All it will take is a simple, painless test.
Jeez, we’re getting desperate, I think.
All it will take is a simple, painless test.
Jeez, we’re getting desperate, I think.
I just finalized the schedule for my third course this term (Biological Communications, an independent study/writing course) and contacted the four students taking it from me. I’m prepared for my first lecture at 8am tomorrow, mostly ready for my second, and I have the student assignments all laid out and ready to go. I think I know what I’m doing.
Deep breaths. Deep breaths.
I’ll post the answer in a little bit.
You guys got it right away.
Aren’t fish cool?
From this remarkable collection of photos of the Selma-to-Montgomery march:
Here are the people marching for dignity and respect and equality.
Here are some of the white hecklers lined up alongside that march, jeering at the people fighting for social justice.
Nothing has changed from 1965 to 2017, except that the hecklers are now mocking those goals online.
Be like the marchers in Selma. Don’t be like the hecklers.
The other day, when I was doing some online shopping, an ad popped up for a clip-on microscope for my phone. I thought, “I’m a professional microscopist! I should have a microscope I can carry around in my pocket!” and on a whim, I ordered it. It was only $8, so what the hey.
My dream has not yet been accomplished, I’m sad to report.
First sign of trouble: It claims 60-100x magnification, and looking inside, there’s a cheap plasticky looking lens set well back inside — it’s got maybe a 30mm focal length. Nope, that’s not going to work. I haven’t even tried it yet and I’m doubtful.
Next step is to attach it to your phone, which is really, really easy, using a big clip to clamp it to the camera lens. Except that the clamp is not very solid, and your phone is going to be hanging off to the side. It won’t stay clamped for long. You also just have to eyeball the positioning, since there’s nothing to lock it in alignment with the phone camera lens. Aligning it is a constant struggle. The clamp can’t even hold the phone in place, it certainly won’t hold it in alignment. If you’re lucky enough to get a picture, be prepared for uncontrollable wobbly vignetting.
The next problem: there are a couple of crude, hard to work knobs on the side. One is for magnification: forget it. Set it to the lowest mag, “60x”, and just leave it there. The other is the focus knob, which is also clumsy and hard to turn. Now imagine juggling a loosely held phone clipped to the side of this thing, you’re trying to hold it steady because any wobble will shift the camera lens away from the “microscope”, and you’ll understand that this is a frustrating exercise in imppossibly precise coordination.
So I got it together, pulled out a couple of prepared, stained slides of chick embryo sections, about the easiest targets possible, and tried to take a picture. Nooooope. I briefly saw a few images wander by, afflicted with ghastly spherical and chromatic aberration, but if I moved a finger to click a picture, they’d wander off again. I thought briefly about making it work with a couple of ringstands and some clamps, but realized that the agglomeration would be bigger than my dissecting scope and produce crappier pictures, so there was no point.
Caveat emptor. You get what you pay for. Sometimes less than what you pay for.
Sunday Funny: Resolution (via PhD)
Awesome Sauce Music Friday: Saudi Women Kick Ass and Take Names
Watch these Saudi women sing and dance for women’s rights.
Russell’s Teapot Helps Filter Bullshit
It’s time to re-introduce some classical ideas on how to teach critical thinking.
Take Your Broken Heart, Make it into Art
Keep making art, regardless of how bad things get under Trump.
Featured image credit: ms.akr via Flickr
“Morocco has banned the sale, production and import of the burka, according to local reports.”
“Tencent, China’s largest internet company, has apologised after terrible inappropriate videos from its annual party went viral. The six-second video showed female employees on their knees, attempting to use their mouths to unscrew the caps off bottles gripped between male coworkers’ thighs.”
SWITZERLAND (From Critical Dragon)
“A European court has made their decision on allowing Muslim students to opt out of swim classes in Switzerland.” (Video)
“In a country in which same-sex sexual activity is illegal and LGBT rights do not exist, a sketch by a Nigerian comedian depicting a gay man who is about to be sexually assaulted has sparked a heated debate.”
“An Italian model risks losing her sight and will have to undergo intense plastic surgery after acid was thrown in her face, allegedly by her jilted boyfriend, in a revenge attack that has shocked the country.”
“A bill to decriminalise some forms of domestic violence has passed its first reading in Russia’s Duma, sparking anger among women’s rights advocates.”
“A yoga teacher in Russia has been charged with illegal missionary activity under a controversial new law designed to fight terrorism.”
“Former refugee Ahmed Hussen takes over immigration ministry. Hussen came to Canada from war-torn Somalia when he was 16, and now takes over immigration and refugee file for Justin Trudeau.”
Featrued image by Juan Luis Naranjo, (CC)
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Dr. Daniel Niedes, director and CEO of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, recently published an anti-vaccine screed on Cleveland.com, causing doctors and fans of science-based medicine everywhere to wonder “How the fuck did this guy get that job, and why does he still have it?”
Niedes’s post, which was focused on ridding your body of “toxins” for the new year, is maybe the stupidest article of 2017, and we’re only halfway through January. He whines that there are “over 80,000 chemicals used in various industries country-wide” and “over 2,000 new chemicals being introduced annually.” Holy crap! 80,000 chemicals? Used in various industries?? That’s….I don’t know, is that bad? I hope Niedes doesn’t learn that humans of discovered or created more than 50 million chemicals, and that a new one is made every 2.6 seconds. Or that his entire body is made of chemicals, or that a chemical comes out of his faucet every time he turns on the tap.
Then he starts in on vaccines and autism. He writes, “Does the vaccine burden – as has been debated for years – cause autism? I don’t know and will not debate that here.” That’s a funny thing to say, seeing as he titled that section “Link to autism?” and then goes on to say that vaccines come “at the expense of neurologic diseases like autism and ADHD increasing at alarming rates.” Boy, it sure sounds like you know vaccines cause autism and you’re more than willing to debate it here.
Then he refers to doctors and scientists who have studied the issue and found absolutely no evidence of any link between vaccines and autism as “deniers.” Yep, no bias here.
What’s most surprising about the director of a top research hospital advocating complete nonsense is that it shouldn’t really be that surprising. The Cleveland Clinic has joined dozens of other respected institutions in offering bullshit “treatments” like homeopathy (literally just sugar pills with no active ingredients) and reiki (literally just waving your hands over a body part in the hopes that it will feel better).
