News Stories, Comments, Trolls, and More

Internet TrollI’ve noticed an interesting trend in my news reading habits. I generally try not to click on and read stories that are of a more puerile interest and stick with science, sports, substantive politics, and the like. The reason I do this is because clicking on a link drives that story’s popularity. The more clicks, the more interest and the news organization moves the story up the list. It’s largely a myth that the news outlets force-feed us stories we don’t care about. They are driven by advertising dollars and more clicks equals more money.

But, that’s not the real reason I’m blogging today. I’ve noticed that the comments section of stories have become of great interest to me for a couple of reasons. One reason is that they are amusing. Another is that it sort of gives me a feeling for how people interpret the story which is a mini-version of polling. I must also admit that I get a perverse joy out of reading particularly stupid comments but, that being said, I do also enjoy thoughtful responses.

There are several interesting dynamics at work in the comments section. One is the phenomenon of trolling. Simply put this is someone going to a particular story or shared discussion region and posting the most inflammatory comment possible. The idea is to provoke an emotional reaction. This in turn spawns a long series of attacks and counter-attacks which amuse the original troll (and me, sometimes).

Another dynamic is the person who genuinely cares about the topic in question and wants to post their own views either in support or against the original article or topic. This is a potentially powerful way of communicating with like-minded people and even convincing open-minded individuals of the validity or invalidity of a point.

Then there are the true-believers. Those who absolutely have faith in a particular point of view and want to post about how stupid the article is or the idiocy of anyone who believes differently.

What I find most fascinating, although not surprising, is that the middle group who want to have an earnest, thought-provoking discussion, are squeezed out. There are a number of efforts to counter this trend including forcing non-anonymous posting as we see in the St. Louis Today website. This does seem to cut down on the more egregious trolls but doesn’t seem to have diminished milder trolling or the true-believers who are happy to expound on how anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot even if their real name is attached to the attack.

I’m not really sure I have a conclusion to this blog. It’s just a fact. It’s sad. I wish people would  not denigrate one another with baseless and mean-spirited attacks but I don’t see an immediate solution.

I suppose it comes down to what it always does; teach children how to think critically. Teach them how to make an argument and avoid fallacies. Teach them civil discourse.

What do you think?

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist

Super Powers

Super Powers – Debunked

PsychicIn this final installment of my talk about Super Powers I’ll explain how some truly great people have spent much of their lives debunking those who hope to defraud us by claiming abilities beyond the normal. Yesterday I talked about the tremendous amount of fraud that is based on people who make such claims particularly in the realm of religion. Today I hope to demonstrate that the people who claim super powers are largely interested in stealing your money.

This sort of fraudulent behavior goes back as far as the written word as soothsayers in ancient Greece like the Oracle at Delphi made their living with fake prophecies for the desperate and gullible. The skeptics of the world have always doubted such nonsense and tried to debunk them.

I consider Gaius Julius Caesar one of the most admirable and remarkable men in history. In ancient Rome it was common for a soothsayer to look at the entrails of a recently slaughtered goat to determine if good or bad things were in store for the day. Suetonius attributes this quote to Caesar about that very subject: The entrails will be more favourable when I please; and it ought not to be regarded as a prodigy that a beast should be found wanting a heart.

Suetonius is trying to vilify Caesar but of course elevates him. Caesar knew this sort of fortune-telling was nonsense and makes no pretense about it.

In any case, let’s move forward in time to another of the greats, Harry Houdini. Mr. Houdini is best known as a magician and escape artist but he spent a great deal of life as a skeptic attempting to expose frauds who claimed super powers. He was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize for proof of super powers. Prize never paid.

Here’s the rub, if someone had super powers, they could prove it in two seconds. If I could fly it’s easy to prove. If I can read your mind, it’s easy to prove. Sure, there are tricks that seem to indicate this ability but under controlled environments no one has ever succeeded. Ever.

Mr. Houdini’s friend, Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, was a firm believer and tied himself in knots trying to figure out how Houdini was proving all these other psychics wrong. It’s an interesting story should you care to read further. But, it illustrates how invested are people who want to believe in Super Powers. Again, religion comes to the forefront here as people want to believe so badly they are willing to suspend their reason and end up defrauded.

Before Mr. Houdini died he hired his friends H. P. Lovecraft and C. M. Eddy Jr. to write a book called The Cancer of Superstition. Sadly, Mr. Houdini passed away and a great book was never written. I mourn.

The modern inheritor of Mr. Houdini’s assault on mysticism and super powers is James Randi. He has offered a $1,000,000 reward for anyone who can prove  paranormal powers. You’ll be stunned to learn, unclaimed. A million dollars!

