No really guys, sometimes we really need you to Fisk it out

(This is the first installment in my “Screaming at the Internet” series of posts.)

If someone makes a point using scientific-y claims and you think they’re wrong, don’t go on and on, in platitudes, about how silly you think the point is without countering those claims of fact. Don’t claim exhaustion with “repeating the debunking exercise”. Don’t give us “ecological interpretations”. Refute the damn facts or garner your own facts in a counter-claim.

Some of us may think facts matter and we may not be as well informed as you about them. So clue us in.

Don’t assume your factless argument isn’t making factual claims, either. It is. Because even without stating specific counter-facts, you are making a scientific claim. Your silence is suggestive and sympathetic readers may impute from it very strong facts. If you don’t refute the fact about the difference in size between men and women’s brains, for example, we may come away from your general denouncement with the impression that there isn’t such a difference ((This is a problem given there is, if fact, such a difference, even controlling for body size.)).

If your point is to just state your opinion or to provide ideological cheerleading, then you’re being just as bad as those you criticize. You, like they, are just providing an air of science to an otherwise unsupported claim.

Update: fixed a typo

7 thoughts on “No really guys, sometimes we really need you to Fisk it out”

  1. (fact-free)
    It’s a neat idea, but you’re assuming common mental models of problems and agreed-upon definitions of words. Without a common framework to provide context for facts, the parties in these disputes might as well throw fortune cookies at each other.

  2. Agreed. But isn’t arguing over the facts the best way to get on the same page about the rules of the game (aka mental models)?

    If I say (and believe) the sky is red and you say (and believe) its green, we can yell at each other and call each other stupid or we can try to figure out who has the facts wrong (or figure out how each of our definitions of the color of the sky conforms to the facts). It starts with stating the facts, as each party sees them, in any case.

  3. That’s exactly where the scientific method is supposed to help. The only problem is that it’s practiced by people, i.e. swirling congealed masses of prejudice and bias. The bias-free scientist is an ideal one has to approach asymptotically; a Buddha in a lab coat.

    Consider that the sky *can* simultaneously be both red and green. If it’s smoggy out, during sunrise or sunset, the lower sky can appear distinctly red, transitioning through a yellowish greenish color on the way to the deep blue of night. Or, if you’re less artistically inclined, you can break daylight with a prism to show its red and green components in the visual spectrum.

    That doesn’t mean that both sides’ facts can always hold up under scrutiny, of course.

    The weakness in that example is a shortcoming of the English language itself (I can’t speak for other languages). Mentally, you’ve broken off “sky” as a single, uniform object with uniform properties. It must be one thing, right? Since there’s just one word for it, right? You can’t take anything, even something as simple as the noun “sky,” for granted.

    The tactic I usually see (among lay people and other armchair pseudointellectuals like myself) is attacks on the validity or methodology of opposing facts, rather than a description of why they might be true but still not conflict with one’s own facts. Red sky you say? You’re a colorblind fool, that’s probably a street light, your spectrometer is a cheap knock off, sure it’s red right now but that’s only dust in the air, here’s a photo that proves that it’s green, etc.

    Mythbusters did an episode on the “airplane on a treadmill” myth that’s been making the rounds for a few years. Result? The airplane got off the ground with little difficulty (fact). This directly contradicts the opposing prediction. Result? Naysayers attacked the experiment setup, or dismissed it as TV hackery. The problem: based on the description of the experiment, the opposing camps create at least two distinctly different mental models of the problem. Experiments done to gather facts for one model invariably violate the terms of the other model, so it’s more obvious to attack their validity than to consider a second model.

    Side note – some pretty amusing folk theories about flight have emerged from these arguments.

  4. That’s fine except that Allen’s article is self-evidently stupid to anyone even sort-of paying attention and if you need it explained that badly you could just read all of, like, three posts into the blog’s comment section. If even that’s too much for you then here’s that ‘fisking’ you were demanding: The article is wrong because 1. Men fawn over women just as embarassingly as women fawn over men 2. men are just as prone to naive and idealistic statements 2a. the statement to which Allen responds with a ‘huh?’ is actually a perfectly clear and reasonable sentiment 3. fainting frequently occurs among both sexes at large events with excited crowds. 4. The superficiality of men should be pretty well established by the existence of 60-inch televisions, 400-horsepower family sedans, and the entire porn industry 5. Oprah Winfrey and Celine Dione are much much much less stupid than NASCAR and most rap albums 6. Her friend’s office comedy has already been written, it’s on TV and it’s called the Office and the men are just as stupid as the women 7. “obviously men are dumb too” so she admits herself that the entire article is actually an idiotic waste of time 8. Hillary’s campaign is in large part run by Mark Penn who is colossally stupid 9. Hillary’s female advisors still aren’t as stupid as whichever men were running Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson’s campaigns 9. There’s more gooey sentimental emotionalism in a Tom Clancy book than any three romance novels, except in Clancy books they call it “patriotism” so that makes it okay, the soft-core porn that women enjoy is still miles less embarrasing than the hard-core porn which is frequented almost exclusively by men 10. I don’t know about Grey’s Anatomy but plenty of dudes watch Scrubs which has pretty much all the same stupid plotlines 11. what the fuck is wrong with a man knowing how to knit? 12. her statistic about accidents of men v. women doesn’t support her conclusion as the greater experience of male drivers due to the mentioned more frequent miles driven would more than account for the miniscule observed difference in collision rates (really, .6 out of a million? come on.) 13. Jesus I mean this isn’t hard just read the article with your brain switched on I don’t have all day for this.

  5. It’s self-evidently stupid. Exactly.

    When you see someone blow smoke, it doesn’t help to blow smoke.

    Of course, someone can apply this critique to my post… :-)

    (Also, Dan, relax. Enjoy life a little.)

  6. “The weakness in that example is a shortcoming of the English language itself … you’ve broken off “sky” as a single, uniform object with uniform properties.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head. I guess I believe the scientific method is successful, despite fallibilities of humans and their languages, because by arguing over facts you get closer to the edges of the problem. The interlocutors must, eventually, come to some agreement on, or come close to agreement on, the definition of the words they’re using. If English was precise, there wouldn’t be a need for science.

    Suppose I see some data; I see red sky. I have a theory for what generates those data; particulate rubies floating in the atmosphere. You can call my theory stupid and be done with it thus improving neither of our understanding of the color of the sky. (Actually, my argument in the post was that this reply actually makes everyone worse off.)

    Or you can show that there may be some implications of my theory that aren’t true by data we both agree on; airplanes couldn’t fly through atmosphere that infested with ruby dust. Or you can present a finer measure of the color of the sky showing its more likely to be green. In these two cases, we both learn something. I learn that my theory needs revision or my take on the facts needs to be reconsidered. You learn how to make better theory (it better be able to accommodate flying airplanes!) or you’ve found better data. Both of us are better off.

  7. That’s what sold me on the scientific method as a kid. The veracity of a fact is never derived from its speaker, and the methods of fact gathering are open.

    Of course, like economics, science would work like it does in the brochures if there weren’t all of these fleshy humans running things. Especially while there seems to be good money in flamebaiting.

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