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.

  • I would speed read if I could. But I’ve tried, and it didn’t work.

    I agree that it is important to be honest about one’s argumentation. However, I’m not sure that factual ones are most useful. I believe that people will find a way to rationalize anything. The research shows that “fact-checking”, in particular, backfires horribly. I believe that appealing to values is most useful, as a foot in the door.

  • Franklin Chen

    I would speed read if I could. But I’ve tried, and it didn’t work.

    I agree that it is important to be honest about one’s argumentation. However, I’m not sure that factual ones are most useful. I believe that people will find a way to rationalize anything. The research shows that “fact-checking”, in particular, backfires horribly. I believe that appealing to values is most useful, as a foot in the door.

  • Rajeshwari

    Hi Scott
    Is idea the same thing as an argument. I associate the word idea with the ‘light bulb’ moment, a better way of doing something. Argument would be something I would validate my idea with. Something to convince you with the worth of my idea.
    I would think that any idea that was feasible is a good idea. Good idea=feasible, bad idea= not feasible.
    About an argument, whether value based or fact based, which one is a good argument and which bad, I would like to know your opinion..
    Once I am clear about the inherent value in my idea, I would go about the feasibility of it. In your case of speed reading you were convinced about the value part, you only wanted to see if facts too support your idea.

  • Rajeshwari

    Hi Scott
    Is idea the same thing as an argument. I associate the word idea with the ‘light bulb’ moment, a better way of doing something. Argument would be something I would validate my idea with. Something to convince you with the worth of my idea.
    I would think that any idea that was feasible is a good idea. Good idea=feasible, bad idea= not feasible.
    About an argument, whether value based or fact based, which one is a good argument and which bad, I would like to know your opinion..
    Once I am clear about the inherent value in my idea, I would go about the feasibility of it. In your case of speed reading you were convinced about the value part, you only wanted to see if facts too support your idea.

  • Anne Bichsel

    I like your thoughts, useful approach in political discussions.
    However, facts do not always retain validity over time. We make sense of the world through models, we experiment within models to generate facts. Out of the box thinking leads to the discovery of new facts that topple models. In paradigm shifts what seemed so solidly true collapses.
    The relationship between beliefs, values and facts is also complex. Values + facts= beliefs ?????? Would be interesting to look at all of this through a systems / complexity approach.

  • Anne Bichsel

    I like your thoughts, useful approach in political discussions.
    However, facts do not always retain validity over time. We make sense of the world through models, we experiment within models to generate facts. Out of the box thinking leads to the discovery of new facts that topple models. In paradigm shifts what seemed so solidly true collapses.
    The relationship between beliefs, values and facts is also complex. Values + facts= beliefs ?????? Would be interesting to look at all of this through a systems / complexity approach.

  • Doug Washabaugh

    I remember reading recently that you should use facts to convince and values to persuade, the trick being figuring out what you are really trying to accomplish. Engineers frequently try to convince, when they should be persuading.

  • Doug Washabaugh

    I remember reading recently that you should use facts to convince and values to persuade, the trick being figuring out what you are really trying to accomplish. Engineers frequently try to convince, when they should be persuading.

  • Scott Young

    I’m using them interchangeably, but perhaps I shouldn’t? I think most of the time people discuss an idea, say, evolution, they’re actually talking about an argument that life evolved from a single ancestor, etc. scientific ideas are usually factual arguments, but other ideas can involve values.

  • Scott Young

    I’m using them interchangeably, but perhaps I shouldn’t? I think most of the time people discuss an idea, say, evolution, they’re actually talking about an argument that life evolved from a single ancestor, etc. scientific ideas are usually factual arguments, but other ideas can involve values.

  • Scott Young

    Not sure I agree. Facts can be disputed, but the force us to agree on a common frame of reference–how the world actually is. Values are much easier to bend to fit into the shape of the conclusion you want to reach or to dismiss if the conclusion proposed violates your intuition.

    If we do scientific investigation and find speed reading doesn’t work, then you’re certainly free to contest those facts, but that’s a lot harder than refuting the value statement that reading isn’t about speed.

  • Scott Young

    Not sure I agree. Facts can be disputed, but the force us to agree on a common frame of reference–how the world actually is. Values are much easier to bend to fit into the shape of the conclusion you want to reach or to dismiss if the conclusion proposed violates your intuition.

