The welcome rise of near-universal literacy and democratic values more generally, as well as the partial dissolution of an entrenched aristocratic class, has put some cracks in this system, and the rise of the internet has blown it up entirely. This has, on balance, been a good thing: More people than ever before have a platform from which to advocate for their positions. But the shift has also brought complications. Just as a space race inevitably yields advances in aeronautics, the online-argument boom promises to keep aspiring erisologists very busy.
Read: The argument economy
Nerst hopes that scholars can learn more about how the divergence in people’s fundamental beliefs and assumptions makes them react to the world in different ways. Better understanding of this, he said, would “make us more humble when facing the task of interacting with other minds in a non-straightforward way.” It could also offer insights about how very specific triggers can cause a disagreement to become out of control. Nerst said that he would “like to know more about how the process of interpreting ambiguous yet loaded-sounding phrases works in the mind.”
As if to subvert the hyperkinetic, screamy, rage-tweet-a-minute culture of today’s online discourse, Nerst rolls out his views on erisology in the form of long, carefully constructed blog posts, borrowing liberally from and building on the ideas of other people.
The concept of decoupling is erisology at its best. Expanding on the writing of the mathematician and blogger Sarah Constantin, who was herself drawing on the work of the psychologist Keith Stanovich, Nerst describes decoupling as simply the idea of removing extraneous context from a given claim and debating that claim on its own, rather than the fog of associations, ideologies, and potentials swirling around it.
When I first heard of decoupling, I immediately thought about the nervous way in which liberals discuss intelligence research. There is overwhelming evidence that intelligence, as social scientists define and measure it, has a strong hereditary component; according to some estimates, genetic factors account for about half the variation in intelligence among individuals. None of that has anything to do with race, because races do not map neatly onto genetic difference. But because the link between intelligence and genetics is so steeped in oppression and ugly history—that is, because charlatans have so eagerly cited nonsense “research” purporting to demonstrate Europeans’ natural superiority—discussions even of well-founded studies about intelligence often end in acrimony over their potential misuse.
Once you know a term like decoupling, you can identify instances in which a disagreement isn’t really about X anymore, but about Y and Z. When some readers first raised doubts about a now-discredited Rolling Stone story describing a horrific gang rape at the University of Virginia, they noted inconsistencies in the narrative. Others insisted that such commentary fit into destructive tropes about women fabricating rape claims, and therefore should be rejected on its face. The two sides weren’t really talking; one was debating whether the story was a hoax, while the other was responding to the broader issue of whether rape allegations are taken seriously. Likewise, when scientists bring forth solid evidence that sexual orientation is innate, or close to it, conservatives have lashed out against findings that would “normalize” homosexuality. But the dispute over which sexual acts, if any, society should discourage is totally separate from the question of whether sexual orientation is, in fact, inborn. Because of a failure to decouple, people respond indignantly to factual claims when they’re actually upset about how those claims might be interpreted.