Friday, August 10, 2007

Eliciting rational thought on the internet

Ok, this is very much a work in progress at the moment, I'd appreciate feedback a lot.

I'd like to take some time today to write about the way I interact on the internet. I'm doing this partly as a way of clarifying to myself the goals that I'm pursuing. Another part is, when people accuse me of being deliberately obtuse, argumentative, or 'debating unfairly', I can point them here, as not a means of excusing myself, but rather a means of explaining the reasons. Finally, I think the world would be a better place if people examined the way they interact with others more often, so I'd like to be less of a hypocrite by spending some time in the pursuit of that goal.

Firstly, let me lay out my goals:


This is always high on the list. Everyone teaches you things.

Teaching others.

Again, I'm not sure this is as noble as all that, given that most people don't like to be taught a lesson even if it's good for them.

Developing communication skills.

This is something that I, as with, I think, most technical people, have problems with.

Getting others to think before they comment.

I'd like to see more people think to themselves 'No, that's silly, I shouldn't say that' or 'Hmm, is that really true?' before they spout off about the topic du jour.

So in pursuit of these, I do a few 'not so nice' things, though I believe, as is the call of petty tyrants throughout the ages, 'the ends justify the means'.

Feigned ignorance.

This is probably my favorite thing to do. Most people, in the course of explaining what 'everybody knows' will end up realizing that they don't have a firm grasp on the topic at hand. I end up doing more research myself this way...

Questioning of basis.

I've been accused of being a dirty debater for asking people a pretty simple question: "Why do you think that? Do you have any evidence or proof?" People come up with the most marvelous sources when you ask them this, especially when they're experts in the field.

Employing logical fallacies.

This is almost a test: Do you recognize when someone is using these? I wrote about one that always bothers me in Sunk Cost: Fallacy and Dilemma, but there are many more. People don't seem to realize that this is one of the key tools of a demagogue. Immunizing people against them should be one of the key tasks of education, but I'm fairly sure my school didn't even mention them once.

Playing Devil's Advocate.

This is the classic trick of the troll. Take a deliberately extreme position, and defend it well. In doing so, you're far more likely to solidify people's current beliefs than change minds. In a lively debate, often both sides come away better educated, perhaps having gained a modicum of respect for their opponents.

(This is one of the key problems with politics now: nobody can put themselves in the other person's shoes, everything is a life or death issue)

Anyway, I've got to sleep now, but there it is: When I talk to people on the internet, it's often with goals in mind.


pi3832 said...

Feigned ignorance.
Questioning of basis.
Employing logical fallacies.
Playing Devil's Advocate.

Please read and comment on my blog, A Screed Apart (

Capt. Jean-Luc Pikachu said...

So when that guy said you were engaging in comment terrorism, he was serious? Get outta town!

Justin George said...

Apparently so. I certainly didn't see that one in particular as terroristically inclined, but he really was typing as hard as he could when he said it.