5 Things That Don’t Make You Right on the Internet

I wrote this post for Patreon patrons ages ago, playing with formats. I could update at least one section, but then I’d look less like a prophet. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

It’s true that not everyone on the internet spends all their time arguing. It’s just that the people who do argue online spend so much time and so many words at it that it drowns out almost everything else. Cat pictures manage to rise above but only because cats have trained us not to argue with them.

Of course, we can’t just argue. Arguing as a genial pastime is apparently one of those social activities that require face-to-face interaction. Online, we have to win. We have to be right, and we have to make other people acknowledge that we’re right.

That, however, is not so easy on the internet, where anyone can cut and paste any old nonsense to keep an argument going until you start to think that camping on the Arctic tundra sounds like a nice vacation. Gish Gallops, links to irrelevant pay-walled articles, and long-discredited assertions of fact–all get in the way of declaring our victories even when we’ve managed to earn them.

So what do we do when good arguments don’t do the trick? We make stuff up. We pick out behaviors that sometimes go along with being terribly, horribly wrong, then we claim that anyone doing them has lost the argument.

That may work when all we really need is a reason to step away from the computer and get some sleep. It’s a terrible idea if we have any interest in getting to the bottom of a disagreement. Unfortunately, once we’ve come to some agreement on these made-up “rules”, many of us act as though we believe they determine the truth of an argument.

Here are five common arbitrary internet rules on winning that don’t actually make us right online. Continue reading “5 Things That Don’t Make You Right on the Internet”

5 Things That Don’t Make You Right on the Internet
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Puppies, Slates, and the Leftover Shape of “Victory”

I wasn’t going to write about Vox Day’s Rabid Puppies and their Hugo Awards slate this year. I was just going to enjoy Uncanny Magazine‘s win for Best Semiprozine and Naomi Kritzer‘s win for Best Short Story with “Cat Pictures Please“, because it is a weird and wonderful thing when people I know win awards for work I like. I was going to enjoy the success of a fiction slate swept by women, three of whom are women of color and one of whom didn’t write in English, because the WorldCon should look more like the world than it generally has. I was going to enjoy looking at a slate full of winners of serious quality, because I like this genre, and I get tired of defending it from charges it is only pulp (mmm, pulp).

I was going to do all that, which is plenty. Then I looked at the numbers in the nomination long lists (pdf, de-Puppied numbers at the bottom of this post). I noticed something important.

There is one thing you should know about Vox Day, assuming you can’t avoid him altogether. Well, one thing aside from him being alt-right before the alt-right was identified as a thing. One thing aside from him being such a secure sexist that he has to declare the inferiority of women whenever anyone will listen. One thing aside from his self-published fiction being just sort of tedious and fascinated by its own fascinations.

That one thing is that he always declares victory.

As schticks go, it’s not terribly impressive. It’s a lot like those people who look at science, scrinch their foreheads at the math, and pop out some late-night, freshman-who-took-one-philosophy-class deepity about “But what if the world is really…?” If your musings aren’t falsifiable, you’re not going to impress a scientist with your depth of thought. If you claim everything is a win condition, we all know you’re just not prepared to lose.

This year, Vox Day lost badly. Continue reading “Puppies, Slates, and the Leftover Shape of “Victory””

Puppies, Slates, and the Leftover Shape of “Victory”

About that “Arc of the Moral Universe”

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

Did you know the original was part of a sermon?

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.[^1] Ere long all America will tremble.

Theodore Parker was an abolitionist who published those words in 1853. His words were popular at the time, but we know them through Martin Luther King Jr., who quoted a paraphrase that had been attributed to Parker. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King, of course, was also a minister.

It shouldn’t be any surprise then that the sentiment is ultimately a religious one. In fact, we should perhaps twig to this from the paraphrase, or even from the phrase “moral universe”. The idea that the universe has inherent moral qualities hasn’t been demonstrated. The impetus to view it that way is religious or at least is one of the impetuses to religion.

Yet I hear nonreligious people and skeptics use the phrase all the time. It’s used to energize activists and to comfort people in danger of burnout. Far more rare are statements or essays that question the idea even in its particulars. We even have a book with a title borrowed from the phrase arguing for the premise.

Yes, the book argues that nonreligious forces–science in particular1–are what bend the arc and that religion has the capability to reverse it. Yes, that book and many of the other uses of King’s quotation are referring to a metaphorical moral universe rather than the supernatural one of Parker’s original words. However, the directionality and inevitability of the quotation are generally accepted, if sometimes hedged.

If we don’t allow religion to dominate, our world will become more just. If we keep fighting, we will achieve more justice for more people.

The problem, of course, is that this isn’t necessarily true. Continue reading “About that “Arc of the Moral Universe””

About that “Arc of the Moral Universe”

Both and Neither: On the Utility of Multiple Models

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons a couple of months ago. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

There are arguments, common arguments, that I’m entirely done with. They can’t be won–the social reason for having an argument–and the debate does little to nothing to clarify the issues–the epistemological reason for arguing. That makes them pointless except as practice debates, and I get quite enough practice on issues I still hold some hope of settling.

