Learning from people you disagree with

Who are the people you admire despite disagreeing with? What have you learnt from them?

One of the most prominent logical fallacies in a debate is to attack somebody personally rather than the merit of their argument. This fallacy is called ad hominem – it translates to “to the person”. Paul Graham lists ad hominem as the second type of argument in his Hierarchy of Disagreements. Let us look at a few examples of ad hominem.

File:Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement.jpg
Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement – Source

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, and Peter Thiel, the serial entreprenuer, are both Donald Trump supporters. Adams is an excellent cartoonist and author. Thiel is an authority on innovation and startups. An ad hominem attack would be to reject their ideas because nothing good can come of people who support Donald Trump. Another example would be to reject a legislator’s idea for lowering taxes because she is alcoholic. While those arguments may sound legitimate, that is mostly an illusion.

The prevalence of ad hominem is due to our brain’s inherent craving for consistency in the information we receive. The “halo effect” is one other phenomenon that is brought about due to this tendency. The halo effect occurs when we take our limited impression about a person to make assumptions about their proficiency in other unrelated areas. It leads us to believe that a handsome politician is also honest or that an entrepreneur who wakes up early would be successful. Honesty has little to do with good looks and waking up at 5 AM certainly does not guarantee the success of your venture. The halo effect makes the following statement sound absurd – Adolf Hitler loved dogs and children. This is because our brains struggle to accept that a person as cruel as Hitler was capable of kindness.

Both the halo effect and ad hominem distort our understanding of truth by simplifying the world in search for consistency. Both these fallacies stem from our inability to separate ideas or qualities from the identities of the people who have them. To clump together is to simplify, while to separate is to complicate.

Making the separation, though, allows us to see the world for what it is. It makes us more objective, and less susceptible to manipulation by emotional but incorrect arguments. It also allows us learn from people we fundamentally disagree with. It liberates us to enjoy Scott Adam’s Dilbert cartoons and appreciate the lessons contained in Peter Theil’s Zero to One, while despising Donald Trump.

Inspiration:

  1. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
  2. Paul Graham’s essay on How to Disagree

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