“Dirty Tricks” for Seminars and Talks (guest post by Josh Parsons)


The following is a guest post* by Josh Parsons, associate professor of philosophy at Oxford University.  It’s “a slightly jokey collection of what I called ‘dirty tricks for seminars’ (including some to use liberally, and others to beware of) that I am apt to dispense to graduate students and colleagues after a couple of drinks.” He kindly agreed to share it with Daily Nous readers. It was originally posted on his own website, here.


How to Win Arguments and Look Good in Seminars
by Josh Parsons

This collection of “dirty tricks for seminars” is mostly relevant to philosophy (and has a couple of philosophy jokes in it) but some of it could be adapted to other disciplines I imagine.

Here they are…

Point-scoring and how to avoid it

In the bad old days philosophers used to invite speakers to seminars just in order to show off to each other by tearing strips off the speaker. It was a wonder anyone ever accepted an invitation to give a talk anywhere! The most prized skill a philosopher could have was to be able to utterly demolish a speaker’s argument; a good speaker would be one who could resist this process, or if that was not possible, then accept defeat with good grace. You’ll still hear old-timers reminiscing about this fondly: “Back in ’58, X gave us a lunch time talk on whether or not jars were a kind of bottle! Y interrupted 15 minutes in with a counterexample, and X said that he was refuted and there was no point in continuing so we all went to the staff club early for cigars and sherry!”

Point-scoring was big then. The idea is that philosophical discussions are a zero-sum game: either someone wins a point and looks clever and someone else loses one and looks foolish, or it is a stalemate, and no one likes a stalemate. This is of course completely false – philosophical discussions are not any kind of game, but a collaborative attempt to uncover and solve serious intellectual problems.

In my view, point-scoring behaviour is one of the biggest blights on the philosophy profession. The way philosophers are trained to conduct conversations in seminars lends itself to point-scoring, which is how the whole sorry idea got started in the first place. Think back to graduate school. At first you were afraid to ask questions in seminars because you had hardly understood a word of the talk, and everyone who was asking questions seemed to have understood it better than the speaker and have a trenchant criticism. Then your supervisor told you that the only way to learn was to muck in, and that she was expecting you to ask a question at the next seminar. At the paper, you listened very carefully to find something that you were sure you understood to ask a question about. You tentatively asked your first question. To your surprise, the speaker took you seriously and famous Prof X asked a follow up on your question. Your supervisor was proud of you. That was good! After that you tried your hardest to think of a question in every seminar. A few years later you had mastered the technique, not only thinking of a question, but anticipating the speaker’s response and ready with a follow-up too.

Now there’s nothing wrong with disciplining yourself to always think of a questions in a seminar but when you combine that with the fact that philosophy questions are often objections, it’s easy to get sucked into the practice of always trying to demolish the speaker while not looking foolish yourself, and that’s point-scoring.

Don’t do it. You may win arguments, but only other point scorers will be impressed (and you don’t want to have philosophy conversations with them, they will just try to score points off you). You’ll never get that first time buzz you got from your supervisor’s approval again. Instead you can get your colleagues’ approval by asking co-operative questions, intended to advance debate instead of to win it. You can use the technique you learned in graduate school to do that, instead of scoring points: see reverse point-scoring below.

What if you’re the paper giver and you’re surrounded by point-scorers in the audience? Most of the time they will be un-self-conscious point-scorers and you can win them around with the Tour-guide Technique. If you are unlucky enough to be surrounded by point-scorers who cannot be won over that way, you will just have to admit defeat early and let them take you to the staff club for cigars and sherry.

The Get-out-of-jail-free Card

There’s a great episode of Yes, Prime Minister where the PM, Jim Hacker, is facing a difficult grilling in parliament – the government has made an obvious U-turn on an important campaign promise. His aides are waiting for him to anxiously. Hacker returns from the debate jubilant. He says “I aced it. I simply said that we had made a mistake, and that we had changed our minds. That took the wind out of their sails!”

