Thursday, December 24, 2009

Internet Critique: A Sea of Neutral Facts (Part 1)

This is part of a series of posts I’ll be writing about Internet criticism.

When reading or writing critique, it is important to distinguish between negative criticism and neutral facts.

Neutral facts are facts that don’t weigh for or against an object being criticised. Misguided Internet critics often pad their critiques with neutral facts in order to try and persuade people to their point of view, by way of the sheer number of these “facts”.

That’s not to say that the person might have a point, it’s just shifting through the silt for a gem may be time-consuming.

The ad hominem

The ad hominem is the most basic kind of neutral fact and one that is most often employed, usually in the form of association fallacy. Basically, an ad hominem is when one attacks the person or entity as an argument of why his views, opinion or something he makes, produces, or is responsible for, is bad or wrong.

Association fallacy says: X is made by Y. Y is bad/wrong because of Z. Ergo, X is bad/wrong, or alternately, X is made by Y, for reason Z. Reason Z is bad/wrong, ergo X is bad/wrong.

Both of these arguments fail to explain how X is wrong or bad. They explain how Y is wrong, misguided or bad, but that has no bearing on the quality of the object itself.

If you establish that the price of tea in China is too high, you don’t back it up by listing social injustices committed by the tea company. Sure, it’s bad a bunch of workers were wrongly treated, but what has that got to do with the price of tea in China?

Wrong: Selling drugs is wrong because the Mafia does it.
Wrong: Selling drugs is wrong because the Mafia uses it to control the underground.
Right: Selling drugs is wrong because there are laws against it.

While the Mafia does wrong things, that says nothing about the wrongness of selling drugs.

Wrong: This webcomic is bad because only perverts read it.
Wrong: This webcomic is bad because it’s obviously aimed at perverts.
Wrong: This webcomic is bad because the author obviously has some sort of weird fetish for this kind of thing.
Right: This webcomic is bad because of weak plot and bad art.

The audience of a webcomic, or the intentions or interests of the author, says nothing about the quality of the webcomic. For all you know, it could be a good webcomic despite its’ target audience, similar to well-done children’s television shows.

Non sequiturs

The non sequitur is a fact that’s only superficially related to the current topic, but is used to back up an opinion anyway.

X and Y are related categories. Y has a product Z. Z performs poorly in category X, and therefore wouldn’t appeal to category Y.

Wrong: WIndows Mobile only has 4% of the consumer smartphone market, and therefore is a poor business phone.

The fact that Windows Mobile is doing poorly in the consumer market says nothing about its’ competency as a business phone.

Misuse of Percentages

Often, percentages will be brought in to back up why something is doing poorly. The problem is that percentages mean nothing without proper context, which is often lacking.

Right: These percentages show that people are ignoring Windows Mobile.
Wrong: These percentages show that Windows Mobile is haemorrhaging users.

What the example above is ignoring is that the market continues to grow – that is, the total number of users has increased and, in fact, so has the number of Windows Mobile phones.

This fact can’t be inferred from percentages alone – raw data and absolute trends are needed to get the full picture.

Appeal to Popularity

The examples given for the preceding sections also suffer from another fallacy: inferring popularity = quality. This is another kind of association fallacy – that is, everyone likes/hates X, therefore X must be good/bad.

Part two will be posted soon.