Drowning in noise: How accommodating nonsense poisons our discourse

I’m at the World Humanist Congress, and just finished up an hour and a half tag-teaming David Silverman on the topic in the title. He played the bad cop, while I was the good cop, which is an interesting switch. Here’s the text of what I planned to say, but of course I tended to drift from the script in the actuality.

Whoever said that the answer to bad speech is more speech never had to run a modern website. I used to run my own web server for my blog, before I realized that I had better things to do than nursemaid a swarm of technical details and decided instead to pay a professional to do it well, and one of the things I had to do was maintain all this code that was there specifically to limit access. It was vitally important. I could be down deep in the bowels of the beast, monitoring all the incoming data, and the instant I would plug that ethernet cable into my server to connect it to the internet, literally within milliseconds it would be getting hit with pings — almost all spammers, and also lots of automated hacking code, looking for loopholes in my implementations of communications protocols so that bad messages could be uploaded into my machine to do them harm.

Every website, even the ones that assert the most devout dedication to the principles of free speech, are extensively filtered. From my personal experience, I’d have to say that less than 1% of the attempts to communicate via the internet are legitimate, or are sincere, honest attempts by a human being to talk to other human beings, and the bulk of the attempted discussions are spam and dedicated efforts to corrupt communication.

You don’t have to run a server to know this. Just about all of you use email; every modern email server has built-in traps to block spam. Gmail, for instance, uses some smart algorithms to detect and dispose of spam and you don’t even see most of the garbage that is trying to come through. You really would be drowning in noise without those filters.

It’s also the case in every instance of non-technological discourse in which you engage. Look at this room; I’m talking, and you’re all being so polite and not interrupting; no one is yelling at me, and none of you are suddenly standing up and announcing that you’d like to sell me penis enlarging pills. And then when the Q&A rolls around, you’ll all take turns. Of course we limit speech all the time by common courtesy and by formal rules of order. We could not have a civilized conversation without these rules.

The tricky part is establishing those rules. The naive free speech absolutist is neglecting the fact that the privilege of free speech has to come with the responsibilities of free speech. Every right has to come with a recognition of limits on those rights.

Some of those limitations are easy. For instance, you may have a right to free speech, but you don’t have a right to an audience. Here’s David Silverman, who just gave a ferocious talk advocating the importance of atheism, and I might think everyone ought to hear that…but that doesn’t mean Dave gets to show up at someone’s house at dinner time and harangue everyone with it. It doesn’t mean he has the right to show up at an Anglican church on Sunday and override the religious sermon with his far superior atheist sermon. He should have the right to set up an Atheist TV channel, so people can voluntarily tune in and listen to what he has to say, if they want to.

I think we can all agree that we don’t have a right to impose our views on others, but that it is a violation of the principles of free speech when others, governments or religious organizations or corporations, try to dictate what we may read or hear — that on the one hand, forcing people to read a message is wrong, but on the other hand, limiting voluntary access to media is also wrong. So when governments arrest individuals who express their rejection of religion, or when they shut down access to Twitter by all of their citizens because the state is being criticized, or when the press is corrupted and no longer questions the actions of the state, we can all agree that that is a violation of a principle that we consider important for the welfare and happiness of free people.


Not even that idea is without exceptions.

Here’s one big problem I have. Words have power. I shouldn’t even have to say this to people in an organization which believes strongly in the power of communication and persuasion and reason: we’re not promoting the cause of humanism with soldiers and tanks, but solely by telling people about the virtues of humanist thought, and encouraging open-mindedness and critical thinking and the questioning of dogma. And we all think that working within the framework of law and media is an effective and appropriate way to do that. At least I haven’t heard anyone suggesting that the world humanists need to start up a military arm.

But there’s often a curious asymmetry in how we think about this. Words have power, but we think everyone ought to be able to use this power freely? Really? There ought to be no restrictions on how words can be expressed? I don’t think we really believe that. We ought to recognize that, because it’s the only way we can properly develop rules and protocols for restricting speech.

