Friday, October 5, 2012

The Trouble with Quibbles

I'd like to call your attention to a wonderful little essay by Jesse Galef that Hemant posted at The Friendly Atheist today.  Jesse reminds us that spending too much time on the internal tensions and dramas of a movement can undermine its overall mission.  He's talking specifically about the secular movement, but what he says goes for any situation in which many free-thinking people with strong critical faculties try to accomplish something together.

I thought I'd tack on a technique I employ quite frequently to ensure that my critical comments on blogs and forums are actually instrumentally rational with respect to reason-mongering. 

We all know what it feels like when someone is wrong on the internet, especially about something that matters to us.  Even if we think they've got it mostly right, there's a gut reaction prompting us to call out errors and present perfected versions of arguments.  But it's not to our personal benefit, nor to the benefit of whatever cause we support, to require perfection in every comment, post, and article we read.  Often, drawing attention to relatively minor errors or disagreements means drawing attention away from the main point.  If the main point is one we support, and if the author more or less accomplishes her goal of making it well and spreading the news, it probably makes more sense to point out the best parts rather than the worst.

The irrational tendency to pounce on the mistakes of others despite one's own best interest is a side effect of the extremely useful family of heuristics we employ to maximize rationality, a family comprising such skills as skepticism, hypothetical reasoning, and sensitivity to common fallacies in arguments.  Applying these tools to the claims of others protects us from believing willy-nilly whatever we happen to read, and encourages the adoption of only the most strongly justified beliefs.  They're important skills, and without them the secular movement wouldn't have much going for it.  But for every heuristic, there is a bias.

Quibble addiction is a cognitive bias, one we can learn to counteract as we would any other obstacle to lucid thought.

Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that criticism itself is bad.  Obviously, it's tremendously useful.  It's essential to practice skeptically evaluating arguments from Your Side just as you would those from The Other Side.  And when it isn't trivial, criticism is an invaluable way to improve on your allies' message.  I just want to highlight that not all criticism is in fact productive.  Criticism is a tool for accomplishing other goals; when it functions as its own end, we risk losing sight of our deeper values.

So here's a start on how to kick the quibble habit.  Whenever I feel the urge to analyze and expose the shortcomings of an author I basically agree with, I ask myself the following questions.  They often reveal that I'm indulging my quibble addiction.  Subsequently, I'm able to devote my limited resources to something more important -- at a minimum, to someone who's wronger on the Internet.

  • What goal did the author have in mind when she wrote this in the first place?
  • Do I support that goal?
  • Does the article/post/comment still work despite the problems I see?
  • Is there something more effective I could do with the time it would take me to point out the problems?
  • Are my criticisms best made in public, or in a private message?