The Digital Plague

It occurs to me that many of you may not be aware of a very serious epidemic that’s been silently ravaging the globe, so I’d like to take this time to talk with you about it. Before I begin, let me start with the obligatory disclaimer: I am not an epidemiologist. I do not have a degree in virology or anything similar. What you are about to read may not be 100% medically accurate, and I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies. Where I lack the medical jargon to deliver this information with clinical precision, I have instead substituted analogy. In the many places I am sure to deviate from good science, you are encouraged to take my words as the metaphor they are intended to be. Do not give in to the affliction I am soon to discuss. Engage your irony sensors before objecting. Let us now begin to discuss the digital plague—digititis, if you will.

Common symptoms include:

Headaches, vomiting, and nausea in one’s neighbors. Mental flatulence. Reflexive disagreement. Inflamed sense of self-importance. Uncontrollable urge to make everyone know how right one is. Inability to back down. Intermittent fusion of one’s cranium and buttocks.

Of course, this list is not comprehensive, and some of the items need elaboration, so let’s begin, shall we?

* * *

Introduction

I rather suspect that when Kruger and Dunning set out to test their hypothesis, they would have been most thoroughly pleased to see it falsified. The sad truth is that we live in a world where the more ignorant someone is about something, the more confident they tend to feel about it. This isn’t a terribly surprising phenomenon, nor even a mildly startling one. Through the telescopic lens of hindsight, we can see why this would be: in order to recognize one’s inability to perform a thing, one must first have a sufficient understanding of the rules of that thing. When a toddler plays with a basketball, they have no idea that they are so miserably failing to adhere to the formalized rules of basketball, so their understanding of basketball’s rules is not even wrong. Instead, they merely experience the joy of a moment spent in harmless entertainment.

If only the consequences of the digital epidemic were so harmless! We see through the study of memetics that an idea can take on a life of its own. The children’s game of telephone illustrates the malleability of words and ideas, itself an analogy for memes’ propensity for mutation. Like the viral invaders they have been likened to, memes expand to fill the empty spaces between more concrete conceptions. Through this mental virulence, a meme expands and grows to fill its niche, which is effectively whatever space is not already occupied by another, competing meme. Thus, not every derivation of the original meme will be genetically identical, but there tend to be overarching similarities, which explains this particular debilitation’s common symptoms.

Let’s examine some of these in more depth.

Confrontationalism

In the real world, there is a basic level of interpersonal dignity and respect with which people regard one another—a presumption of shared humanity. On the Internet, however, this common courtesy is often thrown to the wind.* Yes, a sufferer of digititis will often eschew this basic decency in favor of treating every exchange as if it were a pivotal argument occurring in the midst of a very serious academic debate. Take, for example, the following exchange, which I just encountered on Reddit:

Person 1
Books were “press” at the time, yet Publishing companies were restricted from political speech prior to Citizens United Why did newspapers get a free ride, while book publishers were restricted?

Person 2
Really, where’s your evidence that books were press?

Person 1
Really? You are going to try and say that “the Press” at any time excludes the publishing of books?

Person 2
It doesn’t matter what I think, you’re asserting that the founders meant to include publishing books in the first amendment, and I’m asking for your proof.

Books are clearly printed media, very similar to newspapers. If there is any reason to think that “press” would include newspapers but not books (which is certainly not the case today), the important question would seem to be not whether books are press, but rather why such a distinction was drawn. Instead of engaging in a productive conversation to this end, however, this exchange focused on “proving” Person 1 wrong. (I also feel compelled to mention the absurdity of caring whether the founders “meant to include” anything in the First Amendment, given that the Constitution is a living document, and interpretations of its edicts have varied over time, but this is secondary to my point.) Person 2’s goal here was not “identify the truth” but rather “prove the other person wrong.” This is a depressingly common symptom of digititis.