What kind of debates am I talking about? These are arguments like modernism versus postmodernism or whether our actions are socially determined or chosen by us. The debates around these topics go on endlessly with much heat and very little light. Proponents of each side hold the other in contempt as obviously wrong.

All these arguments do, as arguments, is degrade our belief in each other’s ability or willingness to reason. Of course, this is a risk any time we enter into an argument with someone, but it’s a nearly inevitable outcome of these particular debates. Why? Because everyone is wrong. That is to say everyone is right.

Confused yet? Great, let’s go on.

Illustration of a pipe over a map with the caption "This is not a pipe nor a territory."
“The Treachery of Images” by Bill Smith, CC BY 2.0

Fundamentally, this is a problem of models. By that I mean that this is a problem we should expect when we take complex and recurring phenomena and work to generalize and simplify it in such a way that we can fit it within the limits of our understanding. We lose something in the translation. “The map is not the territory.” In fact, it may be distinctly unlike the territory in several ways.

We should expect our models to be right, in that they tell us something important about that reality. At the same time, we should expect our models to be wrong, in that they fall short of fully reflecting reality. And when we have competing models that have lasted and have strong proponents on each side? Well, then we should maybe consider that they’re each giving us different pieces of useful information about reality. Continue reading “Both and Neither: On the Utility of Multiple Models”

Both and Neither: On the Utility of Multiple Models

Sacrificing Babies to the Fertility Gods

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

We’ve had new escorts a couple of recent Saturdays at the clinic. They stopped by because things were slow at their regular clinic or came into town to help out during the 40 Days for Life, when we tend to get more protesters. Both times, Guitar Guy has decided to engage the new escorts.

Guitar Guy’s name is Jeff, as he’ll tell you if he wants to talk to you. He has a nickname like most of the protesters, however, because not all of us care to talk to them long enough to find out things like names. He’s Guitar Guy because he spent much of last summer and fall playing his limited repertoire of songs made up of his limited repertoire of chords outside the clinic. It’s currently too cold for the guitar, so he has his baby out with him now instead.

(This is fine, actually. Babies do just dandy at the temps this one has been out in. How they do later when they find out they were used as a prop for their parents is an open question, however.)

It’s only recently that Guitar Guy has tried to engage escorts for proselytization. The first time, he just started talking to the two new people at the door I was on while they carried on a conversation with each other. The second time, he asked. The second time, there was a man among the new escorts.

We’ll be discouraging escorts from engaging with Guitar Guy going forward. He’s been escalating, both in starting those two attempts to proselytize and over the course of them, and there’s no way to tell what he’s escalating to until he does it. It might just be more yelling. It might not. He says he’s there because he discovered the wonders of babies when he found out he was going to be a father, but that’s so far disconnected from “so now I go out and harass the people who don’t want one right now” that predicting any more of his behavior is iffy at best.

Making that recommendation has meant listening to Guitar Guy preach. I hear what he says so the new people can tune him out. It’s annoying, but I keep myself entertained by tweeting bits and pieces of it. He seems to fancy himself a scholar.

“The Bible says abortion clinics are Hell! Did you know ‘Gehenna’ is the Greek word for ‘Hell’?”

Why, yes, I did know that, and that’s a hell of a way to mix up your Old and New Testaments and Jewish folkloric traditions to get the answer you want, and we’ll come back to your premise shortly.

It’s fascinating watching the picking and choosing that is done to try to make it appear that reverence for prenatal life has always been considered highly valuable when it’s largely a product of modern medicine. That simply isn’t true. For these purposes, if you want to see the differences, look at how Exodus 21:22-23 has been interpreted historically by Jewish scholars, then compare that to what anti-abortion groups are telling us it “obviously” means today.

Even knowing that, however, I was completely confused the morning Guitar Guy told us “they” used to sacrifice babies to fertility gods. Continue reading “Sacrificing Babies to the Fertility Gods”

Sacrificing Babies to the Fertility Gods

Hard Science Vs. Harder Science

This is one of the essays I delivered to my patrons last month. If you want to support more work like this, and see it earlier, you can sign up here.

I started university life as a physics major and ended it with a degree in psychology. Along the way, I was a tutor and a teaching assistant in physics and a research assistant in psychology. Graduating with honors in psychology also meant I had to run an independent research project. I chose to replicate an important study in a novel population and was lucky enough to be able to recruit one of the original authors as my adviser.

