A Defense of Erisology

[Note: This is very long and navel gazing. Those who read it all through to the end have my deepest gratitude and admiration.]

Part 0 of 3: What happened

A month ago[1] an article called ‘Erisology’: The New Science of How to Argue—Constructively was published by The Atlantic. It was written by Jesse Singal, a sympathetic journalist who had asked me some questions about erisology and wondered if I had any objections to an article. I didn’t.

It told a story of how social media and the simultaneous creation of narrow, insular contexts and destruction of hard boundaries between them contributes to an increasingly confused cultural environment that traditional conceptions of debate and argumentation no longer describe all that well.

I had a few minor quibbles with how things were presented but nothing all too serious. I tweeted this:


However, after a day or two it became clear that not everyone liked the idea, or perhaps, liked what they thought the idea represented. The article turned out to be open to multiple interpretations, including that I (and Singal supposedly) thought that studying argumentation and disagreement was somehow novel, and that I was making a from my point of view serious, careful and considered (but actually naive and pig-ignorant) suggestion to academics to start doing so, in essence telling them what to do, implying I know their areas of expertise better. Snark and mockery ensued from some philosophers and rhetoricians on Twitter and elsewhere.

I wasn’t happy, because that wasn’t how I meant any of this. But I guess I did bring it on myself. I was careless. The mess stems partly from my blog’s growth over the years necessitating a change in how I talk about things, a change I haven’t implemented because I didn’t realize I needed to. I’ll get to that.

Before I go on I should point out that I’ve recieved a lot of positive feedback as well and a good number of people have reached out to me to share their interesting and encouraging thoughts. Overall this has been a good thing.

However, I feel I need to address the criticism. Maybe I shouldn’t care so much. I’m almost certain I shouldn’t care enough to write a ~7500 word article defending myself. Yet here we are. I guess I care because what happened hit right at one of my biggest insecurities: I’m a multidilletante. It’s central to my identity. Even the pre-designed M.Sc engineering program I once chose to enroll in was sold as “a bit of everything”.

Since my knowledge is broad and relatively shallow what I say about anything is going to be unimpressive to an expert on that thing. I’ve already written about how important it is to recognize and remember that. I’m self-conscious about it and do what I can to avoid falling into that trap. That’s why the appearance, justified or not, of oblivious, gung-ho arrogance bothers me.

I haven’t been seeking out all of the critical commentary for the same reason I don’t pour hot sauce into my eyes, but I’ve seen, for example, a comment about how I should really check out Aristotle, who invented all this 2000 years ago.

Yes, maybe I should check out this “Aristotle” guy. Pretty obscure, I guess, as I’ve never come across a mention of him in any books and never ever heard of him from any of my history of ideas or philosophy professors. Maybe it would have helped to know of him when I wrote that undergraduate essay on the Unmoved Mover as the ultimate final cause all those years ago. It’s a miracle I got a good grade.


Ok, so I’m a little pissed. But I’ll be serious from now on.

I re-read the article with more of a critical eye and this time I did notice a bunch of problems and realized what sort of impression one could get. The first time what didn’t quite fit was largely invisible to me as I automatically discarded it as unimportant noise, and I filled in all the blanks (there are a lot of blanks in almost all texts, certainly all short descriptions of something complicated like this) with what I knew I meant.

This time I deliberately focused on the stuff I’d previously glossed over and underinterpreted and I filled in the same blanks differently. And yes, it could come off as if I have no idea that argumentation theory, informal logic, rhetoric or even goddamned philosophy don’t exist.

That isn’t true though. It is true that I don’t know anywhere near as much about them as experts do, and that may lead them to think I shouldn’t have the gall to express opinions on how well they’re doing their job on how they should be doing it. That’s perfectly understandable, to a point. However, I have some explanations and objections I’ll going to give in this article. It boils down to this: I didn’t exactly mean that, even though I agree it could appear as if I did. And to the extent and in the sense I do mean it, I think I’m right.

In summary

This grew long, as my articles are wont to do. Here’s a tl:dr explaining the main thrust, which is in no way a valid substitute for the whole:

The “erisology” concept started out as a not particularly serious framing device for my blogging. I had no real intention of it living up to academic standards, and the ‘academic discipline’ bit was for flavour—taken from a now mothballed fiction project. But people took me seriously. I liked it and I got pulled into it. I could have been more on my guard against that.

Still, I think there’s real value to the idea, but not so much according to the particular standards academia use (that’s actually part of whatever novelty the idea holds). I had and still have another context — and another notion of “field” — in mind. It’s a matter of reconceptualization, not invention.

There are aspects of the Atlantic article that gives a bad impression. The headline is particularly misleading. The unavoidable simplifications also open up for uncharitable interpretations, and treating “decoupling” as always and unambiguously correct is also likely to set some readers off.

The criticism in the article from a political science professor is understandable given a particular interpretation and set of background beliefs, but I don’t think those should be taken for granted and I don’t think her story explains enough.

Part 1 of 3: Where I’m coming from and where I went wrong

Explaining how the concept came about might show why I’ve spoken about it the way I have and why the critical reactions surprised me. Clearly I came at this from a different angle than they did. Why and how?