Let me give you some specific examples where free speech absolutism fails.

Should creationism be taught in science classes? Many creationists literally argue that their freedom of speech is abridged when they are not allowed to teach their views in public school classrooms, to children. One of the most popular slogans of the intelligent design creationism movement is “Teach the Controversy” — they are arguing that the issues ought to be resolved by giving equal time to all sides, and letting the kids decide which is right. That really is a free speech argument.

I’m a teacher, and I have no illusions. If you give kids a choice between an easy answer that says all you have to do is believe, and that god did it is an acceptable alternative, vs. the complex answer that requires math and data and a rejection of the dogma their parents promote, most will happily accept the one that makes studying for the exam easiest. I also know that if we open the door to anything goes, then education becomes a matter of opening a firehose of noise on the classroom, and drowning the kids in chaos.

The answer is that we have to have criteria for determining what core ideas must be taught, and that we humanists and atheists have a pretty clear idea on that: we advocate for a secular and universal education, where the content is dictated by reality : if an idea is supported by the evidence and there is a clear reasonable path by which any reasonable person can arrive at a consensus, then we should teach that, and not the idea that is contradicted by the evidence. But even that answer is fraught: how do you teach poetry? And the creationists will reply that what must be taught is socialization and the proper place of the student in society, and only religion can give that. We could argue for hours over this issue, and we do.

Here’s another example:

Should rape and death threats be protected as free speech? This is a hot issue on the internets nowadays, and yes, people are actually arguing that using online media to harass, stalk, and threaten people is a free speech issue. And it is! If you’re a purist who believes that everyone ought to be free to create multiple pseudonymous accounts and deluge their enemies with racist, sexist, or abusive slime, then of course you’re going to demand that your right to do so may not be infringed. You’ll also make the same playground excuses we all heard as kids.

“Toughen up.” “Only crybabies can’t take it if they’re called a mean name”. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

These excuses are all wrong. Remember, words have power, and only abusers of that power will deny it. The victims of these abusers are already tough — it takes a thick skin to persist on the internet anymore — and they’re not complaining about one insult. They are drowning in the noise: technology has given bullies the power to deliver a torrent of abuse online with great ease, and unfortunately, most of the media are enablers of that bullying. Getting told once that you ought to be raped is annoying and infuriating; being told dozens of times every day is discouraging and repressive. I know way too many people who have been driven completely off the internet by free speech fanatics who flood all of their communications with hatred and abuse.

Just because I’m trying to be difficult today, keep in mind as well that some people find messages that their cherished religious beliefs are false to be discouraging and repressive. These are concerns that must be recognized; it is important that we don’t fall into the trap of glibly announcing that free speech is simply wonderful, all we have to do is talk to each other in the sunlight and reason with one another, and everyone will be won over by the side of goodness and logic and mutual respect. Because that won’t happen.

Should lies be protected as free speech? How do we deal with, for instance, faith healers? Their promises don’t work. They are so tempting to the weak and sick, though: when the choices are to undertake an agonizing regime of chemotherapy, against simply praying harder, there are many people who will understandably choose the latter course, because someone is lying to them about the effectiveness. How do we deal with advertising? It’s easy when the lies are obvious, such as the old campaigns in which doctors were recruited to endorse cigarettes, but what about ads that say beautiful women will find you irresistible if you swamp your body odor with Axe body spray and drink the right kind of watery beer? Don’t pretend that it’s all just caveat emptor and the weak have only themselves to blame — we’re all susceptible to psychological games, says the guy using an Apple iPad, because they’re really cool.

I think, and I suspect that most of you agree, that truth ought to be an ultimate arbiter — that what we ought to prize most is honesty and accuracy in our communication, and that it ought to be a human value to demand evidential support for any claim. It is important that we state our expectations up front and clearly, and that that value is a significant component in how we evaluate speech. But we also have to appreciate that that is not a significant component to others: that they may define truth by how well a statement can be reconciled to their holy book, rather than to reality.