Now, most of the true believers claim those that really have the power keep it a secret and don’t try for the reward. This is a common argument tactic of faith-based thinking. It is a fallacy called Argument from Ignorance. Essentially, a proposition is true because it hasn’t been proven false. A great man named Bertrand Russell came up with an excellent example to prove the unsound nature of this argument. He suggested that there is a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. You can’t prove it’s not there so it must be there. Be alert to Arguments from Ignorance when dealing with people who claim Super Powers exist in one form or another.

Back to Mr. Randi. He wrote a book calling Uri Geller a fake and subsequently won a lawsuit filed by Geller against him. Mr. Randi brilliantly set up a privately financed, fake psychic program called Project Alpha to show how flawed were the efforts to prove Super Powers. In a famous television appearance he debunked James Hydrick who claimed to be able to turn pages of a book with his mind. Mr. Randi simply put packing kernels around the book to prevent Hydrick from blowing the pages. Debunked!

In 1987 Mr. Randi wrote an important book called The Faith Healers as an outlet for his anger rising from compassion for the helpless victims of fraud. Sick people manipulated, defrauded, used. Well done, Mr. Randi! Well done, indeed.

Mr. Randi’s inspired a young magician named Penn Jillette who continues this good work today with books, a television show, and a Las Vegas show.

The point here is that when someone claims to have Super Powers they are trying to defraud you. Whether this is religious powers, supernatural powers, or comic book style super powers their goal is to steal something from you. Use your skepticism, your powers of logic and reason, inspire those around you to do the same.

We skeptics, we logical thinkers, can’t snap our fingers to make the world a better place but we can lead by example. We can show people better methods of thinking and inspire children. If we can raise generations of skeptics, of critical thinkers, then, we will change the world.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist

Super Bowl … Saturday?!

Super Bowl 2012

It’s Super Bowl Sunday and I’m going to use the occasion to examine the question of moving the game day to Saturday. This is an idea I’ve been a proponent of for quite some time and when talking about it with friends I always complained that the NFL was foolish not to adopt it.

For many years I stood by this argument without bothering to further examine why the Super Bowl remained on a Sunday. This demonstrated a fallacy called Ought-Is or Wishful Thinking. Simply put it is the idea that we want something to be true so we therefore believe it is true without critical analysis. The Ought-Is is a pretty common reason why we fail to fully examine situations and make mistakes.

So, let’s put on our Critical Thinking caps and get to work!

The benefits of a Saturday game are fairly self-evident. Parties could occur on Saturday night instead of Sunday night. Bars, hotels, and other venues would get a boost in revenue because the revelry could go on all evening. The game itself would air in the evening rather than late afternoon. People could stay up late without having to go to work the next morning.

Our critical thinking skills come into play to determine why the game, with all these tangible benefits, hasn’t been moved. One of the important aspects of critical thinking is determining who stands to gain and who stands to lose by a particular proposition. In this case the thing I chose to ignore was the idea of who loses with a Saturday game. Can you think of the answer? Take a moment.

Two parties lose by moving the game to Saturday, the NFL and the host city. The process by which the NFL determines the host city does not involve, to my knowledge, a direct cash payment. However, the host city is generally chosen by their “ability to host”. Well, let’s parse that phrase. What the NFL means by “ability to host” is really how much money can they extract from people who come to see the game.

While the NFL benefits from direct ticket sales and certainly from advertising I would imagine that the events surrounding the Super Bowl, including specially built venues to entertain the visitors in around the host city, provide a hefty boost to that income. Most of these special events take place on Saturday with a continuation onto game day. This revenue would certainly decrease with only half a day on Saturday to run before the game.

Likewise, the host city gets more hotel revenue and more tourist revenue by having the game on Sunday. Tourists arrive either late on Friday or early on Saturday and spend the rest of their time spending money. If the game were played on Saturday this would eliminate a full day of tourist revenue. Now, certainly many tourists would stay through Sunday in any case but the loss of revenue would certainly be significant.

Ok, now we’ve uncovered the reason for the game staying on Sunday, can we come up with a solution to the problem? The only real solution that I can think of is to have some sort of national holiday on the Friday before the Super Bowl (if the game is on Saturday) or the Monday after (if the game remains on Sunday). The NFL has proposed such solutions but it seems unlikely that the government will get involved and even if they do, some companies would ignore the holiday and this might curtail some of the revenue generation.

So, for all our critical thinking we don’t have an easy solution. That’s the way of it sometimes but at least I have some peace of mind as to why the game continues to be played on a Sunday.

I would suggest that we all try to use our critical thinking skills when faced with a seemingly absurd situation. Oftentimes you will find that Wishful Thinking has blinded you to the reality of a dilemma.

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Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist