Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Keep Calm... and admit you don't know the answer

The internet is a wonderful thing. I think that the sum total of the good and bad that the internet has done will be positive in the long run. It is a privilege to live in a time where technology has enabled so much freedom to share useful information, from academic institutions down to individuals who love their chosen subjects enough to have studied them in great depth and who can share their findings with others. I hope that as more and more of the world is connected to the internet, the good will continue to grow.


I'm afraid there is a big but. It could even be spelt with two t's, since it generally leaves me feeling like I've been exposed to the excreta of the human hivemind.

First of all there's the crime. I'm not an expert on this so I'll gloss over it and allow people involved in police work to give far better accounts. I've been told that there are not enough police in the UK to handle the levels of crime, of all different kinds, that are being conducted online. If this is true, then the internet is in need of taming, a bit like the Wild West, before we can fully enjoy the benefits that it can bring. How? I don't know!

Then there's the bullying. People used to just get bullied at school or at work. Now it follows them home and hounds them across the internet. Children are being driven to suicide by this. Curiously, online bullies are spread across all age groups, not just kids, so there's no easy cultural or social ill for the media to blame (video games, working parents, teachers etc etc). A particularly good blog post, which then went viral and triggered a lovely, positive response from the hivemind, can be found here: http://www.amandapalmer.net/blog/20130105/

And this leads me to the behaviour that prompted this post. I've been an active netizen since 2002. I've revelled in debates, commented on news items and generally enjoyed explanding my mind and hearing others' opinions for all of that time. Very early on, I was introduced to the rules of debate (http://www.fallacyfiles.org/taxonomy.html) and taught not to devolve into insulting people just because their opinion differed to mine. The forum that I frequented at the time was relatively civilized for a year or two, because the moderators enforced the rules of debate with great energy. Sadly that forum eventually collapsed and I haven't found another one where you could have a sensible debate for 10 years.

At the same time, more and more people have joined online debates, on every newspaper website, blog or forum and I've noticed some disturbing trends. Let's take a look at some innocuous stories first. A professor who is studying the internet to try to work out what makes some stories go viral is approached by his kids and asked for a puppy. He thinks, based on his experience, that he can slow them down by saying "if you get 1 million likes on Facebook, you can have a puppy". His estimate that that would buy him some time so he could get a puppy in Spring instead of now backfired and they got 1 million likes in 7 hours. An amusing little tale, which should have been enjoyable, cute etc. What kind of comments does this kind of article attract online?

"The kids were cute, and good for them for showing they could do it. But....
Where the kids REALLY schooled their dad here was in showing him not to make ridiculous goals for his children. He didn't want them to get a puppy until the Spring. OK. Why didn't he just tell them the TRUTH? Can he not make a rule in his own house and make sure that his kids stick to it? Why do parents have to manipulate their kids with these asinine tasks?"


"The article doesnt touch on how so many people are just plain rude and like to annoy others specially on the internet. Makes you wonder how many people helped the children get the puppy just to make the dad miserable... Probably all of them"

So, we have an attack from a stranger on the professor's parenting skills and someone tarring everyone with the same misanthropic brush that they seem to have doused themselves in. Let's see what else this article can invite:

"Something for the professor to think about, certainly. It would not have gone viral if the kids were black, brown, muslim, aboriginal etc. This, I think is even more interesting than the original story."

"Or it would be, if it was more than a simple assertion. Also, Islam is a religion, not a race."

"Wow. You came "hard" on me. True, Islam is a religion but is actually currently being treated like a race in 17th century west much like the religion of Judaism was treated by Nazis. Do not try to play smarter than you are. But since my comment had only educational purposes, I leave you with some educational material so that you could actually learn something from this small time conversation: http://www.guardian.co.uk/comm...
Or maybe this: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/new...
Or maybe the question here, paraphrasing MalcolmX should be, are you a field negro or a house negro: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v..."

"- The word you're thinking of is 'Arab,' unless you think that Muslims in Egypt and Indonesia will somehow both look the same.
- Don't quote Malcom X to me in such close proximity to Dr. King's birthday. Have a little respect."

For heaven's sake! It's a little story about some kids who want a puppy! Did it have to become a slanging match? And this is a mild example. Let's see what happens if you introduce the hot topic of guns anywhere where a citizen of the United States might see it (which is anywhere on the internet that is written in English).

An epidemiologist noticed that there is a similarity between how violent behaviour spreads and how infectious diseases spread. This is a bona fide scientist and the story has been picked up by a magazine that takes the unusual step of listing references to academic papers in the back, so you can feel fairly secure that this isn't the run-of-the-mill weak causal link stuff that the media often gets fooled into running.

Here's the article: WIRED Magazine: Is it time to treat violence like a contagious disease?

