Arguing to Win

Arguing to Win January 24, 2018

Discussions in comment threads like the ones on this web site often turn into arguments. There are two objectives that participants in an argument can pursue: They can argue to learn, or they can argue to win. I think the majority of participants in arguments here, as in most comment threads, have the latter goal.

We are usually not arguing about facts here. We are arguing about opinions. The cube root of 12167 is 23. If you say it is 22 or 24, you are wrong. End of discussion. But if the argument is about the morality of abortion or contraception, there is no objectively correct answer, even though some moral objectivists would disagree with that. But that is just their opinion.

The results of arguments based on opinion is that the adversaries divide themselves into “tribes,” and then if people get angry, members of the opposing tribe are disparaged, insulted, and even demonized. This has worsened in the current political climate to the point where there is very little real sharing of ideas between progressives and conservatives, and no real attempt to understand opposing viewpoints.

A recent article in Scientific American magazine[i] describes studies that were performed to determine how this polarization has affected the way people think about such issues. The results show that arguing to win changes the way we think about an issue. It hardens opinions and reduces any receptivity to opposing ideas. In other words, it closes minds.

Some other interesting findings: Moral objectivists tend to be more closed-minded than moral relativists, and less willing to engage in any discussion where they will be confronted with opposing views. They are more “tribal.”

While it might seem obvious that arguing to learn is always better than arguing to win, consider the debate over climate change. The overwhelming majority of expert scientific opinion is that it is happening, and is at least partially caused by human actions. If deniers are allowed to participate in a collegial discussion and an interchange of opposing views, the result is that viewers are given the impression that both views are legitimate. That is what journalists call a “false balance,” where an extreme outlier opinion is given equal weight. A memorable example: When President George W. Bush said that creation and evolution should be taught side-by-side in science classes. He called it “teaching the controversy.” But of course, there is no controversy in science at all. The controversy is in religious believers’ heads and certainly does not deserve to be dignified by introducing it in science classes. There is nothing that can be learned from loonies and fanatics, so an argument to learn from them is a waste of time, and it awards them undeserved credibility.

Although religious believers tend to be moral objectivists, and secularists tend to be moral relativists, the increasing polarization of both sides has led to a hardening of positions to the point where very few, if any, opposing views are considered valid by either side. This Is not a healthy situation. Democratic governments require negotiation and compromise to function smoothly. Instead, our government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, with warring camps lobbing verbal grenades at their opponents. Everybody is enraged. It is not just government that is dysfunctional. Our entire society is tearing itself apart.

There have always been differing opinions in Congress, but in the past, a moderate majority worked together and problems were solved. Now, government is often gridlocked, and the people are losing confidence in its ability to function. Approval ratings of Congress have been steadily dropping in recent years. Frustration with government inaction can lead, as we have seen, to the rise of  demagogues who promise to magically fix all the problems. When they fail, or make things worse, people become even more disillusioned.

Where will it all end? We are in uncharted territory. Are we headed for a populist revolution or fascist dictatorship?

Don’t miss the next episode in this comedy/tragedy. It might give you a giggle…or something much worse.


[i] Scientific American, February 2018, p. 50 “The Tribalism of Truth”


Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design.  He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects.  His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two.  Many of his writings are posted on his web site,  You can contact him at

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