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What Evidence in Silence or Confusion?
My old friend Keith Henson has just been arrested again in his long conflict with the Church of Scientology, and his wife fears for his life. Keith’s side of the story seems persuasive, but in good conscience I’d prefer to withhold judgement until I heard the other side. Yet though Google finds 185,000 links on "Keith Henson" and "Scientology", I can’t seem to find any of them that present the other side. Still, the law has officially taken Scientology’s side.
I find a similar imbalance about cryonics, a pet topic of Keith’s and mine. 126 million pages mention "cryonics", and one million mention "cryonics critics" but I can only find a few by critics, and these don’t offer respond in much detail to advocates’ specific arguments. Yet the official academic position is clearly unfavorable. Similarly, millions of web pages celebrated my friend Eric Drexler’s vision of molecular manufacturing, while for years academics dismissed it without responding in much detail to his arguments; I’m not sure of the current status of this dispute.
My question is: how should an observer react to multitudes of vocal web advocates on one side, and on the other side official academic and legal institutions rejecting those claims while mostly remaining silent about their reasons?
On one hand, it is surely a bad sign about a claim that official institutions don’t consider it worth responding to. Officials must often selfishly think "why should I waste my time with such nonsense," and even officials with wider concerns must fear that detailed responses, no matter how logically compelling, would still legitimize the nonsense. I admit that I do not always take the time to respond to every criticism I see of my claims on the web.
On the other hand, officials do sometimes give detailed responses to popular "nonsense," such as the many detailed critical analyses we see of creationism, UFOs, Austrian economics, or denials of moon landings and Nazi death camps. And if officials did not have strong critical arguments, they would surely be less likely to break their silence to criticize outsiders. So in this sense the absence of criticism is favorable evidence.
I worked with Xanadu on the web before there was a web. We were fans of cryonics, molecular manufacturing, and many other unpopular concepts. Our core motivating vision was the hope that people would favor these concepts more once they could see the absence of any detailed criticism. Clearly this has been a weaker effect than we had hoped.
A similar issue arises when many people are vocal in taking up some side of a dispute, but they can’t seem to agree much on their reasons. I noted recently that while the pro-discrimination side seems to largely agree on their reasons, the anti-discrimination side is all over the map on their reasons. Is a side that can’t agree much on their reasons less likely to be correct, all else equal?
Added: Advocates of one officially disfavored view I mentioned have objected to their being listed along side the other officially disfavored views I mentioned. So let me be clear: by mentioning a view as disfavored, I did not mean to imply that view is false, and certainly not obviously false.
More Added: Here is news about Keith.