May 28 2010

Why I don’t argue with YouTube, redux

A few months back I posted a statement of policy about refusing to argue with YouTube videos. It has served me pretty well since then, because now every time we get email saying “Watch this video and tell me what you think!” I link to that post and reply with “Please sum up the points in that video that you found compelling, because I’m not going to watch.” I’ve seen several other members take a similar approach more often as well.

I have to say, however, that over at the Conspiracy Science blog, this post provides a much longer and more thorough explanation of why arguing via YouTube videos is (1) mostly fruitless, and (2) so beloved of people who don’t really have a good argument. Read it! Although it relates to conspiracy theories and not atheism in particular, they face a lot of the same issues. A couple of excerpts to get you over there:

Because there’s no difference in a conspiracy theorist’s eyes between any two sources based upon the nature of those sources, they have no way of telling whether a source is true or false. David McCullough, a respected academic historian with decades of credentials, is no more reliable a source than David Icke, an ex-football player who believes that the world is controlled by reptilian shape-shifting aliens. John Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential economists in recent history, is no more credible than bloviating radio talkshow host Alex Jones on matters of economics. This is why conspiracy theorists generally interpret any questioning of the credibility of their sources as an “ad hominem” attack, because to them credibility is irrelevant. Taken to an extreme, this idea results in the bizarre belief that a YouTube video can be just as true and credible as a peer-reviewed scientific paper published in a nationally-respected journal.

Conspiracy theorists hate experts and intellectuals mainly because they are forced to. Few if any real experts in anything—engineering, economics, metallurgy, political science, or history—agree with conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theorists know that this is a major obstacle in their attempts to gain mainstream acceptance. Honestly, if one structural engineer with questionable credentials says that the World Trade Center towers were dynamited and 99 real structural engineers say that theory is bullshit, which side are most people going to believe? Consequently, conspiracy theorists have to tear down experts. They do this mainly by denigrating the real value or relevance of expert opinion, which usually means casting aspersions on expert status in the first place. This has two effects: first, they think it blunts the attacks of experts on their theories, and second, it elevates non-expert opinion into the same realm as expert knowledge.

Also, in the interest of not having a double standard, I want to say something else.

(Pausing to look sternly at the Atheist Experience audience.)

I hope you guys don’t argue that way.

Something I prefer not to see is using a clip from TAE as an authority. We’re not one. Thus, if you’re in an argument and you say “You’re wrong! Here, watch this video!” … You’re doing it wrong. You know they won’t watch the video, and if they do, they will dismiss it as quickly as possible.

It’s the arguments in the video that are meant to help you, and they don’t carry any additional weight just because some slobs with a few bucks to blow on producer licenses said them in front of an audience. If you thought the arguments were good, do yourself a favor and learn to use them. The effort of typing in your own version of the Euthyphro dilemma or the argument from evil or whatever, will serve you much better in the long run than proving you can paste a URL into a window.


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  1. 1

    This is why I love the Iron Chariots wiki; I can expand my knowledge of a given subject to get a basic understanding of what is meant by a term, which then acts as a starting point for further research (a similar effect to Wikipedia).Worse than video arguments are arguments in the comments sections. Not only is there a character limit, but related posts are not always contiguous which makes reading them very difficult.

  2. 2

    The second excerpt reminds me of the reasoning process of the "somebody's got to stand up to these experts" creationists.A couple of months back at my blog (*coughshamelessplugcough*) I did a little bit mostly to advertise my favorite podcasts/videos called "How to Deconvert with iTunes and YouTube." Put simply, I think there's a time and a place for such things, if something you agree with is stated particularly well or entertainingly.But you're exactly right, I can't fathom citing a YouTube video as a source, even if it were something from ProfMTH, AronRa or Thunderf00t. At best I would email one of those gentlemen and ask what resources they could point me towards. I get leery even using information I get off of wikipedia.