I started to blog because I felt understimulated at work and was itching to do something creative, and preferably put my unfocused knowledge base to use. How best to do that? Could there be an upside to the lack of cohesiveness? Something to capitalize on? I thought it might mean extra sensitivity to the differences and similarities between bodies of knowledge and systems of belief.

I combined this between-fields-and-cross-paradigm approach with a long-standing interest in the psychological differences between people, a perhaps unhealthy habit of reading far too many online discussions, and a profound frustration and sadness at the lack of clarity, charity and genuine understanding we see in public discourse.

Some of this fit perfectly into an existing, young, online school of thought — the rationalist community, which is also disliked by some for similar reasons the Atlantic article was. Their existence convinced me there was a context I could fit into, even though my primary concerns and interests are a little different.

I needed a theme for this creative project, a “hook” of some sort. The common factor of what I brought to the table became “disagreement”, broadly construed as the nature, causes and consequences of differences in belief and opinion.

I wanted to approach it from a different angle than what I was used to seeing: not as a process but as a phenomenon, a result of the fact that we construct different models of reality in our heads and negotiating these differences is a lot more complicated than we think. It often involves many different disagreements at varying levels of abstraction and depth and in order to fully understand them we need to communicate many things at once, some of which we’re not quite aware of. We can’t do this because communication is too slow and linear. To me it suggests being less concerned about who’s right and more about exactly how opinons differ and why.

The seemingly unremarkable fact that people’s minds are different from each other is endlessly fascinating to me, and I think our beliefs — abstract and general ones at least — are often different enough to be subject to a sort of Kuhnian incommensurability. The low bandwidth of verbal (and especially written) communication between them makes well-posed disagreement about the truth of facts and the straight priority of values the exception rather than the rule when it comes to complex disagreements. And yes, this is getting a lot more important now in the internet era.

I consider this distinct from argumentation as normally understood, but I haven’t been super clear on that and maybe you’d need to read many thousands of my words for that to come through. Mea culpa.

Calling that particular approach a “field” and giving it a made-up name started out as a way to lampshade my lack of deep field-specific expertise by pretending this breed of applied generalism was a field (the name “everything studies” alludes to this too). It was a hopefully cute affectation, a semi-joke of a brand for the blog and essentially a framing device for the essays I wanted to write.

I’m not an academic and I’m not dumb enough to try compete with academia and all of intellectual history in terms of depth, rigor and novelty. That’s silly and nobody can do it while maintaining a perspective as broad as the one I’m aiming for. I do try to write in a niche between mass media and academia in terms of abstraction, complexity and difficulty, because I think I fit there and can produce something of value, according to standards appropriate to that niche[2].

Around the time I started I was considering writing a novel about a grad student losing his mind trying to clear up messy disagreements online[3]. It would be a way to explore some ideas in a fictional context under the guise of them being popularized versions of ones elaborated on by real academics for years. If that grad student studied an existing field it would come with a lot of baggage, I’d have to do a lot of research and would likely not find one that focused on the exact things I wanted to talk about. To get a clean slate I thought up an imaginary field that would bring together a lot of ideas relevant to disagreement that are in reality scattered across a fragmented intellectual landscape[4].

It was a simulacrum for fictional use that I eventually decided to carry over to my blogging and not an actual suggestion for academics. My intended audience was people like myself, and the gesturing at academia was for the same reason I had planned to set the book at a university: I like the trappings of academia as an aesthetic[5]. I guess I pretended (somewhat narcissistically, sure), that the framework I laid out could in theory be “backed” by academic scholarship I wouldn’t have much to do with myself, the way currency can be backed by gold you never touch.

I see how it comes off as a serious suggestion. Truth be told I’ve been pretending it is as part the project — a project that grew out of a fiction idea. I think I also presented it as meant to solve the particular problem of hostile online discourse (instead of as just stemming from my personal interest profile) because that was part of the role I was playing and the fantasy I was entertaining to amuse myself.

I foolishly assumed the phrase “field I think ought to exist” would automatically be interpreted against that background. I expected people to take it as it was originally meant: as an idle fantasy. I shouldn’t have, because slowly but surely it started to sound less and less like that. Why? Because people liked my game. I got linked, I got some followers and subscribers, I got invited to podcasts, and a journalist asked to write about my ideas. An online friend even wanted to print some of my essays in a book. It’s flattering as hell and I liked it. So I went along with my role without much awareness of what it could look like. When people asked me serious questions I guess answered them seriously.

Now people are seeing it from that end and some academics got mad at me. It’s pretty wild — and disorienting, as the difference in apparent seriousness between how I treated it in the beginning and how it looks now creates weird interpretation effects. Somebody read my throw-ideas-against-the-wall-for-fun-sketch from a time when this blog had less than a thousand hits in total and tweeted with incredulity:

Where are the citations? Where’s the careful summary and evaluation of those citations to build a case for this new interdisciplinary ‘academic discipline’?[6]

Whew laddie. What was this person expecting from the musings of somebody writing a blog on his decidedly non-ample spare time? It feels surreal to have people evaluate my thinking according to the standards of an academic paper, and surreal to see people take me much more seriously and literally than I took myself.

