Category: Weird Internet Ideas

Weird Internet Ideas: I can’t sum this up in a headline

Birth control funded either through taxation or through medical insurance? It’s a smart idea for lots of reasons and the usual suspects are very much against it for the usual reasons.

Enter the “But why should I have to pay for somebody else’s…” argument. I’m not saying all arguments that start with that question are bad ones, but they so very often are bad ones.

In this case “But why should I have to pay for somebody else’s birth control…” is a very, very, very bad argument.

  1. As discussed ad nauseam, unless you are super-rich the only way feasible system for paying for healthcare in a modern nation is by sharing the cost across many people where most of them are not currently in need of major health care expenses. In other words: taxes or insurance or some third thing that amounts to being taxes or insurance.
  2. Medical interventions that are broadly classed as ‘birth control’ have wider purposes than just birth control. However, even ignoring that and focusing on BIRTH…
  3. Birth, pregnancy and infancy are not medically CHEAP. Assuming point 1, those costs go somewhere and even if in some sort of dystopian libertarian society it was every-person for themselves, those costs would still impact the rest of the economy. There isn’t a way of somehow not ending up paying.

Mind you, the argument does begin to make sense if you assume the person offering the argument is in favour of some of sort of diabolic eugenics scheme in some sort of misguided belief that being rich is genetic. Which, on reflection, is a sentence that started out as sarcasm but feels more like a diagnosis of right-wing ideas that I keep encountering.


Weird Internet Ideas: When the Right Quote Hannah Arendt

The shootings in Las Vegas are an appalling event. I won’t rehash gun control arguments as, to be honest, I think everybody knows them all now. However, when it comes to gun deaths in general and mass shootings, in particular, a basic issue has to be acknowledged: the USA is exceptional. No other industrialised democracy has the levels of gun violence as the USA does. None of the culturally most similar English speaking nations do.  In this regard the US is exceptional. However, we should grant, rationally, that the US is exceptional in other regards so maybe, America’s exceptionality in gun violence is due to some other aspect of its exceptionality other than the glaringly obvious one (lax gun laws).

BUT rationally we can at least dispense with explanations of mass shootings that rely on elements of USA’s politics, culture or economic system that are NOT exceptional. If, as a strawman, somebody were to argue that speaking English was a cause of mass shootings it would be easy to dismiss that as a very implausible explanation. As noted before William of Ockham is our friend and an explanation should avoid descending into epicycles.

Yet here we are and US conservatives and libertarians have run out of arguments as to why disproportionate levels of gun violence in the US is not due to the disproportionately lax levels of gun control. I say “run out” but that doesn’t mean they don’t try.

Here is a new one.

“Intellectual Takeout” is another one of those attempts to recast rationalisations as rationality. In it’s “about” section it says:

“Like you, we are deeply troubled by the growing divisions within America. Discussions today quickly become heated, emotional yelling matches that drive people further apart. Many of us even fear making our opinions known, lest we be ostracized, threatened, fired, or even physically assaulted.

How did the land of the free and home of the brave come to this? Frankly, we see a couple of significant contributors: Breakdown of the education system and the collapse of family and community.

Decades ago, parents could count on the local schools to train students in logic and ensure that they would be historically and culturally literate. No more. Meanwhile, the ongoing collapse of community, family, and faith leaves a large and growing number of Americans feeling lonely and insecure.”

Yup, it is another case of the right presenting itself as the poor persecuted section of society, so starved of chances to speak that it controls the US Presidency and both chambers of the US legislature, not to mention multiple media channels. Ah but if only students were trained in logic! Which would be an appropriate point to insert an Inigo Montoya talking to Vizzini gif, but you all know the line I mean so I’ll let your imaginations deliver the image.

I’ll grant the article this, the writer (Jon Miltmore – apparently a former intern in the GW Bush administration) casts his net a bit further than usual and lands on Hannah Arendt.

Arendt is a complex figure, who experienced 20th-century history first hand. Her most notable work is The Human Condition but she is most widely famous for coining the term “the banality of evil” in her book on the Eichmann trial.

