Thoughts on “Cosmos”

I just finished watching the first episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s revival of the classic Carl Sagan series. Now, on one hand, I’m a fan of the classic “Cosmos.” I’ve liked everything I’ve seen from it. It has a unique way of blending together the big with the small, the old with the new, and the abstract with the concrete. On the other hand, I’ve never actually seen the whole series. While I’ve had it on DVD for years, I’ve only watched maybe half the episodes.

So I came into the new “Cosmos” as an interested party, a fan of the old series, but not an expert. I have a preexisting love for Sagan and Tyson, and less fond feelings for producer Seth MacFarlane and the Fox network in general. But I talked up the show before it aired and made sure to watch it right when it aired.

There was a lot to like about the show. The effects were gorgeous, light years beyond the simple animations and computer effects of the original series. Tyson made complex ideas accessible, and gave a lot of little tastes and hints about huge, mind-blowing ideas, which people could easily find out more about on their own. There’s a lot about the methodology of science, and how our knowledge builds up over time. The “cosmic calendar” metaphor works better than the 24-hour clock metaphor Tyson employed in “Origins.” There’s no sense of apology or embarrassment or uncertainty about basic (but nonetheless controversial) science, like evolution or anthropogenic climate change or the age of the universe or the big bang.

There was a lot to dislike, too. I worried a bit, given Seth MacFarlane’s involvement and the way he’s used “Family Guy” as an unsubtle way to beat viewers over the head with his personal atheism, that “Cosmos” would be similarly blunt on the topic of religion. There’s a time and a place for that sort of thing, but “Cosmos” shouldn’t be it. More time should be spent kindling that ‘religious’ awe for the natural world than explicitly attacking believers. The new “Cosmos” managed to disappoint me in both ways in this regard; on one hand, it had a lengthy (and at least somewhat ahistorical) animated digression on Giordano Bruno, characterizing him as a lone heliocentrist scientist against the oppressive church. I was skimming along with the Wikipedia article on Bruno during the segment, noting places where the storytelling glossed over or twisted facts for the sake of narrative. On one hand, it painted Bruno as a man whose religious ideas drove him toward scientific truth, and whose idea of God was more expansive and awesome than the contemporary orthodoxy; on the other, it made him into a scientific martyr, right down to showing him ascending into the heavens in multiple visions, arms outstretched and knees bent in a crucifixion pose. Later, as Tyson went through the history of human history, specific mention was made of the “births” of Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed, at least two of whom were likely never “born” at any point in history. Somehow the show managed both to bend over to accommodate religion, and to attack the church and give science its own Christ figure.

I realize that the show was limited in scope, and couldn’t go into detail on everything, but I really wish there were even a couple more lines to indicate why some scientists believe in a multiverse or what current research has shown about the origins of life. I hope the latter question will still be addressed in a future installment, but this episode’s brief treatment of it made it sound like it’s still a complete mystery.

To get to the nitpicks, I’ve always thought the Ship of the Imagination was the cheesiest part of the original “Cosmos,” and while the effects here are better, the idea still feels kind of out of place. Tyson has a history of picking at science mistakes in movies like “Titanic” and “Gravity,” so it’s weird to see him helming a show that depicts the asteroid belt and Kuiper belt as such densely-populated regions of space. The amount of commercial interruption was ludicrous, but more ludicrous was the commercial for “Noah” right in the middle, showing off similarly expensive and pretty special effects in service of a much less evidence-based story. The animated segment, in addition to its other flaws, looked like a cross between a five-year-old Flash animation and ten-year-old cel-shaded cartoons, very out of place in the otherwise space-age show.

Overall, I have high hopes that future episodes will have tighter foci and greater depth, but this first installment was a pretty mixed bag.

Following the Block Bot

Happily for some, there won’t be much in the way of fisking today. There’s only a few things I wanted to really comment on, though I suspect it’ll still make for a ridiculously long post.

First, holy crap. I realize that not everyone who watches Virtual Skeptics is up to speed on all the internecine skeptical blog drama, so a recap may be necessary. That’s part of why a video is a poor choice of medium to respond to blog posts1: if you need to spend an extended time summing things up, down to the details of the programs involved2, maybe it’s better to find a venue where most of your audience will already be up to speed, or one where you can accomplish the recap with a link.

That aside, I suspect he would have gotten fewer people upset at his lack of immediate response if he hadn’t kept popping up on Twitter and Facebook to talk about it, make excuses, and leave multiple comments bemoaning his lack of time to respond. I sympathize with being too busy to blog; you can see how long my posts tend to be. But I don’t go around in a huff posting on social media about how I don’t have time to blog and besides everyone’s ignoring most of what I wrote anyway. That takes time too.

So, the first specific part of the video response that rubbed me the wrong way was “people were mad because it wasn’t easy enough to get rid of them [harassers] on Twitter.” It’s true that blocking only does so much, and shutting down the accounts only leads to the creation of new accounts. But one of the big problems, and one that’s glossed over here and later when Farley talks about Twitter changing their policies, is that Twitter often wasn’t enforcing their own existing rules regarding abuse, harassment, and threats of violence. Adding a “report abuse” button is all well and good, but if Twitter continues to handle it like they’ve handled some threats (1, 2, 3) to Anita Sarkeesian (just as a prominent example), then it’s not worth a whole lot.

The next bit:

So a BBC reporter on BBC Newsnight got interested and did a report on it, and got the guy who wrote Block Bot on there, and did a report. And people have argued with me that I am ignoring the commun—who the Block Bot is written for, and that the report covered that, and I have gone back diligently and watched the report several times, and they’re wrong, okay? You honestly watch that report, it does not explain that the Bot is for a specific community, you only see the name of that community briefly on screen, it says “Atheism+ Block Bot,” nowhere do they explain what that means, they don’t explain what Atheism+ is, and they don’t explain—and I’m not gonna get into all the details, you can go read my blog post if you’re interested in all the details—but there’s three levels of blocking, and they never explain the other two levels, they just, they barely reference them in the report.

He’s right, the report is very brief on the subject of the Block Bot. The relevant section is about 2 1/2 minutes long, just enough for some basics. I can certainly understand why they didn’t go into what levels 2 & 3 meant, because that’s on the website. I can also understand why they didn’t go into what Atheism+ was, because that’s mostly irrelevant to the point they’re making in the interview. I would think that someone who wasn’t a part of “atheism” plus or otherwise, would recognize the name “Atheism+” at the start of the Block Bot’s name meant “hey, this probably isn’t for me,” kind of like when I see an ad for Christian Mingle or women’s vitamins.

But the kicker is that while the report doesn’t outline in specific detail the intended audience of the Atheism+ Block Bot (aside from talking about how it was made by supporters of Rebecca Watson and displaying the name), it also doesn’t support the absurd conclusion that Farley leapt to, which is this notion that the Atheism+ Block Bot is meant to be a solution for everyone, effectively making Ool0n and Aratina Cage the moderators for all of Twitter.

As I noted before, what Ool0n actually promotes in the video is Twitter making it possible for people to create shared block lists, using the same technology as the shared follow lists. Mason asks him why Twitter doesn’t implement what Ool0n’s done themselves; if the intent were the one Farley took away, why wouldn’t Ool0n say “well, they don’t need to, I’ve already gone and done it for them” or something along those lines?