I didn’t do this with the expectation that anybody would listen so I never bothered with doing serious reality checking. But some did listen and I failed to adjust my language. Instead I went along with it because I was high on the praise I was getting.

So yeah, much of this is on me. Lesson learned.

Part 2 of 3: The defense

Now, that being said…

Even after some reality checking I do there’s potential to erisology as something other than an existing discipline wearing a fake moustache. Not as an ‘academic field’ as such, though. More like a school of thought or approach or framework, specifically centered on knowing a little about a lot and using that breadth to apply a particular perspective to disagreement.

Is it new? Eh, who knows, probably not. Intellectual history and modern academia are frightfully vast. But frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. I care a lot about the commonly understood concepts and tools we have available in public discourse but I care a lot less about what knowledge technically exists hidden in a massive and semi-legible-at-best maze of academic journals, books and conference presentations. I’ve said before that I think we have a knowledge logistics problem at least as much as we have a knowledge production problem:

By a knowledge logistics problem I mean that more knowledge, insight and culture is produced than ever before, and the bottleneck to what somebody more woolly-headed than me might call an “enlightened civilization” is not production volume but packaging, indexing, compression, synthesis and distribution of ideas.

I don’t see that sufficiently adressed today, and I don’t consider academia to be optimally set up to do it. Nor is an obscure blog of course, but you have to start somewhere and for that it helps to pretend to have some wildly unrealistic ambitions[7].

Insider’s existence and outsider’s existence: a meta-constructionist perspective

To push this a little further: when I inadvertently started to take my game more seriously and thought about erisology as a potentially real “field” — add desired number of scare quotes — what I had in mind really didn’t seem to exist. It didn’t exist the way my outsider’s perspective considers fields to “exist“.

When academics think of what a “field” is they look at a high-resolution image — as anybody does when thinking about their own life, job or area of expertise. Many, many fields exist and a great number of them have difficult names like “discursive neurophilology” that represents a community of scholars writing jargon-heavy, peer-reviewed journal articles peppered with citations.

Since I wasn’t adressing academics in the first place but other outsiders like myself, I wasn’t thinking of it that way. I was thinking of it the way ordinary people do: a typical “field” has a name people know and understand, it has its own departments in universities, its own section in well-stocked bookstores, and we’re probably exposed to it in school. There are large, glossy, user-friendly but overpriced introductory textbooks on it and educated people are expected to have some idea of what its most important findings and concepts are. There are elements of it embedded in popular culture.

Just like there’s a distinction between a thing and the socially constructed concept that points to that thing, there’s a distinction between an actual academic field and outsiders’ image of it. They rarely match exactly and there are even many fields that exist in the first sense but not in the second because they’re absent from public consciousness. They don’t exist the way some scholars say romantic love didn’t exist before it was culturally recognized. Without being aware of it exactly, I guess I’ve been gesturing at constructing an image playing the role of an academic field in the public mind. An actual academic field wasn’t the point; an afterthought, if anything.

I didn’t separate them just like constructionists tend to not separate physical reality from constructed concepts. Constructing a “new discipline” in this meta-constructionist sense (where social reality takes the place of physical reality) is like “constructing a new gender”: it doesn’t mean changing the underlying reality but redrawing lines to change the way we think about something.

Rhetoric plays a different role

Why redraw lines at all? Because while the pieces of knowledge exists, this particular perspective isn’t (as I can see it) the central, most basic and most visible focus of any field as understood by the educated public. It seems to be either advanced level, part of peripheries or subfields, or homeless and cross-disciplinary work in a way that mostly hides it from the public’s eyes.

For example, rhetoric is indeed a field recognized by the public. And had I thought about it for more than the 30 seconds per item I spent compiling the list of disciplines in Erisology, Take Two I would’ve noted that of course modern rhetorical research have come quite a lot further than Aristotle and does discuss a lot of these issues. Given that, it’s perfectly understandable that this line:

Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, is partly useful because it’s a practice more than a science and as far as I know lack theory that grounds “what works and what doesn’t” in human psychology.

…would piss rhetoricians off[8]. But no matter what rhetorical research looks like now, to the public it simply means “The Art of Persuasion”, which is largely instrumental and has a slight whiff of manipulation. Whatever is more than that and could/would correspond to erisology[9] I don’t really know or hear about and neither do most people. Virtually everything coming from the academic discipline of rhetoric into the public square is advice on how to speak effectively and persuasively, and as a consequence the public understanding of what rhetoric is differs significantly from what I think of as erisology.

As a concept handle pointing towards a legible, tractable body of knowledge meant for the public, describing disagreement in a particular way and with reference to relevant concepts from many fields — “rhetoric” doesn’t cut it. It’s a different meta-construct, playing a different role.

Argumentation theory is upside down

So is “argumentation theory”, the other main candidate. I do know of it. I studied it a little in the context of Philosophy of Science as part of my education and later took an online course. The problem is that argumentation theory, as it was taught to me, was focused on the logical structure of “correct” rational argumentation, implicitly assuming well-posed claims and a commonly understood background between two well-delineated participants[10]. Precisely what I wanted to get away from: “true” and “false” are simplifications that tend not to describe the full answer to a low-resolution question, and we could try putting the remainder in the center instead of treating it as, well, a remainder (or maybe even better: focus on the relationship).

