Archive for July, 2010

Alternative title: DON’T MAKE ME COME BACK THERE.

I made some enigmatic comments on Twitter earlier, and said that I wasn’t going to get involved or name names, but I have stuff I need to get out of my head. Yes, I am once again roused from my comfortable sloth by other people driving me crazy, and names will be named.

Except this is different from the last couple of blog entries here, where I’ve been part of a more-or-less united skeptical front against the horrible wackjobs. This time, the crazy is coming from inside the house.

PZ Myers is someone I like and admire a great deal. He’s a professor of biology, and writes one of the most popular science blogs around, Pharyngula. He’s also an active skeptic and atheist, and his summing-up piece on the Crackergate fiasco is, to my mind, one of the highlights of the internet.

Brian Thompson is someone I like and admire a great deal. His podcast, The Amateur Scientist, is a surreal weekly jaunt of bewilderingly wide scope, centred around a generally scientific and skeptical bent, and provides as uplifting an accompaniment to a tedious evening of washing dishes as anything my iPod is capable of.

But, fine and virile specimens of men though they may be, there has been fail after repeated fail emanating from my Twitter feed tonight, and these two are at the centre of it.

I’m not so hot with the whole in-depth sweeping social analysis thing, but maybe we’re all still working out how to use Twitter. It’s a fantastic tool for any number of reasons – yesterday’s Gillian McKeith hilarity couldn’t have happened without it, for one thing – but it’s not always the most helpful option. We already have plenty of ways to communicate, and while micro-blogging is a valuable addition, it’s too much to expect it to replace the others wholesale.

Trying to make your point within 140-character chunks can prompt you to think creatively about what it is you’re trying to say, and how to encapsulate your essential point without needless waffle. But it can also force you into being curt, abrupt, and snappy with people. It can encourage you to employ debating tactics that work well in brief snippets, like sarcasm.

It is extremely easy, in other words, to break Wheaton’s Law on Twitter.

The thing that’s worth remembering is that you don’t have to actually be a dick, in order to be a dick. Wait… that sentence doesn’t parse how I’d meant it to. What I mean is, obnoxious twitterings are not an absolute indicator of a dickish personality. It’s easy even for decent, non-terrible human beings to get sucked into pointlessly callous behaviour.

So, without in any way implying that this is the only such occurrence on Twitter lately, or even the most interesting, let’s look at the example that got me so wound up.

PZ Myers is one of the more forthright, outspoken, and unforgiving members of the online atheist community. He is merciless in going after proponents of nonsense, and brutal in his verbal attacks on those who believe in bullshit.

Some people don’t feel that this is helpful or appropriate. Certain other skeptics are put off by his abrasive style, and imagine that those “true believers” will be similarly alienated. They argue that an approach based around informing and educating people, instead of ridicule and mockery, will be more effective in bringing people around to scientific literacy and good sense.

The point PZ has tried to make in response to this is that it’s not a simple dichotomy. The blogosphere isn’t divided into the “nice” and “nasty” skeptics, each with an attitude entirely and monolithically in keeping with their particular label, and so any effort to determine which is better is misguided. And I think he had a good point to make. It’s just a shame it devolved into such inane and worthless snarking.

He started off on point:

Not one person on the ferocious side of the argument uses only ridicule. It’s a component of the approach, not the be-all & end-all.

Lecturing people who use rational args+satire that satire doesn’t pull the whole load is annoyingly pointless. We know.

I’ll turn it around. Why are you sober-serious people so goddamned boring? How are you going to wake people up to listen to you?

I’ll tell you: passion. Humor. Drama. Ridicule. Ferocity. Fun. Emotion. It’s the hook, not the message. It’s the combination that works.

So he’s making an argument for not simply being dry and humourless in our approach to enlighten, but to allow for things to get fiery. This will include things that will offend others, but as a supplement to rational debate, not a replacement. He’s never suggested only being offensive and provocative and vitriolic, and it’s precisely that black-or-white thinking that he’s been trying to argue against.

Here’s where Brian chips in:

@pzmyers Satire and ridicule aren’t the same thing. Literally calling people morons is the opposite of satire.

@pzmyers You call yourself a satirist, but all you do is ridicule. Where’s the satire?

Still topical and relevant. The way PZ goes from discussing “ridicule” in his first tweet, to “rational args+satire” in the next, could give the impression that he’s using the two terms interchangeably. PZ’s response:

Missed the part where someone said they were. RT @AmSci: Satire and ridicule aren’t the same thing.

