Classic Crommunist: When to ignore someone (pt. 1)

Two words, Cromrades: Los Angeles. Returned with no energy for writing and a giant meeting at work to prepare for. Hopefully will be back on schedule by Tuesday (goodbye Monday night plans!) – in the meantime please enjoy this post from September, 2010.

In my random flittings about the internet, I come across many discussion forums. The great downside of giving everyone the tool to voice their opinion, is that we’ve allowed every tool to voice their opinion. Without wanting to sound like too much of a snob, there is a meaningful connection between formal education and the value of your contribution to a discussion. To forestall the predictable rejoinder (I would make it myself at this point), I am not saying that only people with PhDs are worthwhile; nor am I saying that someone with a PhD is necessarily worth listening to. What I am saying is that during the process of formal education, particularly philosophy and law, one learns the rhetorical tools required to construct a coherent and logical argument (if you have a degree in philosophy or law and don’t know what I’m talking about, go the hell back to your school and demand a refund).

As a side-effect, it becomes easier to recognize those arguments that are spurious and based on emotive “reasoning” rather than evidence or logic-based induction/deduction (again, if you don’t know the difference, go take a philosophy course, or get some tutoring). In a post that now seems ancient, I described some of the tools commonly used by the forces of stupid that try to substitute for logic. When you’re unfamiliar with common logical fallacies, you’re more likely to be persuaded by them – it’s like not knowing which berries in the forest are poisonous.

However, there are two that I’ve seen cropping up that start my eyes a’rolling.

1. “I’ve done my own research on this, and…”

I don’t know who finds this argument persuasive, but it immediately turns me off ever listening to that person. The internet has given us many wonderful things, but many of those things have a dark side. For example, we have unprecedented access to information – anyone with an internet connection has immediate access to the collected knowledge of the human species in ways that were barely even imaginable when I was a kid. I remember having a World Book encyclopedia set in my elementary school library. Someone had stolen, or lost, or destroyed, the S section. As a result, I didn’t know what a salamander was until I turned 21 (note: this story is almost entirely fabricated). The point is that we are no longer reliant on schools to give us knowledge or facts – it’s all available at our fingertips.

The downside of that is, of course, that not all facts are created equal. Cruise any creationist or white supremacist or climate change “skeptic” web forum and you’ll find lots of things that people call facts. The challenge is in discerning between things that are factual, things that are plausible, and things that are simply nonsense or fabrication. This is the realm of critical thinking, a skill which I find is in all-too-short supply.

So when someone tells me that they’ve “done their own research”, that is not persuasive to me at all. Actual research requires training in certain methodologies, which most people don’t have. Further, you have to be trained in the right methodology. Being trained in the scientific method, for instance, gives me some confidence that I can read and critically analyze a scientific study. None of that makes me qualified to critique someone’s interpretation of history – I’m not a historian. My opinion on matters of history, or philosophy, or even science, based on my own “research” is likely to be incredibly faulty and limited by both my training and my years. This is why the scientific consensus is such a powerful thing, and why anyone who wants to challenge it should come in with buckets of evidence, not simply vague accusations of conspiracy and lots of capital letters.

There’s also a metric assload of biases, heuristics, prejudices and other manner of cognitive problems with someone “doing their own research.” Oftentimes people will have an idea fixed in their head, and go looking for evidence to support it. I know I’ve caught myself doing this before. This isn’t ‘research’, this is confirming your own biases. True research sets up systematic mechanisms to control for and try to eliminate these biases, and it takes time and training to learn how to do this properly.

I’m fine with someone saying “I’ve done my own research…” as long as they’re able to point to it and show me. There’s no excuse besides laziness for demanding that someone believe your opinion if you can’t show your work. Any of the opinions I put up here are subject to the same scrutiny, and if chased down, I’ll either go to my source material or admit that I’m just making stuff up that seems logical. What I won’t do is say “well I’ve looked into this, and these are the facts, and you have to believe me because I say so.” Anyone who does that should be ignored right out of the starting gate.

2. “It’s just common sense that…” or “Common sense dictates that…”

Of all of the stupid arguments I come across, this one has got to be the worst. “Common sense” is the most inaccurately-named concept out there – it’s not common at all, and it’s rarely sensible. Appeals to common sense assume that there is some universal filter through which human beings see the world and is ‘common’. The reality is that depending on your upbringing, your education, your experiences, and your specific training in fields like logic and rhetoric, you build for yourself a pretty thick filter through which you receive information. This is done partially to take some of the workload off of your brain – if you can classify things quickly and easily, it free up resources to do other things (ever been exhausted at the end of a lecture on a topic with which you weren’t familiar?)

Our filters exert a great deal of influence over our thinking. That’s why it’s “common sense” to me that scientific studies are better than a list of patient testimonials – I’ve seen lots of examples in my own life and in other circumstances in which people will misattribute the placebo effect to whatever quack treatment they receive. However, it seems that to many chiropractors, or homeopaths, or reflexologists, and yes even licensed physicians, patient testimonial trumps science. It’s just common sense, right?

