Internet Discussions

October 21st, 2010

I first began discussing things with people online way back in 1987 or 1988. It was on BIX, the Byte Information Exchange, a service set up by Byte Magazine for its subscribers. It was a dial-up service – this was before the Internet was big. You set up your computer teletype software and called a telephone number with your modem. It hooked up with the Byte server (a plain old microcomputer like any other) and you did everything with keyboard commands. It all ran at 300 baud; I still recall watching text roll onto the screen slower than I could read it. There were, of course, no graphics; 300 baud is about 30 bytes per second. A modern digital camera photograph would take about about a day to download at those speeds – and the service was so unreliable that you’d probably lose the connection after an hour anyway.

We talked about all sorts of things on BIX: mostly techie stuff, but other things as well, including opinionated stuff. This medium was new, and although the participants were more mature than the modern Internet denizen, there were still plenty of interpersonal conflicts. I well remember a few sad cases of behavior on my part that, while not intended to be evil, had evil effects. I remember a discussion of the problem of cat fecundity and the fact that we euthanize about 6 million cats every year in this country. This was a moral outrage, I felt, and I used the term “Cat Holocaust” to describe it. A couple of people took exception to my term, objecting to the comparison of euthanizing cats with the most evil act in human history. I pretty much pulverized their arguments, not because I was impeccably correct but because I was so much better with the language and argumentation. When one of them backed off a bit, I chided him for “thinking with his stomach” -- a particularly cruel phrasing. Had the comment been made in a face-to-face discussion, my facial expression and tone of voice would have robbed the phrase of its cruelty, but things don’t work that way online. It was a learning experience that I still regret, although I give myself a bit of leeway because the medium was so poorly understood.

I remember a few other altercations in those early years. In one, I took Redmond Simonsen to task for his criticisms of computer games. Redmond was one of the founders of modern game design; while working at Simulations Publications, Inc, in the 1970s he bestowed many brilliant and creative new ideas upon the industry. He was a paper game designer and never really grokked computer game design. However, he was still a cogent thinker and offered many interesting ideas in a discussion forum on GEnie that I moderated. I recall characterizing one of his comments as a “fogeyism”. That was a cruel and stupid thing to say; it hurt his feelings and he stopped participating in the discussions. He died sometime in the early 90s. Again, I learned a bitter lesson that we must be especially careful in our phrasings when we can’t use our voice or face to modulate our comments.

Another error really wasn’t my fault. I ran a strict discussion: no personal comments were allowed. Participants in my discussion area were free to attack ideas as ferociously as they wanted, but a single word about another person would get your comment deleted. It was a wise policy, one that I wish modern bloggers would enforce. We were blessed with the participation of Jim Dunnigan, one of the true luminaries of game design, who founded Simulations Publications, Inc. Jim had many insightful comments to make. We had a troll (this was before the word was coined) who hectored Jim mercilessly, and I was all over that guy, killing his posts if he put his toe over the line, but he learned the rules of the game and was able to say lots of ferocious things without quite breaking the rules. One day Jim lost patience with the jerk and called him a jerk. I regretfully killed Jim’s post and sent him an apologetic message (this was before email was common) explaining my decision and suggesting a tiny change in wording that would satisfy the rules. Jim would have none of this crap; he left the discussion and never returned. I don’t regret my decision but I bitterly regret the outcome.

Over the years I have followed that basic rule: trash ideas but never even mention people. I try to act as if the text I read from others is generated by computers; this helps me confine my comments to the ideas rather than the people. I’m still not perfect at this; I still occasionally lapse into a more personal style. But I do try very hard to follow this rule. It seems that I’m the only person on the planet who does so.

When the web bloomed in the late 90s, I spent a lot of time discussing politics in discussion sites. I was besotted with the naive belief that the Internet made it possible for men and women of good will to disagree over political matters in a rational and mature manner. I was not completely naive: I knew full well that there would be trolls poisoning such discussions. But I believed that, if only I maintained strict civility and ignore the trolls, I would be able to connect with people whose political beliefs I did not share. You will not be surprised to learn that there are no men and women of good will; no matter how hard I tried, I just could not have a reasoned discussion of differences of political opinion. It was all argument and no discussion. Nobody wanted to reach out to the other side and understand where they were coming from; people just wanted to bash “the enemy”.

This is true of both liberals and conservatives, although over the years I learned that conservatives are much worse in matters of tribalism than liberals. Liberals tolerate, even encourage some dissent within the big tent, but if you push them too far, they’re every bit as tribalistic as conservatives. Conservatives, on the other hand, are deeply and profoundly tribal. If you don’t toe the official line at a conservative website, you’re first subjected to vicious verbal vituperation and then summarily banned. I tried, I really tried to get past this with sweet words and gentle questions, but once they sniffed the wrong intellectual genes, the pack of dogs was all over me.