To anyone not familiar with Twitter convention, this means he’s quoting back part of @AmSci’s (Brian’s) tweet as part of his own response.

Now, this is where I start to have a problem with this as a debate, because it’s just not a helpful answer. Aside from being a touch passive-aggressive in tone, clearly Brian thinks that PZ has equated satire and ridicule to some extent. If this wasn’t PZ’s intent, then the most helpful thing would be to try clearing up this confusion, and to clarify his feelings on the matter. What PZ goes for instead seems like snideness with no purpose.

Curtailing the Twitter-grammar of the conversation a little, it continues like this:

@AmSci: Keep in mind @pzmyers compares himself to Swift and Jon Stewart.
@pzmyers: I do? Wow. Miss the point, don’t you…
@AmSci: Yes, you do: http://bit.ly/agMXcW Also, Shakespeare. They’re all “ferocious”. Just like you!
@pzmyers: Also human. Just like me!
@AmSci: Are you just pretending the things you write have no context? Is a pathological lack of self-awareness part of your schtick?
@pzmyers: Do you have a pathological need to insert false context?

And on, and on. Before long they’re arguing about Twitter etiquette, and PZ is being either stupid or disingenuous and Brian kinda gives up and decides that straightforward insults are more fun and ARGH YOU’RE ALL SUCH FUCKING IDIOTS.

Sorry. I don’t mean that at all, but you see how this kind of thing can get to someone. It’s easy to get carried away in one frustrating moment.

Look, PZ was making a fair point about satire being a useful tool of engagement, and I don’t think he was implicitly placing himself among the likes of Swift or Shakespeare in terms of importance, by highlighting them as examples of effective satirists. Brian should be smart enough to get that, but if he’s gotten the wrong impression somehow from what he’s read, PZ seems entirely unwilling to help correct it. Accusing someone of missing the point isn’t very constructive if you won’t even hint at what the point might be.

Fundamentally, there’s really not that much distance between these two, and there’s room for a real conversation about the role of mockery in skeptical and scientific outreach and communication. I listen to Brian’s podcast, so I know he’s not above some cutting irony. And I’ve seen PZ show plenty of capacity for compassion, as well as being a great educator. There’s no good reason for the conversation to turn out bitchy, eye-rolly, and passive-aggressive, rather than a chance to share ideas and learn stuff.

In this video, Neil deGrasse Tyson takes Richard Dawkins to task somewhat for his (Dawkins’s) approach to improving the public understanding of science. Tyson expresses concern that Dawkins’s style of scientific outreach may not be as effective as it could be, if he were to take a more sensitive and carefully worded approach. It’s a similar issue to the one for which Brian Thompson has criticised PZ – and yet Dawkins accepts the rebuke gratefully, and the conversation remains entirely amicable.

This may say something about the nature of the specific people involved – but it’s also noticeable that Tyson took rather more than 140 characters to make his point.

Sometimes a point simply cannot be made well within a single tweet. This has been demonstrated amply. But there’s no reason you should have to try, when less restrictive options are available. There’s Twitlonger. There’s Posterous. There’s also that thing you both do all the time called blogging. Or there’s simply “can’t explain myself fully in 140 chars, email me with queries and i’ll write about this later in more depth”. Or something.

If you’re getting into a debate, on Twitter or anywhere else, it’s inevitable that some people are going to disagree with you and sound like dicks. While it’s possible that they’re just terrible people, a lot of people who sound like dicks really aren’t. Tempting though it may be to reply in kind, if you make yourself sound like a dick in return, then you’re just two people pissing all over Wheaton’s Law and everyone loses.

When you get a message that seems kinda dickish to you, you may have to go out of your way to make yourself clear. You may have to delicately choose words that don’t drip with contempt, even if you think contempt is merited. You may have to tolerate people being a dick to you, without retaliating the way your animal instinct urges you to, and make allowances for the limitations of certain forms of communication. You’ll definitely have to give people more of a break than you think they deserve.

Does this sound like a lot of work, in which you get a crappy deal and have to smile patiently while idiots misunderstand and insult you? Yeah, it pretty much is. It’s called being a grown-up.

And if you’re not doing that… well, you’re probably being kind of a dick.

Don’t do that.

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Sounds like a lost Enid Blyton manuscript, doesn’t it? No, okay, maybe not. But it’s still a great story.

Some background first.