We’ve been letting medical care providers get away with this for years. Our pharmacies sell sugar pills right next to real medicine and don’t educate consumers about the difference. Our insurance providers cover trips to the acupuncturist and chiropractor. And yes, our hospitals offer nonsense that’s just as likely to make people sicker as make them better, all because all of these groups see people not as patients but as consumers, and consumers must be given what they want so that you can get their money. “Alt-med” is big business, and as long as people are willing to pay top dollar for bullshit, hospitals and doctors and pharmacies will sell it to them.
The only hope may be in government oversight. I already mentioned the FTC recently cracking down on homeopathic warning labels — those are warning labels for homeopathic pills, not warning labels that are so small they aren’t even there, which is the type that Big Alt-Med prefers, of course — so maybe in the future the US government could establish better standards for treatment at hospitals. I’m skeptical that that future is at all nearby, but it’s a slim hope, at least. A nearly homeopathic hope.
The following article is by Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journo who generously states in a postscript that he allows this to be reposted and shared. We feel it’s important and timely and, frankly, excellent advice at this shattering and crucial moment in American politics, events that are being scrutinized with much trepidation on the world stage. This piece is not tongue-in-cheek; it is real advice from someone who has worked at pressers under Vladimir Putin. The story was originally posted by Mr. Kovalev here and we’re grateful to share it with you. Thanks to Amy Davis Roth for finding this.
Congratulations, US media! You’ve just covered your first press conference of an authoritarian leader with a massive ego and a deep disdain for your trade and everything you hold dear. We in Russia have been doing it for 12 years now—with a short hiatus when our leader wasn’t technically our leader—so quite a few things during Donald Trump’s press conference rang my bells. Not just mine, in fact?—?read this excellent round-up in The Moscow Times.
Vladimir Putin’s annual pressers are supposed to be the media event of the year. They are normally held in late December, around Western Christmas time (we Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas two weeks later and it’s not a big deal, unlike New Year’s Eve). Which probably explains why Putin’s pressers don’t get much coverage outside of Russia, except in a relatively narrow niche of Russia-watchers. Putin’s pressers are televised live across all Russian TV channels, attended by all kinds of media—federal news agencies, small local publications and foreign reporters based in Moscow—and are supposed to overshadow every other event in Russia or abroad.
These things are carefully choreographed, typically last no less than four hours, and Putin always comes off as an omniscient and benevolent leader tending to a flock of unruly but adoring children. Given that Putin is probably a role model for Trump, it’s no surprise that he’s apparently taking a page from Putin’s playbook. I have some observations to share with my American colleagues. You’re in this for at least another four years, and you’ll be dealing with things Russian journalists have endured for almost two decades now. I’m talking about Putin here, but see if you can apply any of the below to your own leader.
• Welcome to the era of bullshit.
Facts don’t matter. You can’t hurt this man with facts or reason. He’ll always outmaneuver you. He’ll always wriggle out of whatever carefully crafted verbal trap you lay for him. Whatever he says, you won’t be able to challenge him. He always comes with a bag of meaningless factoids (Putin likes to drown questions he doesn’t like in dull, unverifiable stats, figures and percentages), platitudes, false moral equivalences and straight, undiluted bullshit. He knows it’s a one-way communication, not an interview. You can’t follow up on your questions or challenge him. So he can throw whatever he wants at you in response, and you’ll just have to swallow it. Some journalists will try to preempt this by asking two questions at once, against the protests of their colleagues also vying for attention, but that also won’t work: he’ll answer the one he thinks is easier, and ignore the other. Others will use this opportunity to go on a long, rambling statement vaguely disguised as a question, but that’s also bad tactics. Non-questions invite non-answers. He’ll mock you for your nervous stuttering and if you’re raising a serious issue, respond with a vague, non-committal statement (“Mr President, what about these horrible human rights abuses in our country?” “Thank you, Miss. This is indeed a very serious issue. Everybody must respect the law. And by the way, don’t human rights abuses happen in other countries as well? Next question please”).
But your colleagues are there to help you, right? After all, you’re all in this together?
• Don’t expect any camaraderie
These people are not your partners or brothers in arms. They are your rivals in a fiercely competitive, crashing market and right now the only currency in this market is whatever that man on the stage says. Whoever is lucky to ask a question and be the first to transmit the answer to the outside world wins. Don’t expect any solidarity or support from them. If your question is stonewalled/mocked down/ignored, don’t expect a rival publication to pick up the banner and follow up on your behalf. It’s in this man’s best interests to pit you against each other, fighting over artificial scarcities like room space, mic time or, of course, his attention. It’s getting especially absurd because some—increasingly many—reporters will now come with large, bright placards aimed at attracting the president’s attention to names of their regions or specific issues. This is what it looks like:
Also, some people in the room aren’t really there to ask questions.
• Expect a lot of sycophancy and soft balls from your “colleagues”
A mainstay of Putin’s press conferences is, of course, softball questions. Which also happen to be Putin’s favorites. Mr President, is there love in your heart? Who you will be celebrating New Year’s Eve with? What’s your favorite food? “Questions” of this sort, sure to melt Putin’s heart, typically come from women working for small regional publications. A subtype of this is also statements-as-questions, but from people who really love the man on the stage and will bob their head and look at the stage adoringly and say something to the tune of “Mr President, do you agree that a lot of media are treating you unfairly?”
Another type of softball questions is hyperlocal issues that a president isn’t even supposed to be dealing with. Mr President, our road is full of potholes and local authorities aren’t doing anything about it. Mr President, our tap is leaking. Mr President, how about a chess club in our village. This is a real opportunity for him to shine. He will scold the local authorities and order to have a new road built. All of this, of course, has been choreographed well in advance.
Also, some of these people really love him and will meet his every answer with enthusiastic applause. There will be people from publications that exist for no other reason than heaping fawning praise on him and attacking his enemies. But there will also be one token critic who will be allowed to ask a “sharp” question, only to be drowned in a copious amount of bullshit, and the man on the stage will always be the winner (“See? I respect the media and free speech”).