  3. 3

    @KargonathOh, good god, the comments are a waste of freaking electrons. A bunch of shrieking dimwits.

  4. 4

    I think there may be something similar going on with ordinary, non-conspiracy-theorist people as well: you've probably noticed how a lot of religious apologists on Internet fora often copy and paste articles without attribution. And I think we all know people who forward alerts that could've been debunked in two minutes at Snopes.I suspect what's going on in their heads is that they don't differentiate between good and bad sources, or at least not as well as they should. That is, if they found an argument convincing solely because it was written by a Ph.D., they may not realize this fact, and forward it because they mistakenly think it's convincing on its own merits.Something I prefer not to see is using a clip from TAE as an authority.I think the Star Trek Rule cuts both ways: if I want to argue my point by saying that "Tracie says X…", then it behooves me to make sure it would be equally convincing as "Jim Kirk says X…".

  5. 5
    Nick Jones

    When requesting that somebody sum up the contents of the video they are trying to get you to watch, I would think that the most frequent answer would be, "Well, it's a nattily dressed fellow dancing about while telling the listener that he's never going to give them up and never going to let them down."

  6. 6
    George From NY

    Now now, Russell, you know I'll never consider you an authority on anything until you become a proper Conservative…

  7. 7
    David Buck

    Don't you find it quite ironic that an article that chastises you-tubers for pointing to someone else and saying "what he said" does so by pointing to another web site and saying "what he said"? I love what you guys do, but isn't this article doing exactly what it tells people not to do by pointing to another article that explains it better?

  8. 8

    slightly. On the other hand, practice what you preach–"Please sum up the points in that video that you found compelling, because I'm not going to watch." Which he did.

  9. 9
    Thomas Duke

    @DavidIt can only be construed as irony if reduced to such vague terms and then conflated. It seems to me that what you are really trying to do is to discredit the post and article by claiming hypocrisy, as opposed to irony. So, if Russell "points" to something for further clarification, under the umbrella of complaining about people who "point" to bad evidence, he is a hypocrite? Really? If that's the case…so what? Does that mean 9/11 conspiracies are more valid? The point is that these YouTube videos are presented as "evidence", but do not have to meet any standards whatsoever, and therefore, debunking them is a waste of time. The burden of proof is on them, and a YouTube video is not proof. A conspiracy theorist is like someone who is putting together a jigsaw puzzle from a bunch of random pieces, with only a vague idea of what the completed picture should look like. They cut away mismatched edges with scissors, and repaint pieces to match others. The puzzle is completed when the rectangular space no longer has any holes, and they feel a sense of great accomplishment. The puzzle pieces are bits of information, like YouTube clips, and the internet allows faster access to more of these pieces, with easy to use computer tools to alter this information. The completed puzzle becomes an unassailable fact.

  10. 10

    Duke, you're coming across as kind of nutty.

  11. 11

    Cool awesome stereotypes of atheists -they're nerds-they eat babies-they obsessits all true nuff said.

  12. 12

    I find the message in this post compelling, but I do not agree with the conclusion. The power in YouTube, as with Wikipedia and other such sites, is that others have already done the work for you. So on a forum where I don't wish to spend a few hours writing a detailed rebuttal, I might be lazy and post a YouTube link.Of course in a one-on-one debate you should in general not say "You are wrong, see this YouTube clip". However, people tend to find it easier to listen and watch rather than read. So for general educational purposes, YouTube can really help. Especially in a creationist/'Darwinian' debate, they can tackle a lot of commonly found misconceptions about evolution in a simple, graphical, and easy to understand way.Nevertheless, I think I will at least try to use them less. ;_; *sigh* Not like I have actual work to do or something, more suited to my legal education…

  13. 13
    Vilges Suola

    A You-tuber took pity on my gay heathen soul and I turned our exchange into a blog post:http://giaklamata.blogspot.com/2010/05/jesu-joy-of-mans-desiring.html(Sorry, I don't know how to create hyperlinks here)

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