Ool0n has consistently been promoting the shared block list as a strategy. He’s been open about this, and that’s the impression I took away from the interview (and from the accompanying article, which is a bit clearer). The video is not explicit about who the Block Bot is for, but there’s nothing to support the conclusion that Farley drew, “that this was a good tool that everyone on Twitter should use.” He says later that he “really didn’t even want to write” the post. And if he’d maybe thought for a moment, “hold up, does Ool0n really think he ought to be in control of who gets blocked on Twitter? Isn’t that a bit megalomaniacal?” and then thought “maybe I’ll send the guy a tweet to make sure that’s what he meant,” he could have avoided the whole thing.

I do think this implies a practical suggestion for the Block Bot, which is to put the link to the source code on the front page, with a clear statement like “Specific harassment problems in your Twitter community? Build your own block bot!” And maybe add to the FAQ a “who is this for?” question, largely unnecessary back when the people it was for, and the people it intended to block, were the only ones who knew about it.

This bit tickled me:

I pointed out a lot of things about how the Block Bot works that were unclear to everyone. They, maybe they were clear to the people who run it, and the people who are using it, but other people were very confused

So, the people actually making use of the Block Bot were clear on how it works, but other people, perhaps people who’d never bothered to look at the website or the FAQ, perhaps people who only got their information about it after it passed through the filter of harassers and trolls whining about their freeze peach, were unclear.

Farley talks repeatedly about people being rude to him. I’m sure I’m in that group, though I don’t think I displayed any “rudeness” until he came into my comment thread with tired myths (“They are simply people that (some, all?) Atheism+ people disagree with on some topics”) and deflections. But then, Farley’s idea of rudeness seems to be that peculiar one that prevails in parts of skepticism, where it only ever works one way, and mostly appears to mean “using swear words” or “not being sufficiently deferential to your betters.” Jumping to an absurd conclusion and writing 4,300 words about it without bothering to check with the people involved? Not rude. Buying into a malicious myth that certain groups just can’t brook disagreement when you can’t find immediate evidence that they acted reasonably? Not rude.

I’m tired of that nonsense. I think it’s far worse to argue in bad faith than to use naughty words. I don’t think anyone in this movement has earned exemption from criticism or has shown that they are incapable of bad behavior. I think being dismissive can be far ruder than being aggressive. And I think yet another outsider thinking they can wander into a conflict that’s been raging for years, do a casual scan of the environment, and make authoritative pronouncements about what people’s motivations are, is pretty damn disrespectful. It’s like walking into the LHC having read a Wikipedia page on the Standard Model and saying “you guys must not really want to find the Higgs Boson, or you’d just look harder for it.”

Getting to the meat of people’s disagreements with the post, Farley says:

And I knew that I did not want to get into, and we said this in the comments of this post, of this YouTube, I did not want to get into who’s on the Block Bot, who’s not on the Block Bot, why is this person blocked, because that is a rat hole. I just wanted to talk about how it works, how is it administrated, are there bugs in the code, does it do what it’s supposed to do.
And I needed a way to bring up the issue of, “hey look, this guy’s on here, and this woman’s on here, why are they on here?”

Emphasis mine. So here, I think (being charitable), is a limitation of speech-vs.-writing. Someone who wrote those two bolded phrases so close together would, I hope, notice the obvious contradiction between them, but that’s harder to do with off-the-cuff speech. As someone who does a lot of off-the-cuff speech for a living, I understand how that can happen.

Farley goes on to obliquely reference one of Stephanie Zvan’s posts about people on Farley’s list, saying she “made my point,” which is (allegedly) that there’s no evidence logged on the Block Bot site for why each individual account made the list.

And you know what? I agree with that. It would be a great resource in these discussions if we could easily call up a screenshot of relevant or representative examples of tweets that got someone added to the block list. There may even be an easy way to implement that; I don’t know. All of my knowledge of computer code is limited to HTML tags. But I know that just stripping the URL from offensive tweets wouldn’t be particularly useful, since tweets get deleted and accounts get deleted and whatnot. A screenshot would be better, but it still takes a bit of time even to just “print screen” and copy and crop it into a decent image file, let alone uploading all those image files to be linked from the block list. I don’t know how much of that could be automated, but I do suspect that the handful of people running the Block Bot have day jobs and social lives too.

Keeping records on that sort of thing would be great, and I’m glad some people have been independently cataloging the abuse. But it’s a step beyond the general goal of the Block Bot, which is to protect people in this community from at least some of that abuse, and not something that is necessary to its function.

The only reason this would present a problem, again, is if you assume Ool0n and his friends want to be the moderators of all Twitter. If you don’t make that assumption, then you can opt-in to the system whether or not you know the specific offending tweets for any specific one of the six hundred-odd people on the list, trusting Ool0n and the administrators to make their decisions based on good reasons, or you can refrain from using the system, or you can make one that suits the needs of your particular community.

Back to the list of credentials (I’m tackling these next few bits slightly out of order):

And I did not intend to say that any of those people on that list shouldn’t be blocked. What I intended to say was, I, and I think others, look at the list, and see some of the names, and if you happen to know who those people are, and even if you click through and see their current feed, you sit there and go “well, the current feed looks pretty good,” scroll scroll scroll, “why is this person blocked?” So they should be listing the evidence. First of all, they should be recording the evidence, and there’s no evidence that they actually are. And, they need to, um, they need to have a way to look through it, and a lot of people are into the concept of “name and shame,” and I think that’s perfectly compatible with that. If you believe that it’s important to name and shame people, and it’s important to block these people, well, put the evidence of why they’re annoying there, and let people judge.
Um, and that was my point.

And later:

I knew it was an argument from authority. My choice was, this authority [points at himself], or some other authority, it was the only way I could think of to make that argument. And it was a wrong choice, I admit it now. And I have marked it with strikeout.

Emphasis mine. So, the only way Farley could think to make this point was with an argument from authority. That should have set off alarm bells in the mind of any skeptic, that maybe this point was a bad one, or maybe there was a better way to do this, but he barreled through anyway, and it’s nice to see that he’s recognized, at least to some degree, how problematic it was.

The issue is this point he’s saying he wanted to make. You can go back and read his article to find where he says that the Block Bot administrators should be tracking why each person gets blocked, and making that information available to the users. You won’t find it. It’s not there. The closest you get is in the conclusion section, where one of the bullet points reads “Require administrators to supply a reason or piece of evidence (e.g. a tweet) for any add,” which still says nothing about making that information publicly available so people can judge for themselves. Farley has been framing the lead-up and the response as though people “misunderstood” his point, but it the only way to have gotten that point from what he actually wrote would have been through telepathy.

So how could Farley have written this section without the argument from authority? Here’s an option (note that this is paraphrasing/rewriting, using as much of Farley’s actual language as possible, but is not altogether a direct quote):

A casual scan down the list of Level 2 and Level 3 blocks reveals people, many of whom I know personally, who are deeply involved in the atheism, skepticism, secularism and humanism movements all around the world. From the publicly available block list, you can click the names to go directly to their Twitter feeds, and in many cases, you’d see little evidence that these people are attacking, threatening or spamming anyone. It’s possible that these accounts have tweeted malicious, harassing, or just annoying things in the past, but that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent to anyone just looking at their recent feed. The administrators should supply a reason or piece of evidence (e.g. a tweet) for each person on the list, at least at Levels 2 and 3, so newcomers can see why those names made the list, and judge whether or not they want to block those levels.

