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May 16 2013

The Appeal to the Naive Observer

I get rather a remarkable number of comments like this one about a letter I sent to CFI regarding Justin Vacula’s attendance at the Women in Secularism conference this weekend.

Attempting to have him excluded from the event –which is clearly the subtext of the letter you quote here, if it wasn’t why give them a “situation” to “resolve” – will force people like me, who are new to this whole kerfluffle, to believe that you really don’t have ideas worth defending.

Now, setting aside the fact that I, at least, am aware of several ways that conference organizers can limit the disruptiveness of an attendee short of barring them from the conference, and setting aside that I thanked CFI for taking one of those options, there’s a failure of critical thinking in this comment and comments like these that boggles my mind.


Namely, I don’t understand why anyone would consider it compelling to tell me that someone who knows nothing about a situation, particularly a situation about which I’m privy to years’ worth of details, disagrees with me. What about this is supposed to convince me of anything?

Appeals to authority are at least based on a useful heuristic. Such appeals certainly don’t prove anything, but they make use of the fact that an authority has demonstrated competence in at least one field. A random commenter on my blog hasn’t done that much.

If the authority being name-checked is accomplished in the same field as or a related field to the one in which the dispute is taking place, that authority is more useful, though still not necessarily correct, by virtue of being familiar with the information on the topic and the arguments about what that information implies. The appeal to the naive observer explicitly rules out any such usefulness on the part of the person making the argument.

The appeal to the naive observer isn’t even as useful as a bandwagon appeal for suggesting where the truth may lie. A crowd of random people generally has at least some reason for believing the same thing. That reason could be a bad one, based in bias or due to the fact that the reality of a situation is not easily observed, but it isn’t necessarily.

Most people believed in the persistence of gravity well before anyone understood (more or less) what gravity was. That particular shared belief was based in common, correct observation. The bandwagon appeal is used because that kind of collective observation is often useful, even if it can’t always be relied on.

The appeal to the naive observer, however, rules out this kind of usefulness as well. It says, “Hey, I’ve got this tiny, extremely limited dataset. Defer to me!” It’s…not persuasive.

Then again, maybe the appeal to the naive observer is meant to be a marker of impartiality. “Hey, if I haven’t been paying attention to this, I can’t have a horse in this race. Heed my unbiased opinion.” There’s a little problem with this, though. If you haven’t paid any attention, you don’t have the facts at hand. If you don’t have the facts at hand, the only basis for an opinion is existing bias.

It’s possible, though, that the appeal to the naive observer isn’t intended to be an argument about whether the person appealing is correct. It’s possible that the person making that appeal doesn’t care about whether they’re correct. Maybe the appeal to the naive observer is an attempt at social engineering. Maybe it’s saying, “Give up on trying to persuade anyone of XYZ. You can’t, because you failed on me.”

This won’t surprise my regular readers, but I don’t find this argument persuasive either. It relies on one of two ideas. In order for my attempts to persuade people to constitute a failure because they failed to persuade one person, either I would have to count only a 100% persuasion rate as success, or I would have to consider this person to be a perfect representative of all the people out there whom I could persuade.

Needless to say, 100% is an unattainable rate. It’s not what I’m aiming for, because it’s not something anyone could reach. So I’ll be charitable and assume no one making an appeal to the naive observer would be suggesting such a thing.

That leaves us with the other option, the naive observer as representative of all the people I could persuade. This would mean that said naive observer thinks everyone makes up their mind on a topic without taking more than the most superficial glance at one tiny piece of the evidence.

To this I say, “Oh, no, no, no, naive observer. There are many people out there doing this decision-making thing far better and far more humbly than you are. Those are the people I expect I can reach. You have plenty of room to improve before you can count yourself among their number.”

Then I get back to work, laughing, because who comes along to tell me I should listen to them because they know nothing? I mean, really?

22 comments

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  1. 1
    Argle Bargle

    I don’t know anything about massive numbers of topics. However I can answer any question you have on any subject you can imagine, as long as you’ll accept “I don’t know” as an answer. So hit me with your best shot:

    How young can you be to die of old age? I don’t know.

    Is there another word for synonym? I don’t know.

    If someone gives you a penny for your thoughts, and you put your two cents in, where does the other penny go? I don’t know.

    Addendum to above – Do you get change? I don’t know.

    See, no question is too imponderable for me not to answer.

  2. 2
    Kevin

    I think it’s way simpler than that…

    This person is saying “I don’t know anything about the situation, therefore you’re wrong”.

