One of my all-time favorite comics is this classic from xkcd:
We’ve all been there. For some of us, it’s embarrassing to admit how often. There’s something about the internet that proliferates tedious and dumb arguments about things that probably don’t matter.
There are at least three predictable failures in logic that the internet exacerbates in everyone. The result: the maddening perception that everyone is wrong, all the damn time.
1. Absence of Evidence Is Evidence of Absence
There’s a famous Tweet that has been reposted by so many people at this point that I have no idea who originally said it. But it summarized the internet thus:
Person A: “I like oranges. They taste great!”
Person B: “Oh, so you hate bananas then? Perhaps if you opened your mind to other fruits, you wouldn’t be so prejudiced. Geez. Educate yourself.”
There’s a maxim in logic that says, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Just because I didn’t say I like bananas, doesn’t mean I don’t like bananas.
I’d say this fallacy accounts for roughly 30% of the criticisms I get, and probably around 50% of the criticisms I see occurring on social media.
For example, I might write an article about six common relationship habits that are toxic… and then proceed to get a dozen emails from people mad at me because of that one toxic thing that happened to them that one time that wasn’t mentioned in the article and how could I be so ignorant of such an obvious example and have you even been in a relationship? I bet you’ll die alone.
(Okay, they don’t actually say that last part… usually.)
I think this mental error proliferates on the internet because when talking to someone in person, you can simply interrupt the conversation and ask them, “Have you considered this other thing?” And they can say, “Oh yeah, of course, I love bananas too, but I was just talking about oranges.” And then you both move on with your lives. Crisis averted.
But on the internet, you don’t get that real-time context. What is said is permanently embedded in the digital ether and is implicitly read by people as a complete and full statement of opinion, even though it never is.
Get Your Shit Together — Here’s How
2. You Say “Tomato,” I Say… “Tomato”
Probably the second greatest cause of misunderstanding that I see on the internet is simply semantics. We take for granted how ambiguous many words are.
For example, a couple of weeks ago, I wrote in a newsletter that for most of the developed world, the disruption caused by the pandemic was “almost over.” In my mind, after 15 months of shit, three to four more months qualified as “almost over.”
Well, I quickly learned that people have very different definitions of what “almost” means. To some people, it means a few days. Others, a week or two. Some, I guess, thought I meant, like, after lunch, or something?
Anyway, the point is I got a lot of angry emails. But when I explained that in my mind, a few months qualify as “almost,” most of them were like, “oh.” And then they didn’t reply again.
I could say something like, “I think the mainstream media the past year has been a failure.” But failure of what? Failure to inform? To frame the debate properly? Failure to be consistent? Entertaining? Useful? Honest?
There are endless ways to define “failure” in that sentence. And again, this is something that, face-to-face, you would pick up on what exactly I mean by the context in which I say it—by my body language and tonality, by the trajectory our conversation has been on.
But drop that sentence into a vacuum online and let the clusterfuck begin.
3. The Fallacy of Mood Affiliation
Mood affiliation is when people agree/disagree with something simply because it justifies things they’ve already experienced or felt. This common failure in logic was coined by the economist Tyler Cowen.
The examples in politics are endless, of course. But you see this happen all the time in other areas as well.
For example, I once made a joke in an article about people hating their in-laws. The joke had nothing to do with the actual advice in the article (which was something about commitment, I believe). Yet, I received an email from a reader who told me that my article had it all wrong.
Because her in-laws actually were terrible and her relationship fell apart because of it. Therefore, not only was I being disrespectful towards her relationship, but I clearly didn’t understand the effect in-laws can have on commitment. Therefore, the rest of my article must be wrong.
This was pure mood affiliation. The reader had extreme negative feelings about her (former) in-laws. She read an article about relationships that didn’t have extreme negative feelings about in-laws. Therefore, the article must be wrong.
Again, I think mood affiliation proliferates online because so much of what we encounter is bite-sized opinions in a vacuum.
In real life, information always comes attached to context. Online, it almost never has context. Therefore, we tend to bring our own context to whatever information we find.
And the result is a never-ending food fight.