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150 Years Ago, a Philosopher Showed Why It’s Pointless to Start Arguments on the Internet

Don’t feed the trolls.


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Photo from Reuters/ Kacper Pempel.

Wildly inaccurate facts and spurious arguments are unavoidable features of social media. Yet no matter how infuriatingly wrong someone is, or just how much counter-evidence you have at your disposal, starting arguments on the internet rarely gets anyone to change their mind. Nearly a century-and-a-half ago, British philosopher John Stuart Mill explained, in a few clear sentences, why certain arguments simply won’t go anywhere. As historian Robert Saunders notes, Mill’s analysis neatly applies to heated and futile internet debates.

Screenshot_2020-02-04 Robert Saunders on Twitter John Stuart Mill explains, in 1869, why you can never win an argument on t[...].png

Mill highlights the often overlooked reality that many opinions aren’t based on facts at all, but feelings. And so, contradictory points of information don’t shift emotionally rooted arguments, but only cause people to dig deeper into their emotions to hold onto those views.

Intuitively, most people recognize that emotions motivate opinions, and behave accordingly. We use rhetorical techniques, such as verbal flourishes and confident mannerisms, to help convince others of our views. And we know that angry reactions to, for example, evidence showing that children of same-sex parents fare just as well as those raised by heterosexual parents, are grounded in emotional prejudice rather than a deep-seated desire for the facts.

Studies reinforce these instincts about the importance of emotions. For example, patients who have brain damage in areas responsible for processing emotions also struggle to make decisions (pdf), pointing to the importance of emotions in deciding between two options. And chartered psychologist Rob Yeung, whose book How to Stand Out emphasizes the effectiveness of emotions, rather than logic, in convincing others to agree with you, points to research showing that use of metaphors motivate people to make decisions.

Online, when we can’t see others’ faces or their moods, it’s easy to lose sight of these emotional instincts. Instead of engaging with and respecting others’ feelings, there can be a tendency to bombard those with opposing views with “facts.” But even seemingly solid points of information, such as the periodic table, are often grounded in subjective perspectives; a broad philosophical theory called “social constructivism” argues that facts are always a reflection of socially constructed values. There are often multiple ways of interpreting a single point of information and so, much though some people might like to think they’re right about everything, there are surprisingly few issues to which there’s an unequivocally correct opinion.

Perhaps there’s little hope of convincing others on the internet to change their minds. But, as Saunders notes, Mill does point to another approach.

Screenshot_2020-02-04 Robert Saunders on Twitter Mill also had some advice for how we should engage with arguments on the i[...].png

Instead of seeking to convince others, we can be open to changing our own minds, and seek out information that contradicts our own steadfast point of view. Maybe it’ll turn out that those who disagree with you actually have a solid grasp of the facts. There’s a slight possibility that, after all, you’re the one who’s wrong.

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This post originally appeared on Quartz and was published January 2, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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