Perhaps I’m a slow learner: perhaps I’m just too damned idealistic to accede to the ugly reality that
Homo Sapiens is not a civilized creature but a Pleistocene predator; whatever my failure, I stuck with it for more than five years. Eventually I gave up and retired to the more genteel realms of science.

Well, at least I thought that they were genteel. I spent too much time trying to explain anthropogenic climate change to people who really didn’t give a damn about the science and just wanted to pursue to political agenda. Along the way, I developed a fervor for defending the intellectual integrity of science. It started with the creationists and their evolution-denial. I just couldn’t believe that there were a significant number of people who were happy to impose their spiritual beliefs upon rational science. It took me a long time to adjust my naive beliefs in this matter. It was the same thing with global warming denial: people imposing their political beliefs upon science. This really got my goat; I can respect a difference of subjective matters (for example, I cannot dispute the belief that abortion is murder; I regard that as a purely subjective matter outside the ken of science), but I expect science to be respected as a rational enterprise.

Nevertheless, my sense of fairness requires me to examine the other side. A professor named Behe published a book purporting to demolish evolutionary theory, so I bought and read it. It was trash, but I wanted to see the best that the other side had to offer. In the same fashion, I have prowled the websites of some of the most prominent ACC deniers (Steve McIntyre and Anthony Watts, for example). I must confess, they occasionally come up with a scientifically plausible point. However, the great majority of their writings are bull. Again, my sense of fairness demanded that I see the best that the other side had to offer. Now that I’ve seen how bad it is, I can feel more confident in my conclusions.

Another area that piques my curiosity is Evolutionary Psychology. When it was first suggested back in the 1970s that genetics might influence human behavior, the idea was ferocious attacked as racist and bigoted. Throughout the 1980s nobody would touch it because there were too many fanatics out there determined to ruin the career of any scientist imprudent enough to explore the possibility. However, starting around 1990, a number of courageous scientists began to look into the question slowly, cautiously, and rigorously. The idea has much merit, and so the school of thought grew rapidly. Encouraged by such scientists as Stephen Pinker, Leda Cosmides, and John Toobey, the movement gained strength. Nowadays it is a respected field of scientific inquiry and the basic notion that evolutionary pressures created genetic traits that influence human behavior is broadly accepted. However, there remains a determined group of ideologues who adamantly refuse to accept this notion. I’ve tried to track down their objections, but I’ve never found much in the way of cogent reasoning attacking the basic tenets of Evolutionary Psychology. There remain, of course, many details over which debate rages; such is always the nature of science. But the people who attack the field in general are a shrinking and ever-shriller lot. They mouth vague complaints about “Just So Stories”, but when you try to pin down exactly what their complaint is, they evaporate.

So it was with great pleasure that I read a blog entry by Mr. Greg Laden attacking Evolutionary Psychology in a rather general way. His plaints lacked specificity and suffered from a serious logical flaw, so I seized upon the opportunity to question a serious opponent of Evolutionary Psychology. After all, Mr. Laden blogs for a major organization and his stuff has, in the past, been pretty good. I figured that this would be an excellent opportunity to see the best that opponents had to offer.

Boy, was I wrong! Mr. Laden, I suspect, quickly realized that he’d engaged in idle and indefensible musings rather than rigorous analysis, and evaded my questions, begging lack of time. In the meantime, several of his tribal followers attacked me for daring to question the leader of their tribe and for defending Evolutionary Psychology. These participants were typical Internet idiots: ignorant, inarticulate, and illogical. I should have simply ignored their droolings but I answered them in the hope that I’d get some sort of response from Mr. Laden himself. Eventually I shamed him into responding, but his response was even worse than his original post: vague, evasive, and prickly. He was clearly irritated with me for poking him in a soft spot. This surprised me; I had expected that his position as a slightly-eminent blogger would encourage a certain amount of professionalism. Meanwhile, his minions continued their verbal assaults, one of them referring to me numerous times as a “fucking prat”. Ah, the joys of Internet discussions...

I won’t drag you through a long blow-by-blow account. What’s significant for this discussion is the fact that, while I really, really tried to get Mr. Laden to explain himself, my continued challenges and questions served only to make him angrier. To give you an idea of the flavor of the interchange, here’s my penultimate post, which he deleted:

First, a response to Stephanie: I believe that you misstate the relevant issues here. Male promiscuity is not the result of Pleistocene evolutionary pressures, and I don't recall anybody making that claim. Instead, male promiscuity, as Greg has pointed out, is a trait arising from the different metabolic investments of males and females in procreation, a difference that can be traced back far earlier than the Pleistocene. Greg himself made this point. Your confusion over this matter illustrates the problem we have: you folks (as a group) are so intent on making grand generalizations that you just can't be bothered to nail down with any precision what it is that you're arguing. These last 88 comments are studded with mismatches between arguments and evidence and a complete absence of clear definition. The entire discussion has been a mishmosh, and my efforts to get some sort of precision have been met with obscenity, denial, or just plain "I'm too busy to get specific."

