I can’t say dogmatic beliefs always bugged me as I was your typical non-practising Christian up until the age of about 13. At that age though, soon after my (voluntary) exodus from an Anglican high school, things about religion stopped making sense for me. Whilst I didn’t call my atheist then I was definitely without a religion but it wasn’t until some years later that I came across the identifier. For me the process of becoming atheist was one of mounting evidence overwhelming the scripture that was presented to me as gospel truth, pushing me down a path of rational thinking. Since then I’ve tried to focus much of life on evidence based ideals rather than succumbing to dogmatic ideas.
Since then the atheist movement has come a long way with many on and offline communities sprouting up. For someone like me who grew up not knowing any other atheists it’s been great to know that there are so many like minded people out there. Honestly though it’s not like I had much of a hard time with the idea, Australia as a general rule is pretty secular and someone’s religion is never really a topic of conversation. The only time I was close to some potential trouble was when I was meeting my now wife’s family who were devoutly religious, but even they were accepting of someone who was not of their faith (and to their credit didn’t even try to convert me).
What has started to irk me though is the rise of what I like to call Reddit Intellectuals. Don’t take the name too seriously (I’ve already had a couple long time Redditors take offence to it, but I mean no harm) as it’s not a rule I apply to all Redditors generally. More it’s symptomatic of communities and the group think that they generate, not something that I directly blame on Reddit itself. No the Reddit Intellectuals are those who have taken up the generally held beliefs of the wider Reddit community, usually under the atheist subreddit, as dogmatic principle without undergoing any kind of pragmatic process. For these people the ideas of the Reddit community are simply a straight up replacement for religion, held in the same high regard as believers hold in their faith.
The reason this rubs me the wrong way is because instead of rationally deciding that faith is not for them they are instead adopting someone else’s world view, in essence becoming dogmatic atheists. For me this greatly undermines the principle of the atheism, eroding the idea that we’ve looked at the evidence, decided that religion doesn’t make any rational sense and then left it on our own volition. To just simply “believe” the ideas of atheism means that you’ve put no rational thought into the idea and would just as likely have joined the Church of Cthulhu had they made a shiny website with an active community.
Indeed the problem isn’t just isolated to atheist circles, I could have easily coined the term Wikipedian Intellectuals to the same effect. Any online community has the tendency to generate individuals with dogmatic beliefs that reflect the majority’s opinion and depending on what that community is centred around that will determine what kind of followers they generate. Reddit and Wikipedia are just 2 examples of communities that generate people who believe they’re smarter than others simply because they can look up (or have already read) something on a website. In reality true understanding comes from being able to read those sources and then verify them with others. Just simply reading a site and not doing at least some rudimentary fact checking on it (and for something like Wikipedia that’s incredibly easy to do, they give you the links!) is akin to accepting dogmatic beliefs because you read them in a book that that nice guy at church gave you.
Thankfully people like this are the minority and are relatively easy to weed out once you start probing their knowledge. These communities also tend to be somewhat self correcting as once new evidence comes out that refutes a popular stance the rational actors amongst them will shift their view point much quicker than the dogmatic ones, making their identification quite easy.
Maybe its the engineer in me or the IT professional who’s run up against the saying “because this is the way we’ve always done it” far too often but I find dogmatic beliefs have a tendency to be harmful for both the individual and the group. The Reddit Intellectuals are just the symptom of those who have not developed the critical thinking skills to come to the same conclusions by themselves. I don’t pretend to know of a solution to this but if you find yourself believing something that’s been written on the Internet holistically without verification you might want take a step back. You could be one of the Reddit Intellectuals.
It’s not often that I encounter an idea that fundamentally shifts my thinking or view of the world but I came across one not too long ago: the Dunning-Kruger effect. The essence of the idea is that people below a certain level of understanding in something tend to over-estimate how well they understand it and those who are well versed in something tend to underestimate how well they understand it. In short, dumb people are too dumb to know that they’re dumb. That one idea fundamentally changed the way I viewed the world and not for the negative. More I understood where to draw the line on certain issues and gained a whole swath of insight into the reasons why people do certain things that make no sense to me.
