The Two Ways to Evaluate Ideas

I recently wrote an article where I changed my mind on speed reading. I had originally read a book on speed reading, practiced it, found it effective and logged my results.

Years later, having had some personal doubts on the practice, I went back and did the research I wasn’t able to do the first time. The result of that research was that speed reading probably isn’t effective, and if it does have any usefulness it’s probably better thought of as a way to practice skimming not as a way to read without comprehension loss.

After writing this article, I got a number of links to this excellent Ryan Holiday piece which is similarly suspicious of speed reading. Many of the people who linked to me said that Holiday had made the same points.

Holiday’s article was well done, but we definitely weren’t making the same points. In fact, I don’t believe we’re even making the same type of argument. Unfortunately, I believe many people confuse these two types of argument, especially when they reach similar conclusions, and, as a result, don’t know how to tell good ideas from bad ones.

Arguing Facts or Values

The main idea in Holiday’s piece is that you shouldn’t strive to read fast. Reading should be done slowly and deliberately. Holiday likens reading to eating, where the goal should be to savor the meal not see how quickly you can consume it.

Holiday appears to mostly be against speed reading from a position of values. Holiday doesn’t much care whether speed reading works or not, he is against the idea that speed is something you should strive for in the first place.

I see merit in Holiday’s argument, but that’s definitely not the argument I made against speed reading. I would very much like to be able to read faster without loss of comprehension. Instead, my argument is that, when you look into the scientific studies done on both speed reading and reading in general, it doesn’t appear to work.

My argument is about the facts. I’d like to be able to read faster if I could. But it just doesn’t look like the facts suggest any of the speed reading techniques can actually do that.

Although both of us reach broadly the same conclusion—that you can wisely ignore speed reading—the reasons why are completely different.

Don’t Confuse Facts and Values

I brought up the comparison between mine and Holiday’s articles because they rather neatly divide between facts and values. Holiday doesn’t seem to pay much attention to whether speed reading actually works or not in his assessment. I don’t pay much attention to whether reading faster is actually something you should be doing in mine.

Most ideas aren’t so neat. People often offer a mixture of both value and factual assessments when proposing an idea. Many values themselves are implicitly based on factual assumptions that the author takes for granted, so some arguments that look like they hinge on values really hinge on unstated factual assertions.

Say you’re an economic conservative and oppose welfare, high taxes or corporate regulations. It’s logically possible to value the welfare of the poor and unfortunate in society, but simply believe that there are no effective ways to solve the problem through governmental intervention. However, often these arguments about facts include parenthetical arguments of value, that the poor deserve their fate or that taxation is theft.

Or consider the opposite: that you’re an economic liberal and support a broader governmental safety net. You could believe that the rich have entirely earned their wealth fairly, but simply believe that it is for the best interest of society that we force them to sacrifice some for those with less. But often those arguments of facts get mixed in with the ideas that the wealth is earned unjustly.

Since facts and values tend to correlate when ideas are proposed, you rarely get the logically possible option where they run in opposite directions. As a result, it becomes easy to confuse the difference between factual assertions about the world and value judgements about it.

Is it Better to Argue About Facts or Values?

You can see, with arguments about facts or values—two different ways to assess an idea. You can argue about whether the idea is correct or not: does speed reading actually work? Next, you can argue about whether an idea is virtuous: should you speed read, even if you could?

There’s nothing intrinsically better about basing an argument on facts or values. Just because something works doesn’t mean you should do it. Just because something would be nice, doesn’t mean it works.

However, I believe that factual arguments are often more useful than ones based on values because they are universal. If the factual argument is correct then there is no wiggle room. The argument is resolved and the only option available is to contest the facts.

Arguments about values are tricky because people have different values. Philosophers can’t even agree between different systems of values, since most of them reach seemingly absurd conclusions in different edge cases. This doesn’t make this line of reasoning less worthwhile, just that it is less likely to persuade people who are already convinced of their own opinion.

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