Miltmore’s analysis of America’s gun violence focuses on Arendt’s essay “On Violence”. I can think of worse places to start and Miltmore begins with what could be an interesting point:

“True power, Arendt says, doesn’t require violence. It belongs to a group (never an individual) and it remains so long as the group stays together and can exert its will. Violence, on the other hand, is an instrument. It’s most often employed by those who lack power (a ruffian on a dark street) or by a group that feels power slipping away.

If Arendt is correct, violence is an instrument most likely to be used by those who lack power and feel powerless. And this is where she critiqued modern society.”

“Or by a group that feels power slipping away”. Did you all feel a tinge of hope at that point? That subtle tension of when a person thinking out loud seems to be on the cusp of revelation?

Sadly, having coming close to following an idea that might provide some insights, Miltmore collapses into familiar territory. It is the state! Hmmm, OK, maybe, I *can* think of many ways in which the US as a state has issues – particularly in terms of militirisation…but…no. Miltmore goes to…


To be fair to Miltmore that is where Arendt went as well but then Arendt wasn’t trying to explain away mass shootings. While the role of a feeling of powerlessness within modern society may be an interesting factor in all sorts of elements of violence (including state-sanctioned violence) it fails a basic test when considering US gun violence. Whatever role it might play, it must play the same role in any modern society.

While Miltmore may be unhappy with the US as it stands he is not going to assert that countries like Canada, Australia, the UK, France or Germany are LESS bureaucratic or that the citizens of said countries feel MORE empowered in the face of their respective governments than US citizens. Or, if he does, he isn’t demanding that the US becomes more like those nations in terms of their citizens’ relationship to the state.

Five out of five for effort, zero out of five for logic. Logic requires us to consider the IMPLICATIONS of our hypotheses. You can’t just stop when you find an idea that you like.


Weird Internet Ideas: The “Free” Speech of the Bully

It has been interesting watching the right struggle with their concept of free speech recently. Over the past few years “free speech” had been a rallying cry for far-right trolls demanding sufficient latitude on online platforms to lie, bully and harass others. As such trolls navigate willingly and unwillingly to their own bespoke platforms, they discovered that they also needed rules and restrictions on how they interacted. I discussed some specifics in this post but I wanted to revise some things that I said then.

Meanwhile, in the arena of American professional sport, players are kneeling during the playing of their national anthem in a very dignified and respectful protest against killings by the police. Donald Trump (who strange as it may seem is President of the USA) has called for players protesting in this way to be fired. The right is piling on in support of Donald Trump despite this being clearly a case of the US government (in the form of its highest officer) attempting to stifle the speech of citizens. It is notable how rarely the right even mentions what these players are protesting and instead claiming they are protesting against “the flag” or the “national anthem” rather than “the state murdering citizens”. It as if circumstances have conspired to create the easiest ethical test for anybody claiming to support freedom (a short, non-violent, respectful protest against state-sanctioned killings) and the right consistently failing that test and siding with the suppression of freedom.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s Department of Justice is attempting to access identifying information from internet providers on subscribers to an anti-Donald Trump website – a move that should alarm everybody, indeed a move that should alarm everybody on the right if they stopped for a moment and considered that the POTUS won’t be a far-right Republican forever.

And for an extra topping of ironic-juxtaposition sauce, Jess Sessions is unhappy at the idea of people protesting him when he gives a lecture on free-speech:

Ethicists and political scientist often struggle with making sense of the apparent contradictions on the far right or within fascism. In part, this is because there is a tendency both within logic and within ethical reasoning to assume a degree of universality within principles. When the alt-right et al says “free speech” it has only the appearance of an appeal to a general principle whereas the principle they are appealing to is more akin to this:

“I (the specific rightwing individual) or my kind (flexibility defined) should be able to say what we like, when we like without any restriction and without any criticism or protest or consequences as a result.”

