Erisology, Round Three

Based on the name Eris, the Greek goddess of discord, erisology is a word I made up that means “the study of disagreement”.

I needed a word for that when starting a blog to write about (among other things) to me interesting observations and thoughts on how and why people disagree.

By “disagreement” I don’t mean the behavior of disagreeing. I mean the plain fact that people have different beliefs, different tastes, and react differently to things.

I find this endlessly interesting. A person that disagrees with me must have a different mind in some way. Can that difference be described? Explained? What do such differences say about the contingent nature of my own mind? Can this different mind to some extent be simulated inside my own? Can I understand what it feels like to think like someone else?

That’s one part. How we negotiate these differences is also interesting. How do we communicate our beliefs to each other? How to we interpret, model and counter others’ beliefs? How, and how well, does language work as a medium for connecting and comparing mind with mind, and with reality? Negotiating the differences — including trying to reshape minds in your own image through argumentation and rhetoric — tend to result in coordination and organization of ideas and beliefs across groups of people. From one perspective it doesn’t matter so much if an idea is in a single person or distributed across mabny; the study of disagreement is perhaps best thought of as the study of differences and dissonances between ideas and systems of ideas and how they affect and are affected by the individual and collective mechanisms by which ideas are shaped and organized inside and among minds.

Wait, what? Rewind

It didn’t start out as such an abstract concept. That’s just what happened when I tried to impose a coherent frame onto some thoughts I wanted to write down — thoughts resulting from reading a lot of pop-science, mathematics, philosophy, history, linguistics and psychology over 25 years, getting an experimental and cross-disciplinary “humanities engineering” degree[1], and spending thousands of hours reading online discussions for entertainment. If all that makes you good at anything particular at all (which is doubtful) it’d be something like “disagreement and intellectual difference” (which is the tagline I picked for erisology forum on Reddit).

As I see it, this doesn’t exactly match any particular existing discipline, even though there’s plenty of relevant research and knowledge already. Psychologists and political scientists study opinions, anthropologists and historians study differences in how and what people think across space and time, philosophers study how concepts work, and machine learning specialists come up with ways to create them from data. Rhetoricians know how to argue convincingly, economists know what incentives we face when doing so, and biologists know why those things are incentives at all. And so it goes, for a dozen more disciplines (feel free to complain that I’ve overlooked yours).

All these fields are relevant for understanding disagreement, but there’s no institutional structure for integrating it into a cross-disciplinary body of knowledge. So I thought there should be a word for it all, and fantasized a bit about there being a real, unified academic field behind the word. The point wasn’t to wish for some obscure academic journals and conferences to exist (because they already do for any topic you can possibly imagine), but for it to be big and well known enough for its central insights to become part of conventional wisdom among laypeople[2].

Abstract, complex and dysfunctional

Conventional wisdom is pretty bad at disagreement. Not as bad as it is at quantum physics, but maybe about as bad as it is at nutrition. We’re especially bad at dealing with abstract and complex disagreements — the kind that tend to get particularly dysfunctional[3].

No matter how much I love it, abstraction is a problem. At the very least it’s a complicating factor. The relationship between language and reality isn’t anywhere near as straightforward as we think, which causes trouble when our beliefs are denominated in language[4].

According to conventional wisdom we disagree about facts and/or about values. We think (or at least act as if we think) that our beliefs are either right or wrong, and when two people disagree they’re take one position each and one of them is right and the other wrong. That’s a good enough approximation when we’re dealing with concrete stuff, like “do we have milk at home?” or “should I steal this loaf of bread or not?” but it has problems with questions like “is the world getting better?”.

Often we’re not disagreeing over a one-bit answer like true/false, good/bad, right/wrong, but about how to portray the world. We use models, narratives, ideologies and bodies of knowledge to represent a world far too rich in detail to be adequately captured. For those, one-bit judgments are not always suitable[4],  because when there are several layers of abstraction, compression and conceptualization between brute reality and our beliefs it doesn’t work to just check the facts and find out who’s right.

