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.