That’s one possibility; there are others. None of them required listing credentials as if they were relevant, or going off on how the levels aren’t clearly distinguished (outside of the sign-up page, where they are), how the people on these lists are just there because of “disagreements” with members of Atheism+, and how some poor confused soul might miss out on valuable tweets by blocking all three levels of offenders without knowing why those people were blocked.

Note how none of those claims serves to make the ‘administrators should keep evidence and make it available’ point that Farley says he was trying to make, and I have a suspicion as to why that is: it wasn’t actually the point he was trying to make. Now, that’s a rude accusation I’m sure, but I can’t imagine any other reason for this comment he left on my response to the post:

You are missing my point. I was not saying “these authorities are on the list therefore it is bad”, I was saying that if you actually look at what those people do on Twitter they are demonstrably not abusers/harassers/whatever. They are simply people that (some, all?) Atheism+ people disagree with on some topics. I repeated several times that I do not begrudge them the right to use the block bot in this way, but I think it reflects poorly upon them as skeptics that they are so unwilling to be questioned.

Emphasis mine. Strange how on August 2nd, this was his point, while five days later, it was the far more reasonable ‘put the evidence of why they’re annoying there, and let people judge.’

I commend Farley for not taking the logical next step and editing that point into the original post.

I’m not going to speculate on why Farley has so dramatically changed what he says his point was. What he said was his point in the comment here is much closer to what’s actually written in the article than what he said was his point in the video. And in that comment, it looks like he’s bought (in part or in whole) into the “FtBullies/Atheism+ can’t stand disagreement” myth that has taken various forms over the last year or so, but bears little resemblance to reality. The article’s argument hinges on this ‘they blocked these people just because they disagreed’ notion to make the ‘what if they block someone you want to hear from because of a disagreement you’re not involved with’ point that closed out the section, and that wasn’t later struck out.

I’ll leave the reader to decide if “if you actually look at what those people do on Twitter they are demonstrably not abusers/harassers/whatever” jives with the point Farley says Stephanie Zvan made for him.

Moving on, one thing Farley says a lot is that a community should be able to block whoever they want for whatever reason. Which is why quotes like “you don’t have to look very far to see people going ‘why am I on this thing? What did I do?’ And, um, that shouldn’t, that shouldn’t be happening” are so mystifying. Even if we ignore all the people who are out there spreading active misinformation, even if we ignore that people who say the most racist, misogynistic, and otherwise bigoted things often think of themselves as progressive non-bigots (does the phrase “I’m not racist, but” ring any bells?), I really don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that we’d ever be at a point where anyone on the list says “yes, I completely understand why they blocked me.” Because even when there are well-documented reasons for blocking a person, we still see examples of them saying they were blocked for no reason. It doesn’t matter what level of harassment a person is engaged in; once blocked, they’ll still say it was just because they “disagreed” with “feminist dogma” or whatever. This thing that Farley says “shouldn’t be happening” is going to happen no matter what, because of disingenuous people.

Well, and because of dog-whistles and subtweets and subtle digs. Assholes of all stripes, from the highest echelons of politics and religion on down to the high school halls and online Twitter feeds, have learned the time-honored art of using coded language to say apparently innocuous things that actually aren’t. It’s why Republicans can claim that they’re not being racist when they talk about “terrorists” or “Muslims” or “foreign influence” or “illegals,” and it’s why certain assholes can claim innocence when they talk about “the real bullies” and “know-nothing bloggers” and “professional victims” and whatnot. Displaying those tweets as evidence of annoyance leads to the same thing that Farley says “shouldn’t be happening”–“what did I do? how is that ‘annoying’? doesn’t everyone hate ‘professional victims’?”

But I do agree, it’d be beneficial for those tweets to be cataloged. I just don’t know that there’s a feasible way of doing it on the Block Bot’s scale.

Farley spends a bit of time toward the end of the video going after Ool0n’s character:

But, last week, independent of this whole thing, Ool0n decided to block one of the accounts of Anonymous, the giant hacker collective. And he decided to start taunting them about it. And as a result of, right when my blog post went up, and through Friday and Saturday, the Block Bot was actually being Denial of Service attacked by Anonymous. Um, and he continued to taunt them, including calling the Block Bot “unblockable.” And, y’know, Ool0n, you, like I said, you’ve been nice to me, but that shows really poor judgment. Taunting Anonymous publicly on the Internet is about the dumbest online thing I can think to do. Um, and that’s the person who’s running the Block Bot for you.

Part of me sees this as the same kind of fallacious nonsense Farley pulled with the whole “credentials” section, just as ad hominem instead of pro hominem. ‘Here’s one thing that’s true about this person, so you can judge from that how fit they are to do a largely unrelated thing.’ “Taunting hackers online” is a bit more related to “administering an online service that targets trolls” than “research fellow for a think-tank” is to “harassing people on the Internet,” so it’s not quite as bad.

Now, I only saw bits and pieces of what Farley’s describing as it unfolded, so I asked Ool0n if he thought it was an accurate description. He didn’t think so (1, 2, 3, 4), and said he’d post about it when he gets home. (Edit: here’s that post.)

But from my perspective, as someone who’s sympathetic with the aims of the Block Bot but doesn’t actually use it, would I want someone like Ool0n, who ‘taunts Anonymous,’ running it? Well, yes, absolutely. Ool0n echoed my opinion in that fourth linked tweet there, but if I’m someone who’s getting harassed by trolls online, I’d like the person who’s running the service protecting me from that harassment to be someone who’s not cowed by prestige, power, or online shows of force. I like and agree with a lot of what gets done under the Anonymous umbrella–their campaign against Scientology, their truly heroic actions in the Steubenville case–but that doesn’t mean that any hacker who adopts the label “Anonymous” is necessarily acting in anyone’s best interest, or even on behalf of Anonymous as a larger group. And I’d want the Block Bot to be administered by someone willing to stand up to anybody.

The last thing I want to address is this bit of insufferably smug hypocrisy:

Uh, frankly, I was very insulted that a lot of the kind of, y’know there’s, I won’t get into who’s who, but there was kind of a very “gotcha” attitude toward my blog post, of “aha! We’ve discovered that Krelnik is a bad skeptic,” and they all focused on that one section where I listed credentials, and talked about how it was an argument for authority.

Well, yes, I’d say knowingly making arguments from authority is unskeptical. It’s a leap, I know. But boy, there’s that “focused on that one section” thing, as if it weren’t obvious deflection again. It reminds me of the cranks who say “read my book” or the conspiracy nutters who dodge criticisms and questions by sending you on YouTube scavenger hunts. The only way “you took that out of context” is a defense against criticism is if the context answers the criticism or renders it invalid. That’s not the case with the list o’ credentials section of Farley’s post, which only looks worse in context.

