30

A colleague of mine enjoys using philosophical questions to undermine ideas that are different to his own and to derail discussions that are not in his favour. At first I thought he was offering genuine perspectives, but overtime I realised he was just being defensive and finding enjoyment out of disrupting discussions.

To give you some examples, here are some of his frequent techniques:

  1. The you-can’t-know-for-sure:

    The evidence may seem to be true but it could be wrong, and we can never know that for sure. You can only believe in evidence. Therefore, making claims about anything, with or without evidence, is meaningless.   The human senses and the human mind are limited and fallible, and to say that an idea is more correct than another is just your opinion based on a fallible experience.

  2. Disagrees with the definition, or shifts to a different definition, or question the meaningfulness of definitions and language in general:

    I define X as something different to how you defined X, and according to what I think of X, I am right. You can think of X how you want but it doesn’t matter to me.  

    “X” only means X because humans defined “X” to be X. But “X” is just a subjective idea that doesn’t exist in reality. Therefore, anything you say about X, your ideas are on based on something non-objective and arguable.

  3. All things are just perspectives:

    To say that I’m inconsistent with my argument or to say that I’m wrong is just a perspective. There are many perspectives and just because from one perspective I’m a certain way, doesn’t mean I really am.

I usually enjoy genuine philosophical perspectives in all discussions, but this colleague never offers his philosophical ideas at the beginning of talks and never mentions them when we agree with him, but only throws them out selectively against ideas during the middle of discussions. The worst is that he speaks them with a triumphant and condescending tone of voice over everyone else as if he is so clever.

Question: When he uses these types of philosophical questions as a way to undermine someone’s idea or to derail a discussion, what is an appropriate way to interfere with his remark in a way that doesn’t confront him, protects the other person from appearing to have being undermined or devalued, and restores the direction discussion to what it was before?

  • 21
    What is your area of research? If you're in philosophy your colleague might have a point... if you're in chemical engineering much less so. – jakebeal Nov 28 '14 at 14:29
  • 5
    This guy sounds like he does this simply to win an argument. – Compass Nov 28 '14 at 14:36
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    @jakebeal: If the area is philosophy and that colleague is serious about these arguments, he should quit doing what he does. – Wrzlprmft Nov 28 '14 at 14:37
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    I think this would be better suited for Workplace SE. Your colleague is using some rather cheap rhetorical tricks for protecting their standpoint. They are however not offering anything to support their idea, so in that matter the examples you provided carry no information relevant to the discussion and can be ignored. Which is what I would suggest you to do, if they offer no "real" argument, just state so and move on with the discussion. – user3209815 Nov 28 '14 at 14:38
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    In which setting is this happening? Departmental meetings? Conferences? – Davidmh Nov 28 '14 at 15:33
35

Is this colleague really an academic? How on earth did he get a job in academia? How does he manage to retain it? He sounds like a teenage boy from your description of his style of arguing.

He's a troll, so best ignored. He also sounds like he's realised he's way out of his depth, and this is bluster to cover it up.

Formulate a single sentence that lets him know he's been heard, but that it was irrelevant, and that you've already moved on. Use it. Vary it, but keep it short, and always end with an invitation to the interrupted speaker to carry on where they left off. The troll should get the message that he's been sidelined, and troll elsewhere.

"I don't think we need to surrender to nihilism just yet, do we? [turn back to the interrupted speaker] Now, as you were saying ..."

Then just exclude him from discussions in the future. Take your fellow discussants to another room, away from the troll, if you have to.

  • 19
    How on earth did he get a job in academia? If he was appointed as a faculty in a humanities department when postmodernism was fashionable, saying this sort of nonsense might have been precisely the thing that got him hired. – Cape Code Nov 28 '14 at 20:38
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    Interesting enough, I have met several professors like this guy. Another thing, every single one of them are very senior, make the discussion all about them, and are persistent if you try to deflect. – Austin Henley Nov 29 '14 at 4:04
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    @CapeCode - That was my thought exactly. – reirab Nov 30 '14 at 2:57
11

There is a technique - I don't know its "official" name or whether it even has one - I call "Freeze":

If somebody talks to you and you are not interested in the topic or don't want to listen too long don't give him/her reinforcing reactions, neither positive nor negative.

