Saturday, August 11, 2007

thoust art n00b hence thou shalt not blog (part 1)

My good friend, Aaron, has recently joined the ranks of Singapore Angle, and in his debut article as an SA writer he wrote about health care economics. Aaron's article has been heavily criticized. I know nuts about health care, so I can't comment on that, but what I found rather interesting were a series of comments saying that since Aaron does not possess enough expertise in the area, he should not blog about this issue at all. SA incumbents Dansong and Sze Meng both spoke out against such criticisms, on the basis (I infer) that even if Aaron does not do possess enough expertise, or even if Aaron's article is flawed, he still has a right to post it.

It appears that this is an issue about freedom of speech, or rather, the freedom to blog. This is something which I had talked about in the past (sort of), and before I discuss further I want to say that I am not a huge fan of "freedom of speech". I think that it is often abused to justify irresponsible and destructive talk. However, I do think that the basic premise is sound, and I will now go on to examine this with respect to Aaron and his critics.

Criticism 1: Aaron's article is flawed in many ways.
Criticism 2: Aaron is a n00b. He does not have expertise in this area.
Criticism 3: Aaron should not blog this on SA, as he is a n00b.
Criticism 4: Aaron should not blog this anywhere, as he is a n00b.

[Disclaimer: I do not know enough about health care to subscribe to any one of these views. But am I enjoying myself doing mimicry-Aaron-bashing? Yeah. =P]

I think we all agree that Criticism 1 is fair game. Of course, if you make criticism 1, then you ought to elaborate further where Aaron's argument was flawed, and offer your own arguments to support your case. That is, if you are interested in having a discourse, rather than just a criticism for the sake of criticizing.

Is Criticism 2 fair game? Technically, we call this a ad hominem, or a personal attack, and is usually something we don't want to encourage too much. Nevertheless, not everybody uses such a criticism with malicious intent, or as an attack. It may, for example, be used as an appeal to authority (still a fallacy philosophically speaking, but not totally unjustifiable) such as "Bart has much more expertise than Aaron in economics. So Bart is probably right if they disagree." Or perhaps, it maybe used as a consolation or an encouragement: "Don't be so harsh on Aaron. He is not a full-time economist" or "I commend Aaron for writing on such a difficult topic even though it normally requires much more expertise to do so".

I think people who said criticisms 3 or 4 were well-intentioned, not as to "put down" Aaron per se. For example: "This is really a difficult issue which even experts have a hard time. It is good that you attempt this, but truth be told, your attempt will look pretty ugly because of your lack of expertise. So perhaps, it is in your best interest not to attempt to do so." Nevertheless, the beef that Dansong (and presumeably Sze Meng as well) have with such advice is that it is silencing. Good intentions aside, Aaron is a big boy and has the right to blog whatever he chooses to blog, but he has to accept the circumstances. If he chooses to blog a flawed article which he is n00b in, that is his right. Of course he will be whacked left, right and center, but that is his choice and his right.

What is the difference between Criticism 3 and Criticism 4 then? The medium which is Singapore Angle is in question. Perhaps some are of the view that to blog on Singapore Angle there is some kind of quality control, and that only articles of a minimum quality of standard ought to be published on Singapore Angle. Perhaps one might also feel that, writing on an area which is outside your expertise, and committing lots of flaws, is somehow below this line of acceptable standard. I am not going to comment on this, but perhaps one should read this article by BL.

So plain and simple. It's okay to say criticism 1 (and maybe 2) but not 3 or 4?

Wrong. What happens to my right to say criticism 3 or 4? If it is my opinion that "Aaron should not blog this because I think n00bs should not blog about what they don't know about", am I not allowed to express my opinion? If I am not allowed to express my opinion, then are you then not silencing me?

Also, are we so sure that criticism 3/4 is silencing? Perhaps we ought to take it as an expression of opinion, not at all different from criticism 2. After all, criticism 3/4 is not a magic spell which binds Aaron's hands such that he may never blog again. Aaron is free to blog whatever he likes no matter how many criticisms he receives. Yet, one might argue, it is silencing because it causes a certain kind of psychological or emotional trauma in Aaron. That his views are not appreciated and not accepted, and that is sufficient cause to call it "silencing". Then, if phrased harshly enough, is criticism 1 not "silencing" in an equal manner?

My. Tricky huh?

[Part 2 here. Yes I know I'm doing lots of Part 1s and no Part 2s. Are you going to deny my right to do so? =P]


dansong said...

Hey FO, thanks for thinking this through and teasing it out. Some responses.

