Can Quora Be Inoculated from Pseudoscience?

For those who don’t know, Quora is a question-and-answer web platform where anyone can log in, ask any question to the community, and potentially have it answered. It’s kind of a Wikipedia for Q&A. The questions can be on any topic, from the highly technical, to the superfluous, to the hilarious (see my posts on Quora questions regarding Starbucks on the Death Star and the geopolitics of Super Mario). As on platforms like Reddit, users can upvote and downvote both questions and answers to better curate the content. It’s a great way to get yourself lost for hours on end and destroy your productivity.

Anyway, this question came up anonymously about Quora itself, and it’s relevant to our little skepto-atheist community:

Are there any Quora policies regarding pseudoscience? If not, should there be one? Let’s discuss. . . . this question is directed towards a Quora moderation perspective.

Wow, what a great question. Quora can’t and doesn’t make any claims to hosting “definitive” answers to anything, but it’s true that an open platform like this easily provides those who shill nonsense, from homeopathy to the paranormal, with a soapbox and with an air of legitimacy.

Here’s how Craig Heile, one of Quora’s own reviewers, responded to the question:

Quora Moderation, as the question details indicate is the focus of the question, shouldn’t treat pseudoscience any differently than mainstream science, and I don’t believe that it does. There is no Quora policy against believing in things that are not mainstream. As long as people are nice and respectful in discussing their beliefs, Quora Moderation is not involved (except maybe when wearing our User hats).

Now, I quibble with Heile’s characterization of pseudoscience as “not mainstream,” as though its cultural acceptance level is its problem, not whether its true. But I’ll leave that for now.

Some responses from the user community generally trust the “wisdom of the crowd” to police the fact-fiction divide — if someone is claiming veracity for some snake oil bullshit, the better-informed user base can always come in and downvote the bad information, much like ravenous Wikipedia editors police articles for correct and legitimate citations.

But it also seems to me that a question or answer that props up pseudoscientific garbage could simply be overrun by believers and opportunists, and overwhelm any truth-policing that the community might do on its own, just like folks try to engineer Reddit upvotes or organize to crash an online poll. Then you have faux-science or spiritual hooey potentially being legitimized by its Quora rating. I’d hate for a parent to see a question about vaccinations overrun by Jenny McCarthyites, and think that the Quora community had thereby blessed a very dangerous and incorrect point of view.

I’m not sure this is even a crisis or a major concern yet, but Quora is a vibrant, and I think important, platform for learning and exchange. But just like TED has learned in recent years, holding an open house can mean a lot of riffraff straggle in and hog the buffet.

User Crowly Mathew says leave well enough alone:

Once Quora start[s] restricting questions or answers on a particular subject Quora will lose its beauty. Basically it is a platform where people can share what they know and ask for what they want to know.

Perhaps that means that if we in the reality-based community want to maintain the integrity of this platform, as well as others, we may need to be diligent about keeping abreast of what’s on the rise. Just as Guerrilla Skeptics keep a close watch on Wikipedia, maybe we could use a SEAL team for Quora as well.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His personal blog is Near-Earth Object, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo. He is the author of a short (and cheap!) Kindle book on the atheist political movement, Under the Stained Glass Ceiling: Atheists' Precarious Place in Modern American Politics.

  • https://soundcloud.com/eddieboydmusic flyb

    This is the first time I’ve heard of Quora. Some years ago there was a search site where a live person would try to answer your question through an instant message dialog. I think some people used it to ask stupid questions. That’s what we did anyway. I don’t think it’s around any more.

    • The Other Weirdo

      Yeah, it’s called “Yahoo! Answers”.

      • https://soundcloud.com/eddieboydmusic flyb

        Oh indeed. Yahoo Answers is kinda similar.

        Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the site I’m describing. It was several years ago. An actual human operator would pop up to do your search and chat with you. One of my coworkers got rickrolled by one of the operators though because he was messing with her so much. That was a good laugh.

        • The Other Weirdo

          You mean talking, thinking, loving meat would intervene with my attempts at having a conversation with a machine? The Devil you say!

    • Richard Thomas

      ChaCha!

      • https://soundcloud.com/eddieboydmusic flyb

        Ahh, yeah, I think that’s it. Thanks! Looks like they changed it around quite a bit. Now they have a login and provide a texting service.