Look, almost stare, at him/her without any movement of any part of your body. Not even the slightest nodding, no movement of any muscle of your face (apart from the natural blinking of your eyes), no playing with the pen in your fingers, no looking at your watch or your mobile, no ... you get the point. Keep freezed all the time looking/staring at the speaker. I he/she stops (such an unusual [not-]reaction is irritating) and asks: "What's the matter (with you)?", or the like, simply answer with a neutral voice: "Nothing. I'm just listening.". Nothing less, nothing more. Freeze again immediately after that! Until the next question, which gets exactly the same answer...and the next...and the next...and...ad infinitum.

Normally it doesn't take too long until he/she ends speaking (because of not getting ANY reaction). If he/she ends keep the "freeze" (this is hard, I know, silence becomes uncomfortable after just a few seconds...keep it anyway):

  1. either until the former speaker reacts with "What do you think?", or the like. Answer "Thank you for your contribution". Switch to somebody or something else without any further word to the speaker.
  2. or after a time that is much more than the comfortable few seconds. Say "Thank you for your contribution". Switch to somebody or something else without any further word to the speaker.

I tried this many times and it worked almost every time. I tried this once with a person who knew this. We were in the same training where we got taught exactly this technique. It even worked with her.

It works best if you prepare yourself in advance, since not reacting to a person who speaks to you personally is hard for people who are socialized normally. Practicing with a person of your confidence helps a lot.

I admit, it works best with just one speaker and one listener. In a group all of the listeners must be prepared (ideally trained) and strong enough to stick to the "freeze" behaviour up to the very end. I have no experience whether this works reliably under such circumstances. I'd say it's worth trying. It can't become worse, can it?

  • 1
    So, essentially, you take “so what?” up to eleven … – Wrzlprmft Nov 29 '14 at 0:57
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    Interesting contribution. – G.Broser says Reinstate Monica Nov 29 '14 at 1:06
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    One potential problem is that other people in the audience might perceive the speaker as having the "deer-in-headlights" freeze-up, due to panic ... and probably incompetence. – paul garrett Nov 29 '14 at 23:38
  • @paulgarrett By "speaker" I meant the one who - in the words of the OP - "undermines" and "derails". I did not mean a (possible) speaker in front of an audience. – G.Broser says Reinstate Monica Nov 30 '14 at 0:30
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    Oop, sorry to be unclear. What I meant was that for the presenter to try to do a stare-down might be (mis-) perceived as freezing-up themself, rather than being in control enough to stare-down the inappropriate-question-poser. But, in any case, these are tricky issues. – paul garrett Nov 30 '14 at 1:19
5

As EnergyNumbers already correctly noted, this is trolling and if ignoring that guy or dismissing him with a single statement is an option, that’s probably the best way. However, given his acceptance in the group or similar, this may not always be possible. Also, the fact that this guy actually manages to derail discussions indicates that he has some support or people are falling for his “arguments”. Under these conditions, it may be an option to outwit him with short arguments that hopefully derail his approach and the continue.

Your examples share some common approaches (some more, some less):

  • They are true to some extent.
  • They are irrelevant to the discussion at hand.
  • They attack the fundaments of science or discourse.

Thus, a general short reply could start with of briefly acknowlegding the truth of his statement, if applicable (“Yes, but …”; “Indeed, however …”). If you can come up with a good argument quickly, use it; otherwise you can resort to the undeniable success of using abstractions, science, probabilistic statements, etc, in short: “Science – it works, bitch.” (and probably also pays both your bills). As a last resort, “so what?” seems to be a valid response to all of your examples.

