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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Internet Baboons

(Photo credit: patries71 photo stream Flickr)

Several years ago, the Easter Bunny brought my youngest daughter a pet rabbit. She immediately jumped on the Internet to learn about care and feeding. One site told her that rabbits were social animals and that they should be kept warm and dry in the house, preferably in the kitchen where they could participate in more social activity. Another claimed the breed was derived from wild stock that lived in northern climates. They thrived in cold temperatures and should be kept outside all winter. This was her first lesson in finding the wheat for the chaff. Her bunny has happily lived outside  for nine years and counting.

Like baboons, we are social primates and have a strong propensity to grapple for hierarchical position (stature) inside a troop, even if that troop is a virtual one on the Internet. Most Internet debates would be better described as pissing matches between two males. Neither will ever cede the argument but that isn't the point. The point is to convince or educate the audience.

There are five primary layers of credibility in a typical Internet debate:

  1. The guy who never provides links to sources.
  2. The guy who provides links that turn out not to support his argument because he didn't bother to read past the headline he found with a quick Google search.
  3. The guy who provides links to stupid websites like The Institute for Creation Research.
  4. The conspiracy theorist  ...big whatever runs the world.
  5. The guy who makes claims and provides multiple links to peer reviewed science journals and respected sources of journalism.

Speed-read past #1. He is the chaff amongst the wheat. People will say the damnedest things from behind the safety and anonymity of their firewalls. Most if not everything this person says has the potential to be complete bullshit.

You will not know that guy #2 is simply passing along vested interest talking points and Internet urban legends unless you follow at least some of his links back to their sources. Take everything this guy says with a huge grain of salt. He may make a living from one of those vested interests (corn farmers tend to be very pro-corn ethanol). We are all susceptible to a phenomenon known as subconscious rationalization bias.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."--Upton Sinclair

Lies come in many flavors. Self-deception is very real and very common. We are all susceptible to it to varying degrees. Once you believe what you are saying is true, you can't really be called a liar. I suspect that most televangelists fall in this category. That is what the scientific method tries to do--short-circuit the tendency to self-deceive.

It is important to follow links and give them at least a cursory glance because people will sometimes provide links with headlines that appear to support their case just to make themselves look more legitimate, assuming most people don't follow links anyway, which is true. It's amazing how often people will provide links to articles that upon closer inspection actually hurt their argument. Right click on links and open them in new tabs to check later.

Guy #3 is not very bright and deeply ignorant. Steer clear unless you want to be misinformed.

Guy #4 ...conspiracy theorists are all at least a little bit insane.
Guy #5 may be wrong in the end but has the highest probability of being correct. He has done his homework and has actually read and evaluated the sources found at the end of his links. It helps with his credibility score if it turns out he is motivated by something other than his paycheck.

Zeroing in on the highest probability argument isn't very difficult if you follow these rules and assuming you have a choice. Many Internet debates are just a couple of baboons arguing and neither one have a clue. It is uncommon to find truly knowledgeable individuals going at each other. When you find two guys throwing links at one another you have no choice but to follow the links and evaluate them if you want to know which one is the idiot.

I think it was Vladimir Lenin who said, "A lie told often enough becomes truth." As a nation we recently witnessed this phenomenon when the Bush administration managed to convince most Americans that Iraq was involved with the 9/11 terrorist attack. It actually works. Politicians from both sides of the aisle use this technique to great effect.

It can work in a debate as well. Watch for the guy who repeats the same points over and over even after they have been exposed as false.

Calling your opponent a shill for big whatever is not only stupid, it tends to backfire badly when it turns out your opponent is in no way affiliated with big whatever. On the other hand, it can be very effective if you can prove your opponent actually is a shill for big whatever. Ignore all further comments from guys who have made accusations without evidence.

Once a guy slips into the ad hominem attack mode, calling his opponent a liar, a shill, and other assorted names, skip over all comments he makes from that point on. Guys are emboldened to say things on the Internet they would never dream of saying to a dude sitting on the next bar stool.

Be wary of the strawman argument. This is where you insinuate your opponent said something absurd or blatantly false or just plain stupid and and tear him apart for it (even though he never did).

The conspiracy theorist is only too happy to provide lots of links to sources. There are literally dozens of books published every year about things like UFOs so there is no shortage of sources to cite. Now, of course, people do conspire, but these guys take it to another level. The moon landings were faked, as was the Holocaust, the twin towers were bombed by Bush, and on and on. Did you know that prohibition was really a conspiracy to crush ethanol production for cars? Rudolf diesel was found dead floating in the ocean because he wanted to burn peanut oil in his engines instead of diesel. Once recognized, you can safely skip past their posts as well.

The Internet is an unprecedented media for the exchange of information and ideas but you have to learn to find the wheat for the chaff.


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