This highlights a common misconception held by many self-styled intellectuals online: the presumption of a single party’s ability to unilaterally dictate the terms of the conversation. For all the supposed “criticality” of such a person’s reasoning faculties, the failure to recognize that a conversation involves a minimum of two willing participants is distressingly common. Take, for example, the following attitude: You cannot dismiss my argument as being “wrong” without presenting a case for why it is wrong. This is, of course, simply false. I am not required to hold your hand and walk you through my reasoning process. If you approach me with the misguided impression that you are entitled to my time, you will no doubt be very disappointed when I disillusion you of that notion. Your disappointment, however, does not obligate me to explain why you are wrong.

Not every conversation that occurs online is or needs to be an adversarial debate whose “winner” is decided by popular vote. Sufferers of digititis often fail to grasp that point. If you feel the obligation to interpret every conversation as having a “winner” and a “loser,” odds are high that you are, in addition to being wrong, an asshole.

Superficial or Inaccurate Understanding of Terms

Perhaps this is the result of a combination of Wikipedia, which provides open-ended access to a wide variety of terminology, and laziness, which stops people from actually reading for comprehension, but I have noticed what appears to be the widespread fundamental misunderstanding and subsequent misapplication of a number of core ideas of science, skepticism, and critical thinking. While it’s possible that your run-of-the-mill ignorance is to blame, it seems equally likely that digititis is again to blame, and I worry that it has a destructive effect on the brain’s language processing centers (apparently both Broca’s and Wernicke’s).

I’ve come to this conclusion because another common symptom of digititis is the apparent inability to understand and apply common terms. Take the conflation of ad hominem and insult, for example, where supposed critical thinkers will wrongly assume an argument to be invalid because it contains an insult. Humorously enough, this “your insult is an ad hominem, so your argument is wrong” line of reasoning is itself an ad hominem fallacy!

This is, by far, not the only such example. Another problem is with the meaning of skepticism. Science is a cumulative endeavor, and if we wish to advance our knowledge base, we have to apply a standard that allows for the ability to rely on prior knowledge that has been sufficiently demonstrated to be accurate. As a result of this, scientists do not spend their time repeating the same tests day in, day out. Biologists no longer devote their efforts to testing whether the spontaneous generation model of organismal origins is accurate. The scientific community recognizes that the more evidence a claim has in support of it, the more likely it is to be true, and once a claim has been 1) demonstrated to withstand the scrutiny of falsification and 2) proven to be reliably useful in making accurate predictions, it is safe to move on to the next claim. Sadly, in the name of “skepticism,” digititis sufferers often insist on revisiting at length all claims with which they are not intimately familiar. (See also: the entitlement presumption mentioned above.)

This leads us to rational

Rationality is not Straw Vulcanism

To many among the army of digiphores, their affliction causes them to understand “rationality” in a very Star Trek sort of way, with rational and emotional existing on polar opposite ends of the same spectrum. This is quite simply false. Rational people experience emotions, just like irrational people do. “Rationality,” then, is largely a process of thinking that seeks to be free of fallacy and implicit bias, but it is commonly misinterpreted as a kind of behavioral code modeled after that purported paragon of cogency, Spock.

Real people in the real world, however, experience real emotions. This is an absolutely necessary component of the pro-social human condition. There is no emotion switch that a person can flip to shut off their emotional reactions. The only irrational thing here is to expect anything else to be the case. Expecting someone who is angry or sad to forcibly shift their mental state to neutral or happy with a thought is the epitome of non-critical thinking.

Yo dude, you need to calm down.” This statement is just as likely to evoke further hostility as it is to quench the flames. And for those damned souls who, in the name of “rationality,” dare to exude an air of superiority, condescendingly claiming “victory” over their heated foe? To these people, I say three things: 1) Fuck you. 2) Fuck you. 3) You just committed an ad hominem fallacy. Congratulations on your failure to be rational.

Memory Lapses

What was I talking about?

Ah, right. The digititis pathogen also wreaks havoc on a person’s short-term memory, resulting in the would-be master debater’s inability to remember their original point. This can be seen most frequently in the case of our ever-confident wordsmith first proffering an entirely indefensible position, then having that position refuted, and finally claiming that they had never adopted that position, but rather another similar one—specifically, one that is not refuted by the counter-evidence presented to them. Any attempt to classify this as “moving the goalposts” is clearly untenable because, after all, they never put forth the argument that you think they did, and your inability to recognize the truth of that demonstrates only your poor reading comprehension skills.

