- Merriam-Webster: material (as strips of foil or clusters of fine wires) ejected into the air for reflecting radar waves (as for confusing an enemy's radar detection or for tracking a descending spacecraft).
Someone in an online community of some kind brings up an idea, and you don't want to process it. Maybe it's too controversial or too well-argued. Maybe it's based on a different mindset from yours, and you just don't feel like bridging the gap. Maybe you feel compelled to "win" arguments, regardless of the idea's value, and to you "winning" means getting the other person to shut up.
If you want, you can throw out ConversationalChaff
, and this will probably make the idea go away. ConversationalChaff
isn't the act of refuting an idea; it's the act of slowing down the discussion until other participants get frustrated and tired, and go away.
Membership in online communities tends to be highly transitory, so if you do this well enough, the person may actually leave the online community for good, which helps you keep your peace of mind, and reduces the threat of being confronted with difficult new ideas in the future.
Resist the temptation to directly insult your opponents, as that will keep them coming back to defend themselves and to retailiate. Focus on minimizing the perceived value of the discussion, or on maximizing the amount of effort required of those who continue to participate.
- WillfulMisunderstanding. Don't bother reading and trying to fully comprehend the other person's idea. Pick a vaguely opposing opinion and start advancing it aggressively. Make the other person rephrase their idea again and again, and make them use your terms.
- Assume the worst. If the other person ever makes the mistake of saying anything slightly vague or imprecise, assume it means the most ludicrous thing you could imagine, and then argue against that point. Add insulting terms like ridiculous, silly, uninformed, stupid, or any other term. If necessary, remove surrounding context, leaving only a single statement that can be made to seem ridiculous on its own.
- Don't help the other person understand you. Answer all questions or requests for clarification with responses like "Isn't that obvious?", "Is that a serious question?", "You need to read more carefully", "You should be able to figure that out from my previous responses", "You must not know much about this topic", or YouJustDontGetIt
- Induce feelings of shame or incompetence. State that any discussion of the topic is an indication that the participants are unprofessional, immature, or have deep flaws of character or intelligence. "I can't believe any competent professional would even consider the methods you are talking about. I certainly hope that I never have to work with the likes of you." See ParkingTicket for a discussion of an example of this.
- Treat opinions or advice as illegitimate commands. "What gives you the right to say what I should do?" "Who put you in charge?" "Who asked you?"
- Present a puzzle. Instead of directly stating anything, respond with a riddle or challenge and demand that the other side solve it. Make sure that a solution is either impossible or requires more effort than any reasonable person is willing to expend. Find reasons to reject any solution that is offered.
- Vague dismissal. State that refutations of your opponents' contentions are "obvious", "well-known", "well-documented", or "in the literature", without providing any details or references. "It's on Google" is a favorite.
- Semantic overprecision. "Before we can go any further, I need to know what you mean when you say art." Demand definitions for all terms, and then demand definitions for all terms used in definitions. Present alternative nonsensical definitions for all terms. This can go on forever, without providing any useful information. (See also NeverIsNeverNever.)
- Demand unnecessary evidence. Insist that all opinions or ideas be backed up by facts or EmpiricalEvidence. ("Can you show me a rigorous study that demonstrates that customers prefer easy-to-use high-quality software over complicated buggy software?"). And then find reasons to reject any evidence that is provided. ("All the customers in that study were in the age range of 18-65, so the study doesn't accurately reflect the preferences of all consumers."). If you can't find reasons to reject the evidence, then resort to MovingGoalPosts.
- Refuse to accept any premises. Do not accept as valid any facts, assumptions, or axioms upon which the other person's arguments rest, no matter how obvious or reasonable they are. For example, if the other person states that 2 + 2 = 4, then make that person prove that two and two always equal four; if they try, then make them prove all the premises upon which that proof rests, or advance irrelevant counterexamples (for example, "2 + 2 = 11 in base 3 arithmetic, or 2 + 2 = 0 if we define '+' to be the subtraction operator"). Take advantage of the fact that NeverIsNeverNever. If you insist that it is necessary to state all the possibilities, usages and variances when making a simple, useful, and valid statement, you can complicate, confuse and compound the argument.
- Challenge all values-based concepts. You can always say that concepts such as reality, good, bad, easy, difficult, true, fair, honest, or qualified are subjective, and thus not a valid part of any reasoned discussion.
- Overuse of values-based concepts. You can always say that concepts such as reality, good, bad, easy, difficult, true, fair, honest, or qualified are self-evident absolutes, and thus anyone who challenges your use of them is "being a wacko".