The “free-speech” they crave is not a universal for everybody but rather a specific lack of restriction on them which in turns implies restrictions on the speech of others. Understanding this resolves the apparent contradictions in somebody like Vox Day demanding the right to call innocent people ‘pedophiles’ on the internet while also demanding that social media platforms do their utmost to prevent others calling him a ‘pedophile’ for similar political motives. Or, take Andrew Torba the CEO of Gab praising Donald Trump’s call for protestors to be sacked while claiming his site is a champion of free speech. Torba has rationalised this publicly by saying that the protests are protected speech only “from the government” and not from “fans/biz owners” even though he doesn’t make this distinction when it comes to the “biz owners” of Twitter.

The logic knots come not from their underlying concept of free speech (see above) – which is nasty & evil but not logically inconsistent – but rather from their need to appear to be appealing to some kind of universal principle. Universal principles despite their abstract nature are more rhetorically appealing because they offer something to everybody. Torba, in particular, can’t sell a business on the principle of “free speech for specifically Andrew Torba,” as that offers his consumers nothing. Vox Day is more clear that his comment sections are only ‘free speech’ for his own in-crowd but still tries to claim that he is following some kind of less solipsistic principle because of his flawed cosplay as an intellectual.

Yet this flim-flam around “free speech” works for them. It draws in libertarians and some liberal defenders. It also appeals on a more intuitive level. Having to be careful about what you say is stressful – it taxes your working memory. Yet in any sane society, we all have to navigate how we talk to people around us just out of basic manners. Which takes us to the idea that marries the faux free-speech narrative, the alt-right, trump and trolls. The principle they want is not free speech but bullies speech – the principle of all bullies that they get to say what they want and everybody else doesn’t.

Science and Le Guin Part 2

Following on from Part 1.

Yesterday, I was discussing this post on the blog of the far-right SF publisher Castalia House. I covered some of the confused criticism of Ursula Le Guin’s use of scientific ideas in her books but I singled out one claim for special treatment today.

Here’s the blogger:

“She also claims that it would take the atmosphere “several hundred years to get rid of the CO2”. While I understand Le Guin found math difficult, if humans completely stopped producing CO2, it would take 9-12 days for the atmosphere to rid itself of the amount presently there. Or, if you believe global warm…err “climate change” hysterics, it will take…several years. A few hundred years is baseless ignorance.”

The points I covered yesterday rested primarily on a misreading of the text but in this case, the situation is simpler. The quote from Le Guin is genuine and from The Lathe of Heaven published in 1970. It is also scientifically correct (more or less) whereas the criticism is scientific nonsense – indeed it is error piled on error.

I’ll deal with one minor point first. There is still a misreading/straw man there in that the story does not claim “humans completely stopped producing CO2” (i.e. from industrial/economic activity – people will still breath the stuff out). When the story opens people aren’t using internal combustion engine cars etc but it doesn’t seem to be a zero emission world. However, that is a minor issue compared with the rest.

A diversion

I’ll go off on a bit of a diversion first of all with a thought experiment.

Imagine a toy world with a toy economy [which may not be mathematically sound and is just for the purpose of illustrating an idea]. This world only uses cash and to make it even simpler all the cash is one dollar notes. Each Monday morning Bob gets his pay packet as a wad of notes. During the week he spends his money. Some of his notes go to friends, some to shopkeepers and so on. Now many of those notes find their way back to the bank (there’s only one bank because this is a wholly unrealistic scenario) but some don’t. Sunday night, Bob’s boss Gertrude withdraws money from the bank to pay her employees in the morning. Now Bob’s job is as an economist and he has worked out that on average any given note spends about 5 days out and about before finding its way back to the bank.

Now, as it happens, the previous government of this toy world has been trying to stimulate the economy (perhaps misguidedly) by printing lots of extra money. So there are more notes in circulation than normal. A new government has just been elected and they decide to stop printing extra notes.

Gertrude asks Bob to work out how long it will take for the number of notes in circulation to drop back down to previous levels. I’ve told you already the 5 days figure for notes going back to the bank so it should be easy to work out right!

No. The 5 days is not a useful figure. It tells us the time it takes for a note to get back to the bank but those notes head back out again on Sunday night/Monday morning. The time it will take the toy world’s economy to adjust to fewer notes being printed is a quite different question. For that, we need to know about notes that go missing, are destroyed or put away long-term in vaults or under a mattress. The 5-day figure isn’t wholly irrelevant but from what I’ve said the ADJUSTMENT rate could be 14 days or 20 months or 100 years.