Gillian McKeith is a health guru of sorts, best known in the UK for presenting a wildly successful series of shows where she tells fat people to stop eating so much.

The most notorious part of the show (and the only thing some people find worth remembering about her) was the way she drew sweeping conclusions about her subjects’ dietary habits by examining their excrement.

Despite how trivial this may make her sound, she’s a major phenomenon of the alternative medicine movement in her own right. People really pay attention to this woman, and the breadth of topics on her official website makes it clear just how many pies she’s got her grubby, faecally tainted fingers in. (Is it too late to warn you to finish eating before you read this?)

Ben Goldacre, in his book Bad Science, devoted a chapter to Ms McKeith and related issues of medical importance. As well as highlighting her apparent confusion on certain points of basic science (eating high-chlorophyll greenery like spinach will not “oxygenate your blood”), he also examines the issue of Ms McKeith’s PhD, which she has used to justify referring to herself as “Dr”.

Her PhD is in “holistic nutrition”, and was obtained via a distance-learning programme from a non-accredited (meaning that it’s not formally recognised as having any real educational value) American college. On this basis, she had referred to herself as “Dr Gillian McKeith” on much of her output, but following a decision by the Advertising Standards Authority, she doesn’t do that any more.

That’s the background. Here’s the news.

On Wednesday, a lady named Rachel E. Moody tweeted her excitement about reading Bad Science, and almost being up to the chapter on – in her words – “Gillian McKeith. (not Phd)”.

The next day, in response to this, Rachel received four tweets sent her way, from the Twitter account @gillianmckeith. Rachel recounted the tweets in full here, and they’ve also been stored on FreezePage. Among other things, the operator of the @gillianmckeith account accuses Rachel of “anti-American bigotry”, and seems to assume that the sole problem she has with Ms McKeith’s doctorate is its Stateside origin.

It doesn’t seem that hard to understand the difference between actual qualifications from accredited universities, which allow you to do things like provide healthcare, and “diploma mills” not recognised by the Department of Education, which imply no level of expertise. That’s the problem people have with her PhD, not simply that it’s from America. But then, I wouldn’t even think that an enema would be a good cure for “pimples on the forehead”, so what do I know? (That’s one of Gillian’s. Bad Science, page 120.)

Anyway, more relevant than all that was this comment:

Miss Anti-American: How sad a life to enjoy reading lies about another by an ass who makes money from pharmaceutical giants

Now, calling Ben Goldacre an ass is perfectly legally defensible, and from someone like Gillian McKeith I imagine he’d wear such a label as a badge of honour. But calling the contents of his book “lies” is far less innocuous. That’s a direct and unequivocal accusation of dishonesty – rather more so, in fact, than the remark which lumped Simon Singh with a libel suit that took two years to go away.

So this was when people started to take notice.

And by “take notice”, I mean they used it as an excuse to take the piss out of Gillian McKeith all over Twitter.

And by “they”, I mean “we”.

There was nothing much to it at first. It was something that prompted people to remember who Gillian McKeith is and why she’s a terrible person, and it can be fun to bitch nostalgically about old enemies. I think #gillianmckeithhasnophd was a trending topic at one point. Dr Ben Goldacre (whose PhD medical qualifications actually means something) asked her to retract her potentially libellous description of his book as “lies”, though there was never any suggestion of taking her to court over it. (We’re all tired of that kind of approach, from either side.)

And then a little bit later, @gillianmckeith’s Twitter feed looked like this.

The tweets direct at Rachel are gone. And there’s a sudden burst of excuses and justifications regarding Ms McKeith’s qualifications.

The two most noticeable things about this are: a) she’s started talking about herself in the third person, and b) she’s still carrying on the “anti-American” angle, apparently under the impression that her detractors must have a problem with Alabama or America, rather than with tacky diploma mills.

In response, we took the piss some more.

But then it got really fun.

The reason I linked to an image file there, rather than her Twitter feed itself, is because those tweets aren’t there any more. They vanished suddenly sometime this afternoon. As I write this, there are only two tweets visible from @gillianmckeith in the past few days. The first of these asks:

Do you actually believe this is real twitter site for the GM?

Ooh. However it turned out now, this was clearly going to be rather exciting.

