The lure of the troll

In September of 2013, Popular Science closed down comments to its on-line edition, arguing that a decades-long attack on expertise, combined with the proliferation of trolls and spammers, threatens the ability of the public to reach rational social policy. To explain this decision, Suzanne LaBarre cited a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard finding that readers come to different interpretations of articles if the comments are abusive or civil. Given the difficulty of keeping time wasters and flame warriors out of discussions, Popular Science did what all of us at times have wanted to do — the magazine turned off the microphone available to its audience.

The silicon asteroid of the Internet that struck the intellectual world has caused a shift in the environment, allowing a particular species to thrive: the troll, a disruptive joker, a child storming in when the adults are talking. Is there anything good to say about this scavenger of the ethereal savannah?

Trolls are often regarded as a destructive force, derailing conversations, turning them into squabbles that gratify needy egos but otherwise ruin the signal-to-noise ratio. Can we find a use for the troll? I’m not talking about any fulfillment for the trolls themselves. Instead, is there a function that the troll can serve to further rationality? As difficult as it is to say at times, I’ll come to yes as an answer.

First, though, I need to clarify terms. The word, troll, as used today pulls together two streams that probably derive from the Proto-Germanic *truzlanan, a verb describing walking around with short steps. From that, one branch of usage passed through Old French to become a term for wandering in search of game and then to fishing with a moving line, perhaps through association with the word, trawl. The other branch, the figure of Norse mythology, is pictured as a clumsy fellow, thus the connection to a halting movement. Trolls and bridges come together in a Norwegian fairy tale about three goats getting the better of a particular monster to cross a stream.

Contemporary usage blends these two notions, a monster that stops progress and a dragging line to lure fish. But a simplistic labeling of the genus glosses over important distinguishing characteristics that hide the utility of one troll species.

One variety of troll can be dismissed without pause, the pest whose only purpose is to crash conversations. This type is no better than a spammer, but they often pretend to be serious participants in the discussion for a little while to lure in those of us interested in finding light rather than heat. The disruptor who is concerned only with scoring points will soon be revealed and deserves no more attention.

But not all gadflies earn a rapid swatting. In many cultures, the character of the trickster is an important figure, one who shakes up the comfortable order. In Native American stories, Coyote and Raven take on this function, while Loki fills the role in Norse tales. One English example is Robin Hood, and Chaucer gives us the Miller and the Wife of Bath as disruptive characters who climb out of the pages and demand that we attend to them.

The quintessential troll in western intellectual history, though, is Socrates. I can picture him wearing a raincoat and smoking a cigar to show how this kind of person stays relevant. His method, one I use these days with my students, was to ask question after question that challenge settled assumptions. These were embarrassingly leading and got him a last drink bought by the people of his city, but the stories that he told to finish the dialogues show that he wasn’t just trying to derail discussions. He had a revelation to give, and hearing it was only possible after the accumulated wax of tradition and prejudice had been cleared away.

A third species of troll are the true believers, the persons whose simplistic honesty makes us feel sorry for them. They wrap their identities up in the certainty that the Earth is only six thousand years old, that JFK was killed by a group of conspirators, or that jet aircraft are spreading mind-control substances through the atmosphere. No fact cannot be explained by their grand ideas, and no argument can shake their faith.

The two interesting types of trolls offer us a chance to consider our own positions. That may not be their intention, but we’re allowed to form our own reading of ideas. True believers aren’t likely to change our minds, but sorting through their claims is a good exercise in logic and evaluation of evidence.

Take creationists as an example. One of their frequent demands is to be shown the evidence for evolution or for the age of the Earth. It’s never enough to tell them that scientists say such and so without offering the exact studies in full detail. That also doesn’t convince them, but it allows us to verify our own position. Want to know the gaps in your understanding of some aspect of the science of evolution, geology, cosmology, or other such subjects? Debate a creationist.

This may sound like a waste of time, but it doesn’t have to be. Figuring out what’s wrong with a creationist’s argument depends on a basic understanding of the real science and the ability to find answers to specific objections. You’ll also have to possess a good grounding in the rules of logic and the fallacies that lead logic astray.

Another group in this category are the various flavors of libertarians. One of their favorite claims is that taxation is theft. For those of us who have grown up in an organized society, this is a perplexing assertion. Is it necessary to point out that taxes pay for civilization? Apparently it is, at least to those who identify as voluntaryists, Objectivists, and the like. One example I raised in an argument over this subject was the New Horizons probe. Would we have such a wealth of information and close-up images of Pluto if we relied on for-profit businesses or the cooperation of private citizens? Asking the question shows the absurdity of the idea.

Or does it? To the true believer, the thought that my neighbors and I would get together to spend billions of our own dollars on a project of pure science isn’t inconceivable. Or to be more precise, it would have the virtue of being an act out of agreement rather than the force of government. In the argument I mentioned, I was told that Americans are generous enough that they’d spend that money if it weren’t for the government, and while this sounds wildly optimistic, explaining why took hours and got nowhere.

But silly ideas are worth our time. No matter how eager we are to dismiss them, we have to be sure — at least once, at least in outline — that they are silly. No, the Earth isn’t flat, and fluoridation isn’t polluting our precious bodily fluids, but why are those ideas wrong? Making sure we’re able to answer that question is a valuable exercise. There are people who don’t know the answer, though they’re willing to learn, and for their benefit, we need the skills to explain. Think especially of children with their restless minds, much like mediaeval philosophers in search of first principles.

It was my own personal trinity — Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Jay Gould — whose works saved me from a fundamentalist cult when I was a teenager. Their willingness to teach the general public the beauties and explanatory power of science woke me up to the breadth and depth of the world I didn’t know existed. Humanism has its own kind of apostolic succession, not a laying on of hands or a dosing with holy oil, but the passing on of ideas. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, memes propagate themselves by virtue of their own fitness in the environment, just as genes do. A willingness to take on bad ideas is a kind of symbiotic relationship — we do well when clear thinking thrives.

Having someone challenge our basic assumptions and then returning the favor is the necessary testing of our thinking. What is right is an endless quest, but we can learn where we’re wrong. Adding a few examples of the Socratic species and of the true believers to the discussion forces us to examine the grounding and development of our thoughts. Before dismissing all trolls, consider the value that some of them offer. As frustrating as this can be, it’s a necessary part of the intellectual life.

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