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Conversation Halters

38 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 February 2010 03:00PM

Related toLogical Rudeness, Semantic Stopsigns

While working on my book, I found in passing that I'd developed a list of what I started out calling "stonewalls", but have since decided to refer to as "conversation halters".  These tactics of argument are distinguished by their being attempts to cut off the flow of debate - which is rarely the wisest way to think, and should certainly rate an alarm bell.

Here's my assembled list, on which I shall expand shortly:

  • Appeal to permanent unknowability;
  • Appeal to humility;
  • Appeal to egalitarianism;
  • Appeal to common guilt;
  • Appeal to inner privacy;
  • Appeal to personal freedom;
  • Appeal to arbitrariness;
  • Appeal to inescapable assumptions.
  • Appeal to unquestionable authority;
  • Appeal to absolute certainty.

Now all of these might seem like dodgy moves, some dodgier than others.  But they become dodgier still when you take a step back, feel the flow of debate, observe the cognitive traffic signals, and view these as attempts to cut off the flow of further debate.

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The Modesty Argument

28 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 December 2006 09:42PM

The Modesty Argument states that when two or more human beings have common knowledge that they disagree about a question of simple fact, they should each adjust their probability estimates in the direction of the others'.  (For example, they might adopt the common mean of their probability distributions.  If we use the logarithmic scoring rule, then the score of the average of a set of probability distributions is better than the average of the scores of the individual distributions, by Jensen's inequality.)

Put more simply:  When you disagree with someone, even after talking over your reasons, the Modesty Argument claims that you should each adjust your probability estimates toward the other's, and keep doing this until you agree.  The Modesty Argument is inspired by Aumann's Agreement Theorem, a very famous and oft-generalized result which shows that genuine Bayesians literally cannot agree to disagree; if genuine Bayesians have common knowledge of their individual probability estimates, they must all have the same probability estimate.  ("Common knowledge" means that I know you disagree, you know I know you disagree, etc.)

I've always been suspicious of the Modesty Argument.  It's been a long-running debate between myself and Robin Hanson.

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