Monday, August 13, 2007

thoust art n00b hence thou shalt not blog (part 2)

In all honesty, when I wrote Part 1, I wasn't too sure what I wanted to write in the Part 2. After thinking about it and after a discussion with dansong, I realized that this is a complicated and not at all a straightforward issue. I am still going to present my thoughts, and I apologize if one finds them haphazard or incoherent.

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.

1. Dansong's argument of undesirable consequences
Dansong presented an argument which I found rather persuasive, and hence I find it quite necessary to present it. Putting aside all talk about "rights" (which we will return to later), Dansong presents an argument which focuses on consequences (i.e. a consequentialist approach). If Criticisms 2-4 are allowed to be made (or perhaps only 3-4), it will narrow the normative boundaries of what is acceptable discourse in the blogosphere. In other words, if this carries on, we will soon demand that everybody flash credentials (or otherwise prove sufficient expertise) before they can take part in discourse on the blogosphere. We assume, this is a non-desirable state of affairs for the blogosphere in general. Certainly, even those of us who criticize Aaron would not like to be in a blogosphere where they need to prove their credentials first before they have the right to criticize Aaron.

2. The Problem with Ad Hominems
Dansong was right to point out that if Criticism 2 was Ad Hominem, then so were Criticisms 3 and 4. I've glossed over the issue with Ad Hominems in Part 1 so that I can discuss it here instead. As someone who received training in Philosophy, I have been trained to regard logical fallacies (such as Ad Hominems) as poor or faulty reasoning. In fact, we view it with so much disdain that to accuse another individual of committing a fallacy is equivalent to saying that you cannot reason and that you are illogical. Occasionally, I see some fallacy-bashing on the Singapore blogosphere where someone (usually with some nasty words thrown in) accuses another individual of committing a fallacy, and thus Q.E.D., that individual was wrong.

I have a problem with such fallacy-bashers. The first is a philosophical issue: they could be committing what is known as the fallacy fallacy. But secondly and more pertinently, the plogosphere, as we know it, is not (just) a platform for academic philosophical discourse. When I first entered the plogosphere, I was absolutely aghast with the level of reasoning (by philosophical standards) and I wanted to bring up the level of discourse to that similar to academic philosophers. Since then, I have come to realize that while there is an important need for philosophers in the plogosphere, the plogosphere itself does not belong to philosophers alone but to everybody else as well. Of course it is important to point out faulty or poor reasoning, therein lies one of the roles of the philosopher, but there is no need to hold the whole plogosphere to academic philosophy standards. Some fallacies are so commonly used in our regular day-to-day thinking that it is almost hypocritical to fallacy-bash defaulters who commit ad hominems or commit appeal to authority.

3. The Argumentative/Meta-Argumentative Distinction
Dansong brought out a distinction between criticism 1 and criticisms 2-4. Criticism 1 is a criticism of Aaron's views, of what Aaron says. Criticism 2-4 is a criticism of Aaron himself. The subject matter of the criticisms are different, and this is what Dansong calls the difference between argumentation and meta-argumentation. For a philosopher, meta-argumentation is in the realm of the ad hominem, and is strictly a no-no. But something else came to mind when I was thinking about this: the Wee Shu Min affair. If I recall correctly, the entire fiasco was about Wee Shu Min's blog response to Derek Wee. Yet, although some of us did criticize her views, most of us were criticizing (and counter-criticizing) Wee Shu Min herself. This is certainly in meta-argumentative territory. Yet, on retrospect, do we think that the Wee Shu Min affair was good or bad for the blogosphere? I for one think it was good that it happened. If we did not venture into meta-argumentative territory we would not have debates and discourse about the issue of elitism and the side-effects of meritocracy. Although I was appalled by how low some of us went to make fun of Ms Wee, I am also glad that all of us (including the general public) could see and talk about how ugly Singaporeans can get when we sit behind a keyboard and a monitor. Likewise, while I may not personally agree with those who made criticisms 2-4, I am glad that they made it because now Dansong would counter-criticize and we can all discuss about this. At the end of the day, hopefully, some of us learn something and the blogosphere gains because of this.

4. Who's right is it anyways?
Even though I spent much time in the study of ethics, I have to say that I am neither familiar nor comfortable with rights-speak (I am more trained in the tradition of consequence-speak). Nevertheless, when we encounter a situation where rights clash (e.g. Aaron's right to blog VS your right to silence Aaron), the classical response would be that the rights will need to be balanced against each other. [Another obvious case where such a conflict occurs is in potential racist content, i.e. freedom of speech vs freedom not be offended.] In other words, there is not such thing as absolute unbridled rights, just like there is no such thing as unconstrained freedom. It is only human to see you own rights more clearly than the rights of someone else, which is why I think this often leads to the abuse of "free speech".