Appeals to “common sense” simply say to me “I haven’t bothered to spend any time or effort to think about this, or to look to see if there is any evidence of it, but I believe it anyway, so I’m going to assume you make the same assumptions about the world that I do.” I lived in Ontario during the reign of Premiere Mike Harris, who gutted education spending, closed hospitals, fired nurses, and basically ruined the shit out of social services. It took years for the province to recover, and some things are still in the can to this day. He called his policy “the Common Sense Revolution”, which is why I get chills every time anyone tells me that they wish people would “just use common sense.” I want fewer people to use common sense, and more to use some friggin’ evidence please.

If you don’t have evidence, but you think your position is reasonable, it’s fine to say so. But again, you have to show your work. If you can (like I try to do with all of these Monday thought pieces) walk your audience through your logic, then you’re not using ‘common sense’ any more, you’re using reason. There’s nothing wrong (and a lot right) with doing this. It is a lot more difficult and time-consuming, but you’re more likely to a) convince those who disagree with you, and b) find errors in your own thinking if you do things this way.

So if you’re going to try and convince me that you’ve got answers based on either your “own research” or your “common sense”, try not to be offended or surprised when I laugh, and put on some headphones until you stop making noise out of that hole in your face.

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  1. says

    I used to spend a lot of time arguing in a local forum. I saw this shit all the time. After awhile it hurt my brain too much and I gave up.

  2. mouthyb says

    As someone who taught rhetoric, may I humbly add the use of rhetorical terms, like straw man or tu quoque/ad hominem without the foggiest clue what the fallacy refers to, and the absolute refusal to look it up and find out.

    And people who Godwin in all seriousness.

    Oh, and people who use Post-Modern relativism as either an excuse for not paying attention to consequence or as if it makes everything meaningless.

    Ooooo, and armchair nihilists: nothing matters, when considered from my nice chair and beer.

    And people who think that they can logic themselves into perfect objectivity.

    And people who insist on telling me statistics mean nothing. (I’m currently getting training in statistics at the graduate level.)

    And conspiracy theorists (the fluoride in the water is making us all dumber, aliens, modern medicine is a conspiracy, etc.)

    ….Ok, I’m going to stop suggesting now. I am a little too enthusiastic about this.

  3. mynameischeese says

    “What I am saying is that during the process of formal education, particularly philosophy and law, one learns the rhetorical tools required to construct a coherent and logical argument”

    I really want to believe this. But it doesn’t explain the sheer amount of Randroids on the internet who claim to be lawyers or law students. Or maybe the Randroids are technically using logic when they’re making arguments like A. If we live in a meritocracy, poor people are lazy and stupid…?

  4. says

    I’m fine with someone saying “I’ve done my own research…”

    It’s not that I’m “not fine” with someone saying this, but I almost never see this comment from well-informed (if not well-educated) people.

    Usually they qualify it in some way like “As far as I understand it” or “If I understand it correctly.” Or even just “I think X because Y” Then maybe they’ll post a few links or something.

    The “research” is implied rather than explicitly mentioned because there is no reason to mention it unless you want to sound better informed than you actually are.

    “I haven’t bothered to spend any time or effort to think about this, or to look to see if there is any evidence of it, but I believe it anyway, so I’m going to assume you make the same assumptions about the world that I do.”

    This is really true. And I’m guilty of it. I just posted something on Greta Christina’s blog about it. Now I are feel stupid.

    Although in my defense it was about parsing a misogynist insult and not something that required evidence or even a great deal of careful examination. To me it really did seem pretty obvious on it’s face, but it’s true that that’s only me. And I did explain why. So it wasn’t a complete wash I guess.

  5. left0ver1under says

    re: “1. I’ve done my own research on this, and…”

    If the speaker accepts and admits that his words run the risk of making himself look like a crank/bigot/moron/knowitall/etc., then people might be willing to listen. A person who is self-depracating is always more welcome than one who is self-aggrandizing.

    For example, saying, “I’m not racist, but…” tells you the speaker is a bigot. Saying, “This will make me sound racist, but…” might make people willing to listen, even if the words are stupid/wrong/racist.

    In the same way, saying “Speaking only from personal experience” or “Speaking anecdotally” will make people less likely to roll their eyes than fictional claims of “research”.

    Readers still might reject everything that someone says, but admitting to personal failings is far better than denying them. That’s not to defend stupid statements, I’m saying that a willingness to admit a statement is stupid makes it easier to listen to.

    re: “It’s just common sense that…” or “Common sense dictates that…”

    “Common sense” says not to drop tin cans on top of fresh bread or eggs in a grocery bag. You don’t need to test it because of the obvious characteristics of the items. But “common sense” also said that ceramics would make poor superconductors because they are good insulators.

    Testing can prove where “common sense” is (soemtimes) wrong. Cranks and trolls feel it’s okay to make assumptions and not check, which is made worse by their unwillingness to admit being wrong when shown to be.