• You’re always losing
This man owns you. He understands perfectly well that he is the news. You can’t ignore him. You’re always playing by his rules—which he can change at any time without any notice. You can’t—in Putin’s case—campaign to vote him out of office. Your readership is dwindling because ad budgets are shrinking—while his ratings are soaring, and if you want to keep your publication afloat, you’ll have to report on everything that man says as soon as he says it, without any analysis or fact-checking, because 1) his fans will not care if he lies to their faces; 2) while you’re busy picking his lies apart, he’ll spit out another mountain of bullshit and you’ll be buried under it.
I could go on and on, but I think at this point you see where this is heading. See if any of this rings any bells if you covered Trump’s presser or watched it online.
P.S. You’re welcome to repost/reblog/republish this if you like.
My name is Alexey Kovalev, I’m a Russian journalist and I’m writing about propaganda, fake news and Russian state media on noodleremover.news. It’s all in Russian, but here’s an example of what I’m doing in English. You can contact me at email@example.com. I tweet as @Alexey__Kovalev.
The featured image is an excerpt from an picture used in Mr. Kovalev’s original post. The caption is “Vladimir Putin’s annual news conference, Dec 23, 2016 / kremlin.ru”. The photos in the story are also in Mr. Kovalev’s post.
Last month, I was reading an article written by (or at least attributed to) the Canadian columnist Margaret Wente entitled “The radicals have taken over: Academic extremism comes to Canada.” It’s a fairly standard take down of campus anti-racist, feminist and pro-LGBTQ politics, but I was interested in how it conflated all that with Marxism and how it suggested that this is a new phenomenon. This got me thinking: maybe the reason why we such see such panic over “P.C. culture” (or whatever you want to call it) is because we have lost touch with the history of campus activism. This, in turn, leads to a poor vocabulary when it comes to criticizing contemporary student radicals (something that I myself very rarely feel the urge to do, but many columnists make their living off of it). In the interests of getting both supporters and critics on the same page, and in the spirit of encouraging dialogue, here (in no particular order) are some books (and one movie) that are worth reading (and watching) for their nuanced looks at campus activism.
Hanif Kureishi, The Black Album (1995)
Like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a book that plays a huge role in Kureishi’s novel, this story is about Muslim newcomers to Britain torn between Britain’s secular culture and the desire to retain a unique identity through religion. The protagonist’s fixation with a charismatic but increasingly extreme Muslim leader (who is genuinely helpful to his flock) will probably confound and irritate most secular readers. Despite this—actually, because of this—it is an eye-opening account of “identity politics” in a working-class London college in the eighties. My favourite character is the hard-left, secular, professor who is unable to stand up for himself in his career and personal life, and ends up enabling the worst instincts of the charismatic religious leader. The novel takes for granted that Thatcher is bad and that drugs are good (at least in moderation), and is clearly targeted at the Left. But the Left may not always like what it has to say!
Thomas Pynchon, Vineland (1990)
This book wasn’t what I thought it would be about. But though I was disappointed not to find a story about North American Vikings, I was pleasantly surprised to find what feels like the novelization of the movie that would have resulted if Quentin Tarantino directed The Big Lebowski. We begin with the lovable stoner Zoyd Wheeler, trying to do right by his daughter Prairie, who looks at her father with the chagrin that many 80s teenagers must have looked at former hippies. But when anti-drug agents virtually invade the pleasant town of Vineland, California, Zoyd and Prairie are forced to separate and flee. During her flight, Prairie learns about her mother’s history in a drug-fueled hippy takeover of a university, and how it led to the Reaganite conquest of Vineland decades later. The youth of today would do well to learn about Prairie’s family, too, not in the least because it does not hesitate to skewer all sides, does not offer any illusory solutions, and yet does not skimp on compassion. Plus, a Ninja Death Touch plays a key role.
J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (1961)
This book is actually a short story and a novella. The novella addresses what happened in the short story. That story is Franny’s. Franny is a sharp undergrad who, like Holden Caulfield before her, is sick and tired of society’s phonies. She condemns the materialistic status-seekers among her and recognizes that the backlash offered by “bohemians” (“hippy” being a concept still in its infancy in 1961) is just another form of conformity. She has a nervous breakdown during the weekend of a big college game, scares away her boyfriend, and goes back home to recuperate. In the novella that follows we learn that she has turned to religion, clutching an unorthodox Christian book and reciting its mysterious prayer under her breath. Much of the rest of the book is her more world-weary brother Zooey giving some advice. That doesn’t sound very exciting (or feminist!), but Zooey’s point is worth reading. Zooey is sympathetic to Franny’s anti-phony stance, but is concerned that her obsession with the prayer is bordering on a sort of extremism. His advice, put simply, is that nobody is perfect, and using esoteric knowledge against other people is dangerous.
Although the themes are more spiritual than political, Franny believing herself to be alone in seeing the evils of the world does remind me of the myopia of the worst activists (the ones who never fail to get written about in the conservative press). If we translate Zooey’s message to activism, we get a call for a politics that is less ideologically rigid, but more engaged, if patient. Reading Franny and Zooey, I couldn’t avoid thinking that it hasn’t aged a day. Except chain-smoking is way down. Progress!
Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)
The protagonists of this famous novel by Eco (one of 2016’s many celebrity victims—R.I.P.) are publishers who specialize in books about the occult and conspiracy theories. However, just as Cosmo Kramer turned his book on coffee tables into a coffee table itself, so these publishers devise their own conspiracy while producing books about conspiracies. So what’s the connection to the academic left? Well, the publishers are veterans of 70s student activism, and it continues to haunt them in various ways. It’s not hard to see that there is a connection between the wide-eyed conspiracists and the often-overzealous activists who are quick to label acquaintances rightists and fascists. Whether bourgeois occultist, student radical, or anything else, we all face the danger of getting too caught up in our own prejudices.
Gilbert Adair (Writer) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Director), The Dreamers (2003)
This film is set during the 1968 Paris student riots—one of the most significant events in Western student activism. The story is about a young French brother and sister who take an American exchange student, and fellow film buff, under their wing. He stays with them in their apartment when their parents go on a trip. The three spend their days mooching off said parents while watching films, having sex, talking left politics, and not going to school. The American is softer and certainly more inclined to pacifism than the siblings, and ultimately, this is the wedge between the three of them. The siblings join the riots, but the American falls back, wary of the violence. Are the siblings finally taking a step towards maturity and doing something with their lives, or is participating in the most violent aspects of the riots an extension of their decadence?
Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
Although phrases like “The definitive account of the hippies” are thrown around describing this nonfiction book, it’s specifically about Ken Kesey, a famous novelist in his own right, and (what can only be described as) his followers. Wolfe recounts the adventures of “The Merry Pranksters” as they travel the United States documenting their own antics, which frequently involves the consumption and distribution of LSD. They certainly are hippies but they have no connection to academia, and so they might be an odd choice for this list. But I want to include this book because of one scene in particular. Kesey gets invited to speak at an anti-Vietnam War protest on a university campus. But instead of giving a speech, he gives a sort of performance that mocks the sincerity and the (to Kesey’s eyes) ideological rigidity of the protestors. He saps the enthusiasm of the meeting and the subsequent march suffers as a result.
What to make of this? The most obvious interpretation is that Kesey is acting like an irresponsible acidhead. More generously: Kesey in this scene reminds me of left-of-center writers who attack campus activism with dismissive contempt, while still remaining on the left (at least a little bit). If so, the question becomes, does he have a point? Probably not, but it does make me wonder what Jonathan Chait would be like on acid.
Nancy Huston, Nord Perdu suivi de Douze France (1999)
Huston’s Nord Perdu (Lost North) is a delightful exploration of Canadian identity (or the lack thereof), but I actually want to restrict my thoughts to one of the “Douze France” (Twelve thoughts on France, basically). Huston, an anglophone Canadian, writes about joining the student community in France and being surprised that everyone has a political identity to which they firmly, yet casually, adhere. Huston would meet fellow students in a bar who would say something along the lines of (I paraphrase from memory) “Gaston here, he is Marxist-Leninist, and this is Phillipe; he is Trots.” In other words, specific political identity is part of the social culture of the students. But the political identities do not cause social disruption among the students—they take the place soccer team loyalties might in another social circle.
A cynic might say that political identities playing such a casual role drains them of their revolutionary potential. But I think the essay is a reminder that subcultures form their own logic, and what might seem like extremism to an outsider has a more banal meaning to an insider.
Hugh MacLennan, The Watch that Ends the Night (1958)
Okay, admittedly the academic setting, while very present, is not crucial to the story. Nonetheless, it’s a sympathetic examination of how leftist activism intersects with personal drama, love, and career. So many actions committed under the guise of activism (of all stripes, including skepticism) actually have personal motivations. An activist might want more social standing among their colleagues, or might be working out negative feelings over a breakup through a protest. One character in this novel is particularly naive on this point, believing that he can get away with pure activism while ignoring the social consequences his actions have on those close to him. And yet, this character’s courage and determination has a lot to teach the other characters in their heavy personal struggles.
Now, these books mostly concern students protesting war and unjust economic conditions, not the feminist and anti-racist politics that infuriate so many commentators today. Many critics would probably point to the 60s and 70s as a time when protestors were engaged with “real” issues, unlike the “special snowflake” generation. To these hypothetical critics I would say three things. First, get your head out of your asses, you jerkwads. Second, that distinction is lost on many other critics, such as Wente, cited above. Third, what we can learn about the successes and mistakes of previous generations is still applicable today.
Another possible objection: these books are just some I happened across and read, and fairly recently at that. As such, the list is pretty arbitrary. It’s also admittedly dude-centric. What else makes good reading on campus activism? Let me know in the comments!
Recently on social media, I posted this Slate article by Sam Kriss criticising Eric Garland’s popular “Game Theory” tweetstorm, which has been shared widely by those on the left who continue to feel shaken and demoralised by the results of the recent US presidential election. I generally try to avoid making too many political posts on Facebook, but I felt compelled to share Kriss’s article primarily because it succinctly lays out many of the same criticisms that came to my mind as I finally got around to reading the half-baked, meandering, 127-tweet thread after seeing it shared by many friends and colleagues. Like Kriss, I was and remain troubled to see so many people I respect and admire eagerly latch onto an obvious conspiracy theory simply because it apparently offers some kind of political catharsis.
And it is a transparent conspiracy theory. Glenn Greenwald is a Russian agent? It’s suspicious that he lives in Brazil? What a traitor, making a life in the country that legally recognised his marriage as opposed to the one that would deny his partner residency.
But I digress.
Not long after I posted the article, a colleague of mine posted to disagree with Kriss’s criticism. Oddly, however, the point she wanted to contest was almost entirely peripheral to his argument. Toward the end of the article, Kriss writes as a background statement that “[d]ecades of neoliberal policy disenfranchised people to the extent that Donald Trump could look like a savior.”
Knowing this colleague to be an avid Clinton fan (way back to the primaries), I couldn’t figure out why she disagreed with that particular statement. It was only later in the conversation that I realised that my colleague was not familiar with the common meaning of “neoliberal.” Having taken it to mean the same thing as “liberal,” she ended up viewing the whole piece as criticism from the right rather than from the left.
Julia Galef recently observed on Facebook that political discussions seem to be prone to an unusually high level of misunderstandings. She attributes it in part to the high number of bad arguments in political discourse affecting our expectations to the extent that we resolve ambiguities in ways that conform to the bad arguments we have seen rather than the arguments actually being made. I think this is true, and I think the problem is exacerbated by the use of terminology that easily lends itself to misunderstanding by having multiple, sometimes contradictory, meanings. The word “liberal” is a good example, meaning as it does different things in different political cultures: it can refer to the Classical liberalism of anyone from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill, to the American left-liberalism of FDR or LBJ, or the current neoliberal orthodoxy of globalised market capitalism. Not to mention that outside politics can refer to both liberal education and the liberal arts, or even a liberal pinch of salt.
This recent Atlantic article by Conor Friedersdorf discusses a similar problem in the use of the term “white supremacy,” which has both a conventional meaning used by the general public and a technical meaning used primarily by academics and activists. As the article shows, these two distinct meanings can lead not only to confusion, but also to criticism and disagreement in which the two sides talk past one another due to fundamental misunderstanding of each other’s arguments.