5. The Power to Silence
Does Criticisms 3-4 (or 2 for that matter) constitute silencing? In one sense it certainly does. As Dansong explained, criticisms 3-4 are negotiating the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not, i.e. the norms of the blogosphere. If somehow these voices have succeeded in establishing the norms, presumably Aaron would either choose to follow the norms and no longer voice his views, or he will be chastised for not following the norms. But we don't need to get so technical. If Aaron was an especially sensitive young man, any form of criticism might be silencing (about norms or not). Yet in another sense, Aaron is not denied the freedom to blog even after the criticisms. His hands are not physically tied, and he is neither threatened by lawsuits or by violence not to blog. I think it turns out that whether or not we consider criticisms to be silencing depends very much on how we define freedom (to blog) to be. Is Aaron free to blog a flawed article and be free from criticism at the same time? I think not. Some might consider this denial of "freedom" to be silencing. Let's compare intuitions with two more examples. Consider again, Wee Shu Min. Wee Shu Min never posted a reply to her critics. Was she silenced? How about the "robust responses" given by the government to Cherian George or Catherine Lim. Were they silenced? Note that no legal action was taken or threatened against these individuals (let's leave aside political figures such as CSJ).

At the end of the day, I remember something KTM told me a long time ago: the blogosphere is not necessarily a nice place. You say something which is flawed, you get whacked for it. You say something which is unpopular, you receive flak. You say something which can potentially undermine government authority, you might get a "robust response". How much of this constitutes an infringement of your freedom of speech? If your skin is thin, then perhaps much of it does, but if your skin is thick then perhaps much of it is not. Anyways, I am personally glad that Aaron has this "baptism of fire" as an SA blogger. He will only improve and be a better blogger, and all of us can learn from by observing this exchange as well.

6. The Community that is the Blogosphere: Intensions matter
Dansong said that he was agnostic to the intentions of those who criticize. Well-intentioned or not, the consequences when it comes to narrowing the normative domain of discourse is still the same (see point 1). He is right of course. However, I personally like to think that intentions matter. Why I say so is that we bloggers are affective, emotional, ego-carrying creatures. It is very easy to pretend that discourse is pure intellectual exchange, but it is not, especially in the plogosphere. It is also a human-to-human exchange. And when it comes to dealing with other humans (and not just disembodied minds), things like our perceived intentions and how we phrase what we say all carry consequences. E.g., Does the person on the other side get offended? Does the person start to get defensive? Does this escalate into mudslinging?

My friend Ian has just written an article on sg entrepreneurs on how the word "community" is an overused buzzword when it comes to talking about Web 2.0. Perhaps so, but I really do believe that the plogosphere is a community. Not in the sense that we share a common agenda (we don't), but that what each one of us say affects each other, and we are hence somewhat affectively bonded to each other. Although I enjoy the discourse as well as the opportunity to think and to learn, I personally find that the friendships and the human-to-human bonds that I've made through the plogosphere are by far the richest gains that I've got out of blogging. Although it is true that the blogosphere may not necessarily treat you nicely, I think it still pays to be a nice person. [But don't ask me to ask KTM to nice. I've given up on that. =P]

Conclusion: The Blogoshere that we want to be
I've mentioned in Point 5 that those who use criticisms 3-4 are negotiating the normative boundaries (or norms) of the plogosphere. Like Dansong, I happen to disagree with them. But I think they have the right to, and that they should, engage in this negotiation. And others who disagree, such as Dansong and myself, ought to engage them and present our own cases and negotiate the norms we find acceptable. I've been told that when the Singapore Angle teams has to make a decision, whether on administrative issues or on approving a guest article, they usually argue internally among themselves, and these arguments are often heated and passionate. Being the organized folks that they are, they will eventually discipline themselves to make a collective decision, although not all may be satisfied with the outcome. Such is to be expected when we have a negotiation. I think the collective plogosphere is neither organized nor disciplined enough, and has too many members anyway, to ever reach a consensus on norms, but I don't think that makes the process of negotiation any less important. It is messy, and it is often unpleasant, but it is important that we take up the mantle to define who we want to be as a blogosphere.