This is the get-out-of-jail-free card. It stops any objection in its tracks, but you can only use it once. In academia, saying that you have changed your mind isn’t the way to do it though. This is because the get-out-jail-free card has to be an honest admission of something, and it’s rare that you’ll actually change your mind about what just said five minutes ago in your paper. (Though if this does happen, it’s great. You just revise your paper, prefacing whatever provoked the objection with “I used to think that”; insert after it “…until X gave me the following objection…”. That way you are happy because you don’t have to revise your paper too much; X is happy because they get an acknowledgement; and your readers think you are clever, fair, and generous).

In philosophy, the get-out-of-jail-free card usually sounds like this: “Hmm… yes… that is a difficult problem, and I will have to think about it. Let’s talk some more later.” This is good because it’s almost always true — your seminar interlocutors are clever people who’ve chosen to come and see your paper, had an hour to think about it, and so if they give you an objection, it almost certainly does deserve your consideration outside the stressful environment of a seminar.

Academic seminars, like parliament, are an environment where adversarial behaviour is tolerated, but at the end of the day, the aim of the exercise is to collaboratively seek solutions to common problems. Everyone accepts that the norms of seminar Q&A are not always the best way of achieving that aim, and the get-out-of-jail-free card works by appealing to this. That’s why you can only play it once per seminar: because if you are at the seminar, you have implicitly agreed that the norms of seminar Q&A are mostly a good way to address the issues in your paper.

Trapping

Imagine you’re preparing your paper to read, and it’s too long. You are trying to edit it. Do you have a section titled “Objections and replies”? Cut it: the whole section – pretend it doesn’t exist. In fact, even if your paper is just the right length, do this. At least cut the most obvious objections, or the ones to which you have the best reply. If you don’t have a section titled “Objections and replies”, find the place in your paper where you anticipate the most obvious objection and cut that.

Here’s what will happen in the Q&A. Someone, I guarantee it, will ask a question which states the objection you have cut. In reply, you pretend to think for a bit. Then you say “Have I understood you: do you mean…” and then, (haltingly, as if you’re making it up on the spot) read out the statement of the objection from your paper. They say “Yes, that’s a very good way of putting it!” You pretend to think for a bit again. Then you read out (haltingly, again) your reply from the paper. Wow! The questioner is happy: they asked a very clever question that really made you think. The audience is happy: they are in the presence of genius. You are happy: you got to cut material from your paper without losing any of the content.

That’s trapping: you dug a hole in your paper, covered it over with some straw, and your questioner fell right into it. The audience members who fall into traps are most likely be unproductive point-scorers, too (they are ones whose noses were twitching for the killer objection during your talk). So you avoid getting a difficult and annoying question from a point-scorer, as well.

I love trapping. It’s my favourite dirty trick; and it is a dirty trick, because it is deceitful and manipulative. But unless you are some kind of crazed Kantian, that is no reason not use it, because it is harmless; and, usually, beneficial to all concerned. The only person being manipulated is the questioner, and you are probably only manipulating them into asking a better question than they otherwise would have, and they enjoy it.

You might think that a disadvantage of trapping is that you don’t get helpful feedback from it – the questioner doesn’t give you anything that you don’t already know. Not so. The questioner will often think up a better, clearer, or more incisive way of stating the objection than you could (unproductive point-scorers are especially good at doing that). You note this down and use it to revise your paper. In fact if your paper is already very polished, you’re more likely to get a useful contribution to it out of someone falling into a trap than you would out of a normal question.

Reverse Trapping

The worst thing you can do when editing your paper is to leave the anticipated objections in, but cut your replies to them. During the talk you end up saying “In the written version, I have a reply to this, which for reasons of time I can’t discuss now, but if anyone would like to ask me about it in question time, I’d be happy to discuss it then.” This guarantees that no one will ask you about that objection in the Q&A. They’ll go away from the seminar knowing that you had some reply to it, but two months later, if they even remember your view, all they’ll remember about it is this obvious killer objection. Audience members like to appear clever; and they like to have some input to the conversation. No one wants to waste an opportunity to do that by inviting you to read out another section of your paper.

