Sunday, 12 October 2014

How not to debunk an idea

Warning: this is a rant and consequently, it has a nasty tendency not to follow its own advice.

A certain number of articles I've read over the past year or so have annoyed the hell out of me. They have ideas to debunk, and their modus operandi is as follows:
  1. Spend 80% of the article telling the readers what the author imagines they think.
    a) often get it wrong as far as many people are concerned,
    b) often focus on out-of-date or eccentric ideas, espoused only by those who are ignorant of the subject.
  2. Then spend 20% of the article telling the readers why they're wrong.
This is a bad idea, worse than that, it's probably a cover for writers who need to make copy. Or even worse, it's just a form of super-trolling. At best, it's egocentric and lazy: anyone who can't quote an individual, publication or statistic in support of what they imagine 'everyone' thinks may well be the only one thinking it*. Let's face it, if an idea is truly universal, writers don't need to dwell on it. If most people believe the Earth is roughly spherical and someone wants to present exciting new evidence that it's actually cylindrical, why waste words on telling 'everyone' how wrong they are for having thought it was flat? Debunking for fun and profit is an excellent venture, but it doesn't sit easily alongside the promotion of new ideas. 

There are actually some very good reasons for this. Linking a belief, perhaps a loosely or unconsciously held one, with a reader's sense of self makes it harder for them to change their mind - although linking a belief which is probably false with any social group the reader may identify with (by religion, race, nationality, etc.) is worse. In fact it's such a stupidly ineffective thing to do that words fail me!** It strongly encourages readers to associate themselves with, and defend, the belief the writer has just proposed to them, rather than consider the evidence for the new one. At best, they are likely to find the writer manipulative and obsessive. The most effective way to introduce people to a new belief is to draw as little attention as possible to any contradictory ones they may hold. If this results in them experiencing a little cognitive dissonance, writers had best come over all discreet and let them deal with that by themselves. It's an inevitable part of the change process.

So much for readers who do hold a belief to some extent. Readers who don't may justifiably feel their intelligence and/or education has been insulted. Alternatively, they may take the writer to be ignorant and lose their respect for him or her. Or, if they're the nasty type, they may feel encouraged in their sense of superiority towards all those other pitiful readers who have allegedly bought into the debunked idea***. In all of these cases, the debunker's writing is the epitome of what the word 'divisive' means and being divisive for the lulz makes the perpetrator a troll and a waste of space.

Footnotes:

* Laziness and vague quoting of sources: at least the phrase 'a certain number of articles' doesn't imply they all do this. Nor does it posit writing such articles as the systematic behavior of any individual or class of persons. I may start naming and shaming individual cases at some point if I feel like it, but in the meantime, if you haven't noticed any, feel free to assume I have a bee in my bonnet.

** More laziness and lack of proper evidential support: as even Wikipedia would say, 'citation needed'. I'm pretty certain citations are available but I couldn't be bothered to find any right now.

*** If you don't fall into one of the four or five categories of reader enumerated here, this just isn't about you okay? Perhaps it just means you're not a real reader anyway, have you thought of that? Maybe you should just consider yourself lucky I didn't write this post as though you were practically bound to be the wrong sort of writer. In fact, I avoided writing most of it in the second person altogether, but I ran out of self-control by the time I reached this footnote.

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