Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

What makes a good/bad Devil's Advocate?

Anything that doesn't fit anywhere else.

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Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#1  Postby Mithcoriel » Jul 21, 2020 3:07 pm

So I heard there is the beautiful fantasy world in which everyone is perfectly rational: never gets aggressive or biased in debates, lays out their reasoning in perfect logic, takes time to read and understand the opponent's logic, thanks people who prove them wrong cause they like to learn, always welcomes devil's advocates or people of opposing viewpoints as a chance to broaden their horizon, and ultimately everyone comes to the same objectively logic conclusion.

How much of the above is reality? I mean even outside fundamentalist religious circles or other cult-like groups where they prefer echo-chambers. Does this reflect the majority of regular people? Does it even reflect the majority of people in skeptic communities like this one? Should people be expected to tolerate rational counter-arguments to their worldview?

Cause I'm a total devil's advocate. If you want to know which side of an issue I'm on: it's the one I'm criticizing the most. If there's one side I won't tolerate mistakes on, it's my own. But when does the devil's advocate go too far?

Look at the attached picture. Its maker seems to have a different opinion on devil's advocates.
"I'm just asking questions" : is this a good thing or a dick move?
"So what you're basically saying" : obviously misrepresenting what your opponent says is wrong, no argument there. Same with rejecting evidence.
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#2  Postby The_Metatron » Jul 21, 2020 4:08 pm

My experience show me that when someone says "I'm just asking questions.", they are not.
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#3  Postby felltoearth » Jul 21, 2020 4:32 pm

Mithcoriel wrote:So I heard there is the beautiful fantasy world in which everyone is perfectly rational: never gets aggressive or biased in debates, lays out their reasoning in perfect logic, takes time to read and understand the opponent's logic, thanks people who prove them wrong cause they like to learn, always welcomes devil's advocates or people of opposing viewpoints as a chance to broaden their horizon, and ultimately everyone comes to the same objectively logic conclusion.

How much of the above is reality? I mean even outside fundamentalist religious circles or other cult-like groups where they prefer echo-chambers. Does this reflect the majority of regular people? Does it even reflect the majority of people in skeptic communities like this one? Should people be expected to tolerate rational counter-arguments to their worldview?

Cause I'm a total devil's advocate. If you want to know which side of an issue I'm on: it's the one I'm criticizing the most. If there's one side I won't tolerate mistakes on, it's my own. But when does the devil's advocate go too far?

Look at the attached picture. Its maker seems to have a different opinion on devil's advocates.
"I'm just asking questions" : is this a good thing or a dick move?
"So what you're basically saying" : obviously misrepresenting what your opponent says is wrong, no argument there. Same with rejecting evidence.


There is a fair amount of straw manning here and poisoning the well. Reality is that humans have emotions that are part of our cognitive architecture. This is helpful where, as one example puts it, if there is a rustle in the bushes it motivates us to flee regardless of the fact that said rustling is caused by a tiger or a squirrel. Layered on top of this is a cognitive pattern seeking part of our brain that looks for cause, and can often be derailed by biases that we bring to the exercise. All that skepticism does at its foundation is ask the question “Do I have a good reason to believe that what is causing the rustling is X?” There are many tools available to us to answer that question. One of the most effective, as has been demonstrated time and again, is science.
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#4  Postby campermon » Jul 21, 2020 5:08 pm

i always find that bringing my own facts to an argument helps. :thumbup:

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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#5  Postby Mithcoriel » Jul 22, 2020 8:55 am

Well yes, of course. Obviously rational and scientifically sound arguments are better than pseudoscientific ones. That's on a completely different level. But that doesn't address the question of whether playing devil's advocate is good or bad.

felltoearth wrote:There is a fair amount of straw manning here and poisoning the well. Reality is that humans have emotions that are part of our cognitive architecture. This is helpful where, as one example puts it, if there is a rustle in the bushes it motivates us to flee regardless of the fact that said rustling is caused by a tiger or a squirrel. Layered on top of this is a cognitive pattern seeking part of our brain that looks for cause, and can often be derailed by biases that we bring to the exercise. All that skepticism does at its foundation is ask the question “Do I have a good reason to believe that what is causing the rustling is X?” There are many tools available to us to answer that question. One of the most effective, as has been demonstrated time and again, is science.


You've explained what causes us to sometimes make irrational arguments. But which part is straw manning or poisoning the well?
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#6  Postby Blackadder » Jul 22, 2020 9:34 am

The original "Devil's Advocate" would be a priest, appointed by the church to challenge the arguments put forward to support a beatification or in support of a miracle. Their job was to test the arguments to see if they held up to robust scrutiny. If they did, then they passed the test.

In that sense, the Devil's Advocate was an honourable endeavour (even if employed for dubious purposes). The modern day equivalent, I would argue, is skepticism, or in another context, the scientific method. While we are all subject to personal biases and emotions, the rigours of the scientific method should filter these out. There are of course, failures and mis-steps along the way, even in professional scientific work, but the corrective mechanisms of the scientific method will invariably find and destroy faulty data or weak reasoning. Indeed, any self-respecting scientist will endeavour to find the holes in his/her work before any one else does, for fear of being embarrassed publicly.