Trapping is a much better way to edit anticipated objections, so you should do that instead… Unless you have anticipated some nasty objection that you don’t have a good reply to. Then you read out the objection and claimto have a reply to it, which for reasons of time blah blah blah… This, of course, guarantees that no one will ask you about the nasty objection, no matter how obvious it is.

That’s reverse trapping. It’s a darker art than trapping, because it is more deceptive, and it depends for its success on the deceit (deceit is not just a foreseen consequence of reverse trapping but a necessary means). I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you will be able to live with yourself after using it.

If you do decide to use reverse trapping, the key to doing it effectively is to use it just once, on the nastiest, most obvious objection you can think of, and be prepared for the highly unlikely outcome that someone asks you about the objection in Q&A. There are two circumstances under which this can happen: 1) your questioner wasn’t paying attention during your paper and didn’t notice the reverse trap; or 2) your questioner knows about reverse trapping and is trying to catch you doing it.

Prepare yourself by having something that sounds vaguely like a reply to the objection that you can read out confidently if anyone asks. Then, when they follow up by pointing out that your reply doesn’t work, as they will, play your get-out-of-jail-free card. (That’s why you should reverse trap only once per paper). If you are very lucky, your questioner may be following my advice below and reverse point-scoring, in which case, they will follow up by telling you the great reply to the objection which they have figured out for you. Then everyone is happy.

If you think reverse trapping is evil, and you would never use it, now you know how to spot it and punish people for using it. But then, if reverse trapping is evil, using questions to punish people is definitely evil.

The Matador Technique

Think about what happened the last time you had an argument with your partner or housemate (and I mean here the ordinary sense of “argument”, not a philosophers’ argument, but a fight). Everything you said annoyed and frustrated your partner, and they just wouldn’t listen to you, and kept repeating themselves more and more angrily. You tried to explain yourself, but they just wouldn’t listen, and this frustrated you and made you angry. The emotional tone of the conversation ramped up and up and up until you were both exhausted and agreed that it was all a storm in a teacup, and then (if it was your partner) you had really good sex. (At this point, peoples’ housemates sometimes become their partners.) This is a symmetric fight. Both you and your partner were doing the same thing: not listening to each other, but giving voice to your anger and frustration with each other. That’s OK: people sometimes get angry and frustrated with each other.

Asymmetric fights are rarer and more dangerous. In an asymmetric fight, one person’s emotional tone ramps up (they are the hot party); while the other’s stays right where it started (they are the cool party). The hot party will get exhausted before the cool party; the cool party ends up sleeping on the sofa with the bitter satisfaction of having won an argument.

If you really must win an intellectual debate, there is one sure fire way to do it, and that is to engineer an asymmetric fight. Here’s how to do it – I call this “the matador technique”. Each time your interlocutor objects to something you say, give them the best reply that you can, but deliberately screw up one of the premises in your reply – make it too strong, or misstate it. You have to do this absolutely deadpan so that they don’t figure out what you are up to. Like a bull tormented by a matador, your interlocutor will charge after the false premise, forgetting whatever it was they were arguing about before. Eventually, they drop from exhaustion. Or they stop trying to argue with you and start trying to punch you instead. In the matador technique, the point of your arguments is not to convince your interlocutor, but to frustrate and anger them while giving the appearance of trying to convince them. Since you are staying cool while your interlocutor gets pissed off, they will run out of energy first.

You will see people using the matador technique without realizing what they are doing, or because they don’t care about intellectual honesty or happiness or the good but only care about winning arguments. You don’t want to be one of those people. But, like, a karate black-belt walking through a rough neighbourhood, your knowledge that you could use it will sustain you if you are surrounded by uncooperative dickheads.