Was it a spoof account, a parody, set up by some nobody trying to hijack some unearned internet fame? The account wasn’t verified by Twitter themselves, but it didn’t look to me the way fake or parody accounts tend to look. Her feed seemed mostly to consist of mundane personal tweets, the odd spot of self-promotion, and sharing or re-tweeting of links to the kind of health news you’d expect Gillian McKeith to share. She didn’t seem to be celebrity-baiting, or eagerly evangelising and vying for an audience, in the way I’ve often seen parodists do before. It seemed too low-key to be a hoax.

But if it was a genuine account, and she was now seemingly attempting to deny any connection between the Twitter account and Ms McKeith herself… then what the hell was going on?

It gets better.

If you go to Ms McKeith’s website, you won’t find any mentions of her Twitter account on the main page. But if you look in the source code, there’s a link to the very Twitter account in question, commented out. Here’s what that looks like.

(A quick aside for non-HTML geeks: When writing computer code, for a game or a website or whatever, most coding languages will let you insert “comments” into the code. These are short sections which you don’t want to actually do anything – the words won’t appear on the screen, the computer just ignores them. But it can be handy to describe what’s going on in the code, especially if it’s complex and if someone else might want to work on it later, or if you plan on coming back to it in the future, and you want to make sure it’s clear what all the lines of technical computer language are about. In the code for Ms McKeith’s website, there’s a Twitter link to @gillianmckeith, but it’s in the middle of a comment, so it’s not appearing on the page itself. This looks as if the link used to be on the page, but was then made inactive, without being totally deleted.)

Oh, and rather more conclusively, her last newsletter still has the link to her Twitter account.

It’s definitely her account. Gillian McKeith, or someone responsible for her web presence, made a desperate and futile attempt to backtrack after she said some stupid things, and much hilarity ensued.

Fun though this whole debacle has been, it’s not especially damning. The primary thing it showcases is simply a general failure to comprehend how the internet works. But it also rather strongly implies that the evidence regarding the claims she made is not on her side, seeing as she declined to present any and instead seems to have tried covering the whole thing up. And that’s worth noting. If I must be reminded of Gillian McKeith’s existence again, I’d much rather it be because she’s making a complete idiot out of herself.

Spreading the kudos and hat-tips:

ZenBuffy’s round-up was quicker and blunter than mine. It’s good to see BoingBoing firmly on the right side of this one. And I’ll update this post with links to forthcoming pieces by Jack of Kent and Dr Ben Goldacre when they’re available – those Twitter feeds are among the main hubs of gossip on this story, as those two have been at the fore of discussing it. Also, you can read a lengthy dissection of The Awful Poo Lady’s activities by Dr Ben here. Oh, and Tom Chivers at the Telegraph has a nice summary of all this too.

[Edit 14/07/10: Jack of Kent is already on the case. I completely agree with everything he says, and will borrow a couple of his lines here:

No defamatory meaning is implied by any of the above, and none should be inferred.

It is possible that Ms McKeith herself is blissfully unaware of what happened and will be horrified at what was done by those with contol over both her website and twitter account.]

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… at least according to certain malicious right-wing propaganda outlets.

I have a lot of Christian friends, but sometimes it’s hard not to see the whole religion as one utterly contemptible monolith.

It takes real conscious effort to be restrained, and to give credit to the many good and decent religious people I know, and to funnel my disgust appropriately towards the occasional obnoxious scumbag who deserves it.

How does WorldNetDaily writer Chrissy Satterfield offend mine eyes with her revolting existence? Let me count the ways.

For a start, she’s a fucking liar.

“Never would I encourage vandalism,” she proclaims, as she gleefully describes the defacing of a billboard put up by the North Carolina Secular Association recently, because she knows that’s something she has to say to cover her ass, as a pitiful gesture to avoid accusations of supporting a criminal act.

But when she’s also gushing over how this blatant vandalism has reassured her that “all is not lost”, and outright names it as “something positive”, it’s impossible to see this perfunctory disclaimer as anything but disingenuous.

I would like to extend my deepest thanks to the man or woman responsible for this vandalism. I appreciate the action you took.

How is this not a ringing endorsement of a criminal activity?

Also, she plays the victim card so hard and repeatedly that all the other cards are getting scuffed and I’m going to have to get a fresh deck. In a country which has never been led by a non-Christian President, and in which a majority of the population are so fanatically Christian that they either deny or misunderstand numerous important points of basic science, it’s somehow atheists who deserve to get slapped down a little.

As retribution for how they’ve been “vandalizing [her] beliefs”. As if that were a phrase that had any meaning whatsoever.

