Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The story of "fractal wrongness"

Once upon a time, there was this annoying, pretentious, insufferable, know-it-all egotist who got really angry about arguments people had on the Internet. Sometimes, he would get involved in those arguments, and he observed that they basically never changed anybody's mind. This was frustrating. Why couldn't people see the plain truth, viz., that they were wrong, and he was right?

One day he read a Neal Stephenson novel called Cryptonomicon, wherein there appears the following passage (p. 61 of the 1st hardcover edition):

[Randy] had now, he realized, blundered into some serious domestic weirdness involving Andrew's family. It turned out that Andrew's parents were divorced and, long ago, had fought savagely over custody of him, their only child. Mom had turned into a hippie and joined a religious cult in Oregon and taken Andrew with her. It was rumored that this cult engaged in sexual abuse of children. Dad had hired private dicks to kidnap Andrew and then showered him with material possessions to demonstrate his superior love. There had followed an interminable legal battle in which Dad had hired some rather fringey psychotherapists to hypnotize Andrew and get him to dredge up repressed memories of unspeakable and improbable horrors.

This was just the executive summary of a weird life that Randy only learned about in bits and pieces as the years went on. Later, he was to decide that Andrew's life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.

This turn of phrase bounced around his skull for about a year, whereupon a number of bits were flipped and the spelling transmogrified into a slightly different phrase. This altered phrase happened to resonate in particular with certain strains of the guy's character, and he was compelled to make up a definition for it:

fractal wrongness

The state of being wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution. That is, from a distance, a fractally wrong person's worldview is incorrect; and furthermore, if you zoom in on any small part of that person's worldview, that part is just as wrong as the whole worldview.

Debating with a person who is fractally wrong leads to infinite regress, as every refutation you make of that person's opinions will lead to a rejoinder, full of half-truths, leaps of logic, and outright lies, that requires just as much refutation to debunk as the first one. It is as impossible to convince a fractally wrong person of anything as it is to walk around the edge of the Mandelbrot set in finite time.

If you ever get embroiled in a discussion with a fractally wrong person on the Internet--in mailing lists, newsgroups, or website forums--your best bet is to say your piece once and ignore any replies, thus saving yourself time.

For years, this phrase lay dormant, propagated very occasionally to other fora by random visitors who had come across his site looking for something else. But on the Internet, an excuse to dismiss people who disagree with you as morons cannot go ignored for long. There are simply too many uses for such a device. And lo, the word spread.

There is some merit to the idea. There really do exist arguments that do not make observable progress no matter how long they run. There really do exist people so stupid or clueless or fundamentally broken in the head that one can point out an obvious faulty syllogism, and be greeted with nothing more than another ten faulty syllogisms in reply.

But at the same time, it's incredibly dangerous to have this phrase in your mental vocabulary. How can you be so certain that you aren't simply misunderstanding the argument? How can you be so certain that you are right and they are wrong, especially given the practically endless human capacity for thickheadedness and confirmation bias? It's nearly impossible. Giving people on the Internet a reason to dismiss the arguments of their opponents is like giving free lifetime supplies of Nyquil to a bunch of narcoleptics. Truthfully, if the aforementioned egotist had an ounce of sense, he would have hesitated before releasing this term into the wild.

And yet, I have to admit, the advice to "say your piece once and ignore any replies" is probably a fine strategy in most cases for arguing on the Internet. And then, too, the rare person who habitually errs on the side of being too charitable to his/her opponents may benefit from cultivating the ability to recognize fractal wrongness.

So maybe it's not all bad — that is, the phrase is not itself fractally wrong, but is more like a rather dangerously pointy tool of standard Euclidean dimensionality, demanding careful handling but well-suited for some uses.

1 comment:

  1. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=fractally%20wrong

    is that you as well? ;-)