Collaborative Truth-Seeking Starter Kit… or: Arguing on the Internet: You’re Doing It Wrong!

Are you frustrated by how many people believe or support something you think is harmful and wrong? Do you run into problems when you try to engage with them and persuade them to reconsider their position? Do such attempts often lead to hostile arguments? 

Would you like to more effectively represent your ideas to the world and garner more cooperation and support? 

In this article we will explore the basics of collaborative truth-seeking and how to help people work together on a shared understanding of reality. 

What’s going on?

If you’re spending time to try to get people to rethink their opinions, it’s safe to assume that there’s some sort of negative consequence to their current incorrect position, or a positive outcome that you need them to participate in. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be all that important to change their minds. Even so, many arguments end up being pointless, or worse, because they fail to achieve their objective. 

Let’s look at an extremely controversial topic to illustrate this point: climate change. The climate change debate has two extreme opposing positions. At one extreme are the environmentalists arguing that humans are causing catastrophic environmental damage and need to take immediate and drastic action to mitigate and attempt to reverse this damage. At the other extreme, we have industrialists arguing that no such action is necessary and that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax. There are plenty of people with positions well between these extremes, but those people tend to get sucked towards one end or the other when they get into discussions with people they disagree with. 

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Anthropogenic climate change is not to be confused with anthropomorphic climate change.
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The latter is a purely Al-le-Gore-ical depiction. …Wait, come back! I’m sorry!

At every opportunity, the extreme environmentalists and industrialists take cheap shots at each other’s ideas and reasoning. They play tug of war with the facts, triumphantly brandishing any scientific study that supports their side or refutes something on the other side, while reflexively condemning any study that does the reverse. Each side plays the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” card to intimidate people with similar beliefs into backing up anything they say. This behavior leads those who don’t fall in line to rally at the opposite end, and it goes back and forth until everyone is on a side and hates everyone on the other side for ignoring the obvious facts. Everyone becomes the punchline of somebody else’s joke. 

Climate change seems like it would be a question of pure science, though. Why does a topic that should be informed by dispassionate reason inspire such irrational hostility? Why can’t we agree on the reality of the situation and what to do about it? 

Part of the reason for the problem is that reason is only part of the problem. That is, no problem is ever defined by dispassionate reason alone. After all, a problem is defined by what “ought” to happen. Dispassionate reasoning is all about what “is,” and you can’t derive an “ought” from only what “is.” To get an “ought,” you also need to start with another “ought.” Every problem originates not just from objective reality, but also from people’s feelings about what ought to be. Our desires and fears lead us to judge some outcomes better than others, and anything that makes it difficult to get to the better outcomes becomes a problem. When people argue with each other about what ought to happen and what ought to be done to make it so, they can’t begin by tossing facts about what is at each other. They’re skipping crucial steps in defining the problem. 

Step one

Step one is to understand your own values and goals. It may sound trivial, but it’s vitally important. Without a clear picture of which goals are your end goals—what you truly care about—and which goals are just a means to those ends, you can’t engage meaningfully with other people. They won’t acknowledge your perspective of the problem if they don’t understand what’s at stake for you. Furthermore, losing sight of what you actually want will get you bogged down disputing points that you don’t really care about. You won’t have a way to tell when your adversaries are starting to agree with you and need more encouragement, or when you can safely concede a point to keep things moving. If they try to compromise and you rebuff their overture, you and your priorities will lose credibility in their eyes. 

Eventually you’ll find yourself instinctively opposing your ideological rivals as much as possible, regardless of whether it’s productive. You’ll recognize no options but total war or unconditional surrender. There won’t be any middle ground between “give me everything I want” and “take everything I have”. 

Unfortunately, many people get caught up in the conflict and forget their core objectives. If you want to succeed, you have to remember what success means to you. When you define your basic goals and values as simply as possible, you open up more opportunities for achieving them. The more accommodating you are when negotiating the methods of solving a problem, the more goodwill you can build and the more the discussion will benefit your real goals, one way or another. 

