An unstoppable tide of trolls

If you’re even occasionally dipping in to the skeptic/atheist/whatever blogosphere, you’d no doubt know that there’s plenty of lines in the sand being drawn. Much of it is rather embarrassing, in that some folk seem so desperate to cast their vote in favour of one camp or another that any pretence of looking at evidence, and making careful judgement, is completely out of the question. Because this round of infighting dates back to Elevatorgate (arguably before, in that elements of previous internal conflicts have also resurfaced), I’m not going to even try to get you up to speed if you haven’t been keeping up.

Here are some examples, though. After the Lehrer resignation, Sam Harris decided to give away free copies of Lying, seeing as that book expressed much of what he’d have otherwise liked to say. PZ Myers announced this on his blog. If you look at the comments on PZ’s blog, it’s only from comment 31 onwards that anyone tries to avoid caricature of Harris’s arguments (on issues unrelated to Lying, note – the fact that he said or didn’t say various things about torture and profiling are treated as relevant to lying).

Russell Blackford then tries to express a few thoughts in defence of Harris, which make it back to PZ’s post in the comments. The comment deals with appropriate and inappropriate uses of the word “racist”, and – whether wrong or right – is expressed in a measured tone. But the immediate response to the comment is: “Incidentally, citing the misogynist shitbag Russell Blackford isn’t going to impress many people here.” There’s a history there too, of course, which you can find out about if you choose to. The only reason I mention it here is to draw attention to the fact that commenter A, who linked to Russell’s post, might have had no idea what commenter B was referring to. Commenter A can’t be assumed to be a veteran of these “debates”, and was perhaps referring to Russell’s post in isolation.

But now, of course, commenter A might never read or comment on Pharyngula (PZ site’s) again. Or, s/he might forever be known as being part of camp X or faction Y. Perhaps, s/he is now a “rape apologist”, and will get shouted down the next time they try to say anything (if they ever do) on any site that is on PZ’s side of these squabbles. In other words, commenter A has perhaps been exiled from a certain community, on the basis of no good reason at all.

I’ll be saying more about tone and the slur of “tone-trolling” in a guest post at Martin’s place (on August 13), so won’t get into that much today either. Suffice it to say that when abuse and insult take the place of debate, nobody wins. I’ve dared to comment on Pharyngula three times, and twice been shouted down for reasons I couldn’t fully comprehend. That’s fine – perhaps I was being dim on those days. But sometimes you’d like to know why, and the problem is that a mob quickly forms, and it seems pointless to try and engage unless you’re already an insider. Clubs, cliques or orthodoxy are inimical to skepticism, and there’s certainly the feel of one there, and on other sites.

Sam Harris pointed this out last night, and PZ has subsequently responded. The comments are again what you’d expect, or have come to expect – you either mock Sam Harris, or you ask a question that’s critical of Harris-mockery. And then you get mocked. Those are by and large the only two options, and as far as I can tell, there’s little room for debate. If you instead want to read a comment thread that encourages debate, go back to the Blackford post in defence of Harris – there’s plenty of deliberate reasoning there, and also telling of people that they aren’t contributing usefully when they resort to insult. Now, both Blackford and Stangroom are philosophers, as am I, so of course I could be expected to have a bias in favour of a certain kind of discussion. The thing is, I’d think – and hope – that all of us in the skeptical community have a bias in favour of communication, and against caricature.

There was a post on Pharyngula a couple of days ago, billed as an open thread wherein people could speak openly to PZ, and make suggestions as to possible changes to the site, comment policies, and so forth. The thread was always going to be deleted after 24 hours (I think it was 24 hours). There were many thoughtful posts there, and one that I wanted to capture  for posterity is at the bottom of this post. You can guess for yourselves what happened to this commenter for daring to question the right of the horde to be abusive. And the thing is – why would the horde not feel they have the right (obligation?) to be abusive when a) PZ very seldom tells them to stop and b) sometimes creates threads where that sort of thing is encouraged.

My column in Daily Maverick today addresses some of these issues, in that it raises the question of how we can adapt to a word in which the immediacy of online communication amplifies the inanity, and makes it that much easier for a like-minded collective to protect their prejudices against any form of challenge. Besides the (very real) issues that have been rending the community (mostly around misogyny), it remains true that there are many thoughtful people on both “sides”, and there is still value in listening to each other. Instead, I suspect that more and more, people will feel compelled to pick sides, and also to stop listening – perhaps in part through measures like eliminating comments altogether.