To sum up my concerns about free speech:

You don’t have a right to an audience. This is a critical limitation of free speech right now, in a day when technology has made it trivially easy for abusers to circumvent the limitations of courtesy and protocol.

Words have power. Guns also have power; is unregulated access to guns the best path to a free society? We’re engaged in that experiment in the US right now, and I can tell you…no. Similarly, we have to recognize that words must be used responsibly.

Speech can do great harm. Words can enlighten and educate, but they can also oppress and mislead. As humanists, we must appreciate the importance of truth, and do what we can to stop the promulgation of lies.

There are no easy answers. A commitment to free speech is hard — and the easy answers are so attractive. On the one side we have the contingent arguing “You can’t say that!”, and on the other we have people saying, “I can say anything I damn well please, anywhere, anytime!”, and neither is right. We must be aware that the task is one of navigating between the two extremes.

The most brilliant business plan ever

Take a look at the kind of profit you can make from various businesses. This is pretty good money.


We all know Apple’s business model is to build cool gadgets with high end stuff inside that it then sells at a high markup for premium design and ease of use — they’re at least creating something novel. But what makes Wiley and Elsevier so profitable?

That’s the genius of it all. Their customers create everything, they charge the customers for the privilege of selling it to the publisher, and then they sell it back to their customers. Imagine if Apple did that: all of you homebrew computer people who buy components and assemble them into functioning wholes and trick them out with spiffy bells & whistles are contacted by Apple, who offers to take them off your hands if you pay them a few hundred dollars, and they then take your creation, polish up the case a bit, stick an Apple logo on it, and sell it in their catalog for a few thousand dollars.

Oh, also, when you buy an “Apple”, they require that you get shipped a broken Sinclair and an old Commodore PET. It’s part of the deal.

That’s how the scientific publishing houses operate. It’s a broken system that profits the middlemen.

The fuddy-duddies still thrive

Kate Clancy comments on a ‘satire’ published in a serious journal.

Genome Biology published a satirical piece by Neil Hall today, and since I’m American and he’s British I don’t find it funny. No wait, it’s that I’m female and he’s male. Or maybe that I’m junior and he’s senior. I’ve got it, it’s because he has a ton of publications (many times the number I have), and I have a ton of Twitter followers (many times the number he has). Meaning, my K-index knocks his out of the park.

Let me back up. You see, Hall created a joke metric he calls the Kardashian Index, which is one’s Twitter followers divided by one’s scientific citations. He writes:

“Hence a high K-index is a warning to the community that researcher X may have built their public profile on shaky foundations, while a very low K-index suggests that a scientist is being undervalued.”

Ha ha. Hilarious. You know how you could optimize your k-index? Never talk to the public at all. What this guy has done is published a joke that reflects the attitude of many senior people in the scientific community, that not only is communicating science to the world valueless, it reduces the value of the science. If he really wants to piss on his colleagues, he should have added something about how teaching is a debit on your academic credit, too.

I remember when Sagan was denied tenure at Harvard (which isn’t too surprising, Harvard is extraordinarily full of itself) and also refused admission to the National Academy of Sciences — the perception was that he was just too danged good as a popularizer, so he couldn’t possibly be a serious scientist. At the time, I was reassured that all the tightly puckered sphincters who were offended by popularizing science were old, and would be dying off, and it would be getting better. And now I’m getting old and gray myself, and they’re still hanging in there, immortal, apparently. I think they must live forever by sucking the joy of science out of children’s brains.

Maybe we need a different index, one that penalizes scientists who clutter up the scientific literature with fluffy stupid opinion pieces padded with pseudoscientific and contrived formulas marked as humor. It was the kind of thing that, instead of being elevated by Genome Biology, might have been better presented as a tweet. Except that distilling it down to 140 characters would have made its inanity even more obvious, and it would have hurt his k-index.

