One thing I like about science is that scientists argue all the time. Likewise, I usually don’t join existing political conversations because in that context people rarely argue.

If that seems backward, it’s because people associate arguing with polarization and insults. However, I think that people rarely argue politics. The key component of arguing is addressing each other’s ideas (and here I’m using the casual meaning of argument, a discussion of a disagreement). Often with political issues people don’t understand the other side because instead of arguing within one framework, one side makes its own assumptions and then critiques the other side in that framework, and the two sides merely talk past one another, with the intended audience being members of their own side. They often don’t even want to understand the other side because they conflate understanding with agreement. When I see people “arguing” politics, I’m usually just figuring out which assumptions each side is glossing over, because the actual dialogue is, well, not a dialogue.

Diagrams of arguing and theatrics between Alice and
Bob.

As an analogy, imagine that two scientists, Alice and Bob, have independently arrived at a new scientific theory. The equations they came up with differ in a couple ways. First, Alice decided to use alpha to represent one thing and beta to represent another, while the two symbols were swapped in meaning in Bob’s equation. More importantly, the last term in their equations differs mathematically due to different assumptions they make about nature.

When they learn of each other’s work, we would expect them to figure out why their equations differ. First they would realize that their alpha and beta symbols were arbitrarily swapped. They would either decide to both write them the same way, or in the meantime discuss the equations by saying things like “my alpha, your beta”. Then they would discuss the important part: the last term. They may not converge on a single equation, and may remain very critical of the other, but they would at least figure out the different assumptions underlying the two equations.

Scientific competition isn’t completely harmonious, and all kinds of negative human traits can surface, but ultimately the goal is to arrive at the truth. If nothing else, scientists want to avoid being wrong and embarrassed later on when the truth becomes more obvious. That’s why the two scientists argued.

Now imagine they conducted their meeting the same way they engage in politics on social media. Alice starts talking about alpha, and Bob responds in disbelief that Alice is wrong about the basic math, because alpha is in the denominator, not the numerator. Alice would seem more sensible to him if he acknowledged that their symbols had swapped meaning, but as long as he ignores that, he can claim that her equation is incomprehensible, and he can dismiss it without even having to tackle the more thorny issue of the last term. Meanwhile, Alice does the same in reverse, but is particularly motivated by getting a ton of likes with a post showing that Bob, a renowned scientist, sucks at math. None of her followers point out the issue, because no one who understands Bob’s equation follows her, because they think she lacks basic math skills.

I see this all the time with political discussions. Even when objective statistics are brought up, people will counter them with another stat about something slightly different so it doesn’t actually negate the first stat. Their goal is to appear to be winning.

My guesses for why we so often fail to use the principle of charity that is so vital to conversation:

  • Laziness: If you can come up with something blatant to dismiss the other side, you don’t have to deal with more substantial issues.
  • Instinct to fight: We are tempted to group people discretely into friends and enemies, and it is hopeless to try to get enemies to change. Our fighting instinct has no use for getting our point across. It just tells us that the more hurt the better, so we choose our words accordingly. We then rationalize by saying that this is the most effective thing to say, or that we have no choice.
  • Preaching to the choir: We get more attention from our audiences when we provide a blunt takedown of an “incoherent” opponent. The audience in turn has no incentive to help us understand our opponent.

Note that I’m comparing professional science with laypeople’s political discussions since those are what I’m familiar with. The same observations are surely true when comparing professional political science, economics, etc. to laypeople’s discussions on natural science, respectively. In other words, people seem to be better at arguing about things they understand more deeply, and especially when they are incentivized to figure out the truth.

I don’t think better arguments would necessarily resolve political divides through compromise or agreement, nor would that necessarily be a good thing. Rather, I think that the extremes of political spectra are often artificially inflated on the surface, and having a clearer understanding of political issues and where the true disagreements are can only be beneficial.