I’m not ready to do that yet myself, though certainly understand the impulse. Instead, I mostly choose to not respond. But there’s very little reward in that option, both in that I still feel the frustration when an idiotic comment lands, and also because the dialogue can sometimes be very rewarding. Our online engagements with each other are unfortunately tending, at least as far as I can tell, to a victory for those who drown the others out by shouting. They get to stay prejudiced, self-righteous and so forth. And sometimes, perhaps, so do we.

Edit: I wrote a guest post for Martin Pribble’s site, dealing with related themes – read it here if interested.

Daily Maverick Politics Religion

Thinking fast and slow

As submitted to Daily Maverick

Two quite peculiar experiences stand out after returning from the Global Atheist Convention, held in Melbourne earlier this month. The first was at the instigation of Sam Harris, who guided the roughly 4000 atheists present in a session of mindfulness meditation. The second was watching our news cycle (or rather, social media commentary on it) from afar and at 8 hours remove.

The latter experience had the effect of highlighting the perception that little seems to change – that the same people kept saying the same things and the same entrenched positions kept leading to the same misinterpretations and squabbles. But in light of the quite alien – and for some, alienating – exercise in mindfulness, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we can do better and if so, how we’d go about it.

Harris’s talk was about death. The inevitability of death, and the absence of some sort of way of cheating it via an immortal soul, was used as a vehicle to ask us to reflect on wasted time and effort. We sometimes appear to live as if we might be immortal, deferring important decisions to quit smoking or patch up some relationship.

More crucially, some of us could be accused of not realising the full implications of our mortality – if this is the only life we have, it falls to us to improve our world, and we’ve neither unlimited time nor supernatural help to do so. An obvious, yet powerful, comment made by Harris was that it’s quite likely that many of us will spend our last months or years in regret for what we failed to achieve – but that being able to anticipate this regret seems to have little motivational force in the present.

The disjunction between thoughts of mortality and the significance of life, versus noticing that South Africans were again, and still, talking about whether Cape Town was racist or whether respect for cultural norms precluded criticism of polygamy was quite stark. I’m not suggesting that these conversations are unimportant. I’m rather observing that in having these conversations nobody ever seems to change their minds, or admit that they don’t have a well-justified position. And the debates never seem to take place with a greater degree of mutual understanding than in their previous iterations.

Part of the problem might be that we forget how young we are, and therefore how little experience we have of making sense of each other. While modern humans originated around 200 000 years ago, most of us still lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers until around 10 000 years ago, when agriculture started allowing for the formation of permanent settlements, trade, cooperation and the formation of complex societies.

If you start the clock those 200 000 years ago, we’ve only lived in societies for 5% of our existence, and in complex societies for less than 2%. The skills most useful for flourishing during the other 95% of our history aren’t equally useful today, yet they continue to determine many of our responses to modern challenges. Essentially, we’re pattern-making creatures, who survived through being able to do things like predict the movements of animals and the changes of seasons. We look for structure, and we’re so well-trained and efficient at this that it happens without thinking – and perhaps often in ways that are entirely inappropriate to a more complex modern world.

Daniel Kahneman’s recent book Thinking fast and slow details many of the ways in which our cognitive habits let us down through placing undue weight on surface over substance. He refers to System 1 and System 2 thinking to explain this, where System 1 sees patterns, and generates an “obvious” (and time-saving) answer.

But this answer is often wrong, because it’s mostly designed by humans who lived during that other 95% of our existence, and not by us. We need to remind ourselves to think more slowly and to be suspicious of the first, intuitive response. System 2 isn’t as easily fooled by misleading patterns because it’s a more careful judge of available evidence rather than impressions, and we can force it into action simply by being a little more patient and a little more cautious.

Besides reminding ourselves to think a little slower, I’d also suggest that there’s room for improvement in the way we talk. Tallyrand said that “language was invented so that people could conceal their thoughts from each other”, and while that might often be true, it also seems true that our language often serves to preclude rather than encourage debate, whether through the use of lazy, stereotypical categories or through moralistic outrage.