I recommend that before engaging, before the raw emotions of an argument, you perform step one by reflecting on your bare minimum criteria for an acceptable outcome. It becomes much more difficult to do that once the conversation has started. If you ever plan on discussing a divisive topic, first spend some time alone or with cool-headed allies to figure out your true feelings on it and prepare to explain why you may be passionate about it. 

Here are some key questions you can ask yourself to help identify your true goals and values: 

“What do I appreciate about the status quo? What do I wish were different? What would I consider an ideal change, ignoring the question of how we would achieve it? What would I consider an acceptable step towards that change? What is the worst case scenario that I fear? What do I think might lead us there, and why? How do the status quo and the good or bad possible changes affect my life and the lives of people I care about?” 

Step two

Step two is the mirror image of step one. It is to understand the goals and values of the person or group with whom you are arguing. If you don’t understand what they want, you won’t know how to satisfy their concerns, so what you say will not matter to them. If step one should be done before the argument, step two is the first thing you should do once it starts: listen, engage, and ask questions to understand more about the other person’s point of view, while suspending judgment. 

You don’t have to accept what they say at face value, though. If you don’t understand a person’s goals or what they consider important, by all means to continue to ask questions. You may also want to check out my previous article describing political inclinations in terms of fundamental liabilities, which lends perspective to the legitimacy of different concerns. 

If you think that someone might have lost sight of their own true goal, you can suggest what you think their true goal may be, as long as it doesn’t impugn their character or insult their intelligence. They will resist or reject a suggestion that reflects negatively on them, even if it could be partly accurate. However, there are almost always ways to present your sincere guesses in a respectful and sympathetic light. Understanding the different ways people respond to fundamental liabilities will help with that. 

Here are some key questions you can ask a person to help identify their true goals and values: 

“I suspect that the reason you’re concerned about X is that you think it would cause Y because of Z. Is that right?” “I can understand the importance of A. If there were a way to achieve A other than method B, would that be alright? Or is method B important because it also accomplishes C?” “May I ask what criteria you look at to figure out whether something is getting to be a problem? … Is criterion P a sign of problem Q? What if we used criterion R instead, to avoid false alarms?” “Am I asking the wrong question?” 

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Our volunteers demonstrate how not to perform step two. …In retrospect, maybe showing nude models doing something isn’t the best way to persuade people not to do it. 

Applying steps one and two

To see the first two steps in action, we’ll expand on our climate change example. What are the values and concerns of the two major extremes involved? We’ll unpack their concerns below in order to identify their values. 

Environmentalists are concerned that human activity is altering the environment in ways that are unsustainable in the long-term. They fear that the environment will become damaged and inhospitable to existing Earth life, including humans. In liability terms, they feel that industrialists are acting with wastefulness and negligence, and will incur scarcity of resources and a greater risk of natural disasters as a result. What the environmentalists want is for society to start trying to reduce the damage that industry does to the environment, so that humans won’t have to worry about being able to survive on Earth for the long-term and so that Earth’s ecosystems will continue to thrive largely undisturbed by human civilization. 

Industrialists are concerned that environmental regulations are hurting the economy and preventing people from overcoming poverty and becoming prosperous. They fear that the economy will suffer as a result of the jobs lost by increasing the cost or decreasing the consumption of artificial goods. In liability terms, they feel that environmentalists are acting with austerity towards the use of natural resources, but with wastefulness towards the funding of alternative technologies that are currently more expensive, and with negligence towards the effects of environmental regulations on the economy. The industrialists are concerned that these policies will worsen the scarcity of wealth for lower-income people, and increase vulnerability to economic disaster. What they want is for people to enjoy plentiful jobs and inexpensive goods and services, so that they don’t have to worry about having enough money to live decent, comfortable lives and so that society will thrive largely uninhibited by bureaucratic interference. 

Steps one and two reveal the values that inform what sorts of facts are relevant to the situation. By having a solid sense of what’s relevant and what isn’t, you can prevent unnecessary conflict and limit the time you spend on tangential issues. 