    Strikes me as being spectacularly disingenuous. I don’t give a rat’s ass about this person’s history, status, or underlying motivations, but I think if you put some analysis behind it, you’d likely find someone who is declaring themselves to be a naive observer who is actually nothing of the sort.

    In short, a Lair for Slyme.

    Heck, works great with Liars for Jesus.

    That would be my working hypothesis in any event. And would be happy to be disproven, if I could care enough to muster even the slightest concern over what this person thinks.

  3. 3
    k_machine

    Attempting to have him excluded from the event –which is clearly the subtext of the letter you quote here, if it wasn’t why give them a “situation” to “resolve” – will force people like me, who are new to this whole kerfluffle, to believe that you really don’t have ideas worth defending.

    The old Holocaust denier chestnut “Truth doesn’t fear investigation” restated

  4. 4
    Ace of Sevens

    Isn’t the whole idea of the skeptical movement that you aren’t supposed to leap to conclusions based or scant to non-existant evidence and vague impressions? Someone who says “I don’t knwo anythign abotu the history of this issue, but here’s my conclusion based on the tone of one blog post I skimmed” can just GTFO.

  5. 5
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    I’m with Kevin on this one. I’m not convinced that these observers don’t have relevant background, I think they’re just saying that to try to make their BS slightly less obviously offensive. I’ve seen too many of these “new to the situation” get 3-4 comments further in, and revert to one of the standard scripts like “you call it harassment when people disagree with you” and “you hate free speech.”

  6. 6
    Deen

    Attempting to have him excluded from the event –which is clearly the subtext of the letter you quote here, if it wasn’t why give them a “situation” to “resolve” – will force people like me, who are new to this whole kerfluffle, to believe that you really don’t have ideas worth defending.

    Doesn’t sound like a “naive observer” to me. Sounds like this observer already had his mind made up when he read that letter.

    If you don’t have the facts at hand, the only basis for an opinion is existing bias.

    Actually, I think that’s kind of the point. I think the idea is that they’re telling you to should stop saying or doing the things you do, because they know (or think they know) that most people will be biased against you (the same way they are). That you will not be getting the benefit of the doubt.

    The thing is, as atheists, you’d think they would understand that pointing out that popular bias is against you isn’t going to intimidate another atheist out of their activism.

  7. 7
    Martha

    To this I say, “Oh, no, no, no, naive observer. There are many people out there doing this decision-making thing far better and far more humbly than you are. Those are the people I expect I can reach. You have plenty of room to improve before you can count yourself among their number.”

    This made me laugh aloud. If only those to whom it is addressed could appreciate such incisive wit…

  8. 8
    chaos-engineer

    This is just garden-variety concern trolling, isn’t it? The giveaway is, “…will force people like me…” – in other words, “I agree with you, so there’s no point in arguing with me. But Nameless Others will disagree, and you can’t argue with them because you don’t know who they are, if in fact they exist at all. The only rational solution is for you to do what the Nameless Others want, which I’ll be happy to communicate to you.”

    Anyway, People Like Me are forced to be confused about why Vacula has such a burning desire to go to the conference. I mean, it’s not like he’s going to make new friends or learn anything, and if he wants to lie about the conference on Twitter, he can do that just as well from the comfort of his own home.

  9. 9
    John Moeller

    I…ugh. How stupid. Let me counter with an appeal to the busy observer:

    Attempting to exclude Stephanie from the discussion — which is clearly the intent of your statement here, if it wasn’t why state that you’re “forced” to “dismiss” her — will force people like me, who have been too damn busy over the last month to follow this discussion closely, to be distracted by irrelevant viewpoints.

    See? I can do it too.

  10. 10
    Jackie

    Did the naive observer look anything like this?

    http://gifatron.com/2013/04/jon-snow-is-confused/

    Because I understand he doesn’t know anything either.

  11. 11
    melaniemallon

    Saving this to link to repeatedly in comments. Well put.

    I was also going to make a comment similar to Kevin’s and Improbable Joe’s. We just had someone say almost those exact words about disagreement/harassment on Rebecca’s Dialogue Fetish post. He ended with a claim to know nothing about the situation while leaving a bunch of links that showed he was lying. This tactic is often accompanied with passive aggressiveness, that whole “I’m going to imply shit and goad you while batting my eyelashes innocently so that I can shame you when you get pissed off” bullshit.

