Archive for the ‘Critique’ Category
I’ve come across the Argument From Analogy all too often and most recently I’ve see it in the form of, “if X is not responsible for the actions of a subset of X, then Y shouldn’t be responsible for the actions of a subset of Y.” A classic Argument From Analogy — the idea being, of course, that there’s some general principle that can be inferred from one case that will apply to another case. In this particular example, X and Y share two analogical properties for the purposes of the argument — both are defined as a group in some way and both have a subset of members acting out of accordance with the majority. To be specific, X is the religion of Islam and Y is “Gamergate.” I’m loathed to have to explain Gamergate, but a summation for the purposes of this piece might be: “A collection of people online who say they campaign for ethics in games journalism but also have associations to people who are directly threatening some female game developers and female commentators with rape, violence, misogyny and various other types of abuse.” The Gamergaters argue from analogy when they say that if one doesn’t hold the entirety of Islam responsible for the acts of terror perpetrated by a tiny minority, then one ought not hold them responsible for the acts of terror perpetrated by what they say is a tiny minority of their population.
Now that we have some basics laid out, let’s step back a bit and just look at the Argument From Analogy and see how it can be problematic. I think a good way to do this is to look at the critique of the Argument From Design (also known as “The Teleological Argument,” and more recently as “Intelligent Design”). The Argument From Design posits the existence of a creator (god) through an Argument From Analogy — some may be familiar with the notion of the watch and watchmaker. The argument goes: when we see a watch, in all its intricate complexity, we infer that this watch has not come to be by accident — it has clearly been designed to function in a particular way. And in understanding that it has been designed, we then must also infer that it has had a designer. The watch is then used in an analogy comparing it to the universe and it is argued the universe displays at least as much intricate complexity as a watch does, so it follows by analogy that the universe has been designed and has a designer (god).
Scottish philosopher David Hume famously attacked the Argument From Design on a number of fronts, but the one we are interested in is the strength of the Argument From Analogy. Wikipedia has an adequate enough piece on this:
He points out that for an argument from analogy to be successful, the two things that are being compared have to have an adequate number of similarities that are relevant to the respect you are analogizing them with. For example, a kitten and a lion may be very similar in many respects, however just because a lion makes a “roar” it would not be correct to infer a kitten also made a “roar”, because the similarities between the two objects are not similar enough and the degree of relevance to what sound they make is not relevant enough. Hume then argues that the universe and a watch also do not have enough relevant or close similarities to infer that they were both created the same way. For example, the universe is made of organic natural material however the watch is made of artificial mechanic materials.
This is known as the logical fallacy of the Argument From Weak Analogy. As the Fallacy Files piece points out, no analogy is perfect because in order to be so the two things being compared need to be so similar as to be indistinguishable — that is, a perfect analogy ceases to be an analogy and instead becomes a matter of identity (A = A). So, no Argument From Analogy can be perfect, however, some may be adequate enough to sustain the point being argued. Furthermore, even the most dissimilar things can likely be found to share some characteristics — however esoteric that connection might be.
Now, the question for the case of the Argument From Analogy put forward by the Gamergaters is: how strong is the analogy between the religion of Islam with its 1.5 billion adherents and Gamergaters and their few thousand (at best?) advocates? The answer is — not very strong at all. So weak, in fact, that the argument can not be sustained. For one, there’s a great deal of difference between someone’s religious identity and someone’s identity as a “Gamergater” — to pretend that the two are of equal import to the individual is disingenuous. The notion that someone might leave their religion because of the actions of a small percentage of adherents is unrealistic, but the notion that one might disassociate one’s self from a relatively small campaigning group because of the actions of a supposedly small percentage is not. Personally, if I was associated with a group seeking a goal and that group’s existence engendered extremely bad behavior in some, then I would certainly consider disassociating myself with said group if no means were forthcoming to negate that effect. Second, the scale is completely different in the two cases — it’s unrealistic to hold 1.5 billion responsible for thousands, but it’s far more realistic to hold thousands responsible for the actions of dozens or hundreds. That is, policing a community of 1.5 billion for extreme actions is far more difficult than policing a community of a few thousand for extreme actions. The complexity of the notion of a religious identity and the complexity of policing a community of 1.5 billion people are reduced to simplistic terms in order to make the comparison with the Gamergate identity and the Gamergate community seem reasonable.