Back to the main feature

Le Guin (back in 1970) is describing an adjustment rate for CO2 given a decline in anthropogenic emissions. The blogger is being scornful of that figure and cites a different figure which appears to be a residence time for molecules of a gas in the atmosphere – akin to the figure for a note in our toy world. The 9-12 days figure is how long a molecule of a given gas is in the atmosphere as part of a cycle before moving to a different part of the cycle.

Also, the gas for that 9-12 figure isn’t CO2.

Best guess, given the context, is the blogger is quoting a figure for WATER VAPOUR (i.e. H2O as a gas). Now water vapour is a major greenhouse gas and plays a big role in global warming but it isn’t CO2 and its role isn’t like that of CO2.

The rate for CO2 that the blogger wants is the one he mentions snidely “Or, if you believe global warm…err “climate change” hysterics, it will take…several years.” Now the mechanics of this are obviously complex but do a quick sanity check. Water vapour has a short time in the atmosphere on average because when it gets cold it falls out of the sky (if you live in Britain you will be very familiar with this phenomenon). There are many processes that lead CO2 to come out of the atmosphere of varying speeds but an obvious one is plants growing which captures carbon (on average) and then being eaten by other living things which releases carbon back into the atmosphere (on average) – which is a process that takes more than a few days. The oceans also play a substantial role in this process at multiple timescales.


  1. the figure is for the wrong gas,
  2. it is the wrong figure to use.

It is a multiple fail.

The figure needed is the rate at which carbon leaves the shorter term parts of the carbon cycle and gets locked up without returning to the atmosphere. That isn’t simple to work out but 50 years for 50% is a current estimate ( ) and 70% in a hundred years. It isn’t a linear relationship so for close to all (say 99%) of the additional carbon from industrialisation to go will take even longer. If Le Guin’s statement is taken to mean all of the carbon then it is an underestimate, if it is taken to mean MOST of it then it is spot on. A reminder: this is a book published in 1970.

Science and Le Guin Part 1

Patrolling, as I do, the accursed realms of Science Fiction interwebbery, I happened across a post at Castalia House Blog entitled “You Don’t Need to Know Science to Write Science Fiction…But it Helps!” Given that they are a blog of a far-right publisher and also one that regards the 1920s as the peak of science fiction it is reasonable to assume that the “science” bit is going to go awry.

The piece starts boldly enough:

“Contrary to the genre’s title, most authors writing science fiction know less about science than a curious twelve year-old. Even more surprisingly, one can still write good, even great SF with this impediment! And I note this as a professional scientist who loves “hard science” works. While this might seem like great news for the hoard of hacks out there, including those with philosophy degrees from the University of Chicago, this is indeed a severe handicap, and makes the writer’s task tougher, not easier.”

And then goes on to patronisingly praise Harry Harrison on the grounds that his humour managed to cover up his apparent failings in science (and just one more reminder – this is from a blog that thinks SF has been going downhill since Edgar Rice Burroughs stopped writing).  The writer doesn’t provide examples of SF writers whose scientific credentials they find admirable, so it isn’t clear what they regard as sufficiently good uses of science but each to their own. It isn’t unreasonable to want more overt (and correct) science in one’s fiction.

The next step is where things go very wonky:

‘Another example, albeit not as successful, is that of Ursula Le Guin.  She knew even less about science than Harrison did, as her education was limited to Rennaissance French and Italian literature.  In fact, her profile on Infogalactic humorously notes that “She was interested in biology and poetry, but found math difficult.”’

Snideness aside, it is not uncommon to find people for whom maths is difficult – even people who are good at maths find maths difficult. Also, the proprietor of Castalia House does not regard maths as their strong point. Now, I don’t think Le Guin’s works are impeccably scientific but I’ve never noted them being especially UNscientific compared to other science fiction. If anything, I’ve found her portrayal of scientists quite convincing.

