Online discussion: A failure of epic proportions.

A week or two ago I blocked someone for the first time. It was a terrible experience and I made sure to end it with the final words "And I am growing tired of your arrogance". Even thinking back on the arguments I had with this person upsets me. "Your logic is flawed" was a primary argument of this person and there seemed to be no end in sight to the circular practice of trying to get a meaningful discussion going. I was accused of a fallacy fallacy and this is interesting, because that person was both admitting a fallacy and accusing me of one.

I have had some good arguments with people online, but they are fewer than I would like to believe. My belief that the internet was a place where ideas could be discussed was a false one. All that remains after these debates is a puddle of vomit representing what is left of the arguments presented.

I have been thinking over this for a few weeks now, and it started with the simple idea of taking the higher ground in arguments. There is no use in pointing out the tired old raggy arguments that only apply to a small minority of those you are arguing with. My concern started mainly in the atheist community on Google plus. Even though I respect the folks there, I have found that some of the arguments conflate right wing fundamentalism with religion in general. It is not valid to bring up evolution denial in an argument with a regular Christian who does not oppose the theory. It is equally useless to argue against those who do deny evolution.

Confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are the antagonists in the super internet society where people discuss things and respect each other. There are multiple spots on the spectrum of argument where sensibilty tries to interject, only to be drowned and buried by virtual screaming and fecal flinging.

There is a prevailing idea that passers by will read arguments and realise what the sensible side is about. I believe this is false. Most people who read the arguments on these topics of interest have already made up their minds and confirmation bias will serve them well to reinforce whatever decisions they have already made. Nothing moves, nothing changes, like the wind wearing away at Everest versus the force of plate tectonics pushing it ever higher. 


It is extremely painful to be in these discussions, and very upsetting. I have been in arguments with people where I quoted sources that enforce their positions. They go on to unknowingly poison their own arguments by not reading, or only reading parts that disagree with their opinion with their only ultimate intent being attack on you, your positions and the information you provided. In return they quote information that refutes their own arguments, usually somewhere in the conclusion of the offending source. If only they had spent an extra two minutes reading the rest of it.

Cognitive dissonance protects even those who are willing to debate from changing their minds. Instead of discussion all there is just anger. I don't see things being much different in real life, except that in person we maintain the façade of civility, while online people will go straight to name calling and accusations. These discussions are no different to crappy politics, and I think crappy politics tends to reflect on humanity as a whole, instead of it being the exceptions and a bad example of how humans discuss things.

Opinions seem to be foundations laid in cement, and only the initially planned structure can fit onto that. No consequent changes of mind are ever even considered. I am sick of trying to understand the points that others make, and to take in the information they provide, only to watch them reject mine outright without even the decency of skimming my sources.

There is a fashionable outrage going around, and people will write about how outraged they are about what this one said, or that one said, because the truth is that outrage sells. Angry frustrated people seem to be coming onto the internet and nodding so eagerly at angry rant of other internet users that their spines snap. 

You may be reading this thinking: "well this is a rant, so maybe this guy is part of the problem" and yes you would be right. I have been guilty of the same things I am accusing others of. One thing I am not guilty of is being convinced of my innocence in any way, or being unable to admit that I have been wrong in the past. In fact I read some of the posts on my own blog and shudder at the poor quality. I don't enjoy being humbled by the facts, in fact my first instinct would be to punch my opponent in the testicles... very hard... repeatedly, but I try to take it with me and peer through my hatred of them at that moment to see if what they are saying is actually right instead of burning through google trying to find facts to refute them. There on the internet you will always find someone or something that agrees with your point of view, so argument by internet is almost useless.

Other people don't feel the same. Self examination and learning and growing and respect do not seem to be intrinsic to the culture of the internet. The internet is just a Machiavellian hellhole full of people who cannot be convinced, but are convinced that the others can be. If you see a problem with that logic that is because there is a problem.

