I’ve noticed as a thing sure as death and taxes, especially those imposed on the middle class, online trolls are everywhere, ranging in behavior from simple illogical arguments and ad hominem nonsense to the apparently psychopathic offers of rape and death threats infesting skeptical and atheist blogs, particularly those of female bloggers, often just to get attention, to throw a tantrum, and occasionally organized in digital swarms with the intent to censor a discussion by drowning it out with the sheer volume of online noise generated.
I’ve never had this happen in face-to-face talks with believers, though at one point I used to have rather…lively…debates with a New Ager I used to know, discussions which, looking back, I rather enjoyed.
To be fair, but not too even-handed, there’s a certain amount of undue enthusiasm and downright asshattery among many newbie followers of some well-known figures in the rationalist community too, packs of inexperienced, young, foolish wolves…
…and it was such individuals who drove a good friend of mine, one of the finest bloggers and best damn lolcat artists I’ve ever known, out of the rationalist community forever, and with much acrimony for it.
You are missed, =^Skeptic Cat^=, but your path winds ever on…
There’s a bit of asymmetry here though: the fringe and religious apologetics sites do not usually have the same de facto standards of free and open discussion as skeptical blogs, often engaging in censoring dissent or criticism in the commentary through banishing, comment deletion, comment doctoring, strictly regulating skeptical comments, or aggressive trolling by the other commentators to silence the offending rationalist.
Skeptical blogs I’ve frequented don’t compare with most fringe sites on this, with the comment threads often crawling with posts from attention-whoring trolls who, depending on the site, either go without being fed and leave for greener pastures, or stay and get flamed when they are particularly illogical and inept.
The most extreme ways of dealing with them are implemented for reasons stemming from the egregious or illegal nature of the comment, whether actual threats of physical harm or by being libelous in content, or the troll has worn out his welcome by confusing the right to free speech with a permit to digitally sh*t on people’s online rugs without limit.
This asymmetry applies elsewhere as well:
There is a vast disparity in the degree to which each side of the skeptic/true believer dispute accurately and honestly portrays and represents the views, or the persons, of the other.
Simply fact-checking what each side says that the other says, and what they actually say (The Wayback machine and sharpened Google-chops are your friends here…), has shown me that the fringe sites far more frequently misrepresent their critics, even to the point of outright fabrication of posted quotes, and engaging in the very same sort of name-calling and character slurs they complain about themselves, with a tendency toward litigious behavior toward critics rather than an honest desire to back up their claims with real data when challenged.
Because often, they can’t back up their claims, and the willful charlatans among the fringe know this, so they avoid it like an Andromeda-strain infection.
The material on these sites I’ve found to be very instructive in discerning and recognizing both factual and logical errors that would make Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, and Dick Feynman spin in their graves at a velocity exceeding the “c” in E=mc²…
There are millions of such sites on the web to which that probably applies, though every so often I run across a proponent who is at least willing to hear skeptical arguments even when ultimately disagreeing, and this is good, because it encourages me to listen back, to hear it from the proverbial equinoid’s mouth instead of doing a hideously unskeptical thing like plugging my virtual ears and shouting ‘la la la, I can’t hear you!’
But there’s no fine line between believers and skeptics, just a graduated spectrum of belief ranging from base credulity to outright denialism, with the more seasoned skeptics hovering more or less along the balance between these extremes…
…good, healthy skepticism.
There’s also that phenomenon of the “sacred cow” among rationalists, who are among the first to concede that it exists — that one little odd belief that somehow resists our otherwise rigorous skeptical scrutiny, even when consciously acknowledged — mine is gaming superstitions.
People, all of us, tend to make slip-ups in reasoning and assumptions when it comes to the particular objects of our biases, when we do not with due care frame our questions and seek our answers.
This is why a good search for understanding is done skeptically, and why such an approach is most likely to succeed, and not that which uncritically accepts all claims without adequate testing and careful evaluation.
I’ve mentioned before the need for a ‘voice’ on this site, since I know some wonderful people, believers many of them, and they’re an absolute joy to talk to despite any faux pas on my part.
But some people have thought processes that seem to come from one of the moons of Saturn, and this is when reasoning with them, much less coherently conversing, becomes difficult, even though I suppose that we belong to the same species.
There’s a problem of being misinterpreted through lack of a shared frame of reference, disparate worldviews, and such, in which there is no mutual understanding of words like, “reason,” “evidence,” “belief,” or especially those twin bugaboos of radical epistemic skepticism, “knowledge,” and “fact.”