Furthermore, there are a great number of differences between the undesirable element in Islam and the undesirable element in Gamergate. In Islam, there is an entire history behind the creation, nurturing and outward promotion of a sect known as Wahhabism by, primarily, the Saudis. There is a great deal of financing and other support by the Saudis that goes into this world view. In contrast, the undesirable element of Gamergate has no similar historical context of support by a powerful benefactor. That is, there are causes in relation to Islam that are, at least, partly responsible for the presence of this undesirable element that have no analogous counterparts in Gamergate. To expect the same level of responsibility to exist within both communities does not follow — powerful forces are at work with regard to that particular aspect of Islam, but that is not so for Gamergate. In short, the “foe” is of an all together different nature in the two cases, so one might reasonably expect that Gamergaters have the power to do something about their bad element while not expecting the same of Islam.
Also, there’s a historical divide in Islam between the Sunni and the Shia. This deep divide helps fuel factional behavior that stokes the fires of the more radical element. Gamergate has no analogous fundamental ideological divide, thus their more radical element is not fueled in this way. To suggest, as the Argument From Analogy employed by Gamergate does, that the two elements are on par ignores the current reality of Islam as well as its historical context. To posit that the difficulty Gamergater’s have in dealing with their undesirable element is on par with the similar issue Islam has to deal with is nonsensical and blind to the wider context.
So, there are far too many fundamental differences between the two communities (size and the nature of the kind of identity each represents) as well as other historical and power relationships that make the analogy too weak to sustain the overall argument. How someone views the relationship between Islam and its undesirable elements can not constrain or inform on how one can view Gamergate’s relationship to its undesirable elements.
Arguments From Analogy are very dangerous — they have a high degree of rhetorical punch. That is, humans like to compare things and see similarities — extract general principles from specifics and then import them into different situations. One could even say we are hard wired to do so. This is a valuable trait much of the time, but it is also a trap waiting to corrupt our reason. Analogies are wonderful descriptive devices — they are excellent to use as a “hook” into a subject in order to get someone to understand the gist of a concept or new idea. However, as a prescriptive device (an argument for something) they can easily misfire logically but still maintain that high degree of rhetorical punch — that is, when wrong they can quite often still be convincing to a large number of people. I try to avoid using analogies as arguments. Descriptors, explanatory tools, etc. — yes, but not as standalone arguments. If your only argument is from analogy, then it would be wise to first see if you can find another argument. If not, then it will warrant immediate and close scrutiny to ensure you are not committing the fallacy of Argument From A Weak Analogy. The world doesn’t need another illusory watchmaker.
Last week saw Crimestopers UK launch a new campaign with the intention of alerting the public to the smell and signs of cannabis grow houses in the neighbourhood. One of the features of the campaign is a scratch and sniff card that when activated supposedly gives off the smell of growing cannabis. Also on the card are other signs the public should be on the lookout for in order to identify cannabis grow houses:
Crimestoppers came under almost immediate criticism on social media for the campaign and it is fair to say the majority of reactions were mocking and/or damning. Under the barrage of criticism and questions, Crimestoppers asserted that they are an independent non-judgemental charity, which works to pass anonymous information from the public to the police, and that their campaign is designed to target organized crime and not individuals. When I pointed out to them that their campaign was clearly making judgements by choosing to elicit specific types of information from the public they responded by defining their notion of non-judgemntal (my emphasis):
We are apolitical; we do not comment on government policy, or the police and we do not judge our callers, or anybody in the criminal justice sector. We only do what we are good at: receiving information anonymously from members of the public to pass on to the police to solve crimes.
Clearly they are doing more than this with the #weedthesigns campaign. They do have a section where they outline core activities which includes, “Help to reduce crime by running projects and campaigns in communities most affected by crime.” And I presume they deem this campaign to fall under that rubric as they are distributing the cards in targeted areas where the police have identified grow house concentrations in their report on cannabis cultivation (.pdf): UK National Problem Profile: Commercial Cultivation of Cannabis 2012. I’ll come back to this document later, but suffice it to say that it is prepared by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and, “…is the third UK-wide assessment of the scale and nature of, and the response of law enforcement to, this problem since 2008.”
At the very least, I think Crimestoppers need to rework their notion of non-judgemental because they are clearly doing more than, “receiving information anonymously” when they run campaigns. They attempted to compartmentalize the two activities when I critiqued them on this point, but I find that attempt wholly unconvincing given that there is no public identification of various “arms” of the institution — there is simply Crimestoppers UK and its “core activites.”
Furthermore, when pressed on the source of funding for the campaign, Crimestoppers UK disclosed that it is paid for by their law enforcement partners. So, we have the police using a so called independent charity as the public face for a police funded campaign. Again, that seems to violate the notion of Crimestoppers UK as non-judgemental and apolitical. A cynic might conclude that the police used Crimestoppers UK as the “front” of this campaign in a manner similar to that of a human shield — that is, knowing the kind of ridicule and critique the campaign would engender they chose to run it through a seemingly independent charity so as to deflect the critique from themselves.
