The 10 Most Society-Damaging XKCD Comics

Everyone in physics and/or computer science reads XKCD. People in these fields frequently reference and link to it. I’ll admit I have done so.

The vast majority of the comic strips (from here on just “comics”) are basically mundane. Some are kind of interesting. A small number are legitimately objectionable.

Over the last 2 days, I frantically re-read (skimmed) every single XKCD in search of the worst ones.

Some people might object to my criticisms because XKCD is supposed to be a humorous comic. Although I generally take this kind of claim seriously (even when many people don’t), I doubt even XKCD’s creator would agree in its own case. Its humor is very subdued, almost anti-comedy. Sometimes it basically amounts to stating an opinion.

For future reference: in terms of politics, XKCD’s creator fits in with the online-influencer slightly-condescending vaguely-PC moderate-lefty types. I need a concise way of referring to this disposition, so I’ll call it “blankfacing” after the blank faces of the stick figures.

10

The only problem with this is that, you know, people are really damn stupid. I think that’s fairly obvious… even necessary knowledge to understand some problems in society. The statement doesn’t necessarily require a “but not me.” But not me!

9

No no, whether someone feels happy or sad is not the “only thing that matters.” I like the adage.

8

At first I had zero problems with this, and even thought it was a good comic. But then I got thinking: it may be that, although the comic is clever, it has led to bad consequences. I wonder how many people have been dissuaded from designing much-needed universal standards because of this exact comic. It’s not an unlikely scenario. XKCD is constantly linked-to in the comments of reddit and hacker news posts, which is were a lot of new tech projects get announced. This one would sure kill the mood of new standards proposals.

7

No, I am not going to mount some sort of giant logical defense of the “I’m such a nice guy!” thing. That mindset has, for a decade now, existed as a punching-bag-position.

What I want to comment on, instead, is the format of the comic. “I’m going to imagine a hypothetical conversation scenario where I can intellectually trounce my backwards-minded opponent with a concise takedown response.” It’s fun to imagine situations like that, but it’s really cringe to commit them to paper. XKCD comics do so often.

Perhaps people like Munroe wouldn’t be so compelled to engage in this trope if they actually knew anyone who thought differently than them socially. I have a theory that the “bickering at thanksgiving” trope exists because it’s one of the few times blankfaces even encounter different worldviews. Typically, these “dunks” don’t work out IRL as they planned in their heads.

6

In knee-jerk “take the opposite of what others are saying” fashion, XKCD decides to endorse “feelings == facts”.

5

No, he knows full well why people get mad at him. He’s not trying to convince himself that his ignorance is ok; he’s trying to convince himself that his disagreeableness is ok. Get it right!

4

Let me explain why “I could care less” bothers me so much.

There are different kinds of expressions. Some expressions work on a literal, logical level, like “better late than never” or “no pain no gain.” They don’t even need to be expressions.

Other expressions are abstract and symbolic, like “at the drop of a hat.” There is some historical reason why “kicked the bucket” means “died,” but typical speaker isn’t thinking about the logic of it.

I never thought of “I couldn’t care less” as an expression, per se. To me it’s a logical and literal sequence of words, repeated common enough to constitute a phrase. I don’t want it to become a symbolic idiom.

Because sometimes, language is a formal system, as close to one as we can get besides math. It’s not right to say, “anyone can interpret anything however they want, so why bother.” There are correct and incorrect ways to interpret statements.

If you resign to the former position, that words have no real meaning, then it is no longer possible to have logical discourse. It is no longer possible to defend your claims, because they mean whatever your intellectual opponent wants them to mean. You can never be right on the facts, because they can win on popularity.

It may sound like I’m spilling too much ink over a single expression, but that isn’t a one-off:

3

Anyone who has argued over the internet should learn this rule: never underestimate the creativity of people when interpreting your opinions online. When an audience is large enough, it is inevitable. The Internet is an ocean of bad-faith readers.

This comic is saying, “if you’re someone who often gets misinterpreted, it’s definitely your fault, because you weren’t being clear enough.” No. There are correct and incorrect ways to interpret certain words.

Some positions are naturally more at risk of being misinterpreted than others, because they’re controversial. They still may be worth saying. It’s not your fault when idiots straw-man you. Discourse is worse if we’re stuck playing the endless-disclaimer-game with such people.

