Winning Arguments and Losing the Truth

Listen carefully to an argument sometime.

It’s personal. Even the slightest disagreement (what’s the quickest way to get downtown?) is subtly transformed from a search for truth into a battle for being right, with the satisfaction and recognition that entails. It’s a social contest. We’re hard-wired for it. We want to win.

I’d like to propose the Argument Fallacy: the notion that winning an argument makes your position true.

Nobody would claim they think this way, of course. It’s absurd when you spell it out. We all know you can “win” an argument and still be wrong.

But we act like this fallacy is true. We judge the accuracy of our beliefs by how many battles they survive.

Not everyone does this to the same degree, but the tendency is always there. And you can’t fight the bias till you know it exists.

Arguments and debates can guide us to the truth, if we let them. An exchange of ideas, exposure to criticism, new perspectives, these are all excellent and vital things. We need arguments to challenge our ideas.

But winning an argument doesn’t make you right.

Maybe the person who lost simply isn’t as persuasive, as articulate, as quick on their feet. Maybe they don’t have all the information needed to defend their position. Maybe they just don’t care about winning the argument.

None of this has any bearing on the underlying truth. In the heat of discussion, that’s easy to forget. But remembering it will make us wiser.

What about you? Have you seen people seduced by the Argument Fallacy?

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8 responses to “Winning Arguments and Losing the Truth

  1. After decades studying and practising law I have entirely too much anecdotal evidence that the average person wants to win arguments more than they want to learn the best answer for them.

  2. I have always or atleast most of the times been seduced by the argument fallacy just because I tend to be less persuasive or I no longer care for it after some time.

  3. It’s striking to me how often arguments devolve (and usually very quickly) to two people each making their own point, alternately, with only slight variations in each round. That doesn’t have anything to do with getting at the truth, and it’s not even a very effective way of “winning.”

    This would make a good writing prompt, too: How do your characters argue? Are they trying to get at the truth, or trying to win? What do their methods say about them?

  4. I have no idea how respectable or reliable my source is but from the time I heard this and I guess till I die I follow Dr. Phil’s advice and I “pick my battles” because not every argument is worth “fighting” and not every opponent is worth my time or effort (marriage has proven this to be true for me) … I could go on and on…jajajaaa, read you soon, Alexandra

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