On an Article’s Valid Arguments

I have received a lot of criticism from numerous anonymous Internet criticizers. As is often the case with the Internet and elsewhere, “anonymous” means people can say whatever they want without risking having to argue a point in defense. Most of these comments on my articles have been submitted to various billboards and discussion forums (google “per bylund” and you’ll see) where the commenters probably think they can get away with anything.

Anyway, even though these people don’t seem interested in a discussion on the real points they are supposedly making, I would like to discuss a few important things about article criticism on a general level. In doing this, at least I have commented on the criticism and somehow defended myself against this particular kind of attack. Also, the argument in this blog post is generally applicable and would thus be of interest even if you haven’t read any of my articles; it is not a personal defense but rather a discussion on what writing an article really means.

The kinds of criticism I intend to discuss here are:

“The author hasn’t covered all the arguments”

and

“This is just the author’s opinion – there is no real argument”

As you can probably see, the two points are not at all the same. The first one is a criticism of the content not being sufficiently argumentative – there are more arguments that the commenter thinks should be part of the article. The second simply says that there are no arguments at all and that the article should therefore not be considered by anyone seriously interested in the issue at hand.

The former thus accepts that there are arguments in the article discussed, whereas the latter does not. But for some reason most people interested in offering criticism use both arguments at the same time, thinking they have really nailed the author. I believe the only thing they have done is to prove they are really not worth listening to, and thus that reading their comments is a complete waste of time.

Nevertheless, let’s take a look at the two kinds of criticism one by one and analyze their implications.

1. The author hasn’t covered all the arguments

This seems like a valid criticism and should be taken seriously at most times if the commenter is serious. After all, if the author really hasn’t covered the main arguments, the article really doesn’t have the effect the author intended or the effect the article could have had.

But it isn’t clear what “hasn’t covered all the arguments” really means. There are many ways of interpreting this comment, for example these:

  1. The author hasn’t covered the main argument
  2. The author hasn’t covered the full extent of the argument discussed
  3. The author has left out one or many of the possible arguments

These interpretations are very different. The first one says the author of the article discusses the wrong point. A better argument is at hand and should be chosen if one intends to discuss this particular issue. This kind of criticism could point to a commonly used argument that is better and more obvious than the one used in the article, or it could supply a new argument that is much better att proving the point made.

It should be obvious that if the point is to criticize the author of the article for not having made the best (or one of the better) arguments, the criticism must include or at least reference the better arguments. Otherwise the criticism is simply taken out of the blue without any real claims of substance. This is why this kind of criticism in most discussion forums fail to really criticize the article in a very way.

The second point is somewhat similar to the first point, but here the criticism is not that the main argument is left out – but an important part of the argument used has simply been left out. This is, in a way, a much more serious critique, since it means the author of the article really has made use of [one of] the best arguments available – but he or she has obviously not understood the extent of the argument. Or, in other words, the author has used an argument even though he or she obviously didn’t understand either what it is about or how to make use of it.

What we’re really saying here is not that the author of the article is ignorant (which is what we are saying in the first point above), but that the author does not understand. This is thus a criticism of the author’s intellect and intelligence. Such a serious criticism must of course supply proof of the point made – any example of a better point would do. However, this is very seldomly the case in discussion forums. It is of course much easier to simply say “the author is stupid” without mentioning why or in what way.

Supplying a real argument with examples and perhaps even real reasoning means exposing oneself for the same kind of criticism. Most people are not interested in doing this, especially not in Internet forums – even though they are anonymous – and thus they intentionally avoid the real argument.

The third point is the least valid of the three. As we have seen, the first two could very well be valid points if used wisely (and they need to be used wisely in order to work as criticisms at all). This third point, as I will show below, cannot be valid no matter how it is used and thus it should always be avoided. Nevertheless, this is probably the most frequently used criticism in this category, at least judging from the discussion forums I’ve encountered on the Internet.

The reason “leaving out one or many of the possible arguments” is utterly invalid as criticism lies completely in the last two words: possible arguments. An article (or even a book) cannot ever cover all the possible arguments – it simply isn’t possible. One reason for this is the constraint in size: it isn’t possible to cover all arguments in a limited-length text. Another reason is the availability of knowledge: there will always be someone coming up with another argument that the author simply has never thought of!

It doesn’t really matter if this argument has already been expressed in writing, or if thinking of it is simultaneous to writing the article or happens after the article is written and/or published. The reason for this is that an author cannot know of everything that has ever been thought of, and he or she also cannot include arguments or ideas that weren’t thought of when writing the article even though such arguments could be available for readers of the article at a later time.

We simply have to face it: all arguments cannot be covered.

