There are three ways in which Wikipedia is very counterproductive when it comes to having conversations. 1) Sometimes it is not correct, but is taken as gospel. This is rare, because errors that are encountered when this happens tend to get fixed, but it does happen; 2) Wikipedia, with it’s strident empirical approach and narrow range of training by participants (entire fields of study seem to be very underrepresented among the writers and editors) does not have a fully developed handle on all of the important aspects of scholarship, so certain kinds of information are essentially excluded or reduced to insignificance when they should not be; and 3) Wikipedia has served as the substrate for the codification of certain interlocutory behaviors which in turn have subsequently become inappropriately fetishized conversational tics.
Lets start with number 3 because that is most timely and relevant. Twice in the last 12 hours I have seen someone tell someone else that their argument was weak because they had demonstrated Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies. Godwin’s Rule was a joke. It was a tongue in cheek remark that sated that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1″ (where 1 is a probability value, the same as 100%). However, one almost never sees Godwin’s rule invoked as a joke or a reference to a joke. Rather, it is usually invoked either right after someone mentions Nazi’s or Hitler to shut them up (regardless of the validity of the comparison) and I’ve even seen it invoked BEFORE the comparison was made, as a preemptive shutting up of the opposition in an argument.
That Godwin’s law is often invoked at certain key points, and that is always means “seriously, your argument is invalid, shut up” as opposed to what it really means, would both be evidence of the rule being fetishized as an element of conversation. The fact that the accusation that the rule applies always means the same thing regardless of the argument at hand and is always made by the opposing individual in the argument strongly supports the idea that it has become at conversational tic rather than either a meaningful observation (which I suppose it could be sometimes) or, as it was originally intended, a joke.
But the smoking gun evidence that the invocation of the Godwin’s Rule Shut Up response truly is a fetish comes from instances like those I mentioned; The two cases I observed over the last 12 hours of someone telling someone else that their argument was weak because they invoked Hitler and/or Nazis were during conversation about … Hitler and Nazis!!!!! One was a facebook conversation in which we were talking about Catholics, Nazis, the Pope, and Hitler (and I’m not entirely sure Godwin’s rule was brought up seriously in that case but it seemed to be) and the other was a comment on this blog on a post about …. Catholics, Nazis, the Pope, Dawkins and Hitler, with these words: “If Dawkins hadn’t pulled a Godwin’s Law and brought up Hitler…”*
Yes, Dawkins brought up Hitler when … talking about Hitler. Yes, folks, Godwin’s Law is a conversational tic. You can start ignoring it now. In the case noted on this blog, the writer of the comment had produced an otherwise perfectly lucid comment that more or less randomly included the Godwin remark. When pressed, the commenter acknowledged that the Godwin remark did not make any sense and retracted it. Again … it was just a conversational tic.
But what does this have to do with Wikipedia? Perhaps little, but I strongly suspect that Wikipedia, as the place where these rules are kept and can be looked up (Godwin’s, Ad hominem arguments, Reductio ad absurdum, etc. etc.) serves as a substrate for the continuation and use of these rules, as a handy dandy replacement for thinking. If you read the Wikipedia entries for these phenomena, they are not bad. I’m not criticizing them here. I’m just noting that the culture of Internet discussion involves a handful of “shut up” phrases (about half in Latin) that are almost always used incorrectly and that are maintained in the culture in part because they are used a lot and in part because you can look them up in Teh Wiki. These two are connected, in that when the terms are used one often sees a link provided to Wikipedia’s entry.
Argumentum ad hominem is another phrase almost always used incorrectly, but in a somewhat subtle way. According to Wikipedia, “argumentum ad hominem, is an attempt to link the validity of a premise to a characteristic or belief of the person advocating the premise.” The Ad Hominem Shut Up tic involves accusing someone of making an ad hominem argument, thus they are wrong. However, there are two things wrong here.
