18 September 2010 by Published in: rants 2 comments

This post has been a long time in coming.  I stopped reading HN over a month ago, so I’ve had some time to cool off.  I’ve been struggling to put my thoughts into words, and so this post has sat in the drafts folder until today I realized that it’s as well-thought-out as it’s ever going to be.  If you don’t want to be sucked in to a whirlwind flamewar about philosophy of learning and effective use of time, just stop reading now.  Find some feel-good post about Venture Capital and go read that instead. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Every community deteriorates over time.  Every community gets new members who don’t understand the rules (or the rules just change), and things just deteriorate.

I’m not saying that HN is somehow bad or awful or has turned into Reddit.  HN is in fact probably the shining example of how to keep a community pristine.  But it’s crossed my personal threshold.  I am very, very careful with my time, and as of late it’s become incredibly clear that HN has deteriorated to the point that I can no longer consider it time well spent.

Now before you lash out at me, ponder for a moment how hard it really is to let go of HN.  In some sense I think it’s like cutting off a limb.  HN was my go-to source for tech news.  It’s how I kept in touch with other programmers.  It’s how I got feedback on my business ideas and code (in fact, people still do submit my projects there… and it’s really really hard not to click on a link that’s responsible for thousands of visitors in your referrer logs.  OK, guilty).  And I have to do a lot of work to replicate those things without HN (e.g. actually go out and have coffee with programmers, actually use an RSS reader to get my tech news, actually talk to (gasp) customers about business ideas… the code review part I’m still working on)  But the thing I miss the most–the thing that’s hardest to replace for me–the thing that’s really most important, is the arguments.

I consider it extremely important–perhaps vital, even–to spend time engaging others intelligently who have diverging views from one’s own.  I think that this is, on the whole, one of the most valuable uses of one’s time that exists.  Whether it’s consulting a disagreeable book or a person, somehow at the intersection of intelligence and difference lies a “something” that is mind-expanding.  There are exceptions, of course, most of which chip away at either the intelligence or some quality of the debate itself.  But by and large, I find that the discussion itself–not the convincing, or the settlement, or the “agree to disagree”, but something innate in trying to understand another’s views enough to refute them that is the most powerful teacher.  With the right discussion, you can walk away with the same general idea as you started with or a totally different one, but by the experience you cannot help but be transformed and it’s only through a little friendly sparring that you truly find out what you know.

I’ve never felt the need to write this out in words–which is probably why the paragraph above is awkward.  It’s something that is innate to me; perhaps it’s even axiomatic.  I don’t even know where I would begin to convince you that it is true, but I can only say that I know it is true from my own experience–having arguments is how I’ve learned just about everything I know.

Since I am doing so poorly at this, here’s a quote from a book that has I think the essence of the same idea:

But the Second Friend is the man who disagrees with you about everything. He is not so much the alter ego as the antiself. Of course he shares your interests; otherwise he would not become your friend at all. But he has approached them all at a different angle. He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one. It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it.

Now of course there are bad arguments.

  • Arguments that reduce to a disagreement about semantics
  • Arguments of mere contradiction
  • Arguments that do not use something like the bisection method to find the first point of disagreement and study that point in detail.  These arguments often diverge rather than converge, i.e. Godwin’s law.
  • Arguments that stem from a disagreement about facts
  • Arguments on an entirely different intellectual plane, be it higher or lower, than one on which I can comfortably operate
  • Arguments that are a spectator sport, or otherwise take place in public in a way that prevents me from easily retracting my mistakes
  • Arguments in which I am dealing with a person of substantially higher or lower social status or perceived intelligence, particularly because this sort of thing commonly leads to ad-hominem attacks and unfair burden of proof, even in the best of cases
  • Unfair reasoning–that is, using of fallacies but also certain types of “unfair” lines of thought, i.e. “Your argument is stupid” (which is not exactly a non-sequiter)

This is by no means an exhaustive list.  It’s one I’ve compiled from experience.  When I am having an argument and I’m not learning anything, I can usually point to one or more of the things on the list as the reason why the argument has gone bad.  But we can only say that something has “gone bad” if we have an idea of what the good version is like.  And in spite of its rarity, a real argument is a very, very beneficial thing. It’s just hard to construct.

Semantic arguments are particularly insidious.  Trained logicians should know that semantic meaning is arbitrary (unless the actual argument is about language).  The worst thing you can do is to have an argument in which you talk past each other because you each have a different idea about what the words mean.  Abortion is the canonical example of this type of argument: once you have decided what “life” is, there’s really not much else to discuss.  It’s not a political argument, not even in theory.  It’s purely a semantic one.

But semantics come up in all sorts of arguments.  The respectable thing to do is to say “When I say tastefulness, I really mean this” and otherwise set up some technical terms so you can have a conversation that discusses actual things.  If you don’t lay a groundwork for the meaning of the words in the thesis of the argument, nothing else follows, and the entire thing can become a waste of time.  Even if we can’t come to terms on the meaning of tastefulness, perhaps we can substitute another word.  Or perhaps we must run in circles for a bit to find enough common ground to proceed.  But what we cannot do is say “Look here, now you’re being pedantic.”  When a semantic problem arises, the only polite and respectable response is to point it out and attempt to address it, no matter how trivial it may appear.  The troll is the one who lets the argument proceed so you can continue to talk past each other; the logician is the one who is willing to take time and effort to resolve the troublesome point.