In the first piece I wrote for this blog, Why I Feel Sorry For Peter Hitchens, I argued that the enforcement of unjust/inconsistent/widely unheeded laws can lead to disrespect for the law as a whole (including those that enforce it). Crimestoppers UK, in associating themselves with the police on this issue as the the public face of this campaign, have now also felt some of that same disrespect through the feedback generated by social media. To be clear, I assume Crimestoppers UK motives to be of the best intentions and I have no issues with the general notion of a conduit through which the public can anonymously pass information to police, but they also seemingly accept whatever the police pass onto them as prima facie true and without much, or any, critical reflection.
It might be helpful to just take a step back for a moment and look at why the campaign received the type of reaction that it did:
- There is a general and growing impatience with prohibition, particularly in relation to cannabis, in the mind of the public and with the failed “drug war” tactics that have been employed over the last 40 years — and the public see this campaign as the continuation of that policy and tactics.
- In distributing a scratch and sniff card with the aroma of growing cannabis the campaign does not distinguish between small personal grows and the intended target of organized crime’s grows. Cannabis smells the same whether grown by organized crime or a person growing it to alleviate health problems.
- Commercial grows employ methods to eliminate the odours of growing cannabis through carbon filtration of the exhausted air. Again, leaving the small personal grower in the campaign’s sights.
- There is a large demand for cannabis in the public and seeking to disrupt the supply is not popular with those who wish to consume it.
- There is a large variety of people involved with production and use of cannabis and the campaign is too broad stroked, so it ends up painting all those involved as “bad people” or associates of organized crime.
- The smell of growing cannabis is not that dissimilar to that of it being consumed (particularly by vaporization) and those unfamiliar with the smell are likely to confuse it with the smell of simple consumption — putting the consumer in the sights of the campaign.
- The campaign’s imagery includes hand guns seemingly growing out of flower pots alongside cannabis — setting up an association of the smell and signs on the card to that of violence, firearms and danger (more on this later).
- The campaign is likely to force more consumers into the hands of the black market and organized crime by scaring them away from growing their own supply — resulting in increased demand for the output of organized criminal enterprises.
So, a campaign that purports to target organized crime and the apparent concomitant harms that it can bring into neighbourhoods (firearms, violence, human trafficking, etc.) comes across as ill focused and likely to target those it says it wishes to exclude. Furthermore, it swims upstream against the growing tide of public sentiment on the issue and paints all those associated with cannabis in a negative light. How did Crimestoppers UK end up running such an ill defined campaign? The answer seems to be the information the police provided to them and their uncritical acceptance of it as true, correct and substantiated.
Let me just be clear here and establish that there is no doubt that organized crime is involved in cannabis production — it would be foolish to think otherwise — prohibition attracts organized crime like picnics attract ants. And there is no doubt that organized crime can bring with it violence and firearms — to what degree and the overall percentage of those involved so equipped will depend on the types of “organization,” the level of risk and reward as well as many other factors, I’m sure. However, when talking about such matters it’s of utmost importance that there is hard data available to base assertions, decisions and campaigns upon — and this seems to be where things fell down for the #weedthesigns campaign.
In a statement (.pdf) produced by Crimestoppers UK after the critique they received on social media they state:
The imagery used on the cards and posters for this campaign show a gun growing from a cannabis plant. This reflects the fact that cannabis farms grow and fund serious organised crime including violent, gang-related crime and firearms. This is the key objective of our campaign and this has been emphasized throughout all our communications.
The attempt to frame the imagery simply as a depiction of how cannabis farms can fund organized crime seems a lot like an afterthought to justify it in light of the criticism — for instance, if the funding of organized crime is the core message why not show money growing from the pots and being picked by a gangster? I very much doubt that the average viewer of the imagery will think about it as described in the above quotation — the blunt takeaway message is that cannabis farms = guns. If one puts out imagery where guns are associated to the smell and sight of cannabis growing, then it is one’s responsibility to have the relevant statistics to back up such a vivid representation. The impression that will stick in the minds of the public is that the odour from the card is cannabis being grown and where cannabis is being grown firearms are present. This imagery associated to the odour is not intended to be subtle or nuanced — there is only one thing this will engender in the minds of the public — fear. And the hope is that this fear will lead to an increase in reports of cannabis farms:
One would assume that if you put out such imagery and also link it to the smell of cannabis, then you have the statistics ready to hand on the number of firearms recovered/encountered per cannabis growing operation. It would be a basic piece of due diligence to perform before you print up material and distribute it to the public, no? Well, it seems that the answer to that question is, indeed, a “no.” I have asked Crimestoppers UK several times to provide that data and the best they have done is to point out that some of their information for the campaign has come from the UK National Problem Profile: Commercial Cultivation of Cannabis 2012 (.pdf) document produced by ACPO that I mentioned earlier.
