How to discuss politics with friends, version 1

My good friends Royal WinchesterRob Lefferts and I like to talk about things. Eventually we realized there were  some things, mostly political, we were afraid to talk about since they’re often polarizing topics that make everyone involved hate each other. Since we like each other, we wanted to avoid that. By going meta, which we are fond of doing, we came up with the following rules, which can help friends talk about contentious issues with each other:

  1. We have bad data. Confirmation bias is the tendency we all have to find one piece of data that supports something we already believe and then stop looking. We say “I studied this thoroughly”, when really all we did was find one supporting source, something the web makes possible for any claim or belief.  This bias even influences the sources we pick for news and the articles we choose to read, making us blind to the diversity of opinions and data out there. Objectively, we know we don’t know everything, but we easily convince ourselves we’ve been objective when arguing. Everyone should admit they don’t have all the data, and the data they do have is  biased because they had a belief before they started looking for data.
  2. We don’t really care – if we did,  we’d do something more than argue. Most Americans do almost nothing to support the causes they are willing to argue with for hours with their friends. If you really feel so passionately about whatever this topic is, what are you doing for that cause? If you do little or nothing, step down from your high horse, please. If we really cared, we could at least agree to invest the time to read the other sides data, and then get together to review. That takes commitment, but if there is no commitment, why are we arguing so passionately?
  3. We’re arguing about being right. Often with friends there is more ego in the room than people admit. Once things get heated, no one wants to say “I’m wrong” or “That’s a good point” or “Maybe I need to rethink my position”. If you note from the beginning that everyone wants to be right, it helps diffuse that motive, increasing the possibility people might actually listen to each other. A truly wise person is capable of growing. They can incorporate new ideas into their thinking and change their mind. Wise people are more interesting to talk to, compared to people who endlessly, and thoughtlessly, defend the same position their entire life.
  4. There are smart people on both sides. For highly contentious issues (abortion, religion, taxes, war,etc.), there are smart people on both sides. To portray one point of view as obvious is denial, and to make ad-hominem attacks on people with opposing views denies the complexity of the issue involved. Smart people can be wrong of course, but that doesn’t mean the way they’re wrong is as trivial to avoid as you assume, or that their ethics and morals are less noble than yours.
  5. What would convince you that you are wrong? If you have no answer to this question, you haven’t thought very hard about your position. There must be some set of new facts or conditions in the world that would make you take a different point of view, even if they are unlikely or improbable.  It’s not much fun to talk to people who have complete certainty that they’re right about everything.

What do you think? We eventually came up with a version 2.

18 Responses to “How to discuss politics with friends, version 1”

  1. JMiller

    Start with #5. If you can’t give somebody a litmus test on how to persuade you, then #3 is true. (Me, I prefer to be proven wrong: it means I’ve just learned something and/or am well-justified in my inferiority complex.)

    #4 may be true, but it also tends to be irrelevant because of #2: it doesn’t matter how smart the people are if they’re not doing anything about their position. (I’d go a step further and say it doesn’t matter how smart the people are if they’re not competent in their position — with the step beyond that being the assertion that smart people incompetently handling positions poisons information with appeals to their authority being misplaced and thus fallacious.)

    But where do smart people go wrong? This is about to get into combustibles for which I apologize, but re-read the post above if you feel yourself getting toasty…

    The at the start of Congressman Ron Paul’s current book on threats to liberty is the legality of abortion. He’s opposed to it, and his reasons for being opposed to it came from his experience as a doctor. He takes a compelling narrative and suggests a policy that follows. But. Elsewhere throughout the book, he makes the case that policy shouldn’t follow narratives but rather follow freedom and liberty — thus his visceral and emotional response undid his commitment to rationality elsewhere. The bigger picture seemed to me that he didn’t refer back to SCotUS Roe v. Wade where the narrative of the decision seemed to come down to the individual’s right to privacy (that is, the state does not have probable cause to assume that a person has a viable pregnancy that will result in one or more new citizens and therefore does not have probable cause to investigate when a person doesn’t give birth to one or more new citizens in any given day) which Congressman Paul is wildly in favor of. The grand irony, of course, is that for all of the complaining that Republicans (generally anti-abortion) do about government meddling in health care, it would actually give them the perfect plank to undermine Roe v. Wade on the grounds that anybody getting taxpayer-supported health care is, de facto, sacrificing medical privacy to the state.

    The point is rooted in the argumentation structure, regarding whether what is in question is fact, values or policy — Rep. Paul had fact and value, but didn’t connect it to policy while standing (privacy-oriented) policy has become detached from facts and values (what privacy?) — because ultimately all three are going to be called into circular question:
    1) So what’s going on here? 2) But what do we really want? 3) Therefore what should we establish? 4) Goto #1. Generally speaking, most people don’t pay attention to which frame they’re looking at, they just argue “their position,” which makes it difficult for them to admit error — it doesn’t matter that their facts are wrong so long as their Values Are Right; it doesn’t matter that their values are weak when they’re supported by The Facts; it doesn’t matter how asinine the policy is if it was made with Good Intentions and/or addresses the Current Facts; etc. That all goes back to my starting point of knowing how to be demonstrably wrong.