Even if most valid points could be covered in a lengthy book, when writing an article it simply isn’t possible. Sometimes another valid and rather important argument has to be left out because there is no way of discussing it in the article – the text would simply be flooding over its limits and no one would i) read it or ii) publish it.

This is a very valid reason for not covering all main points. I do this myself very often: I write an article with the sole purpose of discussing one of the best arguments, leaving the other arguments aside (these can then be covered in other articles). So claiming “there are other arguments” cannot ever be a valid criticism unless it fits into one of the previous two categories: that the author has left out the better argument while “pretending” it doesn’t exist, or that the argument supplied is supplied in a bad way.

“This is just the author’s opinion – there is no real argument”

There are two important aspects to this criticism: it could be that the commenter has a problem with the article being simply a statement of opinion or that the article argues in a way that the commenter finds unsatisfactory. These are really two different points, even though they are very often mixed and made into a “bundle criticism.”

Since the criticism is really two different kinds of criticism it is better to treat them separately. Also, the latter part of the statement is really part of the former kind of argument and we have already discussed this at length. I will thus analyze only the validity of claiming that an article is nothing but “the author’s opinion.”

If this kind of criticism was directed at an article published in a scholarly journal it would be nothing short of Ragnarok for the author and very close to the end of his or her academic or scientific career. However, such opinion pieces aren’t ever published in such journals – they wouldn’t make it through peer review without being thrashed completely. (At least, I hope this is the case.)

But the kind of articles I’m discussing here, and the kind of articles commonly commented with this kind of criticism, aren’t journal articles. They are rather opinion editorials in newspapers or articles on web sites or e-zines. In the libertarian “world” such e-zines would be sites such as Strike the Root, LewRockwell.com or Center for a Stateless Society, sites on which I tend to publish most of my “opinion” articles.

The reason I mention this is that an important part of the article and how it should be assessed is what audience the author had in mind when writing it. The important question to ask here is: what is the purpose of the article? This is where most commenters go wrong – they criticise an article from the point of view of someone who is not at all in the intended audience.

Of course, if the criticism is of real arguments supplied in the article it should be taken seriously. But if it is really an article published in an e-zine to express an opinion, claiming “this is just the author’s opinion” does not really cut it. It is the author’s personal opinion, but it is supposed to be.

However, a good article does not express an opinion without discussing the opinion and making a statement – or some kind of claim that this is the “best” opinon. So most articles should include some kind of reasoning, and this is clearly subject to analysis and criticism. But this really means the other kind of criticism (as discussed above) should be used, since it is really an assessment of the arguments.

The problem here is that an article in a political or philosophically oriented e-zine might very well be an opinion piece with arguments, or at least reasoning, that to a bystander might not seem to cut it even though it does. The reason for this is that many opinion pieces on such sites as the ones mentioned above assume the reader is already aware of and shares a basic set of values. For instance, an anarchist libertarian writer might very well criticize a standpoint of minarchist libertarians leaving out arguments for constitutionalism, assuming the reader already has this kind of knowled. Any social democrat reader would find the fundamental arguments either lacking or unsufficient, or perhaps he or she simply gets lost in the special terminology used.

The article thus might not seem to supply arguments that the author, writing for a certain audience, assumes the reader already knows. Opinion pieces are, in this sense, not different from articles written for scholarly journal – they too assume the reader has already a certain level of knowledge in the field. A biologist or physicist would not be able to follow the reasoning in an article published in an economics journal, and vice versa, simply because they lack the basic knowledge assumed by the author (and the editors).

But this doesn’t mean the criticism of “this is just an opinion” automatically fails. It does not. Opinion articles need to supply some kind of reasoning or argument in order to be valid – if they do not they should not be published. But as a commenter it is important to understand what audience the article was written for and take that into account when criticizing. Arguments or facts may very well be left out of the article if it is assumed the reader already has this kind of knowledge, which makes criticism such as “hey, what about the facts?” misplaced.

What is the conclusion of all this, then?

The conclusion is that it is as difficult, or perhaps even more difficult, to write valid criticism of an article as writing the article itself. The commenter needs either advanced skills in reasoning or argumentation analysis, or sufficient knowledge of the article context.

Sadly most commenters on the Internet lack both of these, and they also lack the necessary humble approach of a serious commenter. Most criticisms, at least when considering discussion forums and e-mail lists, are at best rather puerile attempts to make the author look bad. I am not saying this to get even, but considering the points I have discussed above most commenters on the Internet seem to have no clue what they are doing.

Criticism is very important – it is the way forward – but a lot of people on the Internet simply don’t take role as commenters seriously enough.