Decades ago, I wrote to James Randi and asked him a slightly foolish question about his famous Million Dollar Challenge. It wasn’t hostile, but it was a bit clueless, and I got a terse, irritated, dismissive reply — he clearly had zero patience for my ignorance. There was nothing encouraging or patient about it; he made no effort whatsoever to gently nudge me towards the light. He was just an old dog snarling at a foolish pup.
I was so annoyed at first! But in time I forgave him, and the incident influenced me: such a trivial exchange, but it was one of the several humbling experiences in my twenties that taught me to recognize the limitations of my knowledge.
I am now getting to be an old dog myself, and I get a lot of angry email about the controversial topics on PainScience.com, much of it from foolish pups.
Some of the ignorance I see in my inbox is a function of legitimate, youthful immaturity. Many of these “trolls” are indeed so young that I would consider them kids if I met them in the world. And most kids are ignorant! Even the truly smart ones just haven’t had the time to learn much yet. They are as clueless as I was when I wrote to Randi.
Overconfidence is a major feature of the young, of course: the Dunning-Kruger effect is powerful in them. They don’t even know how little they know. Trying to level them up enough for a productive conversation is often futile: in most cases, they need years of education and practice. Don’t get me wrong, young people are far from intellectually useless — but arguing with them about things they simply don’t know much about yet feels like trying to explain organic chemistry to a corgi.
Unlike James Randi, I respond patiently and politely at least once. If that isn’t well received, I don’t bark, I just ghost them. But, if someone shows a spark of humility (as I finally started to in my late 20s), then I apply a little more patience.