It doesn’t seem to be just my impression that argumentation theory is primarily and as a starting point concerned with how to argue well and reach good and true conclusions. Here’s the very first paragraph of its Wikipedia article:

Argumentation theory, or argumentation, is the interdisciplinary study of how conclusions can be reached through logical reasoning; that is, claims based, soundly or not, on premises. It includes the arts and sciences of civil debate, dialogue, conversation, and persuasion. It studies rules of inference, logic, and procedural rules in both artificial and real world settings.

But it’s just the first paragraph! Yes, but it sets the tone. It’s the point of entry to the whole structure and I think it’d be fruitful to approach from a different direction. More advanced argumentation theory expands onto other aspects but because of the starting point, its simplified, popularized image (if it actually had much of one) would be different than what’s central to erisology: lack of context, unclear meaning and fuzzy, constantly shifting sides, fragmentation of conversations into many non-communicating instances with complex crossing-over, interpretation and implication being more important than logic, big inferential distances, unexamined and poorly understood differences in background assumptions and assumptions about other’s background assumptions, the importance of personality differences and so on.

Those are the noncentralities, the complications, the exceptions, the second-and-above order approximations that disappear when you squint and researchers differ on how to handle. Not the core. They have become much more important recently, for reasons fairly well explained in the Atlantic article, and I think that justifies giving it a try to invert the traditional view, flip figure and ground and put the “chaotic, low-information communication between incommensurable minds” on the ground floor and place well-posed, “correct” logical argumentation at the distant top of the pyramid instead of at the ground floor. Why not have a concept handle for that?

None of this is made clear in the Atlantic article. Not that I could expect that. It’s pretty short, after all (unlike this). And until now I hadn’t made it all clear myself, neither on the blog nor in my own head. That’s a good thing coming out of all this.

It hasn’t helped that I’ve been using the word erisology inconsistently[11]. Sometimes it has meant the specific framework/meta-construct described above, sometimes it has meant the very hypothetical “proper academic” institutionalization and elaboration on it, and sometimes it’s just been an umbrella term for “all science, humanistic scholarship, literature or writing in general that informs our understanding of disagreement in the sense of differences in what people believe, how they think, and how this manifests in the process of argumentation that in turn shapes and reshapes those differences”.

In this last sense erisology isn’t anything new at all in substance. I just thought we should have one name for it all, to increase awareness.

For a while I thought about creating a website where I, instead of writing essays like I do here, would seek out all erisology I could find and catalogue it and systematize it with tags and categories into a structured respository. Maybe take a stab at a more bottom-up, research driven summarization framework. I didn’t do that because this isn’t my job. I do it for fun and I prefer doing the part I enjoy the most, which is writing essays. Instead there’s the erisology subreddit.

Part 3 of 3: the Atlantic article reexamined

Given this background we can see some issues with the article. I should point out that I in no way blame Singal for any of this. I have no reason to believe he’s acted with anything but integrity, and the issues weren’t even obvious enough for me to understand fully on a first scan — not until it became clear how some other people saw it.

Not a science, not new, not of arguing

The headline (often set by editors and not writers I’ve heard) is probably the worst part. I glossed over it the first time but of course it sets the frame through which others will interpret the whole thing. It calls erisology a “new science of how to argue” and three of those words are a problem. The one thing I’ve been very careful to not do is call it a “science”. It isn’t and wouldn’t ever be. Science requires greater formal rigor and strict empiricism than I think is possible or optimal for this sort of thing. It would be more of a humanities-philosophical enterprise, methods wise. And it goes without saying that nothing I’ve written is even close to scientific.

And yet there the word is, for all my care to not overstep that line. Great. That’ll add a whole lot of perceived naivety.

“New” is a problem because it’s quite an ambiguous word. Its nebulosity follows naturally from the nebulosity of “exist” (discussed in The Big List of Existing Things) and it’s not clear what aspects of something need to be new in order for that thing to be “new” in general. It can most certainly be interpreted as a much more bold claim than I would endorse. New object of study? No. New knowledge? Not necessarily. New approach? Maybe a bit. New framing, structure and conceptualization? I think yes. New concept handle? Yes.

I trust that it’s obvious why “argue” is a problem, given what I’ve written above. Disagreement is at the center, not arguing. And arguing is a process, while disagreement (in my interpretation) is the fact that people have different systems of beliefs and values that can’t be easily compared and contrasted. Argumentation is important as a consequence and expression of this disagreement, but not the same thing. Using this word minimizes the dissimilarities to rhetoric and argumentation theory. I should have been more on my guard here.