And here's the kind of comments it attracted:

A: "YES!! It's time to treat those who repeatedly commit violent acts against innocent victims as the dangerous diseased element they are, and have always been. Our society is becoming smaller, more interconnected, there just isn't room anymore for these kind of individuals to be "acting out" and running wild. There is a lot of interesting work being done on the relationship between those who chronically commit violent acts and their genetic makeup; lets pursue ALL angles, keep the politicians and "activists" OUT of it, and let pure science come to whatever conclusions research supports. Then for the really hard part, we need legislators and courts with enough wisdom and integrity to create and enforce the necessary laws, ignoring what's POPular, or politically motivated.
This last pres election just demonstrated the results of an electorate more interested in looking "hip," than in making tough but wise decisions. These kind of people are perfect "fodder" for being manipulated by a highly politicized and immoral media. Now we all PAY with "MY way or the highway" Obama, b/c making statements like "the Republicans have two choices" are NOT the words of a presidential negotiator, but rather the words of someone who fancies himself...King or Dicatator."

B: "You are clearly misunderstanding the article... it doesn't say that individual people are a "disease", but rather that the acceptance of violence as a viable alternative has epidemic-like transmission properties.
Of course, this is really just the science of memes applied to a particular meme so I don't see it as particularly insightful nor helpful."

A: ""it doesn't say that individual people are a "disease"," I think you took just a tad bit of liberty in making inferences from my note. Never said "people are a disease." That's like saying someone who has the flu....is the flu!"

C: "You actually started to make sense until you trampled your best point,"politicians and "activists" OUT of it"...You ,like the rest of us have been reading about what the republicans have been saying,,its pitiful,really,,do you not get that....I know ,if only the rest of us were as wise as you.....At least edit your post BEFORE you hit enter....have a great day pal"

A: "edit my post, "Pal?" clearly in addition to being irrational enough to STILL elect a man that increased our debt by about four TRILLION dollars his last term, you are also one of those tards that fail to understand that media such BBs are designed for quick banter, not lengthy tomes that are perfectly edited by anal retentive loser aholes such as yourself (-; "as wise as me?" well, yeah, compared to Obama for King voters such as yourself, I suppose I am a font of wisdom lol!"

D: "Well gee, how are we going to get legislators and courts that aren't swayed by public opinion? Who is going to appoint these courts? And what powers will they have that allow for the kind of measures you're talking about?
Seems kinda sketchy. I feel like we, as a species, have been down this road before..."

A: "OH I don't know, but we could start by electing people that do silly things like...stick to their word."

E: "I'll just ignore the fact that the Republicans are the ones making a fool of themselves and go to the statement:
"and their genetic makeup; let's pursue ALL angles"
That sounds awfully like a eugenics statement there. For someone who obviously doesn't like Obama you sound like you are trying to make the case for huge government intrusion into personal space."

A: ""the Republicans have two choices" (Obama) What part of that don't you understand? These are NOT the words of a negotiator! Eugenics, do you even know what it means? Clearly not, b/c if you did you wouldn't have made the stupid inference you just did. Genetic research IS NOT Eugenics, eugenics was an attempt to use genetics as social policy, "social policy" is fluid and changes with the times, thus eugenics ultimately is neutral in meaning. However, you libtards just luv labeling things dont' you? Makes it all the easier to confuse and politically manipulate the uneducated and dependent masses you all so luv. Go back in time "timetravelor" waaay back."

E: "The republicans are the ones who say it's their way or no way. They have said multiple times that they will block EVERY SINGLE THING THAT HE DOES NO MATTER WHAT. Obama has no choice since there is no negotiating with those idiots.
As for the eugenics, your comment made it sound like you are attempting to genetically test for "violence", in which case yes that is a social policy as a result from a genetic science. Say we find a genetic marker that is related to the predisposition of someone to be violent. What then? We test everyone? No thanks man.
The fact that you can't hold a civil conversation, and that you need to assume that I am a "libtard" means that I'm dealing with an irrational tea party idiot, or you're 12."

A: "Obama said it tard, not me, nor the Republicans. Do your research. Re your eugenics comment, I see you finally admit that I was talking about scientific options versus some kind of nazi...whatever, as you sneakily tried to imply (-; And yes, if there were a genetic test for predisposition to extreme violence I would want it given, so that perhaps that individual could be TREATED and lives saved! Now, you change the issue, "What then? We test everyone?" btw yes, "we test everyone" the same as we test for other genetic DISEASES. And if that intrudes into YOUR "personal space" to bad. Holding a "civil conversation" with people who cannot read and understand a simple post, who are too stupid and lazy to carefully parse what someone is saying, yeah, it does kind of piss one off."

E: "And the republicans said it too! Their being little brats that are holding everything up for the sake of spiting Obama. Do YOUR research as well.
I said it in my first comment, but still the fact that you are implying that we need to develop a test to find this kinda stuff. Then extrapolating from that comment I asked a valid question, one that you don't feel like addressing.
I have read and I understand what you are saying, and all I see is some blindly angry anti-liberal fool who doesn't want to even think about the implications of what he's suggesting.
Edit: On second thought, you're obviously trolling so I'm going to stop feeding the troll. Anyone who uses the terms "libtard" or "tard" just can't be taken seriously."