    But. I am hungry as a point of fact. I value calories in my system. I am going to go find lunch as a matter of policy. And I’ll go through this again around dinner time when the calories are AWOL and I’m hungry again. And in this case, I’m not wrong at all.

  2. Tisha White

    Thanks to the first point (confirmation bias), I now know what my brother-in-law has when he argues against the existence of global warming and then proceeds to send me articles only from to back up his argument. I’ve never claimed to know enough about the subject to say whether or not I believe in it, but once made the mistake of saying that I watched An Inconvenient Truth to see what all the fuss was about.

    All kidding aside, this is a great article, good points made within.

  3. Christopher Lazzaro

    A good exercise similar to your point #5 that I regularly use is to find 3-5 issues with a belief I already hold. Call it being an empirical skeptic of my own beliefs. Every belief system has anomalies. If I take the time to discover and wrestle with some of them I learn empathy, compassion and humility. I also find that exercise can have the benefit of strengthening my belief or causing me to reconsider my position completely. Win win.

    Thanks for your points.

    1. Scott Berkun

      One challenge for me is its not as much fun to dispassionately talk about everything. I have to have some stake in a position to make it interesting. The thing I have to be careful of is when I start taking things personally, and remind myself I’m more than just a collection of positions.

  4. Jason Daubert

    Excellent points all around, and also applicable to other topics that can be polarizing such as (but not limited to): conspiracy theories, questionable medical / diet / life advice, UFOs, etc.

  5. Sean Crawford

    Tisha, part of the reason why it was a mistake to watch al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is that in Britain, after a court case, schools are legally required to make nine scientific inaccuracies clear to the children when they show the movie, according to my local daily newspaper.

  6. Tisha White

    @Sean, I watched it as a starting point, then was more than willing to get input from others on research, articles, etc. My brother in law is the type who is always right lol, and now I just don’t start any type of involved conversation with him because it turns into him trying to convince you that his way is the ONLY way. Those kind of people are too close-minded for my taste.

  7. calvin

    I can recall so many evenings spent discussing these things with friends over a drink and not feeling good about any of them in the end :).. every point made here is exactly what it is like to argue with friends.

  8. Mike Nitabach

    This can only take you so far. It works fine when you are talking about differences of opinion among privileged people for whom the practical effects are mostly theoretical. In a highly polarized political environment, you are dealing with groups of people who differ on their basic understanding of the very purpose of government. And the practical effects of those differences are far from theoretical. They can represent the difference between life and death.

    For example, Tom Coburn has recently stated that the government should not guarantee health care for citizens. The actual real world implication of this is that some people will be allowed to simply suffer and die if they cannot somehow scrape together the money to pay for treatment. Anyone who sees themself as potentially ending up in that position is not going to have a friendly discussion with someone who believes they should, indeed, be allowed to suffer and die, untreated.

    Your maxims work fine when you are talking about comfortable affluent people chatting at a dinner party about marginal tax rates on the wealthy, etc. They are meaningless when you are talking about real political disagreement concerning what kind of nation we live in, the proper role of government, and the very lives of its citizens.

    1. Joe Cool

      I agree completely with this.

  9. Rob Cottingham

    To me, points 2 and 3 speak to a larger point: are you both in this conversation for the same reason?

    I’ve seen some discussions turn nasty very quickly because one party was in it for a little light kibbitzing, while the other had a deep personal stake in the issue. And others, because while one of the participants has come in with an open mind, the other is looking purely to persuade – and inquiry is rarely very compatible with evangelism.

    I’m looking forward to seeing version 2!

  10. Ted Boren

    Great article. Equally applicable to politics, religion, and design, all of which I care a lot about. Thanks Scott.

  11. Barbara

    This was so special to me. I am middle age & my best friend who just happens to be my husband is so fragile when it comes to the subject of politics. You see he served our country for 20 years in the Air Force. He stood up for his country & his rights. This article is so clear to me. In 1991 I had to open my 43 year old mind to trust God to show me a way of life I fought as a
    Child who was born Jewish. As I got out of God’s way I was able to submit to the revelations God had in store for me. Because of my getting out of God’s way I have become the blessed person he has taught me to be. Thank you Lord.

  12. Sameer

    Brilliant! :)

    Can’t wait to set my eyes on version 2.

  13. Enzo

    There’s a great site called which is a social news site. But, unlike the other sites, you can submit articles and comment on them anonymously if you want. You don’t even have to sign up. What is even better is you can comment on a lot of articles without having to wait like on Reddit. If you like politics, you should check it out.



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