3 New Years Tips For Cooling Off Debates

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Civil discussion and debate is critical to Physics Forums. But it is also important in everyday life. When arguments get overheated, people may avoid engaging with friends and family and the relationships could wither and die.  If the only safe topic you can discuss with your friend is weather, your relationship is in danger.

So, my new years resolution is to do something that might help cool off heated debates. It comes in the form of three tips. These are not tips for winning arguments, but rather tips to keep everyone cool under the collar.

Tip 1: Replace “SoS” Words with Numbers

[SoS = (Synonyms of Some)]

The meaning of the words, all, none, always, and never are crystal clear. But there is no clarity in the following words:

some,few/little/lot/couple/handful, many, most, minor/major, part, portion, hardly any, almost all, the vast majority, small fraction, large fraction, paltry/piddling/smattering, moderate, a bit/quite a bit, more or less, scarce, common/frequent/rare, seldom/often, significant/insignificant … plus hundreds of similar words.

All I can say for sure is that all these words mean more than none and less than all. They relate to describing placement along the continuum 0%<X<100%. In fact, they are all synonyms of some; or SoS.

If I argue all or none in any debate, it takes only a single counter example to refute my argument. But if I say some, that is more difficult to refute.

Here’s the rub. When I speak, many means more than few. When you speak,  many is more than few. But there is no guarantee that my many is more than your few. That is hard to keep in mind in a multiple party conversation where each person has his/her own private calibration. I think it is the cause of frequent misunderstandings.

With multiple speakers there is no precise definition of what SoS words mean. Not absolutely. Not relatively.

For example, Alice works on the opioid crisis.  She said, “Many people are dying from overdoses.” Bob works as a life insurance actuary. Bob replied, “No. Only a few people die of overdoses.”  He is thinking of disease/accident/age-related causes of death. Alice and Bob are both correct, but an argument can easily ensue.  Now, imagine that we were able to read minds, and we could see that Alice means 20% when she says many, and Bob thinks 20% when he says few. They completely agree! If they argued, it would be absurd. Nevertheless it happens, because they both used SoS words and because the argument is not about facts but about the words used to characterize facts.

Unfortunately, in modern society (and here on PF) we engage in that kind of silly argument every day. We use SoS words without defining what we mean. In my view, that is corrosive and counter productive, so I have a modest proposal for how to improve it. There are several steps in my proposal.

  1. Replace SoS words in your speech with numerical estimates of percentage, even if you have no basis for the actual number. Think of Alice and Bob’s absurd argument. If Alice said 20% instead of many and Bob said 20% instead of few, then the argument could have been averted.
  2. We should encourage people to use numbers.  But, there is a natural tendency to demand a source for a claim of 20% but to let a claim of some go unchallenged.  I say that we should cut the speakers some slack and hold back the challenges because we don’t want to scare them to going back to SoS words.
  3. I’m an engineer.  I like the 80/20 rule.  I suggest that we should round off all unsubstantiated percentage numbers to 20%, 50%, or 80%.
  4. Whenever I hear the phrase 99.9% in debate, I’m sure that the speaker is exaggerating.  That distracts me from focusing on the speaker’s point. Therefore in my head, I translate the 99.9% to the less inflammatory 80%.  That allows me to focus better on the other things the speaker is saying.
  5. When you are the speaker, avoid unwarranted precision in your numbers like 83.456%. It sounds like an attempt to make your guess sound more credible than it deserves.I propose that the three magic numbers, 20, 50, 80 should be “safe havens.” Use of one of those numbers is presumed to be unsubstantiated and rounded, so a challenge is unnecessary.
  6. Now consider the case where I say 80% and the other guy says 20%. (The quality of the conversation is already marginally better than it would have been using SoS words.) Is the remaining opinion gap worth further debate? I say yes it is worthwhile 20% of the time. However, both of  us may realize that debate is unproductive unless we step back to look up a factual basis and then cite a real number. Wow! If that happened, we would increase the quality of the discussion another notch.Debaters using SoS words have no such motivation to get factual.
  7. You can achieve the penultimate level of karma/mellow, and perhaps improve your life expectancy, if you go a step further. Take all the SoS words you hear (or their numerical equivalents) and translate them in your head to some.If I say almost all and my opponent says almost none, we actually agree on some! There is no basis for an argument. Celebrate your agreement and move on.