A: "You're man screwed up the economy his first term, and is already destroying major portions of this economy into his second term, his disaster of a "health plan" (which no one read, but I guess that was OK with you!) is BANKRUPTING business by all accounts (which further depresses the job market) Obama, a man that NEVER had a real job in his ENTIRE life! A man that raised the national debt many TRILLIONS higher than it already was, and YOU were stupid enough to vote for him...again! thanks for the blessings... genius. It's said that wisdom is learning to make the unpleasant but wise choices, clearly you and you lib pals never heard that one. No surprise, you sound like your'e likely still in HS or college.
In re genetic testing for extreme violent predisposition, yes, in order to possibly treat such individuals and SAVE the lives of innocent victims, I would support such testing IF it was as accurate and safe as similar genetic tests. Now, if you feel such testing intrudes into your "personal space" too bad. Ever hear the Beatle song lyrics "I, ME, MINE?" well we all have to grow up sometime and learn that there are others in the world to consider besides ourselves and our wants.

...and so on. This is one of hundreds of examples of people choosing to believe daft things like "the recession is our current political leaders' fault", rather than accepting that what we're seeing is the after-effects of the previous batch of global political leaders' decisions - and that even they had minimal real control over any of our economies. As a species, we are known to prefer clear answers, but surely after thousands of years of civilization we should have got the hang of understanding that reality doesn't divide into "right decision", "wrong decision" or even and that pinning blame on a convenient person doesn't achieve anything and is often just plain wrong?

Why are we incapable of weighing facts (including anecdotes about our political leaders, like the never-ending "Obama isn't a US citizen" rubbish), based on the actual data we have, rather than just picking whichever warped interpretation that we prefer to believe? Maybe it's just that back in 2002, the average person who had internet access was better-educated and more careful about diving into debating a subject without doing some research first, but I have definitely noticed a trend towards people not only shamelessly cherry-picking their sources to support increasingly outlandish positions, but actually make personal attacks on the validity of any data that they disagree with. I've seen it with gun control, abortion, climate change and a whole load of other issues that are too important to be allowed to be sink under the weight of this endless, childish, tit-for-tat commentary.

I don't think it's very likely, but I was hoping that making one blog post might at least contribute in some small way, by prompting whoever reads it to stop and think:

1) Am I reacting to someone else's opinions angrily because they are a) wrong b) right but I don't like it? c) an irritating little tit that doesn't deserve my time and energy?
2) Do I really know the subject well enough* to comment, or have I fallen into the trap of believing someone whose opinion I like because it fits with my worldview?" (See many false stories eagerly lapped up by the public whenever the emergency services go on strike, or by Republicans who hate Obama)
3) Am I adopting an absolutist/ extreme position on a subject which doesn't have a tidy answer? Could the ambiguity be making me uncomfortable and therefore making those islands at either end of the spectrum seem much more inviting than the shark-infested waters of uncertainty in between?
4) Should I maybe take it easy and walk away from this one?

*By "know the subject well enough", I would suggest that someone who has a degree in said subject trumps anyone who has spent less than 3600 hours studying that subject (eg in climate change debates). Anyone who is actually a doctor is better-qualified to make decisions on things like emergency abortions, no matter how emotive the public get about it and no amount of calling people "libtards" will address the US' gun problems.

If everyone could take a deep breath and consider whether the world will really be improved by their muddying the water with yet another comment in a sea of ill-considered comments, we might whittle the internet down to the core data that's worth reading

...In My Humble Opinion...  


  1. Monk. I think that you are approaching this from a rationalist point of view, a reasoned, realistic framework of thought. It is sadly, a rapidly fading perspective. The past 2 or 3 generations having passed through academia, have been immersed in deconstructionist thought, moral relativism being the order of the day. If you can't cross a river by the bridge of logic, well, why not cross it by draining all the water in the river. This, in essence is the methodology of the Post Modernist mind.

    The whole approach to debate and argument in our modern age, is to win, no matter that victory is an empty vessel.

    The concept behind these methods, is to attack the opposition, to throw them off balance by the sheer viciousness of the attack, it doesn't have to have any foundation in facts or reason or logic, in fact the less so the better. Once the attack is initiated, the victim will almost invariably respond in kind, leading to the total derailment of the original discussion....hence, victory in the mind of the antagonist, who is usually nothing more than an empty vessel.

    Now, not everybody is aware of the ground rules of this deceitful game, but they don't have to be, alas, large numbers of people do not think for themselves, they mostly blindly follow on behind.

  2. I guess what I am trying to say is that people are longer taught to debate, just encouraged to win at any cost.

    And sorry, but your post leads to the inevitable conclusion that the net needs some form of control, but the last thing this world needs is some little jumped up jobsworth placed in charge of "correct thinking", I'll endure the rough and tumble, with all its discurtiousies (if that's a word).

    For in a world of degradation and mediocrity, a well reasoned mind stands head and shoulders above the rabble, and will be heard.

  3. I'm flattered to be described as a rationalist! I'm also pleased to be able to say that I am currently studying management (I work full-time and cram studies around work) and that the teaching I've received has contributed to my way of thinking, so there is hope for the generations following behind Monk.