The following is based mainly on an essay by Paul Graham, a hacker who can write:
Here are the seven levels at which you can disagree with an argument, listed here from worst to best:
Level 0: Name-calling
Call the author of the argument names:
u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!
You can dress it up:
The author is a self-important dilettante.
But even if true it proves nothing about whether the argument is true or false.
Level 1: Ad hominem
Question the author’s motive, character, authority, education, etc.
For example, if a senator argues for a pay raise you might say:
Of course he would say that. He’s a senator.
But that fails to point out what is wrong with the senator’s argument. Arguments stand or fall on their own merits, not on who makes them.
That applies even to arguments made by authorities and experts. Good ideas often come from outsiders. If the argument is wrong there will be a mistake in it somewhere – no matter who made it.
Level 2: The tone argument
Make it not about what the author said but how he said it: too angry, too arrogant, etc. Again, this does not point out why the argument is wrong. Even an arrogantly stated argument can be right.
Level 3: Contradiction
State the opposing case but without any facts to back it up. Sometimes this will be enough, but in most cases it is not that simple.
Level 4: Counterargument
State the opposing case but this time back it up with facts and reasons. This can work, but because it does not tear apart the author’s argument directly it often winds up being aimed at something slightly different and becomes, in effect, a straw man argument. This leads to people talking past each other.
Level 5: Refutation
Quote part of the author’s argument and say why it is wrong. The trouble here is it might be something the main argument does not depend on. A fact might be wrong, for example, but it might make little difference to the main argument. It is like shooting someone in the arm instead of the heart.
Level 6: Refuting the Central Point
Directly quote something the main argument stands or falls on and show why it is wrong. Go after the facts and reasons that the main argument depends on.
Arguably there is another level, level 2.5: derailment: trying to throw the argument off its tracks.
- When reading throw out lower level disagreements: name-calling, ad hominems and tone (and derailment too). They prove absolutely nothing. For the higher level arguments ask yourself if they destroy the main argument or any of the facts and reasons it depends on.
- When writing you shoot to kill: go straight to level 6 – the rest is so much ankle-biting.
Note that good writers and speakers can sound right just by the force of their words, especially if you trust them and they speak with passion. You get carried away by their rhetoric. But in the end all that matters is the truth and that depends on facts and reasons, nothing else.