Facts, Opinions, and Flamewars

Posted 8 Apr 2000 at 18:10 UTC by barryp Share This

I believe that many conflicts that break out in forums such as Advogato, Slashdot, Usenet newsgroups, and the world in general, boil down to a simple matter of people confusing facts with opinions.

(Relax, this article is not about sexism)

When someone says something like "The word Journeyman is sexist", it sure looks like they're stating a fact. People who might disagree with the notion often feel the urge to correct that "fact", and everything goes downhill from there.

If on the other hand, someone more accurately says: "I think the word Journeyman is sexist", then what is there to argue about? They probably really do think that. Are you going to argue that "no, that's not what you think"? A reasonable response might then be something like: "I think you're wrong", which is another opinion, as opposed to just "you're wrong" which sounds like another fact.

This isn't limited to the whole sexism/PC thing that's been going on for a few days now. You see it all the time with any discussion, such as: "GPL is better than BSD License", "Linux is better than FreeBSD", "Java is a crappy language", and so on. This sort of thing has plagued online communities for years, and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come, even on this site.

Another problem with confusing an opinion with a fact is that once you've stated a "fact" you've kind of backed yourself into a corner, and if you later have a contrary feeling about the subject, you sort of have to conclude that you were "wrong" before (which people really don't like admitting, and will vigorously resist). But if you state an opinion, and later have a different opinion, that's not so traumatic - since changing opinions over time is generally a part of life (girls are obnoxious -> girls are nice, power rangers are cool -> power rangers are lame, etc).

Why does a person who acts somewhat sanely when talking to other people face-to-face, turn into a flaming monster when the get onto a newsgroup or chat room? I wonder if it could be that in real life, when you hear someone say something like: "Bill Gates is a wonderful person, just trying to make our lives better", you on some level accept that this person is just stating their opinion - but when you see it written down instead of coming out of someone's mouth, it's interpreted more as a statement of fact. If you disagree, then there's a great urge to object, just as if you read a newspaper article that referred to Philadelphia as the capital of California (who are these idiots? how can the print something so obviously wrong?).

What to do about this? I think that when people write, they should make some effort to acknowledge that most or part of what they're writing is just their opinion. But having to constantly disclaim that "I think", or "I believe", or "... in my opinion" is terribly impractical, so it's also somewhat up to the reader to fill-in-the-blanks a bit, and recognize when a writer is just giving his opinion (even if the writer himself doesn't realize it). On this particular site, the whole "Diary Entry" section should be waving a big red flag to you, that what you read there are mostly people's thoughts and opinions.

As Dennis Miller says at the end of his rants: that's just my opinion, I could be wrong.

Just the Facts, Ma'am?, posted 8 Apr 2000 at 18:59 UTC by gsutter » (Master)

In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know, that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
--Carl Sagan

This is the point at which we work out whether Advogato, /., DDN, and other fora are more like science or politics/religion, at least with regard to changing one's mind.

Oh, wait, that's the heart of the problem! Front page discussions generally start out scientifically, describing facts or factual occurrences, and then degenerate into opinion wars (politics) when somebody decides that they don't like the facts. Then there are those who present their opinion as fact, typically loudly and persistently, giving us our "religion".

Now, opinions are fine, as long as they are valid within the framework of the discussion, presented as opinions, rather than facts, and are changeable upon receipt of factual evidence, which seems to be the problem in many net.fora (not to mention the rest of the world).

If we, the Advogato community, a relatively intelligent community IMO, can restrain ourselves a little bit, resolve to think scientifically, or at least think before posting, then perhaps we can avoid turning this forum into another Slashdot.

Ways to say "I disagree.", posted 8 Apr 2000 at 20:50 UTC by lilo » (Master)

What's interesting is that we pick so many different ways to say "I disagree." And that, in print, which we would normally consider a more emotionally neutral medium (no chance to wave the arms and gesticulate wildly 8), so many of the ways we pick to say that are highly emotional and confrontational.

Sample ways to say, "I disagree," follow.