First, my criticisms of those who went advising Aaron not to post on the topic because of lack of expertise are agnostic on intent. Whether their intentions are good or not is rather irrelevant because the point is the consequences - causing the debate to degenerate into questions of credentials and expertise, which ultimately has the effect of delineating who should or should not speak and who has credibility or not. Notice that the point is not that Aaron cannot speak, of course he still can, it is a question of delineating the normative bounds of discourse (should or should not) not a question of coercion.

Second, following the first point, there is a major qualitative difference between criticism 1 and critisms 2-4. Criticism 1 focuses on the contents and logic of the argumentation/expression of opinion. Criticisms 2-4 is meta-argumentation, and involves the normative criteria of expressing opinion. Criticism 1 involves disagreement over facts and logic, criticisms 2-4 involves norms. This is an important distinction with regards to the question of silencing.

Of course, everyone has the right to make criticisms 2-4, and those of us who disagree, regardless of whether Aaron is a big boy or whether others are, can likewise respond. Those who make criticisms 2-4, regardless of intent, will cause the narrowing of the normative boundaries of who should or should not speak, and my counter-criticism (I'll let Sze-Meng speak for himself) is aimed at broadening the normative boundaries. My making of the counter-criticism is aimed at achieving normative agreement that we should let the discussion continue on the level of criticism 1 rather than criticisms 2-4. If those who think they are justified (not based on credential, but normative) in continuing criticisms 2-4, then they can continue. And I would continue my counter-criticisms till an agreement is reached on whether Aaron should have posted that article or not and whether those of us who are amateurs should or should not discuss it.

Third, this normative question of who should or should not speak on what goes right into the heart of 'free speech' in the blog-sphere. If the overwhelming majority agree with those who make criticisms 2-4, the consequence is silencing many on topics they may want to try their brains on. If the majority agree with my counter-criticism, then people will be freer to express their opinions on so-called 'expert' topics. Why should the blog-sphere be policed by meta-argumentation fellows who tag people by way of labels such as 'n00bs' and 'expert'? Should we start posting prefaces on our expertise on the area before we write or when challenged? One implication is that a normative culture of expertise will mean the end of anonymity. The more serious implication is that such a norm will shift the locus of credibility from the level of argumentation to the level of qualifications. That is, ad hominem.

Fourth, a major logical problem in your argumentation. If criticism 2 is not good and should be discouraged, then criticisms 3 and 4 should be too. Simple logical inference, as criticisms 3 and 4 contain the same clause as criticism 2 "Aaron is a n00b". Criticisms 3 and 4 are derivatives of criticism 2. Thus, criticisms 3 and 4 are ALSO ad hominem. Likewise, if you defend criticisms 3 and 4, you will have to support criticism 2 too. And therein lies the crux of the problem.

Fearfully Opinionated said...

Hey Dansong,

Thanks for dropping by and leaving a detailed comment. I suspect this reply will disappoint you, as actually there is nothing that I disagree with you about. =/

I suspect that I have written hastily and thus my own intentions were unclear. This post is not to argue that Criticisms 3-4 are justifiable. In fact, I personally think they are not. However, I think the situation is more complicated than just claiming "freedom of speech" and thus problem solved. The purpose of this post (part 1) was to "set up the problem" [and poking fun at Aaron at the meantime =P] and I was planning to attempt to discuss approaches to the problem in my Part 2.

Why i mentioned "good intentions" is to counter the intuition that folks who are out to silence are necessarily ill-intentioned. Of course, good intentioned or not, the consequences are perhaps the same.

Again you are right in the difference between Criticism 1 and 2-4, and thank you for distinguishing argumentation from meta-argumentation. However, as I hope to explain in the Part 2 of this article, not everyone will see the value in this dichotomy and not even less will agree on what are acceptable norms and what are not. To make people understand that is not, at the moment at least, the purpose of this post.

Nevertheless, thank you for clarifying some potential muddling issues about this article, and I hope you can see where I am coming from. Regards,

dansong said...

Hey FO,

=) Not disappointed at all. I should thank you, because your post has helped and motivated me to tease out my counter-criticisms in the response. I didn't want to take too much space in the comments for Aaron's piece, because I didn't want to grab the attention. I know my counter-criticisms have deeper implications, warranting many-sided explorations about normative 'communicative action', political discourse theory and what not, and your post is drawing that out.

So then, I was wondering about where you are coming from in this post, and there are several possibilities. Thus, I thought of posting a long (apologies) response to see where you are indeed positioned. Now I see it, and realize you are right next to me :P. I look forward to your 2nd installment. Yups, you have the right not to post it but you'll have a disappointed reader... :)

Sze-Meng said...


Thanks for thinking this through. I have a simple point to add. If you criticize, instead of stating that the person has no expertise to write an article (which is quite easy to say lah), try to focus on the content, and then explain why the content is flawed, and ideally provide some other ideas if possible. Of course, not everyone do so at all time, but this is my preference.