Don’t worry, sample bias will tell you

There’s a moderately funny joke that circulates in various iterations, depending on the context.

How do you know someone’s vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.

The reason it’s funny is the same reason it stays funny when you sub-out “vegan” with “paleo”, “intersectionalist” and “into cross-fit”: there are obvious populations of very noisy and intrusive people who’ve adopted these terms as identity labels that they then bang on about ad nauseum at the expense of other people’s personal boundaries.

What could stay funny though, every now and then in conversation, takes a turn down a road where wanting there to be a more serious point to the joke, people find themselves winding up in silly-town.

I’m not going to get into the issue of that passive-aggressive damned-if-you-do type game where a person will pretend not to know they’re in the company of members of the group in question while uttering the joke – all before lying in wait to pounce with a “that proves it!” when someone in said group outs themselves by responding*. Sure, that’s dirty pool, and it’s probably interesting to consider why these passive-aggressives think they’re being clever, but it’s not what this post is about.

This isn’t a “not all vegans et. al.” diversion either. Some people have serious grievances with behaviour coming out of these groups. I don’t want to negate or derail those discussions, at least in as far as they’re serious. This isn’t about that.

What I am on about, and what strikes me as odd, is when some people – scientifically literate people – utter this joke and then go on to treat it as roughly emblematic of serious social science as if the sample bias wasn’t glaringly obvious.

”Aha! But why is it that when I notice a vegan et. al., they’re always being noisy?!?”

Because you don’t notice the quiet ones as easily. Because they’re quiet. Your measurements are being thrown off. All the pieces of your answer are in the joke. Pay attention.

Why would a person with a particular interest in drawing attention to sample bias – especially sample bias in social science – fail to notice this? And why would anyone feel they need this to be more than a joke, even if they were motivated by defensiveness?

It’s not as if criticism leveled at these groups depends on the joke. If you can’t find decent quantitative research on vegans et. al. behaving badly, there’s plenty of material waiting around for qualitative analysis just on Facebook alone. And if you can get decent quantitative research, the joke’s made less than redundant.

Nothing’s hanging on the joke’s literal truth, so why so serious?

There’s another transgression in all of this, and I’ve possibly given an example of it here myself: killing a perfectly serviceable joke by taking it too seriously.

The take-home, I think, is that ideally “chill out, it’s just a joke” should apply equally to the people telling it, too. That and perhaps a few folks need to stop pretending they haven’t left their science hat at home.

~ Bruce

* I’m inclined to append a disclaimer to this post, but…

“I don’t know you”

I’m not sure if it’s just some eastern state thing I’m yet to familiarize myself with, or a genuinely hypocritical phenomena arising out of organized freethought; being dismissed on the basis of unfamiliarity with an interlocutor.

Basically, you’re in discussion with a self-identified free-thinker, rationalist, Humanist or whatever – often from New South Wales in my experience – and they try to shut you down with the likes of a cliquish “sorry, I don’t know you”. The thing is, the shut-down is neither pertinent to the content of what you’re saying, nor suited to the circumstance; it’s not like you’re actually in their personal space – as much as they may pretend to own the place, you haven’t crashed their tea party.

The setting will be a mutual friend’s Facebook timeline, or a freethought organisation’s page, or so on; an ostensibly neutral territory that may be purposed to someone’s whims, just not your interlocutor’s. The setting is somewhere where at base, the validity of what you argue isn’t contingent upon you having standing or being a stakeholder.

You’ll make your argument, you’ll make no effort to flatter or offend and you’ll make it critical, all of which is perfectly acceptable in any community aspiring to call itself a home to freethought. Then someone will snap at you – usually someone vain – sniffily asking “who are you?”, or otherwise proclaiming your status as alien as if it counters the content of your claims, or warrants that they not even be considered.

I mean, they can refuse to consider what you’re saying, and unless they have some degree of executive responsibility, you can’t expect to force them to tell you why. It’s just that they do tell you why, and the reason why is a bit shit. A bit shit, and a bit indicative of a deeper problem.

Not for the first time, I’ve just had a short discussion with someone online who imagines that they’re open-minded and critical, and that it’s the people who’ve blocked them that are failing to live up to the best rationalist ideals. And not for the first time, I’ve subsequently seen my argument dismissed on the basis of my lack of familiarity to an interlocutor.

The irony here, is the insistence on identifying as open and critical, while simultaneously enacting a motivated shut-down of an argument on the basis that it’s alien. In any given instance, this kind of contradiction is funny. The fact that it seems to get repeated so often is not. Certainly within communities aspiring to freethought it should be regarded as pathological.

Maybe I’ve just been incredibly unlucky in running into this kind of thing repeatedly, or maybe I just bring the worst out of “Freethinkers”, but the vain bunker mentality is not a good look for movements that advocate critical thinking and criticize cults.

~ Bruce