I disagree.
That's stupid.
You are an asshole.
You don't know what you are talking about.
You clearly aren't very well-educated.
You have serious problems thinking logically.
Why do all of these comments typically come down to meaning no more than, "I disagree?" In all these cases, there is a subjective component to the meaning the comment conveys, and an objective component. The subjective component usually involves an ad hominem argument. Ad hominem arguments, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, involve casting doubt on the person rather than addressing the logic of their comments. They are the classic rhetorical "smoke and mirrors" rebuttal.

When you subtract the ad hominem arguments in the comments below, I think you'll be hard-pressed to find any message in them other than "I disagree."

"That's stupid." To say that something is stupid is to say that it is a thought result of a stupid person, someone without intelligence. If you'll look at the dictionary definition of intelligence, I think you'll find that it's general enough that such evaluations are very subjective. Intelligence tests produce fairly clearly-defined results (regardless of their validity as a real-world measurement, which is a matter of some contention). But the speaker has rarely proctored an intelligence test for the person they are speaking to. ;)

"You are an asshole." Clearly the speaker does not believe the person they're speaking to is a rectum. It's a metaphor for, "You are an annoying person." Which is an ad hominem argument, as well as a subjective impression. Usually, the person being referred to as annoying is in fact annoying to some of the people they deal with, not all. What the speaker is really saying is, "You have annoyed me." Or even, more correctly, "I have become annoyed by your comments."

"You don't know what you are talking about." Well, this one's pretty simple. It's, "I believe your statement is incorrect," but phrased as a general description of the person as someone who speaks about things of which they know nothing. It's a pure ad hominem argument couched in common idiom. I.e., it's an insult. A common recent idiomatic variant on this is, "You are clueless."

"You clearly aren't very well-educated." If formal education were the only avenue for advancement in the open-source community, clearly this ad hominem argument would be very telling. Since it is not, in those cases where one bases one's logic on the work of some philosopher or on some mathematical principle which may be unfamiliar to the listener, it behooves one to at least be willing to explain one's logic to someone who is unfamiliar with it. Being willing to cast aspersions on someone's education without explaining the reasoning involved is not exactly the mark of intellectual honesty.

"You have serious problems thinking logically." Again, we have a comment about someone's understanding of a particular argument, generalized to a comment about them as a person. It's an ad hominem argument and an insult.

So what are people saying when they couch their arguments, as above, in ad hominem attack and insult? Clearly there are two messages:
(1) I disagree.
(2) Please get angry.
The first message is quite a reasonable one. One hopes that it will not be the entire argument. The second message is the mark of someone who is willing to waste other people's time. When I see that message, I have to assume that the person is either having a bad day, or has some serious lessons to learn about collaborative behavior. If the latter, I am certainly going to take pains not to join any open source project they're running. They may be a very useful contributor to projects (with the help of a more clueful project manager) but they're certainly not going to do well given any position of authority.

"I believe" is implied., posted 8 Apr 2000 at 21:49 UTC by kelly » (Master)

I'm trained as a legal writer. One of the first things they break you of in legal writing classes is qualifying statements. You don't say "Plaintiff believes defendant's claim is without merit." You say "Defendant's claim is without merit." Of course, you go on to state why, arguing just why you claim that the defendant's claim is without merit, usually by analogy, and peppered with references to the factual record. You never hedge your point because hedging your point makes you seem less certain of it, and you damn well want to appear certain of it. No judge will ever be convinced by a wishy-washy argument.

This is a hallmark of persuasive writing. Much of the writing here is intended to be persuasive, and should be taken in that light. In my opinion, it's plain silly to expect people to deliberately sabotage their own writing to protect other people's feelings. But that's exactly what asking people to insert qualifying hedges into their statements.

Re: "I believe" is implied, posted 8 Apr 2000 at 22:00 UTC by joey » (Master)

Right. When I became active in the free software world and in projects like Debian (which is a rather argumentative project), I noticed I was saying "I think" a lot, and this was weakening my arguments. At the time, I was new to the projects I was working on, and not entirely sure of myself, but I quickly excised that phrase from my vocabulary when discussing technical matters online. Now though since others in the project have a fair amount of respect for me (and I for them), I don't hesitate to qualify my statements, since I know they care what I think.