However, we are given examples:

“In The Lathe of Heaven, written in 1970, she predicts that large cities will be ravaged by scurvy, typhus, and hepatitis in the year 2000.  The first two diseases had virtually been eradicated, with no signs of resurgence, when she wrote the work.  She also claims that it would take the atmosphere “several hundred years to get rid of the CO2”.  While I understand Le Guin found math difficult, if humans completely stopped producing CO2, it would take 9-12 days for the atmosphere to rid itself of the amount presently there.  Or, if you believe global warm…err “climate change” hysterics, it will take…several years.  A few hundred years is baseless ignorance.

Her famous The Left Hand of Darkness contains one of the dumbest scientific claims I have read in the genre. Le Guin tells us that the night sky in Gethen is dark because of an expanding universe. Firstly, their night sky wouldn’t be completely dark considering they’re less than 100 light-years from Earth, which means most the stars we can see from here would show up in their night sky. (We can presently see stars some 3,200 light years away with the naked eye) Secondly, the concepts are largely unrelated unless this story takes place billions of years from the present day, which it does not.”

This is a delightful ball of error: errors in reading, science and basic understanding.

I will save one of the errors (on CO2) for part 2 because the science is worth discussing in more detail. The other two I’ll address now.

The Lathe of Heaven: “She predicts that large cities will be ravaged by scurvy, typhus, and hepatitis in the year 2000” 

The Lathe of Heaven is an unusual novel for Le Guin, one which resembles the work of her former schoolmate Philip K Dick. The novel starts in a dystopian Portland in the Year 2000 and indeed mentions a variety of diseases running rampant in the cities. Firstly in Chapter 1 a medic treating the main character for radiation sickness says:

“You know there’s two hundred sixty kids in that one complex suffering from kwashiorkor? All low-income or Basic Support families, and they aren’t getting protein…

…I go give ‘em Vitamin C shots and try to pretend that starvation is just scurvy…”

And later in Chapter 3 the state of the cities in North America are described as:

“Undernourishment, overcrowding, and pervading foulness of the environment were the norm. There was more scurvy, typhus and hepatitis in the Old Cities, more gang violence, crime, and murder in the New Cities.”

So yes, the novel does feature these diseases in the Year 2000. However, these are not ‘eliminated’ diseases but ones related to malnutrition and unsanitary living conditions. Le Guin didn’t ‘predict’ these diseases just popping back up in an affluent society but instead was using them in a dystopian setting. The Lathe of Heaven doesn’t claim to be a piece of futurological prediction. How do we know that? Because the novel is ABOUT alternative futures and its central conceit is a man whose dreams cause changes in reality.

When the novel starts, the protagonist has already been inadvertently causing changes to reality since he was at least 16. So, no, not a novel meant to be a definite prediction about the year 2000. Even so, was it grossly unscientific to think in 1970 that maybe things would get shittier? If so then it is a crime many other SF writers would have committed. Weirdly, having already discussed Harry Harrison, the post doesn’t mention Harrison’s book Make Room, Make Room which imagines a not dissimilar crap-sack world for 1999.

Nor is it the case that scurvy has actually been eradicated. While still uncommon, diseases linked to poverty and malnutrition continue to exist in the US (for scurvy see here ) and diseases more associated with countries without modern healthcare pose serious risks to many poorer Americans including Chagas disease, cysticercosis, toxocariasis, toxoplasmosis, and trichomoniasis (see here ) Typhus is rare but has not been eradicated in the US (see ) and in the conditions Le Guin describes in her imagined world could easily spread.

Oddly there are weaker aspects of The Lathe of Heaven the writer could have picked on. He does go onto to target one reference to global warming (which I’ll discuss in part 2) but doesn’t mention that the book assumes the warming would occur much more quickly leaving even Mount Erebus in Antarctica without an icy peak.

Left Hand of Darkness and Olber’s Paradox

I didn’t have a copy of the Left Hand of Darkness to hand but it isn’t hard to spot a weird strawman:

“Firstly, their night sky wouldn’t be completely dark…”

The claim is about the night sky being “dark” – well the night sky IS dark. It’s dark on Earth – that’s sort of a defining feature of nighttime. So the blog writer does a little shift to “completely dark’ and then goes off on how that would be impossible.

