Arguing on the Internet

Browser beware

The internet is a dangerous place. Not, as commonly imagined, in the dark underbelly of porn and software piracy, but in the vast bulk of information available. One can drown in the oceans of words, with little remaining but some trivia and some ill-thought-out good intentions. It can deceive you into thinking you are doing something worthwhile whilst, in fact, you are spending time for little return.
Discussion is one example. The internet offers opportunities to talk to vast multitudes of people you would never meet. However, some of these opportunities are better left alone. When criticism is a comment away, and the back-and-forth restrained only by the stamina of the participants, one can get locked into a futile cycle trading responses with someone-or-other. Any pretense of irenic discussion has long past: you’re just in it to win; everyone else will be patiently scrolling through the block-quotes and vitriol. It is a game where you ‘win’ by not getting suckered in to taking part.

What to avoid on the internet

So a bit of discernment is in order. Some heuristics:

  1. Don’t attack the indefensible: 9-11 Truthers are obviously wrong. You know that, I know that, and so does every reasonable person. You don’t need to be acquainted with the ‘literature’ on 9-11 conspiracy theories to know there’s simply nothing to them. So it’d be pretty easy to smack these guys down in a debate, right? Wrong. 9-11 truthers are self-selected as people impervious to argumentative merit or reality. It will be a miracle if they’re persuaded, no matter how erudite the rebuttal. Third parties watching you are either 9-11 truthers or not – if they aren’t, they already know it’s rubbish, if they are, it’s probably hopeless. So why are you wasting your time?
  2. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit: Self explanatory.
  3. Only argue if something is wrong in an interesting way: Almost all internet discussions have been through the ringer ad nauseum. So don’t bother with yet another Abortion thread. If you’ve heard it all before, don’t say it all again.
  4. Avoid Google scholars: One of the costs of the internet is that anyone, no matter how unqualified, can assume a veneer of expertise. Anyone can pad their postings with citations they’re told support their point, or have quotations lined up from a select body of experts. There’s little point discussing something with someone who is just channeling others. Why not just read what these others have to say, and run no risk of them being distorted? The simple tests are to see if your counterpart a) has a grasp of the basic concepts of the field, and b) can comment intelligently on the works they’ve cited or people they’re quoting. If not, run.
  5. Avoid shallow scholarship: Don’t be a google scholar yourself, either. If you catch yourself bombing through wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy solely for the sake of replying to someone on the internet, don’t. Your time is better spent getting to grips with the issue properly instead of parroting out some one-sided precis of an hour of google (or dropping it and going outside). Two simple rules: never cite what you haven’t read, and never state what you can’t explain. These cut out the vast bulk of pseudo-understanding.
  6. Avoid writing posts only comprehensible to your opponent: A good rule of thumb is “would a third party to the dispute be interested in what I have to say?” By and large, discussions that develop into excessive block-quoting and ‘fisking’ cease to have value: it’s usually a tedious point-scoring exercise. Even if the only suitable response is “all your facts are wrong”, this should be expressed in a better manner than “(quote a) – that’s rubbish because x, (quote b) – that’s rubbish because y”, and so on. If you can’t compose your response into structured argument, it’s unfit for publication.
  7. Be willing to walk away: The winner isn’t necessarily the person who gets the last word. Don’t keep responding for the sake trying to get the other person to back down first. If you don’t think you have anything interesting to add, say nothing.

What do all of these rules have in common? There are two good reasons to argue: to learn something new or to persuade someone to join your side. A very bad reason to argue is just for the sake feeling you’ve ‘beaten’ someone. Breaking the rules above are warning signs that the argument you were having has ceased to inform anyone reading, nor does it have any prospect of persuading someone to change their mind. Rather, it’s become a pointless masturbatory display.

Yet there are lots of people on the internet you might think are idiots. You might want to ‘call them out’ on the particular corpus of stupid beliefs they hold. Fine, but you don’t do that by arguing with them.

You do it by ridiculing them.

Who to avoid on the internet (to be updated)

9-11 truthers are one group it’s better off not talking to. Here are some other groups worth avoiding, from personal experience.

Religion:

  • Presuppositionalists: I’ve never yet been able to understand what presuppositional apologetics is meant to mean. I’m fairly sure that, in fact, presuppositionalists themselves don’t know what it is meant to mean: a bit like the old western movies where blacked up white actors said ‘wugga wugga’ and nodded to each other, pre-sups also communicate without any consensus as to what their words are supposed to mean. They tend to be ignored in the wider philosophical community. For heaven’s sake, follow suit.
  • Nu-Atheists: Tend to be poorly-read and obnoxious.

Politics:

  • Objectivists: Almost always poorly-read and obnoxious.
  • Conspiracy theorists: Why bother arguing something you know to be true with someone you know won’t accept it?

Science:

  • I.D., Climate change denial, AIDS denialism, etc.: All of these views are vastly over-represented on the internet compared to their clout in the real scientific community. This is mostly thanks to being co-opted by religious and political concerns with well-funded lobby groups. Their popular advocates tend to be exceptionally hazy on the science concerned, but much more eloquent about how their scientific detractors have misunderstood them, how there’s a big conspiracy against them, etc. They’ve got the websites to prove it. Beyond anthropological interest, avoid: if you must, go straight to the literature involved.

Hopefully, armed with this, you can save yourself many, many unproductive hours.

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