So, I’ll now turn to that document. It’s a reasonably detailed document covering commercial cannabis cultivation attempting to set out definitions of commercial cultivation, trends in production methodology and threats from organized crime groups (OCGs). In the foreword it talks about:
“…the continued threat from OCGs involved in the commercial cultivation of cannabis and related criminality such as burglary, human trafficking, kidnap, violence and the use of firearms.”
And the very next section (page, in fact) of the executive summary it continues:
The threat from the domestic commercial cultivation of cannabis in the UK is increasing. There has been an increase in robberies, burglaries and violence (including the use of firearms) linked to cannabis farms.
So, I think it’s quite easy to see where Crimestoppers UK arrived at the notion to use the imagery of guns growing next to cannabis in their campaign. Here we have two mentions of firearms, increases in violence and other types of crime all within the space of the first two pages of the document. Fair enough, this is a fairly robust document in terms of statistics, charts and graphs showing us the number of cannabis farms discovered over various timescales, the number of plants recovered, the number of farms per 100,000 population in the different regions of the UK, etc. Given all this information and that firearms were mentioned twice in the first two pages of the document, it should be a simple matter to include along with the total number of farms the number of farms where firearms were recovered or total number of firearms recovered overall from all farms. However, apart from those two prominent mentions at the beginning of the document firearms are curiously missing from mention in the rest of the document.
I find this odd since the quote above (and repeated in Crimestoppers UK campaign material) clearly makes the assertion that there is an increase in firearm usage linked to cannabis farms — in order to determine an increase there must be baseline statistics and current statistics from which to chart the change. There is no quantitative information given at all to say how large the increase is and what it has changed from. Even then, just to say “there is a 100% increase” is relatively meaningless without hard numbers because 1 firearm incident per 10,000 farms then increasing to 2 firearm incidents per 10,000 farms, for example, is a 100% increase but hardly significant. However, we are not even given such a loose percentage increase statistic — we are given no statistics whatsoever. Keep in mind, those quotes above are from the foreword and the executive summary — the second under the rubric of “Key Inference.” To give such prominent placement to these assertions and not back them with hard, verifiable statistics seems bizarre, to say the least.
I made two requests to the Hackney Metropolitan Police Service, when they entered the #weedthesigns discussion on Twitter, for the statistics on the number of firearms recovered/encountered per cannabis grow operation, but have been met with silence. These numbers must exist — I can’t imagine the police not documenting encountering/recovering firearms and the circumstances (at a cannabis farm) under which the incidents took place. We know the number of commercial cannabis farms is known from the ACPO report, so it’s simply a matter of producing the statistics on firearms encountered/recovered and doing some quick mathematics to arrive at a ratio of firearms per cannabis grow operation. That number would then give us a hard statistic on the prevalence of firearms associated with cannabis farms on which we could asses overall risk of firearm exposure to the communities where grow operations are located.
Until such time that the statistics are forthcoming the whole #weedthesigns campaign can only be seen as fear mongering — instilling fear in the public for purposes of engendering an increase in reports of possible cannabis farms. These are the tactics of an increasingly outmoded “drug war” era and the public have less and less tolerance for them as time goes by. People do need to be informed of risks, but that information needs to be based on evidence, statistics and sound reasoning — not vague assertions and frightening imagery.
Even if hard data emerges showing a substantial risk in communities from a significant increase in the prevalence of firearms associated with cannabis farms, the #weedthesigns campaign still needs a fair bit of work to clarify its message:
- It equivocates between an effect of cannabis and a harm created by prohibition:
Cannabis isn’t the harmless drug people often think it is. Organised crime gangs that grow it can bring crime, violence and intimidation into a neighbourhood.
- And it borders on contradiction with the previous point when it goes on to say:
Gangs don’t want to draw attention to the houses or flats they use as farms. They’re often quiet and unassuming.
So, cannabis farms are “often quiet and unassuming” and they also “bring crime, violence and intimidation into a neighbourhood.” Which is it? To be fair, the quote does say “can bring crime, violence and intimidation…” — but that’s exactly the point that needs hard statistical evidence to back it up — what’s the probability ? It seems to suggest it’s low if we are to take the “often quiet and unassuming” point seriously. The message just isn’t clear — and that’s because the campaign, as a whole, uses an appeal to fear as its driving force. As long as you’re frightened enough of the possible implications (guns, violence, intimidation, etc.) you won’t spend time looking at the details — you’ll just accept the assertions and comply by reporting every instance where you smell something similar to the aroma on the card.
