On Offense (Free Speech and The Right to be Wrong)

When I first discovered the online skeptic movement, I was thrilled. A community of people devoting themselves to rationalism—to actively opposing fallacious reasoning and cognitive biases for the noble goal of maximizing truth? I am unequivocally on board with these ideals, and on the whole, the skeptic movement tends to be far better than average in its approach to scientific reasoning. “Better than average,” however, still is not perfect, and the unfortunate reality is that even skeptics fail to exercise critical thinking at times.

There is a distressingly common trend, even among self-styled rationalists, where empty rhetoric is parroted in lieu of rational argument, disregarding the entirety of what someone says if it contains elements that run counter to the former person’s malformed ideals. This runs entirely counter to the expressly stated goals of skepticism. Free speech is one such recurring example. There are those who say that freedom of speech is absolute—that imposing any restrictions on the content or context of someone’s speech is uniformly a violation of that person’s rights. This is, of course, demonstrably false, yet the claim persists. “Free speech” is a nuanced concept, and holding it up as if it were some immaculate, unconditional virtue is the polar opposite of rationality: it is perhaps even dogmatism, that unholy grail of skepticism sins, and those who would have you believe it to be absolute and axiomatic would ask you to surrender your reasoning capacities in favor of their hollow ideology.

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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?

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On the Internet and Basic Interpersonal Skills

Disclaimer: If this comes across as ranty, that’s probably because it is.

There’s this trend online where some people seem to think that being in front of a computer entitles them to flout the rules of basic interpersonal decency. For example, in meatspace, you wouldn’t just walk up to a group of strangers engaged in conversation and start throwing your opinions around as fact, condescendingly contradicting everything they were talking about. In most cases, interjecting without at least beginning with an introduction (“Hello, I couldn’t help but overhear you discussing X. Mind if I say something?“) would rightly be regarded as inappropriate behavior, even if you’re officially an expert on the subject. You’d very likely be told to piss off and be disregarded entirely. Why, then, do some people react with such horror to facing the same consequence online? (“I showed up and told you were all wrong, and when I tried to correct your terrible inaccuracies, you were rude to me!“)

“Normal person + anonymity + audience = total fuckwad” Source: Penny Arcade

For all its wonderment, the Internet is not without its flaws. It is ridden with rot in the form of the common presumption that every space defaults to being a debate club, and any argument to the contrary is (wrongly) interpreted as “censorship.” I enjoy arguing as much as the next guy, but only when I’m in the mood. I cannot grok the perspective that says “every exchange must be treated as a faux-scientific debate!” You don’t get to come into my house and tell me how to arrange my furniture. Similarly, you aren’t entitled to enter someone else’s online space and demand they acquiesce to your demands.

This isn’t an issue of critical thinking—you aren’t making an ad hominem fallacy by telling someone who’s being rude to go away. There’s no fallacy involved in saying “I think you are an asshole, so I do not want to associate with you. You are leaving now.” Hell, most of the time you see “ad hominem” thrown around online, it’s being used incorrectly. Getting tired of someone’s dishonest argumentation and washing your hands of them doesn’t magically prove them right, nor does it prove you wrong. As they say, an argument stands on its own merits.

There is no obligation to engage an argument just because it has been left at your doorstep. If saying “I don’t have time or energy to waste on you” made the other person right, we would have to concede that the world is only 6,000 years old. Since it is not, I think it is safe to conclude that being shown the metaphorical door does not make one’s arguments any more valid. There is no such thing as the “fuck off, you ignorant brat” fallacy.*

The most likely explanation that I see for this phenomenon is hubris. “I am so great that I have the right to dictate how other people—even complete strangers!—conduct themselves online. If they do not live up to my standards, they are wrong.” As trivial as this might seem to a third party, it quickly grows tiresome. Amusingly enough, however, it is quite often followed up with a wonderful display of arrogant fallacy (“Since you’ve failed to live up to my personal standards of discourse, you’re obviously terrible at critical thinking/skepticism/self-aggrandizement rationality.“), and giving in to a cognitive bias is not a very critical thinky thing to do.