We will have to, of course, forget the fact that this is the Internet, where we are typically possessed of the remarkable ability to scroll up and quote a person’s original (now refuted) argument back to them verbatim.

Misplaced Burden of Proof

In any sort of meaningful exchange of knowledge, it is necessary to understand one’s role in the exchange. In an adversarial debate, this means all claimants are required to provide evidence for their claims. In truth, these settings are relatively uncommon, and it is a common enough occurrence that someone online will attempt to stretch the boundaries of an ordinary conversation as a way of implicitly expressing disagreement with a personal opinion. For example:

i dont know why you would bother stating an opinion … if you are just going to run whenever someone questions you about it

This individual is apparently unaware that the burden of proof for demonstrating one’s own opinion is not a very high one. Or perhaps they are under the impression that every expressed opinion is a de facto invitation to begin a formal debate? In either case, this response is indicative of a deeper problem.

Misapplying the concept of the burden of proof may also be a consequence of the short-term memory lapses discussed above, as the unwitting victim may occasionally forget having introduced the claim in question, but it is often quite a bit more insidious than that. I’ll illustrate the point by adding the next line of the example exchange listed above:

Person 2
It doesn’t matter what I think, you’re asserting that the founders meant to include publishing books in the first amendment, and I’m asking for your proof.

Person 1
You’re asserting that they didn’t. What is your proof?

Ooooh, and Person 1 was doing so well before! To many who spend their days locked in furious debate-versation with their chosen foes, it seems that the burden of proof is interpreted to lie with whomever responds to the initial claim, rather than with the person seeking to overcome the null hypothesis. In the virus-laden mindset, one can meet one’s burden of proof merely by being the first person to introduce a subject in a conversation. In this way, opinions are presented as facts (wrongfully), and the responsibility for seeking out the truth is artificially shifted to one’s audience. This is, in effect, the fetishization of ignorance—”I don’t know any better than this, and unless you provide a comprehensive case for why my assumption is wrong, you must accept that I am correct.” To give in to this obtusity is to disregard the principle of cumulative knowledge upon which all science is founded.

At this point, we begin to see the true damage digititis can cause: with its unprecedentedly high virulence and its breathtakingly rapid incubation period, it can spread from one host to another in the blink of an eye. This example illustrates the unfortunate tendency for involved parties to mistake their own opinions for the null hypothesis. This is especially damning because…

(Willful) Scientific Ignorance

…there may already be a scientific consensus on the topic being discussed. This may be most crippling consequence of digititis: the inability to grasp, remember, and/or apply scientific reasoning or information. In many cases, entire fields of science may be disregarded without cause. Most people on the Internet are presumably familiar with the Young Earth Creationists, a group of religion-brainwashed zealots who reject evidence-based evidence and science-based models demonstrating the ancient age of the universe in favor of a reason-free work of fiction written thousands of years ago by ignorant desert nomads. Walking these people through the vast evidences available that falsify their theory that the universe is only a few millennia old is quite a chore indeed, as they are often reticent (at best) to consider the facts put before them.

People who are infected with digititis  are often like that, but with regard to fields other than cosmology and evolution. While they may occasionally reject claims made by the so-called “hard sciences” (biology, physics, and what have you), the most frequent object of omission seems to be the collective social sciences. As a consequence, things like privilege blindness, “biotruths,” and Libertarianism can result. At the forefront of this willful ignorance seems to be the existence of feminist theories, which many anti-feminist pundits apparently think were dreamed up by uneducated females without doing any research at all ever.

Moving Forward?

Given the rapidity with which this condition can be spread, it is highly likely that even I am among its victims, as you may also be. It remains to be seen whether there is a cure for this affliction, but even if not,  its consequences can certainly be managed, though it may not always be a pleasant process. Like any other communicable illness, however, the onus is on the individual to ensure that their condition spreads to as few people as possible. This may require serious (and remarkably difficult) self-reflection and openness to criticism. Most notably, the willingness to concede fallibility is an absolute necessity for ameliorating these symptoms.

