Why Derailing is a Flawed Approach


A common technique that is often deployed in online discussions of political, philosophical or skeptical issues is to attempt to derail the conversation. This is often done either by trying to distract and point to another issue that is perceived to be worse, harms more people or is generally more deserving of attention or to generally minimize the issue being discussed. The assumption is that one should not bother with issue A if issue B is more serious. In reality, this is a dishonest method that is used to shut down any conversation about issue A by portraying people who discuss issue A as ignorant, wasteful, obsessive or morally flawed.

This article outlines some of the problems with this tactic, such as the fact that one can focus on more than one thing, the risk of a backfire effect, issues with diminishing returns, the fact that it is inconsistent and that a consistent application of this tactic leads to absurd conclusions. In the end, this tactic should be avoided, and issues that deserve discussion on their own merits should be discussed regardless of other issues.

One can focus on more than one thing at the same time

Trying to distract from issue A by pointing to issue B and scolding people who dare to talk about issue A or lift issue A as important assumes that there really is an either-or situation. There is nothing that prevents people from talking about A, while acknowledging that B is also a problem and even a considerable problem. There is really no need to constantly try to shut down conversations about by issue A by an incessant reference to issue B.

It may backfire spectacularly

If there is a sustained effort by people who primarily care about issue B to distract, minimize or otherwise derail all conversations about issue A to conversations about issue B, people might develop a more negative appraisal of issue B and thus be less interested in giving issue B attention or concern. This is an example of the reverse halo effect whereby the negative associations with people who insist on issue B over issue A with issue B itself. In the same way, it may also cause people to dig their heels in when it comes to issue A and prioritize it even more over B.

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You do not get to decide the priorities of other people

Trying to convince other people to change their priorities is fine, but the core of this issue is that you do not get to decide the priorities of other people. If they really do want to spend time on issue A and not that much on issue B, it is their decision. Again, trying to talk them out of it is fine, but you do not get to decide their priorities or act like an asshole if they have a different perspective. If you would disapprove of that behavior if it was targeted towards you, you can often be confidence that you are on the wrong track.

Different people have different talents and interests

Some people who focus on issue A may have talent, interest and knowledge of issue A and not so much of this when it comes to issue B. This means, in practice, that their effort is more worth to spend on issue A than issue B, because the effort needed to become proficient on issue B might be very large. Even if they were to do this, the total benefit might be less than if they were to continue to focus on issue A.

Issue B might have diminishing returns

Issue B might be already have so many proponents and activists that the benefit of one more person or a couple of more people might be very low. In other words, there might be a much stronger diminishing return for each additional person getting more involved in B. In comparison, issue A might have very few proponents and activists, so every person counts.

Clarity on issue A may contribute to clarity on issue B

Issue A and issue B might not be as distinct as people think. They may have substantial overlap, so progress on issue A might lead to more intellectual clarity or practical progression issue B. By trying to distract from issue A, this benefit might be reduced.

It assumes arithmetic utilitarianism, which is flawed

The distraction from issue A to issue B with arguments such as “issue B is more important” or “issue B harms more people” assumes arithmetic utilitarianism. This is the position that moral questions should be decided by comparing [number of people] x [severity] for different positions, events and actions and picking the one with the highest number and only focus on that.

However, it is easy to refute this with counterexamples. For instance, you would be forced to argue that it is more important to prevent a large number of people from getting a speck of dust in their eye than saving one person from being tortured and killed. You would have to support letting a lion tear someone to shreds, if it was an event where you donate the entrance fees to charity that saves more than one person. In other words, on arithmetic utilitarianism, you can support whatever moral horrors you can think of as long as there is another bigger benefit.

Since many kinds of distractions, minimizations and derailings assume arithmetic utilitarianism, these are likely problematic.

It is inconsistent

For many pairs of issue A and issue B, it is possible to find another issue C where issue C is much more important and harms more people than issue B. So the fervent rejection of issue A in favor of issue B would logically lead to proponents of issue B having to acknowledge that issue B should be rejected in favor of issue C. So if people who engage in distractions are to be logically consistent, they could not even be justified in focusing on B.

Lead to absurdity if taken to its logical conclusion

To take the argument in the previous section to its logical conclusion, you could use the distraction method repeatedly to reject almost any issue N. You would not focus on violence against children, because violence against everyone is worse, you could not focus on lead contamination in water, because malaria kills more etc. The regress would only come to an end at the absolute worst issue in the world. Yet proponents of distraction never do this, since they by definition think that most or all focus should be on issue B.

The bottom line

Stop trying to derail conversations by pointing to other issues that you feel are more worthy of discussion. Go ahead and discuss those issues, but let other people talk about issues they care about.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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