Typical Sneer Fallacy
I like going to see movies with my friends. This doesn’t require much elaboration. What might is that I continue to go see movies with my friends despite the radically different ways in which my friends happen to enjoy watching movies. I’ll separate these movie-watching philosophies into a few broad and not necessarily all-encompassing categories (you probably fall into more than one of them, as you’ll see!):
(a): Movie watching for what was done right. The mantra here is “There are no bad movies.” or “That was so bad it was good.” Every movie has something redeeming about it, or it’s at least interesting to try and figure out what that interesting and/or good thing might be. This is the way that I watch movies, most of the time (say 70%).
(b): Movie watching for entertainment. Mantra: “That was fun!”. Critical analysis of the movie does not provide any enjoyment. The movie either succeeds in ‘entertaining’ or it fails. This is the way that I watch movies probably 15% of the time.
(c): Movie watching for what was done wrong. Mantra: “That movie was terrible.” The only enjoyment that is derived from the movie-watching comes from tearing the film apart at its roots—common conversation pieces include discussion of plot inconsistencies, identification of poor directing/cinematography/etc., and even alternative options for what could have ‘fixed’ the film to the extent that the film could even said to be ‘fixed’. I do this about ~12% of the time.
(d): Sneer. Mantra: “Have you played the drinking game?”. Vocal, public, moderately-drunken dog-piling of a film’s flaws are the only way a movie can be enjoyed. There’s not really any thought put into the critical analysis. The movie-watching is more an excuse to be rambunctious with a group of friends than it is to actually watch a movie. I do this, conservatively, 3% of the time.
What’s worth stressing here is that these are avenues of enjoyment. Even when a (c) person watches a ‘bad’ movie, they enjoy it to the extent that they can talk at length about what was wrong with the movie. With the exception of the Sneer category, none of these sorts of critical analysis are done out of any sort of vindictiveness, particularly and especially (c).
So, like I said, I’m mostly an (a) person. I have friends that are (a) people, (b) people, (c) people, and even (d) people (where being a (_) person means watching movies with that philosophy more than 70% of the time).
This can generate a certain amount of friction. Especially when you really enjoy a movie, and your friend starts shitting all over it.
Or at least, that’s what it feels like from the inside! Because you might have really enjoyed a movie because you thought it was particularly well-shot, or it evoked a certain tone really well, but here comes your friend who thought the dialogue was dumb, boring, and poorly written. Fundamentally, you and your friend are watching the movie for different reasons. So when you go to a movie with 6 people who are exclusively (c), category (c) can start looking a whole lot like category (d) when you’re an (a) or (b) person.
And that’s no fun, because (d) people aren’t really charitable at all. It can be easy to translate in one’s mind the criticism “That movie was dumb” into “You are dumb for thinking that movie wasn’t dumb”. Sometimes the translation is even true! Sneer Culture is a thing that exists, and while its connection to my ‘Sneer’ category above is tenuous, my word choice is intentional. There isn’t anything wrong with enjoying movies via (d), but because humans are, well, human, a sneer culture can bloom around this sort of philosophy.
Being able to identify sneer cultures for what they are is valuable. Let’s make up a fancy name for misidentifying sneer culture, because the rationalist community seems to really like snazzy names for things:
Typical Sneer Fallacy: When you ignore or are offended by criticism because you’ve mistakenly identified it as coming purely from sneer. In reality, the criticism was genuine and actually true, to the extent that it represents someone’s sincere beliefs, and is not simply from a place of malice.
This is the point in the article where I make a really strained analogy between the different ways in which people enjoy movies, and how Eliezer has pretty extravagantly committed the Typical Sneer Fallacy in this reddit thread.
Some background for everyone that doesn’t follow the rationalist and rationalist-adjacent tumblr-sphere: su3su2u1, a former physicist, now data scientist, has a pretty infamous series of reviews of HPMOR. These reviews are not exactly kind. Charitably, I suspect this is because su3su2u1 is a (c) kind of person, or at least, that’s the level at which he chose to interact with HPMOR. For disclosure, I definitely (a)-ed by way through HPMOR.
su3su2u1 makes quite a few science criticisms of Eliezer. Eliezer doesn’t really take these criticisms seriously, and explicitly calls them “fake”. Then, multiple physicists come out of the woodwork to tell Eliezer he is wrong concerning a particular one involving energy conservation and quantum mechanics (I am also a physicist, and su3su2u1′s criticism is, in fact, correct. If you actually care about the content of the physics issue, I’d be glad to get into it in the comments. It doesn’t really matter, except insofar as this is not the first time Eliezer’s discussions of quantum mechanics have gotten him into trouble) (Note to Eliezer: you probably shouldn’t pick physics fights with the guy whose name is the symmetry of the standard model Lagrangian unless you really know what you’re talking about (yeah yeah, appeal to authority, I know)).
I don’t really want to make this post about stupid reddit and tumblr drama. I promise. But I think the issue was rather succinctly summarized, if uncharitably, in a tumblr post by nostalgebraist.
The Typical Sneer Fallacy is scary because it means your own ideological immune system isn’t functioning correctly. It means that, at least a little bit, you’ve lost the ability to determine what sincere criticism actually looks like. Worse, not only will you not recognize it, you’ll also misinterpret the criticism as a personal attack. And this isn’t singular to dumb internet fights.
Further, dealing with criticism is hard. It’s so easy to write off criticism as insincere if it means getting to avoid actually grappling with the content of that criticism: You’re red tribe, and the blue tribe doesn’t know what it’s talking about. Why would you listen to anything they have to say? All the blues ever do is sneer at you. They’re a sneer culture. They just want to put you down. They want to put all the reds down.
But the world isn’t always that simple. We can do better than that.