Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Two Things You Should Never Argue About

There are two things you should never argue about: facts and opinions.

I took me nineteen years to learn not to argue about facts. I remember realizing it one day while riding in a car, having the usual argument with a person who shall remain nameless but loved to argue, when it occurred to me: why the heck are we arguing about this? Either I'm right, or he's right, or neither of us are right, and we'll find out when we go home and look it up.

Facts - facts that can be known or verified in some manner - are facts. What's the use of arguing about them? Now when I get into a disagreement about a fact, I meta the conversation: "We'll look that up when we can, but let us suppose that it is or isn't true for the moment. How does this affect what we're discussing?"

Of course, everyone basically understands that you can't win an argument about opinions: "This is better" or "That is better". No, "This is better to me", and "That is better to you". Better is in the eye of the beholder.

Even taking that conversation to meta level, you end up arguing "This is better because this has such and such properties, which are more important" vs "That is better because that has these other properties, which are more important". It's still in the realm of opinions.

For instance: Windows vs Unix. I think Unix is better. That's because I value X, Y, and Z about operating systems, which Unix is better at. If someone else values A, B, and C about operating systems, and Windows is better at these, then they think that Windows is better. So the real argument is whether X, Y, and Z are more important qualities in an operating system than A, B, and C.

Which is still a matter of opinion.

I'm sorely tempted to leave the post at this, because the statement:
There are two things you should never argue about: facts and opinions.
sounds like it encompasses all things, which would lead to the implied assertion: "You should never argue."

However, there is another thing, other than facts and opinions: ideas.

Ideas are when you argue about what it means that some people believe X, Y, and Z are more or less important than A, B, C in the design of an operating system. We're still arguing about whether ideas can be objectively worse or better, and which ones. Keep arguing about that.

One of my favorite quotes:
Great people talk about ideas.
Average people talk about things.
Small people talk about other people. - Anon
Variously attributed, in various forms, to Benjamin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others.



Gerald McD said...

Seems to me that many very heavy arguments are about values (personal values). I believe most opinions are based on a person's values, as are many ideas. I have little patience for people who want to argue that their values are more valuable than someone else's (mine, yours, or anyone's). Now, a debate about values or a discussion of values can be worthwhile, but an argument about values seems pointless to me.

Yehuda Berlinger said...


Absolutely. I understand an argument about whose values are more important to still be about opinion.

I meant that an argument about ideas is one about meaning.

But you're right. Perhaps, even about meaning, one should not really argue, but rather discuss and debate.


Marc Majcher said...

Great people talk about ideas.
Average people talk about things.
Small people talk about other people.

The nitpicker in me always wants to point out that the originator of this quote must be, by their own logic, a "small person", and therefore presumably not worth listening to.

Pawnstar said...

Another thought-provoking article.

What about arguing about arguments? I only ask because I am about to.

You see, technically an "argument" (in the non-mathematical sense) is a proof offered as a presentation of reasoned statements. Therefore, opinion cannot be put forward as an argument.

Alright, I'm splitting hairs and I do realise your discussion is in relation to the generally accepted (albeit derivative) usage of the word "argument" for an often heated discussion between two opposing views.

All I am saying is that by definition your argument about arguments is fully supported by the true definition of argument itself.