  • Dave

    The problem is that if you don’t moderate your answers then you become irrevelant.
    A family member has melanoma and is currently involved in a gene inhibitor trial. When you search for cancer cures you get black salve, liver cleansing and colonics to flush out the toxins, eat raw and organic, don’t eat meat, drink hydrogen peroxide and prayer.
    When you follow up on these there are countless websites and lots of anecdotal evidence to say how great it all is.
    I argue with family members regularly about what bullshit it is. My favourite -The plural of anecdotes isn’t data. If someone is trying to sell you something then what they are telling you is just more advertising.
    If you don’t moderate then your answers are of no value except amusement.
    But then is Quora interested in the truth or gathering advertising revenue?

  • http://skeptopathy.com/ Michael Fullerton

    Another important question is can Quora be inoculated from pseudo-skepticism? I find that the majority of people describing themselves as skeptics are simply believers that anything unusual or disturbing is automatically false. Like those who believe there is no God when the God of pantheism is an easily proven fact.

    • The Other Weirdo

      Citation needed for “the God pantheism is an easily proven fact.”

      • http://skeptopathy.com/ Michael Fullerton

        “The No God Delusion: Deconstructing The Atheist Myth”

        http://skeptopathy.com/wp/?p=71

        • The Other Weirdo

          No, sorry. Citing yourself is like saying “The Bible is true because the Bible says it is true” when asked “What makes you think the Bible is true?”

          • http://skeptopathy.com/ Michael Fullerton

            My apologies. I didn’t realize you were committing an appeal to authority fallacy. I foolishly assumed you merely wanted me to support my position with a logically flawless argument.

            Rejecting evidence for something and instead requesting an authority to proclaim the thing is true is like rejecting the evidence for evolution and claiming young Earth creationism is true because the pope said it was.

            • The Other Weirdo

              I am truly sorry for the misunderstanding. You said “…the God of pantheism is an easily proven fact.” When I asked for citation, I believed you would provide evidence for this “easily proven fact”. It need not have been an ‘authority’. In fact–heh!–you’ve provided nothing of the sort. The page you linked, which is basically just you talking, provides no evidence. It is nothing more than supposition and wishful thinking. It is no more than a pantheist equivalent of Christian apologetic. What your entire argument boils down to is that because you don’t know the difference between a negative atheist and an agnostic therefore pantheist gods.

              • http://skeptopathy.com/ Michael Fullerton

                The page contains a logically flawless argument. Logic is evidence. A is B. B is C. Therefore A is C. You are telling us this is not evidence that A is C? That would explain a lot.

                Your entirely false characterization of my argument is a straw man, another logical fallacy. This is all atheists can do to support their irrational belief system, spout lies and faulty reasoning.

                • The Other Weirdo

                  Rats are gray. Gray is a colour. Therefore rats are a colour. What that means is that your entire argument is invalid.

                  Logic is not evidence. It is merely a way of thinking, and it may or may not reach the correct conclusion. It requires correct assumptions. More importantly, it may reach the correct conclusion for the wrong reasons. For example:

                  Why are firetrucks red? Cause there’s eight wheels on them and four people, and four plus eight is twelve, and twelve is a foot and a foot is a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was also a ship, and the ship sails the sea and in the sea is fish and fish have fins, and the Finns fought the Russians and the Russians were red and that’s why firetrucks are red.

                • http://skeptopathy.com/ Michael Fullerton

                  No it’s your argument that’s invalid. Rats are gray relates to a property. The assumption is also false since not all rats are gray. Gray is a colour relates to a class inclusion. Two separate unrelated assumptions. So your conclusion doesn’t follow. Rats are mammals. Mammals are animals. Therefore rats are animals. This argument uses correct and related assumptions to provide evidence for the conclusion.

                  Logic is evidence when the assumptions are valid. If you want to disprove my conclusions simply show how my assumptions are invalid and stop with the silly games.

                • The Other Weirdo

                  It’s not up to me to show how your assumptions are invalid. It’s up to you to prove that they are valid. Your entire argument boils down to “atheists are wrong therefore pantheism.” It’s full of assertions about what atheists must believe, but otherwise there is no real content in your post.

                  Oh, and even if I’m wrong about the rats,

                  1. Some men are doctors.

                  2. Some doctors are women.

                  3. Therefore, some men are women.

                  See http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Logical_fallacy

                • Alex Huszagh

                  Logic, as long as the initial conditions, and the line of reasoning are correct, produces only logical results. Neither your reasoning nor your initial conditions can be considered logical or correct, respectively.