I wonder if there's something in the free software community that encourages this progression.

Re: "I believe" is implied, posted 8 Apr 2000 at 22:22 UTC by nether » (Journeyer)

It depends. I would like to think that we aren't here just to impose our views of things on other people, but also to learn from them. There's nothing wrong with being uncertain.

And legal writing is not a good example here, it's a very special case where you are forced to have a specific role in the argument, and your sole purpose is to prove a point. In normal situations, we thankfully have the freedom also to change our views.

And though I agree in principle that a smart reader should understand that subjective qualification is always implied on matters concerning ethical, esthetic, or other human values, I don't think there's anything wrong with reminding people of this in the text from time to time.

The problem you showed with "I think" is not that it emphasizes the subjectiveness, but that it implies some uncertainty on the speaker's part, and that is what makes it less convincing. But nothing prevents one from saying "I am certain that" or something along those lines.

Then again, once you start explicitly saying "I'm certain that", you may also start to reconsider whether you really are certain of what you're saying. And that's not necessarily a bad thing...

Oh, and here's a nice introduction to logical argument someone may find interesting.

You missed one..., posted 8 Apr 2000 at 22:35 UTC by kelly » (Master)


You left out "You are incapable of having a valid opinion on this matter because you (are|are not) a member of group ....".

Otherwise, a very good response.

You think this confusion of facts and opinions doesn't happen in real life?, posted 8 Apr 2000 at 23:05 UTC by argent » (Master)

It would be wonderful if it didn't, but it's true... happens all the time. People get into fights over opinions, kill over opinions, start wars over opinions.

The natural size of a human community is a small group of extended families... and even that's sometimes too big. We need a tribe, so we pick on an idea and make that our tribe. So when someone says something that marks them as a member of another tribe our hackles raise... we ride into battle with our metaphoric loins girded.

(well, I hope they're girded in real life too... the idea of naked websurfing disturbs me).

That aside, my opinion that Perl is the source of all evil in the free software world is 100% undeniable truth, and only a Nazi would deny it!

objectiv vs. subjectiv, posted 9 Apr 2000 at 00:28 UTC by stefan » (Master)

The distinction between a fact and a believe is the fundamental difference between objectiv and subjectiv. I often hear the arguments that everyone's living in his own reality which is completely nonsensical and misleading.
Of course, a statement is always connected to a specific context. So what ? I'm quite often frustrated because I interpret the oh, you have the right to think so as a mere refusal to engage into a substantial discussion.
Even if I only issue an opinion, this opinion has grown up on some real experience, which might be worth discussing. And a real discussion doesn't usually lead to one party giving up his (implied) wrong opinion, it leads to something new, given that the discussion itself is an important experience for both parts (at least if they are really listening).
That's why I find the distinction between facts and opinions often a false dichotomy and I sometimes even prefer being aggressed verbally instead of just ignored. It just shows that I'm being taken seriously (to some degree at least).

You missed one.., posted 9 Apr 2000 at 02:13 UTC by lilo » (Master)


Yes, I've seen that one too.

In fact, I just tried to hit the high points, there seem to be an infinite number of these off-hand ad hominem comments. This is the Internet, Land of the Flame....


What?! Flamewars are good., posted 9 Apr 2000 at 04:19 UTC by mwimer » (Journeyer)

I have been waiting for some time now, for someone to pipe up and say just how terrible Entity is. I'm looking forward to the day when there are some scorching flames on the subject. Why? Flamewars offer the best public relations for open source projects. They piss people off enough to go out and try the software for themselves so they can see what all the fuss is about. The fastest way to get a neat new feature into an os project is to start a flamewar over it.

It happened with the Beacon Lights in gnome. Poag(i think.) mentioned what a good idea, and was instantly flamed. What stir it created. In 24hrs it was into the cvs tree and working. Apperently someone got p.o.ed enough to actually sit down and write the code. :)

So, here is my attempt. Entity needs a <mime> tag that can auto encode and decode mime messages. Using <mime>, a person could pump any type of data through the tag and have it converted to the right mime type.