I had what looked to be, at one point, a promising exchange with the Hackney Metropolitan Police in relation to their Operation Hawk and the numbers of firearms recovered on site at cannabis farms during the operation. They (and other services running the operation) had been tweeting running statistics over the two days of the operation on the number of searches, arrests, cannabis farms uncovered, etc., so it seemed reasonable to get the stats on the number of firearms recovered from the cannabis farms. At one point they tweeted the total number of farms uncovered was twelve, so I asked for the statistics on the number firearms recovered from those farms — they chose to use that request to highlight the firearm recoveries, from the operation as a whole, to all of their followers by beginning their response tweet with “Hi” and then my twitter handle. This is a little bit underhand in that no context is supplied (my request for the data specifically about farms) as well as a bit opportunistic — they could have easily provided the information to their followers in a stand alone tweet without turning our exchange into a platform to simply promote their operation’s results. Not a big deal, I suppose — more of an etiquette thing, but still somewhat transparent. The important thing was that I had an offer to supply the actual statistics I am interested in after I clarified I was after the numbers on the firearms recovered from the farms.
Well, a day went by and the operation had concluded, but no reply was forthcoming after the offer to get the numbers for me. So, I prompted them with another tweet reminding them I was still waiting and requested the number for the total of thirty-four farms the now complete operation had uncovered. I was told they were very busy operationally and they would respond when they could. Three days of silence went by, so I did my own research looking through the #OpHawk tweets and the write ups of the various searches and found that every mention of a firearm recovery had not been at a cannabis farm. That is, they were from dealer locations where class A drugs were found or in other circumstances. So, I sent another tweet telling them what I had done and that the number appeared to be zero and to correct me if I was wrong. I also mentioned they might see zero firearms as good news and to say publically that no firearms were found at the thirty-four cannabis farms might be okay. Their response was to point me to their page on Freedom Of Information requests if I required any additional information. In short, they aren’t going to fulfill their two offers to provide the information short of a Freedom Of Information request. I ended by pointing out that they were very freely disseminating information when it suited their purposes, but now that there appears to have been zero firearms located at thirty-four cannabis farms — which runs counter to their desired narrative and the #weedthesigns campaign — they have decided to clam up and require a FOI request for any further disclosure on the subject.
It’s a shame. Instead of spreading fear the police and Crimestoppers should be disseminating actual factual information. That there appears to have been no firearms recovered from thirty-four cannabis farms is good news — it can only not been seen as good news if there is some agenda or narrative to protect and this fact runs counter to that purpose.
UPDATE (June 2014):
They’re back! Guess they figured if they laid low for a year the laughter and mocking will have died down and they can finally get rid of the huge stack of unused scratch ‘n sniff cards. Can ya #weedthesigns again? Well, can ya?
I thought it might be a good idea to talk about a methodological principle that can be prescribed positively — that is, instead of looking at a fallacy or error in reasoning it might be nice to look at a way to approach an argument that maximizes its rationality.
Many people upon first encountering the principle of charity assume it has something to do with giving to charity, being kind to those less fortunate or other types of charitable efforts. It really has nothing to do with those activities and I’ll leave one’s involvement in such things up to the individual reader. The term “charitable,” as used in the principle of charity, refers to being charitable towards an other’s assertions or arguments when first encountering and assessing them. The simplest way to define this notion is to say that being charitable is actively seeking to maximize the rationality of another’s arguments. This may seem like an odd idea at first glance since many times we seek to do exactly the opposite. That is, many times we encounter arguments or assertions we disagree with — sometimes vehemently — and we are actively seeking to argue against them or discredit them. The principle of charity does not exclude us from critiquing arguments, positions or assertions, but it does require us to critique the strongest possible versions of these entities. Again, this may seem odd since it appears to be counterintuitive to find the strongest possible version of something and then proceed to attempt to find flaws, weaknesses and even show that it is fatally broken. However, in approaching our assessments of other’s arguments by utilizing the principle of charity we actually make our analysis much stronger and less likely to rebuttal.
A common effective and procedurally sound methodology when arguing is to anticipate your interlocutor’s response or objection before he or she can actually articulate said objection. So, if you can say something like, “it may be tempting to counter that my proposal of ‘X’ is invalid because of ‘Y’ and ‘Z’, but neither is relevant here for the following reasons…” then you can make your case and deal with objections to it in one statement. In essence, if you can put yourself in the position of your opponent, then you can anticipate his or her next move and counter it even before it is made. This is a very powerful way to argue and shows you have a full understanding of the issues relevant to the argument.
