Between Scientists & Citizens

How to insult

with 12 comments

Judith Curry has recently brought up both the Bard and insults–a thought-provoking intersection.

Once upon Shakespeare’s time, the art of disagreement was pursued with elegance.  Degrees of challenge were measured out by the book, as one of his characters explains:

as thus, sir. I did dislike the cut of a certain courtier’s beard: he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the mind it was: this is called the Retort Courteous.  If I sent him word again ‘it was not well cut,’ he would send me word, he cut it to please himself: this is called the Quip Modest.  If again ‘it was not well cut,’ he disabled my judgment: this is called the Reply Churlish.  If again ‘it was not well cut,’ he would answer, I spake not true: this is called the Reproof Valiant.  If again ‘it was not well cut,’ he would say I lied: this is called the Counter-cheque Quarrelsome: and so to the Lie Circumstantial and the Lie Direct.

As You Like It V.4

Alas, we’ve mostly lost that art, especially in the blogosphere.  Disagreements proceed pretty quickly to the Lie Direct.  That’s dull!  Let’s review the wisdom of Touchstone the Fool to recover more sophisticated practices.

Avoiding the Lie Direct

Imagine that some has just indicated that they spurn your position, e.g. on the soundness of the IPCC report.  How can you reply?

Retort Courteous:  Well, my view differs.  (Note:  then you have to stop.  Really.)

Quip Modest:  I’ve considered the evidence, and have come to my own conclusion on this matter.

Reply Churlish:  As your judgment on this subject seems to me impaired, I don’t think it worthwhile to pursue this with you further.

Reproof Valiant:  Your statement is wrong, for this reason…. (Note:  this reproof is indeed valiant, because you have now undertaken responsibility to provide a full defense of your view.)

Counter-cheque Quarrelsome:  How dare you speak to me like that!

Lie Circumstantial:  If you said so, you would be lying.

Lie Direct:  You lie!

In praise of indirectness

We may think of  communication about climate change or other issues largely as exchanges of claims together evidence to back those claims up.  The importance of science for these debates may reinforce the impression that what’s really at stake are the facts, just the facts. But when we actually examine arguers’ language choices in detail, we can observe that a lot more is happening.  Arguers (and speakers in general) are not only conveying information to each other, they are also carrying forward an interpersonal relationship.

The Lie Direct is indeed direct–it directly frames the relationship as hostile.  One person attacks the other (“you”), and in particular attacks the basic legitimacy of their contributions to the conversation.  By contrast, the other strategies use various techniques of indirectness:

  • speaking only of one’s own point of view, not expressly characterizing the other (“it seems to me…”)
  • focusing on what is said, not on the sayer
  • shifting from assertions to possibilities (“if”)

Why indirectness?  “You lie” does not leave much wiggle room;  accused of lying, the honorable person must draw his/her weapon.  Indirectness, by contrast, leaves each some degree of plausible deniability.  The speaker can point out that he did not actually say that the other person was a liar, however much that was insinuated.  Both parties can continue to pretend that they respect each other.  Everyone is keeping up appearances, and something like a conversation, as opposed to a duel, can continue.

For more:  see Stephen Pinker’s a nice explanation of the way indirectness allows us to maintain relationships, part of the RSA Animate series.

A final plea

If you are going to insult, at least use some verbal dexterity.  That way you’ll demonstrate your intellectual superiority even as you use your verbal weapons to slaughter your opponent.  You can get some help from the Bard with this, too.

Written by jeangoodwin

August 14, 2011 at 8:32 pm

12 Responses

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  1. There is a pretty good demonstration of how the ‘you lie!’ is deployed by people losing an argument to end the conversation over at Judith’s right now.


    August 14, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    • Yep. And also closely-related accusations of hypocrisy, being a politician (i.e., only talking to win, not to reason), being a moron, being a conspiracy theorist, being a fanatic. Note that all these mean that the person isn’t worthy of respect as a conversation partner.