But as long as we’re looking at context, I have a hard time taking that “‘gotcha’ attitude” complaint seriously when one considers this:

But I know that some people didn’t read my blog post because I put a booby trap in the blog post about four paragraphs up from the bottom. I hid a sentence in the middle of a paragraph that said you were supposed to use a certain word when you commented.

Paris in the the spring You have got to be fucking kidding me. ‘I’m very insulted at the ‘gotcha’ attitude that people have only focusing on one small part of my post, and I know they didn’t read the whole thing because I put a ‘gotcha’ in one small part of my post, nyah!’

It’s true, I skimmed over that part of the post. Part of that is because it came after the conclusion. Part of it was because the “long-term prospects” for the Block Bot were irrelevant to any part of my critique, and indeed, to any of the critiques I’ve seen elsewhere online. Part of it is that a paragraph whose thesis was “A second looming problem for The Block Bot is it may become a victim of its own success,” made it even more clearly irrelevant, even to the points Farley made above. I skimmed that portion of the post and judged it to be not germane to my problems with the rest of the post.

Now I’ve gone back and read that section in grand detail, and it turns out that my initial judgment was right. Nothing in that section, including the ‘booby trap’ paragraph, has any bearing on any of the problems I had with Farley’s article. And unless the gotcha had been “Psst, problem 6 is clearly a fallacious argument that I’m just including to see who’s paying attention,” I don’t see how it could have. ‘You didn’t read this clearly unrelated section’ is not a response to the critiques of the rest of the post. It’s a juvenile exercise that insults Farley when he thinks others are doing it to him. And it’s not something he would ever fall for, because he’s certainly not the kind of person who would look at something quickly to decide whether or not it was worth his time and attention…

And I did read all of your posts. There are a number of red flags that I’ve learned about online commentary and you hit 2 of them: Fisking, and replies that are more than 4x longer than the post they are replying to.

Long experience has told me that discussions in that state go nowhere.
(Source)

…oh. Nevermind.


1. Farley’s comments here implied that it was his official or only response to the matter. If I’d known he was still planning to take the time to respond in a written medium, I could have saved quite a lot of time yesterday. And today, for that matter.

2. When he launched into the explanation of how apps work on Twitter, with multiple examples, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a workshop I went to recently to learn some new software for work, which included a lengthy description of how to use the red “x” button to close a window.

Deflection for Fun and Profit

After trying out “you’re too anonymous” and “fisking is a red flag” and “you write too much,” Tim Farley’s latest deflection tactics are to repeat like a mantra variations on “I wrote 4,300 words and you only focused on a small piece1” (1, 2) and “Principle of charity!” So I’ll indulge Mr. Farley, and I’ll even make it briefish and non-fisky.

There is one kind of argument where we should generally agree that it’s only necessary to address a small part, and that’s when the whole thing is built on some faulty premise. If the foundational premise is flawed, it doesn’t matter what elaborate edifice is built on top of it. It’s why you don’t need to spend time talking about thimerosal and MMR and autistic enterocolitis if you can show that there’s no link between vaccination rates and autism diagnoses. It’s why you don’t need to spend time talking about inerrancy and flood geology if you can show there’s no evidence for a god.

And it’s why Tim Farley’s whole 4,300 word post isn’t worth the electrons it’s displayed on. As he tweeted, it’s right there in the title: “The Block Bot is unsuitable for general use in its present form.”

It’s true. I think you’ll find few who would argue, including Ool0n, who coded the bot and appeared on BBC to talk about it. That’s part of why no one’s addressing this portion (the majority) of Farley’s post: because it’s obvious. The problem is that Farley seems to think that by making that statement, he’s arguing against someone who suggested that the Block Bot was intended for general use.

See, Farley seems to have watched the BBC video, and perhaps he read the related article, and the message he took away from the whole thing was that the only reason Ool0n would go on TV to talk about the Block Bot would be so he could promote his Block Bot as the solution to all of Twitter’s harassment problems, for general usage by any and all groups outside of Atheism+.

Farley drew this conclusion despite the fact that the Bot is clearly labeled, both in the video and on the website, as the “Atheism+ Block Bot.” He drew this conclusion despite the fact that what Ool0n actually explicitly advocated in the video was the implementation of shared block lists akin to Twitter’s shared follow lists. He drew this conclusion despite the fact that Phil Paul Mason’s article describes the “shared block list strategy” when talking about the Block Bot. He drew this conclusion despite the evidence that it’s intended for people conversational in the terminology of Atheism+, something he actually notes in his article. He drew this conclusion despite the Block Bot being open-source, allowing anyone to copy and alter the code, which seems like it would be unnecessary if one Block Bot were meant to satisfy every group’s needs. He drew this conclusion despite the utter absurdity of one guy going on TV to say that, effectively, Twitter should make him the primary moderator for everyone.

And now, Tim Farley would like you to apply the principle of charity when reading his article, which clearly was so charitable in its assessment of Ool0n’s position.

There is a charitable interpretation of the interview, one which is actually supported by what was said in the video and the article, one which could have saved Farley 4,300 words if he’d bothered to send a quick message to Ool0n2 and ask “do you really mean that the Block Bot in its current form should be used by the general public?” To which I suspect Ool0n’s response would have taken no more than three tweets (1, 2, 3). That charitable reading is that Ool0n is promoting the notion of shared and shareable block lists, of which the Atheism+ Block Bot is one example. The Atheism+ Block Bot, as its name suggests, is the Block Bot implementation that works best for Atheism+. A different group, say, Hell’s Angels, might take the code, tweak and adapt it as they wish, and set up their own Block Bot–The Hell’s Angels’ Block Bot–to block all the people who harass and abuse the Hell’s Angels online.

Now, perhaps I’m just better at using context clues, or perhaps I’ve just been following this battle long enough to understand people’s motivations better than Tim Farley does, but that’s what I took away from the interview, and it’s apparently (coincidentally) also what Ool0n intended. Sadly, that message was not communicated to Tim Farley, for whatever reason, and so he built his entire 4,300-word post on a premise that everyone would already have agreed with, thinking he was arguing against a position no one holds. There’s no further reason to discuss Problems 1-4, because they’re only problems if you assume the Block Bot, in its current form, is meant for general use. It’s not, and never was.

Now, Mr. Farley, about Problem 5 Mark II 6…


1. Where is it written that one has to address a person’s entire argument in a criticism? The only place where that would be problematic is if the part one is criticizing is justified by the rest of the article. This is not the case in the fallacious list-o’-credentials section of Farley’s article. There’s nothing in the other 90% of words that makes it any less a long argument from false authority. Believe me, I looked, because I went into this with respect for Farley and expecting him to be as thorough and clear in his reasoning as his reputation for research and documentation would suggest. Needless to say, that respect has been almost entirely pissed away.

2. This also would have saved Farley from basing his “Problem 3” on outdated information. Not his fault, but it seems like contacting Ool0n to check his facts would have been due diligence at the least, not to mention, you know, charitable.

How Dare You?!

This is kind of a follow-up to my post on friendship, and is likely to hit some of the same notes and indict some of the same people.

I’ve noticed recently, though I’m sure the trend has been around for some time, this tendency in skeptic/atheist circles to suggest, explicitly or implicitly, that a person has done so much for the atheist/skeptic community that it is somehow out of line to criticize them. Here’s an example I saw today, in PZ’s post about Sam Harris:

The Harris bashing going on here is just ridiculous. The man is a hero of the skepticism movement. All you people rushing to judgement should be embarrassed.

