Does the word “argument” make you think of angry people yelling?
This document presents Graham’s “disagreement hierarchy,” which catalogs multiple stages between juvenile name-calling and carefully refuting an error in your opponent’s central point.
Siblings might “argue” over who gets the comfy chair. Persuasion in that case might involve out-shouting or wearing down the other party with distractions (“Why are you being so mean?” “You always get your way.”)
Your task when writing an academic argument is very different.
For a college research paper, an argument takes a clear stand. Each well-organized paragraph develops the position, driven by direct quotations from the published work of a range of experts.
- Ad Hominem
- Responding to Tone
- Refuting the Central Point
Note that his scale simply describes the type of argument, not the quality.
A level 2 argument might be potentially useful, and a level 6 argument could be dead wrong.
Graham would say there’s little difference between the juvenile “u suck” and the more articulate “The author is a self-important dilettante.”
If Donald Trump calls journalists “the lamestream media,” or critics of Donald Trump call him “The former Cheeto-in-Chief,” these low-level jabs won’t persuade anyone who already holds a different opinion.
DH1: Ad Hominem
“You would say that. You are Gen-Z.” | “ok boomer”
From a Latin phrase meaning a response directed “at the person,” rather than responding to the person’s idea.
An ad hominem retort might be a tiny step up from a random insult if, as in this case, the attack is somehow relevant. For instance, someone who says “ok boomer” is at least suggesting that the difference of opinion has to do with the generation gap.
Attacking the person is a low-level response; it’s a distraction technique, popular with people who can’t actually present evidence that demonstrates their side of the issue is closer to the truth.
DH2: Responding to Tone
While a DH1 response attacks the person delivering the message, DH2 responds to the way the messenger communicates. That’s usually a distraction, because facts don’t care whether the people who report them are being kind or rude.
If you label someone’s response “overthinking,” “hysterical,” “mansplaining,” or “obsessive,” you are responding to tone.
Responding to tone includes calling undue attention to an opponent who makes a typographical error, mispronounces a word, uses regional slang in a professional setting, or quibbles over technicalities in a social context.
It’s not necessarily wrong to respond to tone. A preteen who cusses during a wedding reception, a journalist who smirks while reporting bad news about the president, or a man who habitually values his own confidence over a woman’s expertise are making tonal choices that bear reconsidering.
However, attacking the speaker’s tone does not actually present any evidence in favor of your ideas; therefore, in an academic setting, responding to tone is a distraction.
To reach the contradiction stage, you must at least acknowledge the other person’s ideas, though the most basic contradiction merely reverses the claim. (“No, it doesn’t.” “Yes, it does.”)
This Monty Python sketch comically dramatizes how contradiction falls short of the intellectual process of argument.
If one person believes abortion is a basic medical procedure that’s fundamentally no different from an appendectomy, and another believes every abortion ends a human life, the two may find themselves passionately, endlessly trading well-known slogans and counter-slogans (“Keep your laws off my body!” “It’s a child, not a choice!”) but giving nobody any reason to change their mind.
Rejecting someone’s claim and asserting that the opposite is true is not the same thing as laying out the best arguments pro and con, accounting for the strengths of the other side’s position and the weaknesses of your own position, and actually weighing the evidence.
Graham calls counterargument “the first form of convincing disagreement,” saying that we can usually ignore levels DH0-3.
Giving a counter-argument means stating that the other side is wrong, and then presenting an argument in favor of your side. This can be persuasive, but it’s often pretty narrow.
One American might say, “We should take care of our homeless and aging military veterans before before we open our doors to any more refugees,” and another might say, “Closing our doors to refugees goes against the American principles our armed forces fought to protect.” These two might get into a passionate squabble over what it means to be patriotic.
- If they stay focused on why their own definition of “patriotism” is superior, they might never find a practical solution that could benefit people on both sides of the issue.
- For instance, perhaps the government could pay the healthy unemployed veterans to build housing and nursing homes, and the refugees could be trained to be nursing home attendants for the elderly veterans.
According to Graham, “More often than not, two people arguing passionately about something are actually arguing about two different things.”
Instead of simply stating your side to counter the other side (DH4), refuting means doing all of the following:
- finding at least one credible source who disagrees with you
- respectfully assessing the strengths and weaknesses of that source
- quoting the exact words where the author(s) made a particular mistake, and
- demonstrating how, exactly, your claim avoids that specific mistake
If you can’t provide the name of a credible expert who disagrees with you, and a page number where we can read that expert’s words for ourselves, you are probably disagreeing with a “straw dog” (originally “straw man”).
Disproving what “some people think” or what “many people believe” is easy, like knocking down a straw dog. (Doing so is not terribly challenging or useful; anyone can knock over a straw dog if they want to.)
Graham says refutation is convincing, but it’s hard work — and therefore rare. (A thing that requires effort and specialized skills, like writing an academic research paper, is more valuable than knocking over a straw dog.)
DH6: Refuting the Central Point
All refutations are not equal. Poking holes here or there in someone’s argument won’t necessarily bring the roof down.
Perhaps Smith made a prediction 10 years ago, but current statistics show her prediction didn’t come true. Does pointing this out refute her central point? That depends.
- How vital to Smith’s main point was that specific prediction?
- Did Smith or her supporters publish a follow-up to explain the discrepancy? Have they supported Smith’s main idea with other evidence that doesn’t depend on that one prediction?
- Maybe the reason the prediction didn’t come true was enough people read Smith’s article and changed the world for the better.
Graham gives the following, very clear model of how to phrase a DH6 argument:
The author’s main point seems to be x. As he says:
But this is wrong for the following reasons…
According to Graham, “The quotation you point out as mistaken need not be the actual statement of the author’s main point. It’s enough to refute something it depends upon.”
When you’ve done your research, and you’ve carefully read and understood arguments written by credible experts who disagree with you, you’ll be so busy quoting and refuting specific weaknesses in their arguments that you won’t have time to insult them, or to oversimplify their arguments in order to make them look ignorant or evil.
Final Word: Bloom’s Taxonomy
You may have heard about a different hierarchy, which is also often presented as a pyramid: Bloom’s Taxonomy. From the lowest-level to the highest level of the cognitive domain, Bloom’s pyramid classifies how we learn.
Valuable learning happens at all levels of Bloom’s cognitive domain, starting with memorizing what you’re exposed to, and leading all the way through creating original knowledge.
The same is not true of Graham’s hierarchy.
For Graham, any claim at level HD0 through HD2 is automatically unconvincing, and even when a level HD6 claim is sophisticated and convincing, it might still be wrong.
- “How to Disagree“ (Paul Graham)
- “Short Research Papers”
- “Academic Argument: Evidence-based Defense of a Non-Obvious Position”
- “Writing Tips for Critical Thinking”
Dennis G. Jerz
30 Mar 2020 — first posted
14 Oct 2022 — minor tweaks