I want the state of reasoning to improve but I don't want the plogosphere to be just a place for high-level philosophical discourse; that is good, useful and important, but I also want to leave enough room to poke fun at my friends, like what I've done with Aaron and KTM in this article. I want the plogosphere to be a place where people try to be nice at each other, although there will be misunderstandings and there will be conflicts. I want the plogosphere to be a place where people take responsibility with their views and understand that the freedom to speak comes with it the responsibility to stand by what you say. The plogosphere today is nowhere near there. That is why I will negotiate.

[Turns out that I've structured this article largely as a response to Dansong's comment. It is only appropriate that I thank him for his thoughtful comments and his contribution in the production of this second installment.]


Serendipity said...

What freedom not to be offended?

Where do you find that?

Fearfully Opinionated said...

I did not find that from anywhere. It was my own poor attempt to formulate the conflict of rights in grey situations of potential hate speech. Perhaps "freedom not to be oppressed" is better? Maybe you can provide a better formulation? Or perhaps you think there is no conflict of rights at all?

testtube said...

I'm sorry, I've read your point 2 over and over again and just do not understand it. It sounds either utterly wrong or like pure waffle. Either you think it is acceptable to point out Ad Hominems or you don't. Various parts of point 2 suggest that it is acceptable; others seem to suggest the opposite.

Yes, you *could* be committing the Fallacy Fallacy. But surely if one only points out that the other party is committing Ad Hominem (without making a conclusion as to the claim of the other party except it has yet to be substantiated, since Ad Hominem is not a valid substantiation), one is not committing the Fallacy Fallacy. Thus this has no bearing on the pointing out of Ad Hominems by itself; the Fallacy Fallacy would require a second assertion besides the assertion of existence of an Ad Hominem argument.

On part 2 of point 2: You admitted that just because bloggers don't have philosophical standards of reasoning, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't point out faulty reasoning. Good, then we should point out faulty reasoning. Ad Hominems are faulty reasoning. Therefore we should point out Ad Hominems. I don't see how you can say we should point out faulty reasoning and then say we should not point out Ad Hominems.

As someone with philosophical training you should also know that the commonality of a mistake does not justify it. It is still a mistake. And the fact that I sometimes commit Ad Hominems does not mean that my criticism of other people's Ad Hominems is without basis. Sometimes I make mistakes in my mathematical sums; does that mean that my correction of others' wrong sums is invalid?

testtube said...

I guess my main problem with point 2 is that you seem that just because the blogosphere belongs to non-philosophers, that they have the right to set standards of reasoning. I'm sorry, but I think (and i suspect you know) that logic does not have selective application to individuals. Using the blogosphere 'ownership' point to argue that we should let unsound reasoning pass would be like saying that since the blogosphere does not belong to mathematicians, it could be true that 1+1=3 in the blogosphere. I'm afraid logic and mathematics aren't subject to majority rule.

testtube said...

Oops, first line of last comment should be 'you seem to suggest'

testtube said...

It struck me that you could be saying that 'since Ad Hominems are so common, it is impractical to rebut every single one of them', instead of 'since Ad Hominems are so common, they are acceptable modes of argument'. But your 'objection' to Ad Hominems seems to indicate that you regard rebuttals of Ad Hominems as worse than impractical. After all, if there are people with enough time to take on the mammoth task of rebutting every single Ad Hominem on a Singapore blog, why be annoyed by them? They are taking on a positive, if ultimately futile, task.

Fearfully Opinionated said...


Perhaps you are right. Perhaps I was being totally incoherent and have no idea what I was talking about.

Here is what I think I meant:
Say I know nuts about health care economics. On Aaron's article, Aaron and Bart disagree on something. Now I am of the impression that Bart has considerably more expertise than Aaron in this field. I am more likely to think that Bart is correct and that Aaron is wrong. This is regardless of what were there actual views.

Now I just committed a fallacy, known as Appeal to Authority. I am aware of it. The proper philosophical approach is to analyze what both sides say and judge the merits of their views accordingly. But I know nuts about health care, and lack the expertise to judge their views accordingly, and thus i made the judgement call to "commit the fallacy".

Let's say I'm not very fond of blogger X. I am naturally predisposed to be biased against him, although I may try to be as objective as possible when I read his arguments. This is in a sense, an implicit internal Ad Hominem. Just think about how most bloggers feel about ST articles.

What I'm saying is that there are many degrees of fallacies. Some more serious, some less. What I'm NOT saying is that we should not point out fallacious reasoning in other bloggers. I'm just not happy with how to tend to "bash", i.e. be less than civil with how we do so.

testtube said...