      Being a party to a conspiracy–that one is missing, so far.


      August 14, 2011 at 11:23 pm

      • I have actually been accused of being the payola in this issue in the in virtual world on a couple of occasions.
        In the real world, I have had clients move their business after I merely mentioned that I am skeptical of AGW catastrophism.


        August 15, 2011 at 10:46 am

    • To which I will now also add: accusations of confirmation bias and being an idiot.

      Starting around here, though, there are a series of very nice replies to the Lie Direct.


      August 15, 2011 at 7:32 am

  2. Jean,

    What happens when the truth is beyond the understanding of the current education due to the complexity of the issue?
    Scientists ignore this due to protect their interests no matter how fuzzy the logic with theories and the peer-review system of printed papers.
    Individual field of study has to have some trust that other fields are correct in their science and logic as to understand this planet and universe.
    But who is the overall expert when putting all these field together for the basic understanding of the mechanical component of this planet?

    If you have to look at all areas, then you have to understand every field of study. These massively clash together as some areas are generalized and others are pure theory ONLY backed by a mathematical equation or a total guess.
    Science really stinks when changing the parameters of this planet to a fast rotation or evidence beyond a billion years. The simple measurement and simple mathematical calculation of distance and speed has been missed. Many areas of observed science has missed many components that is unknown to the field of study. Yet they continue on with corrupting the field with expanding more on a bad theory.

    Joe Lalonde

    August 15, 2011 at 5:50 am

  3. Jean,

    I have been lied too on many occasions by physicists and scientists that are strictly by the book on what they think they understand. No looking into something different as their position is absolute to them that the past theories are absolutely correct.
    Any debating is ignored by their closed minded position and arrogance that I have nothing to gain by this.

    The highest form of flattery is being ignored as no one says that I am wrong. That position would be suicidal to the actual physical evidence collected over the years.

    Joe Lalonde

    August 16, 2011 at 5:55 am

  4. “You Lie!” Joe Wilson is my representative to the US House. Do I get a free “You Lie” card that I can use when I want to blame someone else for my transgreaaions?

    John Pittman

    August 20, 2011 at 6:49 am

    • Wilson has used up your district’s “You Lie!” quota for the next decade. Y’all better be on your best behavior!

      Actually, that incident is a good example of how powerful “You lie!” still is, even if we think we’ve grown out of a culture of dueling. Wilson was condemned by leaders of both parties, and apologized pretty quickly.


      August 22, 2011 at 6:58 am

  5. There was a reason why:
    “Once upon Shakespeare’s time, the art of disagreement was pursued with elegance.”

    Because, a gentleman was bound to defend his honor with lethal force:
    “…accused of lying, the honorable person must draw his/her weapon.”

    except strike the “/her”, as a gentleman was bound to defend, to the death, his lady’s honor, as well. Rash, intemperate folk tended to die young.

    Ed Fix

    August 20, 2011 at 6:24 pm

  6. Jean, David Roberts has his own take on this 😉

    In this post, I’m going to argue that the typical strategies are doomed to failure. It may be that the simplest, least clever strategy — kick their [metaphorical] asses — is still the way to go.

    His point about motivated reasoning is important, IMHO.

    J Bowers

    August 21, 2011 at 5:40 am

    • Also very useful is “How to Argue Effectively,” by another Dave (Berry).

      The question David Roberts is asking is indeed worth thinking about: how can reasons be communicated to call out those who may not be using reasons reasonably?–if they can be at all.

      And here’s another, related question: In the climate debates, we know that people on all sides tend to see those on other sides as using motivated reasoning. What kind of communication strategies can an arguer adopt to make it clear to others that his/her own reasoning is not “motivated,” but instead is sound?


      August 21, 2011 at 2:06 pm

  7. […] Goodwin has in interesting post on insults, that combines themes from Climate Etc posts on Bardian insights and blogospheric argumentation.   […]

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