Spectator sports are another common way for an argument to go bad.  When Congress has a debate, they are not really talking to each other.  They are posturing for the pundits and point-talkers who watch CNN.  This is why there can be no consensus in Congress and why so little gets done–there is no interest in solving problems, only in eloquent speech.  It’s not really an argument so much as a show.

When I started reading HN, I had a lot of really good arguments in the comments.  Things that expanded my mind, and all that good stuff.  But slowly the arguments “turned bad”, because an increasing number started having elements on the “bad list”.  And the last few weeks of my time there, all of the arguments were bad.  So it’s just not useful to me anymore.

For instance, I have had more semantic arguments the last month on HN than perhaps in any other month of my life.  Some of this is because HN is shifting away from a CS focus.  Now I don’t think this is inherently bad.  But it’s certainly a lot harder to have a disagreement about “What is a pointer” or “what is an integer” than it is to have an argument about “what is badness” or “what is underemployment.”  There are pitfalls in the humanities and the social sciences that don’t exist in formal subjects like CS or math, so if we go into them with the exact same cautiousness and carefulness as we do with CS or math we will end up much worse.  It’s simply harder not to drift into a semantic disagreement in an informal language.

It’s my perception that it’s also become much more of a spectator sport.  Perhaps I am alone in this, but I don’t remember very consciously thinking about appealing to lurkers when I wrote comments a year ago.  It’s gotten to the point now where I sometimes think about writing a comment to “send it out to gain karma” in the same way that I think about “sending off a unit to collect resources” in an RTS.  It’s deathly, horrible thinking that has come over me.  I can’t determine whether I am alone in this experience or if others have started thinking like me.  I also can’t figure out exactly what triggered it in my own mind.  But somehow, the perception of nameless faceless third parties that are the “true audience” of my writing has somehow changed the way I write.  It’s happened recently, and I hate it.

Those are the two that stand out to me, because I keep seeing them crop up, but I’ve seen isolated cases of just about everything else.  There was a well-voted comment in my last few days that was a simple refutation (‘mere contradiction’) of the parent.  I’ve seen an increasing number of well-received instances of large quantities of logical fallacies.  And I’ve seen an increasing number of replies to a detailed and thoughtful comment that say “There are so many errors in there I’m not going to refute you”, which is itself a type of meta-fallacy or mere contradiction.  I’ve seen a few examples of someone taking the polite road of “Wait a minute, let’s solve this semantic problem before we go any further,” only to be rejoined with “that semantic problem is stupid, how can you think that,” a terrible (perhaps unforgivable) sin.    I’ve seen arguments that stem from a disagreement about facts.  Worst of all, I saw a very insightful (apparently unpopular) comment with a high-voted rejoinder that basically quoted from it, contradicted it, and occasionally inserted some “I can’t believe you would say this in polite company” sort of remarks that failed to address the argument on the merits, but did have the effect that the poor soul who authored it was shamed into deleting it. Followed by a meta-meta-discussion of whether deleting comments should even be allowed. Better to let the someone stew in the shame of his logical argument, that’ll teach him.

But the clincher for me was an exchange I had some time ago (although I didn’t realize it at the time).  It was, on my end, a mostly positive bout although we did narrowly recover from trouble in a few places.  But when we reached the end, I was told “This was basically a waste of time for me and I can’t believe this is how I spent my evening.”  My opponent was not alone, because a third party jumped in and said “as interesting and as well-formed as this discussion is, it was also a waste of time for me reading it.”

I don’t mean to be that child who “takes his marbles and goes home”, but for me this is the end of the road.  I can understand that “bad arguments are bad”, as I’ve laid out in some detail, but this is something else entirely–the sort of discussion that is largely beneficial (or perhaps only ‘uncommonly beneficial’) in that it avoids more pitfalls than most–that rare gem that is capable of expanding my mind–yet it was still somehow judged insufficient.  Perhaps I can understand in a stiff academic way the sort of creature who would judge that sort of argument a poor use of time.  But I do not think that I can have a beneficial dialogue with that sort of person.  Because by definition, the thing that I value (perhaps) the most is of no worth to him.

So I’ve moved HN to my hosts file, and I am returning to the old way of learning–that is, arguing with people in person or via e-mail, reading disagreeable books, and the like.  It’s more intimate–more personal–perhaps more meaningful.  And if you’re the sort of person who shares enough common ground with me that you see the benefit of disagreements, drop me a line.  Some of my contacts for doing this have grown a little stale over the HN years.

I’ve talked about this at some length with my friends over the last month (some popular HNers, some not), and some of them have said “but can’t you just read the articles and not read the comments?  Just because the discussions have gone to hell doesn’t mean you have to leave; just ignore them.”  To me, the value of HN was never as a news site (this is what RSS readers are for).  The articles on HN are merely something to talk about.  It’s a pretext.  You don’t plan a dinner-and-a-movie to eat dinner and watch a movie; that’s just the pretext.  And I didn’t read HN because I thought it made a good news aggregator; I read it for the company.

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