Debugging conversations

There's one particular method of conversation that can be annoying as hell, if you do not understand it. I call it "debugging", as I seem to most hit it in the technology-savvy crowd. It also seems to be the weapon of choice in many net conversations, especially in the USENET.

The typical debugger views a stated argument as a true/false statement - either it's completely true, or completely false. It is only true if all of the sentences in that statement are verifiably true, and therefore it is okay to attack the weakest link of the sentence, because if that can be proven false - or even uncertain - the entire argument collapses like a flan in a cupboard.

It's just like software: a single flaw in an otherwise perfect algorithm will render it useless - or even dangerous. That is why it is important to find the flaw, and not concentrate on the bits that already work. This is the strange dualism of computer programming - in order to make the whole function, you must concentrate on the smallest details. This is why I call this conversation method "debugging" - the process of finding bugs in opinions.

But that is, I hear you cry, the tried and true method of scientific debate! True. And it is the reason why we have so much wonderful science to fill our lives these days, so provably it works. And it is good at accomplishing the task of producing something that could be called the objective truth - an approximation of reality.

Unfortunately, this principle of scientific debate should not be applied blindly everywhere - for example, on opinions or generally speaking on things that simply are not properly constructed hypotheses. And this is where a great many people fail to see the difference. Especially on the internet, where all text is created equal.

I have a feeling that the geek population is particularly susceptible to falling prone to this, as geeks (and by "geek" I do not mean computer nerd, but the technologically apt, intelligent thinker population) are in general very good at abstracting issues and separating arguments from the people who say them. A trait, which is both a blessing and a curse.

They (or perhaps I should say "we", as I definitely struggle sometimes with this) often ignore the fact that the rest of the world can view things in a completely different manner, and that they cannot - or will not - cope with the rigorousness of scientific debate. Deconstructing an opinion may well be considered a personal attack on that person's freedom of expression - and the heated debate is on: In the other corner, the calm and collected geek, who feels superior to his opponent, who is foaming from the corners of his mouth, dissecting the conversation as if it were a dead animal; and in the other corner, the humanist who's growing desperate at the geek's inability to comprehend the most obvious things that should be graspable intuitively by anyone with half a brain.

The really annoying thing is that these conversations simply cannot end, if the object of discussion cannot be conclusively proven true or false (which is the case with opinions, like "I liked this movie, even though it was all crappy"), or the hypothesis in question is non-testable (as is the case with most humanist fields, or this article). Therefore, if you find yourself caught in this kind of a nit-picking conversation, please remember that it will continue perpetually - much like motion in free space, unless some external force ends it (hunger, time, passing out, homicide, end-of-the-universe) - because the conversation is not really about right or wrong; it is about the validity and integrity of statements. And to prove one, you have to provide another. Which needs to be validated and integrificated (heh). And so on, ad nauseam.

This is not only an internet phenomenon, though it seems to flourish there. I've seen it happen in normal conversations as well - that have often been powered by beer - and frankly, I haven't yet lived long enough to see if there is any trend there or not. Probably someone smarter and more learned could tell you more. I've just learned to recognize it, but my gut feeling is that this has been going on for hundreds of years, from the times of the earliest monks who had fierce debates on holy scriptures.

The intellectual challenge of a good debate is a wonderful thing, and works great and is fun, if (and only if) all players agree to it. So, dear geek friends, whenever you get into a situation which seems to be such that your opponent seems to be annoyed by you, take a step back, and check that you actually are in a debate, and not in a friendly conversation.

(And vice versa, whenever you are in a conversation with a geek and feel your rage building up when repeating the same things for the umpteenth time, just try and understand that he is viewing your conversation as a dispassionate scientific argument. Or he is deliberately trying to annoy you. Figure out which, and then kick him in the shin.)

It would make my - and believe it or not, also your - life so much more comfortable.


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"Debugging Conversations" last changed on 31-Dec-2004 02:29:08 EET by JanneJalkanen.

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