2

Now we are in, “legitimately pisses me off” territory. I can’t help but wonder what debate Munroe got into in which he failed so badly he felt like he had to create this comic. Still, I’m actually incredulous that a smart person would write it.

For a while, maybe from subconscious fear of this comic, I avoided the term “devil’s advocate,” and I didn’t see many others using the term either. Thankfully, a similar practice has come back in full force, with the term “steel-manning,” but that shouldn’t have been necessary.

This comic is implying, “hypotheticals and conditionals, the thing that have been the foundation of logic since Socrates? The bedrock of how philosophy is done? Let’s shame that.”

Maybe you will say the dialogue is joking, playful ribbing. I don’t think so. He’s playing into a very common tactic of morally shaming hypotheticals as being “outrageous” and badly motivated. Lots of blankfaces hate devil’s advocate arguments because (frankly) they don’t like their beliefs challenged.

1

And there you have it. This is what you have all been waiting for. The worst and most notorious XKCD comic. I get livid whenever I stare directly at it. It measures up with this one and this one and this one among the most harmful comics. Huh, maybe I should write about those ones too.

I have talked about the ideas expressed in this comic many times. But those commentaries are quite old, and I’d like to express my views again here, succinctly and in reference to this comic.

I want to address some of its claims one at a time.

The Right to Free Speech means the government can’t arrest you for what you say.

This is false. And not trivially false. It’s so false that Munroe should delete the comic for spreading misinformation.

He is clearly confusing the 1st amendment with free speech. They are not the same thing.

The conflation of the two is such a rudimentary, brainless mistake, and yet it is such a common misconception that it’s a cliché at this point.

There were people who echoed this misconception before the comic, but I really blame Munroe for galvanizing an army of mid-wits to parrot it as their go-to on every free speech conversation.

Free speech, the general principle, is that people should not be punished for expressing their opinion. That is != (not the same) as the 1st amendment. The 1st amendment is nothing more than a specific law the protects free speech in certain particular ways. (To be specific, protection from all government punishment, not just arrests). The 1st amendment doesn’t protect speech completely; it wasn’t designed to do so.

The 1st Amendment doesn’t shield you from criticisms and consequences.

The 1st Amendment doesn’t shield you from criticisms. But it definitely does shield you from some consequences. The comic itself named one: you are shielded from the consequence of being arrested. Did he forget?

But this is still a moot point, because we’re talking about the 1st amendment. My concern is not solely about the 1st amendment right. My concern is for free speech rights in general, which extends to colleges, social media, etc.

If you’re yelled at…

I’d say getting yelled at is partially censorship if it’s coordinated and overly disruptive.

boycotted,

I’m fine with this.

have your show cancelled,

Having your show cancelled is censorship.

or get banned from an Internet community, it’s just that people listening to you think you’re an asshole

First, I like how he conflates being an asshole with being worth listening to. Those aren’t the same for me.

Second, if you get banned, it does not necessarily mean that. Many people have gotten banned who had large devoted audiences. They didn’t get banned because they were disliked by the the people listening. They got banned because the censors, the people not listening, dropped the hammer.

Honorable Mentions and other Random Commentaries

Here are some notes I have on other comics.

What a strange comic. I have never had a conversation like this. The first guy barely said anything beyond “Idiocracy is so true.” I’ve never initially pretended to agree with someone, then argue their position beyond the intial quip, then say they’re wrong with no explanation of why, then morally shamed them. I’ve only done the first part in the context of steel-manning a position which… well, we’ve been over that.

Blankfaces absolutely hate the movie Idiocracy for a number of reasons. 1) They have no sense of humor, 2) Idiocracy says that IQ tests are valid, 3) Idiocracy says that society’s problems are caused by human stupidity, rather than the explanations that sociologists like, 4) Idiocracy essentially (albeit humorously) supports the dysgenics theory.