The dog is a nice touch

The National Review apparently has an article this month, sneering at nerd culture in general and Neil deGrasse Tyson in particular (I haven’t read it, since it’s behind a paywall). It’s called “Smarter Than Thou”, and I guess Republicans find intelligence repulsive, and an intelligent black man is an affront to nature.

But here’s a very nice counter to the claim that Tyson is some elitist snooty guy: he explains the difference between climate and weather.

Depends on what you mean by “know”

Chris Mooney is galloping around on his anti-science education hobby-horse again. That’s a harsh way to put it, but that’s what I see when he goes off on these crusades for changing everything by modifying the tone of the discussion. It’s all ideology and politics, don’t you know — if we could just frame our policy questions and decisions in a way that appealed to the conservative know-nothings, we’d be able to make progress and accomplish things. And, as usual, I expect he won’t recognize the irony of the fact that the way he communicates his message alienates scientists and science communicators.

He’s reporting on the work of Dan Kahan, who has done interesting and informative work on how ideology, both left and right, distorts decision making. Motivated reasoning is a real problem, and we all need to be aware of it. But this work, at least as described by Mooney, goes a step further to argue that conservatives aren’t as dumb as they seem — that they know the science, but are using politics and identity to dictate their answers. They already know the science, so teaching them how the science actually works can’t possibly be the answer — instead, we have to work around their biases and lead them by careful wording towards the resolution of real problems. Kahan says,

The problem is not that members of the public do not know enough, either about climate science or the weight of scientific opinion, to contribute intelligently as citizens to the challenges posed by climate change. It’s that the questions posed to them by those communicating information on global warming in the political realm have nothing to do with—are not measuring—what ordinary citizens know.

I disagree. The public does not know enough. I don’t think Kahan or Mooney have a clear idea of what they mean by “know”. And I don’t think they’re recognizing that if they believe they are clever enough to trick the public into revealing their true knowledge by rephrasing questions about science, that perhaps the public is also clever enough to hide their true ideas about science in their answers.

They’ve evaluated public knowledge of science with sets of multiple choice questions phrased in two different ways, to show that the answers you get vary with the wording. First: speaking as a teacher, multiple choice questions are terrible at testing in-depth knowledge and understanding. They’re fine for evaluating basic facts, but even there, they can be gamed. Often, the strategy for answering multiple choice facts isn’t necessarily based on knowledge of the material, but understanding human nature and the psychology of the person who wrote the test — the wording of the question and the alternative answers can be a good clue to which one the instructor thinks is best.

Second, we’ve known about this phenomenon for a fairly long time. About ten years ago, I heard Eugenie Scott explain how soft polls on evolution were: that by changing the wording from “Humans evolved over millions of years” to “Dogs evolved over millions of years”, you could get a tremendous improvement in the percentage of respondents approving of the statement.

Kahan has discovered that you get the same improvement from conservatives if you change “the earth is warming” to “climate scientists believe the earth is warming,” testifying to the fact, Mooney says, that they actually do know what the science says, it’s just that phrasing question wrong punches their button and causes them to reject the idea.

Bullshit. Look, I know creationist arguments inside and out; I can often finish their sentences for them, and can even cite the original sources that they didn’t know their claims came from. This does not in any way imply that I think like a creationist, that I’m ready to accept creationism, that I sympathize or agree with their position, or that I think creationism ought to be considered as a source of facts in public policy. I know what they say, but I also know all the arguments against their nonsense. That a climate change denialist is able to regurgitate what he’s heard a scientist say does not mean he is not also packed to the gills with lies and rationalizations; that he’s able to check a box on a paper exam does not mean that he won’t act against that fact in his public activities.

I’ve also talked at length, hours on end, with creationists. And no, I’m sorry, despite being able to puke up quotations from what scientists actually say, they really are grossly ignorant of evolution. Are we going to start using quote-mining as an example of the scientific process?