- Check writers' qualifications. Examples: "Tell me, how many transaction-based systems have you installed?" or "Have you read Smith's book on this subject?" (And follow up with either "You've read Smith? Then you must be a Smithist. Any follower of Smith is incapable of rendering an objective opinion on this issue." or "You haven't read Smith? Then you really should shut up until you have thoroughly studied his work.")
- Declare that opinions and emotions are irrelevant. Pretend that wiki is a high-school debate club, and that all writings should be judged by those rules. If a writer expresses personal experiences, "gut feelings", uses metaphors or analogies, or makes any statements without providing a rational basis, reject their statements because they are not logical arguments. Judge arguments strictly upon form, rather than upon the content.
- Neologism. Start your own private set of definitions for new terms, and then lean heavily on those terms whenever you make an argument. ("You wouldn't say that if you understood the ideas behind TheoMancy.") The more vague your neologisms, the more effective this is. Many people will get tripped up on this, and you can suck them into an endless game of semantics. Instead of discussing a difference of opinion on a substantive issue, they end up discussing the finer points of a definition of a term that nobody uses except you. (This tactic is widely used by academics.)
- Literary obfuscation. As an alternative to neologism, litter your arguments with references to obscure authorities, out-of-print books, esoteric philosophical concepts, and with Latin and French phrases. You can even make stuff up, as long as it seems erudite and there is no way to prove it untrue. Your opponents won't be able to argue with you, because they won't know what you are talking about, but they won't dare to admit it.
- Divide and Conquer Move parts of the discussion to another page. This is an excellent tactic. It is a way to tiring your opponent. He will be forced to introduce his singular aim to the many pages you have created, each with a different posture. Such as TwoAndTwoAreFour?, TwoisOneZero?, FourIsThreeAndOne?, etc. be sure to intersperse the page with text meant to make it impossible to follow the progression of the previous page's conversation. This is another way to defeat OverPrecision. Be over precise on many pages. This will require the opponent to respond on dozens of pages and further expand the front the opponent will have to defend or refute. Indeed, there is no good defense to this. When the opponent trys to reconsolidate the thoughts, and arguments, use the argument that he is Disagreeing by Deleting.
I Define, You Defend
- Deconstruction You can DeconstructAlmostAnything, reducing any discussion into a discussion about whatever topic you want. Make the discussion and the page bend to this tactic. Then introduce the idea that the page no longer is about the original statement.
- Psychoanalysis. Diagnose your opponents' psychological hang-ups based upon what they write. If someone suggests a course of action or a new policy, call them "control freaks". If someone recommends against a course of action or a new policy, tell them they are "afraid of change". If someone objects to inflammatory language, state that they are "unable to handle brutal honesty". If someone desires logical structure and precision, call them "anal retentive". If someone disagrees with your analysis of an issue, say they are "unable to think logically". These diagnoses cannot be refuted, but will discourage your opponents from making additional statements that could be used as further evidence of their psychological defects.
- Demonization. If your opponent says something that can be possibly be interpreted as sexist, racist, ageist, elitist, fascist, socialist, communist, leftist, reactionary, or as any other kind of HateSpeech? or support of unpopular political or religious ideologies, then point it out. Make sure to do it in such a way that the opponent cannot refute or defend against the accusation. (Note that this only qualifies as ConversationalChaff when the topic is unrelated to bigotry or ideology--otherwise, this tactic simply fans the flames.)
- Express disinterest. Declare that your opponents' views are uninteresting, unoriginal, or otherwise not worthy of further discussion, disguising the fact that they actually bother you a great deal. This may give you the last word, as your opponents probably cannot demonstrate that their writings really are interesting. Someone could respond "If you don't care, why don't you shut up?", but that will allow you the opportunity to continue expressing your feigned disinterest and your contempt for those who think the subject warrants any discussion at all. Variation: Engage in a long-term FlameWar and then state that you never found it interesting, and that you've been continuing to write just to see what kinds of reactions you could get out of the other participants.
- Bring their pasts back to haunt them. Find statements made by the other person or people in other topics. Demonstrate that those other statements contradict their statements in the topic of contention. This is easy to do, as no person can achieve 100% self-consistency. Conclude that they are hypocrites, liars, or idiots.
- Use their allies against them. Sometimes an intelligent person will have less-intelligent or less-disciplined people backing them up. When that is happening, ignore the statements of the smart person and attack those of the less-smart. The resulting unfocused flamage will overwhelm the discussion.
- Make fun of their spelling, punctuation, idiomatic expressions, etc., rather than discussing the topic. Include a subtle implication that poor writing style indicates low intelligence.