The principle of charity takes this tactic one step further and states that we should seek to find objections to our opponent’s argument and actively seek to find responses to them. That is, we also work on behalf of our opponent’s argument when we are thinking of objections to it — we find an objection, think what might be a counter to it, then think what might be argued against that counter and so on. In this way we are able to discover what the strongest possible version of our opponent’s argument will look like — we seek to resolve contradictions, clarify terms, eliminate fallacies and understand as best as possible the point that is being made. Once we have done this we should have the strongest possible version of our opponent’s argument.
Once we have the strongest possible version of our opponent’s argument we can then move forward with a critique. One of the advantages of working this way is that we may now find that what we thought was a weak, incorrect or absurd notion is actually very strong, reasonable and rational. That is, we may find the argument has no substantive weaknesses and therefore it is our position that needs to change. In short, we may find we are wrong. It may be that the original version of the argument was simply put in such a poor manner that it appeared weak or absurd, but once we have worked it through to its strongest possible version we find that this is no longer the case. This is advantageous because we have avoided a likely long drawn out argument that would end with this realization anyway. Also, we have gone from a position of incorrectness to a position which is more correct — in short, we’ve learned something and altered our view based upon that knowledge. This can only be seen as a negative if we care about winning more than we care about correctness, rationality, knowledge, understanding, etc.
Assuming we find that the strongest version of our opponent’s argument still has weaknesses, then we can move forward with a critique of that version of the argument. Again, we save time because we do not need to go through a long drawn out process of argumentation with our interlocutor; instead, we can “cut to the chase” and show how even if we concede the best possible case to our opponent that it is still not good enough to stand up to our objections. In this way we leave very little room for our opponent to maneuver as we have covered the available rebuttals and positions already ourselves. Of course, it is conceivable our interlocutor is able to find new ground in something we may not have considered, but we have still greatly simplified and clarified the process of argumentation by covering most of the ground ourselves.
When arguing our aim should be to reach a maximal point of understanding — even if that means we find our position is weaker than first anticipated. I hold a very strong opinion that if the principle of charity were widely known and regularly utilized we could eliminate the great majority of poor arguments, “flame wars,” enmities and “shouting matches” that tend to be the hallmark of our human interactions when we disagree. In short, if we cared more about finding the best positions, the “most truth” and maximizing rationality instead of simply being concerned with winning and feeling victorious, then real substantive conflict could be avoided. From the link I posted above:
This attitude, if maintained, frees the conditioned mind and enables it to absorb and understand the new.
It’s difficult at times and everyone is susceptible to putting forward an uncharitable characterization of a view or argument in order to refute it because, well — it’s easy. The less charitable you are to an opponent the easier it is to appear to undermine, counter, refute or even mock, ridicule and belittle his or her argument — to put it bluntly, because you are being less than fair. It’s the kind of thing children tend to do because they are generally more concerned with winning than being fair. But we all fall under the spell of uncharitable interpretations at times — sometimes consciously and sometimes not. In short, we can all do better at adhering to the principle of charity — myself included, of course. So, next time you hear an argument, position or opinion you disagree with try to first see what the best possible case for it might look like and base your reply upon that best case. In the vast majority of instances you’ll come away with a better understanding and a better argument in the end.
David Mitchell has written a decent piece in the Guardian Observer this week about anonymous postings on the internet and how he thinks we ought to behave towards them. The thrust of the piece is that those who do not use real names when commenting online ought to have their remarks regarded as having the same status as graffiti in a public space.
With regard to graffiti, he writes:
It is unsubstantiated, anonymous opinion. We understand that instinctively. We need to start routinely applying those instincts to the web.
And he goes on to say of anonymous internet postings:
If you read a review, an opinion, a description or a fact and you don’t know who wrote it then it’s no more reliable than if it were sprayed on a railway bridge. We should always assume the worst so that all those who wish to convince…have an incentive to identify themselves.
I have some sympathy for his argument as he comes to the topic by way of online trolling — which can reveal the internet at its worst. As a public figure he likely sees more than his fair share of trolls and must deal with their behaviour regularly. No doubt, at best, it is a tedious task. He sees anonymity as a facilitator of the troll’s activities: “Anonymity, like a secret ballot, is a guarantee of sincerity.” This is a rather charitable way of saying that behind the screen of anonymity a person can say what he or she likes as there is little to no accountability for what is said. As Mr. Mitchell points out, this can cut both ways and can also be a facilitator for overly positive statements — particularly with regard to online reviews: “And the rest of the time it goes the other way: over-effusive, hysterical praise.” So, we have a pretty clear identification of the problematic nature of anonymous postings which really comes down to a problem of accountability. Most people who post, or have posted, quite nasty things to other people on the internet would not repeat those same utterances to the person in meatspace — face to face in speech. Or, if the person would convey the same or similar content in such a situation it would most likely be moderated in tone and/or severity. The simple reason for this is accountability — in terms of being seen as someone who would speak to another in such a manner and also fear of reprisal (physical or otherwise) for speaking in such a manner. Mr. Mitchell’s prescription for correcting the situation, for bringing accountability into the equation, is to call for anonymous postings to be devalued in the public sphere in order to provide an incentive for people to identify themselves.