It’s a communication gap based on differences in the way people think, how they reason, if and when they do, and it’s very frustrating at times.
I’ve come across claims of allegedly alternative modes of reasoning before, like the notion of, and I’m not making this up, a “logic of psychically-based rational thought.”
Everyone wants to paint themselves as the rational ones, and proponents are no exception, including those who hold themselves to be psychic, so I’ll first establish for the sake of argument what I mean by “rational” in a nutshell — “The ability to give reasons to justify claims that a knowledgeable audience exercising critical judgment would find acceptable and to which they would give their provisional assent if offered.” — I think that’s a fair usage, and it’s one that’s widely agreed upon by most argumentation theorists and rhetoricians worldwide.
Generally, much of the argumentation of proponents falls short of this standard, and I find it depressing when they can’t even manage to mind their own reasoning and assumptions, attempting to use the same standards of argument on skeptics as they would believers, and then getting upset when their arguments don’t fly, much less get onto the airfield.
The problem with any new paradigm of reasoning, like any paradigm, is threefold:
- It must be viable and correspond to the portion of reality it is intended to address, including the reality of the possibilities and limits of human thinking, understanding, and reasoning.
- It must have some pragmatic benefit, that is, it must be able to achieve the goals it’s conception is intended to, such as preserve the truth of its premises in logical conclusions or usefully provide evidential support for claims, or extending current modes of reasoning to new areas of thought where the new model would have superior applicability, etc.
- It must be coherent within itself, and compatible with contingent matters of fact if used as a model of reasoning about the world, including the inner world of human cognition.
Lastly, a new model of the world, even the misty world of human thought, needs to get done what is needed to get itself generally accepted as a worthy idea, and that means passing any critical assessment the model may be subjected to by those who may not initially see its value.
If the proponent of an idea won’t or can’t be bothered to pass this gauntlet and demonstrate the idea’s merit, then that shows a lack of confidence in one’s own idea, and a lack of sincerity in continuing to claim the idea’s truth only to the like-minded or to the easily swayed.
Otherwise, it is likely to rest in history — at best remembered in the heap of discarded, untested, or tested and wasted ideas — and at worst, not remembered at all.
The content of this post may contain NSFW language and at least one rather graphic example, not particularly kid-friendly, is provided.
You’ve been warned.
In this installment I’ll discuss the ad baculum argument, or just for the sake of annoying pedantry, because I’m evil like that, the ‘argument from the cudgel,’ or otherwise known as the appeal to force.
This is an informal argument, and often fallacious in its use of an irrelevant appeal, to compel compliance or at least feigned agreement with a conclusion by duress or by the threat of it, whether that duress be physical, psychological, or legal.
It’s a subset of the argument from consequences, and in a simple but possibly vulgar formulation basically amounts to, “Agree with me and do as you’re told, or I’ll kick your ass,” or maybe a bit less crudely, “I’m right because I’m badder and meaner than you are and I can light you up easily. So there.”
There’s also the (in)famous “Do as I say, not as I do,” with the addendum, “…or else!”
It’s fallacious when the threat implied or expressed used has no logical relation to the claim offered, and it aims to exploit a demand for submission to authority and fear as a substitute for valid argument.
This is probably apocryphal, but there’s a classic example I’ve seen on various places on the Web, of a statement of Hitler’s upon hearing the then-current Pope’s displeasure with his policies, whereupon he is to have said, “…and how many tanks does the Pope have?”
Not exactly a rhetorical question…
…and it quite nicely illustrates the specious use of this argument in making use of the idea that ‘might makes right.’
Another example of this is Pascal’s Wager, with its choice, actually a false dilemma, of either belief in God while supposedly losing nothing and a chance at winning everything, or non-belief and risking perdition if one is ‘wrong,’ whatever that’s supposed to mean, since to many religious believers, everyone else’s beliefs, or lack of them as the case may be, are wrong, even intolerable, and sometimes pure evil to boot.
Never mind the underlying self-serving motivation for belief promoted by the Wager, but that’s a subject for a future post…
But an ad baculum argument not always a fallacy, and can have valid applications, such as when the threat, force or punishment invoked has a direct relation to the claims of the argument and is not merely used to overthrow a discussion by substituting intimidation or fear for actual justification of a claim, such as the criminal penalties imposed to support the edicts of various legal systems that certain activities, including but not limited to theft, fraud, and treason, are wrong, or unethical, and should be punished by law, such as by narfling the Garthok, or being consigned to Jabba’s Rancor pit for making bad SF movie references on this blog. Ouch.