Anyway, a little misunderstanding now fixes larger misunderstandings later.

Hedging statements, posted 9 Apr 2000 at 11:40 UTC by jennv » (Journeyer)

#include stdhedge.h

I've discovered that when I preface statements with 'in my opinion' or 'I've found that' or 'I've discovered that', people tend not to take me seriously. When I just say things baldly, without the opinion-declarators, people treat me and my opinions more seriously.

It's as if any of the opinion-declarators are a signal: 'this person isn't worth listening to'.

Negative reinforcement. One learns to leave those signals off.

Jenn V.

There is, of course, one oter thing., posted 10 Apr 2000 at 12:34 UTC by ralsina » (Master)

That other thing being, that a huge percentage of people who frequent discussion forums are there not for the enlightenment there is to be had (if there is such a thing), but for the discussion in itself.

Go read the os/2 advocacy group, look at Dave Tholen, and tell me that the flaming between him and everyone is a communication problem ;-)

In many cases, heated discussion is THE GOAL. So, there is no reason for it, except perhaps a psichological one.

And of course, the ultimate reason: most people ARE assholes, don't know anything about the subject they are arguing, and have problems thinking logically. Just ask any friend you have that works as a teacher ;-)

'Flamewars are good' and 'heated discussion is the goal'., posted 11 Apr 2000 at 01:36 UTC by jennv » (Journeyer)

Well, while I accept peoples' right to have the above opinions, I hope that such people will accept _my_ right to attempt to quash flamewars and/or simply leave groups where they frequently occur.

I really, REALLY dislike flamewars and heated discussion. And I know I'm not alone.

Jenn V.

(And yes, this is ironic when you consider that I tend to support equalism ("feminism") discussion. I invite people to think about why I consider awareness of the issues important enough to override my distaste for the apparently-inevitable argument.)

I'm not sure..., posted 11 Apr 2000 at 02:25 UTC by mwimer » (Journeyer)

I'm not sure i follow you, jenn. I understand that you don't like heated arguments. I didn't catch why. . .

--side disscusion, on feminism--

I'm not sure i understand your bit on '("feminism")'. Maybe its just dense people like me the require heated disscusion, so you can really beat your point into them. :) I'm not good with subtle, a large hammer works on me tho', as it works on most guys. So, yell at me a bit and maybe i'll understand. . . I won't take offence unless you use some sneaky trick to make me feel bad. ;)

Walking away, posted 12 Apr 2000 at 03:50 UTC by green » (Journeyer)

I think that something wrong with communicating on-line is that people aren't either ashamed for disrespecting others personally or walking away. A lot of times, it seems that one person should walk away from a huge flame war so it will end. It seems to me like a double-edged sword: at times, people will feel no shame in walking away so they'll go flame ahead and leave it at that, "to get the last word"; at times, they also feel no shame in continuing on and flaming over and over again, as it's not taken as seriously as that person screaming at someone in real life.

It seems that communications on-line has many disadvantages which directly contribute to the flaming, and those are especially that people are not ashamed of any actions because they're just another name. Everything is still so impersonal to most people that they really don't associate speaking on this medium with speaking on another or a differently (not more) tangible medium. Then again, many people do see it correctly as just another form of communication that is as real as any other. When those groups clash, there is the disadvantage of the ignorant ones not taking themselves seriously, and everyone else who does take them seriously brings out the other disadvantage of their non-serious actions being overreacted to.

Basically, the only solution I see for this is for everyone to be able to see who everyone else is, and for REAL; otherwise, I don't see how the ones ignorant to it will ever be able to learn that words are still words here or there or anywhere, and people have faces and lives.

Either that, or it's for me to get some sleep :P

Hedging statements not a problem for me?, posted 12 Apr 2000 at 21:17 UTC by kaig » (Journeyer)

As opposed to jennv, I sprinkle a number of IMHO and `I think' and the like into my postings and don't feel that my position in the discussion is weakening. Maybe it's because I'm a German and the intrinsic directness of Germans cannot be overridden by a thin layer of hedging statements? :-)

Voiced so as to be heard and understood, posted 13 Apr 2000 at 10:04 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

So you said something important. It wasn't taken up by anyone. um... and?