Thanks for the clarification. Just that you never mentioned civility or degrees of fallacious reasoning in point 2.

cognitivedissonance said...

Dear FO,

I find the post to be densely packed with information and may be repeating in this comment what you have already said but I may have accidentally overlooked. My apologies in advance if that occurs. This will be a long comment, as response to your post.

Regarding 1., I was going to say that in broad principle I agree with you that we should not insist on expertise as a barrier to entry, but I'd thought perhaps it still would be useful as a final measure of evaluation of quality after the blog post or comment has been written. Then I realised that instead of presenting the issue of perceived expertise as a before-post/after-post quantity that seems independent of the actual post, I would frame it as that the process of proving sufficient expertise is necessarily in flux - one big boo-boo or a collection of consecutive small errors would (and should) result in a drop in others' perception of one's expertise. (I am going to ignore the bit about credentials because those expire even more quickly.) In the writing of each post or comment by anyone, it is nearly impossible to label someone as having a particular index of expertise for that subject without reading what that someone has written. Of course then the entire issue of expertise becomes a dependent quite meaningless external indicator that changes with every little bit that anyone writes. The issue of ppl reading what has been written before also comes into play - I have not read every word of KTM's comments and posts, for example, but I have a general feel of his expertise in certain matters pertaining to the making in public policy, based on those of his posts and comments I have read.

I am being chased off the computer and will enter the next few points that we had discussed over MSN a little later. :)

cognitivedissonance said...

Typed the previous comment late at night. Before it gets misread,let me hasten to add that I was writing myself into knots over the philosophical issue of perception vs reality of "expertise", not advocating a How to Win Friends and Sucker People technique. If anything I find the former more interesting.

I am still being chased off the computer and will add in the other few (different topic) points later.

cognitivedissonance said...

(replace *technique with *perspective)

Fearfully Opinionated said...

Dear CD,

Since it looks like you're spending a lot of thought on this, and you seem to have much things to say, perhaps you would want to blog a full article as a reply to this on your own blog?

Aaron said...

As usual, I've been made fun of.

Nonetheless, I'm glad that you've come storming back into plogosphere with fantastic writings!

I am still of the opinion that although people might commit certain logical fallacies, I think that's fine because people do make mistakes or they genuinely might not know they have made a mistake. My biggest beef is with people who can't speak nicely, i.e cyber ah bengs.

Serendipity said...

"it was my own poor attempt to formulate the conflict of rights in grey situations of potential hate speech. Perhaps "freedom not to be oppressed" is better?"

perhaps you shld read generally
and more specifically the part "restrictions".

Whatever it is yours or mine formulation and whether they are good or bad is the wrong way to see it. The restrictions on speech are set in law. Freedom of speech is qualified by "law" by some formulation of the state.

In Singapore, hate speech is prohibited by the Sedition Act which basis I think is harm. I think is an implicit assumption in the Sedition Act that speech in those instance is likely to cause harm.

I don't see why "rights" need to be balanced in this instance (SA). Both parties are acting within the ambit of the laws. What is there to balance?

Aaron and the other parties "right" to speak on SA was given by the members of SA (otherwise it will be hacking/trespass/theft) It is up to SA to give the parties unbridled freedom - yes - if they so choose - subject to the law.

In other words, rights in this instance are not within the "rights-discourse" but merely "permission."

In other words, there is no "right to silence people" or "right to speech".

SA speaks a bit of "reasonableness" - which I think is good in such context.

Loy said,

"The question is--as fellow citizens--whether these disagreements need stand in the way of fruitful exchange and profitable debate, and whether, in our sincere desire to convince others of the cogency of our positions or persuade them to take up the attitudes so favoured by us, we respect their status as persons to whom we owe, in the first instance, reasons rather than blows."


"My biggest beef is with people who can't speak nicely, i.e cyber ah bengs."

Issit? Sometimes I think you speak like Ah Beng also..

Aaron said...

I speak like ah beng meh?

Maybe to another ah beng. I learn in army that to deal with hokkien peng you need to talk to them in hokkien and deliver !@#$%^ in hokkien also. Some people cannot understand unless you talk in their language so no choice la. :P

cognitivedissonance said...

Hi FO,

Sure. But I can't promise it soon though; blogging exhausts me, it reminds me too much of a bloodbath these days. Sian.

dansong said...