So did Le Guin really say that the night sky on Gethen is completely dark without stars? No. Here’s Genly Ai recalling waking from a bad dream on Gethen:

“I ended up in an open field, standing in dry stubble by a black hedge. The dull-red half-moon and some stars showed through clouds overhead. The wind was bitter cold.”

And here discussing near-by and far away systems to Gethen:

“We are seventeen light-years here from the nearest Ekumenical World, Ollul, a planet of the star you call Asyomse; the farthest is two hundred and fifty light-years away and you cannot even see its star.”

And later in the book:

“We seemed to get strength from going, and we went fast and easy. We went that day till the stars came out.”

So what the flip is he going on about?

Chapter 12 of the book starts with a lengthy excerpt from a fictional text “The Sayings of Tuhulme the High Priest, a book of the Yomesh Canon, composed in North Orgoreyn about 900 years ago.” That fictional text from an alien culture includes this section:

“In the answering of the Question of the Lord of Shorth, in the moment of the Seeing, Meshe saw all the sky as if it were all one sun. Above the earth and under the earth all the sphere of sky was bright as the sun’s surface, and there was no darkness. For he saw not what was, nor what will be, but what is. The stars that flee and take away their light all were present in his Eye, and all their light shone presently.” LeGuin, Ursula K.. The Left Hand of Darkness (S.F. MASTERWORKS) (pp. 163-164). Orion. Kindle Edition.

That section, in turn, is followed by a note, which says:

This is a mystical expression of one of the theories used to support the expanding-universe hypothesis, first proposed by the Mathematical School of Sith over four thousand years ago and generally accepted by later cosmologists, even though meteorological conditions on Gethen prevent their gathering much observational support from astronomy. The rate of expansion (Hubble’s constant; Rerherek’s constant) can, in fact, be estimated from the observed amount of light in the night sky; the point here involved is that, if the universe were not expanding, the night sky would not appear to be dark.

So no, not a claim that the night sky of Gethen is completely devoid of stars but a reference to Olbers’ Paradox which is exactly about why the night sky is dark. Note “dark” does not mean “devoid of stars” because it obviously DOES NOT MEAN THAT fer goodness sake.

Now is the redshift from an expanding universe the full solution to Olber’s paradox? No, but:

  1. Le Guin doesn’t say it is.
  2. It’s actually Le Guin saying that’s what some fictional astronomers thought.
  3. And actually, it’s Le Guin saying that in reference to an equally fictional mystic poet’s analogy.

Is it completely accurate? No, but it’s not bad and requires a willful misreading to think it says something “pseudoscientific”.

Part 2 tomorrow.

The Other Kind of Alt-History

What do you call it when a military power, sends it’s navy and troops to somewhere else, lands there and claims the land as its own and under the direct control of that power?

You can call it lots of things but if you are in Australia just be really careful that you don’t call it an “invasion”. This is one of those issues where if you are outside of it the issue is simple and if you are inside it – well it is still simple but also a weird world of shibboleths.

Before I continue, I’d advise reading some of these links:

You’ll probably have noticed the strange topsy-turvy way in which people refering to an invasion as an “invasion” is denounced as “political correctness” by the people who typically denounce “political correctness” but usually reserve that term for when other people want to control language.

Why am I mentioning this now? Mainly because it ties in with the previous post about the US, the “South” and attempts to control history.

In the case of Australia there is a national myth – indeed more than just as a myth as it was enshrined as a principle “Terra Nullius” within Australian case law – that Australia was an empty place. Hence, according to that myth, it wasn’t anybody’s and hence when Britain claimed (and named) New South Wales it wasn’t an invasion per-se because the land was just sitting there. The myth is false, obviously, and eventually rejected by Australian courts in 1982 in the landmark Mabo case

Yet here we are and apparently rational people will vehemently tie themselves into rhetorical knots to claim that an invasion wasn’t an invasion. Even given the willingness of some on the right to boldly assert irrational claims, you’d think they would avoid such an obviously silly one. The most powerful navy in the world (at the time) plonks a full on colony of citizens half-way round the world, displacing the people living there and claiming the land as its own is somehow NOT an invasion is such a silly claim that you might assume no public figure would be willing to make it.

