“I’m not a scientist, but…”

Jonathan Chait makes an interesting observation.

Asked by reporters yesterday if he accepts the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming, John Boehner demurred on the curious but increasingly familiar grounds that he is not a scientist. “Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” the House Speaker said. Boehner immediately turned the question to the killing of jobs that would result from any proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which he asserts with unwavering certainty. (On this question, Boehner is not held back by the fact that he is also not an economist.)

This particular demurral seems to be in vogue for the Grand Old Party. Florida governor Rick Scott (“I’m not a scientist”) and Senator Marco Rubio (“I’m not a scientist. I’m not qualified to make that decision.”) have both held up their lack of scientific training as a reason to withhold judgment on anthropogenic global warming.

Now I can’t unhear it. Everywhere you go, you hear idiots proffering that disclaimer. Watch this video and you’ll see:

Alice Roberts is clear and competent; Jeremy Paxson is abrasive to both sides (but really, “It’s just a theory”? Come on); but John Lewis is a stammering twit. You’ll notice it repeatedly. Every time he’s called on an issue, he backs off. He’s not a teacher, but; he’s not an official of ACE, but; he’s not a scientist, but. He’s so busy making excuses for why he’s not competent to be discussing any of the subjects brought before him that one has to wonder why the heck he was asked on the show.

It’s the same with the politicians that Chait cites. Why are they so quick to say that they aren’t qualified to discuss an issue, yet they seem to think they are qualified enough to disapprove of any resolution to address problems? Or in John Lewis’s case, they’re willing to say what lies children ought to be taught despite admitting to having no qualifications whatsoever to judge.

Chait’s explanation:

“I’m not a scientist” allows Republicans to avoid conceding the legitimacy of climate science while also avoiding the political downside of openly branding themselves as haters of science. The beauty of the line is that it implicitly concedes that scientists possess real expertise, while simultaneously allowing you to ignore that expertise altogether.

I think that’s true. But I also think there’s more.

In today’s media, taking a side is seen as a violation of neutrality. One thing they’re doing by announcing that they’re not scientists is declaring that they are an objective outsider…because as everyone knows, having extensive knowledge about a subject biases a person towards a particular best answer. Only the empty-headed fool can truly determine what is right. You’ll also see this philosophy in practice in the current penchant for debates, where you’re not supposed to decide the outcome by who most accurately reflects the truth, but by who makes the best case to a naive audience.

Another factor is that this is a dogwhistle. People like Chait or myself hear “I’m not a scientist,” and what we think we hear is a cautious disavowal — they are avoiding “openly branding themselves as haters of science”. But spend some time talking to strong creationists or climate change denialists, and you will discover that hating science is not the problem we think it is. To them, “science” is all ideologically driven propaganda promoted by egg-headed welfare recipients — all them scientists are getting rich off their fat gub’mint grants. So people like that hear “I’m not a scientist,” and they hear a declaration that the speaker is on their side, not one of the lying elites.

In a world where the tribal lines are stark, there’s a definite benefit to announcing that you are not one of them. And if you can do it in a coded way that doesn’t immediately antagonize your opponents and let them know what you’re doing, all the better.

“no survivor privilege, just survivors”

Jen Gunter rips up George Will on his rape column. (By the way, Gunter talks frankly about her own rape: might cause extreme discomfort for some.)

I have a dream: that the editors at the Washington Post will wake up, realize that Will is a tedious, stupid asshole and will fire him, and replace him with someone like Jen Gunter. With a 10% increase in salary.

It’ll never happen.

Think about why it was trending

Remember that video by Joshua Feuerstein in which he claimed to destroy evolution in 3 minutes? It went viral. The BBC interviewed him, and got Aron Ra’s perspective. Feuerstein himself is bragging about the power of Social Media.

But they don’t ask why that video got so many views. I saw it because so many other atheists were linking to it…and laughing. It was this beautiful distillation of rank, raving creationist idiocy — a supremely confident ignoramus gushing over creationism’s dumbest hits as if they haven’t been smacked down a thousand times before.