Every single call on a fallacy, or claim of superiority is just chest bashing bullshit, and nobody seems intent on learning anything. Maybe the internet is the arena for the ultimate human male showdown, but instead of clubs the pure weapons of status and rhetoric are used. Egos reign supreme while ideas flounder and gape helplessly for air.

My utopian concept of discussion was that we can teach each other something, and a conversation where both parties walk out unchanged is a waste of time nobody is willing to pursue, but I was wrong. I thought there was hope, but I no longer think that way. My only hope now is that  a gamma ray burst will swiftly singe humanity away because the universe should not be subjected to such a futile organism.

How the hippies committed matricide

Today +Ivan Raszl posted a link on the declining arctic ice sheets due to global warming and commented on the need for more nuclear energy. I concur with that. There is a deep problem in society disguising itself as a form of bleeding heart concerned liberalism, but actually emanating from a deep fear of human progress and resulting in the death of mother earth. These neo-hippies drive hybrids and buy organic vegan food only. Their children are not vaccinated and they concern themselves with chemical additives. The problem is that they don't understand what chemicals even are. They are having a very detrimental effect on society because they have loud mouths and uninformed opinions, possibly driven by the low blood sugar and torturous lifestyle of not being able to enjoy a chocolate, donut or steak.

But what is it they do that is so bad? Is citizen's concern really bad at all? That is not the problem. But I will illuminate the various forms of damage they incur before I get to their primary motive.

FrankenFried Fish Broccoli

Humans have been genetically modifying organisms for thousands of years. The moment we forced certain oxen to breed or certain plants to mix we started that process. We have always been following that indirect approach. The problem is that we were trying to do surgery with our thumbs. It worked great initially when we just getting pigs fatter and carrots juicier, but there are limits to what you can do with breeding. Sometimes mutations will carry on simply because they structurally sound in DNA, or weird side effecting bits will carry on through generations. We know this because pure bred dogs can suffer from terrible health problems. Being imprecise and sometimes downright ineffective or cruel, we came up with the idea of editing DNA.

It was nothing short of a revolution. it saved millions of lives because crops that would usually fail were now flourishing. We took a step forward and beat the parasites of nature. It is a really simply process, and it works well. We could borrow certain protein producers from other species and insert those in plants. The plant would then be able to naturally ward off that pest, and survive with much less pesticide.

That was until the anti GMO bunch came along. They hold up signs with catchy alarmist labels such as "Frankenfood" and imply that somewhere in a dark laboratory there are pig carrots squealing in cages. They believe the GMO revolution is bad, and they are intent on stopping it. They were so effective that many countries banned GM crops[1] including Zambia which refused GM crops to feed their dying population.[2]

If you grow your food "organically" (it is a misnomer really, what kind of plant is not organic) you need to use old tools that make the food more expensive. Genetic modifications solve specific problems that make crops cheaper and better.

More expensive organic crops cost more to grow and are more sensitive to the weather and to pests. That means that if you wanted to feed the world on organic crops you would need a whole lot more of it just to get by.

The painful irony, and it is very painful, is that people who eat organic food are ruining the environment, costing poor uninformed people their lives, and holding back potentially revolutionary discoveries in what we eat. Imagine a plant that could produce proteins that could help ward off a cold for instance, or a plant that is fortified by producing extra nutrients that our bodies need. It is clear that organic farming is a desperate grab at something that seems like a nice idea but ends up being detrimental.


[Edit]

I have removed this entire section, because of disagreements on some of the assertions I have made. So why is this issue so hairy? I have been unfortunate enough to run into the anti GMO crowd on several occasions and the problem they exhibit is that they don't understand GMO at all. The technology in itself cannot be bad, but there is always a possibility of one specific modification being bad. Everyone tends to agree that we should continue to study and understand food production and supply better, but these people don't. They are bent on fighting the GMO bogey man without evidence in hand or any specific refutable claims about specific modifications.

It is just a technology like any other and rejecting it because you feel uncomfortable with it is the very wrong thing to do. The debates have been extremely lopsided. If you search for any information on GMO you will be flooded by unscientific blogs (like this one possible) making wild assertions and calling the corporations and the governments evil (unlike this blog). The major difference between them and us is that I am willing to remove an entire section of what I have written and admit, at least, to not being correct in all my statements and not fair and balanced.

