How to Talk Yourself into Defending Nonsense

The simple process by which very intelligent people can end up doubling down on very bad arguments.

If you spend enough time in online political spaces, particularly those populated by pundits and intellectuals, you’ll inevitably run across the phenomenon of an otherwise very smart and educated person arguing forcefully for obviously wrong, and often entirely nonsensical, claims. It’s perplexing, and typically a bit embarrassing, but the mechanism by which it happens is relatively straightforward. And it’s worth being aware of so that we can better catch ourselves before we head down a similar path.

The process starts by going outside one’s wheelhouse. Even the smartest of us have some areas of knowledge in which we might be experts, but plenty in which we’re not. But because politics touches on, well, everything, and so talking about politics broadly means having to talk about anything, the incentive to drift outside of one’s domain of expertise when engaging in the discussion of political (or politicized) ideas is strong. Further, the way you stand out from the pack in intellectual spaces is by making unorthodox claims. If you argue conventional wisdom, you’re one among many. If you argue unconventional wisdom, you’re closer to unique. This doesn’t mean conventional wisdom is always right, or that radically departing from it is always a sign that your argument is bad. Instead, there are strong incentives to present positions going against the grain if you are motivated by a desire to provoke discussion and debate.

If your unconventional or controversial argument gets attention, then the next step is certain to follow: You’ll get criticism from people who disagree with you, and many of them will be people who have more knowledge of whatever the matter or topic is than you do. It’s not your area of expertise, after all, but it is theirs. However, because we’re talking politically charged questions here, and because you staked out a position different from the recognized experts, it’s likely not just that they disagree with your take, but that their politics are different from yours, as well. Thus the people criticizing you are, politically, from the other side.

This leads to the third step. Because you’ve made a political argument, and because the people criticizing your argument also disagree with your politics, it’s easy to convince yourself that they are motivated primarily or entirely by their politics. It’s not that they just happen to know more than you do about whatever it is you staked out a position on, and so are able to spot errors in your argument that you didn’t see, but that even the appearance of objective criticism on their part is just that, an appearance, when really what’s going on is they don’t like the political position your argument props up, and so are attaching it for disingenuous, and merely political, reasons. And if that’s the case, then the content of their criticism is beside the point, and not worth taking seriously.

What’s more, the very fact that they rushed to criticize your argument, instead of simply ignoring it, is evidence that they feel threatened by it. And because this is all in a political context, the fact that they feel threatened by it is itself evidence that the argument is threatening to their politics. In other words, it’s evidence that the argument is right. Which means you shouldn’t revise or abandon it, but instead double down on it.

When described in this straightforward way, the errors in reasoning along the way, from arguing outside your area of expertise to digging in on what you ought to recognize as a poor argument, are pretty clear. But if you pay attention, you’ll notice this process playing out all the time. And if you care about getting your arguments right—not just as a way to win debates, but from a desire to hone in on truth—you’ll put in the effort, and cultivate intellectual humility, to stop yourself before you end up defending nonsense.

If you enjoyed this post, sign up for my free newsletter and I’ll send you everything new that I write.

Join the conversation

or to participate.