The simplifications

The article discussed some ideas I’ve been pushing, and the simplified nature of the presentation no doubt made them seem more basic than they really are. So I look like a simpleton. For example, this is an illustration of the problems with belief phrase decontextualization that comes with the architecture of modern online media:

A common trigger is when specialized terms once restricted to certain corners of academia—think neoliberal or intersectional—leak out into the broader public discourse without everyone agreeing on their precise definitions. If an academic uses the term white privilege on Twitter in an exchange with a nonacademic, for example, some level of animosity might arise simply through a lack of shared understanding over what the term does mean—that white people, on average, enjoy certain benefits relative to other Americans—and what it does not: that all white people are “privileged” in some absolute sense. If you Google no such thing as white privilege, you’ll see a lot of people responding not to what the term actually means, but to a misunderstanding of it. To take one of countless examples, the conservative commentator Brigitte Gabriel once racked up 5,000 retweets by tweeting “I’m an Arab Lebanese born American immigrant with 3 best selling books and a national organization that I founded. There is no such thing as ‘White Privilege.'” She was met, of course, with plenty of repliers who explained angrily that she was misinterpreting the term.

Sure, that’s fine for a first order approximation. But in practice the meanings of words aren’t fixed by defintional fiat or original intention but determined by use and function. Yes, objections to the “white privilege” concept has something do to with misunderstanding it, but it also has something to do with correctly understanding — often on a semi-conscious level — the rhetorical function it serves, leading people to reject the vocabulary in the form of apparently dismissing a factual claim.

If somebody well versed in rhetoric or philosophy reads that excerpt and think it’s meant to be a genuinely new-to-the-world insight I understand why they’d find it pathetic.

Another thing that set some people off is the suggestion that not decoupling an issue from all the real world context is an error that creates dysfunctional discourse:

Once you know a term like decoupling, you can identify instances in which a disagreement isn’t really about X anymore, but about Y and Z. When some readers first raised doubts about a now-discredited Rolling Stone story describing a horrific gang rape at the University of Virginia, they noted inconsistencies in the narrative. Others insisted that such commentary fit into destructive tropes about women fabricating rape claims, and therefore should be rejected on its face. The two sides weren’t really talking; one was debating whether the story was a hoax, while the other was responding to the broader issue of whether rape allegations are taken seriously. Likewise, when scientists bring forth solid evidence that sexual orientation is innate, or close to it, conservatives have lashed out against findings that would “normalize” homosexuality. But the dispute over which sexual acts, if any, society should discourage is totally separate from the question of whether sexual orientation is, in fact, inborn. Because of a failure to decouple, people respond indignantly to factual claims when they’re actually upset about how those claims might be interpreted.

Nerst believes that the world can be divided roughly into “high decouplers”, for whom decoupling comes easy, and “low decouplers,” for whom it does not. This is the sort of area where erisology could produce empirical insights: What characterizes people’s ability to decouple? Nerst believes that hard-science types are better at it, on average, while artistic types are worse. After all, part of being an artist is seeing connections where other people don’t—so maybe it’s harder for them to not see connections in some cases.

Despite what this might appear to say, it’s not a lack of decoupling that itself is dysfunctional but unrecognized, unnegotiated difference in decoupling for a given issue.

It’s also not simply a “skill” that scientists are good at and “arts people” are bad at. I did write more or less this at an earlier stage and I think there’s something to it but I soon recognized, after some good criticism, that it was more a neat-looking story than a full explanation. Use and disuse of decoupling is much more complicated and strategic, as described in Decoupling Revisited (which is linked in the article, thank heavens).

Still, while not an alloyed good it is something you should be able to understand and do, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean it’s always the correct way to look at things. Far from it[12]. Without that clarification it can easily make those less favorable to decoupling see red[13].

The pushback

There was also some criticism in there that I want to adress because of how illustrative it is.

When I ran the concept of erisology by a couple of political scientists who study disagreement, I got some unexpected pushback. Though Nerst has claimed that “no one needs to be convinced” of the needlessly adversarial quality of online discourse, the Syracuse University political scientist Emily Thorson isn’t buying it. “I actually do need to be convinced about this,” she said in an email, “or at least about the larger implication that ‘uncivil online discourse’ is a problem so critical that we need to invent a new discipline to solve it. I’d argue that much of the dysfunction we see in online interactions is just a symptom of much larger and older social problems, including but not limited to racism and misogyny. Our time would be better spent addressing those issues.”

Thorson argued that disagreements on Twitter or comment threads do not usually entail people “trying to understand each other but failing due to ‘pitfalls.’ Rather, their goal is to affirm their identity, and often that involves aggressively demeaning someone who has a different identity from them. And so these conversations aren’t ‘dysfunctional’; they’re functioning exactly how the participants intend them to — as defenses of their identity, not as deliberative forums.

Singal offered me the chance to counter this but I declined, given that it requires a lot more than a one-liner to properly adress. I’ll try here.

First, bringing this directly to an academic is of course fraught. My writing or my ideas in general aren’t tailored to that audience and its academic angle is more like LARPing than anything else. Add the fact that academics don’t exactly love overconfident laypeople thinking they know things about their field and I can see how this might pattern-match pretty badly. I don’t know how much previous encounters with such people colored Thorson’s reaction, but it could be a factor.

It’s understandable that she parses Singal’s question the way she does because I assume he approached her — a political scientist and not, say, a philosopher — suggesting institutionalizing erisology as treatment for hostile political discourse and rampant polarization. That’s not necessarily the best way to present it. Rather, I have a particular view of how disagreement works, both in its relatively well-functioning and its more pathological forms and it’s this underlying model I’m interested in developing. Saying it could help with polarization is like saying on a grant application that your obscure research project could some day cure cancer — sure it’d be nice but it’s not really on the horizon nor the true motivation.