OMG Atoms are so bad for you you know!

Nuclear power is the benevolent twin brother of the nuclear bomb. It is difficult to introduce yourself at parties when you are Stalin's twin brother. Despite your polo neck and your mild mannered ways you still look like him. You can't make it to the grocery store without having something thrown at you.

Nuclear power entered at a time when videos of Nuclear bombs wiping out everything in sight were common. It was a testament to the power of the atom. It could be used for good and people those days believed that. They believed that you could even have nuclear cars[4]. Those days are over now. Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Fukushima have ruined the reputation of nuclear power in the eyes of the public, and it will never regain trust.

Nuclear power technology has gotten better and nuclear power plants that were more safe and efficient have been developed. Micro reactors and fast breeding thorium molten salt reactors have been punted as solutions to our energy crisis. But instead we are trying to build solar panels. Lots and lots of solar panels.

Solar power is something that seems so cool that it keeps surfacing. It has been around for quite some time, but now it is being pushed as a real source of real energy. But it doesn't really work that well. Peak power usage is in the evening when the kids are bathing, food is cooking, the tv is blaring and the heaters are heating. During that time solar power is useless. That wouldn't be a problem if we had good batteries. The thing is that we just don't. New technologies are coming along that promise to solve these problems, but that is not the issue. It is our interim solution that is the problem. In short: Coal

Coal power stations are heavy polluters that spew out toxic gasses that make people sick and clog up the ozone layer with Carbon Dioxide. If we had built Nuclear reactors 15 years ago we would be out of the woods right now and in the process of decommissioning coal plants. We are not doing this today because anti nuclear activists are more content with coal fired death than clean Nuclear power. They haven't made the effort to understand modern nuclear technology, they are still opposing the plants built decades ago.

If I told you that I refuse to use a computer because the green screen and the 1 megabyte hard drive is too limiting you would laugh at me, yet people who oppose nuclear power seem to work on this logic. Science has moved forward but they are stuck in the past, and trying to keep us there.

Not only is solar and wind expensive and inefficient, it simply does not meet our demands currently. It is getting better and that is exciting, but nuclear power can be much more efficient and cheaper. People do not realise this but cheaper quite often means lower ecological impact. Solar panels still require rare materials and expensive manufacturing processes.

I think deeper down there is an intrinsic fear of nuclear power. There is of course the issue of weaponisation, but besides that I think that people believe that nuclear power stations near them are bound to melt down and mess up their atoms or something.The fact is that cosmic radiation is blasting us all the time and we are fine. Radiation is all around us. Radiation can certainly be deadly, and we shouldn't downplay the devastation that nuclear power plants can cause if they melt down. The important thing is that we can now build safe, efficient plants and rejecting a good interim technology to the detriment of our health and the environment is unwise.

Injecting children with diseases

Autism is a serious disease. If childhood autism has a cause and we can find it we should. If a researcher lies about research results that should surely be pointed out and everyone should move on. The MMR disaster happened when an unethical researcher faked research results to make it look like the MMR vaccine caused autism. The journal he published to was quick to kick his ass out and retract the paper, but the damage was done. Vacuous celebrities, together with the media and conspiracy theorists eagerly jumped on the story and it spread like wild-fire, starting a movement that is so popular it had to be shortened to anti-vaccer. Anti-vaccers believe vaccines are bad so they do not give their children vaccinations. This has caused resurgence of some diseases[5][6] that have practically been defeated by medical science.

Passing by a debate on Google+ there was an anti-vaccer who admitted that he was comfortable taking advantage of the herd immunity of other children who were vaccinated but refused to vaccinate his own children. I won't use this single person to generalise, however this is a sign that at least some anti-vaccers know that vaccines work.