Some examples:

  • The evidence may seems to be true but it could be wrong and you can’t know that for sure. You can only believe in evidence. Therefore to make claims about anything with or without evidence is meaningless.
    — And that’s why all claims we make are not absolute but implicitly probabilistic.

    Alternative, more aggressive answer:

    And fortunately, so is your claim. Where were we?

  • The human senses and the human mind are limited and fallible, and to say that an idea is more correct than another idea is just your opinion based on a fallible experience.
    — Indeed, however, as opinions are all we have, we have to stick with them; moreover, since as I just tried to argue, I have reasons to consider my opinion an informed and substantiated one.

  • I define X as something different to how you defined X, and according to what I think of X, I am right. You can think of X how you want but it doesn’t matter to me.
    — Fortunately, reality does not care about what words we use to desribe it.

    (Note, that his last sentence is also a good hook for ignoring him outright.)

  • “X” only means X because humans defined “X” to be X. But “X” is just a subjective idea that doesn’t exist in reality. Therefore, anything you say about X, your ideas are on based on something non-objective and arguable.
    – True, but on the other hand, humans have faired pretty well with using the concept of X [alternatively: defining X as ”X”], so I stick with that.

  • To say that I’m inconsistent with my argument or to say that I’m wrong is just a perspective. There are many perspectives and just because from one perspective I’m a certain way, doesn’t mean I really am.
    – True, but as I just tried to argue, my perspective is well-founded and thus there are increased chances that you are really wrong.

A final note: It looks as if this guy operates by attacking one’s philosophical foundations and his continued doing so indicates that he does indeed succeed on some people. Thus it may also help to inforce your philosophical foundations and not let him shake them a single bit. Relatedly, it might probably help to answer to him in a self-concious manner.

  • 3
    In short I'd say: Don't argue with a troll. He drags you to his level and beats you with experience there. :-) Seriously: Such people live for increased attention. If you don`t give it to them, neither positive nor negative, they lose in the end. It's similar to children. They don't do bad things because they are inherently bad. It's often just screaming for attention. Being an adult and behaving like this is childish, of course, but it works regardless of the age. And it even works better if one's clever enough to realize that it works (always), such using it with intent then. – G.Broser says Reinstate Monica Nov 29 '14 at 3:43
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    @GeroldBroser Still, "so what? Oh where were we? Yes, this CH bond is stronger than this CO one because ..." is a nice way out. It can't stand alone, it has to be really a rhetorical question and no more. Otherwise I agree, it's sad that sometimes adults need to be treated as children. – yo' Nov 29 '14 at 6:55
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    @GeroldBroser: In most situations, I would agree (see my first paragraph). But in some social dynamics and situations, this won’t work, e.g., if other people are actually falling for the troll’s arguments or if you have to keep ettiquette to that guy. – Wrzlprmft Nov 29 '14 at 8:49
4

I would first like to note that you can twist ideas fairly easily if you read Orwell’s 1984, you may want to read it, you will see the similarities.

Now, not confronting him is not easily done, have you found others that share the same opinion on him? if so, go in as a group and get the approval of the vast majority, then you won’t have to worry about confronting him.

Showing that the speaker is being undermined should also probably not worry you, this is a ridiculous form of undermining and it is to shame the interrupter, not the speaker.

Finally you have two choices for counter-measures:

  • Demand that he gives an alternative that cannot be challenged in the same way, that is independent of human interpretation in any possible way, and is solid and concrete.

  • Challenge his own proposals in the same way, if he challenges the name of an unknown variable, challenge the name of a number, claim that you define 2+2 to be five, and that five for you is written as 4, i.e. you call 4 five.

  • As far as the “You can't know for sure” policy, tell him that the same applies to anything he says, and if you constantly reject ideas due to that he should reject his own ideas and accept that there are no answers, solutions, or actions for that matter.

