A taxonomy of online truth values

Some thoughts prompted by a question: various people not of a puppy-persuasion (myself included) have tried to engage with the Mad Genius Club over the years. The arc is always the same but the ‘run’ (i.e. how long it is before the person is declared anathema and banned) varies considerably. It’s not obnoxiousness, nor is it contradicting people or even challenging a belief or a idea commonly held. However, sooner or later the person concerned will hit a conceptual mine and the explosions ensue. The final stage is Dave Freer popping up and demanding people follow a nonsensical challenge.

To see how it happens you need to understand various kinds of beliefs. If you challenge a particular kind of belief, KABOOM. The issue is which kind.

The classic or starting-point definition of knowledge in philosophy is a justified, true belief. To ‘know’ something in philosophical terms is to believe the thing, for the thing to be true and for you to have a sound reason for your belief i.e. you might believe there are spiders on Mars and there might actually BE spiders on Mars but you don’t know that there are spiders on Mars because you have no evidence for them.

For online discourse consider another factor: the sincerity of your belief as in, you may sort of believe something but your attachment to that belief may be quite shallow or alternatively quite strong.

Now consider some combinations

  • A sincere belief, which is true and which you have evidence for
  • An insincere belief, which is true and which you have evidence for (i.e. you have some irrational doubts about the evidence)
  • A sincere belief, which is false but which you have evidence for (i.e. a genuine mistake)
  • An insincere belief, which is false but which you have evidence for (i.e. you’ll kick yourself when it turns out you should have gone with your gut)
  • A sincere belief, which is true but which you have no evidence for
  • An insincere belief, which is true but which you have no evidnece for (and presumably that’s bugging you)
  • A sincere belief, which is false but which you have no evidence for
  • An insincere belief, which is false and which you have no evidence for (sounds absurd but these days this can be sadly common)

The explosions on MGC are an extension of these: challenging beliefs that are:

  1. Sincerely held – indeed passionately held. It’s not a disposable debate point but something to which somebody has attached their personal honour and integrity on.
  2. That is not true AND that the person actually knows is not true. Huh? People can do that. It’s probably not good for your brain though.
  3. That there is no good evidence for and that they know there is no good evidence for.

You may ask, how I could possibly know that about points 2 and 3. Well, you can see it in action. When there is an evidential basis for a belief (even if the evidence is shaky and doesn’t really show what they say it does) they’ll trot out the evidence and then be scornful about any challenge to it. The point has been proved, any further objections are laughable.

On the other hand if the belief is not strongly held then Dave (or whoever) will happily backtrack. The explosion always happens when somebody, no matter how politely asks for evidence on a point that is covered by 1 and 2. The reaction is always that this is a grave insult to the integrity of not just the person asked but the whole blog.

22 thoughts on “A taxonomy of online truth values

  1. I disagree with the premise that this is what determines behavior at MGC. Freer’s sense of territoriality is what’s being triggered. He has a higher degree of insecurity about his turf and requires these highly visible demonstrations, and the power exercise of banning people he can’t control. Greene and Hoyt tend to let adversarial people hang around because their style is to dominate verbally, and they’d hate to think the opponent isn’t still around to feel the lash.

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    1. I see your point but there’s definitely some specific things that set Dave off more than others and the others react similarly as well. I thought at one point is was any case of asking for examples but its more than that.


  2. I can’t understand how anyone can claim to understand the reason for Freer’s behaviour. There’s never any coherence in what he writes and he seems totally unhinged. I don’t think his actions follow any logic at all. They just happen at random, just as the words he types down. A weird stream of consciousness. Sometimes maybe even a stream of unconsciousness.


  3. “When there is an evidential basis for a belief (even if the evidence is shaky and doesn’t really show what they say it does) they’ll trot out the evidence and then be scornful about any challenge to it.” Like the old legal adage: pound the facts if the law is against you; pound the law if the facts are against you; if everything’s against you, pound the table.

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  4. If you explode just because somebody’s asking for evidence, then you must not be very sure of what you’re saying, deep down. I always enjoy looking for evidence of something myself, because it helps me settle what I’m asserting in my own mind. But if you’re afraid that you might just be spewing nonsense, of course you’re going to start getting “defensive and nasty” (which is what I said to someone else) when you’re asked to prove what you’re saying.

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  5. I suspect there is more to the picture. We all know that online communitcation is generally pretty grubby (not that way – but sometimes that way). Look below the line on almost any article and you will see people speaking to each other in manner that – if done in person – would likely result in either being ostracised or becoming an assault victim. The anonymity of the internet shows us that “who we are in the dark” is usually not a flattering picture.

    Now for this specific issue (right wing/puppies/indie publication debating left wing/social justice*/mainstream publication) add to that cesspool another ingredient – a history of conflict which means people assume bad faith from anyone not on “their side”. Indeed I suspect anyone reading even this comment is subconsciously assigning the words I’ve used like “grubby” and “bad faith” to the “other side”. In that mindset the chances of decent engagement are slim. The possibility exists for people to reconcile back to some form of communication which is genuine (and therefore holds the possibility of persuasion) but that would require a will to do so (may not exist for many) and deliberate choice to be contrite and humble (rare).

    Indeed anyone actually communicating and admitting poor behaviour as part of offering an olive branch is more likely to be labelled traitor to the cause than applauded for being a peacemaker.

    Basically…it sucks.

    *social justice in this context should be taken as the dictionary definition of the term rather than coming with the baggage of adding “warrior” on the end.


  6. I don’t think it has to do with sincere or insincere specific beliefs that may be expressed, with or without seeming evidence. It’s more a matter of the persistence of the challenger. Whatever different beliefs the individuals may have, what binds them is a deep investment of social identity and status in unequal hierarchy that offers a general mythic narrative, one that says that they are superior, righteous, good, fair, trustworthy, rational, intelligent and deserving people who naturally (and for some divinely) are the normal center of the society and logically in charge. Because of that narrative, when discrimination is brought up and argued against, it does not to them exist or is not so bad or at least has nothing to do with them, and bringing it up is a threatening, deluded, lying conspiracy, the enemy to be defeated.

    So when someone challenging that general narrative in general or on a specific point shows up, that’s not necessarily considered a bad thing, as it validates their views as a normal position worthy of discussion and them as superior, reasonable, etc. people to be talking to. But if the challenger is not discouraged away by the argument, or doesn’t accept their pronouncements that the challenger has been “defeated” and proven a liar, etc., the challenger is not only challenging the specific belief, but the entire social identity. And that’s the thing that is more important than anything else, than people’s lives. So the challenger no longer becomes useful and is blocked off. When this happens usually would depend on who is paying attention and has time, but also on who in their group wants to exert dominance and the narrative of being righteously in charge.

    Which, you know, it is their blog, so it is their choice. I don’t see the point of engaging people who don’t see me as an equal human being and whose entire identity is built on up-holding that idea in society while declaring themselves right and good for it. Especially if they are not involved in law making or economic policy. But it is of interest to some of you to do. But they cannot let you stick around their patch for too long, being uppity. Specific beliefs and evidence or lack thereof don’t really have much to do with it, that I can see.


  7. “you don’t know that there are spiders on Mars because you have no evidence for them”

    Yeah? Well, explain Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, then.

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  8. Congratulations on getting Dave Freer to write a whole post pretending to embrace your line “I think they all only sincerely care about generating income.” But shh! We’re not supposed to notice that he reads our blogs looking for something to write about at MGC.

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