                  “Many people seem to believe that thought magically arose out of nowhere at a certain point in the evolutionary process and at a certain point in human development. They believe that mental states magically arise from nowhere when neurons simply pass electro-chemical signals to one another. They believe that mental states magically arise when atoms making up the brain interact with one another. There is however absolutely no evidence that anything at any time can magically arise out of nowhere.[3] We do know that complex things like people are made of simpler things like cells, which are made of simpler things like atoms and so on. We know that complex matter does not magically arise out of nowhere. Complex matter is simply created over time by arranging simpler forms of matter. Why shouldn’t we assume then that the capacity for complex thought is similarly composed of simpler thinking components. I mean we do acknowledge that our own complex thoughts are made of many smaller thoughts.”
                  — This is as per definition a false alternative and ignoring the available counter evidence.

                  “This is a very difficult topic for certain people to grasp. Try thinking in terms of a growing human embryo. At the early stages the embryo has no nose. At a certain point the embryo develops a nose. The nose doesn’t magically appear out of nowhere. We can see the progression. The nose is created by the process of simple physical systems arranging to create a more complex system. With mental states we can’t see the progression yet but we should assume it happens the same way: systems with simple mental capabilities combine to form complex systems with complex mental capabilities. If there isn’t this progression, mental faculties have to magically arise out of nowhere at some point which is impossible.”

                  — Distinction without a difference.

                  “If you’re still having trouble try thinking at the atomic level. Your body including the brain is made entirely out of atoms and nothing more. If you believe atoms don’t have awareness then this means that you believe awareness magically arises out of nowhere when atoms in a certain configuration interact with one another. This is impossible. The only possible alternative is to see atoms as having a simple awareness. When simple atoms are highly organized you get a complex structure like a human. Similarly, highly organized units of simple awareness beget human-level awareness.”

                  — Refuting the counter evidence.

                  “Since an atheist does not believe any type of God exists, including the pantheistic conscious Universe, the atheist must believe that thoughts magically arise out of nowhere. The only way for thought to not magically arise out of nothing is if thought is a fundamental property of the building blocks of matter. Note that energy is the ultimate building block of matter. The Universe is just energy and nothing more. If thought is a fundamental property of the building blocks of matter then this proves the God of pantheism is a fact. Since the pantheistic God is a fact this proves that negative atheism is also a false irrational belief.”

                  — False alternatives.

                  “The great majority use atheism to denote the belief that there is no God. Yes definitions can change over time but it hasn’t fully happened yet with atheism. Though the process is started and may eventually succeed. Rejection of belief is the same thing as not knowing. We already have a word for not knowing God exists, agnosticism. This suggests that the less used meaning of disbelief in God is a contemporary bastardization used by those atheists that seek to hide their true irrational position. Like all religions, atheism is meant to distract people away from the truth. In doubting the existence of God, the atheist requires holding the entirely absurd notion of mental states arising out of nowhere. In essence, atheism predicts an impossibility which actually falsifies it. So the atheist horse is dead but faulty faith-based thinking will keep atheists fervently beating that horse to the ends of all irrationality.”

                  — Let me raise you an impossibility. If a god exists, or pantheism is reality, where did that god or those gods arise from? God solves no logical questions, just only exists from an argument from ignorance. There is no evidence for his/her/its/non-gendered/gendered queer’s/asexual/prokaryotic existence.

                • http://skeptopathy.com/ Michael Fullerton

                  Your claims that I have committed various logical fallacies are entirely unsupported pronouncements. i.e. bare assertion fallacies.

                  Let me raise you an “impossibility”. If the Universe exists, or the Universe is reality, where did that Universe arise from? It didn’t. It has always existed, just changed forms.

                • Alex Huszagh

                  Logical fallacy of omitting key evidence. Defend your arguments.

                  And that final argument is an argument from ignorance. You have no evidence to support the assertion, only a lack of evidence to disprove it. Argumentum ad ignorantiam. You really like that one.

                • http://skeptopathy.com/ Michael Fullerton

                  I haven’t omitted any key evidence nor ever committed any fallacies. These are bare assertions you are committing.