Unless there is some superior who can take care of this issue, there is no way to deal with him in a kind manner (I’m not telling anyone to be rude), you should be harsh, but make sure you have the majority on your side.

Also note, if you check out debating groups, people who study debating and practice it on ridiculous matters as a hobby, you will find out how to counter any junk he uses, I’m sure there are books on this too (there is one by Schopenhauer too).

Again, the most important thing is to be sure the others are on your side, just to be safe and make sure you don’t get into bad trouble, and try to divide the confrontation between multiple people so he can’t cause trouble to just one.

Hope I helped, there is not much clarity in such issues and there are no definitive answers either, as he would suggest, but that’s why we have to choose based on suggestions and speculations, otherwise nothing happens.

  • 7
    I'd strongly recommend against the second option ("Challenge his own proposals in the same way"). This risks making you look like a jerk as well to anyone who doesn't know the full story, and if you do this in public, you're eventually going to be overheard by some people who have seen only this interaction. – Anonymous Mathematician Nov 28 '14 at 17:49
  • I agree, that's why I stressed that one should clearly have the vast majority on his side before taking any form of action. – user3079666 Nov 28 '14 at 19:38
  • Furthermore, you will be battling with him in his own ground, where he has years of experience. Unless you know a bunch of philosophy and eristics (art of discussion), you are bound to fail, while validating his methods. – Davidmh Nov 28 '14 at 23:39
  • I would not wager in winning a philosophical argument, more like showing him that he is irritating and his arguments are pointless, just like renaming 4 to "five" is pointless, he obviously is not a man that takes other people seriously, and should not be treated as such. If I considered it possible that he would back away with this method I would not insist so much on having the backing of the other coworkers. – user3079666 Nov 30 '14 at 13:35
1

I've actually been on both sides of what you're describing, so I think a proper answer is highly dependent on the context; it's even possible that your colleague is making a valid point. As an example, his complaints about the uncertainty of evidence might be because he thinks you're taking some results for granted when you shouldn't. Indeed, as a physicist working in biology, I've had to adapt to the fact that in fields like biology or psychology, even 'established' results can be questionable on many different levels. He may be trying to undermine an idea because he thinks it's wrong, not because it's not his own. Your question suggests that you've convinced yourself that this is not true, that your colleague is just trying to be defensive and annoying. However, if I were you, I'd first make sure other people (your supervisor, for example) agree with this assessment.

Other answers have given good ideas for how to react to your colleague's behavior, but I think the way in which you should react again depends a lot on context. If this is a talk, unless you're either the speaker or the host, there's nothing you can or should do about it. If you are the speaker or the host, you can invoke time limitations and suggest to discuss the issue later, in private. And remember that you're under no obligation to spend time discussing with this person if you think it's a waste of time.

If this is a group meeting, I think it's a good idea to talk to your supervisor about it, see if (s)he agrees with you, and what (s)he suggests you do. Chances are your supervisor has more experience with this than you, and (s)he also has a lot more power to stop your colleague's behavior.

Sometimes the solution may be to just talk to your colleague: e.g., go with his definitions and see where they lead. In the best case, one of you will convince the other and you'll learn something. In the worst case, you will get some insight into the cause of his stubbornness. I think it's a lot more likely that he's just confused about something than that he is actively trying to attack anyone.

1

Is this guy really a peer? How did he get a job? He sounds immature.

Ignore the fool. Sounds like he's overcompensating for incompetence.

Tell him that you've heard him and that you don't care.

For example, just say, "Okay.", and then go back to the rest of your discussion.

Don't invite him to any more gatherings. Move away from him, if necessary.

0

The you-can’t-know-for-sure:

The evidence may seem to be true but it could be wrong and you can’t know that for sure. You can only believe in evidence. Therefore to make claims about anything with or without evidence is meaningless.

Remind the colleague that science doesn't claim to know anything for sure, only to have pruned the world of hypotheses that are inconsistent with the evidence. The point is a strawman. Nobody claims to have access to the truth.

