Agreeing To Disagree

Well, I thought I’d repost this analysis of mine because of several discussions I’ve been involved in lately. Some people truly seem to think that e.g. merely claiming without explanation that my thoughts are “hyperbolic” is a valid argument.

Over at “Digging in the Clay” Verity Jones has an excellent graphic summarizing the different levels of disagreement. The graphic deserves wider circulation. The types of disagreement range in a spectrum from the strongest, refuting the author’s central point, all the way down to the weakest, name-calling. Here’s the graphic:

grahams hierarchy of disagreement.png

The graphic is based on How to Disagree by Paul Graham, which is well worth reading.

One thing I’d like to highlight is that in the linked article the author says (emphasis mine):

DH5. Refutation.

The most convincing form of disagreement is refutation. It’s also the rarest, because it’s the most work. Indeed, the disagreement hierarchy forms a kind of pyramid, in the sense that the higher you go the fewer instances you find.

To refute someone you probably have to quote them. You have to find a “smoking gun,” a passage in whatever you disagree with that you feel is mistaken, and then explain why it’s mistaken. If you can’t find an actual quote to disagree with, you may be arguing with a straw man.

I bring all of this forward to encourage both myself and others to up our game both online and offline, to aspire in all of our discussions to the higher levels of the pyramid shown above, and to eschew the lower levels.

Oh, and also to encourage people regarding my permanent postscript about quoting what you are discussing, which you can see below right above the comment window.

Regards to everyone on a day when we’ve been blessed here with both rain and sunshine,


Further Reading: Verity Jones’s article is here.

10 thoughts on “Agreeing To Disagree

  1. Thanks Willis.
    I observe that in the comments sections of most online news stories (eg The Guardian,etc) where someone contests a promoted aspect of particularly the CAGW proposition, that comment is invariably met with responses of the bottom 4 levels varieties of the graphic –
    Name-Calling. Ad Hominem, Responding To Tone, Contradiction.
    Which is why I have given up reading the comments sections of many “progressive” outlets like The Guardian.
    You can’t debate zealots.


  2. I wonder where my favorite disagreement “get well soon” belongs. Somewhere at the bottom, for sure (it is meant that way), but where exactly? If it sounds like a disrespect for the pyramid, yes, it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • George, “where my favorite disagreement “get well soon” belongs” -clearly ad hom, as you are saying the person is sick.


  3. A related idea is the intensity of disagreement. Too often a proposition is offered as “all or nothing” — my way or the highway, you must be with me or you are against me, pick good or choose evil. Whether or not one actually agrees, this overlooks how committed or loyal the response may be to the idea.

    The phone surveys that solicit responses via a touch tone point scale have, for once, the right idea. I think a seven-point range is useful. A score of “4” is how I respond when I might be totally ambivalent. A score of “3” or “5” is where I exert myself to speak against (3) or for (4) the proposal. At “2” or “6”, I would be bringing physical resources to bear on the debate — contributing time or money to a campaign against, or for, an idea — or even being willing to offer physical force. At the extremes, “1” or “7”, the effort is existential — I would be willing to deploy OTHER PEOPLE’S resources to oppose, or support, the goal. This is like drafting/conscripting an army to (1) oppose an invader or taxing your property to (7) build a great “thing”.

    Suppose the town is splitting the public water service off from the old, city, system. So the town’s existing water towers must be painted a new color to distinguish them from the city’s towers. The committee proposes we paint the towers light blue. I am a 4 on the issue. We must also decide if we will fluoridate the water in our local treatment processes. There are some small costs. There are, traditionally, some claims of, dental benefits. There is philosophical question about whether a public/government power should choose how to medicate the population. Here, I am a 3. Another, more expensive, water additive has been provided by the city — that prevents lead from leaking/leeching from old pipes into the tap water. Only a very few homes in town have pipes so afflicted — a dozen or so very old “classic” houses built around 1900, and just under a hundred 1950s era mobile homes. Should the town continue to add anti-lead chemicals? I am a 2 — I would contribute to a one-time fix for the few homes rather than, as I would see, contaminate everyone’s water in the other few thousand homes. The committee also takes note of an offer from a commercial firm that offers to buy, operate, and sell the town our water as a for-profit business rather than a public utility. Uhm …

    Anyhow, it seems to me that deciding, for myself if no other, how intensely I regard a dispute must happen before I get into the discussion to analyze just exactly where a proposition goes off the rails.


  4. Willis great post. I often use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a guide to behavior, mine as well as others. I really like the way the hierarchy to disagreement is laid out,. I will be using it for my rebuttals and encourage those I engage in conversation to use this hierarchy.. Thanks so much for the post


  5. Willis writes: “Oh, and also to encourage people regarding my permanent postscript about quoting what you are discussing, […]”

    I’m a strong believer in at least putting the bit of a post or comment I’m responding to in italics and with quotation marks, and if it’s a longer snippet, bolding what really I’m most responding to.

    (The other one that bugs me is using ‘they’ when I have no clue who ‘they’ are. I want to know; just who in the heck are ‘they’?)


  6. Add another layer. The person who quickly goes off topic and presents a semi reasoned argument which does not address the point of the original article and gets everyone else off on the rabbit trail. It is an excellent technique and I see it much too often.


  7. Thank you very much for this well-composed article! I just wrote a post on my blog about the art of disagreement. It would be great if you could check it out and let me know your thoughts 🙂


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