Additionally, after you complete step two, you can more easily explain your own values to others. They will be more receptive to your concerns after you’ve demonstrated you appreciate theirs. Once you both understand each other’s values, you can begin looking for solutions that address all of those values simultaneously. 

Step three

Understanding everyone’s different values leads us to step three. We already established that if you’re arguing about the truth, you’re actually trying to solve a problem. That means that collaborative truth-seeking is actually collaborative problem-solving. Steps one and two give you pieces of the problem description from the perspectives of the different stakeholders (you and everyone else involved), and the stakeholders’ criteria for an acceptable solution. Step three is to frame the problem constructively

Framing the problem constructively allows you to brainstorm solutions to fulfill the criteria of all the stakeholders. “Constructively” means thinking win-win, using creativity to avoid any group having to surrender their most important values. However, it also reflects that you may need to put in the effort to build solutions that go beyond what you or your erstwhile adversaries had imagined when you were only concerned with getting your own way. 

These solutions will usually be better for the work invested, though. After all, as we saw in the liabilities article, even those you consider your adversaries may have good reasons to be concerned. More fundamentally, whenever one group “loses,” society as a whole is harmed. If we have a system that ensures someone is always suffering or treated unfairly, we would all benefit to replace it with a better one. 

Here are some key questions you can ask to help frame the problem constructively: 

What assumptions are we making about the solution that are limiting our thinking? How can we fulfill this goal even if it’s not in the way we expected? What simple thing could I do to help you get what you want, or vice versa? Is there a way we could make a larger change together to accomplish both our goals, and to provide even more benefits? What can we do to establish and maintain a relationship of trust during this collaboration? 

Applying step three

Let’s see how step three plays out with the climate change debate. We want to protect the environment but also maintain the economy. We saw that the liabilities in play here are scarcity and disaster, which are counteracted by investment and exposure, respectively. If we can invest in anti-poverty measures to boost the economy without relying on unsustainable use of natural resources, then the industrialists will be happy. If we can develop a plan for decreasing the environmental impact of the economy within a certain time frame, giving the market enough time to adjust through step-by-step exposure, then the environmentalists will be happy. 

As it happens, when we examine the relationship between poverty and the environment, we find that the goal of eliminating poverty is inextricable from environmental concerns. Not only are impoverished people globally more directly affected by environmental deterioration (being less insulated from nature), but poverty itself contributes to said deterioration. People living in destitution around the world are more likely to dispose of waste improperly and exploit natural resources in unsustainable ways (such as destroying rainforests to expand farmland), because they can’t afford the luxury of worrying about sustainable practices. Reducing harm to the environment requires the alleviation of poverty, so any solution for the latter will be win-win. (If you want to dig into the nuances of the situation, you can search for the keywords “poverty” and “environmentalism” together and bask in the wealth of information that pops up. This example is merely to illustrate the application of step three. The economy alone is its own can of worms which I opened in the article Economies are Made of People.) 

As far as decreasing environmental impact goes, it turns out that green technology can actually be more profitable than regular polluting technology, but the polarized environmentalist/industrialist debate has persuaded the public that environmentally friendly manufacturing is inherently worse for the economy. As a perverse result, companies are afraid to openly implement sustainable measures, which only perpetuates the myth. This problem just goes to show that when people try to equate their victory with an enemy’s defeat and vice versa, it’s a lot easier for everyone to lose. 

Recap

To sum up, here are the steps: 

  1. Understand your own values and goals
  2. Understand the goals and values of the other person or group
  3. Frame the problem constructively

Disclaimer

Now that we’ve seen the benefits of these three steps, I owe you a disclaimer. It is entirely possible for some individuals and groups to have unethical or otherwise anti-social values. Their goals may be incompatible with constructive, win-win solutions. They will be reluctant to admit it, because they rely on appearing reasonable in order to garner support from people adjacent to their ideological position. However, you can recognize them and their true values by which solutions they accept. If you continue to listen to their concerns and propose solutions to address them, but they reject your suggestions for reasons you don’t quite buy, it just might be because they are hiding their true concerns. 

