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?
* * *
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.
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:
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?
Really, where’s your evidence that books were press?
Really? You are going to try and say that “the Press” at any time excludes the publishing of books?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.