The Intellectual Poverty of Pwnage?

Note: This is the fourth installment in the series on debating tactics and pseudoskepticism. For other posts in this series, see the index entry.

In a recent video entitled Hedgemon I choose you, Michael Payton, a cognitive scientist formerly at York University, strongly suggests that the debating tactic of mockery and ridicule is not only contradicted by the scientific evidence, but is probably harmful in that it makes opponents even more entrenched and that it should really be cast upon the heap of pseudoscience that we should not take seriously, comparing it with homeopathy and creationism. Although this does not, perhaps, directly contradict the discussed thesis that mockery and satire may be useful for convincing the undecided public, it seems to show that it is a bad idea to use it as means of trying to convince opponents. Payton’s argument is, in my mind, persuasive and it has the evidence to back it up. I have complained earlier about the fact-free nature of the discussions on debate tactics, so this has some real promise. Therefore, I feel that it may be useful to expand the discussion and evidence presented by Payton and look at it in more detail.

Payton suggests that the so called backfire effect is relevant in this context. The backfire effect is when people subjected to a refutation of falsehoods believe the falsehood stronger than before. Simplified, when one acts like an arrogant prick, one make those who would benefit the most from the arguments one put forward more ingrained in their position.

Experiments carried out by Nyhan and Reifler (2008) showed some very troubling results. In one of them, subjects where asked to read a news paper article supporting the notion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in the earlier segments, then correcting this falsehood in the later parts of the article. The correction did not reduce the misinterpretation. The correction fails the strongest on conservatives.

Granted, this data was specifically for political beliefs and for polite correction, but it seems reasonable to suppose that a similar result can be found when it comes to religious or anti-scientific beliefs. What the significance of these results have on promoting things like skepticism and science-based medicine, remains to be seen, but it is clear that we need evidence-based methods. Peyton’s conclusion is stronger, saying that “the cult of pwnage and in-your-face activism bears all of the earmarks of pseudoscientific fluff”.

References and Further Reading

Vedantam, Shankar. (2008). The Power of Political Misinformation. Washington Post. Accessed: 2011-08-19.

Nyhan, B. and Reifler, J. (2010) When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior. Accessed: 2011-08-19.

Talk Of the Nation. (2010). In Politics, Sometimes The Facts Don’t Matter. NPR. Accessed: 2011-08-19.

Peyton, M. (2011). Hegemon, I choose you. Youtube. Accessed: 2011-08-19.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

9 thoughts on “The Intellectual Poverty of Pwnage?

  • August 23, 2011 at 05:41

    Hi Emil, I would be interested in your opinion on my tactic of Evidence Chicken.
    Initial post:
    Follow-up to a creationist challenge:

    As for the evidence against mockery/satire, I have not yet watched the video, but from what I recall of the research you mention, I’m not convinced it is even relevant. The ‘backfire effect’ does not address the tactic of mockery or satire, but only being an “arrogant prick” (to borrow your phrase), which is decidedly different. Also, there is a major difference between using ridicule as a one-off dismissal vs. using it as a sustained campaign against a particular position. The latter is able to build a growing public sentiment against a previously widely held status quo position, whereas the former can likewise simply be dismissed as the opinion of a single ‘jerk’.

    The other study you cited does not address satire/mockery/ridicule at all, only ‘correcting’ misinterpretations in a non-ridiculing manner. There’s a big difference between reading someone else’s contrary opinion vs. being made to look foolish for one’s own claims.

  • August 23, 2011 at 11:56

    Sure, I think all of your counter-arguments have merit and worth serious discussion. I knew about them before, which is why I wrote the entry as diffuse and without providing any strong conclusions.

    I like your idea about evidence chicken. In fact, I routinely use something similar, although I tend to be less Socratic and more blunt. I usually carry around articles in my bag for various things and when someone make claims like “they found blood in ancient dinosaurs” or something like that, I usually pull up the article and say “Well, if that is the case, how do you explain that the original article, Schweitzer (2005) [and which point I hand over the article in question] did not actually find soft tissue, but the softness was a result of rehydration used to remove the surrounding minerals?” This may make me come off as arrogant of course, but I imagine that it has a theatrical value.

    I’ll discuss it in more detail in the next part of the mini-series. Thanks for the tip.

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  • August 23, 2011 at 18:14

    “I usually carry around articles in my bag for various things …”

    Wow! That’s dedication! How heavy is your bag, and do you have to do workouts to prevent shoulder injury from carrying it around? 😉 Just kidding, but I agree that would have a lot of excellent theatrical value. I would be laughing if I saw you do that, for sure. 🙂

    Excellent work on your blog, by the way. I do really appreciate it.

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