The fact is that there is no evidence linking vaccines to ailments. There just isn't. Even if there were minor negative effects that is still orders of magnitude better than scores of dying children. Vaccines changed the world for the better. These modern problem finders just don't know how nasty these diseases were. These diseases ruined lives, and killed. Now we don't have to get them any more. Someone who refuses to vaccinate their children has no evidence of the damage that vaccines could do, while the diseases vaccinated against are very well documented, evil, and deadly. By giving these diseases a foothold in communities they are committing attempted genocide. By not helping their children they are committing attempted infanticide, or at least negligent infanticide. The worst part of their story is how much they like to spread their proud inoculation against common sense.

Chemicals, colourants and other nonsense

The people who subscribe to the theories mentioned above go further. They have problems with plastic, colourants, flavourants, preservatives and cell phone radiation to name a few. (It should be noted that since smartphones came along the radiation paranoia has reduced, even though the technology is still the same. It is amazing how quickly people will stop caring if something shiny comes along.) You always end up doing a little research to refute their claims and you always get the same belligerent responses.

They are into self harm too

The same people from above are likely to enjoy vitamin supplements, or are extremely physically active. Neither of those things are really good. It is good to exercise, but too much of it will tax your body.[9] We did not evolve to run around for two hours each day, or lift heavy things the whole time. We also did not evolve to regulate massive intakes of vitamins we don't need.[10] Most of the time the supplements are just kicked out by the system, but in some cases they can be bad. Anti oxidants can be very bad for you[8], and can actually cause disease. Too much iron supplementation can cause Hemachromatosis[7]. The fact is that a healthy regulated diet will keep you healthy. It is almost as if these folks want to live forever, and they are willing to die to accomplish that. In this specific case the media are a big part of the problem. The media misreports science on a daily basis, and that is where many people get their science information from. Some people zealously defend things they read in newspapers about science as if those things must be true.

But you can't...

I know I cannot make generalisations and expect people to fall squarely into all the categories above. However there are common themes that should be noted. The first is that all of the above views are anti science. They deny science as the best tool for knowledge and believe that lay people should be able to decide which science is sound and which isn't based on emotions.

Secondly the emotions that drive these anti-science movements are important. They are stuck in this illusion that nature was made for us. It is a strange teleological belief that everything in nature lives in harmony when in actual fact everything in nature is either trying to eat something else, or trying not to get eaten by something else. Nature is not a force of good that used to hold hands with us before we discovered underwear.

We had to fight our way to the top, from fighting away wild animals with stones and fires, to fighting away famine with the invention of farming to the fight with micro organisms and viruses that are constantly attacking us and finally on to cosmic forces that will inevitably destroy us. Nature if anything recycles, and if we don't mind our step and plan ahead we will be recycled too. If we deny the advances that we have gained through science we are spelling out our own inevitable doom.

All the conspiracy theories and attacks are just a cover up. Fear of the unnatural, of the transhuman world is what drives these people to reject science.  They will keep on refusing to do balanced research and they will keep on calling the rest of us paid shills or marketing agents, because they have no evidence to back up their paranoid delusions. And to top off the irony they will continue to kill mother earth by denying economical and scientific discoveries that could save us from our polluting and dangerous ways.

[EDIT]

But but but...

In each of the issues above there are real and important debates to be had. I don't claim that the case is closed and we should embrace GMO, nuclear power and vaccines without questioning them. The purpose of this post was to highlight the damage that can be done when people ignore science and drive their opinions emotionally. It should be noted too that some things have turned out to be bad for us. Lead in petrol and CFCs and asbestos have all been removed and that is good. The media is very bad at giving an accurate picture, and the internet has no shortage of conspiracy theorists.

[1] http://www.ehow.com/info_8527757_countries-banned-gmo-foods.html
[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2233839.stm
[3] http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/organic-food-is-natural-worth-the-extra-cost
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Nucleon 
[5] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125570056
[6] http://www.nursezone.com/nursing-news-events/more-features/Vaccine-Refusal-Blamed-for-Resurgence-of-Whooping-Cough_31754.aspx
[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemachromatosis
[8] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10359235
[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_exercise#Excessive_exercise
[10] http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/929.html#Safety