I Can Tolerate Anything Except Factual Inaccuracies

This story is going hugely viral: Economist Removed from Plane for Algebra

The outpouring of sympathy and firestorm of righteous indignation, similar to that observed after the Ahmed Mohamed clock story, is more evidence we’re in an era of the ‘STEM celebrity‘, of which economics is part of. Had an obese snoring passenger been removed from the plane for being an annoyance, no one would have cared. Nor would anyone have cared had a lawyer been removed from the plane for being suspicious. A major reason why STEM is so respected compared to other professions is because it’s seen as a last bastion of intellectual purity and rigor in a world of materialism, fluff degrees, sensationalism, partisanship, and hype. In effect, STEM and its practitioners have become our new ‘priesthood’, who people turn to for answers and respect.

The title “I Can Tolerate Anything Except Factual Inaccuracies” is a play on Scott’s article “I Can Tolerate Anything But the Outgroup,” which went hugely viral, getting over 10,000 Facebook shares. What I mean by this is when reading the comments in response to the plane story (or almost any news story where there is ostensibly a victim and a villain), there is a difference in reaction depending on the intelligence of the commenters. For commenters of average intelligence (group A), the tendency is to reduce things to black and white ‘good vs evil’ dichotomy. Prima facie, the passenger was victimized; the airline is evil/wrong. End of story.

For more intelligent commenters (group B), there is a need to ‘understand’ the motive for why the passenger was ejected (maybe the airline had a perfectly good reason to so, or the woman was justified in some way to complain) beyond the ‘good vs. evil’ dichotomy, but also playing devil’s advocate and dispelling any factual inaccuracies in reporting. They are sorta like antibodies of the internet and online journalism, latching on to inaccuracies and omissions wherever they may infiltrate. In other words, for smart people, accuracy and the ‘truth’ tends to be more important than ‘tribal’ loyalty or whether something is ‘bad or good’ or ‘right or wrong’.

Here’s a contrived example comparing these two different styles of discourse (group A):

Group B:

This is related to intellectualism signalling, contrarian signaling, and counter signaling. For smart people, not being being too wed to a ‘tribe’ or a fixed ideology is a way of signalling intelligence, worldliness, and critical thinking to other smart people, thus boosting status. Trying to find inaccuracies and counterarguments is some sort of bizarre ‘game’ played by public participants. It’s like….we agree on ‘X’, but I will defend ‘Y’ if it somehow boosts my status among other members of ‘X’.

In addition to playing devil’s advocate and contrarian signaling, another type of signaling is virtue or holiness signaling, whereby a commenter will tacitly agree with the article…but then raise a big issue about the absence of ‘X’, about how the article or author doesn’t take it ‘far enough’, or how the author’s personal credentials may compromise his thesis. In nitpicking, posturing, and pestering, the commenter may be trying to to gain status by one-upping the author.

This probably is why NRx and ‘rationalists’, as much as they may disagree on certain issues, keep commingling…because they both seem to reject simplistic, prosaic, or reductionist views of the world and humanity, seeking or gravitating to more complicated, nuanced explanations and solutions.

On one hand this is good: inquisitiveness and Socratic questioning helps debunk hoaxes and is keeping the media in check. However, always putting ‘correctness’ above group affinity or loyalty may impede the ability to formalize anything, because too much effort is expended arguing over loose ends. For writers, it means constantly having to use ‘hedging language‘ in anticipation of the inevitable counterexamples that will arise and may be pointed out in forums and discussions. I think it can get out of hand. It you read something and find a counterexample even though you otherwise agree with the rest of the essay, maybe just keep that observation to yourself. We all want to be right, but that means someone else has to be wrong.