- You can see ConversationalChaff turning coherent arguments into a chaotic flamewar. Take an argument about some random subject we'll call $SUBJECT. People turn arguments into meta-arguments: "I define $SUBJECT as $DEFINITION, and your argument makes no sense in that context. Let's argue about the definition of that word instead!" Then they turn those into meta-meta-arguments: "You, like most people who follow $MINDSET, refuse to see $SUBJECT as $DEFINITION. Let's argue about your mindset so I can change your definition of that word so that then we can finally get to the bottom of whether $SUBJECT is good or bad." And you can wrap that into a nice seven-layer argument burrito by simply picking nits about the way the other person argues. "That was an ad-hominem attack! Now I get hitsies!" So now you're forced to explain your definition of $SUBJECT, defend your mindset, and figure out what the hell "hitsies" is, before you can touch upon $SUBJECT again.
- Thankfully, on a Wiki, you can move the meta-discussion to SomeOtherPage and stay in the thick of things. Not everyone does that, but most heated discussions end up having at least one person who can't help but make order out of the chaos. But on UseNet or similar media, what can you do? Say "Hey, wait a minute, we're getting off-track! I'm talking about $SUBJECT!" Well, maybe, but then they'll start argue about how you change the subject all the time. Is there any defense against conversational chaff on Usenet that doesn't looks like conversational chaff itself?
These tactics are usually more powerful online than in real life, because usually online there is almost no limit on volume of participation, so you can keep coming back 24 hours a day, throwing up an endless flurry of petty arguments.
There are people who do this unintentionally, and there are people who do it intentionally. The effect is often the same either way.
RE: defense against conversational chaff on Usenet:
I've had some success with changing the "Subject:" line of my reply to better describe the meta discussion.
This tends to "flag" that branch of the tree in threaded news readers so that readers can tell about where the conversation went meta.
Since usenet threads are organized as a tree of replies to messages, I can always go up to a parent node that was on-topic and reply to that, rather than extending the meta-discussion tree.
Also worth a try: Totally ignore any post by the distractor. Post your next message on (your) topic. If the distractor is notorious enough that enough people have him in their kill filter, this may even work...
One technique which I try on Usenet (though I'm not sure of its success) is to tackle the original point of debate from a totally different direction. This should throw the distractor off balance, though I can't tell how effective it is... whenever I try this the loser tends to disappear from the newsgroup.
In case this method doesn't `work', I try to keep my ground, instead of letting the other party lead the discussion. -- TkChia
Re: Check writers' qualifications.
This is an absolutely legitimate form of conversation in this day and age where an estimated >80% of the workforce in IT is unqualified. I can't cease to be amazed of what passes as qualified professional. The unqualified, "ignorant and proud of it" crowds do a constant harm to our profession on multiple fronts, including in on-line communities. If they have an incredibly stupid idea, but they are fanatic enough to pursue it, and hype it, they can do immesurable harm to others. On the other hand if you want to attack their ideas, you'd have to suffer the pain of explaining every bit of basic math or computer science d'a cappo al fine, which of course is irrealizable. Therefore pinpointing their ignorance and lack of qualification is an absolutely legitimate form conversation. It's even practiced in real life in honourable institution: try to publish a bogus but very long article where you claim that P=NP, I'd be surprised if anybody would read even 1 page of it before asking for your qualification.
Certainly people shouldn't pretend to be experts when they're not. But in a field as young as computers, what specific qualifications should a conversant look for?
That's a good question, I'm not sure I can answer for myself: when can I be content enough that I have a decent set of needed qualifications for my job ? We don't know a lot more than we know about building software. However, if we cannot be sure what should be the MiminimumQualificationsForSoftwareEngineers?
, the lack thereof is often times easy to spot and bloody obvious.
This is a wonderful page, concisely exposing a host of conversational "worst practices". It leaves me wondering about a ConversationalLens
and a focus on conversational "best practices".
One way to provide the opposite pattern is to ImproveTheDialectic
It may be time to re-read and re-visit this concept. -- DonaldNoyes
Wow. You know, even performing just one
of the items above is a lot of work
to undertake just to, well, drop a subject. You actually burn more calories pulling this stuff off than just taking the topic head-on. Why not just ignore the original poster? Or, being honest, and saying, "No offense, but I'm in no mood to discuss this at the moment." It seems like a whole lot less work would be involved.
That assumes that the actor is really interested in a rational resolution. Often, they are more interested in an emotional payoff (looking "smarter", beating the opponent, etc) and so the chaff is used to obscure a losing argument. Or sometimes they are attention-seeking, and prolonging the discussion through any means is the goal.