First, many arguments made in the same discussion are ALSO ad hominem in some cases, but are left to stand. You say the train is coming at 1:00 PM. I say that you are an utter moron, I’ve looked at the train schedule ant it is coming at 1:04 PM, and you must be some kind of evil nutbag to tell me this, I can then argue later that I’m no making an ad hominem argument because I have a fact. A fact, I say!!!! I’ve looked at the data! The fact that I’ve called you a moron and an evil nutbag is not the relevant part of my argument. In real life, false ab hominem (the opposite of ad hominem) arguments are not as blatant at this one, but do keep an eye out for this and you’ll see it. If you have two brain cells to rub together, that is. (Hey, I’m just stating a fact about your brain cells!)
The second fallacy is that an ad hominem argument is necessarily, automatically wrong. Even Wikipedia agrees that this is NOT the case: “The ad hominem is not always fallacious, for in some instances questions of personal conduct, character, motives, etc., are legitimate and relevant to the issue.”
Again, there is nothing wrong with the study of these crystallized critiques of conversational pitfalls, or with their thoughtful use. But so often these gems are used uncritically, unthoughtfully, and as synonyms. They are synonyms for the term “shut up.”
We need a Wikipedia entry for “conversational tic” in which the above point is made. Do you know what I mean?
And now moving on to the second point, and I’ll make this fast. This thought was on my mind for a long time but congealed earlier this year when I was motivated for reasons lost to history and Vicodin to look up what Wikipedia had to say about the origin of the name of the city Buffalo. I knew what I was going to find and I found what I already knew likely: Wikipedia is a deer in the headlights when it comes to oral history. We may never be able to tell where Buffalo get’s its name, but there is a reasonable oral history that has been known for some time suggesting what may have happened. At the same time, there are two or three other stories that are not as plausable to explain the name. Since all of the stories are based on oral history, they are viewed by Wikipedia as equally invalid and given roughly the same weight even though they don’t deserve the same weight. There is not a documented empirical trail leading from the question “Where did Buffalo, NY get it’s name?” to a solid answer, but there is one answer that stands above others and is most likely, yet to be understood not as invalid, but rather, as probable yet based on oral records subject to revision. But Wikipedia, with it’s particular method and style of writing, research, production, and editing, simply can’t handle things like this.
Another example is the geographical boundaries of Africa (like West Africa, East Africa, etc). Geographers, anthropologists, archaeologists, and the like have used a couple of different systems for years. In the mean time the CIA and some other influential agencies across the globe have divided Africa into different zones because they had different needs. The UN and the World Bank and other international agencies divided Africa into yet another set of zones because they had different needs. But what you must understand it this: The geographical regions of a part of the world that are used in day to day academic discourse typically remain fairly stable with only moderate ambiguity, and those are the divisions used “properly.” This is different from what agencies and institutions may use for pragmatic reasons.
Here is an analogy (that does not involve Nazis or Hitler): In my house, clothing exists in closets, dressers and laundry baskets. That is true in all houses in the Western World. It is a good material-cultural distinction: Furniture and closets vs. carrying or holding bins. However, in MY world, as distinct from everyone else’s, clothing is of three types: I don’t wear it and clean; I do wear it and clean; I do wear it and dirty. The first time is located in dressers and closets. The second type is located in a laundry basket folded with a few items handing but not in a closet, and the third type in different laundry baskets.
Just because I have a quirky way of handling my clothing does not mean that there are now two ways to describe the material culture of clothing containment in Western households. No. There is only one: Closets, dressers, baskets. My uses must be reconciled against that “geography” in the same way that the strange divisions of Africa used by the UN must be reconciled against the traditional geographies which are still considered quite appropriate and useful. But Wikipedia can’t handle that and if you read the pertinent entries you will walk away ill informed and confused. If you read the introduction to a book on African Geography or on a topic that makes heavy use of African Geography, you will find a simple and coherent framework that is limited not because it is deficient but because it is meant to be limited.
On the first point, I’ll say no more. Other than that when I first looked up “Pygmies” I was astounded to find that they wore no clothing, ever. Funny, I hadn’t noticed that when I was living with them in Central Africa.