The conventional/technical dichotomy of meaning exists throughout social justice language (e.g. privilege), since many SJ terms originated in an academic discourse that seems to positively delight in coming up with new technical definitions for familiar vocabulary. These kinds of words, along with technical jargon, from the twin pillars of Academic Obscurantism: the oft-criticised and frequently parodied tendency of scholars to write impenetrable, inaccessible prose, presumably because it makes their arguments sound more sophisticated and profound.
I have long been an advocate for the use of plain language in scholarship, by which I mean actively avoiding the use of jargon, technical redefinitions of common words, and unnecessarily complex or convoluted syntax whenever possible. I use the word “active” here for a reason: a commitment to plain language requires effort. As we become increasingly familiar with certain kinds of discourse, it becomes increasingly easy to forget what it is like to be an outsider to that discourse or to the community that uses it. As a consequence, we can end up writing or saying things whose meaning seems perfectly obvious to us, but are nonetheless either impenetrable or prone to misunderstanding by an audience without the same background knowledge. Working against this tendency requires care and vigilance, but the effort is worthwhile: not only does the use of plain language help to reduce misunderstanding and democratise knowledge, but I also find it helpful in clarifying my own thoughts and ensuring that there are no weak points in my arguments that might otherwise be hidden in the mist.
Of the two pillars of obscurantism, I definitely think that multivalent (or polysemic) words of the conventional/technical type pose the greatest risk for misunderstanding. Technical jargon and other terms of art may hinder accessibility, but this is a problem that is for the most part easily solved with a dictionary or a Google search. The problem with conventional/technical multivalent terms is that they are familiar, and so they can be misunderstood without any awareness or evidence that a misunderstanding has taken place. Both the speaker and the listener find their different interpretations of the utterance to be perfectly clear and obvious.
Polysemic words don’t even require a second person to cause confusion: this is what philosophers and fallacy enthusiasts call equivocation. Equivocation is what happens when someone argues, for example, that feathers can’t be dark because they are light. While pretty much anyone can see the problem with that argument (because the two definitions of “light” are so different), equivocation becomes harder to see–and therefore more of a problem–as the multiple definitions approach one another in meaning. That’s how we get to “if murder is defined as killing a human, and a fetus is human, then abortion is murder.”
In addition to being prone to misunderstanding, polysemic terms also require vigilance because of their potential for abuse. Deliberate equivocation can be employed as part of a rhetorical bait-and-switch, a practice sometimes called the motte-and-bailey doctrine after the medieval castle design. A medieval motte and bailey was basically a well fortified stone or wooden keep (the motte) set within a larger, less fortified courtyard (the bailey). In the event of an attack, defenders would retreat from the bailey into the the motte, because it was easier to defend. Analogously, a person using the motte-and-bailey doctrine will make a broad or controversial claim using one meaning of a term, but upon receiving criticism will “retreat” to a narrower or less controversial argument employing a different meaning of the term.
This is the kind of argument creationists and certain kinds of theologians are making when they say “God created the universe” (by which they mean the God of the Bible), but then once confronted with scientific evidence retreat to a narrower definition of God as a “prime mover” or something even more vague. It’s also the kind of argument “dictionary atheists” are making when they claim that contemporary Atheism is not a belief system, worldview, or set of values, and refers only to a lack of belief in gods.
The particular danger in using polysemic terms in a politically or emotionally charged context is that when equivocation occurs it can be very difficult to tell whether that equivocation was an unintentional error in logic or a deliberate attempt to mislead via the motte-and-bailey doctrine. This is exacerbated by the fact that in those kinds of contexts the principle of charity is very unlikely to be invoked and ideological opponents are already primed to expect bad or misleading arguments. What started out as an error or miscommunication can therefore easily spiral into accusations of mendacity, bad faith, or worse.
I’d like to close this post with a short list of best practices for communication and argument that I try my best to follow, and that I hope others will try to follow as well. Obviously not everyone in the world is equally amenable to the idea of persuasion through careful, constructive debate, but for those who are:
For the first time, more women than men are enrolled in U.S. law schools.
“I fit in neither place”: research on first-generation college students.
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I’m planning a series of posts on evaluating sources, especially after the recent Stanford study, but this aspect is a bit adjacent so I’ll write about it separately.
In Korea, students have to focus on either sciences or humanities from high school onwards. I teach at a humanities-focused school, and though my students are not scientifically illiterate, this past year has taught me that they lack a lot of basic skills in determining whether a scientific study is actually scientific.
One of the big problems I’ve been running up against is the existence of pseudoscience and the fact that my students are largely unaware of it. When they see a “scientific study” they assume it must be valid, a behavior I see in many adults as well.
The basic problem, before teaching about how to distinguish pseudoscience from actual science, is actually establishing what fake science is and why anyone would do it. Or, before that, that pseudoscience even exists.
To that end, I’ve been thinking of analogies. A good definition of science doesn’t imply that a single study guarantees absolute facts, but that we use science as a tool to make closer and closer approximations to the truth. Some people do things that mimic science, but omit the features that make real evidence obtainable.
It is like playing darts while wearing extremely strong reading glasses. The bullseye represents the actual truth about something, and we can only know it by throwing darts at it. Even if we hit it, we can’t be sure that we really have and so rely on others to try to check out victory for us, though they have their own glasses on. The scientific method is a means of taking small (occasionally large) steps closer to the dart board, so our aim gets better over time. Though we can’t take off our glasses (remove our biases), if we, and any scientists replicating our work, get to the point where we can reach out and put the dart in the board by touch, we can be reasonably sure that we’ve got the target right.
Pseudoscience, on the other hand, involves the same glasses and same dartboard, but instead of stepping closer, the thrower steps sideways. The fact that the thrower takes a step is assumed to mean that the step is in the right direction, but the fact of movement doesn’t imply that the movement is helpful. Eventually, a pseudoscience has taken so many steps to one side that the thrower is standing at a right angle to the target, so even with perfect aim, a bullseye would be impossible.
The glasses are a big problem, because even if we miss completely, they can make it look like we got a hit. It is only with more and better throws (and throwers) that we can actually learn something real and know that what we learned is in fact real.
