A little knowledge is dangerous

By Razib Khan | May 23, 2013 6:36 pm

Being public on the internet means having to interact with many different sorts. Recently I’ve been having to deal with a heckler on Facebook. The heckler is actually of a particular type. I’m still trying to learn genetics at this point in my life, so I don’t propose to assert that my opinions are beyond dispute. But there is a variety of discussion which is not fruitful.

An interesting aspect of talking to people about genetics is that totally novice intelligent lay people are often very easy to communicate with. Genetics isn’t that hard, and when people want to learn new concepts and have the ability to it can be a great joy. Similarly, the numerous people who know much more genetics are easy to talk to, because they operate on a domain of fluency which makes conversation effortless (obviously this may not be reciprocated on their part in terms of their perception of your lack of knowledge!).

But there is a third sort of person, one who believes they know much more than a lay person, but does not know that they don’t know enough to really be able to talk about what they think they can talk about. Michael Scroggins, who has the temerity to assert that “a gene is more rhetorical topic than scientific fact”, is certainly in this category. But he is one of many. The standard way to identify this sort of person is that they often appeal to a particular touchstone or keyword, and then deploy them as if it were a sort of abracadabra magic. This generally works as a bluff among the ignorant, but it simply produces incredulous confusion when targeted against individuals who are moderately familiar with a particular discipline. For these people ideas like “evo-devo,” “epigenetics,” “development,” and “interaction” are positive buzzwords. “Reductionism” is a negative one. On occasion they are sophisticated Creationists, but much more often they’re Left-liberals from humanistic backgrounds angered by my “gene promotion” (frankly, I can often only get a flavor of their distaste, as I have a difficult time of parsing their gibberish in anything more than a superficial sense).

Below, submitted for your edification, are two screenshots which illustrate recent volley’s I’ve had to deal with. I have a difficult time parsing out the second comment as anything more than buzzwords meant to intimidate (yes, I am the person who “liked” the first comment).

To be clear, the comment below is responding to Human mutation unveiled (yes, I’m mystified by the causality in this case).

Readers should probably know that I regularly receive these sorts of comments, but never publish them (in fact, those individuals are always immediately banned). The reality of the uncanny valley of knowledgeable ignorance is particularly bittersweet for me, as I’m an dilettante. I always struggle with the possibility that I’m actually one of these people in the various fields in which I take an interest. A mode of operation that helps I suspect is that I try and not to leverage my thin knowledge set to any prior outside (e.g., political, social) commitments I might have in a vocal manner. Otherwise I might look the fool….

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    Is that guy related to this woman? I can sense they both have a lot of passion there…

    • razibkhan

      that was weird.

  • http://jaymans.wordpress.com/ JayMan


  • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

    In my job I often have to talk to people about science facts and explanations regarding experiments. Often I notice phrases like this used and usually it means the person does not understand the full picture.

  • Al West

    I’ve seen Michael Scroggins on various blogs, and he gets skittish and runs away if you actually know what you’re talking about. He pushes all kinds of appallingly idiotic philosophy, and, importantly, won’t defend it when you show it to be bunk.

  • Riordan

    One is reminded of the Richwine affair…

    • Emil Kirkegaard

      I read the dissertation and didn’t find anything racist. But if any talk of genetically caused differences in intelligence is racist, so be it. I didn’t hear any cry about racism when it was discovered that blacks suffer from different diseases than do whites. Why the inability AMONG WHITES to recognize their own superior intelligence? (relative to many populations, and inferiority compared with northeast asians+ashkenazi jews).

  • http://econstudentlog.wordpress.com/ USfromDK

    “If a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger?” (T. H. Huxley)

  • http://profiles.google.com/chrontius Chrome Dragon

    If you can’t stun them with truth, baffle ’em with bullshit.

    I can parse parts of it, and both contain factual statements. Both then draw unjustified conclusions from those facts, however. Other parts are just irrelevant padding. My sympathies, Mr. Khan.

  • Emil Kirkegaard

    This kind of thing is extremely common with IQ research.


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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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