Hes admitted countless times he phrased his ideas poorly on the profiling issue (even publicly apologized on TV).

PZ, you need to take note on how well Harris defends himself against this character assassination you’ve exacerbated once again. Compare that with how you usually respond to criticism.

Remember that next time you’re getting all upset over a comedian’s joke and crying all over your keyboard and empty donut cases.

I know that I’ve seen this same kind of sentiment expressed about DJ Grothe of late (there’s one buried in this comment), and I’m pretty sure it came up a bunch about Dawkins in the whole “Dear Muslima” flap.

To put it bluntly, this kind of thinking is wrong-headed, fallacious, dangerous, and dare I say it, religious.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have role models. That would be absurd. There are always people who are better than us or more informed than us at certain things. It’s fine to look up to people; the problem comes when you begin thinking those people are somehow above you.

A further problem comes if they begin thinking the same.

Must we, scientific skeptics and rational atheists, keep learning this lesson? This is the lesson of Linus Pauling, the lesson of Ayn Rand, the lesson of Edgar Mitchell, the lesson of Bill Maher, and so on. Being brilliant, well-informed, or just right about one area or subject does not make one brilliant, well-informed, or right about everything. Expertise does not transfer.

We as skeptics and atheists spend a lot of our time arguing with people because they’re wrong about something. We argue with strangers, we argue with anonymous idiots, we argue with professional pseudoscientists and preachers who hate us, we even argue with acquaintances and coworkers.

Why would we avoid arguing with the people we care about?

Granted, James Randi and Richard Dawkins and the like are basically strangers to me. The same is true for most people and the famous role models they look up to. We feel a kinship with these people because they’ve said or written or done things that resonate with us, that we wish to live up to or emulate. That forges an emotional connection, even if it’s one-way, which boils down to (at the very least) the point that we care what they have to say. We value their thoughts and opinions enough to spend our money buying books filled with just that, or spend our time watching their videos or reading their words online.

And so when they, our heroes, say or do something that is clearly wrong, I think we have a responsibility to speak up about it. In part, it’s because there’s a cognitive dissonance in saying “I value what you have to say” and “what you have to say with regard to X is wrong/reprehensible.” In part, it’s because we recognize that there are other people who value what they have to say, but may not be informed enough to see that, on this topic, they’re dead wrong. In part, it’s because we hope that our heroes are reasonable and, when presented with evidence that contradicts their position, would change it, making them even more admirable for following the evidence. In part, it’s because we just don’t like people being wrong. In part, I think we realize that leaving the wrongness unchallenged could eventually lead to worse problems (like the ubiquity of vitamin megadosing or libertarians). And in part, I think, it’s our responsibility.

That responsibility has different degrees of strength. If it’s, say, an author you like who has said something stupid, then your purchase of his book, your recommending it to your friends, etc., means that you have contributed to his popularity. But if it’s, say, someone who is often chosen by the media to speak for a group that you’re part of, then they’re sometimes (de facto) speaking on your behalf. And you don’t want the general public to think that this thing they’re wrong about is generally representative of the group’s beliefs.

Because, one way or another, their wrongness makes you look wrong. You’re wrong by proxy.

And so we call out our heroes when they’re wrong because we care about them and their opinions, because we want to give them the opportunity to realize their mistake and correct it, and because we want to show clearly that we don’t share their wrongness. Phil Plait called out Carl Sagan in his first book, because Sagan was wrong about Velikovski. Phil was also involved in correcting Randi when Randi spouted off about climate change. PZ called out Sam Harris about his unfounded views regarding racial profiling, and promoted the opinions of actual experts in response. Many spoke up when anti-medicine Bill Maher was nominated for a science award. And so on and so forth. Maybe if more people had spoken more loudly and forcefully at Linus Pauling, it wouldn’t be a generally-accepted belief that Vitamin C cures colds.

What we don’t do, what we shouldn’t do, what we must not do, is say “well, these people have done so much good that we can overlook this little bit of bad.” We don’t accept that from religious believers about the role of religion in history. We don’t accept that from the Catholic Church regarding its predator priests. We don’t accept that from science, dammit. We don’t say “well, these guys have published a bunch of good papers before, let’s just let this paper slide without peer review.” We don’t say “gee, Dr. Pauling’s been right about so many things, what’s the harm in just assuming he’s right about vitamin megadosing?” We don’t say “NASA’s got a pretty good track record, so we’re just going to overlook this error in the rover program. We wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

No, dammit, we’re skeptics, we’re scientists and science enthusiasts. We pride ourselves on seeking the truth and fighting ignorance. When prominent scientists and skeptics go wrong, they’re the ones we should argue with most strongly, most fervently–because either they, prizing truth and knowledge as we do, will change their position, or we–prizing truth and knowledge–will realize that it was our own that was in error.

Or they’ll go on believing and spouting wrong things. And then we’re free to question whether they really are committed to truth and knowledge, or if they are committed to their own sense of infallible rightness. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, to realize that even your heroes (maybe even especially your heroes) can be blinded by ego, but it’s a necessary lesson to learn. It’s necessary because no one is perfectly right or perfectly insightful or perfectly skeptical or perfectly reasonable. Pobody’s nerfect, as the hat says. And sometimes we become complacent in accepting a person’s thoughts or ideas as pure unvarnished truth, and need to be shaken out of it with a glimpse of their clay feet.

Being a luminary, being a role model, being a tireless advocate, being a hero, shouldn’t shield a person from criticism. It may mean that we give them a little more benefit of the doubt to explain or clarify, but even that isn’t inexhaustible.

What it does (and should) grant them is a group of people who care what they have to say enough to explain to them why they’re wrong.

Dear Skeptical Community,

I’ll keep this open letter brief, unlike most of my posts. Just three quick things, said entirely generally and not directed at anyone in particular, except, you know, the people I’m obliquely talking about.

  1. It’s all well and good to talk about being reflective and critically examining our beliefs and practices to determine whether or not they’re right and well-supported and rational. But it’s just empty words if you don’t follow through with it. As skeptics, we ought to be willing almost to the point of eagerness to be criticized, to be proven wrong with evidence, and to admit our mistakes, change, and move on. You can talk about the value of critical self-examination, but it’s worthless if you don’t actually do it.
  2. To the Don’t Be a Dick crowd: from what I’ve seen of the vast majority of you, we have a very strong disconnect regarding what it means to be a dick. I get it, Phil didn’t clarify, and so you were forced to read into his comments whatever you think is dickish behavior, and assume he was calling out the same kind of things you would in that position. Me, I think that Rorschach Test quality of his speech qualifies it for the recycling bin, but your mileage may vary. The one thing I’d caution, though: when avoiding being a dick, try not to be a douche.

    See, you have dicks, right? Dicks are pointy and kind of simple and not really much to look at. Dicks are often hard and unyielding, and they have a tendency to pop up at the most inopportune moments, and sometimes they overstay their welcome. Dicks sometimes go where they’re not wanted, and they often make a big mess. Some people really like dicks, and some people don’t, and that’s fine. Dicks are an acquired taste.