Feuerstein got his moment of fame because he was that week’s stupid cat video, or comedic compilation of crotch punches, or amazingly clueless thing said by a Republican.

What is wrong with Chris Hedges?

I was grumbling about Chris Hedges 6 years ago, and every few years after that he seemed to spew more nonsense about atheists again. And then he gave an incoherent, illogical, dishonest talk at UMM last January. He’s been busily undermining his reputation as a journalist for years with babbling drivel.

And now I learn, via Ophelia, that he’s committed the unpardonable sin for a journalist: Chris Hedges is a serial plagiarist. Somehow, I’m not surprised. When I heard him speak, I was convinced he was a lazy hack, and so it’s not unexpected that he’s been stealing other people’s work and presenting it as his own. Perhaps the reason his anti-atheist material has been so much less persuasive than his work in other areas is because, in this case, he’s been reduced to stealing from creationists and far right wing ideologues.

The battle for Hedges’ reputation has begun with a familiar refrain.

Kaufman went on to note the “relative positions in the journalistic community between Salon and Truthdig and between Mr. Ketcham (and his spouse) and Mr. Hedges.” Because of these “relative positions” in the hierarchy of journalism, Kaufman stressed that “the issue of commercial motives cannot be disregarded,” and cited without elaboration “possible personal, economic and commercial gain that would be derived by Salon and Mr. Ketcham from damaging the reputation of Truthdig, Mr. Hedges, the Nation and other competitive publications and authors.” Nowhere in her letter did she address the Postman correction and its implications.

Get that? Hedges and Truthdig are so lofty and prestigious that Ketcham (the fellow who noted the plagiarism) and Salon (which was planning to run the piece, and then backed down) must be doing it for the vast monetary benefit to be gained from criticizing a famous writer. That has to be the only explanation. Integrity doesn’t exist — the only possible reason for criticizing a Big Man has to be for the attention/clicks/money. Sam Harris has done this, too, as have many of the big names in the atheist community — even the same people I’ve argued have been misrepresented by hacks like Hedges. And it’s a bad argument. It doesn’t work that way. Whistleblowers and critics of the power structure do not gain from their efforts, ever.

I though this comment from mesh at Butterflies and Wheels was insightful. They’re taking about Jaclyn Glenn, who has another video out (no, not that stupid one, but a new one that I thought was pretty damned stupid, too).

The last bit is particularly revealing when you consider the frequent charges of attention-whoring for blog hits; you don’t become popular by fighting the status quo, you become popular by promoting it. If such trends are any indication the way to get hits is to rage about the castration agenda of the feminazis, blame everything except attitudes towards women for their treatment in any given circumstance, and laugh at people who receive rape threats. If someone’s a feminist just for the attention they’re doing it horribly, horribly wrong.

You don’t get fame and fortune by disagreeing with a Movement Star, you get it by hitching your wagon to them. Rather than profit, one hopes the reward is for that intangible gain of being right and true.

This is also not about hating on Hedges — I have actually liked his anti-war, anti-authoritarian message, and some of his stuff has been very good and powerful (although now, unfortunately, I have to wonder where he cribbed the good stuff). I was dismayed to see the irrational turn his mind had taken with his anti-atheism writing, and it is dismaying to see worthy ideas tainted by these bad associations.

Amoral ignorance

We’re having a Catholic sex abuse scandal here in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and I’m learning lots of interesting things. Did you know that you can rise to the level of archbishop in the Catholic hierarchy without learning that it is illegal for priests to have sex with kids? They just didn’t know it was bad to stick your penis into 8 year old boys. Maybe they thought it was a perk of the job.

The Minnesota lawsuit was filed by a man who claimed a priest abused him during the 1970s, and Carlson told the plaintiff’s attorneys that his understanding of those accusations had changed over the years.

“I’m not sure whether I knew it was a crime or not,” Carlson said. “I understand today it’s a crime.”

