Have you ever gotten into a debate on social media, researching a thoughtful post (with citations!) only to be told to do your own research, and most importantly, to “think!”

It’s frustrating, isn’t? Thirty minutes of reading research papers, or longer (admit it–you spent hours down that rabbit hole, didn’t you?), following by trawling countless links to dig up data the other party is clearly willfully ignorant of only to be told to “think!” Isn’t it amazing how disheartening a low brow, low-effort post can become after so much work? You’re not alone, but that doesn’t change the disappointment no matter how fleeting.

One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed whenever I’ve been subjected to this sort of response is that it’s almost always written alongside a logical fallacy (e.g. appeal to authority) that gives the author a faux sense of superiority. Rest assured, this isn’t to convince you: It’s to convince them.

As someone who’s participated in discussion on predominantly politically-right-of-center social media and message boards, I’ve encountered a wide array of strange conspiracy theories (like “Q”) and occasionally even more perplexing (but strangely popular!) ones like the “flat Earth” nonsense. But sometimes I’ll run into individuals who utilize this same retort in areas where I have more concrete familiarity that I know they’re not as well versed in.

A more recent example at the time of writing (this was published much later than the events described herein to protect the guilty) occurred in a Linux users’ group where the topic of malware cropped up based on a recent story of Linux machines being subjected to either state-sponsored malware exploits or long-running command-and-control malware directed by botnet operators. Inevitably, someone from a Windows background tossed around pejoratives, calling anyone who attempted to counter his low-effort arguments names and suggesting that no one could answer is indisputable points. What those points were is anyone’s guess, but that’s not the point of this essay.

The point is that people like this are never interested in the material essence of discussion–or debate–so much as they’re interested in the attention they can receive by antagonizing others. Through name-calling, and other insults, they can effectively raise the temperature of the thread sufficiently to provoke others’ frustrations until the inevitably boil over and return fire. Once this happens, they’ll usually proclaim the moral high ground, express concern that others are shamelessly slinging insults, and obviously no one can offer a retort to their arguments–arguments that are clearly bulletproof. At this point, anyone delving into the debate has probably forgotten the fact that these personalities have never offered a substantive argument. That was their plan all along!

It’s a distraction. It’s a distraction wherein they implore you to think!

This form of trolling thrives on negative attention and anger. Once, it was used by people who weren’t particularly interested in any given topic and simply wanted to irritate as many people as possible. Now, it’s often used by individuals who have an emotional investment in a topic but don’t know enough to support their argument through evidence. Their opinions are all that is needed (or so they think) to draw a line in the sand and stake a claim on facts and truth–oblivious to the reality that facts and truth operate independently from opinion. Of course, that won’t stop them from arguing the point ad nauseum because they know for certain that they’re right. It doesn’t matter if their viewpoint is demonstrably false. They think it’s true, therefore it is true.

Fortunately, as with trolls of yesteryear, one of the most effective techniques against these personalities is to simply ignore them. I know, it’s difficult to do, because the reward cycle in your head desperately wants to tell them they’re wrong. But remember: If they’re disputing or ignoring evidence, they’re not interested in the truth. They’re interested only in their own opinion. If you ignore them, they won’t have anything else to add to the conversation and will eventually leave. Untag them, talk passed them, do whatever you need to do–but ignore them first and foremost. That’s how you win.

There’s a reason the Internet of Old had signs posted with the advice “Don’t feed the trolls.”

I think it’s time we revisit this.

I may touch on the principle of argumentative mental reward cycles in a later post and how trolls exploit this.

First, I need to apologize. I inadvertently published a series of notes for a post I may or may not write. It only sat on the front page of my blog for a few days before I caught it (I’ve been busy!), but nevertheless, it was cryptic enough that those of you who visited recently were probably a bit puzzled. It’s gone now.

Secondly, I’d like to talk about Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.

As of this writing (March 13th), the Malaysian government has released numerous, sometimes conflicting reports, and everyone is currently mulling over a slew of information from Chinese satellite imagery, reports from an oil company employee, and automated reports from the Rolls Royce engines that powered the plane (which are apparently untrue). There are also a wide variety of theories as to what happened to the aircraft–including some really wacky ones–but I suspect only two of them are likely: Hijacking or an in-flight fire.

An in-flight fire would fit best with the evidence offered by the Chinese and by the gentleman who witnessed an object in the sky burning briefly before disappearing. However, most other aircraft that succumbed to in-flight fires were located rather quickly (see Swissair flight 111), debris was found shortly after the accident, and at least some declaration indicating an emergency on board was made. The lack of contact with the aircraft is troubling and is suggestive that, whatever may have happened, it was unlikely to have been such an emergency.

The next theory toys with the prospect of a hijacking, either failed or otherwise. It might explain the supposed data received from the engine’s reporting systems as well as the aircraft’s behavior. But where might it have gone? The aircraft had 5-7 hours of fuel in the tanks, and it might have been able to make it as far as Pakistan, but wouldn’t it have been spotted by India’s military radars? This theory fits some of the facts better but at the expense that whatever questions remain are more difficult to answer than those posed by an in-flight emergency.

I’m not sure which is more likely, but as much as I’d like to suspect a hijacking, the lack of a motive or place to land such a large aircraft renders it remote at best.

I still can’t shake the thought that it could have been an in-flight fire. A recent report suggests that the automated reporting systems in the cockpit were turned off 20 minutes after the transponder (or vice versa?), which could have been–and maybe likely was–performed manually. But examining disasters like Swissair flight 111 where the flight recorders stopped functioning about 5 minutes before impact due to the blaze eating through power couplings indicates that there may exist other possibilities. Yet an in-flight fire would have lead to some attempt to contact air traffic control, unless it happened rapidly, but in that case the aircraft also wouldn’t have flown for as long as some reports are speculating.

So that leaves us with only one uncomfortable option: Wait.

The unfortunate side effect of disasters-in-the-making like MH370 is the shear number of armchair specialists who come out with their pet theories, explain why the others are so unlikely, and often spread misinformation and distort facts. At the risk of coming off as such an armchair commentator, I want to remind everyone that until wreckage (or a plane) is found, we simply have to admit that we don’t know what’s happened. Yes, it’s uncomfortable for the families who are seeking closure–or just want to know where their loved ones are–but given the lack of factual information and the Malaysian government’s unwillingness to part with anything substantial, waiting is our only option. Unless one of the eleven or so countries currently participating in search-and-rescue operations makes a lucky break, we may never know.

Or worse: If this flight is never found, MH370 could become the mystery of the century.

What do I think happened? Well, that’s a problem. I’m inclined to believe it wasn’t as nefarious as a hijacking or terrorist attack, but even if it was the result of a fire on board (or similar emergency), if the aircraft stayed aloft for any substantial percentage of the total time its flight was planned for, the damn thing could be anywhere. I do think there’s too much emphasis on water search, or at least searches in the wrong waters entirely, but where do you begin? Unless papers or other debris (or bodies) start washing up somewhere, this is a mystery that may never be solved.

I’d probably start looking in the Indian Ocean nearest Malaysia or maybe the western Pacific in the event its navigational computers were really off the mark, searching for small debris including paper and seat cushions. There’s no point looking for oil slicks at this stage. They’ll have dissipated days ago.

I’m inclined to believe we’ll find out that something happened to knock out communications (either accidental or otherwise) and the aircraft spent a few hours circling before finally crashing into the sea or a dense jungle forest. That still doesn’t do anything to dissuade the hope that–maybe, just maybe–they found somewhere safe to land and are simply waiting to be found.

Again, if nothing is found in the next two or three weeks, it may never be found.