- If you read the forbidden (and completely made-up) haiku collection ‘Reflections on Infinity,’ horrible and nasty critters (equally fictitious)from the Outer Void (as made-up as the first two)will show up and slowly eat your brain.
- Attracting the attention of such horrors would be very unpleasant, and worse than death, for madness comes as they eat your brain.
- So to best avoid this unpleasant fate, you must not read ‘Reflections on Infinity.’
Yes, that was a little over the top, but I did say this post wasn’t kid-safe.
Like several forms of argumentation, sometimes fallacies and others not, the valid or invalid use of it is dependent on context, and the use of it for the promotion or squelching of a critical discussion, valid when used for the former, invalid for the latter…
…or sound or unsound, strong or weak, in any case, even though the logic used is probabilistic rather than certain in nature.
Most informal fallacies are not simple matters of incorrect structure having nothing to do with the content of an argument, as with syllogistic logic, but are heavily dependent on the meaning bound up in the language used, for language is inextricably bound into informal argumentation, not mere decorative filler.
One of the most important lessons learned by me as a skeptic is the willingness to make a simple admission of human fallibility and fallacies, that our capacity for perception, reason and insight are limited. It is to recognize that what these and our memories tell us, while usually reliable, can often lead us into error and deception. It is to acknowledge the following recognition:
“I can be fooled, just like anyone else.”
This is one of the key differences between skeptics and many believers, the latter of which are often convinced that they cannot be fooled, for whatever reason, and in so being set themselves up to be just that.
The inability to admit one’s capacity for being fooled is a common weakness for many parapsychologists and was one of the major reasons for the infamous gullibility of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the credulity of many of the investigators of the paranormal from the 19th century onward.
Why can we all be fooled? Because our brains, working the way they do, not always the way they should, sometimes play tricks on us, and we may perceive, believe, or remember things that simply are not so, and often never were. Human reasoning, perception, and memory are not faithful transcribers of everything we experience.
Our perceptions and memories are constructive.
When we remember something, we are not looking at an exact recording of an event in our heads, accurate in all details — we are each time recreating the memory anew, often emphasizing or even confabulating some details at the expense of others, embellishing our recollection at the expense of the truth. This can result through suggestibility in the creation of entire memories of events that did not happen, though our confidence in their accuracy may be absolute.
One’s conviction of the truth of one’s memories is no guarantee of their accuracy, even with so-called “flash-bulb” memories.
Our senses can deceive us through many routes, particularly our prior beliefs and expectations, causing us to see what is simply not there. You do not have to have a psychiatric diagnosis or to be under the influence of recreational pharmaceuticals to hallucinate. Rene Blondlot’s N-rays, and likely many alleged miraculous occurrences and UFO sightings ‘witnessed’ by large numbers of people at once are prime examples of this.
Believing is seeing, and yes, collective hallucinations by those without a mental illness do happen, and are more common than you might think. We also sometimes do see things, but not as they really are, when we look at or hear one thing but our brains are trying to tell us something else, hence, optical or auditory illusions, including pareidolia.
Even our introspective ability, when coupled with the conviction that one is consistently honest with oneself and therefore immune to being fooled from that route causes the one concerned to lower his or her proverbial guard, and in so doing, be much more readily deceived.
Thus, even close scrutiny of one’s own thoughts, feelings and motives, while often reliable, is not infallible either.
Our ways of acquiring, storing, and recalling information have very real limits, as our evolution as a species has given us ways of knowing and interacting with the world that are merely adequate, not optimal from any competent design standpoint.
Any human engineer who would knowingly design our minds and bodies the way they are now would have been executed for failure upon first submitting his schematics.
Due to the aforementioned limits of perception and memory, and the fallibility of even usually dependable cognitive rules of thumb — heuristics, here, here, here, here, and other hidden persuaders — personal experience, while a compelling form of evidence for many, can be very deceptive.
No one is immune to deception, especially by oneself, and no form of deception is more effective, more pervasive, and more insidious than self-deception.
We live in a universe, and have a biology, including that of our brains, with very real limits, and are none of us possessed of godlike potential or manifest ability, despite the popular myth that we use only 10% of our brains.
It is important to recognize one’s limits, and to work within them to overcome them, for you cannot fight an enemy, much less defeat it, that you refuse to acknowledge even exists. Fnord.