The accuser’s attorneys asked Carlson whether he knew in 1984, when he was an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, that it was illegal for priests to have sex with children.

“I’m not sure if I did or didn’t,” Carlson said.

If you have to ask yourself whether it’s OK to have sex with children, I think it’s pretty obvious that you don’t know that it’s wrong.

So, so far we’re learning that Catholic priests don’t learn about the ethics of raping children, or of throwing their dead bodies into a septic tank. What exactly do they teach in Catholic seminaries? Actually, push that back, since most of us learned that this kind of behavior would be bad so long ago that it is lost in the murk of our preschool experiences. Maybe the question should be about whether the Catholic church actively recruits psychopaths to be priests.

Correcting the bad reporting

I complained about the credulous media coverage of the so-called landmark success at the Turing test yesterday. That was the first flush of press release regurgitation; fortunately, there’s been a strong rebound of sensible journalism now. Gary Marcus talks about failing the Turing test, Scott Aaronson has a chat with Eugene Goostman, and Mike Masnick really rips it a new one.

Oh, and the biggest red flag of all. The event was organized by Kevin Warwick at Reading University. If you’ve spent any time at all in the tech world, you should automatically have red flags raised around that name. Warwick is somewhat infamous for his ridiculous claims to the press, which gullible reporters repeat without question. He’s been doing it for decades. All the way back in 2000, we were writing about all the ridiculous press he got for claiming to be the world’s first "cyborg" for implanting a chip in his arm. There was even a — since taken down — Kevin Warwick Watch website that mocked and categorized all of his media appearances in which gullible reporters simply repeated all of his nutty claims. Warwick had gone quiet for a while, but back in 2010, we wrote about how his lab was getting bogus press for claiming to have "the first human infected with a computer virus." The Register has rightly referred to Warwick as both "Captain Cyborg" and a "media strumpet" and has long been chronicling his escapades in exaggerating bogus stories about the intersection of humans and computers for many, many years.

This is what has happened to journalism: the competent get fired to make room for cheap hacks who can disgorge press releases without thinking, and the qualified experts have to follow along behind, sweeping up the crap.

The cosmic Neil deGrasse Tyson tour

Now that Cosmos is over, the big man is going to travel about the country, bringing enlightenment.

Best-Selling Author and Host of COSMOS to Appear in LA, D.C., Chicago and More

Tickets On Sale June 13

Chicago – June 9, 2014 – Innovation Arts & Entertainment is proud to announce that Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Best Selling Author, and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium, will be appearing on a six-city U.S. speaking tour. The tour will be produced by Innovation Arts and Entertainment. Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has guided the Ship of the Imagination to transport viewers to the nucleus of an atom, and the farthest reaches of the universe as he explores humanity’s quest for understanding. The tour begins January 26, 2015 in Madison, WI, with dates also confirmed at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre and Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, among others.

Tickets are on sale Friday, June 13 and available at www.NeildeGrasseTysonLive.com.

Each family-friendly event features an engaging multi-media presentation bringing the expanses of modern science direct to audience members, and engages them in a Q&A that rivals the presentation itself. In the past, he’s been asked a myriad of questions about everything from television appearances and space elevators to parenting advice. He often takes questions from children since he is fascinated with young ones who are interested in science.

The New York City native is host of StarTalk Radio and FOX’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (season finale airs June 8); he is a New York Times bestselling author of 10 books and is also a frequent guest on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. President Bush appointed Tyson in 2001 and 2004 to serve on commissions studying the future of the U.S. aerospace industry and the implementation of the U.S. space exploration policy, respectively. Tyson is also the recipient of 18 honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award given by NASA to non-government citizens.