Reverse Point-scoring (or how to have the last word)

Here’s how questioners point-score in Q&A: they carefully note what they think is the paper’s weakest point, or the point they understood best, formulate an objection in their heads in advance, anticipate the speaker’s possible replies, and formulate their own follow-ups to each. It’s just as if they were writing a short, rather negative, philosophy paper in their heads during the talk. The aim is for them to have the last word, and have it be the winning move in the conversation. Point-scorers always assume that the person they are talking to is trying to point-score as well, so trying to have the winning move is the same as trying to have the last move.

We’ve all done it: it’s perfectly normal to anticipate what someone will say in reply to you, and to want to have the last word on the matter. What happens if you do this, but instead of doing it the point-scorer’s way and try to have the last word and win a point, you try to have the last word and concede a point?

Here’s what I mean: anticipate in your head a series of objections and replies. But instead of stopping with an objection, stop with an objection-reply pair, so that you’ve already given the speaker the reply to your objection. Or to put it another way, instead of holding your anticipated replies back and waiting to see if the speaker tries to use them, make them part of your question and ask if that is how the speaker would reply to that objection. Let your rule be, not “I never ask a question to which I don’t know the answer” but “I never pose an objection to which I don’t know the reply”.

This technique has many advantages. 1) It uses all the resources and training you got in graduate school that might lend itself to point-scoring. 2) It is helpful and constructive. 3) It bamboozles point-scorers, since they can’t make your question seem foolish by objecting to it – they would have to argue against themselves.

The Tour-guide Technique (or how to get people on your side)

How can you write a paper so you get the best and most helpful comments on it in a seminar? The worst thing you can do is to try to drag your audience kicking and screaming over to your conclusion. But it’s surprising how many people try to do this. I think that this effect is produced by the fear that people won’t like a paper, and the author’s determination to rationally convince them to like it. But that is impossible – as David Lewis once said, “that would take not an argument, but a magic spell”.

Besides, the more you try to rationally convince a philosopher of something, the more they will try to think up every possible reason against it. If you try to convince a seminar room to like your metaphysics paper, everyone in that room will turn a neo-positivist. This means that the strategy of convincing an audience to like what you are doing is self-perpetuating. The more you try to defend metaphysics as worth doing, the more apparent positivists you will encounter, and the more you will get the feeling that what you need to be doing is refuting positivism before you begin every paper.

(It’s not just metaphysics that gets this by the way. Every philosopher thinks, falsely, that their subdiscipline is the biggest victim of the “your subdiscipline is rubbish” phenomenon. Ask a metaphysician, they’ll say “oh, yeah, there are all these neo-positivists around”; ask a philosopher of language it’ll be “everyone thinks that what I do is boring apriori linguistics”; ask an ethicist, they’ll say “people don’t appreciate that ethics is just as intellectually demanding and rigorous as other branches of philosophy”; ask a logician they’ll say “people think that my work is just a game with no application to the Real World”; ask a philosopher of physics they’ll say “people think that my work is glorified science journalism”.)

The key to giving an effective presentation is two-fold. 1) Remember and and follow the advice that you give students when they have to write an essay or give a presentation. Y’know, “imagine that you are writing / presenting to a group of students who have also studied philosophy but have not taken this module”. 2) Use your teaching skills. My supervisor told me (wisely) that one should pitch a generalist seminar at about the level of a third-year undergraduate lecture, and that has served me well. Your aim in giving a paper (at least in a generalist seminar) should be not to convince anyone of anything, but to show them how the game is played in your corner of the field, and invite them to play it with you.

Your audience is going on a magical tour of… whatever, say Xology, with you as tour-guide. Your argument is (hopefully!) valid, these are its premises and conclusion. Isn’t that interesting? You happen to believe the conclusion and the premises, but some people (perhaps in your audience) might choose to reject the conclusion and one premise. Here are the sorts of considerations Xologists advance in favour of premises or against their rejection. You are not trying to convince anyone (a waste of time): you are teaching your audience – a bunch of very clever and qualified people – to do philosophy the way you do it. Then, in the Q&A they will try their hand at it and you get to profit from the results.

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