Many online communities are as ignorant of memetic germ theory as pre-plague Europe was of real germ theory. Perhaps the best thing any of us can do is to spread awareness of this serious disease. We must all take precautions to guard ourselves and our loved ones against it, staunching the rising tide of infection. Quarantine, it seems, is not an option, as memes are often quite resilient, capable of surviving in isolation for quite some time. For those mutations with this degree of durability, the process of reversing the plague may only be begun following repeated exposure to real-world symptomatic manifestations of the disease’s consequences. Crucially, it seems that inoculation is a viable option, and if we are diligent, we may be able to ensure that future generations remain as free of this threat as the current generation is of smallpox. Such an endeavor will surely not be easy, but it will be a noble effort, and the creation of a better world is a worthy pursuit.

Pseudo-Intellectualism. It’s serious business—seriously annoying.

*GIFTivitis, perhaps?

7 responses to “The Digital Plague

  1. Great post. I’ve been bothered by what you label as confrontationalism in internet discourse for some time now. But I haven’t been able to articulate what bothers me about it. I often find myself saying “have you forgotten how to just have a run of the mill conversation with someone on a topic?” It’s the unilateral dictating of terms that gets under my skin. Now I have a description of and a label for what’s bugging me. Thanks!

  2. Although one can never guarantee absolute objective detachment online – due to being an emotional being – one should strive as much as possible to achieve this. I think that confrontation is much easier when all you have in front of you is a keyboard and screen as opposed to a real live human being. But that of course, is zero justification for it

    I always am polite to whoever I am engaging with. I may take their argument to pieces, but not them. Ideas can be attacked and without mercy, but human beings deserve respect and rightly so, too. Some say respect has to be earned but I disagree. If you have a pulse and are homo sapien, I respect you – end of

    Although I treat others as I would want them to treat me, I would not choose to deny them the freedom to insult me, should they so wish. Now this might seem an odd thing to say, but I believe in absolute free speech and rightly so, too. For what one thinks should never be limited in any shape or form whatsover, and the reference of those thoughts in verbalisation or text is just thinking aloud. Political correctness seeks to limit free speech because of the notion of offence, but no one has the right not to be offended. Seeking to do that by restricting the use of language is actually far more offensive – an irony which advocates of political correctness completely miss. And one is not talking about being polite here – I have no problem with that – none whatsoever. No, what political correctness seeks to do is limit language, because it is one step away from limiting thought, which cannot be done, hence why language is targeted instead. And for that reason, I reject it entirely. I am perfectly capable of having a reasoned debate with anyone on anything. anywhere, anytime. There is no need to deny me the freedom to use whatever words I choose. After all they are my words, not anyone else’s. I stand by them and accept full moral and legal responsibility for them. And respect is automatic as I already suggested . But if after that someone still wants to censor me, then something is seriously wrong

  3. I always am polite to whoever I am engaging with.

    This is, of course, a noble goal, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Not every community has equal standards for judging politeness. Personally, I consider logical fallacies to be quite rude, especially if a person maintains them after having them highlighted. Since most people don’t appear to be particularly well versed in those, however, this is probably not a common attitude.

    More generally speaking, a lot of people conduct themselves as if the only measure of impoliteness were explicit insults.

    As to respect, I think that’s a concept that’s regularly equivocated upon. In the sense of “admire” or “obey,” people do have to earn that, but in the sense of “having the right not to be treated like an asshole without cause,” then yes, absolutely, that’s the default.

    For what one thinks should never be limited in any shape or form whatsover, and the reference of those thoughts in verbalisation or text is just thinking aloud.

    I’m not sure I agree with that–in order to have a functioning society, some thoughts need to be discouraged (e.g., other people are not important, so it’s okay if I victimize them). Additionally, while our thoughts and words do tend to align, this is not the case in every situation. And while some thoughts are perfectly fine to have in one’s head, voicing them can be a crime (e.g., slander, assault). In order to maintain this absolutist position, you must thus reject significant portions of the world’s legal systems.

    It sounds like you’d be interested in the concept of “radical honesty.” Are you at all familiar with it?

