Differences in Discussions

‘It’s very good,’ said Vimes, ignoring this. ‘But I need to know more. I need to know the names. I think you know the names. Where did they meet? Things like that. I need to know them,’
‘Some things are a mystery to me,’ said William. ‘You’ve got more than enough evidence to release Lord Vetinari,’
‘I want to know more,’
‘Not from me,’
‘Come on, Mr de Worde. We’re on the same side here!’
‘No. We’re just on two different sides that happen to be side by side,’
“The Truth” by Terry Pratchett

I love the open marketplace of ideas, of being able to discuss different issues. Unfortunately, good discussions are hard to find. Whether it’s power, personal or otherwise, emotions, or whatever, something always seems to interfere.

I have written about a few features of good discussions, e.g., prerequisites, or the hierarchy of agreement. But given that I recently wrote a German blog posting about differences in discussions I’d like to focus on them here.

On the surface, differences make a discussion. If people did not have differences, they would feel no need to discuss. You couldn’t even discuss to ‘get that bastard on the other side’, because there is no other side.

But there are differences that make for incompatible discussions. Differences that exist in 1) definitions, 2) agendas, 3) goals/end-results, 4) methods/ways to end-results, and 5) decision basis. These, and probably other differences I’m indifferent to, can turn any discussion into an unproductive ordeal.

1) Definitions

A highly frequent issue: People using the same terms for different issues, or different terms for the same issues. Happens a lot when people with different backgrounds discuss, esp. different scientific disciplines or ideologies.

Example: How is sex worker defined — does it include child ‘prostitutes’ and sex trafficking, or not? What is meant by “life after death”?

2) Agendas

People have vastly different reasons for taking part in a discussion. Among others, the desire for public/social validation, financial interests (not necessarily that they are paid for discussing, but that positions are promoted which will get them funds/grants), spreading their ideologies (also serves both public/social validation and usually gets them money), the desire to help others (which usually makes them feel better/happy themselves), or finding the best solution for a serious problem.

Example: I get the impression that on social media, many people want to have their opinions validated, not questioned. At least that would explain the usual reactions. It’s the old problem of a person who just wants to get some support and the person who actually thinks about issues, even in everyday conversations. Not a good mix. Same when people arguing for their jobs (funding) encounter people who are indifferent to their personal plight and rather look at the data and arguments.

3) Goals/end-results

What are the possible end-results, or solutions, that are discussed? In particular, its operationalization, the amount, reasoning for, and instrumentality of the different solutions:

3.1) Operationalization: How is that end-result defined in concrete, measurable characteristics (goes back to definitions)?

3.2) Amount: Is there only one end state which must be reached (e.g., because this state is in line with the ideology or party line), or are there multiple alternatives of equal desirability?

3.3) Reasoning: What is the reasoning used to argue for this end-result? Why do we want to spend time and effort to get there?

3.4) Instrumental or final: Does the end-result have value in itself, or is it just a stepping stone towards another goal?

Example for 3.3: You could have argued for opening up higher education to women because you think men and women are equal, or because you think that “the German man should not become bored at the domestic hearth by the cognitive myopia and narrow-mindedness of his wife and paralyzed in his devotion to higher interests”. The later (loosely translated) was an actual argument — albeit about 150 years ago.

Example for 3.4: Does a university course that does not provide job opportunities have a value? Is the called-for revolution intended to achieve freedom, or is it just a way to power of those promoting it — on the backs of useful idiots? BTW, not every revolution does need to involve a high body count or lead to easily visible dictatorships. Some involve subtle changes in small areas which undemocratically (and often at first secretly) change the power structure.

4) Methods/Ways to the End-Result

Which methods can be used to achieve the desired end-result (see 3)? How many different ways to this end result exist? What are acceptable means of a method? Which side-effects and collateral damages of the method are acceptable? Which consequences of a method for the aspired end-result are acceptable?

4.1) One way or multiple ways: Is there only one way (my way or the highway), because the use of this way serves the self-interest of the arguing side (like a toll-both actually)? Or are there multiple ways?

4.2) Acceptable Means: What are legitimate means, what aren’t? It’s rare that ‘any means necessary’ is desired.