Wow, wonderful response, FO. Thanks for the over-acknowledgments! =)

I would love to respond to this and make us all 'permanently head damaged' with philosophizing, but am drowning in work, partly due to time spent blogging and time spent with bloggers ;). Excuses, excuses. Anyways, am enjoying the exchange here.

In any case, Aaron, I would like to point out that you have made an 'ah beng' fallacy (haha, its fun to make fun of you!). Real-life ah bengs are really rather nice and non-gangsterish, as much as non-bengs, or as nasty and gangsterish as non-bengs. I think they are straw-men for the projection of middle-class anxieties. =)

Huichieh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Huichieh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Huichieh said...

Nice one FO. One quibble (since I don't have a lot of time, I'll just pick one) is re: the appeal to authority.

Say I know nuts about health care economics. On Aaron's article, Aaron and Bart disagree on something. Now I am of the impression that Bart has considerably more expertise than Aaron in this field. I am more likely to think that Bart is correct and that Aaron is wrong. This is regardless of what were there actual views. Now I just committed a fallacy, known as Appeal to Authority.

Strictly speaking, you haven't committed a fallacy--not obviously. Not all appeals to authority are fallacious--not unless you are willing to discount the epistemic value of expert testimony (in itself not an impossible position, but hardly one that is so uncontroversial as to be assertable without argument).

In some (as far as I'm concerned, the better) text books, the fallacy is more accurately labeled "appeal to false authority" (or sometimes, "false appeal to authority"). For instance, appealing to the testimony of Andy Lau in one's choice of a sports chronometer would be an appeal to false authority (unless, unknown to me, he happens to be a genuine expert on such things). But a ballistic expert's testimony about the victim's gunshot wound, on the other hand, is something else altogether.

But let's go back to the bit you wrote quoted above. IF you have good evidence that Bart is indeed a much better economist than Aaron, then assuming that you do not consider yourself competent to evaluate the specific argument brought forth by Aaron (and Bart), then all things being equal, it is at least justifiable to conclude that--provisionally--Aaron is wrong and Bart is right. There shouldn't be anything wrong with such a conclusion, speaking from a purely epistemic point of view.

(In the case where the experts disagree--some say P others say not-P, we, as non-experts, are stuck. We are back where we started being unable to adjudicate a dispute that is beyond us.)

The problem, as I see it, is not at the epistemic level but at the level of attempting to have a fruitful discussion. The pre-conditions of profitable conversation, so to speak. It's not the way I would have put it but Dan is probably thinking of something very similar in talking about setting the norms of discussion.

Citations of expertise are, frankly, show stoppers. Once the acknowledge expert says P, and assuming that we have no expertise in the subject at all, what's left to say? It has its place in the economy of human life, no doubt. But presumably part of the point of having an online discussion (at least at SA) is so that we can learn from each other. Even when we don't, in the end agree, we can at least get to consider the best versions of other people's positions.

Given that background, a blanket appeal to authority--even if technically correct--is not useful. It could also be harmful to the direction of future conversations (as Dan pointed out). At the very least, since Aaron put forward an argument, the experts can at least do everyone the favor of pointing out the specifics of where the reasoning went wrong. Which premise is false? Which inference invalid? What other relevant considerations have been left out? And so on.

And all that is assuming that the specific argument brought forward by Aaron really requires heavy duty expertise for its evaluation. That's not obvious at all. At the very least, it seems that whatever mistakes he made in his arguments are of such nature as to be explainable, given patience and good will, to non-experts. That is, it's not obvious at all that--even if the non-expert might not be able to see the flaw on his or her own, he or she will also be entirely unable to follow the counter-arguments of an expert and evaluate it as convincing on its own merits.

Sidenote re: fallacies, or more precisely, the evaluation of arguments are fallacies. Just as blanket appeals to authority, even if technically correct, are showstopping and entirely unhelpful, so likely unexplained attributions of fallacies. (I'm not saying that FO does such things.) That includes putting out names such as "begging the question", "appeal to authority", etc. even when they are technically correct. A much better way would be to first formulate the best version of the argument under consideration (principle of charity), then show that it fails in this or that specific way. (This premise is false, that inference is invalid.) The labeling is really the conclusion of such a counter-argument rather than a genuine premise.

Serendipity said...

"I think they are straw-men for the projection of middle-class anxieties. =)"

"Straw Ah-Beng"


Fearfully Opinionated said...

Dear all,

I am currently suffering a (hopefully temporary) bout of depression, and I apologize for not being able to further contribute in this exchange. Please feel free to continue making fun for Aaron in the meantime.

Best regards,