                  My last statement is a statement of fact not an argument. The evidence comes from the law of conservation of energy which I spoke of in an earlier post. False fallacy fallacy.

                • KeithCollyer

                  I just read your page looking for a logically flawless argument and did not find one. Maybe I wasted my time, but here is my preliminary analysis.

                  The gist (leaving aside the irrelevant introductory paragraphs about positive and negative atheism) is that no thing can come from nothing, complex matter arises from simple matter (true, though let’s leave aside that you do not answer where the simple matter comes from, which you must with your unproven and unprovable statement that no thing can come from nothing) therefore complex thought comes from simple thought. You also seem to equate thought, awareness and consciousness, though most people would agree that they are different things (if that was not your intent and I have misread, then I apologise).

                  You state “If you believe atoms don’t have awareness then this means that you believe awareness magically arises out of nowhere when atoms in a certain configuration interact with one another. This is impossible.” Well, the fact is that nobody knows where awareness comes from, though a case could be made for it being an emergent property of a large number of simple systems (cells), themselves made up of molecules. So to then state that this is impossible is begging the question or circular reasoning (your premise is that it can’t happen, your conclusion is that it is impossible).

                  Your statement “Since an atheist does not believe any type of God exists, including the pantheistic conscious Universe, the atheist must believe that thoughts magically arise out of nowhere.” is a false dichotomy, made mildly pejorative through the use of the word “magical”.

                  Now you write “If thought is a fundamental property of the building blocks of matter then this proves the God of pantheism is a fact. Since the pantheistic God is a fact this proves that negative atheism is also a false irrational belief.” Your premise about thought being a fundamental property has not been proved in the preceding, so neither your first conclusion nor your second can be deemed true on the basis of the proposition. Of course, since pantheism is a theological position that god and the universe are one and the same, this does not necessarily imply that the pantheistic god can think anyway.

                  So to state that you have logical proof of the existence on the pantheistic god is simply false. Your arguments could as easily be restated to prove the existence of Santa Claus or any other anthropic personification.

                  Mind you, I don’t know why I bothered as one of the commenters on your original post made many of the same points, and many others, in great detail refuting pretty much all of your argument and you said his “comment contains only inane banter, falsehoods and logical fallacies”, which is a pretty fair description of your post.

                • http://skeptopathy.com/ Michael Fullerton

                  You want me to prove no thing can come from nothing? Sure. All things are made of energy. Energy cannot be created or destroyed only change forms: law of conservation of energy. Therefore no thing can magically arise from nothing. If you believe otherwise you’re a crackpot that thinks the laws of physics can be violated to prop up your faith-based belief system.

                  Saying mental states are emergent properties is precisely saying that they magically arise from nowhere. You claim to have read my article but certainly don’t understand it. So your entirely false pronouncements that I have engaged in circular reasoning and committed a false dichotomy are false fallacy fallacies you have committed.

                  The concept of God requires sentience. Otherwise there would be no point in pantheism equating the Universe with God.

                  Sorry but my argument remains thoroughly unchallenged by your tedious sophistry.

                • KeithCollyer

                  Not sure why I am bothering, but here goes.
                  Saying mental states are emergent properties is precisely NOT saying that they arise from nowhere. The property of being a transport system is not inherent in the wheels, body, engine, etc. of a car, but it does not magically arise, it is an emergent property of the way that the various components work together. As this is a fundamental plank of your argument, the whole argument immediately becomes invalid. I do not have to disprove all your steps, one is enough, in the same way that steel does not have to melt to become structurally unsound.
                  You have not proved that “thought is a fundamental property of the building blocks of matter” for the reason I have just pointed out. To fail to see that is wilful blindness. So another plank falls (actually, it is the same plank restated).

                  You have not found sophistry in my arguments, but you cannot see the sophistry in your own. It’s sad, really.

                • http://skeptopathy.com/ Michael Fullerton

                  Like most people you don’t understand emergence. Emergence is precisely a case of a property magically arising out of nowhere. If a thing has a property but the thing’s components don’t have it has magically arisen out of nowhere. Take the hardness property of a bar of iron. Atoms making up the bar have no hardness property. They have the “atomic attraction” property which because of our perceptual limitations we falsely interpret as “hardness”. Hardness is an illusion based on a real thing. So you could say advanced human-level awareness is an emergent illusion but fundamental awareness certainly is not. It must be a fundamental property of our component parts.

