Rules for Criticizing Opponents

Below is an excerpt from Dan Dennett’s article article “tools for thinking”.  I heard an interview with him on Point of Inquiry, which I would say was just “ok”.  I wanted to hear more about the tools, and too much of the interview time was spent talking about free will and consciousness.

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view – and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harbouring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack.

But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said). Following Rapoport’s rules is always, for me, something of a struggle…

I like these rules, in theory, and perhaps I should try practicing them more strictly to see if they are valuable in practice.  I think the context might matter.  In a debate, with limited time, it might not work.  It may also not work well if you suspect that your opponent is going to quote-mine the heck out of your response.  However, it may be a good attitude to develop, and keep one from falling into closed-minded arrogance.  Even if one doesn’t communicate this directly, forcing yourself to itemize points of agreement is probably a good thing, and it is always a good idea to be able to communicate ones opponents position with fidelity.

A quick survey of responses of people who don’t like Dan Dennett claim that he isn’t putting these words to good use himself, although I think he probably comes closer than the other “horsemen” (i.e. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens).



About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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5 Responses to Rules for Criticizing Opponents

  1. Tim says:

    These are great rules. The world would be a paradise if everyone followed them.

    I think Harris does a pretty good job in this area. His ideas are so foreign to most Christians’ minds that no matter how polite he is, no matter how carefully guarded his speech, some people are going to say he’s offensive when they realize what he’s saying. But he tries. Hitchens (God rest his soul — LOL, I couldn’t resist) is on the other side of that spectrum.

    The ultimate model of these rules, in my opinion, was Carl Sagan.

  2. John Smith says:

    Hmm, I wondered why my ears were burning 😉

    “But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience ….”

    My main interest in debate is evolution and religion, so I engage creationists on a regular basis. I don’t think any clear-thinking person wouldn’t view them as ridiculously easy targets, but I still think they’re worth engaging, because they constitute the vast majority of the U.S. population and wield enormous political and cultural power.

    As I think I’ve already demonstrated, it’s hard to bite one’s tongue when responding to some of their arguments. They frequently say one thing in one place and then say the exact opposite somewhere else. At what point is it permissible to call a spade a spade? After five times? After ten? Twenty?

    I encountered one woman a couple of years ago who was absolutely convinced that man could not possibly have evolved from an ape-like species, because the odds of the first human man and woman having compatible sex organs made it essentially a statistical impossibility. It would take multiple centuries for males to evolve a penis, in her view, and it would have been impossible for the species to survive in the interim. Presto! An air-tight argument for ID. What part of that argument am I supposed to express agreement with?

    Duane Gish, one of the most famous creationist debaters in the last half of the last century once claimed during a debate that some bullfrog proteins were more similar to human proteins than some chimp proteins were. When challenged for documentation, Gish said he had the cite in his office and would send it to the challenger. After a few months with no citation, the challenger requested it again, and again Gish said he would provide it. That went on for many more months, during which time Gish repeated his claim in other debates, but never ever provided any citation to anyone, even though he continued to maintain that he had it “back in his office.”

    At what point is it permissible to call a spade a spade?

    • I think I could detect some points of agreement with that woman.

      For example, I would agree with her that evolution could be discredited if it could be shown to be making claims that are impossible. One wants to be careful about claims of “irreducible complexity”, because someone smarter than you might find a way to “reduce” the complexity. But if one could prove that some part of the evolutionary process were actually fundamentally impossible, than we would have to take that seriously.

      Also, we could agree that any time a scientist makes a claim, we are within our rights to question it, to doubt it, if it seems unwarranted by the evidence. We should all agree that there’s no such thing as a “stupid question”. If a scientist is claiming that humans evolved from a sexually incompatible species in one generation (or if we think that’s what the scientist is claiming), then we are right to ask how that could have happened. Kudos to this woman for being bold enough to point out what she sees as a fatal flaw in evolutionary theory! This is now science moves forward! Never accept anything on authority. Ask your questions, but be willing to think about the answers. If you have misunderstood the problem, be willing to admit your own errors as eagerly as you search for them in others!

      I would then point out to the woman that apes have penises much like our own. And that evolutionists do not claim that any species evolved from another in one generation.

      If she were a Christian, I would encourage her to read Francis Collins’ “The Language of God”. He has a fantastic analogy in there of a copy machine and a room full of paper that I love.

  3. brianblais says:

    John you ask “What part of that argument am I supposed to express agreement with?” and I think the exercise is a valuable one. I don’t think the rule implies that it is necessarily a part of the *argument* with which you agree, but just the points related to the argument with which you agree. For example, in the particular case of the woman arguing for ID, you both probably agree that truth matters. She probably feels that religious “truth” is more reliable than scientific, but she nevertheless probably believes that truth matters. You could also find many things that she values in her religious experience, that you also value, just without all of the superstitious nonsense.

    Tim is absolutely right that Carl Sagan embodied these rules extremely well. I also agree that Sam Harris is similar, it’s just that he phrases things quite directly which puts some people off. Dawkins and Hitchens don’t do these rules much. 🙂

    “At what point is it permissible to call a spade a spade?” I’d say, at all points, but there are ways of doing it. Consider Project Steve, for example. ( It’s a great reaction that calls a spade a spade, but in a funny way. Or, perhaps one could put up one of those signs like the “100 days without injury” you see, but “100 days without Gish’s claimed evidence sitting in his office” You can’t *prove* he’s lying, even though you may suspect it, but you can highlight the problem without actually accusing him of lying.

    Of course all of this is hard, and takes patience, something I don’t succeed at all the time. 🙂

  4. ssasser1 says:

    I guess it depends on what you’re in the mood for. Hitchens was hilarious and brilliant even though his oratorical style probably just succeeded in making people on either side of the debate dig their heels in even deeper. If you want a more carefully reasoned, diplomatic approach, i would say Harris is the way to go.

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