    Political correctness seeks to limit free speech because of the notion of offence

    In the sense that what I advocate for might be considered PC, this is not at all true. (I won’t attempt to defend the actions of faceless potential caricatures, straw men, or other hypothetical abstract individuals.) Coincidentally enough, I was working on a draft of an article on offense earlier today. I’ll try to remember to address “political correctness” there directly, but the short of it is that PC-ness isn’t concerned with offense but rather harm. No promises about how soon I’ll get it posted, though.

    There is no need to deny me the freedom to use whatever words I choose.

    Can you justify this position? Can all limitations of this nature, even temporary ones, really be unnecessary? This seems untenable.

    It also seems to me that if you want to be polite, using words which marginalize, insult, manipulate, or otherwise provoke your interlocutor is not polite. How do you reconcile these two positions?

  4. Although an advocate of absolute free speech, I also believe in the imposition of legal penalties where harm is being deliberately manufactured, such as blackmail, harassment, intimidation or extortion, for example. This may seem logically inconsistent but in actuality is not. Because the penalties themselves, while a deterrent, do not automatically deny self expression. One can still be free to say whatever one wants, and indeed, those who break these laws obviously are. Their freedom then in that respect is not being curtailed. It is merely that they have a price to pay, if they choose to do so

    Regarding the absolute freedom to think: the curtailing of thoughts is a physical impossibility for free individuals in a democratic or even non democratic society. You suggest bad thoughts need to be discouraged, but how do you know what I am thinking if I refuse to reference it? Is a bad thought harming anyone, if it remains just a thought? Is it not only when thoughts become words, and words become actions, that anything can be done to prevent harm? Now this is a rhetorical question because there is only one answer to it. I find myself referencing cognitive dissonance here however: I want everyone to have the absolute freedom to think what they want, but at the same time I also want those thoughts to be challenged to prevent them causing harm. But it should be the individual themselves who self censors and no one else. After all, you cannot prevent me from thinking bad thoughts, if you do not know what they are. Only we ourselves fully know what we think and no one else, so logically, only we get to exercise jurisdiction over that then

    Buddhism references the need to have a pure mind because if your thoughts are pure, then so are your words and actions. Although enlightenment cannot be achieved due to human imperfection, this is in principle a maxim I agree with. Self censorship and self analysis are the ways to self improvement but it is a never ending journey. In fact the journey itself is the destination

    On the question of being polite: intention is the key factor here. As long as you intend to be polite and treat your fellow human beings with basic decency and respect, that is all that is required. If they take offence at this, you are not responsible for that. You are only responsible for your words, and they are responsible for their reaction to those words. Very clearly defined boundaries here. Though in principle, I have no problem in apologising to someone, if I have inadvertently offended them. But that apology would be at my discretion and not theirs, to avoid the possibility of manipulation on their part however, and for the same reason, would ideally, only be given once

  5. Although an advocate of absolute free speech, I also believe in the imposition of legal penalties where harm is being deliberately manufactured … Because the penalties themselves, while a deterrent, do not automatically deny self expression.

    This distinction renders the concept of free speech meaningless. In order for a government’s actions to constitute a violation of free speech as you describe it here, the only sanction sufficient to stifle free speech would be death. Under any other punishment, self-expression would still be possible, and free speech thus still intact. You could have your tongue ripped out, your arms chopped off, and be put in solitary confinement for the rest of your life, but you could still find ways to express yourself.

    You suggest bad thoughts need to be discouraged, but how do you know what I am thinking if I refuse to reference it?

    You can never know with certainty what another person is thinking. We seek to discourage bad thoughts every day, however, and in almost everything we do. Popular media is full of things telling you what to think and how to think it, both explicitly and subliminally. Legal systems exist to reinforce cultural moral narratives, delineating the boundaries of social acceptability. All of this is the attempted manipulation of both beilefs and actions.

    Ultimately, I don’t need to know what you’re thinking for it to be true that we, as social creatures, have a vested interest in promoting pro-social thoughts and actions and discouraging anti-social ones. Yes, you cannot control someone’s thoughts (and even if you could, doing so would be an immoral act), but putting limitations on speech is not putting limitations on thoughts.

    Is a bad thought harming anyone, if it remains just a thought?

