The dangers of a “good argument”

“Good arguments” can be vile things. They are a tool that smart people can use to never question themselves, and feel superior the whole time they are doing it.

The core of the problem is this belief:

“If I can come up with an argument for conclusion X that sounds logical, then that means I should believe conclusion X.”

This is a basic unconscious assumption that many, many people make and operate under on a regular basis. Whether thinking about politics or their love lives or anything else, people think that a good-sounding argument is “evidence” that the conclusion is right.

Doesn’t sound too bad, right?

Wrong. It’s completely false.

Interestingly, this form of bad logic is especially a problem when wielded by smart people. Why?  Because smart people are usually clever enough that if they want to, they can come up with a reasonable-sounding argument for pretty much any conclusion they want to believe.

This is the challenge I give to “smart people” who have “clever arguments” that “make sense”:   Do your best to come up with a reasonable-sounding argument that comes to the opposite conclusion.  See what happens.

You have a good, rational-sounding argument for racial profiling? See if you can come up with a good, rational-sounding argument against racial profiling. I bet you can.

You have a good, rational-sounding argument for banning abortion? See if you can come up with a good, rational-sounding argument against banning abortion. I bet you can.

Because if you are really smart, then you can come up with a reasonable-sounding argument for just about anything. That’s part of the curse of being smart.

Of course, if you are even smarter, that then leads you to this conclusion:

Having an argument that “sounds good” isn’t actually evidence for anything.



Unfortunately, people would rather believe an argument that sounds convincing than a hundred statistics that show that the argument is wrong. When people come across an argument that sounds convincing, they usually stop looking for evidence that might go against it. They think they have their answer.

But that’s not even the worst part. The worst part of all of this is that the less you know about a topic, the more your are likely to think that bad arguments sound good.

Numbers and logicIf you are trying to form an opinion on a topic that you really don’t understand in any in-depth way, almost any argument that looks good on the surface might “sound good” to you… especially if it leads to a conclusion that you want to believe.

Like biology.

Or the weather.

Or economics….



Consider economics.

One argument out there today is that if you raise minimum wage at all, it will lead to layoffs.  It sounds reasonable. It “makes sense”, because you can build a story in your mind to connect point A to point B to point C.  The story goes like this:  I am a business owner and I have $X to pay employees each month. If I have to pay each employee more, but I still only have $X total, then I can’t pay for as many employees. Q.E.D.

But the fact is that there are all kinds of data showing that raising minimum wage simply doesn’t lead to layoffs — at least, not in the aggregate. Sure, some individual companies may layoff people, but most companies will simply shift their expenses around and save in other ways in order to maintain the workforce they need to meet demand.

On the whole, as long as the percent of the workforce impacted by the increase in minimum wage is smaller than about 10%, even small companies tend to have enough “wiggle room” to move around their balance sheets so that they don’t have to lay people off.

So once you actually look at the data, and understand the data, there is a perfectly good explanation for why the “minimum wage increases lead to layoffs” argument is wrong.

It only sounds like a “good argument” if you don’t understand the details of how things actually work.



The same is true in philosophy.

Your mind and your brain are separate, right? Some people think so, and when you ask them why they believe it to be true, they often have a “good argument”, or an argument that sounds good.  It goes like this: I can imagine my consciousness leaving my body, or being transplanted into a different body. Therefore, they must be separate things.

The problem is, whether you think you can “imagine” that depends entirely on how much you know about the way brains work, and their relationship to experience and self. Poking at different parts of the brain can change a person’s memory, a person’s personality, even a person’s goals and desires and wishes.

When you understand the deep connection between structures in the brain and every aspect of what you think of as your self and your experience of the world, you realize that you actually cannot imagine your own mind–unchanged–existing in a totally different body.   You cannot imagine it any more than you can imagine a substance that is exactly like water in every way except that it is not “wet”:  all you have to do is take a moment to think about what water is like, and what the word “wet” means, and you realize it is simply not possible.

So once again we have a situation where an argument only sounds like a “good argument” to a person who doesn’t have all of the information.



This is the catch-22 of relying on “good arguments”.  If you base your belief on a “good argument”, then you are going to insulate yourself from ever gaining any new knowledge… even if that new knowledge would make you realize that the argument that you think “sounds good” really isn’t that good at all.

So this is my warning to you, Reader.  And this warning especially applies if you are smart.  Don’t be fooled by your own cleverness.

The fact that you can come up with a “good argument” to justify your beliefs means nothing… and it could very well be the thing that is holding you back.