    If we do scientific investigation and find speed reading doesn’t work, then you’re certainly free to contest those facts, but that’s a lot harder than refuting the value statement that reading isn’t about speed.

  • Scott Young

    Is there a difference between convincing and persuading someone? They’re essentially synonyms.

    I think people use a mixture of facts and values to try to change someone’s opinion. Sometimes a factual argument is more suitable. Other times a value-based argument is. I think it really depends on what the idea is, rather than the two serving different rhetorical functions.

  • Scott Young

    Is there a difference between convincing and persuading someone? They’re essentially synonyms.

    I think people use a mixture of facts and values to try to change someone’s opinion. Sometimes a factual argument is more suitable. Other times a value-based argument is. I think it really depends on what the idea is, rather than the two serving different rhetorical functions.

  • Scott Young

    We can have wrong beliefs about facts, but that’s a feature, not a deficit. If anyone wanted to critique my argument against speed reading, all they would have to do is update with more evidence pointing in the other direction. An argument that can’t be refuted under any demonstration of evidence is either tautologically true or meaningless.

  • Scott Young

    We can have wrong beliefs about facts, but that’s a feature, not a deficit. If anyone wanted to critique my argument against speed reading, all they would have to do is update with more evidence pointing in the other direction. An argument that can’t be refuted under any demonstration of evidence is either tautologically true or meaningless.

  • I’m a freelance editor, so I thought I’d jump in here: “Convince” and “persuade” feel different and we as humans may project nuances on them, but they are, factually, the same. 😉 So I can’t actually grasp Doug’s meaning. :/

    Anyway, well-written post, Scott! I think factual arguments are more likely to be successful too.

  • Lauren I. Ruiz

    I’m a freelance editor, so I thought I’d jump in here: “Convince” and “persuade” feel different and we as humans may project nuances on them, but they are, factually, the same. 😉 So I can’t actually grasp Doug’s meaning. :/

    Anyway, well-written post, Scott! I think factual arguments are more likely to be successful too.

  • Doug Washabaugh

    I could see how many can validly think they are synonyms, but to me they are different. I can be persuaded, but not convinced [e.g. I’ll do that, but I still think you might not be right…], and I can be convinced, but only half-heartedly go about my new position. Convincing is in the brain, persuading is in the heart. Advertisements persuade us, but rarely convince us.

  • Doug Washabaugh

    I could see how many can validly think they are synonyms, but to me they are different. I can be persuaded, but not convinced [e.g. I’ll do that, but I still think you might not be right…], and I can be convinced, but only half-heartedly go about my new position. Convincing is in the brain, persuading is in the heart. Advertisements persuade us, but rarely convince us.

  • Scott Young

    Okay, I think I understand your definitions. Convincing is presenting an argument that the person can’t intellectually object to. Persuading is presenting an argument in a way the person wants to agree with you. I don’t think that’s a standard definition, but I can’t think of better more succinct words (logic/rhetoric is a good split) so that’s a good distinction to propose.

  • Scott Young

    Okay, I think I understand your definitions. Convincing is presenting an argument that the person can’t intellectually object to. Persuading is presenting an argument in a way the person wants to agree with you. I don’t think that’s a standard definition, but I can’t think of better more succinct words (logic/rhetoric is a good split) so that’s a good distinction to propose.

  • Doug Washabaugh

    Yes, I think that is the distinction I am referring to. There are relatively few arguments that can be 100% decided on facts, in real life I think persuasion is unfortunately the better skill to have.

  • Doug Washabaugh

    Yes, I think that is the distinction I am referring to. There are relatively few arguments that can be 100% decided on facts, in real life I think persuasion is unfortunately the better skill to have.

  • Doug Washabaugh

    Another way to evaluate a idea competing idea, and to potentially convince/persuade them to use your idea instead, is to have someone walk through the detailed steps of their idea. More often then not, the flaws in their idea will become readily apparent to all. Of course to be complete and search for the true best idea, you should be able to walk the details of your own idea.

  • Doug Washabaugh

    Another way to evaluate a idea competing idea, and to potentially convince/persuade them to use your idea instead, is to have someone walk through the detailed steps of their idea. More often then not, the flaws in their idea will become readily apparent to all. Of course to be complete and search for the true best idea, you should be able to walk the details of your own idea.

AS SEEN IN