Photo of a stone, probably quartz, with a feathery vein of gold running over its surface.
“Dendritic crystalline gold” by James St. John, CC BY 2.0

While I ultimately decided I didn’t want to work in either field, the whole experience gave me a–perhaps unhealthy–interest in the fuss over “hard science versus soft science”. I’ve spent an absurd amount of time arguing over whether there’s a real difference between types of science that falls along those lines, including a delightful bit of argument with former science journalist Susan Jacoby, which was unfortunately brief, as it happened in the middle of a workshop I was running on a different topic.

Just this past summer, I sat on and moderated a panel discussion on the topic at CONvergence, with physics, geology, and psychology represented. I was hoping the video would be available by now, but the short version of the panel goes like this: None of us recognize any meaningful distinction in the practice of science between fields that are generally classed as “hard” sciences and those classed as “soft” sciences. None of these fields are more science-y or less than the others, and we’re all kind of tired of saying so.

Yet the idea that only some of these fields are “real” science, and particularly the idea that social sciences are somehow not scientific, persists. Continue reading “Hard Science Vs. Harder Science”

Hard Science Vs. Harder Science

So Stay Wrong

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been following the news about Skepticon on Twitter. Yesterday, a link to a recap on Damion Reinhardt’s blog came up. So I read it. Then I laughed.

Then I tweeted, “TIL: A presentation on psych research on a cognitive bias stops being about skepticism when you mention social justice. Who knew?”

You see, the post isn’t a recap. It’s a rehash of the question that popped up, back when Skepticon started getting big enough to rival TAM, of whether it was entitled to use “skeptic” in its name. You’re excited by this question, right? We should get the Skeptics Council right on that?

It’s funnier than that, because there aren’t even broad operational definitions being applied here. So humanism–historically an outgrowth of the fading belief in an interventionist god–doesn’t count as atheism. A presentation on what free speech means and doesn’t mean historically doesn’t count as skepticism, presumably because only science makes appeals to reality over bias. (Those people fighting Holocaust denial? Not real skeptics.)

It was yet more hilarious to find my presentation on a common belief that warps our perceptions to the point that it’s often called a fallacy described as “other”. I mean really? Be better at this.

Or, apparently, not. Continue reading “So Stay Wrong”

So Stay Wrong

Diet, Skeptics, and Getting It Wrong

This was the first essay I delivered to my patrons this past Friday. If you want to support more work like this, you can sign up here.

There’s a constant tension in skepticism between the desire to educate and the desire to tear down. This isn’t necessarily a tension between people. Both impulses exist in most of the skeptics I know. Nor does it seem to matter whether those people are connected to organized skepticism or simply proud members of the broader reality-based community.

The tension is to be expected. We need both impulses to be effective. We need to give people good information in accessible ways, and we need to limit the harm purveyors of bad information can do. Different behaviors for different goals. Simple, right? Well, no.

We frequently run into problems when we apply one of these impulses to the wrong target. This usually happens in the form of tearing down the people we want to educate for a host of reasons. The fundamental attribution error means we’re more likely to see people’s decisions as personal flaws, leading to both frustration with them as people and losing faith in our ability to educate them. The Curse of Knowledge means that we, as people educated on a topic, have a very hard time putting ourselves in the place of someone with less information. Tearing people down is approximately infinitely easier than educating them, particularly when we’re frustrated. And unfortunately, tearing people down all too often results in us feeling better about ourselves.

I’m hardly the first person to address this. Skeptics fairly regularly point to this problem. We tell each other it is both kinder and more effective to educate consumers first (though consumers who become evangelists are a tougher problem). It helps–for a while–but the behavior tends to revert after a time.

I want to take a different approach to the topic here. Continue reading “Diet, Skeptics, and Getting It Wrong”

Diet, Skeptics, and Getting It Wrong

Why I Am Not a Rationalist, Part 2: Questions and Answers

I hope everyone is comfortably recovered from both Skepticon and any holiday shenanigans. I’m not entirely, but it’s time to follow up on the reactions to my “Why I Am Not a Rationalist” post last week. There’s been a fair amount of heat in response to the post, as well as a good bit of confusion. Let’s see whether I can clear some of that up.

Here are the most common questions and objections I’ve come across. Continue reading “Why I Am Not a Rationalist, Part 2: Questions and Answers”

Why I Am Not a Rationalist, Part 2: Questions and Answers

Why I Am Not a Rationalist

I am not a rationalist.

I have friends who are rationalists. I do my best to think of it as a nice little hobby of theirs. I do cryptograms and other puzzles in my down time. They spend time hacking their thinking processes, or trying to. We’ve all got our thing.

Every once in a while, though, they’ll promote some argument or another from another rationalist, and I have to speak up. Why? Because the argument is a dreadful bundle of wrong wrapped up in a “logic” bow. Why? Because it doesn’t matter how well you regulate your thinking. You could overcome the limitations of the human brain and turn yourself into a computer. (You can’t, but bear with me here.) You’re still going to get garbage out if you put garbage in. Continue reading “Why I Am Not a Rationalist”

Why I Am Not a Rationalist