Over at Frontpage Magazine and Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer has published an essay titled “Sam Harris and the Collapse of the Counter-Jihad Left: A Failure of Nerve.” Here is my brief response:
I’m sorry to say that your career as a mind reader is off to a poor start. In fact, almost every claim you make about me in your essay is false. Allow me to clarify a few points:
1. I didn’t oppose Trump because I’ve gone soft on Islam. I opposed him because I believe he is an ignoramus, a con man, and a malignantly selfish and unethical person. I’m now in the uncomfortable position of hoping I’m wrong.
2. I didn’t support Clinton because I’ve gone soft on Islam. I supported her—despite her countless flaws—because I judged her to be preferable to Trump. In fact, one reason I supported Clinton is that I thought she would act more aggressively against jihadists than Trump would. (You may recall that many Trump supporters, and even Trump himself, derided Clinton as a warmonger and worried that she would entangle us in further conflicts in the Middle East.) Of course, you may disagree with that assessment. You may even believe that killing jihadists isn’t the best way to frustrate their aims. These are fair points to debate. But I hope you will concede that my actual reasons for voting as I did (however misguided you may consider them) contradict what you have written about me.
3. Regarding Clinton’s public statements about Islam, and the money her foundation took from Islamist theocrats, I’m not aware of anyone who has criticized her more pointedly than I have. But (to turn this new cliché about Trump supporters around) I took Clinton “seriously but not literally” when she spoke about the war on terror. And I know, as you surely do, that she wouldn’t have trained her drones on the Amish. Despite Clinton’s obscurantism about Islam, I believe she understands that 100 percent of jihadists are Muslim. As you know, it’s possible to speak honestly about this state of affairs without being a bigot. In fact, I wrote a section of a speech that I thought Clinton ought to give, spelling out the link between Islamic doctrine and Muslim violence while disavowing bigotry:
Needless to say, she didn’t take my advice. The point, however, is that I expected her to agree with what I wrote there. And for that reason I found her habit of dissembling about the religious roots of jihadism as galling as you did. As for my views about Muslim immigration, they are detailed in that speech. Once again, you may want to debate my reasoning, but please don’t question my motives. I oppose Islamism and jihadism as much as you do.
4. Although I cover many other topics in my work, I believe I have discussed the religious roots of jihadism as clearly as anyone has—and the book I wrote with Maajid Nawaz is no exception. If you think I’ve experienced a “failure of nerve” since Maajid and I wrote Islam and the Future of Tolerance, I invite you or any of your readers to find fault with my most recent statements on the topic. For instance:
5. As for Keith Ellison, the only time I’ve mentioned him was in 2011. My remarks can be found here, and I suspect you will agree with them:
I confess that I haven’t followed what Ellison has said since. Perhaps he has spoken with greater candor about Islam in recent years, and perhaps he hasn’t. Maajid didn’t consult me before endorsing Ellison to head the DNC, and I’ll leave him to discuss his thinking on that point. I can say one thing to a moral certainty, however: Maajid is no longer an Islamist. In fact, he is one of the bravest opponents of Islamism I know. He is also a tireless critic of identity politics as practiced by CAIR and similar groups. I’m confident that if Ellison turns out to be just another shady liar like Reza Aslan or Dalia Mogahed, Maajid will disavow him.
We each have a unique role to play in this war of ideas, Robert. And it would be only decent of you to recognize that Maajid has a harder job than either of us. In fact, the task he has set himself—to inspire a true commitment to secularism and liberal values throughout the Muslim world—may prove impossible. But the alternative is grim. I recommend that you stop questioning Maajid’s motives and give him your support—even if, for obvious reasons, he can’t afford to return the favor.
No doubt there is more to be said, but this short note will have to suffice for the time being. I invite you to publish it wherever you want. Perhaps it will clear up some confusion.
It has been five years, my friend.
Five short years since you taught us how to die with wisdom and wit. And five long ones, wherein the world taught us how deeply we would miss you.
Syria. Safe spaces. President Trump.
What would you have made of these horrors?
More times than I can count, strangers have come forward to say, “I miss Hitch.” Their words are always uttered in protest over some new crime against reason or good taste. They are spoken after a bully passes by, smirking and unchallenged, whether on the Left or the Right. They have become a mantra of sorts, intoned without any hope of effect, in the face of dangerous banalities or lies. Often, I hear in them a note of personal reproach. Sometimes it’s intended.
You are not doing your part.
You don’t speak or write clearly enough.
You are wrong and do not know it—and it matters.
There has been so much to say, and no one to say it in your place.
I, too, miss Hitch.
“Send lawyers, guns and money. The shit has hit the fan!” – from a song by Warren Zevon
I have come to terms with the results of the presidential election, such that I no longer wake up expecting to find Hillary preparing to take office. Donald J. Trump will be president. The optimist in me hopes for two things. First, that Trump’s inflated egotistical need for praise and admiration will occasionally lead him to zig and zag away from failed conservative orthodoxy into policies that work. An alternative Republican scenario of an unchecked Mike Pence presidency (please Donald don’t die or quit in the next 4 years!) looms in my mind as even a darker future. Second, there is the chance that Trump appointees to important government posts will surprise. I do remember back when Ronald Reagan came into office he appointed an aging, fundamentalist Christian, conservative, white guy to be Surgeon General. We on the left were appalled and expected a medical dark age littered with back-alley abortions. The man, C. Everett Koop, to everyone’s shock and amazement checked his ideology and religion at the door and worked tirelessly to improve health for all Americans. He supported policies based on the science, not the political expediency. He ended his term as the most beloved, trusted and effective Surgeon General in US history. At least, so we liberals say!
Yes, it can happen. But there is also the example of James Watt; Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior. He famously divided the country into two groups: liberals and Americans. Like Koop, a religious conservative and believer we are living in the end times. Unlike Koop, he neither set aside his religion nor his politics after taking office. He did his utmost to destroy the agency under him and to open all public lands, including National Parks, to industrial exploitation. Sadly, we probably should be more expectant that Trump’s people will be more like Watt and less like Koop.