With the risk of misrepresentation, her gist seems to be that online discourse isn’t hostile because of misunderstandings, and we don’t need to understand disagreement better because we already understand it well enough: hostile people are because they’re racists and sexists et cetera.

I don’t know where to start with that. I disagree? As we know, disagreements can be very complicated, and made up of a whole cluster of sub-disagreements that are hard to know about and enumerate, and impossible to hold in working memory all at once. I think my disagreement with Prof. Thorson — supposedly over a simple thing — is like this. I could probably write a book about its complexities and all she said was a few sentences.

But to be very brief: she’s wrong.

…is what I’d say if it wasn’t a totally off-brand thing for me to say. She’s not wrong, per se. She’s just presenting a narrow, highly partial narrative as if it was the full story. This choice of explanatory model I suspect — if I can be a bit pointed — is as much a reflection of her own preoccupations and priorities as it is of reality. That doesn’t make it wrong per se, but I do think it invalidates it as a reason to dismiss concerns prompted by other preoccupations and priorities.

Let’s just say she approaches the issue from a very different angle than me and that makes it more difficult to infer the details of her state of mind. Why does she treat this particular partial story as exhaustive? Perhaps mentioning discussion deteriorating into insults primed her to think about a specific type of especially hostile exchange[14]. If she thought that’s what I was referring to, then I might understand how it can seem dismissable as just driven by evil -isms[15]. But I mean much more than that. I mean most of it.

It’s not all innocent mistakes of course. There are many non-rationalistic, non-communicative reasons for engaging in discussion. Here’s a list I wrote (in Postscript to a Podcast):

The social function of public debate is to evaluate the merits of ideas, but that’s not why we take part in it anymore than corporations take part in the economy in order to satisfy consumer wants. They want to make money and the creation of value is a side effect.

We take part in public debate to convince others we’re right, to shut up our enemies, to rally and organize our allies, to gain the respect of our group, to commiserate and bond, vent our anger and soothe our personal anxieties, to express ourselves or experiment with identities, to show off our intelligence, compassion and loyalty, or simply in pursuit of money and fame. The evaluation of ideas is a fortunate side effect.

But that’s just one side of the story. There must be some honesty in it or the dishonesty wouldn’t work, the same way it only works to lie because we tell the truth most of the time. It might simply be that Thorson considers the most dysfunctional discourse (insults etc.) to be a special case with special dynamics, while I think it’s the extreme expression of the same sort of problem that exist all over: we’re prone to seriously underestimating the amount of work we need to do to understand where another person is coming from. Hence, I suspect I’d call much more of public discourse needlessly hostile and a problem than she would. I would for example classify our disagreement as dysfunctional and her response as needlessly hostile[16].

It’s not just the outright mean and abusive that are a problem. We all are when we argue against anything other than what a person really means, when we are cocksure we fully understand what they have in mind, or when we attempt to “win” an argument in the eyes of third parties rather than aiming for honest communication with another person and engagement with their ideas as they see them. And when we are too eager to “close” an issue before it’s even been properly opened up[17].

Yes, I have very high expectations. And no, I don’t always live up to them myself, but I try.

Misunderstanding matters

Looking at less-than-good discourse as a whole I’ve seen many, many examples where her story cannot reasonably be the explanation. In fact I think it captures only a very small part[18].

I know people misunderstand each other often because I’ve seen it happen so many times. I know people interpret things differently because I’ve seen people interpret things very differently from how I interpret them, and seemingly very differently from what was meant.

This happens in discussions that aren’t about identity or hot-button political issues or between people who hate each other. It happens in discussions about abstract philosophical issues, about books and movies, food, architecture, self-help or the job market. It happens when people are anonymous and demographic identities are invisible. It doesn’t necessarily progress to hurling insults just like smoking doesn’t necessarily progress to lung cancer, but the precursors are there.

It happens at work too. When I on the tech side talk to people on the finance/accounting side we use different words for things and have some difficulty syncing our mental maps well enough to accomplish our common tasks. If professionalism and the fact that we need to see each other in real life didn’t make us put extra effort in we might get annoyed with each other’s obtuseness and enter into a negative spiral of irritation. I’ve had to deal such feelings on the occasional late afternoon.

It even happens when I fight with my wife, and we’ve been together since we were 20 and haven’t been apart for more than the occasional week for the last 10 years. We’re about as in tune with and generous towards each other as two people can be, and we’re still working on how to understand each other just right so we can prevent minor differences in interpretation from spiraling out of control when emotions run high.

Given that, what chance in hell do random internet strangers have, popping in and out of a massive distributed conversation?

I do not think we’re cynical masterminds perfectly understanding everybody but intentionally pretend we don’t (and if we were it would raise other questions). There’s certainly an element of that, but I think a big part of that is unconscious and can potentially be counteracted with conscious effort. And people often do try to engage with each other’s ideas in reasonably good faith; it’s not perfect but there’s something to work with (see the end of Facing the Elephant for details).

In closing

There’s so much more I could say but a mere tenth of a novel will have to be enough for now.