Another example from teaching genetics. I once assigned a problem of medium difficulty on a homework assignment, involving Mendelian crosses of flies with different wing shapes. A little later I had the students do the exact same problem in an in-class exercise — a way to spot check whether they’d actually worked through the problem. Easy peasy, they breezed through it in class, and the students I asked could even explain the process for solving it. Then, on an exam, I repeated the very same problem, except that I changed every mention of Drosophila to Danio, and changed the hypothetical phenotypes from wing shape to fin shape. But the numbers, the crosses, the outcomes were all copied directly from the homework. All the changes were superficial.

A third of the class bombed it.

Did these students know how to solve the problem? I suppose Mooney could claim that they knew how to do fruit fly genetics, but simply didn’t know the details of fish genetics. But I would say no, not at all; that they could reiterate the procedure they memorized in one problem does not in any way imply that they could understand the concepts. It was the same damned problem! The students who could repeat an answer in one very narrow context did not know the science. They were unable to generalize and apply a conceptual understanding to a specific problem.

(For those of you concerned about my students, this is a common problem; a lot of what I’m doing in the classroom and exams is taking ideas they’ve grown comfortable with and twisted them a little bit to compel them to THINK about the problem, rather than trying to find which rut in their brain it fits best. Learning has to be procedural and general, not liturgical. They mostly get it eventually, oh, but how they suffer through the exams. “This wasn’t in the homework or the class examples!” is a common complaint, to which I reply, “Of course not.”)

Mooney likes to cite empirical, practical results of his approach, which is good…but unfortunately, they always undermine his premises, and he sometimes isn’t even aware of it.

Later in the paper, Kahan goes on to assert that precisely this strategy is working right now in Southeast Florida, where members of the Regional Climate Change Compact have brought on board politically diverse constituencies by studiously avoiding pushing anyone’s buttons. Kahan even shows polling data suggesting that questions like "local and state officials should be involved in identifying steps that local communities can take to reduce the risk posed by rising sea levels" do not provoke a polarized response in this region. Rather, liberals and conservatives alike in Southeast Florida agree with such a statement, which references a major consequence of climate change while ignoring the gigantic elephant in the room…its cause.

I’ve emphasized that las bit, because it is so damning. What good is this approach? If you know anything about science at all, you understand that how we know what we know, the epistemology of science, is absolutely critical to our progress. You’re stuck like my students in the early part of the semester, able to tick off check boxes on a multiple choice test or follow a cookbook procedure to arrive at a specific answer, but unable to generalize or extend their knowledge to new problems (really, let me assure you though, most of them got much better at that by the end of the term!). Those respondents in Florida don’t understand the science — all the participants know is which buttons to push, which ones to avoid, with the aim of steering the poor stupid mouse through the maze to a cheese award at the end.

OK, to be fair, this is a case where Mooney is at least vaguely aware of the problem. Here’s his next paragraph.

Here’s the problem, though. Maybe this approach will work up to a point, or in certain locales (in North Carolina, the response to sea level rise is pretty different). But at some point, we really do need to all agree that the globe is warming, so that we can then make very difficult choices on how to deal with that. To save our feverish planet, it is dubious that merely having conservatives know what scientists think—rather than accepting it themselves, taking the reality into their hearts and identities—will be enough.

Very good. So why did Mooney write a whole column arguing that conservatives aren’t really as anti-science as they seem to be, that ends with an acknowledgment that, well, not knowing how reality works isn’t a good long-term strategy for responding to challenges from reality? The entire first 90% of the article is bogged down with this misbegotten notion that we can equate science understanding with checking the right alternative on a multiple choice test, only to notice in the last paragraph that oh, hey, that’s not science.

The truth only bullies liars

Gah. SE Cupp. She is the worst: a right-wing atheist who fully supports the dishonesty of the Fox News types, and who has no regard for reality. Atheists who bury themselves in a new set of delusions sicken me.