If we want to get better at understanding ourselves and cooperating to improve our world, we need to realise that we constantly make mistakes. Not only mistakes related to particular choices, but mistakes that involve how we choose, because they’re a feature of how we think. And we perhaps give too little thought to training the mind versus simply acquiring information.

This was the point of the meditation exercise described above. As Harris pointed out, while most accounts of practices such as these are contaminated by metaphysics, that shouldn’t prevent us from recognising that it’s possible for us to weigh evidence less subjectively and to do a better job of distinguishing between the significant battles and the petty squabbles.

A joke sometimes told about philosophers is that we’re inclined to say things like “we know it’s possible in practice, but is it possible in principle?” While watching the Groundhog Day-debates take place from my hotel room in Melbourne, I couldn’t shake the feeling that sometimes our principles seem immune to revision, regardless of the evidence. And that maybe, we should start by throwing them away – or at least by remembering that they are products of brains that were evolved to cope with a different world to the one we actually live in.

Daily Maverick Morality Politics Religion

Sam Harris, ‘new atheism’ and alleged Islamophobia

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

André Gide remarked that “everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again”. So it is with the recent article by Mandy de Waal, who took Sam Harris (and the ‘new atheists’ in general) to task for ‘hate speech’, ‘bigotry’ and encouraging so-called Islamophobia. It’s difficult to know just where to begin in responding, as I find the content of de Waal’s piece disagreeable in almost every aspect.

Morality Politics Religion

Breivik, terror and Islamophobia

Of course it is unfortunate, and prejudiced, for many commentators to have assumed that Breivik was a Muslim – and for those who assumed this, the bias is clear in how they concocted quite torturous narratives to explain why a Muslim would target kids at a Labour Party camp. It made little sense that he would (from those motives), yet the perceived equivalence between terrorism and Islam were too strong for some to resist.

And now that we know he was not a Muslim, but that he was instead perhaps a Christian, probably a Mason, and certainly an ethnic nationalist, much outrage has resulted from the selective use of words like “terrorist”, or “fundamentalist” – once he was revealed to not be Muslim, some columns and Tweets stopped referring to Breivik as a terrorist. This again exposes a bias, whereby something that is the subject of extreme fear and emotive reaction is illegitimately associated with a particular religion.

But this is the problem with stereotypes – they are blunt instruments, which even when grounded in something true, can be so broad as to capture many cases that are not true. And this one is founded in something true, despite how impolitic it might be to say so. The fact that Breivik might be a “Christian fundamentalist” cannot obscure the fact that much of what we describe as “terror” in the recent past has come from those that we caricature as “Islamic fundamentalists”.

The fact that some Muslims will say that Muslim terrorists are “not real Muslims”, and that Christians will say that Breivik is not a “real Christian” is irrelevant. People who commit acts of terror get their mandate from something or other – and if a belief system can be interpreted to provide that mandate, this is a reality (and a problem) that that religion has to deal with. And as Sam Harris pointed out, it is an unfortunate fact that as far as religious belief systems go, Islam is correlated with a disproportionately large amount of oppression and intolerance of competing world-views, including secular world views such as those that promote gender equality.

The violence in Oslo is no excuse for Islamophobia. But we don’t need (another) one – as with all religions, Islam teaches you that propositions with no (or poor) evidence can be regarded as fact. Religions allow you to engage in metaphysical Ponzi schemes, whereby debts can be paid later down the line – rather than you being accountable right now, for what you do in this life. Again, it doesn’t matter that this might be a poor reading of whatever scripture, from whatever tradition, you want to thrust in my face – these traditions are open to such interpretations in ways that others are not, and they have to take responsibility for that.

Breivik’s problem – or our problem, that is presented by people like Breivik – is that he is perhaps insane, and that he believes nonsense so strongly that he is prepared to kill for it. Any of us – and any religions – that encourage belief in nonsense is at least partly culpable. If a particular religion has a larger component of such nonsense than another – such as routinely allowing rights violations and perpetuating gender inequality – it is proportionally more culpable.

This remains true, no matter how many Muslims, or Christians, are appalled by the actions taken in the name of their chosen fictions.