The scientific method is a particular example of skepticism, but the skeptical principles of evidence and sound reasoning can be applied generally. This is what makes a good Devil's Advocate. Unfortunately there some (possible many) who regard themselves as Devil's Advocates but who employ the methods in the picture the OP posted. The root of this is motivation. A true skeptic will be motivated by a desire to find out what is true (or at least to eliminate that which is false). The tactics in that picture are usually employed by those whose motivations are to advance a pet theory or religious conviction, which involves not Devil's Advocacy but the subversion of the scientific method, which is a whole different ball game.
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#7  Postby Mithcoriel » Jul 23, 2020 2:44 pm

Absolutely agree with Blackadder. Though recently I have been wondering if there's ever a situation where it's not appropriate to play Devil's Advocate on someone else's post, even the "good" kind. I.e. when it's "just too nitpicking", "they didn't ask for someone to play DA". Can one take it too far?

Also, I've found that when I'm in a forum or facebook group or the like that's "Pro X", and I play devil's advocate against X, people will accuse me of being "anti X", "undermining the cause" etc. Doesn't seem like playing devil's advocate is the norm everywhere.
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#8  Postby Macdoc » Jul 23, 2020 3:30 pm

I suspect styling yourself as an informed skeptic gets away from the pop culture ( and somewhat dated ) devil's advocate meme.
Informed is the key ...Neils Bohr could be "devil's advocate" to Einstein ...but neither you nor I can,

And yes "too nitpicking" gets annoying ...just like grammar nazis but willingness to "peer review" a claim that may have insufficient evidence with it is certainly part of the spirit here and appreciated by others. :cheers:
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#9  Postby felltoearth » Jul 23, 2020 4:20 pm

I think steel manning a position is a good alternative to DA. It’s a kind of DA without actually having to *cough* assume the position.

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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#10  Postby Animavore » Jul 23, 2020 4:46 pm

Macdoc wrote:I suspect styling yourself as an informed skeptic gets away from the pop culture ( and somewhat dated ) devil's advocate meme.
Informed is the key ...Neils Bohr could be "devil's advocate" to Einstein ...but neither you nor I can,

And yes "too nitpicking" gets annoying ...just like grammar nazis but willingness to "peer review" a claim that may have insufficient evidence with it is certainly part of the spirit here and appreciated by others. :cheers:

Wasn't Einstein himself Devil's Advocate to people working on the emerging theory of quantum mechanics?

I seem to remember that he kept asking them questions that had them returning to the drawing board.
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#11  Postby Macdoc » Jul 23, 2020 5:08 pm

Yes - works both ways ...the dialogue between him and Bohr is wonderful and Einstein did not come out too well in it.
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#12  Postby Hermit » Jul 23, 2020 6:50 pm

Oops. Wrong thread.
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#13  Postby laklak » Jul 23, 2020 7:35 pm

The Satanic Temple is offering a $500 "Devil's Advocate" scholarship to high school seniors.

https://www.foxnews.com/us/satanic-temple-offers-scholarships-to-high-school-grads
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#14  Postby Svartalf » Jul 24, 2020 8:04 am

What made me :lol: is that it's the Salem Mass group that does this.
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#15  Postby Mithcoriel » Jul 27, 2020 10:38 am

felltoearth wrote:I think steel manning a position is a good alternative to DA. It’s a kind of DA without actually having to *cough* assume the position.


Ah interesting. I hadn't head of Steelmanning before. That's pretty cool.
But Steelmanning is what you do to an opponent's position. Devil's Advocate is what you do to your own. Or to someone with whom you agree with for the most part but have one or two disagreements.
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#16  Postby felltoearth » Jul 27, 2020 12:27 pm

Mithcoriel wrote:
felltoearth wrote:I think steel manning a position is a good alternative to DA. It’s a kind of DA without actually having to *cough* assume the position.


Ah interesting. I hadn't head of Steelmanning before. That's pretty cool.
But Steelmanning is what you do to an opponent's position. Devil's Advocate is what you do to your own. Or to someone with whom you agree with for the most part but have one or two disagreements.

Not exactly. Notionally, it’s the assignation of the opposing position to a party in order to argue against the proposition, the idea being that the opposing argument is represented in a debate.

Devil's advocate - Wikipedia
In common parlance, the phrase playing devil's advocate describes a situation where someone, given a certain point of view, takes a position they do not necessarily agree with (or simply an alternative position from the accepted norm), for the sake of debate or to explore the thought further using a valid reasoning that both disagrees with the subject at hand and proves their own point valid.


I like steel manning as I think it contributes to more honest discourse, as it ideally clears up an potential misunderstandings about what each person in a debate is actual saying.
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#17  Postby Mithcoriel » Jul 29, 2020 11:05 am

Well, Devil's Advocate is "I agree with you, but..." whereas Steelmanning is "I disagree with you, but..."
You can play DA against your own position. You can't steelman your own position.

If my friend posts a suggestion on how America can get public health care, and I am also in favour of public health care, but I see a problem my friend overlooked: pointing out that problem would be playing Devil's Advocate. What would steelmanning be in that example?
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Re: Do you like Devil's Advocates? (Or: good/bad DAs)

#18  Postby Cito di Pense » Jul 29, 2020 11:56 am

Mithcoriel wrote:Well, Devil's Advocate is "I agree with you, but..." whereas Steelmanning is "I disagree with you, but..."
You can play DA against your own position. You can't steelman your own position.

If my friend posts a suggestion on how America can get public health care, and I am also in favour of public health care, but I see a problem my friend overlooked: pointing out that problem would be playing Devil's Advocate. What would steelmanning be in that example?


If you agree with somebody, you can try to converge on a better argument you both agree on, but where's the conflict unless somebody is pretending to possess the ultimate solution? Like DA, steelmanning only works is you're arguing in opposition. Then you should argue against a stronger version of the opposing view than your opponent has discovered. It's not simply, "I disagree with you, but...." DA is just arguing against something without necessarily being committed to the opposition. How much more do you want to draw this out?
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