Tip 2: Troll Repellent

Suppose you say, “Sometimes X is true.” Your opponent is a troll or an esteemed opponent (you choose what to call him).  He may use the tactic of pretending that you said always, and then respond with “Yeah, but sometimes X is not true.” believing that refutes what you said. If you originally said “Sometimes X is not true.” he replies, “Yeah, but sometime it is true.”

Here’s my tip. Say, “Sometime X is true. Sometimes not.” and continue. The additional words do nothing to change the meaning of your sentence. There is no linguistic or logical reason for the extra words. However, the extra words make it more difficult for trolls, because you explicitly acknowledged the counter case in your original statement.

Now, put tips 1 and 2 together.  Say, “X is true 80% of the time and false 20% of the time.”

Tip 3: Choose Your Battles Wisely

When you encounter an argument about characterizations rather than facts, stay away. Perhaps the President said X, and the argument is about whether X is good or bad. There is 0% chance of you persuading someone to flip their opinion, and 80% chance of you increasing everyone’s blood pressure by adding yet another voice to an already silly argument. Stay out of it.  Wait for a a pause in the conversation, and try to begin a new argument about facts, or policy because you do want to engage with friends and family.

There is less than 20% chance of my tips changing global society. But I am 80% sure that it is worth trying.

Please add your own tips and strategies for civil debate in the comment thread:



Dick Mills is a retired analytical power engineer. Power plant training simulators, power system analysis software, fault-tree analysis, nuclear fuel management, process optimization, power grid operations, and the integration of market economics into operation software, were his fields. All those things were analytical. None of them were hands-on.

Since 2005, Dick lives and cruises full-time aboard the sailing vessel Tarwathie. During that time, Dick became a student of Leonard Susskind and a physics buff. Dick’s blog is at

12 replies
  1. Orodruin
    Orodruin says:

    When a thread has replies already that you agree with, but there is something you want to add, start with something to the effect of "In addition to what has already been said, …" Missing that earlier responders may think you are trying to correct them and take offence. I know this from experience and now I try to include it whenever I remember.

  2. Stephen Tashi
    Stephen Tashi says:

    Discussion need not be debate – which is not to imply that the Insight article says otherwise, but it's natural for people to concentrate on defending previously formed ideas in conversation rather than reconsidering them anew.

    Edward De Bono advocates the "PNI" ( positive-negative-interesting) technique for thnking about things. This is useful if you are conversing with another person familiar with the "PNI" method. However, if you are discussing things with a person who has the outlook "I don't need anybody to tell ME how to think" then the best you can do is deal with the "P" and "N" calmly because the "I" will probably be omitted.

  3. StatGuy2000
    StatGuy2000 says:

    A useful article, and I pretty much agree with the bulk of it. However, I do take something of an issue with the notion that 0% of people can have their opinions flipped. This is highly dependent on how firmly these people are wedded to a particular opinion (which is based on how firmly those opinions are tied to their sense of identity, or how firmly they are either aware of or care about a given opinion). If someone only has a mild opinion of a given topic, it's generally much more likely they can be persuaded to flip their opinion, as opposed to someone who is firmly wedded.

  4. WWGD
    WWGD says:

    Nice job.
    I would add to what has been said ( Wink-Wink, Nod-Nod, @Orodruin ), to try to interpret your opponent ( if this is a suitable tag ) , in the most generous way possible, i.e., do not jump to ridicule your opponent’s view even if it seems at first * to be laughable, ridiculous. I guess this is somewhat of a variant of avoiding engaging in Red Herrings. Clearing up differences in definitions, assumptions may lead to a radically-different discussion, but one needs to remain open to this.

    *And it may ultimately be

  5. Greg Bernhardt
    Greg Bernhardt says:

    do not jump to ridicule your opponent's view even if it seems at first

    Agreed, far too often people debate to "win" or "beat the opponent" when mutual understanding and learning from both vantage points is the true victory.

  6. WWGD
    WWGD says:
    Greg Bernhardt

    Agreed, far too often people debate to "win" or "beat the opponent" when mutual understanding and learning from both vantage points is the true victory.

    And , actually, challenging your own views makes you a better debater and makes your views stronger.

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