Sanity, Science, and the Internet

A document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted.

Laertes, Hamlet, Act 4, Scene V.

As nearly everyone knows by now, the internet is the greatest danger to sanity yet devised by that mischievous and often self-defeating ape, Homo sapiens.

Case in point: There are now estimated to be well over 100 million bloggers in the world.  A number that by itself, and without any need of further evidence, provides absolute proof a sizable chunk of humanity has, since the invention of the internet, gone batshit crazy.

Yet, strange as this must sound to you, blogging actually might not be the very worse the internet has done to undermine sanity.  For the internet has also made it possible to find — at any minute of any hour, and at any hour of the day or night — someone, somewhere who has just said something that is certain to drive you insane.  Possible?  The net has made it all but inevitable.

The obvious example of that would be when someone publishes a statement they claim to be absolutely true, and which you know to be absolutely false, but which — and this seems to be the key here — the statement is so fundamentally flawed that you realize even in advance it will require you working something like a total of  seven hours over three days, while skipping at least four meals, and posting in excess of 24,000 words, to correct.  But correct it we will.

That is, you can be sure someone — and possibly an entire army of someones — will at least try to correct it.

The fact that so many of us humans can so easily get drawn into nearly endless internet kerfuffling would suggest to any sane person — assuming there still exists a sane person — that the world will end, not with a bang, but on that day a zillion face-palming smilies are tragically posted at once.

Now, I myself thought I was above such foolish kerfuffling.  I imagined my tendency to quickly get bored with debates protected me.  I thought, “You are too wise to be drawn into posting more than three or five times.”  Of course, all that false pride ended a couple days ago.

A couple days ago, I ran across fourteen words.  A mere fourteen words!  Fourteen (14) lousy words.  But they have been my doom.

What exasperates me about the situation is I really have no quarrel at all with the fourteen words.  None.  I figure they are, if taken lightly, true enough.  Every day I run across at least 100 far more ridiculous statements than the statement in question.  And, at least a third of that time, they’re my own statements.  Nevertheless, I have to date filled several notebook pages with painfully belabored handwritten commentary on those words.  And I might fill several more.

I just might.

I’m dangerous like that.

What are the words?

“[S]cience, which goes where the evidence and analysis indicate, and [which] is anti-mythical in nature…” [brackets mine].

I fully realize that I have just lost whatever respect and affection you once had for me.  In the column to the right of this post, you will find a blogroll.  In that blogroll, you will find a number of bloggers who are far more sane than me.  I urge you to click on anyone of them — now! At once! I myself am done for.  I’m finished.  Kaput.  Crazy as a one-legged jaywalker crossing the Chicago Eisenhower highway during rush hour.  But you might, if you act in time, still save yourself.

If on the other hand — if you are my brother-or-sister-in-crazy, if you are already beyond redemption, if “hope” is a meaningless concept to you, if sanity is something even an American Congressperson possesses in comparison to you — then I embrace you, my friend! My brother!  My sister!  My cherished one!  Let us hie laughing over the fields of the moon together!

So, what does the statement, “Science, which goes where the evidence and analysis indicate, and which is anti-mythical in nature…”, what does that mean to you?

The very first thing that struck me about that statement was — that it is passably true.  That it’s true enough.  And a sane man might have left it at that.

Have I mentioned that I’m not sane?  Not even close.  So, the next thing that occurred to me was science might in the end go where the evidence and analysis indicates, but it often enough goes kicking and screaming.  That is, the statement implies — at least to me — a far less rocky journey for new scientific ideas than is often the case.

I agree with those people who point out that scientists, on the whole, are to be counted among the world’s foremost skeptics.  As a group, they tend not to accept new ideas until those ideas are supported by a weight of evidence and analysis.  Sometimes that weight of evidence and analysis must be so great, before a theory is widely accepted, that it has become a juggernaut.  A new idea can be given a pretty hard time of it.

Moreover, I don’t accept the notion scientists are always and ever rational.  I recall Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,  argues that scientists at times tend to resist radically new ideas in their fields almost to the point of fanaticism.  Especially the old guard.  They can — and sometimes do — resist a new theory with such stubbornness that they go to their death beds unconverted.  In which cases, it has only been after the old guard has died off that the new theory passes from controversial to widely accepted.  So, I think it might be a myth that scientists always go happily down whichever roads are the most substantially paved with evidence and analysis.

Now, again, I don’t have a profound dispute with the statement, “science goes where evidence and analysis indicates.”  I think the statement is a gloss.  But I mostly agree with it.  Of course only a stark raving lunatic such as myself would argue with a statement that he agrees with.  Yessum.  I sure do like this lunar landscape.  And you still might have time to flee to that blogroll if you act at once.

It happens I have a about a half dozen other quibbles with the statement, “Science, which goes where the evidence and analysis indicates, and which is anti-mythical in nature…”.  But this is getting to be a long blog post, so I will offer only one of those quibbles to you.  Very briefly put: Scientists have often begun by accepting one or another popular myth of their day — and they have then only rejected that myth after first affirming it — sometimes affirming it for as long as a generation or more.  But if that’s the case, can science be properly called  “anti-mythical”?

Naturally, I think it’s passably true to characterize science as “anti-mythical”.  I mean, I’m crazy.  Thus, I am all but obligated to object to it.  After all, I agree with it.

It all is becoming clearer and clearer to me.  Clearer and clearer.

So! Five sets of questions for you.  Pick a set, any set, and run with it:

  • Have you ever gotten into an internet kerfuffle that you later regretted having gotten involved in? And if so, what was it that made you regret your involvement?
  • What’s the craziest online argument you’ve ever gotten into in your life on the net?  Were you, by any chance, arguing with yourself?  And, if so, will you marry me?
  • When, if ever, is there any worthwhile purpose to getting profoundly involved in an internet debate?  And what is that purpose?
  • Who is the craziest blogger on the net that you’ve yet to come across — but crazy in a good way?  Where do they blog?  Link, please! We wants their link!
  • Please quote the single craziest statement anyone has ever posted to the net. Ever.

Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies;
good night, good night.

4 thoughts on “Sanity, Science, and the Internet

  1. This post really resonated with me, Paul. First, I always enjoy every word of your blog, but my favorite today is of course kerfuffle. Second, the conflicts I see you having here are conflicts I often have – agreeing lightly with an idea, but upon second glance disagreeing, and wondering if it’s worth the thought I can’t help putting into it, and then wondering if it’s worth commenting on, and then wondering if I should delete the whole thing before Smart People see it and (in my mind) decide to permanently place me on their Cute but Benignly Vapid list.

    So yes, I’ve gotten in kerfuffles I’ve regretted. Sometimes I hastily judged a comment and replied inappropriately. Sometimes I wasn’t sure which side of a debate I was on and regretted taking one particular side. Occasionally I got wrapped up in arguing with a troll who managed to trick me into it, and by some troll magic found myself adamantly trying to prove that unicorns cry diamonds. I used past tense, because I’m clearly far too experienced and clever now to ever let myself get drawn into windmill tilting and troll debating.

    I have other posting regrets too – coming across too harshly or wishy washy or apologetically or confusingly or reactively. I hope people get a sense of who I am from a larger base than one heated thread. But if not, eh, there are so many internet kerfuffles mine swiftly get lost in the crowd.

    Like

  2. I’ve gotten into a few kerfuffles with Mormon apologists. Lesson: You’ll never win an argument with someone who (A) is paid to obscure the truth; and/or (B) has a strong opinion yet is willfully ignorant about the facts.

    Like

    • Ahab, no way! I almost posted the exact same link! I thought my post was getting too long, but I love hyberbole and a half.

      Like

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