For many, engaging in “gotcha” debate theatrics is standard operating procedure. In meatspace, this would make you a social pariah, but online, they believe this makes you a good master debater. Ultimately, I have no interest in wasting time on those who can’t be bothered to conduct themselves with a modicum of decency, and I see little merit in catering to these people. I especially have little motivation for coddling them in the hope that my niceness will somehow reverse the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. You might be the smartest person in the world, but until you can engage with others as though they really are human beings, I can’t be bothered with you. If you are such a person, I’d like you to know that your arguments are probably completely terrible, and no, I am not obligated to point out why. If you’d like to discuss the matter, pull your head out of your ass first. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to hear the explanation. I welcome good-faith evidence-based argumentation, but if you’re just here to spread your shit along the walls, I’ll be keeping you outside the gates.

* On a side note, I wonder if the people who think otherwise have a coherent understanding of the concept of consent… Ah, well. “The world may never know.”

Addendum: Now that I’ve got this all written out, it occurs to me that I had a troll here recently. If you’re reading, Troll-in-Question (and let’s not kid ourselves, you probably will, since the post you commented on was not recent), I hope my deletion of your comment left you with a bad taste in your mouth. Although I did not write this post for you, now that I think about it, it certainly applies to you.

TAM 2012

Do you like science, skepticism, rationalism, critical thinking, magic (the real unreal illusion kind), humor, and other awesome things? If so, go here, and lose the rest of your day to TAM 2012 related things, including links to recordings of various presentations.

Don’t blame me for any loss of your day, though. Seriously.

Edit: Boo. All the big stuff is on the first page. It gets pretty thin pretty fast. I’m sure more will be released in the future, since apparently most of the talks were recorded. Patience is not a virtue of mine, however. (Aw hell, it’s not even a virtue.)

Here are the videos worth watching so far:

Carol Tavris, Ph.D. – “A Skeptical Look at Pseudoneuroscience” – TAM 2012

Jamy Ian Swiss – “Overlapping Magisteria” – TAM 2012

If you don’t know what rbutr is (Shame on you!), watch this one (the audio sucks): rbutr at TAM2012 – Tim Farley’s Workshop

Pure Logic

“Pure logic cannot tell us anything about facts; only experience can.”
James R. Flynn

This is also the single largest criticism one can make of those who rely only on abstract thinking. It is why theist apologetics cannot be compelling. I can reason that the world was created by the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Flying Spaghetti Monster, who defies all attempts to measure Him by actively interfering with the instrumentation of scientists (though judicious application of His noodly appendage) yet reveals himself to the faithful in ways that only He can understand; until there is evidence of my claim, however, you would do well to reject it out of hand. Believers are loath to consider that their arguments apply equally well to the FSM, if not significantly better for its lack of contradictory dogma. When it comes to claims of truth, the following quote should be ever-present in our minds:

“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
Christopher Hitchens

Nature’s Law and Gods

The Laws of Nature

What are “laws of nature?” In the conventional sense of the word law, we see a meaning akin to “a rule that people must abide by.” In the governmental sense, laws do not absolutely restrict; they can be broken, even if there are penalties for doing so. When discussing natural laws, this is not the case. Natural laws cannot be broken. This tells us that we are dealing with a very different sort of idea when we use this version of “law.”

I fear I may have just set the stage for a massive deception, however. If you conceive of natural laws as similar to those of the legal sphere (only unbreakable), you’re going at it entirely wrong. The laws of nature are not some combination of metaphysical sliding scales that determine the speed of light, logical progression, mass, energy, or the deliciousness of cheesecake. The laws of nature are deceptively mislabeled—they do not decide the parameters of reality; they merely describe the things we’ve identified as consistent in the observations we’ve made about our universe. These “laws” have been rewritten several times as new information has been discovered. Newtonian physics led to relativistic physics. Observations made under a microscope do not apply to forces acting at the Planck scale or in quantum physics.

In the same way that we might describe a tune played in a minor scale as somber or one in major as uplifting, the laws of nature describe the observable cosmos. As we discover new things, we are forced to refine or reevaluate what we had previously taken to be “law.”

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