Since late yesterday many websites have been going dark to protest the SOPA/PIPA bills that have managed to resurrect themselves since my post on it a couple days ago. I personally haven’t done anything because I know the vast majority of my readers are already informed on the matter and I’m not one to engage in me-too like behaviour just for the sake of it (just like LifeHacker who’ve copped some flak over it). However whilst the protests are proving to be a rather effective means of getting attention of this issue (it got air play here in Australia) I get the feeling that a lot of them, especially Wikipedia’s one, are running up against the Dunning-Kruger effect.
What proof do I have of this? The existence of Twitter accounts like this one showcasing those who don’t understand why Wikipedia is down. Forgetting for the moment that the Wikipedia blackout page explains exactly why this is happening and that it’s still available via their mobile site or Google cache it seems that the second something changes for these people they’re are simply unable to understand what has happened. It’s a known phenomena for us IT people: change the way something is done and most users won’t be able to figure out how to work around it. They are simply lacking the required level of knowledge to understand that they don’t have enough knowledge to approach the problem rationally, and react to it with vulgarities and mindless commentary.
For these people then the protests that Wikipedia et. al. are going through are thus meaningless for them as should they lack the required level of knowledge to understand why an online resource has gone away it’s unlikely they’d grasp the fundamental reasons of why SOPA is a bad thing. To them Wikipedia going away would simply be a loss of a valuable tool without reason (hence the reactions) or they’d wrongly attribute the blame somewhere else. They don’t understand that there is something they can do to prevent such things happening in the future, both for working around the blackout and for preventing such things happening again.
Does this mean that these shouldn’t have engaged in these protests? Far from it. I’d argue, based on completely anecdotal evidence, that the vast majority of people will be able to see the reasons why Wikipedia is gone and will probably just wait it out and not do much more. However there are those rational thinkers who were not privy to the evils of SOPA and PIPA prior to these sites going dark and they will more than likely join the cause afterwards. We’re already well past critical mass here so any more supporters simply adds additional momentum and hopefully that will be enough to kill these ridiculous bills before they go any further.
If you look back a mere decade or so it is shocking how much information someone has if they have access to the Internet. Back in the late 90s the Internet was booming however it lacked real authoritative resources that people could draw on to do at least basic research. Today much of that is has changed with the advent of real resources like Google Scholar, arXiv and PubMed Central who bring real research with verifiable results to the wider world. Additionally non-authoritative sources like Wikipedia which make use of these journals provide a good baseline from which to pursue further knowledge from.
It is then interesting to note how people’s behaviour changes slightly when you add that amount of easy information into their lives via constant access to the Internet, usually via their phone. No longer are those slightly boozy conversations down at the pub which inevitably turn to debate left to stew until someone finds a book to prove their point it is now extremely common for someone to look up the fact on the Internet and have it be done with. I must admit I’m usually the one doing this as I always want to know the facts rather than the hearsay from my friends. Not to say that I don’t trust them, it’s just that sceptic in me that needs to know.
It’s also a right of passage for many people on the Internet to be able to judge what’s probably truthful and what’s not. Anyone who has used email in a corporate environment will have more then likely encountered 2 types of people who are born out of this information overload that the Internet provides. The first is what I call the Forward Junkie, someone who blindly forwards those joke/picture/movie/story emails to everyone in the office. Try as you might to stop them they’ll continue to do it until usually they hit on the second type of person, who I call the Casual Sceptic. Whilst they’re not the kind of person to spout reams of scientific knowledge should you dare claim something you can’t back up they will casually link you to either Wikipedia or Snopes to prove their point. It’s at that point that neither of them say anything about the matter again, and office life continues as it was.
To think that the Internet has brought about this kind of mindset in a few people is an amazing thing to behold. When the barrier to entry on information is so low many people take it upon themselves to not only educate themselves but also verify information given to them. As it is one of my ultimate goals to inspire people to think about a topic and do their own research about it (since of course I’m just a loon posting on his blog) every casual sceptic that I meet always brings me a little joy. I love it when technology is used in this way.
Maybe I’m just a ravenous sceptic in disguise….. 😉