However, the absurdity almost makes the ‘controversy’ stronger. After all, if you can boldy talk nonesense and demand that people listen to you and more sensible people nod their heads and concede that your point should be given due consideration, well what better expression of power and privelege can there be? To quote the Simpson’s movie “Have you ever tried going mad without power? It’s boring nobody listens to you.”

So we have an issue that requires little more than a basic grasp of English and some fairly simple moral principles to settle:

  • The word “invasion” means something and it is a decent fit to what Britain did to Australia.
  • Stealing people’s stuff (including land) is wrong.

Really, unless your ideology is stealingpeoplesstuffiscoolism this should not be a moral conundrum.

So why the rightwing passion in the opposite direction (a passion that commits them to arguing that words don’t mean what they mean and stealling is OK sometimes)? Now part of it is a natural knee-jerk defence of one’s ancestors – except, in the case of Australia:

  • It was Britain that did the invading and Australia isn’t Britain.
  • Many of the first settlers were transported criminals – Australia was (at least partly & initially) settled by settlers their against their own will.

So whereas we might look at blowhards in other nations trying to edit their nations history into hagiographic sequence of events where the nation or its originators only ever did good things and the bad things they did were always justified and for the best etc etc, you’d think that the Australian version of such people would still be able to rationalise the original British invasion (sorry “settlement”) without having to rewrite the dictionary.

But they can’t and they won’t. Because it isn’t about the distant past but about the recent past. To accept that the events 1770 and 1788 amounted to an invasion would require them to accept that modern Australia owes a debt to the people whose land was taken.

It’s not a syllogism and “invasion” isn’t the premise, but the conclusion they are trying to avoid remains the same: Australia owes a debt to the people whose land was taken.

Weird Internet Ideas: A case of Scott Adams

I’ve not the skill or insight for a full discussion of Scott Adams, the lite-alt-right wannabe of Dilbert fame, but this piece crossed my path and informal reasoning and rhetoric are on my list of required blog topics.

It is far from the worst things Adams has ever written but it does exemplify the profound shallows of his style of analysis. The piece is a guide to knowing when you have won an argument on the internet. I should put a mandatory statement about arguments not being about the winning but, well honestly sometimes they can be about the winning rather than the journey. Having said that…any time spent talking to people on the net should be judged against an informal cost-benefit otherwise you can waste your days trying to convince a Twitter bot that it’s wrong about pi being ‘fake news’. So this opening section from Adams is not terrible advice:

“Do you remember the time you changed a stranger’s political opinion on the Internet by using your logic and your accurate data?

Probably not. Because that rarely happens. If you were paying attention during the past year, you learned facts don’t matter to our decisions. We think they do, but they don’t. At least not for topics in which we are emotionally invested, such as politics.  (Obviously facts do matter to the outcomes. But not to decisions.)”

Of course, Adams is missing that in any net discussion there are rarely just two people. Bystanders and other people commenting play a role and sound arguments do help shape their thoughts. Also, not every internet argument is between people with entrenched immutable viewpoints. Nor is a change of mind necessarily immediate – people shift positions in their life, sometimes radically and exposure to alternate ideas can play a part in that. Additionally, strong arguments can shape the behaviour of people whose core opinion doesn’t change – they may avoid advancing a particular argument in that space again or they may adapt their argument over time. There is no simple test of whether continuing with an argument is worthwhile. My own criteria usually amount to “am I bored yet” or “are people I like distressed by this argument continuing”, rarely is it “I’ve won” although I can think of some occasions…

Adam’s continues:

“I propose the Cognitive Dissonance test. If you can trigger your opponent into cognitive dissonance, you win. “

I’ll not get into his use of the term “cognitive dissonance”, I’m not sure it is important but the general gist of Adams use is along the lines of: if your opponent is discombobulated then you’ve won. Yeah, maybe not.