Many beliefs are expressed in such abstract terms that they can’t in practice be translated into claims about physical reality without becoming something else entirely. For a particularly hopeless example, consider a claim like this shitty summarization of GWF Hegel’s philosophy: “history is the process of the world spirit progressing towards the realization of its idea”. Is that… true? Good luck operationalizing that one. Or what about “the psyche is divided into id, ego, superego”? Or “we’re corrupted by participating in the system” or even “personality varies along five dimensions: openness, neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion and conscientiousness”?

Abstraction is bad enough, but disagreements playing out between intelligent people with a knack for abstraction that spend a lot of effort developing their beliefs tend to become especially complex as well. Intellectually inclined minds in particular contain large, complicated and densely connected networks of ideas, background beliefs, personality traits, conceptualizations, personal experiences, resentments and neuroses, not to mention the incentives, biases and whatnot that make up the environment in which these networks form.

When we have a juicy disagreement on our hands (pick any hot-button issue and imagine two intelligent, committed people on opposing sides) there are so many factors that play a part in causing our views to be what they are that we have no chance of fitting them all on the table at the same time. So we pick at it, poorly and pathetically; we grab little pieces we don’t understand and fire off irrelevant refutations in their general direction.

We have mechanisms to deal with these problems. There are rules of argumentation. There are premises and conclusions, warrants, implications and inferences and a whole host of fallacies you’re supposed to stay away from. That’s all well and good. It’s valuable, certainly, but I find it unsatisfying and inadequate. It’s a set of rules that describe how to discuss better. Fine. It just fails spectacularly to describe how it actually works.

The rules of debate doesn’t actually deal with abstraction and complexity as much as declare them out of scope. Claims have to be well-formed, and they have to be defended with free-standing arguments and supporting facts that bear little relationship to the complex, subtle and illegible reasons we actually believe things. It has to be this way fior us to be able to use facts and logic to settle disputes, but when you take beliefs out of their natural habitat it all, necessarily, becomes an artifice — a toy model like debate club, instead of real communication and real evaluation of beliefs as they really are. That artifice has its benefits, but it’s incomplete and unsatisfactory if we’re interested in the real mechanisms of disagreement and what other people really believe.

Our social reasoning does not follow the rules of logic, probability and scientific inference, no, but then what rules does it follow, exactly? These aren’t new questions, but we have no established, common-sense framework that answers them well.

Not all disagreements are that abstract and complex, but some are more than others. Generally, the greater the complexity and the greater the abstraction, the greater the risk of talking past each other. That brings me to the third word: “dysfunctional”.

When I sometimes call disagreements dysfunctional I don’t necessarily mean that the people engaging them it are failing to achieve their goals or making any mistakes as such. That’s a whole ‘nother thing. Dysfunction here means that a disagreement or debate fail to be a well-functioning idea evaluation process. In economics jargon that means it doesn’t produce the positive externalities it ought to. It’s like when companies make a profit without producing net value. They’re doing well, making a profit, but it doesn’t mean the market is functioning the way we want it to. Its purpose is to produce social value, not just private profits. One is supposed to be the means to the other.

Disagreement processes are dysfunctional when ideas are not effectively evaluated. That happens, for example, when we don’t respond to what other people really mean (i.e. talk past each other). This could be because they express themselves unclearly (which may or may not be a tactic to hide weaknesses), because we misinterpret and/or misrepresent[6] them (which can also be a tactic), or because we choose to change the subject (also often a tactic).

Abstraction, complexity and lack of context begets dysfunctionality, absent increased skill, care and charity. Speech on the web is disembodied and removed from context and intent in a way we’re not well equipped to deal with, and in order to understand each other well we need to work hard and charitably to grasp what others are saying and why they’re saying it.

For various reasons, we do not do so. Hence public discourse is a mess[7], especially on social media but not only there. By being more aware of these mechanisms (intentional, unintentional and semitentional) we might make it more difficult to get away with burning social capital for private gains.

Erisology in three paragraphs

Conventional understanding of disagreement is inadequate and unsatisfying. Important knowledge that would help us understand it better does exist, but is not organized nor explained in a way that facilitates its diffusion into society.

A word for all that knowledge (including relevant fiction and art) is, hypothetically, a good first step. The second is for me to noodle around brazenly, without the necessary qualifications (gasp), making up what I think a pop-level version of what such a unified body of knowledge could look like.