In the end I want to think about how this piece itself could be read differently than I’d prefer. I’m sure some would accuse me of backtracking or moving the goal posts or something like that — of pretending I didn’t say things I did say. Sure, go ahead. It’s even a bit true.

So is this even a “defense”? I do admit some fault, and I more or less “retract” any radical-sounding claims. It’s just that… I don’t care. I don’t look at this that way. It’s not a fight. I’m not aggressing on anything (much) and I don’t see a need to hold any line.

Most often when I write I’m thinking out loud and I don’t feel morally compelled to insist upon the correctness of any choice of words I’ve ever made or thoughts I’ve uttered. I think such a confrontational approach to discourse and the defensiveness it engenders is a bad thing. I prefer to build on other people’s ideas to shooting at them and I wish more people would share that preference.

That being said I want to thank those who mocked and criticized what they saw. You’re the best. It served to prod me into clarifying what erisology was, is, and ought to be. Some may still dislike it — I certainly see how my disregard for academic norms can be annoying. That’s ok.


• • •


This got really damn long and it took a hell of a lot of time. Part of it is that my personal life has left me little time to write this last month, and part of it is that I really wanted to get this right. Once I had, I also needed to remove all the instances of saying the same thing in slightly different ways.

Those standards are different from academia’s. Absolute novelty and citations are much, much less important while other things catchiness, usability and accessibility, pleasant writing and strong metaphors are more important.

It would also involve exploring the cultural isolation I talk about here and a psychological examination of an exaggerated version of the existential dread I do feel at how badly public discourse works compared to the imagined, supernaturally perfect ideal of both small and large scale communication I have in my head.

Using the taxonomy I discuss in Six Kinds of Reading I thought of it as a consolidating and refactoring exercise, not an inceptive or expansive one.

Perhaps calling erisology an academic field is like calling Star Wars science fiction.

I do get the reaction. But I can’t help but picture this as comical. Like… the stapler guy from Office Space acting all discombobulated but instead of “Where’s my stapler…” it’s “Where are the citations… I was told there would be citations…”

This is a “startup culture” attitude, which is often incompatible with or straight up antithetical to academic culture.

I had honestly forgot about that line until a re-read it following the Atlantic article.

I still have my doubts about the tightness of such a correspondence, if not in content then in approach and attitude. Mine is pretty mathy and STEM-y with references to signal processing, stats and compression concepts, which I woudn’t expect a lot of from rhetoricians.

Besides, “argumentation theory” is a lousy concept handle. It is absolutely nothing more than the sum of its parts, and catchiness and distinctiveness matter. I was asked once why I picked the name “erisology” instead of “disagreement theory”. It’s just a far better concept handle; a fitter meme. I honestly suspect my blog would be significantly less popular and most of the recent growth and attention wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t used it.

I guess my implied assumption is that if you did gather all this knowledge and managed to unify it into one coherent framework it would look like what I have in mind, only much more detailed. It’s certainly an assumption that can be questioned.

Of course that depends exactly on what we mean by decoupling. It is not always the right choice to ignore the real world context, background and consequences of particular claims. Not at all. But I’m more willing to say that being clear about exactly what it is we’re talking about, and discussing one thing at a time without mixing in other concerns in a non-explicit way is almost always a good idea. It should be the default.

Probably with that clarification as well, but I’m less willing to extend charity to that position.

To be somewhat less charitable, it’s possible she classifies too much discourse as driven by that kind of pure hostility because she herself doesn’t do enough work to understand the complicated substantive disagreements beneath it all (or she might rely on second hand information from people who don’t). The seeming implication that such hostility is a one-way phenomenon across the political spectrum does suggest a massive blind spot. But I don’t have enough info to be sure.

Such isms aren’t even primitive categories in the first place. Even when her story fits it’s incomplete  — and now I’m interpreting it broadly, as any case when pure hostility and ego/identity protection is the local motive, and not just her chosen examples. Such feelings and their intensity need to be explained. Anger or even hatred don’t just emerge from nowhere fully formed, and looking at an exchange in isolation doesn’t give us the whole picture. I believe previous experiences with pitfalls that prevent accurate communication — misunderstanding, misrepresentation, misinterpretation, overeager pattern matching and nutpicking — play a significant part in actually getting people to the point where they just want to attack.

Not that it’s very hostile (a bit passive aggressive, if anything). It’s just more hostile (dismissive) than it should be.

I dislike our whole idea of “debate”. We shouldn’t go straight to arguing for conclusions. First we need to properly understand the full nature and scope of the question, and 99% percent of the time we don’t get anywhere near that point.

Maybe Thorson would agree with this if it were explained well enough. I don’t know.

8 thoughts on “A Defense of Erisology

  1. Thoughtful response. I find it very easy to believe, for what it’s worth, that you’re doing something new in the sense in which you claim originality. It feels original to me. I don’t think it takes a world historical genius to frame the world in a fresh way. You just need to be perceptive and attentive and capable of successfully articulating your perceptions. Academics can be stupid and territorial about thinking everything’s been said before.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I’m sorry you got flak for this. I didn’t see any of it, so what I’m about to say might be totally wrong. However, fwiw, a hypothesis:

    The academic disciplines whose members apparently thought you were illegitimately stepping on their toes are highly insecure. People in those fields have terrible jobs, zero respect, and their whole fields may easily be defunded and cease to exist in a few years. (In fact, my impression as an outsider is that rhetoric as an academic field is already nearly extinct.) This may explain their aggressive defensiveness. It doesn’t excuse it, but possibly insight into their psychology could be helpful in some way.