The optimist hopes; the realist plans. This past July I became Chair of my department – Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA. Our departmental name, I’m afraid now consists of two things likely grossly out of fashion with the new administration. I expect the National Science Foundation to take a severe hit in these very areas that support my colleagues’ research. And likely our pain will be slight compared to my other colleagues in the Social Sciences. Terms like “diversity”, “social justice”, “income inequality”, “climate change”, “inclusivity”, and “LGBTQ” have become political statements rather than topics for measured research and discussion. If there does seem to be one thing that Trump always holds to and acts upon, it is consequences. We opposed him, we lost, we can expect payback in spades.
If this does come to pass, the Trump administration can certainly expect a strongly-worded letter of reproach from us!
Then there are the Dreamers among our students; the DACA kids studying for degrees and to make a productive future for themselves. Well, they are here illegally and unlike the bad “hombres” they are pretty much in plain view. They can be easily found and sent back to wherever.
And if mass deportations of University of California students do come to pass, the Trump administration can certainly expect a strongly-worded letter of reproach from us!
Words! My sarcasm aside, words are always a good start, but rarely enough by themselves. Can we – the University – do more?
Hey UC system! I’m looking at the 2015 figures and the endowment for the entire system was over $14 billion. For UCLA alone, the figure is $3.5 billion. Now I’m sure 2016 has been another banner year for investments and fundraising, so these numbers have all probably gone up. If this was meant to see us through a rainy day, don’t you think there is a huge storm very rapidly approaching?
Universities are supposed to be the hotbeds of creativity and innovation. Let’s see if we can actually figure out how to use the rich coffers of endowment to mitigate Trump. For example, what if the federal government now only supports research which has immediate defense or monetary gain, or cures the diseases and health problems of aging white men? Whole fields of research in ecology, evolutionary biology, the social sciences, and women’s health are left to financially starve. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if UC stepped in and funded the suddenly orphaned areas of scientific inquiry! Send the money – don’t need the lawyers or guns for this.
We are publically addressing the concerns the election has had for our students. It is certainly a good start to let the DACA kids know we won’t rat them out and that there are counselling services available. But a far more powerful message would be to say the UC will also provide both lawyers and money (no guns still needed!) to oppose any efforts to deport them. Is there not a creative way to use some endowment funds to keep a lot of our best and brightest here where they belong?
What if the administration cuts scholarship and low-cost loan support for attending university, because it’s clear that higher education tends to make people more likely to vote Democratic? Will the increasing lack of access and spiraling student debt count as a rainy day? If going forward, the federal government abdicates its responsibility for higher education, is not the correct and ethical choice to look within? I sure hope so. Find a way to turn any metaphorical “guns” in the endowments into money supporting student education!
The next four years may be dismal for higher ed. Trump and the Republicans have won and we should expect they will do what they promised. If the worst does come to pass, then the real crime will be if university endowments just continue to grow – both at my UC and elsewhere. Now will be the time to circle wagons and spend down if needed to preserve the system, and not to maximize the bottom line on financial statements.
On a very different note – I’m signing off from School of Doubt. As I said, I am now a glorious “Chair”. For a while, I thought I’d find time to do that job, my research, supervise my students, and write the occasional useful contribution. Not so. Also, previous posts reflected just me as your one professor in one department. Now there may be a perception that I am representing a set of colleagues, too. Not always true, but one of the first lessons I’ve learned in chairship is that perceptions do quite matter. Therefore, with true sadness, goodbye. It’s been a fun ride and I’ll continue as a reader. Many thanks to everyone associated with this place – especially Dan. He has kept this site a going concern and interesting place to be even while trying to have an actual career. Our profession needs him and more like him. Someone soon has to be smart enough to hire this guy!
In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Paul Bloom about empathy, meditation studies, morality, AI, Westworld, Donald Trump, free will, rationality, conspiracy thinking, and other topics.
Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching. He is past-president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and co-editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, one of the major journals in the field. Dr. Bloom has written for scientific journals such as Nature and Science, and for popular outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly. He is the author or editor of seven books, including Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil and Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.
I hate to give attention to my Chicago colleague James Shapiro’s bizarre ideas about evolution, which he publishes weekly on HuffPo rather than in peer-reviewed journals. His Big Idea is that natural selection has not only been overemphasized in evolution, but appears to play very little role at all. Even though he’s spreading nonsense in a widely-read place, I don’t go after him very often, for he just uses my criticisms as the basis of yet another abstruse and incoherent post. Like the creationists whose ideas he appropriates, he resembles those toy rubber clowns that are impossible to knock down. But once again, and for the last time, I wade into the fray. . .
In his post of August 12, “Does natural selection really explain what makes evolution succeed?” (the answer, of course, is “no”), Shapiro simply recycles some discredited arguments used by creationists against evolution. The upshot, which we’ve heard for decades, is the discredited idea that natural selection is not a creative process. I quote:
“Darwin modeled natural selection on artificial selection by humans. He ignored the inconvenient fact that human selection for altered traits has never generated a truly new organismal feature (e.g., a limb or an organ) or formed a new species. Selection only modifies existing characters. When humans wish to create new species, they use other means.”
This is the old canard that artificial selection doesn’t create “new features.” His definition of a “new organismal feature” is, of course, one that hasn’t been generated by artificial selection, so it’s all tautological. Of course we haven’t seen whole new organs or limbs arise in the short term, for people have been doing serious selection for only a few thousand years, and have not even tried to create new organs or limbs. But we can create a strain of flies with four wings, breeds of dogs that would be regarded as new genera if they were found in the fossil record, and whole new biochemical systems in bacteria. Both Barry Hall and Rich Lenski, for example, have demonstrated the evolution of brand new biochemical pathways that have evolved to deal with new metabolic challenges. Now that is a “new organismal feature”!
Often new species are created by hybridization, but Shapiro forgets that that hybridization is often followed by either natural or artificial selection for increased interfertility of the new hybrid form, so it truly becomes an interbreeding population that characterizes a species. And that, of course, gives a crucial role to selection, as it did in the experiments of Loren Rieseberg and his colleagues on hybrid sunflowers.
A new poll suggests that atheism is on the rise in the US, while those who consider themselves religious has dropped. What's the cause? Two writers debate.
Thousands attended an atheism rally in Washington DC this March
Recently, researchers conducting a WIN-Gallup International poll about religion surveyed people from 57 countries.
