Why do debates derail so often? I’ve read an interesting diagnosis in the article “Weak men are superweapons“, by the psychiatrist Scott Alexander. He points out that, when people argue against a position they don’t like (e.g. opposite political ideas), they tend to debate the least representative and most grotesque argument in support of that position. He calls this the “weak man argument”:
“The weak man is a terrible argument that only a few unrepresentative people hold, which was only brought to prominence so your side had something easy to defeat”
What’s particularly interesting is what happens after people “weak man” a group: surprisingly, the members of the group under attack will start defending the unrepresentative argument, even when they don’t agree with it! They do it because they fear that the defeat of any argument (even the shitty ones) in favour of their ideas would reflect badly on those ideas:
“When people see a terrible argument for an idea get defeated, they are more likely to doubt the idea later on, even if much better arguments show up”
And what’s the most effective way to fight back? Of course: throwing a second weak man argument at the opposing group!
Needless to say, this dynamic makes the entire debate a waste of time. That’s how we end up, for example, with “a stupid fight between atheists who don’t care about Westboro [an American hyper-Calvinist hate group] and religious people who don’t support them“.
Shortly after reading the article I started seeing this pattern everywhere. In particular I came across a Twitter’s debate that reflected it perfectly. I will analyse it here as a useful way of exploring Scott’s article.
Story of a (minor) disagreement
I will first describe in general terms what the disagreement is really about as I came to understand it (knowing the ideas of the people involved from their past writing) and then I will analyse how the debate unfolded and derailed.
In short, the disagreement is between people who believe that the scientific community is sometimes affected by political and cultural biases, and people who believe that the scientific community is often affected by political and cultural biases. If it doesn’t sound like a big deal of a disagreement, well, I agree with you…
For the sake of simplicity, I will call the first group “the optimists”, and the second group “the cautious”. Note that both groups believe that scientific facts (defined as those facts about nature that scientists study) are real, and they both believe that scientists are humans affected by bias. They only disagree about the degree by which scientists are prone to biases.
Story of a (major) debate
The “optimists” and the “cautious” don’t differ much, but weak man arguments can amplify even the smallest differences, like an optical illusion.
The debate started with the famous evolutionist Richard Dawkins – a member of the “optimist” group in my definition – tweeting this:
Hundreds of people from the “cautious” group, including other prominent scientists and philosophers, criticised Dawkins’ criticising his take. Virtually all of the replies were variants of the argument “Science is made by humans so it is a fallible, social construct”. I will copy below only two examples, from two fairly famous scientists:
Shortly after this storm of critics, Dawkins replied with the following tweet:
What’s happening here? To me it’s pretty clear that the “optimists” and the “cautious” are throwing weak man arguments at each other:
- On the one hand, Rutherford, Pigliucci and the other “cautious” are clearly misinterpreting Dawkins’ original tweet. Sure, Dawkins is using the word “Science” in a way that can lend itself to ambiguity, since it can both mean “the community of scientists” and “the facts about nature that scientists discover”. The “cautious” are assuming he’s using the former meaning, hence their critique. The weak man argument they’re attacking is the argument “scientists are never wrong”, which is an argument that some people do indeed believe1. But does it really make sense to assume that Dawkins meant that? Does it really make sense to assume that Richard Dawkins, a scientist who became famous for refuting what other scientists believed was true about Darwinian evolution, thinks “scientists can never be wrong”?2
- On the other hand, I have the feeling that here Dawkins is weak manning too. From his second tweet we learn that his statement about science’s truths was targeted at people who deny objective reality, whom he calls “postmodern pseuds”. Now, I know such people exist and it’s possible that Dawkins has met a lot of them – in which case his exasperated tweet in defence of the existence of objective reality is justified, and I wouldn’t count it as a weak man argument. However, there aren’t a lot of those folks and I suspect Dawkins has been arguing much more often with enthusiast members of the “cautious” groups, who don’t really deny objective reality but they’re just very vocal about the ways in which scientists are not objective in their work. Instead of addressing their actual ideas, here Dawkins goes after the weak man argument “scientists are biased because there is no objective reality”.
And here we go: as explained by Scott Alexander, the never ending cycle of weak man arguments strikes again, blinding even (and maybe particularly) smart and educated people. We again end up with “a stupid fight between atheists who don’t care about Westboro and religious people who don’t support them“.
 Ironically, these tend to be people who don’t understand how science works.
 And if he was referring to the scientific community, how would the sentence “before there were any minds” even make sense?