Greg, I understand your desire not to get involved in a long discussion of the actual science; that's a lot of work, and you've got eyeballs to attract and ads to sell. So I'm willing to walk away from this. But I think you deserve to hear my hidden agenda. I'm a fierce advocate for the intellectual independence of science, and a ferocious opponent of the tendency to inject non-scientific ideologies into scientific inquiry.

For example, I am very much opposed to the intrusion of religion into science. Creationists attempt to impose their spiritual beliefs upon science. I find that heinous, and I oppose it at every opportunity. In the same way, global warming deniers are not really arguing science; their agenda is political, not scientific, and they subordinate scientific honesty to political ideology. I oppose that just as fiercely.

This discussion is no different: you and several other people have been reluctant to get into the science itself. While you (as a group) have occasionally brought up a few scientifically worthy points, the great bulk of this discussion has been ideological rather than scientific in nature. You (the group) have made lots of grand statements without bothering to provide even a precise wording of your meaning. It is especially telling that several persons, yourself (Greg) included, have raised matters of social policy (to wit, racism) that have no bearing on the science itself. I believe that you are no different from the creationists and AGW deniers in subordinating science to your political ideology. You don't like racism -- an admirable sentiment that I share -- but the difference between us is that you reject open, honest scientific inquiry because of your concerns about racism. I subordinate my personal tastes to objective truth; if science were to discover that left-handers tend to be sexual perverts, that blue-eyed people tend to have difficulties with math, or that purple-skinned people score lower on tests of social cognitive performance, I won't scream bloody murder -- I'll shrug my shoulders and accept those tentative results. What we do about those scientific results is an entirely different matter. If society chooses to discriminate against left-handers, idolize blue-eyed people, or send purple-skinned people to death camps, that's a political matter, not a scientific one. We shouldn't mix science with religion, and we shouldn't mix science with politics. Science can inform our political deliberations, but political preferences should never, ever intrude upon scientific inquiry.

I acknowledge again that there have been some attempts at scientific arguments here, but they have been brief, elliptical, secondary, or overly vague. I very much hope that someday I'll find somebody who can offer a robust case against some specific claims of Evo Psych. But after many attempts, I am abandoning hope that I'll find such a person here. Like Diogenes, I'll just have to take my search elsewhere.

Best wishes, and adieu to you all.

As you can see, I failed to meet my standards of civility; I did sneak in a few elliptical snipes at Mr. Laden. Nevertheless, the overall tone is civil. Here’s the response it garnered from Mr. Laden:

Chris, you are an insulting, stupid twit. You claim that one blog post that summarizes an entire field of study should have all of the details that your tiny little brain seems to think are important. You claim that everyone else lacks the ability to think logically, yet your ranting is almost aphasic in it's rambling. You have insulted several people on this thread, and now you are ranting about the "group" of us who all have it wrong.
You need to go back to your computer games and your self-written and self-aggrandizing wikipedia bio. You say good bye in your last comment, but I have enough experience with obsessive neurotics such as yourself to know that you'll be back because you can't control yourself. And if you do post another comment, unless it is a) very very brief and b) a very sincere apology, I'll delete it, because I really and truly want to help you keep your promise.
It might have been possible for you to actually contribute to this conversation. But you are a paranoid obsessive megalomaniac. You can get help for that, but until you do, you are too annoying to be tolerated. Until you get help for your condition, you are of no use in this conversation or anything like it.

I was certainly taken aback by the ferocity of Mr. Laden’s comment because it is so far from what we’d expect from a sober scientist. But after some reflection, I have decided that I have once again been naive. Scientists, after all, are people, and beneath the lab coat lurks the testosterone-soaked bloodthirstiness of a stone-handaxe-wielding Pleistocene hunter. This had nothing to do with science in general or Evolutionary Psychology in particular: I had invaded Mr. Laden’s territory and he came after me with the same howling, shrieks and thrown feces that our ancestors used to chase away intruders.

My conclusion is to finally acknowledge what I have stubbornly refused to accept all these years: that there just aren’t many people on this planet who are capable of engaging in a spirited yet civil disagreement. I know that there do exist a few such people, as I have met them. But they are much too rare for my taste, and I certainly cannot assume that anybody I encounter on the Internet is such a person. I am therefore abandoning discussion on the Internet. I’ll concentrate on writing here and answering questions on the Storytron blog, where at least the discussion is confined to a topic that cannot possibly generate ill-will (there I go again, naively assuming that people are good...)