  6. Art says

    Fair enough, but I will point out that while we reason logically and can logically prove or disprove points humans are driven by emotion. Show me a person who speaks of how completely logical they are and I’ll show you a person who hasn’t come to terms with their emotional drivers. It is always, without exception, the emotional drives that select which issues will be addressed, and which side will be argued for.

    Logic and organized debate are tools to get you to a place your emotions decided you wanted to go.

    A good lawyer is a sophist who can argue either side. A good lawyer also knows that people are emotionally driven. That you can prove the case logically but lose the case because he lost the emotional engagement.

    Education helps as long as it doesn’t make you believe that people are logical or neglect the emotional side when making arguments to people who might not be as enthralled by the beauty and symmetry of logic as you are.

  7. says

    Which I’m sure is a response to an article that someone’s written, but it has nothing to do with mine. What I am saying here is that arguments predicated on faulty reasoning are not sound. They may be persuasive, but they are not sound. If you would like me to consider your position, make sure it’s not BS first.

  8. Grendels Dad says

    Too often “I’ve done my own research” means “I’ve found some site on the internet that agrees with me.” Or maybe that’s just the sort that have been pestering me lately.

  9. Pen says

    None of that makes me qualified to critique someone’s interpretation of history – I’m not a historian.

    Ummm… this hasn’t stopped you from writing a series of posts about history and what we can/should do with it, has it? And while it is obvious from them that you’re not a historian, that you ‘did your own research’ in the secondary if not the tertiary sources, and that you have some ideas about the scope and uses of history that seem to have bypassed the debates within the profession, that doesn’t invalidate what you have to say.

    Actually, as a layman, you’re virtually obliged to critique someone’s interpretation of history when you’re presented with two competing interpretations which have consequences for your worldview, self-image or choices. Science is the same – we’re obliged to come to conclusions about global warming, for example, and the only way is to do our own research, into the data and the qualifications of the authorities presenting it as best we can.

    I think professionals and academics need to be immensely respectful of laypeople, even ones who appear ignorant and emotive, and we should welcome seeing their ‘working out’ in public and the opportunity to respond to it. Hey, that’s why I sometimes try to comment on Camels With Hammers, even though I’m way out of my depth over there : )

  10. says

    It’s one thing to relay someone else’s historical position and say “based on this, here’s an interpretation”. It’s quite another to say “soandso’s interpretation of these facts is incorrect because of my vast knowledge of historical methodology.”

  11. Art says

    Geee…I don’t know … why would I neglect your point?

    … “arguments predicated on faulty reasoning are not sound”

    (Good summary of an overly long piece.)

    Because its brain dead simple, pedestrian, unworthy of careful contemplation. Water is wet. It adds nothing to anyone’s understanding. It is also cheap and easy. Tell the thinkers that bad arguments are bad. Play to the audience. Tell the conservatives that hippies are dirty. Tell the racist that blacks are lazy. And bask in the waves of applause. People love being told what they already believe.

    It is not persuasive and is highly unlikely to change any minds. It fails to illuminate or inform. It offers neither heat nor light. If I wanted to play softball I would go to the park.

    Which is why I offered something a little off center. Move in that direction and you might cover new ground. That would be interesting.

    I get the feeling you win a lot of debates but lose a lot of arguments.

  12. says

    Why are people who bang on about ‘convincing others’ and attuning to people’s ’emotional drives’ usually so crass and rude? Art, your summary is not good and your rhetoric is unconvincing. And if you thought Crommunist’s post wasn’t worth replying to, you should at least have the courtesy to say so before you go off on what you think is a more interesting tangent.

    Or, better yet, do it on your own blog.

  13. says

    I know you can’t see me making a ‘wanking’ motion right now, so I want to let you know that right now I am making a ‘wanking’ motion.

    By the way, your point isn’t any less pedestrian or any more daring than mine. It’s also not as well-written as mine, so you’ve got that going against you too. If your point is that I don’t articulate positions that challenge my audience or diverge from the mainstream, I will pause in my belly-laughs just long enough to tell you to go fuck yourself. If you don’t find this blog interesting, please feel free to navigate yourself to the front page where there are a couple dozen others that might tickle your fancy. I will not miss the loss of the contribution of your staggering intellect.

  14. says

    I’ll agree with about everything you said in this post. My only caveat- what you did try to tackle in your opening paragraph- is that some people will interpret the statement that there is a “meaningful connection between formal education and the value of your contribution to a discussion” to mean that education equates to better reasoning instead of correlates with it.

    The way I have explained it in the past is that formal education is a tool and not an argument. One usually doesn’t need to point this out, since most people with a formal education don’t argue from authority. There is a big difference between someone having a sound argument because they are trained and someone insisting that their training is the argument.
    You may not believe this, but I recently heard someone argue that their opinion should be respected because they “taught classes in critical thinking”. When someone pointed out that that was not really an argument, this person proceeded to say that “it seems to me that the people who are hostile to formal education are the people that do not have one”. It is pompous asses like that that force you to preface this discussion with a disclaimer and force me to harp on a caveat.

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