Mr. Mitchell is quite careful to restrict his focus to anonymous commentary with respect to reviews, opinions, descriptions and assertions of fact. In this universe of discourse, I can agree that knowing the identity of the poster can aid us in evaluating the weight we ought to assign to the assertion. He gives examples in his article of persons with motives to either post positive or negative reviews, and how when the true identity of the poster is known it can impact very negatively on the weight any reasonable person would assign to the statements. One would hardly trust a restaurant review written by the owner of said restaurant. In this area, I think he is on reasonably solid ground.
Where his argument is not sustainable is in the realm of argumentation itself — that is, in the presentation of a reasoned case where premises are given and a process of working through a logical case leads to a conclusion. In fact, in this case it is generally given that best practice is to separate the identity of the person making the case from the analysis of the argument — that is, to separate the arguer from that which is being argued. There is a whole class of logical fallacies which are based on the idea that one is attacking the man and not the argument — the argument ad hominem. For example, we can commit a circumstantial ad hominem against Mr. Mitchell by suggesting the following line of reasoning: of course he supports the notion that we all ought to be identifiable online because as a public personality he deals with an inordinate amount of trolls, so it is in his best interest for us all to use our real names as it reduces the amount of online trolling. This is an example of an error in reasoning because the particular motive for Mr. Mitchell to make his case does not matter– he has provided us with his argument for evaluation, so his identity does not matter. In fact, knowing his identity can lead to a distraction from the actual case he has put forward as it can be very tempting to fall into ad hominems like the one I have just illustrated. In short, non anonymity can be detrimental to the fair evaluation of a case that has been made. This is why some university professors will ask students to attach the cover page of their paper (the one that identifies the student by name, student number, etc.) to the back of the paper so the student’s identity is only known after the paper has been read and evaluated.
As I have said, I think Mr. Mitchell has managed to skirt around the issue of anonymity and arguments by qualifying his statements, but I think his argument does suffer a rather large problem — that is, the whole issue of what one considers to be a non anonymous identity and how one might implement a system for verifying identity. For example, my actual name will appear nowhere on the internet. You can Google or search by other means and it will yield nothing that comes back to me as a person. There are a few tidbits that could likely be had if one employed nefarious means (i.e breaking into secure websites), but for all practical intents and purposes the real me only exists in meatspace. That’s not because I’m some shadowy character with mischief and mayhem in my heart, but because I don’t trust the internet with my real identity. Also, I have very little to gain by trusting the internet with my real identity — potentially much more to lose. I began using the internet in the early ’90’s and at that time no one had really figured out how to make money from it and the idea of trusting it with important information like financial/transactional data was pretty much unknown. As time has gone on that attitude has certainly changed and now entities like Facebook hold vast swathes of data on their users generated by their users. This makes me very uncomfortable partly, I suppose, because it is a simple holdover from a time now mostly gone by, but also because I object to being a product in someone else’s shop window. When the company called Phorm nearly succeeded in tapping the U.K. internet infrastructure at the ISP level for pure commercial gain, Sir Tim Berners Lee said of the data generated by his online activities, “It’s mine – you can’t have it. If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me. I have to agree, I have to understand what I’m getting in return.” I stand firmly with him on this subject and hold the same sentiment with regard to data generated by my online activity as well as my personal meatspace identity. Some are willing to trade or give such things away. Some knowingly and some unknowingly. It so happens, I am not one of those people. I lament this trend towards a more eager acceptance of “data gifting,” but I can’t see it reversing itself any time soon.
What this means is that I’m not willing to provide the information Mr. Mitchell would require, but there is also a larger problem — how does one verify the information? For example, suppose I commented on Mr. Mitchell’s article by using the name “Ted Smith.” This looks like it could be a real identity as opposed to “Uninvited Interlocutor” which is almost certainly, prima facie, a pseudonym. Is it enough to have a name that appears non anonymous? Mr. Mitchell previously stated that, “If you read a review, an opinion, a description or a fact and you don’t know who wrote it then it’s no more reliable than if it were sprayed on a railway bridge.” I’m unclear what he means by “knowing who wrote it.” Do I need to know that person in meatspace? In the case of someone like Mr. Mitchell who has a public persona, I can be reasonably sure he is who he says he is because Twitter, for example, has verified his account. Or I can trust in the Guardian to not misrepresent him or the content they offer. But, I still can’t be sure. For all I know from the surface appearance, Mr. Mitchell may have had someone write the piece for him — perhaps he can’t really be bothered with online matters and has someone handle these things for him. I don’t realistically believe this, but it is not such a clear cut case of either anonymity or identity. Now, one can argue that either way, the information that appears online under his name has a provenance which traces back to the meatspace David Mitchell and that’s what really matters.