    But then you have douches. Douches go in most of the same places as dicks, but they tend to look very different. Douches are sleek and clean; they’re more flexible than dicks, and they’re a lot easier to handle. Douches smell better than dicks, and they say they just want to make everything better, to clean things up with their refreshing, summery demeanor. The problem with douches, though, is that they really aren’t adding anything. In fact, they’re generally pretty unnecessary. They thrive in large part because they’ve convinced a lot of people that they need douches, because everything has just gotten so dirty recently–mostly because of those awful dicks. Douches might look and smell nice, but ultimately they’re just cold, artificial plastic, and outside of their limited realm of actual necessity, they subsist on feelings of self-loathing and dirtiness that they’ve helped cultivate.

    In more specific terms, I don’t see how false politisse, passive-aggression, holier-than-thou moralizing, and hegemonic “ur doin it wrong” edicts are any less negative than the name-calling, screaming, and whatever else gets attached to the “dick” label. Whether or not you call them retarded, passive-aggressive bullshit like criticizing people in general terms and making veiled insults is at least as dickish as calling them out to their face and being forthright with your beef. Don keeps reminding me of this quote from “Hamlet”: “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” It’s true, and the veneer of polite discourse and moral high ground doesn’t turn passive-aggressive attacks into non-dick behavior.

    By the way, if you read between the lines there, you might have noticed that this “open letter” to a general-but-specific set of people falls under that description as well. So yes, this time, I’m intentionally being a dick. At least I’ll own up to it.

  3. Finally, I think this is the only reasonable response to the “Don’t Be” crowd–hereafter referred to as the DBs. It’s really amazing how apt this is:

Sincerely,
Tom

In which I piss on the ‘Dude’s rug

I’ve recently had a bit of a back-and-forth with the Skepdude that eventually spilled out onto Twitter. I started writing this post when it appeared that my last comment might languish in eternal moderation, but it has since shown up, so kudos to Skepdude for exceeding my pessimistic expectations. If this post hadn’t turned into a larger commentary before that bit posted, I might have deleted the whole thing. As it stands, I’ve used poor Skepdude as a springboard.

In any case, you can go ahead and read the relevant posts, then come back here and read my further commentary. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Back? Great. Here’s the further commentary.

I think this conversation touches on a few key points relevant to skeptical activism. The first is this trepidation regarding basic rhetoric. We tend to throw around “rhetoric” in a disparaging fashion, often in the context of “baseless rhetoric” or “empty rhetoric.” And those can be to the point, but I think we run the risk of forgetting that rhetoric is the art of argumentation, the set of tools and strategies available to craft convincing arguments.

We’ve heard a lot from skeptics and scientists in the past few years claiming to be communications experts and saying that skeptics and scientists need to communicate better; we’ve all seen and complained about debates and discussions where the rational types fail because they can’t argue or work a crowd as well as their irrational opponents. These are both, to some degree, failures of rhetoric. Scientists are trained to argue in arenas and fora where facts and evidence are the most important thing, and the only convincing thing. That’s great if you’re defending a dissertation or critiquing a journal article, but as we’ve seen time and time again, it doesn’t translate to success in debates outside the university. Kent Hovind and Ray Comfort and Deepak Chopra may be blinkered idiots without a fact between the three of them, which would mean death in a scientific arena, but in the arena of public discourse, it becomes a strength. Because when you have no facts to work with, you have to make sure that the rest of your techniques have enough glitz and flash to distract the audience from your lack of substance. Scientists ignore the style, knowing they have substance, unaware or naïve about audiences’ universal love for shiny things.

We in the skeptic community, such as it is, have spent a lot of time recently debating whether it’s better to use honey or vinegar; one lesson we should all take away from that, however, is that facts and logic are bland on their own. You need to dress them up with spices and sauces if you expect anyone to want to swallow them. If one of your goals is to convince human beings–not, say, robots or Vulcans–then you can’t rely on pure logic alone.

Moving back to Skepdude, he seems to be in two places in this argument. On one hand, he seems to think that we can ignore ethos and pathos, and argue on logos alone. Depending on his purpose, this may be enough. I don’t know what his goals are, in particular, but if he is content with arguing in such a way as to make his points clear and valid to any philosopher, scientist, or skeptic who happens to be reading them, then arguing with pure logic might be all he needs. Heck, he could break everything down and put it into those crazy modal logic proofs, and save himself a lot of typing.

But if he’s hoping to make his arguments convincing to a broader swath of people–and the amount of rhetorical questions and righteous anger in some of his other posts suggests that he is, and that he already knows this–then he’s going to need to slather those bland syllogisms in tasty pathos and savory ethos.

But here’s where I have the problem, and nowhere was it more apparent than in our Twitter conversation, while he elevates and venerates logic, he doesn’t understand a pretty basic principle of it, which is how fallacies–in particular, the ad hominem fallacy–work.

The whole post revolves around skeptics saying that Jenny McCarthy claims to oppose toxins yet uses Botox. Skepdude calls this an ad hominem fallacy. And I can see where it could be. Where he makes his mistake–and where most people who mistakenly accuse ad hominem make the mistake–is in failing to understand that ad hominem fallacies are all about the specific context. It’s true; if my only response to Jenny McCarthy’s anti-toxin arguments were “Yeah, well you put botox in your face, so who cares what you think,” I’d be dismissing her arguments fallaciously, by attacking her character–specifically, by suggesting that her actions invalidate her arguments.

But that doesn’t mean that any time I were to bring up McCarthy’s botox use would be fallacious. Let’s say I said, for instance, “You claim to be anti-toxin, yet you use botox; that suggests you’re a hypocrite, or that you don’t understand what toxins are.” Now, if I left it at that, it would still be fallacious; saying just that in response to her anti-vaccine arguments would be fallaciously dismissing them on the basis of her character.

Now, let’s imagine I said: “In fact, all the evidence demonstrates that the ‘toxins’ you insinuate are in vaccines are, in fact, present in non-toxic doses. Furthermore, the evidence shows that there is no link between vaccines and any autism spectrum disorder.” This bit addresses the substance of her argument, and does so using facts and evidence. If I further added “Also, you claim to be anti-toxin, yet you use botox; either you’re a hypocrite, or you don’t understand what toxins are,” I would most definitely be attacking her character, but it would not be fallacious because I wouldn’t be using it to dismiss her arguments.

The ad hominem fallacy requires that last part: in order for it to be fallacious, in order for it to render your argument invalid, you must be using the personal attack to dismiss your opponent’s arguments. Otherwise, it’s just a personal attack.

Skepdude disagrees:

This is what he linked to, by the way.

I replied:

And these were my links: 1 2 3.

And then I walked away from Twitter for a few hours, because I’m getting better at knowing when to end things.

And then I started writing this post, because I’m still not very good at it. I’d respond to the ‘Dude on Twitter, but I feel bad dredging up topics after several hours, and I know what I’m going to say won’t fit well in Tweets.

Anyway, the ‘Dude responded some more:

Oh, I’m so glad to have your permission. I would have tossed and turned all night otherwise.