For example, an anti-social industrialist may value becoming rich and powerful. If you propose a solution that makes people in general more prosperous but reduces the income of the industrialist’s business, they may look for reasons to reject it. An anti-social environmentalist may value wiping out civilization and reducing humanity back to hunting and gathering. If you offer a solution that preserves the environment but leaves cities and farmland intact, they may contrive arguments against it. 

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An antisocial cat may decline your party invitation with the excuse that it’s busy licking its fur.

Worse, your own bias may lead you to mistakenly conclude a person is arguing in bad faith. You may dismiss them or accuse them of selfishness or malice instead of recognizing a misunderstanding. 

Luckily, if you use the three-step process to discuss policy and ideology, you don’t have to spend much time on figuring out who is genuine. As long as you engage with enough different points of view to represent the key stakeholder perspectives for a particular situation, you can choose to speak with only the people who are most enlightening, regardless of their potential ulterior motives, and ignore the people who are difficult to communicate with, sincere or otherwise. 

That said, if you hit a wall on any step, go back to the previous step. If you keep hitting a wall, you may want to find someone easier to talk with, so you can both figure out an agreeable solution to the situation. 

Conclusion

With practice, you’ll be able to use the three-step process with greater ease and with more different people. Most people out there really do want win-win solutions. As you learn more about people and what they value, and get better at coming up with constructive solutions that respect their values, you will find that more and more people are willing to cooperate with your goals and reject those who argue in bad faith or who have destructive goals. 

You may not succeed in persuading everyone, but once you start you’ll immediately see a dramatic difference in the quality of your interactions. The more you try, the more constructive your world will become. 

For more about how to listen to people and look at the situation from the same side of the table, check out Difficult Conversations. For more about how to think win-win, check out The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For an organization working to help more people engage in collaborative truth-seeking, check out Intentional Insights (full disclosure: I used to be on the board of directors). For an entertaining in-depth breakdown of how collaborative truth-seeking (and the absence of it) shapes human society and affects your own life, check out the The Story of Us article series from Wait But Why. For another article about constructive disagreement, check out Educated Minds Unite. For more of my opinions on modern politics, check out Politician Noises and the Overdue Fake News Article. To leave a message with your opinion, or suggestions for other key questions, enter and post a comment. 

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Sources and links

Coburn, Cassandra. “Why industry is going green on the quiet.” The Guardian. September 8, 2019. Web. Accessed October 12, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/sep/08/producers-keep-sustainable-practices-secret

Covey, Stephen. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, Free Press, 1989. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_7_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_People

Dev Bharadwaj, Niranjan. “The relationship between poverty and the environment”. Voices of Youth. November 5, 2016. Web. Accessed October 12, 2019. https://www.voicesofyouth.org/blog/relationship-between-poverty-and-environment

Stone, Douglas, with Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. London, Penguin Books, 1999. https://smile.amazon.com/Difficult-Conversations-Discuss-What-Matters/dp/0143118447/ref=smi_www_rco2_go_smi_g2609328962?_encoding=UTF8&%2AVersion%2A=1&%2Aentries%2A=0&ie=UTF8

Urban, Tim. The Story of Us: Full Series.” Wait But Why. August 2019. https://waitbutwhy.com/2019/08/story-of-us.html

Images

Collaboration image by rawpixel from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/business-business-people-3421076/

Skull Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabayhttps://pixabay.com/photos/spirit-ghost-person-nightmare-3058631/  

Al Gore Image by johnsanderson12 from Pixabayhttps://pixabay.com/illustrations/celebrity-caricature-al-gore-986833/

Win-lose image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabayhttps://pixabay.com/photos/suppression-violent-victory-winner-3048645/

Cat image by Erika Varga from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/kitten-cat-shy-harlequin-hairy-3855519/

Phone image by succo from Pixabayhttps://pixabay.com/photos/phone-communication-connection-351896/