Well, if what really matters is a clear line of provenance between the online identity and the meatspace identity, then we get into quite intrusive territory. In fact, just this week there has been quite a storm in Canada over a proposed bill labeled “C-30.” This bill contains measures to open up Canada’s internet infrastructure to widespread spying and access to user identities and activities with little oversight or accountability. The public safety minister, Vic Toews, gifted those opposed to the bill a wedge against his argument when he said in parliament, “You’re either with us or with the child pornographers.” Opponents responded en masse and even mobilized on Twitter to #TellVicEverything by relentlessly tweeting inane personal details about themselves to the minister’s own Twitter account. A few days later we learn the U.K. is also looking at more intrusive measures into monitoring the activity and identity of those online. This is not to suggest that Mr. Mitchell supports such measures or even presents an argument in favour of such measures. Rather, it is an illustration to show that to achieve a clear and obvious line of provenance between the two realms of activity there must be intrusive measures which are likely to be largely unpopular. A further point must be noted which is, by Mr. Mitchell’s own cited examples, there ultimately proved to already be a line of provenance between the two realms — in the two examples he gives both offenders were caught out. A chain of accountability does exist in these cases. It is not prima facie — it is somewhat obscured, but it does exist and can be pursued.
Perhaps I have strayed a ways from the original point that was made in the article, but one of the important points I want to make is with regard to the status of argumentation in light of Mr. Mitchell’s stance. I think it’s important to point out that there is a type of anonymous assertion that is immune to the pitfalls that are illustrated in the article. One should not devalue all anonymous contributions without first understanding if the contribution ought to be examined on its own merits apart from its creators identity. While Mr. Mitchell qualifies the types of statements he is referring to, it would have been preferable if he made explicitly clear that arguments do not suffer from the “problem of anonymous contribution.” With regard to the notion of verifiability, I think we end up in a situation where we must advocate some sort of “internet pass” with likely quite intrusive consequences, or we take all non argument/cited postings “on the level of graffiti,” as Mr. Mitchell suggests. But do we not do that generally anyway? Do we generally read reviews as non compromised — either by anonymous posters, identifiable authors or by those with a vested interest? I gave up reading game reviews long ago because almost unanimously they were cheer leading exercises — no doubt influenced by sponsorships, advertising and other financial incentives. These were identifiable non anonymous sources who were quite happy to pen vacuous “it rocks!” reviews and be known for doing so. Are we not always cautious when someone tries to convince us of something? Even in meatspace when an identifiable individual cold calls on the doorstep are we not cautious? I’m not suggesting people don’t get conned or deceived by either anonymous or identifiable individuals; but rather, that the warning Mr. Mitchell offers to “assume the worst” applies equally well when the convincer is anonymous or identifiable. Mr. Mitchell’s argument is not so much an incentive for the convincer to reveal his or her identify; but rather, it is an incentive for the convincer, identified or anonymous, to make an actual argument and for the listener to be more careful and skilled in evaluating the information being provided. Whether it’s from an anonymous or identified source, an argument sustained and well reasoned will make the case. Mr. Mitchell has made the case for making good content — providing quality contributions. He has also made the case for promoting good content when promotional opportunities are available and good content is offered — again, whether from an identifiable or anonymous source. The devaluation of some content can be an effective strategy, but he should also not overlook the valuation of content.
The graffiti artist’s signature is simply the tag to group a constellation of offerings together — likewise, an anonymous online “handle” can serve the same purpose. If the content it groups is consistent and of quality, then it will become trusted — and its author identified as well as identifiable.
As a final tribute to graffiti itself, I’d like to offer the side of a wall in a parking lot in the city where I did my undergraduate degree. As far as I know, as of last year this work is still present which means it has survived for at least twenty years. At its heart, it is somewhat cynical about politics, but I always find it powerful and not without profundity. It is not, as Mr. Mitchell defines graffiti, an “unsubstantiated anonymous opinion” — it is an argument for a position. It is certainly anonymous and it is certainly graffiti, but it is more than mere opinion.
UPDATE: Interesting article here citing evidence from South Korea that using real names on websites does very little to curb negative comments. South Korea had a policy, for four years, of requiring resident registration numbers and other personal information (including real names) to be entered into websites with over 100,000 viewers — the policy was scrapped in 2011, in part, because, “…it was found to be ineffective at cleaning up abusive and malicious comments (the policy reduced unwanted comments by an estimated .09%). “