‘You can detect cognitive dissonance by the following tells:

Absurd Absolute

An absurd absolute is a restatement of the other person’s reasonable position as an absurd absolute. For example, if your point is there is high crime in Detroit, the absurd absolute would be your debate opponent saying something such as “So, you’re saying every person in Detroit is a criminal.” ‘

This is not terrible advice in terms of identifying a weak counter-response but it is not a particularly good indication that the person you are arguing with is discombobulated. It may even be present as an idea when the argument starts and it is also a revealing argument – it shows where a misunderstanding (intentional or otherwise) exists in the opposing position. It may well reflect what a person has been told about your generic position. More maliciously, it is an argument that may be offered to intentionally wind you up. Of course, if somebody is just trying to push your buttons then it is worth considering whether your time is being well spent.

In addition, arguments may often turn to broader absolutes even when two parties are arguing with open minds and in good faith. The process of argument can lead you to a better understanding of what assumed & unspoken principles you are appealing to. On occassion, this may help clarify other issues inadvertently. Consider the use of some ‘absurd absolutes’ by defenders of “Obamacare” repeal when responding to the notion that people have the right to free-at-source healthcare – US conservatives have parodied the notion with spurious strawmen claims that this would be like demanding a right to food or a job or housing or…oh wait…, those really are being advanced as strawmen by the right but I agree, people should expect the government to try and ensure people have those things along with healthcare! The absurdity is not what they think it is. Extrapolation and generalisations of arguments and ideas is a productive process in thinking.


Analogies are good for explaining concepts for the first time. But they have no value in debate. Analogies are not logic, and they are not relevant facts.”

This is an ignorant point. Analogies are deeply baked into nearly all aspects of our thinking. It is nigh on impossible to avoid them, as Adams then immediately demonstrates by resorting to an analogy about a plumber. Yes, analogies are unreliable, have limitations and are hard to formalise but thinking without analogies is like swimming without water when you are a cake or something else that can’t swim or think or use analogies.

Analogies are not logic? Yeah, sort of – I’ll give it a pass. What I’d say is that the main role of mathematics and logic in human thought has been to find ways of codifying/formalising analogies. It’s why we use the concept of ‘models’ i.e. formalised analogies with known limitations.

So what is Adams actually thinking of? Well, probably forced or spurious analogies. But what do they indicate? They can arise at any point in a discussion and I’d generally take them to be firstly an interesting insight into what the other person is thinking that may be more revealing than they realise and secondly an indication that the other person might still be making some effort to argue in something at least vaguely like good faith,

“Attack the Messenger

When people realize their arguments are not irrational, they attack the messenger on the other side. If you have been well-behaved in a debate, and you trigger an oversized personal attack, it means you won.”

Um, no. OK, yes, yes we can all think of personal examples where this was the case. You engaged in an argument and the other person flips out. Yet even a basic understanding of human behaviour tells us that people can lose their temper for many reasons beyond “cognitive dissonance”, discombobulation or the humiliation of having their argument pulled apart by a keyboard warrior.

What’s really toxic about this point from Adams is how you see it working with some species of troll. If you get to ‘trigger an oversized personal attack’ from your opponent then ‘it means you won’ is a trollish strategy based on following some shallow conventions of civility while finding buttons to push. That would be taking Adams’s point the wrong way as far as causality goes but it is easy for people to convince themselves that they are being reasonable and that their opponent is being emotional.

It is rather like winning a chess game by being so annoying that your opponent refuses to play anymore and walks away, thus forefit the game to you. That does not make you a canny chess player.

Put another way “winning an argument” is arguably one way of being so annoying that a person insults you gratuitously but it is just one way and is also comorbid with “being a smug pedantic git” which can often overlap with “arsehole”. I try to stay out of the last circle of that Venn diagram but not always with success. [Of course if it is Vox Day et al insulting you then yes, you won 😉 ]

More generally there are many ways of annoying people whilst simultaneously following the superficial formalities of polite debate and not making a “winning” argument, not least of which is treating some other kind of social interaction as if it were a debate.

“The Psychic Psychiatrist Illusion

The Psychic Psychiatrist Illusion involves imagining you can discern the inner thoughts and motives of strangers. I’m talking about the unspoken thoughts and feelings of strangers, not the things they have actually said.”

Maybe. It’s the least weak of Adams’s points and I’d broadly agree with it with exceptions.