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.