    Of course the initial impulse is to say no, but I am reminded of Sam Harris’s admonition that “beliefs have consequences,” so this isn’t as simple a question as it may seem. “Bob’s hair looks like shit today” doesn’t hurt anyone if it’s just a thought. “Alex is inherently inferior because she’s a woman” does have consequences. This second thought is harmful. You needn’t look any further than the results of implicit bias research to see that.

    I want everyone to have the absolute freedom to think what they want, but at the same time I also want those thoughts to be challenged to prevent them causing harm.

    I trust you know that I’m not advocating for policing anyone’s thoughts. Such a thing would be frightful at best, were it even possible. Of course people should have the freedom to think whatever bigoted shit their twisted hearts desire, but I also think they have a moral obligation not to. Having the ability to do a thing does not therefore mean that one should do the thing. Bigotry is inherently irrational, and one should take steps to purge it from one’s mind, just like any other uncritical belief.

    Buddhism references the need to have a pure mind because if your thoughts are pure, then so are your words and actions.

    This is contradicted by social psychology, though. You referenced cognitive dissonance–research in this area shows that we often adapt our thoughts to fit our actions. Yes, our thoughts affect our words and actions, but our thoughts are themselves the product of our experiences. The effects aren’t monodirectional.

    As long as you intend to be polite and treat your fellow human beings with basic decency and respect, that is all that is required.

    This is absolutely false. You can mean well and still make mistakes that hurt people. If you intend to be polite, your response to those mistakes will probably be more graceful (apologizing does help, yes), but “all that matters is that you tried” is no more than a lie we tell children to make them feel better for their failures. It’s not even a good lie.

    If they take offence at this, you are not responsible for that. You are only responsible for your words, and they are responsible for their reaction to those words.

    This is perilously close to victim-blaming. There are a number of unpleasant implications to what you’re saying, including the erroneous notion that if someone takes offense at something you say, you are never responsible for that. If I spend an hour yelling and screaming at you, it would be ridiculous to suggest that I’m not responsible for your reaction to my words–I’m the one speaking those words! A person must have some responsibility for the things that their words cause.

    Telling someone who’s upset that they’re in control of their reaction communicates an implication that their emotional response constitutes a personal failing because they have failed to control their offense or what have you. This would not be cool.

  6. Free speech does not suggest that words have no consequences, just that they should be expressed freely. The consequences are a separate issue entirely. I have the freedom for example, to deny the Holocaust in Germany. But doing so would cost me my liberty. But I still have the option to do so, if I wanted to. But your analogy of being capable to exercise free speech but nothing else, is taking it to its absolute. In democratic states, that does not happen so it is an unrealistic concept now. You could argue that it is more likely to happen in non democratic states, but while true, they are not known for their advocacy of human rights, so the argument is invalidated because of this. I am using free speech here, as it exists in reality, and not in theory – which was where your example came from

    When questioning whether a thought by itself is harmful I mean in complete isolation to any words or actions that may follow from it now. In that scenario, it could be argued that no harm exists. Though one could claim it might have a negative effect on the individual holding it but if there were no consequences to it however, it would be impossible to demonstrate that

    The reaction of someone to my words – where that reaction is negative – in no way suggests victim blaming on my part now. I am expressly forbidden from ever judging anyone for the remainder of my life, and victim blaming is a grey area but could fall within that jurisdiction nonetheless. If it is objective referencing – stating a fact – then it does not but if it is subjective referencing – stating an opinion – then it does

  7. What’s the point in discussing a hypothetical thought “in complete isolation?” Yes, of course such a thought would have no harmful consequences, but it’s pretty much impossible for such a thing to exist. Ideas do not exist independent of minds, so they are by their vary nature dependent on contexts, and when there is a context, there is no isolation.

    The reaction of someone to my words – where that reaction is negative – in no way suggests victim blaming on my part now.

    This claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I already gave you one general example of how your argument could be interpreted as victim-blaming. In some contexts, it would be, while in others, it might not. You can’t directly control the emotional response your audience has to your words, but you certainly can influence it, and it’s impossible in reality to divorce the speaker from the hearer’s reaction.

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