Yes, you can infer what someone’s saying from their speech. I can even see some situations where the implication is strong enough to qualify as a logical fallacy–of course, the implication has to be an argument before it can be a fallacious one, and that’s a lot to hang on an implied concept–but that is, after all, the whole point of the Unstated Major Premise. However, (as I said in tweets) there’s a razor-thin line between inferring what an argument left unstated and creating a straw man argument that’s easier to knock down (because it contains a fallacy).

Skepdude even found a quote–in one of my links, no less!–that he thought supported this view:

He’s right, the ad hominem fallacy there doesn’t end with “therefore he’s wrong;” most ad hominem fallacies don’t. His point, however, isn’t as right, as a look at the full quote will demonstrate:

Argumentum ad hominem literally means “argument directed at the man”; there are two varieties.

The first is the abusive form. If you refuse to accept a statement, and justify your refusal by criticizing the person who made the statement, then you are guilty of abusive argumentum ad hominem. For example:

“You claim that atheists can be moral–yet I happen to know that you abandoned your wife and children.”

This is a fallacy because the truth of an assertion doesn’t depend on the virtues of the person asserting it.

Did you catch it? Here’s the relevant bit again: “If you refuse to accept a statement, and justify your refusal by criticizing the person who made the statement, then you are guilty of abusive argumentum ad hominem.” The point isn’t that the anti-atheist arguer attacked the atheist speaker to justify rejecting his argument.

So, once again, context is key. If, for instance, the atheist had argued “all atheists are moral,” the “you abandoned your wife and children” comment would be a totally valid counterargument. The key in the example given was that the anti-atheist respondent used his attack on the atheist arguer to dismiss their argument, in lieu of actually engaging that argument. A point which my other links, which went into greater detail, all made clear.

I’ll say it again: in order for it to be an ad hominem, the personal attack has to be directly used to dismiss the argument. Dismissing the argument on other grounds and employing a personal attack as an aside or to some other end is, by definition, not an ad hominem. You don’t have to take my word for it, either:

In reality, ad hominem is unrelated to sarcasm or personal abuse. Argumentum ad hominem is the logical fallacy of attempting to undermine a speaker’s argument by attacking the speaker instead of addressing the argument. The mere presence of a personal attack does not indicate ad hominem: the attack must be used for the purpose of undermining the argument, or otherwise the logical fallacy isn’t there. It is not a logical fallacy to attack someone; the fallacy comes from assuming that a personal attack is also necessarily an attack on that person’s arguments. (Source

For instance, ad hominem is one of the most frequently misidentified fallacies, probably because it is one of the best known ones. Many people seem to think that any personal criticism, attack, or insult counts as an ad hominem fallacy. Moreover, in some contexts the phrase “ad hominem” may refer to an ethical lapse, rather than a logical mistake, as it may be a violation of debate etiquette to engage in personalities. So, in addition to ignorance, there is also the possibility of equivocation on the meaning of “ad hominem”.

For instance, the charge of “ad hominem” is often raised during American political campaigns, but is seldom logically warranted. We vote for, elect, and are governed by politicians, not platforms; in fact, political platforms are primarily symbolic and seldom enacted. So, personal criticisms are logically relevant to deciding who to vote for. Of course, such criticisms may be logically relevant but factually mistaken, or wrong in some other non-logical way.
[…]
An Abusive Ad Hominem occurs when an attack on the character or other irrelevant personal qualities of the opposition—such as appearance—is offered as evidence against her position. Such attacks are often effective distractions (“red herrings”), because the opponent feels it necessary to defend herself, thus being distracted from the topic of the debate. (Source)

Gratuitous verbal abuse or “name-calling” itself is not an argumentum ad hominem or a logical fallacy. The fallacy only occurs if personal attacks are employed instead of an argument to devalue an argument by attacking the speaker, not personal insults in the middle of an otherwise sound argument or insults that stand alone.(Source)

And so on, ad infinitum.

To return to the original point, let’s say a skeptic has said “Jenny McCarthy speaks of dangerous ‘toxins’ in vaccines, yet she gets Botox shots, which include botulinum, one of the most toxic substances around, right on her face.” Removed from its context, we cannot infer what the arguer intended. I can see three basic scenarios:

  1. The skeptic has used the phrase as evidence to dismiss Jenny McCarthy’s arguments about “dangerous ‘toxins’ in vaccines,” and has thus committed an ad hominem fallacy.
  2. The skeptic has used the phrase as an aside, in addition to a valid counter-argument against her anti-vaccine claims. This would not be an ad hominem fallacy.
  3. The skeptic has used the phrase as evidence for a separate but relevant argument, such as discussing Jenny McCarthy’s credibility as a scientific authority, in addition to dismissing her arguments with valid responses. This would not be an ad hominem fallacy.

There are other permutations, I’m sure, but I think these are the likeliest ones, and only one out of the three is fallacious. Moreover, trying to infer such a fallacy into those latter two arguments would not be valid cause to dismiss them, but it would probably demonstrate a lack of reading comprehension or a predisposition to dismiss such arguments.

Let’s say I’ve just finished demolishing McCarthy’s usual anti-vax arguments, and then I say “She must not be very anti-toxin if she gets Botox treatments on a regular basis.” Would it be reasonable to infer that I meant to use that statement as fallacious evidence against her point? I think not. If I’ve already addressed her point with evidence and logic, how could you infer that my aside, which is evidence- and logic-free, was also meant to be used as evidence in the argument I’ve already finished debunking?

On the other hand, let’s say I’ve done the same, and then I say “plus, it’s clear that Jenny doesn’t actually understand how toxins work. Toxicity is all about the dose. She thinks that children are in danger from the miniscule doses of vaccine preservatives they receive in a typical vaccine regimen, and yet she gets botox treatments, which require far larger dosages of a far more potent toxin. If toxins worked the way she apparently thinks they do, she’d be dead several times over.” Same point used in service of a separate argument. Would it be reasonable to infer here that I meant the point to be used as evidence against her anti-vaccine claims? Obviously not.

The only case in which it would be reasonable to make that inference would be some variation of me using that claim specifically to dismiss her argument. Maybe I say it in isolation–“Obviously she’s wrong about toxins; after all, she uses botox”–maybe I say it along with other things–“Former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy says she’s anti-toxin, but uses botox. Sounds like a bigger mistake than picking her nose on national TV”–but those are fallacies only because I’m using the irrelevant personal attack to dismiss her argument.

So why have I put aside everything else I need to do on Sunday night to belabor this point? Well, I think that it’s a fine point, but one worth taking the time to understand. Skepdude’s argument is sloppy; he doesn’t seem to understand the fine distinctions between fallacious ad hominem and stand-alone personal attacks or valid ethical arguments, and so he’s advocating that skeptics stop using arguments that could potentially be mistaken for ad hominem fallacies. That way he–and the rest of us–could keep on being sloppy in our understanding and accusations of fallacies and not have to worry about facing any consequences for that sloppiness.

I can’t help but be reminded of my brother. When he was a kid, he did a crappy job mowing the lawn, and would get chewed out for it. He could have taken a little more time and effort to learn how to do it right–heck, I offered to teach him–but he didn’t. Rather, by doing it sloppily, he ensured that he’d only be asked to do it as a last resort; either Dad or I would take care of it, because we’d rather see it done right. He didn’t have to learn how to do a good job because doing a crappy job meant he could avoid doing the job altogether. By avoiding the job altogether, he avoided the criticism and consequences as well.

