Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Skepticism vs. Cynicism

In comments on my last post many people talked about how they like reddit not because it's activist as I had discussed, but because it is a good place to stay informed. Others talked about the "country club" mentality that they like about reddit: it is similar people sharing similar ideas. And I think these two ideas sum up why the majority of people use reddit. The goal of this post is to really look at how effective self-informing by similar minds is, specifically when those similar minds are skeptical. Are we actually becoming less informed by being skeptical of everyone who doesn't fit the membership requirements for the reddit country club?

I tend to use the word "skeptic" to label us (the average redditer), primarily because it corresponds to the underlying idea behind both atheism and the philosophy of science. Though some people may have different ideas on exactly what skepticism is, I am referring to it as the general concept of "prove it to me." In other words, before we believe an idea, there must be ample proof that justifies the belief. But being skeptical can lead to two types of skepticism, namely, what can be seen as scientific skepticism, and what can be loosely called cynicism (though cynicism typically has negative or hopeless connotations, I think it's a somewhat appropriate term for this type of belief; "negative skepticism" or "inactive skepticism" might be more apt, but is more of a pain to type. So if you like, replace "cynicism" with "negative skepticism" everywhere). Scientific skepticism is the type of skepticism that is based on the rational idea that skeptical inquiry leads to truth. Cynicism, as I refer to it, is the belief that skepticism is truth, i.e., cynicism is the belief that the most justifiable idea is true, and thus the goal is to protect this idea.

To consider yourself an adherer to scientific skepticism (which I will just call skepticism for the rest of the post) is to cautiously welcome ideas and information for valid appraisal, and to not hold to your own views in a biased manner. A scientific skeptic doesn't identify themselves with the ideas themselves; they identify themselves with the process of skepticism. The end goal is to uncover the truth, and accordingly they approach their own beliefs in a skeptical manner, and are always interested in disproving or modifying them. A cynic, on the other hand, has no real interest in the truth. Their goal is simply not to be foolish, either in their eyes or others' eyes. But ironically, they are so opposed to changing or altering their beliefs since that might require admitting they are wrong that they hold onto them vehemently, often risking looking ultimately foolish.

Now this is an obvious problem on the reddit boards as well as with the posts that make it to the top page. If someone makes a claim or statement, or posts an article that is not in line with the mainstream skeptic's, three things can happen. First off, that person is usually down-voted, to the point where the issue no longer gets discussed. Secondly, that person is insulted in some degree for not being intelligent or logical enough. Or thirdly, a debate is started to resolve why that person thinks their idea is worth discussing, and to try to come to some sort of conclusion. The first two actions are completely cynical: there is an assumption that those ideas that we don't agree with are not even worth listening to, and must be wrong. There is an assumption that our current rational view of things is correct, and does not need to be modified. The third action however is the action of a true skeptic; it's someone who is interested in actually resolving issues and concerns, but does so from a skeptical and cautious point of view. The true skeptic goes into an argument willing to change their thoughts on the matter if the evidence dictates this is most appropriate. Most importantly, this actually implies it's necessary to listen to opposing viewpoints. The cynic unfortunately is interested only in proving and verifying they are right.

I anticipate as rebuttals to this people are going to say "if two sides each argue their case as forcefully as possible, then the truth will emerge," but let's look at how valid this is. First off, this requires that you are willing to talk to people who have drastically different and seemingly irrational view points from yourself, as those are the only people who often feel very strongly about their views and are best informed to discuss them. For example, suppose someone started a post saying, "I am roman catholic who has used prayer for the last 25 years and think that it has noticeable psychological benefits, even for those who aren't spiritual," they would probably get belittled to no end. In any case, this point would not be discussed in an unbiased manner; it would be discussed cynically and dismissively. But maybe this person is psychologist, maybe they are a neuroscientist. But rather than even investigate the matter, people make the assumption that this person is full of crap, and don't even bother to listen. This works to exclude those people from discussion that might be able to argue a point most strongly. To make matters worse, the typical response to the above post is something like "I can't believe people are still spiritual and religious in this day in age...," and the rest of the comments will just bring everyone back to arguing what they are comfortable arguing without having to address the content of the post. This arguing strategy is a type of logical fallacy that is called the "genetic fallacy". It's the belief that if a claim generates from a person that has certain set of characteristics that the opposition finds distrustful or illogical, then that claim must necessarily be illogical. This is just a cheap, convenient way to avoid attacking the claim itself. It's just an easy way to "win" an argument.