Disagrees with the definition, or shifts to a different definition, or question the meaningfulness of definitions and language in general:

I define X as something different to how you defined X, and according to what I think of X, I am right. You can think of X how you want but it doesn’t matter to me.

Agree to definitions at the outset. Don't argue about definitions. Decide on precise terms and operational definitions or invent a new term just for the sake of communication. His point is moot if they simply insert their own definition for a word that you have used in a different sense. Basically, you could say to him, "True, but that's not what we're talking about."

All things are just perspectives:

To say that I’m inconsistent with my argument or to say that I’m wrong is just a perspective. There are many perspectives and just because from one perspective I’m a certain way, doesn’t mean I really am.

Is being a "perspective" a negative thing? It seems that he is implying that perspectives are less valuable. Perspectives can be consistent with evidence (i.e. the perspective that plate tectonics explain the broad geological features of the Earth), or inconsistent with the evidence (i.e. the perspective that the Earth has always been as it is today). Deeming a position a "perspective" doesn't save it from scientific scrutiny.


But, more important, this person's arguments do not seem worth spending any time or attention on. If the arguments are actually presented in the way you have described, he is not interested in following the evidence and logic to arrive at a well supported conclusion. Ignore this guy. Focus on productive conversation, not distractions like this.

-3

I would say something like:

"I really don't think that is relevant for the purposes of the current conversation. I think we can all agree on _________." Where you fill in the blank with an assumption/axiom/principle that is strong enough to invalidate their relativistic perspective on this topic, and weak enough to be very commonly accepted.

If it is a values question, it might be time to play the Nazi card. It is old and worn, but it works. (EDIT: I think maybe people are misinterpreting this. What I mean is pointing out that relativism doesn't leave one any space to condemn Nazism.)

It also might be necessary to expand on what you think the purpose of the conversation is, inviting discussion. As Davidmh commented, the context is crucially important. If they are interrupting the conversation that you were having with the third party, then you really don't need to consider their goals wrt the conversation (unless something forces you to, like them having power over you). However, if they have been a participant/observer to the conversation so far, then it is important to identify with the third party what you consider to be the mutually understood assumptions at play in the conversation so far, with the idea of reaffirming your commitment to them for the duration of the conversation, or possibly making some insignificant concession(s) to relativism to satisfy the challenger.

A side comment:

You seem to be ascribing a conscious deliberateness to their actions that borders on malice. I'm hesitant to view it that way based on the evidence you've presented, although of course you know better.

These are all extreme relativist arguments that are difficult or impossible to refute logically, and they can provide valuable perspectives in some contexts (IMO). But my impression is that alarmingly many people genuinely believe their practical applicability to be greater than it truly is (one reason being that it allows them to avoid confronting challenges to their worldview).

What evidence do you have that this person actually views what they are doing as simply disruptive and not contributive?

  • „If it is a values question, it might be time to play the Nazi card.“ – Are you serious about this? – Wrzlprmft Nov 29 '14 at 19:08
  • Yeah. I think referencing the Nazis will get most people to drop the relativist shtick pretty quick. – capybaralet Nov 30 '14 at 20:08
  • I just learned a term for using these kind of relativistic arguments to (fallaciously) draw meaningful conclusions: "Motte-and-Bailey"... see slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/03/…. – capybaralet Jan 12 '15 at 20:43
-4

This is typical academic evasiveness. I would simply ignore this weasel or see to it that he does not get a chance to get a word in. Or perhaps, say how astonished you are to hear this.

  • 2
    Not typical for anybody I know who has any reputation at all. – jakebeal Nov 29 '14 at 3:16
  • All-too-common in academia, at all levels. – Ornello Nov 30 '14 at 1:38
  • @Ornello That depends greatly on the field within academia. Perhaps this is common in sociology. It is not common in engineering, mathematics, or most sciences. – reirab Nov 30 '14 at 3:14

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