4.3) Acceptable side-effects and collateral damages: Which side-effects and collateral damages of the method are acceptable? Things do not happen in a vacuum, and rarely in simple causal chains. If you change one thing, you usually influence a lot of other things, frequently some negatively.

4.4) Acceptable consequences of the method for the aspired end-result: Some means reach the end-result, but at a price. Which side-effects and damages to the aspired end-result are accepted?

Example for 4.2: Is it acceptable to cheat, to mislead the public, e.g., when trying to convince them with misleading statistics? Or must a desired end-result win on its own merit (e.g., via being “true” and actually desired)?

Example for 4.3: Exclusively supporting one group leads to hampering of other groups, at the very least via opportunity costs. What the relation of cost and benefit here — and more importantly, how were cost and benefit calculated (hopefully better than “I don’t care about the other groups anyway”)?

Example for 4.4: It’s hard to argue for equality as a virtue when the means to ostensibly achieve equality are promote or create new inequality. It also damages the acceptance of the measure and, when equality is put over merit, put the competencies of all members of the supported group in question (whether they have actually profited by the measure, or not).

5) Decision basis

What are the mechanisms to determine what is right or wrong, supported or not, ‘true’ or ‘false’? This is affected, among others, by using empirical data vs ideology, the epistemological beliefs a person has, and the role of logic/data/theories vs. personal experiences.

5.1) Empirical data vs ideology: Do the participants try to get a picture of the world that is as accurate as possible, or do they follow their ideological world-view? The first is rather bottom-up, the second is rather top-down. Of course, empirical data never speaks for itself and is influenced somewhat by world-views, however, the empirical position would acknowledge this and try to minimize it, the second would argue that this is the way the world actually is.

5.2) Epistemological beliefs: How do we know what we know? I think Deanna Kuhn’s differentiation in absolutists, multiplists, and evaluativists is really helpful here. For an absolutist knowledge are facts. Something is either true or false as the knowledge comes from an external source (reality) that we can directly observe, so it is certain. The religious fanatic wielding a book fits here as well as the lay person who thinks the world is as it is. For the multiplist knowledge is not more than an opinion, given that for this person, we cannot directly observe reality so knowledge is generated by human minds and uncertain. Imagine your typical ‘whatever’ teenager here, or the kind of person for whom their feelings define reality. Lastly, an evaluativist also thinks that we cannot directly observe reality and knowledge is created by human minds. But while there is no true or false, there is a better or worse supported. Thus, knowledge are judgments which are evaluated and compared based on arguments and evidence. You find scientists here, at least if they deserve the name. It is also the only position in which discussions make sense, given that the absolutists would likely be too inflexible and the multiplist wouldn’t see the point. More about epistemological beliefs in this posting.

5.3) Logic/data/theories vs. personal experiences: Personal experiences are truly defining for a person. They make the person what he or she is. But they are really bad for discussions that argue about general issues. Among others, personal experiences are often biased. Subjectively important experiences can overshadow everything else and loom large in memory. It’s also hard to argue about them — each person has his or her own world. It does not make sense to argue that a person does not feel what he or she feels, but experiences are interpretations of reality, not reality itself. There is also no way to prevent selective interpretation, no control group, nothing. Personal experiences are detrimental to discussions. Data based on a representative study of the experiences of many people beats the personal experience of a person any time. Frankly, no person’s feelings or interpretation of a situation are that important or the norm. So, in discussions, the focus must be on logic, data and theories.

Example for 5.1: If an ideology does not assume differences in an attribute between two groups, then the data should (with a representative sample and enough cases) show an equal distribution of this attribute. If they are not equally distributed, there has to be some kind of barrier that prevents this equal distribution. Other explanations, e.g., differing interests or life-goals between the two groups, are discarded.

Example for 5.3: People going back often years into their personal memories to bring examples of perceived discrimination, e.g., of being walked into on a conference despite wearing colorful clothes. The person in question saw herself as being discriminated against and brought this incident as an example of discrimination. It completely ignores a) that bumping into others can happen at conferences, and b) that it happens to people outside of the “discriminated” group as well. But for this person it was because she was female. The world-view determines here how actions that happen to everyone are interpreted.


These are some of the differences that determine whether a discussion is successful or not. Well, successful in advancing the knowledge about the topic, to inch closer to the truth, as this would be my aim.

No wonder it’s so hard to get a good discussion going. Any takers?