The Other Weirdo

     Many people defend the weaknesses in their armour as though it were some great virtue, but a single arrow can end an entire argument. Permanently.

  • Nordog6561

    Thanks Eric.

  • Eric

    No problem. (Also, the original quote isn’t from a book it’s from an online article, linked at the end of the quote. Also worth a read.)

  • trivialknot

    Yudkowsky is part of the Less Wrong community, the Singularity Institute, and the author of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.  He is definitely opposed to the “arguments as soldiers” attitude.

  • Nordog6561

    I figured as much, but it was nice to have you and Eric comment on the point.

  • The Other Weirdo

     Which is a special sort of fallacy all of its own.

  • Baal

    I’m  a terrible grouper since I do hold people to their stated views and don’t give folks a pass based on in-group status.  It’s extremely normal (if unfortunate) for humans to think that folks who share their identity features are right about everything.  This applies to everyone regardless of political identity.  I make it a point to say that since folks who are otherwise working on the right side (less harm) of issues forget it too.

  • Baal

     I just read the articles.  He’s mostly right (and rarely wrong, he specializes in that).  Given the horrible abuses of power the (R) do (mostly via a goal of looting the bottom 75% cf charts of wealth growth in the US since 1980 vs same for Germany) it’s not moral to vote for them.

    The better answer is not to skip voting for the lizard king but rather to vote the lizard king but also seek other avenues to fixing the system.  One commentor pointed out the use of lobbying once the pol is in office.  Other levers include various small scale public lobbying (FB, Blogging, yard signs, browbeating friends and neighbors), pushing the formal media (Maddow does this by example and sometimes verbally as well -”come on guys, see you can cover this”), making media events (occupy) or, and maybe the most importantly, show up and run for local offices of all types.  The authoritarians love to do do that last item, deny them that chance.

    tl;dr – political power comes from more than voting for 1 pres or another.  Stop skimping efforts that you can do as a person (other than voting).

  • amycas

     But, but, but Al Gored DID claim to have invented the internet and Bush the First didn’t know what a supermarket checkout scanner was!….now, am a radical leftist or a right-wing apologist??

  • Randomfactor

    Bad arguments are soldiers whose aim is so bad they cause friendly fire to your side.

  • Pawel Samson
  • Aaron Scoggin

    Oh really? So if my soldiers wander off and pillage a civilian town and murder all the children, I need to support that? Hell no! You toss those soldiers aside and keep the good ones.

  • Eric

    Well sure there are other things you can do, and you may or may not think it moral to vote for one side, but neither of those imply that you should avoid voting for the candidate who most matches your views just to keep the major party that you dislike the most out of office.

    tl;dr Just because you can do other things too doesn’t mean you’re justified in voting for a lizard.

  • Foster

    Not sure what you mean, OW.  Please elaborate.  :-)

  • Overthis

    Once upon a time he was also a little shitweasel. See the discussion in this link for just one example:

    Wonder if he still is?

  • Goldenmane

    If we’re of a position we have reached due to honest inquiry, then surely we cannot allow misapprehension and misrepresentation of that position to go unchallenged, aven if it is propagated by those allegedly ‘on our side’.

  • Deven Kale

    “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

  • amycas

     Damn, now I have to rethink everything…or…snopes is in on it!