A brief suggestion on academic discourse etiquette

At times you find yourself attempting to learn more about the world and venturing into groups of people who are highly intelligent and specialized individuals of genius level awesomeness. Of course with those people come highly educated trolls. In the name of learning, some of these people can be condescending and argumentative for what seems like the sake of argumentation. Having dealt recently with one of these little academic trolls, I fell into the trap of heeding their “please help me learn” derail and provided the following (changed somewhat for a broader audience) for their consideration. So, for all ya’ll out there in the wild world of Internet, here’s some suggestions on how to engage in meaningful academic debate in a courteous and productive manner:

1. Read the links you’re given. You don’t have to read the whole thing, but at least give it a cursory glance before responding. If you have no interest in reading the links, you need to evaluate your interest in the discussion. If you’re not willing to check sources and read what it takes, then you probably aren’t very interested in getting to the root of the discussion. If you’re not that interested in the discussion, stop talking. This is simple courtesy.

For example, I am not very interested in economics because I’m pretty sure 90% of it is BS. So I evaluate the information being presented to me and decide whether or not I want to read further to contribute something to the discussion. If I decide that I still don’t care, I don’t respond. If I decide I care, then I read further and formulate a reasonably intelligent response asking for more information or providing something I think is of value. This is what engaging in meaningful academic debate is to me.

2. Understand the difference between asking questions and asking for proof. Asking questions to understand something sounds like, “I don’t quite understand your theory but from what I do understand, I don’t think I agree. Here’s what I think you’re saying- is this correct? If so, here is what I disagree with…” Asking for proof sounds like: “Where did you get this information? Explain how these sources matter to your point that I don’t agree with…” You need to notice which furthers discussion.

For example, If you disagree with my use of grammar, you don’t ask me where I learned to write and to provide proof that I ever passed an English class. You instead tell me why my grammar sucks and give me information that could show me how I’m wrong. If I feel I’m right, I will counter with my own resources or explain my understanding. One way (the former) makes me instantly defensive and shuts down all hope of a great intelligent discussion and the other way everyone wins.

On a side note, if you are a fan of Dawkins (as the intended recipient of this discussion was) I hope you are also a fan of somewhat random metaphors that mostly work to further a premise (clearly I am a fan of metaphors, perhaps only somewhat of Dawkins— and by somewhat I mean his work is intriguing but his personal beliefs are cringe-worthy but I digress…).

3. Draw your own conclusions. This is the critical thinking piece. This isn’t college where you’re often asked to regurgitate information without context or understanding. Even if you know the basics of everything on earth, if you can’t make the meaningful connections between them all it is useless.

If I am able to recite to you all the ingredients of cake in the right measurements but don’t understand it’s a recipe and I can put them together and make delicious junk food, what good is my understanding and ability to regurgitate information?

If you often say:

  • “I don’t see the point…”
  • “How is this connected?”
  • “What is the relevance..”

You might well qualify as a person in need of boosting their critical thinking skills! At first it may seem like you are trying to solicit further understanding but if you take the time to ask yourself how often you’re retorting your lack of comprehension, it may show a greater issue of not taking the time to figure things out. It’s imperative you take the time to put the pieces together and see the puzzle for what it’s worth. If you still don’t get it, that’s when you respond, “Okay I tried but I’m not getting it…” But getting a response and then quickly responding “I don’t get it” isn’t doing the work and putting in the time. Sometimes it takes a few hours or a day or so to digest the information completely. This is the nature of multi-faceted things. After all, evolution wasn’t theorized in a day…


All of these concepts are related to each other but that’s really the long and short of it all. If people are taking the time to explain things to you, you don’t get to ask for the cliffs notes. You don’t. You either bow out and say (to yourself or the greater public involved) “it’s too much and I’m just not that invested” or you do the work (think on what’s been presented to you and investigate information of relevance and interest). I really don’t see it any other way.

To draw a parallel between higher level learning and personal experience: I didn’t learn calculus and higher level math and science by raising my hand and questioning the teacher every 5 minutes. I learned it doing it, listening to the lecture, sitting with the information, asking for help when it was necessary (which was often), and researching and exploring the information when there were gaps. Okay, I didn’t Google- it was probably Ask Jeeves! but more probably library books. You catch my drift hopefully…

I think it’s fair to not want to spend your time reading a thousand books to formulate an opinion. But I don’t think it’s fair to tell people whom you’re speaking with about their theories and about topics they specialize in (and sometimes literally wrote the book on) you don’t want to read their 100 page thesis (I mean seriously? 100 pages- that takes like 2 poops if you eat a lot of meat). If you want to understand but you don’t want to do the work, you can’t really want to understand that bad, right? In my opinion, if you don’t want to read the information then you don’t get to understand.

Additionally, I see it as respect for the beautiful people who attempt to engage with you in dialogue about their specialties or subjects of greater understanding. To watch someone’s lecture, to read someone’s links, to read their book, to read the websites and wiki, this is respect. It’s saying I value what you contribute to the world and this discussion. If you don’t care about the discussion and therefore don’t read the papers, that’s fine! But if you do care and you’re trying to converse about it all, then I think you should show the respect and put in the time.

It’s really that simple, folks! These are some of the things I’ve found help to turn yourself from a troll suckling off bits of academic jargon and peer-reviewed research papers to someone that’s actually furthering the scientific understanding of finer things. But you have to do you at the end of the day and if that includes skimming this post and telling me to eat a scientific dick, then that’s totally within your paradigm of trolling to do.

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