    Also: I agree with everything Daniel J Oppenheimer said here!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, it wasn’t that bad, I’m just not used to it and it made just a little bit too much sense to dismiss without a second thought.

      Yeah I thought insecurity could be a factor as well but I decided to not bring it up. It’s partly because of how long it already is (I’ve left out a lot of treatment of Thorson’s criticisms especially) and because it felt petty, like I was trying to dismiss criticism rather than engage with it. But yes, in a full treatment that should be acknowledged as well.


  3. I wouldn’t recommend bringing up possible insecurities in academic responses–that will come across as insulting mud-flinging, and just make folks even more upset. Folks in the humanities don’t need more reasons right now to feel upset, as they’re watching their disciplines die in the only official home it currently has; we are, I am certain, coming to the end of the university as the home of the humanities, and since we have not yet established an understanding of what new “base” the fields might have, there’s a lot of unhappiness!

    That said, I do think there was a back-handed sort of compliment in the way that many academics responded to you–they were treating you as someone they expected to be an equal, which means that at least some of your ideas were connecting in the ways you intended. The fact that those negative responses didn’t consider your context and your intended audience is annoying, because honestly, academics should know better, but we have a lot of folks who haven’t had to interact directly with the general public about their disciplines, and who forget that we have to do it differently.

    Personally, even coming from the angle of an academic who primarily teaches writing and argument, I was very interested by the Atlantic article, and it led me here to read more of your materials. I’m glad I did. No, you’re not coming at it from academic depth, but there’s no reason that you or others couldn’t do more digging into the psychological, rhetorical, and philosophical work that *has* been done on argument should you have the time and mental space. And there’s also no reason that we academics should be expecting you to; if they had approached you as they do an intelligent, invested, and interested undergraduate, I think it would have been more useful. That was certainly more the sort of “category” I used to consider your ideas, and is the reason that I was happy to overlook the lack of research in favor of considering the broader ideas. You’re not working with the fiddly details or assuming a place in the long centuries of conversation on the topic, and that’s perfectly fine. Sometimes we have an easier time seeing the forest in new ways if we stop examining fragments of bark on the trees.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry, to be clear, I wasn’t suggesting that John raise the issue as a defense; rather that considering it might help him understand where critics were coming from.

      Something I nearly said and didn’t (for concision) was that I rue the loss of serious humanities teaching in the university system (having had, and greatly valuing, a classical education). As you note, that appears to be heading for extinction, which may have calamitous consequences.


      1. “As you note, that appears to be heading for extinction, which may have calamitous consequences.”

        It does. I’m not sure if it has to have calamitous consequences, though. I’m just starting to work on ideas about how we could deal with the humanities being pushed out of universities; as disciplines, all the fields broadly covered by that category have real and concrete value in our day to day lives. I think that deliberately relocating the center of humanistic inquiry from universities to something more, erm, “crowd-sourced” for lack of a better term, might actually be a really positive thing. I mean, look at all the good that came out of coterie circulation, salons, and other sorts of interpersonal networking and communication in earlier eras–much of that was entirely outside of the university system, though many individuals involved did have greater or lesser ties to various universities.

        The question is how to create the unified and coherent networking space without making it too restrictive . . . I’m not quite sure how to do that yet, but there are aspects of tech culture right now that are inspirational. Open source, local meet-ups, inviting non-specialists in, making the tools for learning and participation available to everyone . . . there are ways to do this. I’m still in the beginning stages, though, so it’s kind of nebulous right now. 🙂 But if it can be accomplished, we could actually have a new renaissance of the humanities and potentially even re-make those “public square” connections that have been lost behind university boundaries and paywalled journals.


        1. These sound like inspiring possibilities! I hope you are right; and to some extent I (and many others) already participate in the sort of salon culture you describe. The internet has enabled that to an extent, and IRL meetups are also significant.

          OTOH as a cautionary note, historically, before the humanities were bureaucratized they were the province primarily of those of independent means, plus a few professional eccentrics. Without state funding, who can afford to take the time to learn Ancient Greek, much less teach it?


  4. Ugh, the Thorson remark metaphorically caused a head-desk collision that reverberated from my office for miles. It elegantly encapsulates exactly what I see as our problem with discourse that causes wedges between people to widen via demonization of those who espouse opposing views (or appear to through using the “wrong” framing or language), which I understand is a lot of what you’re expressing concern about in the first place. If anything you were more generous in your treatment of her criticism than I might have been.

    I’m not sure that counter-criticisms taking the route of “Your criticism of my argument encompasses exactly what I’ve been trying to argue in the first place!” really work in practice, though. When I was growing up and my parents criticized me for being too argumentative and I tried to defend myself against their criticism, rejoinders of “See, you’re arguing again! This is exactly what I mean!” didn’t succeed in showing me the error of my ways.


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