Wheat/chaff, signal/noise, valuable/rubbish etc.

Having read Daniel Dennett’s seven tools for thinking I suggested that users of Twitter could particularly think about points two and six on the list.

Point two:

Respect your opponent – “[E]asy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport [on h]ow to compose a successful critical commentary.”

Point six:

Don’t waste your time on rubbish – “Sturgeon’s law is usually expressed thus: 90% of everything is crap… A good moral to draw from this observation is that when you want to criticise a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form …don’t waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff or leave it alone…

Let’s stipulate at the outset that there is a great deal of deplorable, second-rate stuff out there, of all sorts. Now, in order not to waste your time and try our patience, make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find, the flagship examples extolled by the leaders of the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs.”

At various times thoughts like this have come across my mind, in much less articulate and much more verbose ways. Each time, I have thought they are particularly relevant to Twitter, since it’s the place where the vast majority of interaction and debate I come across now takes place.

(The only other place I regularly personally encounter debate is at conferences or seminars, usually after the two words that strike fear into any rational being: “Any questions?”)

As Dennett himself notes, points two and six are related: people who use poor methods of argument probably constitute those who primarily engage with or generate 90% of rubbish.

It reminds me of the hierarchy of disagreements: level zero is name-calling and level 2 is ad hominem attacks, whilst level 5 is refutation and level 6 is refutation of the central argument. (I’d hazard that Question Time on Thursdays and Any Questions? on Fridays rarely venture above level 3 (contradiction) and the occasional level 4 (counterargument).)

This runs the risk of being labelled elitist, and to some extent it probably is. But I’d contend that many folks don’t have the time to engage with the chaff / noise / rubbish etc. when there’s so much wheat / signal / good stuff out there, and so there has to be a way of filtering things as you want.

What this personally means for me on Twitter is this (broadly speaking a 1-in-4 rule):

  • My ratio of following to followers is around 1:4 – this has a natural filtering effect
  • I consciously look at around 1 in 4 tweets, which…
  • … reflects the 25% of people I follow who I sense contribute genuinely valuable things.

I haven’t gone so far as to create lists of who is in the “1” and who is in the other “3”, though. That would just be rude.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

One thought on “Wheat/chaff, signal/noise, valuable/rubbish etc.”

  1. Some arguments are more powerful than others. Some people are better at deploying powerful arguments than others. Constructive debate is a more highly skilled activity than simple criticism.

    All of those things are true; none of them is inherently elitist

    The risk of elitism comes – if it comes from anywhere – from the fact that not enough people are given the opportunity, tools and encouragement to learn how to do this well. But that is true of much more than just good rhetoric.

    I rather like the hierarchy of disagreement – thanks for sharing it.

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