                  I have repeatedly proven thought is a fundamental property of the building blocks of matter. You fail to see it due to your willful blindness which you must project onto others in order to maintain your faith-based beliefs. So sad.

                • KeithCollyer

                  There is nothing magical about emergence, as I showed with my example of a car. Unless you think that cars are magical. Which you clearly do. (There, I’ve used your form of argument, that is stating as fact something that is not supported by any evidence). You have not “repeatedly proven” anything, except that you do not understand proof. Your argument that thought is a fundamental property of the building blocks of matter is just a variant of “turtles all the way down”.

                  You state that hardness is a matter of perception (never mind that it can be measured), but it is in fact simply a gross (and incidentally emergent) property of the material in bulk. That does not make it magical. Get someone to hit you over the head with an iron bar and then deny it has a property of hardness. Saying something is magical is just another way of saying “I don’t understand”, but you seem totally incapable of making that particular statement. Which is a very arrogant position to take. Samuel Johnson refuted this argument: http://www.samueljohnson.com/refutati.html.

                  And as you have descended into ad hominem attacks, someone who is a 9/11 truther is in no position to belittle anyone else’s beliefs as faith-based.

                  In your own words: so sad

                • http://skeptopathy.com/ Michael Fullerton

                  I have repeatedly dealt with your sophist interpretation of emergence. There is no point repeating as you will never understand it anyway. Your “turtles all the way down” or infinite regress is new though. Similarly, you do not understand this concept either. You appear to be claiming that if an object and all of its components on every level down have this property too, this constitutes an infinite regress. So in your bizarre view mass is an example of an infinite regress. Man, atoms, …, energy, all have the mass property. It stops at the energy level but you believe the process is infinite. Wow.

                  You end by making an unsupported pronouncement that I have committed the ad hominem fallacy. Which I’m confident if you did explain we’d find you would commit another false fallacy fallacy. Ironically, you then bring up my 9/11 skepticism to to prove that everything I say on emergence is bunk. What you are doing here is committing the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy. My circumstances, what other positions I hold, has absolutely no bearing on the current argument at hand.

                  BTW my article below proves believers in the crackpot official 9/11 story are all violently science-illiterate.

                  http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2013/09/03/911-the-scientific-fraud-of-the-century/

                • KeithCollyer

                  Emergence: Merriam-Webster has “the rise of a system that cannot be predicted or explained from antecedent conditions”. Outside philosophy and science its common meaning is “appearance”, but that is not what we are using here. Also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence. This includes pretty much the standard definition as “emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” Which is the way in which I use the term, so my usage in this form is about as far from sophistry as you can get (unless sophistry is a term that you choose to use differently from other people). You can use emergence in any way you want, but do not expect others to agree with your non-standard usage.
                  I have tried not to descend to your level. Your accusation of wilful blindness was ad hominem, I can only conclude that your failure to see that is due to wilful blindness. Your “article” on a fringe website is a mass of unsupported observations and logical errors of the form “If X then Y, Y, therefore X”, which is about as flawed logic as you can get. That is also the much of the gist of your pantheistic argument.
                  Frankly, I cannot be bothered to debate with you more as your combination of faith-based interpretations of reality, dubious logic and wilful misinterpretations are just too stressful.

                • http://skeptopathy.com/ Michael Fullerton

                  Yes cognitive dissonance certainly can be stressful. BTW you also managed to throw in an appeal to authority fallacy. Where an argument is published has absolutely no bearing to its merit. Rational people judge arguments on how logically and factually sound they are. Copious use of logical fallacies = sophism.

                • Guest

                  Interesting that you are making accusations of sophistry. I wonder if you know what that word means.

                • Guest

                  yes, I do, do you, Richard Thomas? And you will note that Michael raised it first. His arguments are clever, and at first glance convincing, but fall apart like a pack of cards on closer examination

    • keddaw

      Solipsism trumps your hokey pantheism.

    • Mr. Two

      Well, I just read your article. You assert that the atheist believes that reason results from, effectively, magic. It’s possible that you’re trying to turn the tables, since atheists often accuse deists of any sort of punting to magic when they don’t understand something. Perhaps not, but your argument fails regardless of your reason for using it. It is precisely not magic, but rather the physical properties of various forms of matter that over time resulted in living organisms having senses, which in turn eventually led to reason. No magic necessary.


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