The problem, of course, is that the people who actually knew what they were doing had to pick up the slack.

This is the issue with Skepdude’s argument here, and I think it’s a point worth making. I disagree with those people who want to make skepticism into some academic discipline where everything is SRS BZNS, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think we shouldn’t have some reasonable standards. Argumentation is a discipline and an art. It takes work, it takes research and effort, and it requires you to understand some very subtle points. It’s often hard to distinguish a fallacious argument from a valid one, especially in some of the common skeptical topics, since some of the woo-woo crowd have become quite adept at obfuscating their fallacies. It’s not enough to get a general idea and move on; logic and science require clarity and specificity from both terms and arguments. “Ad hominem fallacy” means a certain, very particular thing, and it’s not enough to get a general idea and figure that it’s close enough. If you know what the fallacies actually are and you structure your arguments and your rhetoric in ways that are sound and effective, then you don’t need to worry about people mistaking some bit of your writing for some logical fallacy. You get to say, “no, in fact, that’s not a fallacy, but I could see where you might make that mistake. Here’s why…” When you do the job right, when your arguments are valid and stand on their own, then you don’t need to fear criticism and accusation. Isn’t that what we tell every psychic, homeopath, and theist who claims to have the truth on their side? “If your beliefs are true, then you have nothing to fear from scientific inquiry/the Million Dollar Challenge/reasonable questions”? Why wouldn’t we require the same standard from our own points and arguments?

Skepdude, I apologize for making this lengthy, snarky reply. I generally agree with you, and I obviously wouldn’t follow you on Twitter if I didn’t generally like what you have to say. But on this point, which I think is important, I think you’re clearly wrong, and I think it’s important to correct. Feel free to respond here or in the comments at your post; I obviously can’t carry out this kind of discussion on Twitter.

The R Word

The term “mentally retarded” was coined around 1895. Eventually it became the preferred euphemism to refer to people with various developmental and cognitive disabilities. It was used to replace the then-current clinical terms, which had gained wide use in the general culture as pejoratives. Those earlier terms? “Moron,” “idiot,” and “imbecile.”

Today, “retarded” is joining those terms, and for the same reason, called the euphemism treadmill. We have something that is perceived negatively by the general public, and so we develop terms to describe it. Those terms eventually take on connotations that denote the generally negative feelings, and so we develop new terms which lack those connotations, and the cycle begins anew.

And so we have it that “moron,” once a neutral term, is now a common epithet. “Cripple” gave way to “handicapped” gave way to “disabled” gave way to “differently abled,” as each new euphemism took on the negative connotations that caused the rejection of the previous ones.

I can understand the people on any given side of this issue. There are those clinicians and others trying to develop new terms so as to stay ahead of the pejoration of the previous terms, and that’s fairly necessary in writing academic, judgmentally-neutral papers and reports. There are those who try to reclaim old terms, using them as points of pride or power, which has some limited success. The problem is that words then come to carry two related sets of connotations: when Dan Savage calls one of his writers a “fag,” the result is very different from when a bully does the same thing to a kid on the playground. So the word–at least for a time–becomes taboo for some, or in some contexts, but not always, and that really slows down the “reclaiming,” which is (at least in part) an attempt to strip the word of the oppressive power it has from being taboo. There are those who develop new, more positive euphemisms, which are often subject to even quicker pejoration due to their transparent purpose and their use sardonically–for instance, terms like “handicapable” and the use of the word “special” to refer to those with mental disabilities quickly became dismissively pejorative themselves–to the point where a phrase like “She’s special” can have two very different meanings depending on my tone. This can also create terms with other problems; “African-American” was coined as a euphemism to replace “black,” but the consensus seems to be settling on the latter term, since it is more accurate than the term which suggests that many natural-born citizens are originally from Africa. I suspect this is also a part of why the term “people of color” has experienced some resurgence, probably to replace “ethnic.”

And then there are those who try to bring clinical terms into common use, using them to escape the same pejoration as the clinicians, but ultimately starting the cycle up again.

There are some ways to hinder this, I suppose. The more lengthy and multisyllabic and technical a term is, the harder (I think) it becomes to make it into a pejorative. A current preferred term like “developmentally delayed” is unlikely to become a playground insult, but it may still gather that pejorative baggage. Especially since “retard (v.)” means “to delay.” Using a synonym has the obvious danger of making the terms synonymous.

The problem with all of these positions–developing new euphemisms, reclaiming old ones, etc.–is twofold. First, language is a tricksy thing, evolving in a very similar way to the way organisms do. It’s possible with either to exert some selection pressure, but it’s not entirely clear how language will respond to those pressures. For instance, the term “gay” originally meant “happy” or “carefree,” and gradually adopted sexual connotations (“carefree” turning to “uninhibited.” It became somewhat linked to homosexuality during the life of Oscar Wilde, and became the preferred term by homosexuals during the 20th Century. “Gay” was subtle enough to go under the radar for quite some time, positive, and a better alternative than the more obviously pejorative terms like “queer.” And I’d say it was pretty successfully reclaimed, becoming a point of pride, with the homosexual connotation completely eclipsing the original meaning, and even the more pejorative “sexually uninhibited” connotations of the late 19th century.

But in the hands of schoolchildren, it has become synonymous with “lame” or “stupid,” due to its association with the perceived negative of homosexuality. “Gay” as a term is now on its second cycle of pejoration.

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t try to reclaim words or exercise some control over what words mean and how language changes. I would only caution such people that such change is slow and unpredictable at best, and in many cases eventually leads to new problems analogous to the ones that you’re trying to solve.

Which brings us to the second prong of the problem: by exerting influence over language: it’s only addressing a symptom of the real problem. The issue of pejoration will occur and the euphemism treadmill will keep spinning until we correct the root of the problem: the social attitude that holds some people to be generally negative or inferior. The reason that we’ve seen the same thing happen to “retarded” that once happened to “moron” isn’t because the words themselves have some kind of power, it’s because people consciously or unconsciously see the developmentally delayed and disabled as less than people. Until people become so familiarized and accepting of their fellow humans with developmental disorders that they no longer see the difference as negative, the cycle will continue.

Attacking and altering the language we use is a necessary step in these kinds of situations; Richard Dawkins talks about how feminists’ insistence on gender-neutral terminology was a key component of the consciousness-raising aspects of the women’s rights movement. But I think people have a twin tendency to focus on the words more than the attitudes behind them, and to (consciously or unconsciously) blame the problem on the words we use. This ends up making the words taboo, which gives them a power to offend, which only really perpetuates the problem of the connotations which made them taboo in the first place.

In order to combat prejudice, fear, and hate, you can’t stop at correcting the language of the prejudiced, fearful, and hate-filled. That only creates a class of words that are associated with prejudice and starts off a new set of words down the same path. You have to correct the attitudes alongside the language if you want any kind of lasting change.

I’d like to see a world where we don’t ascribe greater power to particular arrangements of letters than others, where we don’t use descriptions of differences between individuals as pejorative terms, and where we all accept each other as equals because of those individual differences. I’d like to buy that world a Coke.

Until then, I suppose we’ll all keep running on this treadmill, naïvely believing that we’re making progress.