  12. 12
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Hey, I haven’t paid any attention to astronomy for the last 600 years and the sun is clearly moving around the earth. Your demand that flat-earthers are not to be given time at a scientific conference proves they’re right. If you had an argument you wouldn’t fear engaging them.

  13. 13
    Jadehawk

    pretty sure the argument is much simpler than that: you rocked the boat, therefore fuck you.

  14. 14
    Stephanie Zvan

    Oh, I completely get that not everyone who says something like this is in any way sincere. It still blows me away that they’d shape their objections in this particular bizarre way.

  15. 15
    doubtthat

    Well, it is how we pick jurors in high-profile cases:

    “Ok, have any of you watched the news in the past 18 months? Shit, that only leaves us with 8…”

  16. 16
    Kevin

    @15: Yes, but then before the jury is allowed to express an opinion, they have to be presented with the evidence.

    This person would be disqualified as a juror, not because he’s ignorant (or claims to be), but because he’s already made his mind in the absence of the evidence. The potential juror who says, “Well, he must be guilty of something, otherwise why is he on trial” gets the quickest boot.

    As my mom used to sarcastically say, “My mind is already made up — don’t confuse me with the facts.”

  17. 17
    doubtthat

    Well, it was a joke, but ol’ Gus seems to want to play the role of juror, here — I don’t know spit ’bout nuttin’, let me choose.

    I’m sure there are some number of high-functioning naifs, people with great working brains just lacking input, but the correlation ‘tween dumb and ig-nant is a little too strong to ignore.

    And also, as everyone else has said, the idea that his first experience with these issues was that post…

    The more apt – and less glib – comparison would be jury nullifiers in the South: the decision is already made (let the white guy go free), but effort at appearing neutral and objective is made.

  18. 18
    melaniemallon

    Stephanie, I was thinking more along the lines of the feigned ignorance being a common use of this appeal, an expansion on what you’re describing more than a “yabbut.” It doesn’t make sense to use this appeal either way, regardless of whether it’s sincere, but those who aren’t sincere bring an added element of malicious intent. They are being deliberately manipulative, and the feigned ignorance so often goes hand-in-hand with the feigned innocence when you try to call them out on the manipulation. That’s one of the reasons I like this post so much. Your description works regardless of whether the person is sincere or not without even having to go through the song and dance of calling them out on their insincerity.

  19. 19
    Stephanie Zvan

    Yeah, that’s why I like it too, Mel. :)

  20. 20
    athyco

    Then again, maybe the appeal to the naive observer is meant to be a marker of impartiality. “Hey, if I haven’t been paying attention to this, I can’t have a horse in this race. Heed my unbiased opinion.”

    That’s a 180 on the protest sign “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” With the number of folk who come by different FTB sites to chide while not posting an equivalent version on an opposing venues, it’s a path of least resistance in support of the status quo.

    When it’s disingenuous through having the status quo support in mind from the beginning, then yes, it’s as blatant as Jadehawk’s “You rocked the boat; fuck you.” For many others, I think they’re not recognizing that message because they’ve drowned it out with a whine of “Aw, do I hafta? I’ve got everyday, regular atheist things to attend to and don’t have time for this. It must be nonsense or something wrongly argued.” You get the ones who can’t go as far as “nonsense.”

  21. 21
    surreptitious57

    Why does Stephanie think that the referencing of an individual opinion with out any reason
    to justify its claims is some thing that surprising // For human beings have opinions on all
    manner of things they know next to nothing about // I would be be very surprised if she her
    self did not do the same from time to time for no one has a monopoly on wisdom // Do not
    in this digital age that we live in then be that taken aback when you see evidence of this all
    over the place // It must have been a slow news day when she wrote that // I shall however
    agree with the implicit suggestion that having an informed rather than uninformed opinion
    is the more preferable of the two // But having said that I do wonder if she would be equally
    critical of an uninformed opinion that she agreed with // I may be wrong but suggest not for
    we tend to let those ones go though we really should not // They need to be challenged too

  22. 22
    melaniemallon

    @surreptitious57

    You missed the point. She’s not talking about simply having and expressing an uninformed opinion. She’s talking about people who use the fact that they are uninformed as an argument for why you should listen to them.

  1. 23
    Privilege, Dialogue, Harassment, and the Anti-Availability Heuristic » Lousy Canuck

    [...] to engage with the ideas presented. These people who cry “a pox on both your houses” are the outsiders with little insight into a nuanced and multifaceted situation, whose availability heuristic does not provide any actual filter, and they consider the claims on [...]

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