Robin Hanson makes a list of warning signs that you are arguing for sport rather than arguing for insight.

My favorites

You have little interest in getting clear on what exactly is the position being argued.

Nailing down mutual definitions and exact positions can be annoying and it is common for certain intellectuals to overinvest here. However, skipping over them completely is a recipe for disaster.

Relatedly, I’d suggest trying to use as a debating point the fact that someone has misused a term is another sign that insight is not what we are after. If the definition of marriage is X then fine, I want narriage which is exactly like marriage except it also includes two dudes.

Realizing that a topic is important and neglected doesn’t make you much interested.

This is a big one. Realizing that not enough people are talking about an important issue is reason to run around like your hair is on fire; not move on to something else.

Likewise, once the conversation moves beyond your ability to contribute its time to look for something else.

You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid.

My bugaboo. As far as I can tell the number of people who are engaged in a consistent and deliberate attempt to argue for something they know is false is vanishingly small. Moreover, even when you suspect it, it is not worth worrying about because the fact that your opponent is lying or stupid is not somehow worse than the fact the she is just mistaken or confused on a particular point.

Bad actions have bad consequences regardless of why we choose them.

Your opinion doesn’t much change after talking with smart folks who know more

Our opinions should change a little bit even if we are talking to stupid folks who know less. The chances that a person is so stupid and so ignorant that they literally have zero value to add is probably not high enough to measure.

For example, a lot of people are making fun of Christine O’Donnell. However, I’ve learned a lot from listening to her. Despite having some odd opinions she is an incredibly clear communicator and thus a lot of useful information can be transmitted from her.

In particular I have learned from her that many people are not concerned about the expansion of government because they think the government will do a bad job at running the economy. They believe that the government will move to actively oppress them and they are concerned that the government will do a good job at that.

As such pointing out that TARP was actually run fairly well, all things considered, does little to ease their concerns. Indeed, it heightens them.