For more information and tickets, visit www.NeildeGrasseTysonLive.com

A confirmed list of tour dates follows:

Madison, WI
Monday, January 26
Overture Center

Chicago, IL
Tuesday, January 27
Auditorium Theatre

Denver, CO
Friday, January 30
Temple Hoyne Buell

Los Angeles, CA
Monday, February 09
Pantages Theatre

San Francisco, CA
Tuesday, February 10
Orpheum Theatre

Washington D.C.
Thursday, February 26
DAR Constitution Hall

More dates and cities will be announced in the coming weeks.

I notice that there is an omission: where’s Morris, Minnesota? I’m sure that was an accident. Or perhaps it will be added to the list in the later announcement.

Media fails to pass the Turing test

I don’t get it — there are news reports everywhere credulously claiming that the Turing Test has been successfully passed, and they are all saying exactly the same thing: that over 30% of the judges couldn’t tell that a program called Eugene Goostman wasn’t a 13 year old boy from Odessa with limited language skills. We’re not hearing much about the judges, though: the most common thing to report is that one of them was actor Robert Llewellyn, who played robot Kryten in the sci-fi comedy TV series Red Dwarf.

Instead of parroting press releases, it seems to me that the actual result should be reported as a minority of poorly qualified judges in a single media-driven event were trivially fooled by a clumsy chatbot with a background story to excuse its bad grammar and flighty behavior into thinking they were talking to a real person. It’s not so much a validation of the capabilities of an AI as it is an indictment of the superficiality of this test, as implemented.

Or, if an editor really wanted a short, punchy, sensationalist title, they have permission to steal mine.

We don’t yet have transcripts of the conversation, but the text of a 2012 test of the same program are available. They are painfully unimpressive.

Get ‘em young

I got to meet someone in Seattle who is working on an evolution book for four year olds — this is a great idea, because I remember shopping for kids’ books and their usual idea for introducing zoology was something about Noah’s Ark. But the real story is so much more interesting!

Rough sketches of the book, Grandmother Fish, are available online; those aren’t the final drawings, and the work will be done by KE Lewis, once funding is obtained. You can see the challenges of getting a sophisticated scientific concept across to very young children, but I think the current story does the job very well.

squeak

There will be a kickstarter later this week to get the project off the ground.

Online Gender Workshop 2*

You’ll note that we now have a separate thread for each exercise set. I won’t go back (if it’s even possible) to pull out exercises 5-8 and your responses from the first thread, but starting now we’ll be able to have people continue one discussion (on say, the video exercises, where it looks like Sundays wasn’t a great day for a lot of people) while the next begins.

Today’s exercise may be technically difficult for some of you, so I expect fewer people to complete it, but I hope everyone that joined us last week engages in the discussion. On the plus side, it requires a bit less time commitment than the video exercises, which may allow some people to catch up.

Exercise 9: Think of a gender neutral object. No. Not that one. Because gender, right? Exactly. That other one. Now you’ve got it. Ready? Sketch it. Sketch it without any context whatsoever to keep ideas about gender in relation to the object free from distractions caused by gender in relation to the context in which the object is drawn.

When finished drawing, upload that sketch somewhere (I recognize this won’t be possible for everyone).

Exercise 10: 3rd Report. Narrate a bit about choosing an object (whether or not you were able to post your sketch). Was it easy? Hard? Did the first thing that came to mind remain your choice? Now talk about the actual process of drawing. Did you stop, erase, and/or redraw at any point because of concerns that the sketch might not communicate gender neutrality?

In this report, provide a link to your sketch if you were able to upload an image.

Exercise 11: Discussion. Look at a number of the uploaded images. If there are any choices (or implementations of choice, through the image in the sketch) with which you disagree, say so. Provide an argument for gendering the object someone else considered gender neutral. If there are none with which you disagree, find someone’s comment that does disagree with one or more choices. Read that person’s argument and respond. Are you persuaded? Why or why not? You are welcome to defend your own choice in discussion, but if you do, you must do it using new arguments than the ones you made in exercise 10 when you initially discussed your choice and process.

 

Previous workshop thread. Next Workshop Thread.

*must. not. type. “:Electric Boogaloo.”

Damn you, Ed Brayton!