It seems to always be election season, and that pushes many of us into heated political conversations. Or maybe the arguments are about public policy (how to address climate change or infrastructure improvements). Or science education (evolution or sex ed in schools). Or religion (end times or church scandals).
Suppose you jump into such an argument. Will you get anywhere? What most frustrates me is not being able to say “I told you so” after the evidence is in. When things play out like I said they would—whether ten days have passed or ten years—I never even get the minimal satisfaction of hearing my antagonist admit that they were wrong. They adapt to (or ignore) the new data without going through that unpleasant I-was-wrong phase.
It’s not about me. It’s not about how smart I am for being correct. I’d just like for my antagonist to learn something, creating a small hope that our argument was worthwhile, and they will be less likely to make this kind of mistake again.
Let me add two hopefully obvious clarifications. First, sometimes the antagonist does indeed admit their error (it’s just that this is rare). Second, this goes both ways, and it might be me eating the humble pie and learning the lesson.
I’m guessing you’ve been in similar situations.
Commit to a public declaration
So how can we improve our chances of eventual satisfaction? Let’s say that the topic is rabbit overpopulation, and your antagonist is in favor of the upcoming ballot initiative to use mutant weasels to control the rabbit problem.
You list the problems with this approach but your friend disagrees. Then the initiative passes, the weasels are released, and the environmental catastrophe (and untouched rabbit population) plays out like you predicted. When you confront your friend with this, he agrees that it was a disastrous project (or maybe not) but denies specifics of both his prior position and your prediction.
The answer is for you to write a shared Public Declaration. This is a short statement summarizing the facts that clearly states what one of you think will or won’t happen and the time frame. It should be unambiguous so that an objective third party could determine who was right. (Of course, you could both be partly right. Or partly wrong.)
Let’s go back to the rabbit overpopulation argument and imagine that it ended with your writing this:
Sigmund Freud and I disagree on the best approach to the rabbit overpopulation problem. Sigmund advocates the mutant weasels proposal in Initiative 7 on the November, 2021 ballot. I think it will be a terrible idea.
Prediction: I predict that the weasels will (1) have little impact on the rabbit population and (2) have the side effect of endangering the populations of other animals like birds. This is the position of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has come out against Initiative 7. Their “Weasels Primeval” white paper goes into more specifics, and it represents my position.
Test: If the proposal is implemented, check with the NRDC one year afterwards to see if things turned out as predicted.
(signed) Friedrich Nietzsche
What does this do?
Here’s what’s good about this statement.
- It’s specific about the claim: you referred to Initiative 7 on the November ballot, and your prediction is specific. There’s no need to also summarize your opponent’s position because he simply thinks that you’re wrong.
- It’s clear on the time frame: judgment day is “one year after the proposal has been implemented.”
- It defines an objective test: use the NRDC’s analysis after the proposal has had time to work. This could be a weakness of this public declaration if the NRDC is seen as biased. Another option might be to predict an editorial confirming your position. It works as long as your opponent agrees on the test. It’s tempting to imagine that “everyone” on this future date will just know who was right, but the lack of a clear test with specific measurements would weaken such a statement.
- It’s a shared statement. This project works best when you work on it and sign it together. It shouldn’t matter which party writes it.
- Recording your position for posterity is satisfying, which might give more closure than just walking away frustrated and angry.
Be as specific as possible. Things that are clear and obvious in your mind now could be forgotten by the time the prediction must be evaluated. (Contrast this with the vague and unspecific claims made by biblical prophecies.) Imagine the future judgment day and give yourself a clear and unambiguous statement to work with.
By writing the statement together, each party should be proud, rather than reluctant, to sign and agree to it. If the writing of the statement is difficult, that’s a clue that you don’t understand each other’s positions correctly. If you thoroughly understand your opponent’s position, you should be able to painlessly state it.
This is an important aside, because arguing against not-your-opponent’s-argument is a common and usually inadvertent waste of time. The solution is for you to correctly state their position, and vice versa. This has been formalized as Rapoport’s Rule of debate, the most important step of which is to state your opponent’s position to their complete satisfaction.
Note how this sidesteps the frequent debate impasse of, “No, it isn’t!” and “Yes, it is!” When you state your opponent’s position, you are no longer equals. They are the final judge of their position, and if they say you got it wrong, then you got it wrong. Get more information and try again. Arguments dissolve away once the combatants realize they have been arguing past each other, and the sooner you attempt to restate your opponent’s position, the better.
Let’s assume that misunderstandings have been resolved, there still is an important difference of opinion, and you’ve written your summary of the issues.
How can someone forget so important a position?
While you’re arguing with someone, the argument and your position are very, very clear in your mind. (Again, let’s assume you’re beyond the mutual restatement of positions.)
While the declaration could prevent your antagonist from lying about their former position once it’s been proven wrong, I think simple forgetfulness is the bigger issue. The Challenger memory experiment makes clear the difference between vivid and accurate memories—just because you have a clear memory of a past incident doesn’t mean that memory is correct.
The idea could play out in different ways. This could be as casual as notes on the back of a napkin or drinks coaster. It could wind up on a Facebook post (use a consistent phrase, like “public declaration,” so that you can search for it on judgment day). Or maybe there’s a single site, PublicDeclarations.com, that could give a simple template for those who want to boldly plant their flag.
This could work for several kinds of claims.
- If-then claims such as, “If same-sex marriage is legalized in the U.S., then X will happen” or “If Joe Biden is elected, then X will happen.”
- An even simpler claim is, “X will happen,” such as the predictions about the end of the world by John Hagee, Hal Lindsey, and Harold Camping. Another example: “Biologists will realize that evolution doesn’t explain life.” (More on fundamentalists’ decades-long claim that evolution will collapse any day now here.)
Since arguments usually distill down to a simple “Yes, it will” versus “No, it won’t” dichotomy, public declarations could have wide applicability.
What do you think?
welcoming the young, showing sympathy for the suffering,
taking pleasure in each other’s good fortune.
We are here for a brief time.
We would like our stay to mean something.
Do the right thing.
– Garrison Keillor
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 10/17/16.)
Image credit:, flickr, CC