Other than just looking foolish and childish, the problem with this type of cynicism and faulty logic on the comment boards and posts is that it results in a biased and uninformed view. While the comment a person makes may be wrong by common skeptical belief, if you avoid even listening or entertaining the argument, you may be willfully ignoring a piece of information that will guide you to a more valid and well-informed view-point. And so while your views obviously won't change completely, there may be a vital piece of information you are missing. Maybe only 5% of what that person argues is true, but if you never even bother to listen because 95% of what they say is illogical then you will always be 5% ignorant of the truth. Similarly, if we only post and up-vote those ideas that fit into our current accepted framework of things, we are never allowing this framework to be modified. And for all the complaining we do about other groups unwilling to modify their framework of ideas, it's ironic that we risk suffering a similar fate.

Ultimately this is type of cynical groupthink action will cause reddit to lose its integrity. When people are young they find something that works for them, they hold onto it, and they protect and argue it almost violently. But as someone gains some wisdom, they realize that no one is ever completely right. There is always some value to listening and attempting to incorporate opposing points-of-view. If we pride ourselves as a community of well-informed people, does this not necessitate that we truly try to stay well-informed? Eventually some of the ideas we think are correct are going to be disproved or need to be altered, and we can either dedicate ourselves to the truth by actively searching for these alterations, or we can simply believe our current ideas are the complete truth, and never read or discuss anything that contradicts them. The latter of these two options is by definition ignorant, and will ultimately cause reddit to epitomize the exact opposite of why many of us take pride in it: it embodies the pursuit to stay well-informed.

Monday, May 7, 2007

The First Charge

Alright redditers, it's time we stop acting like a bunch of elitist, angst-ridden teenagers, and try to actually think about what type of content we support on this site. It's a sad waste to use this site simply as a means to pass the hours, or to convince ourselves that creationists are illogical, or that global warming is real. It's been going on for a year or two now; we all get it, and we all agree on it.

We must realize that we are a fairly homogeneous group. The majority of us are skeptics (and accordingly atheists), or at least support classical anti-religious stances. We are a left-leaning group; we are science-oriented; we are interested in politics; we are big on technology/programming/computers; we are heavily supportive of free speech, free expression, and free exchange of information.

So are we just entertaining ourselves here? Are we just preaching to the choir over and over again with the same crap to convince ourselves that our views are correct and superior to other peoples' views? We post so many articles about how things are wrong with the US, the government, the world, and the environment, and we somehow think that we are improving something just by reading about it. Unfortunately, no matter how much we read about these issues, we are doing only that: reading. We’re not helping the problem anymore than that guy driving around with a Jesus fish on his car. Unless the articles actually inform us and give us a better global perspective of these issues, all we do on this site amounts to mental masturbation.

My charge to you is to start thinking a bit more about what we vote up or vote down. For example, sure it'd be fun to watch Dawkins plug his same sound bite over and over again, all the while patting ourselves on the back for agreeing with him --- but this is completely pointless. If we actually care about fixing religious-related issues, we need to stop obsessing over ourselves and spend a bit more time learning about why exactly religious people are so resistant to ideas that seem overly obvious and logical to us. We need to spend time reading and trading ideas about how to fix the problem. Just winning a battle of logic about the existence of God with your Christian friend doesn't convince him of anything; it just makes you feel superior, and often makes him take an even more radical stance. And this is the same with all of the common reddit issues. Let's stop using reddit as a means only to bitch about problems or to inflate our egos, and let’s start using it as a means for realistically attacking these problems.

I think we can look at the 60s counterculture revolution for some sort of comparison. Although they ultimately failed with the psychedelic revolution (for reasons Hunter S. Thompson states very poetically), they still made a dent. And they achieved this by not just reading newspapers about what was going wrong, but by direct action --- by participation. They made themselves visible, and they were not forceful and pretentious. They were not exclusionists, but “inclusionists.” Reddit, as it currently stands, it 100% exclusion based: if you don't agree with our positions, screw off. Is this a logical way to encourage others to join our positions?

So let's not fool ourselves here. As it currently stands we are at the breaking point between letting reddit become just a posting board for the latest public display of our common ideas, or rather becoming a place where those people who are truly interested in these ideas can come and gain perspective and trade thoughts about what needs to be done.

And all that needs to be done for now is to start thinking a bit more about the usefulness of what we vote up, and just as importantly, to start thinking about what we are posting. I know it's cool when you IM your friend and tell him #6 on the front page is yours, but I hope enough of us can resist the mighty force that is karma (which is more-or-less the online equivalent of monopoly money, sorry to burst your bubble).

I say all of this out of sincere interest in the power that reddit has, and what it can become. I hope there are enough redditers who feel the same way; who feel the content of reddit slipping, and who care enough to make an effort to improve this site rather than abuse it. If we think the internet, and reddit in particular, has any sort of power as a free exchange of uncensored information, we must realize that as such, we are the only ones with the power to maintain its integrity and its usefulness. There’s no one policing us or looking over our shoulder --- we are it. And as its sole defenders, we have an obligation to take on this challenge.