Recently, youtuber Sarah Z made a video on why idiocracy is bad, basically arguing all of these points. For starters, she has a bone to pick related to point 2, echoing the “IQ is bunk” claim. Blankfaces like to claim things they dislike are “pseudoscience,” but in the case of IQ, a 1 minute escapade into google scholar would reveal that 1) credentialed, respected scientists, not psuedoscientists, have 2) published many articles in prestigious scientific journals, not pseudo-scientific journals, and 3) the findings of those articles is that IQ is the most-predictive measurement in all of the social sciences. I wonder if Sarah Z noticed this… Well, given that she called it bunk pseudoscience, we know she is just saying what she heard from her social circle and other blankface influencers without checking.

TBH, I do this myself:

“But all [experts] agree that [XYZ is BS]!”

Have you ever spent the five seconds it would take to look up a survey of what percent of [experts] believe [XYZ is BS]? Or are you just assuming that’s true because someone on your side told you so and it seems right?

Scott Alexander

Referencing back to my second paragraph: Point #1 is self-explanatory, and point #3 can be roped into point #4. That leaves us with dysgenics.

Is the dysgenics theory true? I don’t know. It’s complicated? Either way, it’s a serious hypothesis that deserves real research and investigation. I wonder how the guy in the comic came to the conclusion that it was bunk…

Well, the name of this blog is “epiphany a week.” So… yeah. Other people have talked about the girl’s response a lot. I don’t really feel the same way as them. Either way, I’m not going to focus on that panel.

Instead, I will talk about pickup artists. This isn’t the only time XKCD has referenced its disdain for pickup artists, but I didn’t save the links to the other examples.

This particular scenario is like a reoccurring fantasy for the author, (although that comic isn’t directly pickup-artist-related).

Despite the enmity for PUAs, he has also endorsed – or at least doesn’t mind – pickup lines, objectification, and approaching women without worrying about being creepy.

But you say, “those examples are dumb; he’s just encouraging normal human behavior. Pickup artists take it too far!” Well, let me tell you how I hear that: “If you’re much more forward, scheming, and results-oriented than me, you’re a manipulative creep. If you’re much shyer and scared then me, then you might never find love, and I don’t really care. What you need to be is exactly as socially calibrated as I am!” Oh shit, did I just script an XKCD comic?

I’m on the “people shouldn’t be experiencing the world through their phones” train. It’s just sad to see people living what should be their most cherished moments by proxy, staring down at a tiny phone screen instead of just taking the action in. It shifts your mindset from “I need to experience this” into “I need to capture this so that others, including my future self, can experience it,” which essentially places your focus outside of what’s directly happening. When I do this, I feel like I’m not really “there,” like the event is already retroactive, which removes my connection and agency in the situation. It’s pathetic to see 20 people all record the same thing on their iphone, as if the addition of the 20th cameraman is accomplishing something the other 19 couldn’t. Let me cut this rant before it gets too long.

What is even going on here. In my experience, people love to talk about the subjects they have dedicated themselves to studying. Why would she want to leave the conversation? This is the ideal situation. It’s a perfect chance to show off: one of the few times IRL where your specialty is top-status.

I’m playing dumb. I know what Randall Munroe is trying to convey here. The girl gets very dismissive when the guy starts to explain something. It’s run-of-the-mill posturing against “mansplaining”. That meme runs anathema normal conversation, wherein people always explain things to each other, especially things both people already know, because it’s fun to share in mutual knowledge.

This just makes me want to say, oh, good for you. Coke and Mentos is kind of a perfect example for him, because it’s super fun and inconsequential. But for more worldly knowledge (i.e, geography), seriously we should expect higher standards from people.

I don’t have much to say about this, other than it struck me as very out of place for some reason when it was published. He has the right to make this type of comic, it just seemed a bit weird. I’ll leave it there.

This is a fascinating historical document, among many of it’s kind. In the early 2010s and earlier, blankfaces broadly held favorable views of social media tech platforms and their founders. They still subscribed to the “nerd revenge” conception.

All of that flipped in around 2016 with the election of Trump. That was when we got narratives of the “fake news,” “social media fomenting hate,” “Cambridge Analytica” flavor. It was not always so explicit as “social media got Trump elected,” but rather a vague opening-the-floodgates on various anti-Zuckerberg sentiments.

I don’t get what’s weird about this. I don’t feel old at all.

I actually think this comic is pretty good. But ever notice that blankfaces are all quite ardently anti-crypto? I’m not even criticizing it, I just feel it’s a very interesting psychometric/dispositional indicator.