Strikes me that if you say something and people don't listen, find somewhere else to say it and someone else to say it to.

Or is that too bluntly put?

Putting it another way: what are the aims of your communication? It's likely that they are either to achieve a goal in an area that affects you in some way, or they are to pass the time (to prove to other people that you are alive, that you exist etc., to enjoy their company etc., to improve your standing with them etc.). Maybe both of these things, maybe more.

If the former, then in order to achieve your goals, you could just do it yourself. This solves the problem, and is often simpler. However, maybe you need the assistance of other people, in which case, it is *your* responsibility to communicate effectively with them. Use whatever context you have to and feel comfortable with (get into a slanging match, flame war, shout, scream, offer them money, whatever: who cares).

If the latter, that's different. There is much more involved, as the goal then becomes "personal satisfaction". If it turns you on to be involved at either end of a slagging contest, go ahead: just don't get *me* involved. If you want to escalate all opinions to "Stated Fact", because that is the only way to be heard, then fine (that's a perfectly acceptable debating tactic, although it assumes that the recipients know that you are in a debating arena!)

You Can Always Walk Away. It is often demeaning - for you - to remain involved in an environment that brings no satisfaction. This *is* real-life, it just doesn't seem like it.


* i cannot stand escalating to "shouting", even when it's really, really vital (i could cite a current example, it would be irresponsible for me to do so and not in my long-term interests).

* my normal communication in email is guarded with... how do i put this... ok, i quite often use "i would appreciate it if...", and such phrases. presenting the recipient with the _option_ to fulfil a request, not a demand, and informing them that i will be happy if they did, but not unhappy if they did not. usually on the samba mailing lists, when working with volunteers, it is necessary to do this. we *have* had a few people DEMANDING assistance: it was not me that told them where to get off, but the other samba list subscribers!

on the samba lists, when i get ratty, however, and exasperated, i say so. i don't have time to repeat requests for information (does ping work? does nmblookup work? does smbclient work? please send me config files and log files etc AGH!)

* if i am not listened to, and it's not important to *me* that i am not listened to, it doesn't bother me *one* bit. In fact, the recipients of my communications would be doing me a favour in telling me, by default, that they are not in the slightest bit interested: i will not have to waste any more time or damage my health (r.s.i) further by attempting to communicate with them.

* email communication has the potential to bring as much joy and to do as much harm as any other form of communication. it is easy to spot the xxxx-wits who do not realise this and respect this, and through sites such as advogato, i hope that it will be possible to not even give them the time of day.

Re: "I believe" is implied, posted 13 Apr 2000 at 10:15 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

very, very interesting.

"Defendant's claim is without merit".

as lilo pointed out, the *claim* is without merit, not the defendant!

"Defendant is without merit", in a courtroom, would likely have the plaintiff held in contempt of court.

"I believe that the defendant is without merit" possibly would not.

hrm, posted 13 Apr 2000 at 20:36 UTC by pudge » (Master)

Sometimes "I think/believe" is implied. Sometimes it is not. And as a result, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference. I have a new site up (use Perl, currently in beta) and a Python guy went on there and started popping off about Perl. Some of his statements were clearly false, stuff like "Perl is the most horribly designed language ever" or something. That is obviously an opinion, but he seems to be stating it as though it were authoritative fact, as though it is objective reality. It is a judgment call sometimes.

Flames have a place. I have decided by fiat that use Perl is not a place where flames will be tolerated. Why? Because there are scores of other places to flame about issues regarding Perl, and many people want to discuss things in a flame-retardent area. No trolls, no flames. If you think that makes for a boring site, well, then find another one. :-)

Defendant is without merit, posted 13 Apr 2000 at 21:51 UTC by kelly » (Master)

I'm quite certain that stating, in court, that the defendant is without merit, with or without qualification, would lead to a cry of "Objection!" followed quickly by either "Counsel, approach" or "Counsel, in my chambers, now" from the bench. Insults in open court must be delivered circumspectly. :)

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