The golden rule of EduTwitter

I’ve been active on Twitter now for nearly eight years, mainly discussing education. EduTwitter is a funny place. People tend to go into the field of education for the altruistic reason of helping children and making a better future. Which is definitely a good thing. The danger arises because we then tend to assume that criticism can only come from those who dislike children and don’t care about the future.

There are a number of fallacies that tend to derail EduTwitter debates. A fairly comprehensive list may be found here. I also repeatedly point to Paul Graham’s article on how to disagree which neatly and clearly explains some of the most common traps. However, I now think that one principle, above all, can help us avoid false reasoning. When I look at the people I have blocked, they have invariably fallen foul of this principle and so I believe that violating it leads to the most negative experiences on the platform.

I tweeted the principle yesterday:

The key is to accept a dualism – that there are ideas and then there are the people who have those ideas. It is legitimate to attack the former but not the latter. Attacking the person and not the argument is ‘ad hominem‘ and it is by far the most frequent fallacy I encounter, one that is uniquely unpleasant.

Of course, I understand that people become upset and offended when their ideas are criticised. That happens to me too. And it is possible to be on the end of an ad hominem argument and just shrug your shoulders, such as when people point out that I am not an early literacy expert. I’m not an early literacy expert and I have nothing invested in the idea that I am. I am also amused when people advise me to focus on finishing my PhD.

However, if I become personally upset because someone challenges my argument then the fault is with me and not really with the person making the argument. And even if I care little about an ad hominem attack, it pretty much always signals the kind of bad argument we would all be better off without.

Even so, why should we allow for ‘mockery’ of ideas? Why do we need that? Doesn’t it make the place less pleasant?

There are two reasons why it is absolutely essential that we allow mockery of ideas. The first, as Paul Graham points out, is that tone is almost impossible to read on the internet because we lack the physical and auditory cues that gives this away. Politeness is easily mistaken for sarcasm, particularly if you are not well inclined towards the argument of the person who is being polite. Prohibiting mockery gives license to endless tone wars that divert us from the substance of what anyone is attempting to claim.

Secondly, humour is a critical tool for pointing out the absurdity of some arguments. It is no wonder that tyrants and ideologues through the ages have tried to limit our ability to make jokes.

So I think the main point of focus should be ensuring our arguments, whatever they are, are targeted at ideas and not people. I have not always managed to do this myself, but I will redouble my efforts in future.

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4 thoughts on “The golden rule of EduTwitter

  1. Jay Jam says:

    Interesting comment from Zyngier. As luck has it I just finished Greg Ashman’s book today and he is anything but out of his depth. It’s superb and could form the basis of a great university course for aspiring teachers. It could be two books. I’ll be encouraging my colleagues to read it.

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