She got into an argument with Bill Nye — that’s a bad sign, since the last loon he had to put down was Ken Ham. She was really peeved that those “science guys” keep confronting climate change denialists with facts. Science bullies her ideological cronies!

“Isn’t it a problem when science guys attempt to bully other people?” Cupp asked Nye. “Nick here had to say, ‘I’m not a denier.’ He had to get it out: ‘I’m not a denier.’ Because really, the science group has tried to shame anyone who dares question this, and the point I’m trying to make is, it’s not working with the public.”

This was after she threw up some statistics, that only 36% of the American public think global warming is a serious threat to their way of life. I’d have two replies to that: 1) polling data on what a deluded public thinks is not a measure of the truth, and 2) the problem here isn’t scientists explaining the science, it’s propagandists like Cupp using dishonest media like Fox News or Heritage Foundation tracts to cast fear, uncertainty, and doubt over the evidence.

Watch the encounter and see Cupp hopelessly outclassed.

Best part of the interview? This exchange:


Brilliance and brainlessness — that’s the interwebs

I just want to point you at this beautiful graphic illustrating the depth at which the Malaysian Flight 370 black box rests. The ocean is really, really deep, you know. And sometimes a well-designed visual communicates the magnitude of the problem well.

The other side of the problem: read the comments, and you’ll suddenly appreciate of the conspiracy wackaloon problem, too. Here’s one sample:

This is a fantastic graphic and just to make you think about this problem logically….

what are the odds that a middle-aged 3rd world pilot would:

1) Know how to knock out virtually every tracking system on the plane
2) Fly a route that missed every satellite and every ground tracking station
3) Crash Land the plane in 3 miles of water
4) In the remotest area of the globe, with almost no chance of recovery.

To pull this off would have taken the resources of a modern, 1st world country with extraordinary technology, and the military skills to pull it off.

It makes you wonder what was in that cargo hold, and why somebody didn’t want it to arrive at it’s destination.

Don’t you just love the casual racism/ageism of the premise? A Malaysian pilot couldn’t possibly be as smart and well-trained as an American pilot, and it takes a freakin’ First-World Genius to be able to crash a plane in the Indian Ocean. And of course it had to be intentional, there’s no way a serious error in a modern plane could cause a mere accident.

Seriously, just look at the lovely graphic, and don’t read the comments unless your blood pressure is a little low.

It’s been a bad month for the creationists

I almost pity them. First there’s the discovery of gravitational waves that confirm a set of models for the origin of the universe — I can tell they’re trying to spin that one (it confirms the universe had a beginning, just like the Bible says!), but it’s obvious which perspective, scientific or religious, has the greater explanatory power.

Then there’s Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, in which every episode so far has taken a vigorous poke at creationist nonsense. I think they cry every Sunday after church, because they know that later that evening they will be attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture. It’s been great.

And now, look, the Cassini spacecraft has found an ocean beneath the ice of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.

For years, the motto among astrobiologists — people who look for life in distant worlds, and try to understand what life is, exactly — has been “follow the water.” You have to start the search somewhere, and scientists have started with liquid water because it’s the essential agent for all biochemistry on Earth.

Now they’ve followed the water to a small, icy moon orbiting Saturn. Scientists reported Thursday that Enceladus, a shiny world about 300 miles in diameter, has a subsurface “regional sea” with a rocky bottom.

This cryptic body of water is centered around the south pole and is upwards of five miles deep. It has a volume similar to that of Lake Superior, according to the research, which was published in the journal Science.


There is hope yet for Space Squid! Or maybe space progenotes. Isn’t it wonderful that we keep finding gloriously natural discoveries in the universe?

The tears will flow again in a few weeks, when Neil Shubin’s new series, Your Inner Fish, premieres on PBS. I’m really looking forward to this one.

It is a good time to be passionate about science.