A hierarchy of critique

Paul Graham has a hierarchy of disagreement. He’s obviously spent his fair share of time watching debates unfold on internet forums, and has categorised the quality of points people make. At the bottom are distraction and name calling. To get to the top you need to identify and refute the central point. Obviously we should aim to produce disagreements from the top of the hierarchy if we want to have a productive debate.

The hierarchy has been expressed in this handy graphic:


I think some students would find it useful to have a ‘hierarchy of critique’ to identify the most valuable points to make in an essay. I’ve written before about how to criticise a psychology study. The essential idea is the same as Graham’s: not all criticisms are equal – there are more and less interesting flaws in a study which you can point out.

In brief, like the top levels of Graham’s hierarchy, the best criticisms of a study engage with the propositions that the study authors are trying to establish. Every study will have flaws, but the critical flaws are the ones which break the links between what the experiment shows and what the author’s are trying to claim based on it.

So, without further ado, here is my hierarchy of critique:


The exact contents aren’t as important as the fact that there is a hierarchy, and we should always be asking ourselves how high up the hierarchy the point we’re trying to make is. If it is near the bottom, maybe there are better criticisms to spent time and words on.

For more on this, read my: what it means to be critical of a psychology study or watch this video I made saying the same thing.

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