The poll suggests that in the US, since 2005:
What's behind the changing numbers? Is the cause churches that chase modern trends at the expense of core beliefs? Or are those who have always been ambivalent about religion now less likely to identify as Christian? We asked two writers for their take.
Rod Dreher: Progressive churches fuel apathy
As a practicing Christian of the Hitchens sort (Peter, the good one), I welcome the news that more Americans are willing to identify as atheists. At least that clarifies matters.
I respect honest atheists more than I do many on my own side, for the same reason Jesus of Nazareth said to the tepid Laodicean church: "because you are lukewarm - neither hot nor cold - I am about to spit you out of my mouth".
Late one night in early May 2011, a preacher named Jerry DeWitt was lying in bed in DeRidder, La., when his phone rang. He picked it up and heard an anguished, familiar voice. It was Natosha Davis, a friend and parishioner in a church where DeWitt had preached for more than five years. Her brother had been in a bad motorcycle accident, she said, and he might not survive.
DeWitt knew what she wanted: for him to pray for her brother. It was the kind of call he had taken many times during his 25 years in the ministry. But now he found that the words would not come. He comforted her as best he could, but he couldn’t bring himself to invoke God’s help. Sensing her disappointment, he put the phone down and found himself sobbing. He was 41 and had spent almost his entire life in or near DeRidder, a small town in the heart of the Bible Belt. All he had ever wanted was to be a comfort and a support to the people he grew up with, but now a divide stood between him and them. He could no longer hide his disbelief. He walked into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. “I remember thinking, Who on this planet has any idea what I’m going through?” DeWitt told me.
As his wife slept, he fumbled through the darkness for his laptop. After a few quick searches with the terms “pastor” and “atheist,” he discovered that a cottage industry of atheist outreach groups had grown up in the past few years. Within days, he joined an online network called the Clergy Project, created for clerics who no longer believe in God and want to communicate anonymously through a secure Web site.
DeWitt began e-mailing with dozens of fellow apostates every day and eventually joined another new network called Recovering From Religion, intended to help people extricate themselves from evangelical Christianity. Atheists, he discovered, were starting to reach out to one another not just in the urban North but also in states across the South and West, in the kinds of places DeWitt had spent much of his career as a traveling preacher. After a few months he took to the road again, this time as the newest of a new breed of celebrity, the atheist convert. They have their own apostles (Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens) and their own language, a glossary borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous, the Bible and gay liberation (you always “come out” of the atheist closet).
DeWitt quickly repurposed his preacherly techniques, sharing his reverse-conversion story and his thoughts on “the five stages of disbelief” to packed crowds at “Freethinker” gatherings across the Bible Belt, in places like Little Rock and Houston. As his profile rose in the movement this spring, his Facebook and Twitter accounts began to fill with earnest requests for guidance from religious doubters in small towns across America. “It’s sort of a brand-new industry,” DeWitt told me. “There isn’t a lot of money in it, but there’s a lot of momentum.”
Tony Nicklinson died today. His appalling suffering is now at an end, no thanks whatsoever to our judges or our parliament. Obviously all decent people will feel glad for him, but I would add sorry that he failed to win a precedent that might benefit others. Indeed, it was precisely the fear of such a precedent that motivated the High Court to hand down its callous judgment. Let’s continue his fight for a more humane approach to the right to die.
In pursuing that fight, we need to take full measure of the opposition, where it is coming from, and in some cases the sheer depth of its unpleasantness. The article posted below was written before Tony Nicklinson’s death but after the High Court turned down his request to be allowed to die. The author, Richard Carvath, describes himself as a British Conservative political activist. I have never met him and have no wish to do so, nor had I previously heard of him. But I think his article could perform a useful service in laying out, clearly and relentlessly, the full extent of the nastiness of which people of his persuasion – we inevitably get to the love of Jesus before we are through – are capable. As often on the Internet today, you have to wonder whether it is satire, but on balance I am persuaded that this one isn’t. This is the real McCoy. Read it and marvel at the depths to which the human mind can sink, when its moral sense is sufficiently disabled by religion.
Poor old Tony Nicklinson. His wife wants to kill him, his family want to kill him, his barrister wants to kill him, the mainstream media want to kill him, the euthanasia lobby want to kill him and a vociferous mob of Twitter followers want to kill him. It’s enough to depress anyone to the point of despair. In a recent tweet, Cheryl Baker (yes, she of 1981 Eurovision Bucks Fizz fame) seemed to sum up the general attitude of the misguided ‘Kill Tony’ mob when she wrote: “My heart cries for Tony Nicklinson. If he was a dog there would be no ethical or moral decision to be made, just whatever is best for him.” But Tony is not a dog. Tony is a human being. Last week, thankfully, Tony failed in his attempt to change the law which serves to protect us all from murder. The upholding of the law was applauded by champions of justice and pro-life defenders of the disabled – and rightly so. Tony Nicklinson isn’t terminally ill; he is severely physically disabled but he is not dying; Tony has a life to live.
There are many forms of human suffering and we each suffer something at least once in our lives: severe illness; injustice; betrayal; loneliness; poverty; unemployment; crime; childbirth; bereavement; unfair discrimination etcetera. Sometimes our suffering is our own fault and sometimes it’s the fault of others. Suffering is inevitable and what matters is how we respond to suffering. Do we help ourselves or are we our own worst enemy? Do we wallow in self-pity or do we resolve to think positively?
Thanks to Mike for the link
Correspondent Mariana van Zeller travels to Uganda, where many question whether the growing influence of American religious groups has led to a movement to make homosexuality a crime punishable by death. As an anti-gay movement spreads across the continent, gay Africans and their families face an increasingly uncertain future of isolation, imprisonment or even execution.
The film makes it much easier to understand why the general Ugandan public is so eager to send their peers to jail. If the most prominent spiritual leader in your community made it his life purpose to convince you that there were people coming to eat your poop and recruit your children, you would be against them too. They are only hearing one side of the story and it is the origin of their information that is truly infuriating.
Although Ugandan leaders are deeply offended by the notion, the facts definitively show that American evangelists have played a central role in defining the nation’s hard line against sexual minorities. The documentary focuses on American evangelist Dr. Scott Lively, who is widely credited with installing the dominant notion that homosexuals are after your children.