I use “erisology” in both those senses: a general term for everything relevant to disagreement, and my own preferred approach and conceptual toolbox (this is actually not ideal, but that’s how it turned out and I see no easy way to change it now).

Some links for the interested

My second post on this site and first use of the word. Kind of obsolete.

Erisology, Take Two
Attempt at a shorter explanation about a year later. Includes a list of important insights and tools in various existing disciplines. Also kind of obsolete now.

Me on the Rationally Speaking podcast in March 2019, talking about erisology with Julia Galef. Which led to…

Erisology, the new science of how to Argue — constructively
A write-up in The Atlantic by journalist Jesse Singal. Not ideally presented, which led to a bit of a backlash from some academics, which in turn led to…

A Defense of Erisology
My long piece responding to the fallout from the Atlantic article and discussing in great detail what I intend for it to mean and not mean. This article is partly the result of thoughts developed there.

For a list of everything even slightly erisology-relevant I’ve written here, there’s a tag.

And in case you missed it above, there’s also a subreddit.


• • •


That part was critical. The experience of reading a lot of humanistic scholarship on science and technology whose preoccupations and perspectives were alien and irritating to me helped make we viscerally aware of how difficult it is to communicate complex, subtle ideas across cultural, subcultural, political and psychological divides. This post describes it in more detail.

But that’s a fantasy, not a plan. All I’m doing, and intend to do for the forseeable future, is blog.

They also offer the most of that sweet satisfaction you get when you feel you’ve turned a confused, messy jumble into something that makes sense. It’s like finally untangling a mess of Christmas lights. You almost need a cigarette.

It leads us to feel like linguistically uncomplicated constructions, such as saying that something exists, also represent uncomplicated claims.

They’re better thought of as more or less valid, useful, accurate, parsimonious, consistent, beneficial, unbiased, or reasonable. It’s a lot harder to fit into an “I’m right, you’re wrong” pattern onto that. And while we might understand that, when probed, we don’t typically act like we do. Even among more nuanced thinkers, the idea that if one side is right the other is wrong is assumed most of the time. This is because disagreement is an inherently unstable mixture of knowledge acquisition and social conflict, two processes that work very differently.

I use a broad definition of misrepresentation. If you don’t agree with my description of what you think, I’m misrepresenting you. It includes things like unflattering paraphrasing.

I made a mistake when writing the first version of What is Erisology, which was to focus on this last part: the mess that is public discourse, making it sound as if that in particular was the object of study:

“Disagreement” can mean many things, but this is what I have in mind: A lot of online discourse is hostile and often needlessly adversarial (I trust no one needs to be convinced of this). Specifically, a lot of this disagreement is dysfunctional, by which I mean that it results from (or is exacerbated by) one or both of the parties, intentionally or unintentionally, misunderstanding the other party’s position or the nature of their differences[8].

I’ve got a lot of experience wasting time online and a lot of that experience is reading people arguing. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that the severe dysfunction so much of online discussion exhibits is at least partly the result of a limited set of pitfalls that people tend to fall into time and time and time again. The same things happen in meatspace and traditional media, but the dawn of the internet and social media turned it all up to 12.

Erisology is the study of this dysfunction and, theoretically, the attempt to fix some of it by making people more aware of how it happens and how it doesn’t always need to happen.

This part was highlighted in the Atlantic article on erisology, making it appear both to some readers and to some interviewed academics that I believed that 1) angry public discourse isn’t being studied or theorized, 2) its aggressiveness is a mystery, and 3) the high level of conflict is purely accidental. That’s not the case. For more on this, read A Defense of Erisology.

I could also add, after having written In Favor of Sometimes Sounding Like a Robot since then, that I suspect people with a more prickly, STEM-type temperament (like me) have a somewhat different view of what requires explanation and what those explanations ought to be like than most social scientists do.

This definition of dysfunctional disagreement is a little bit different from what I wrote above, but I think broadly compatible.

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One thought on “Erisology, Round Three

  1. “Disagreement processes are dysfunctional when ideas are not effectively evaluated.”

    I think this is a great working definition for an *erisological* meaning of “dysfunctional disagreement.”

    Of course, this was always the intuitively obvious meaning for me. So, maybe it’s not as concretely clarifying within the wider debate as it feels (to me.)

    Liked by 1 person

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