She actually calls atheists her “oppressors”. She’s not even self-deluded enough to pretend she doesn’t think that atheists are oppressing Christians in the USA. She’s just sufficiently moronic to be totally up-front about it.

Those oppressive atheists aren’t as “calm and passive” as Chrissy Satterfield would like. They sound a dangerous and aggressive lot. They’re probably the sort of violent, unruly sort who go round damaging and defacing other people’s property whenever they see anyone else expressing an opinion they disagree with.

Oh, wait.

She does touch on this point as well, actually:

Incidentally, when was the last you heard about a Christian billboard that was vandalized? It happens all the time, yet it’s never “newsworthy.”

She doesn’t cite a single instance of this occurring, obviously, let alone provide any evidence that any atheists would actually support the defacement of a Christian billboard in an equivalent situation. But she’s hypocritically whining about it anyway, venting her entirely self-contradictory outrage about this terrible crime even though it hasn’t happened.

But if it did happen, it would be terrible. Even though it’s wonderful that it’s happened now, to somebody else.

By the way, let’s recap on the exact message that was originally written on the billboard:

One Nation Indivisible

That’s it.

That’s the “controversial” message designed by a “spiteful” group to “deliberately insult” Christians.

I wonder if it was so controversial and offensive when it was part of a loyalty oath written in 1892 by a Baptist minister and called the Pledge of Allegiance.

The point of the billboard, of course, is to highlight the fact that the Pledge has gone through several revisions in its history, and the words “under God” were only added in 1948 1954.

It’s an interesting historical point, and it’s worth being aware that not all the schoolchildren who regularly take the Pledge consider themselves to be “under God” – and they’re certainly not all under the same God.

But even bringing up the point is too much for some Christians to bear.

This billboard simply suggests that the nation is, indeed, indivisible, while subtly and unobtrusively omitting certain other words which often accompany this idea. It doesn’t scrawl any lines over anything; it doesn’t rip the pages out of anyone else’s copy of anything; it doesn’t detest or decry any sentiment that any religious Americans want to express, let alone attempt to censor such expression. It just says One Nation Indivisible, and hints that maybe the quietly absent portion of the message isn’t what’s really important.

And certain Christians cannot stand this.

Theirs is the dominant faith in the world, with over two billion adherents, and is vastly more influential than any other belief system in the US. But it’s also such a flimsy, paper-thin structure, liable to collapse at any moment with even the slightest questioning prod, that some of them find it necessary to quash dissenting opinion even to the point of breaking the law.

Well, let’s see them ignore this.

As soon as someone else has a different idea that they’re not afraid to tell the world, out comes the screeching of unfairness and the violent, belligerent, cruelly hostile defense system.

The Yahoo! news story which this arrogant zealot linked to makes reference to several more acts of vandalism, this time against posters that did nothing more than let people know that atheists exist, and yet more bus ads being defaced, which don’t even reference Christianity or any religion, let alone make assertions about them that could possibly cause offence.

And Chrissy Satterfield also praises these criminal acts. There doesn’t seem to exist an attack on non-believers’ freedom of expression which she doesn’t fully support. She is hateful and malicious, and she must be colossally insecure, if the only way she can see for “Christians to stand up for themselves” is to attack and brutalise and destroy any other system of thought with the audacity to make itself known. It is utterly pathetic.

People like this claim to be just trying to protect their own rights, and angered by how easily these rights are afforded to other groups, but this is transparent bullshit. Anything not going her way is called injustice and oppression. Anytime she’s not allowed to retaliate against this perceived injustice with the full force of her self-righteousness, she complains that everyone else is getting special treatment.

The vandal stood up for what he believed in and said, “To heck with what anyone thinks.” I find it quite refreshing considering all of the negativity our country has accumulated lately.

It’s the very existence of atheists with the gall to say what they believe that constitutes “negativity” in Chrissy Satterfield’s eyes. And the criminal attack on a minority group’s efforts to make use of their right to free speech is a positive, to her.

As Brielle points out, atheists, LGBT folk, and many others regularly speak out and say “To heck with what anyone thinks” in exactly the way Chrissy was just praising. In fact, that’s arguably what the North Carolina Secular Association were doing with this very billboard.

But when they do that, Chrissy’s all for shouting them down and stomping on their efforts to get their message heard. Because she doesn’t mean what she says. What she admires is when people stand up for her beliefs, without caring what those other people think. Because those people don’t count. They can be oppressed and shouted down all she likes. And they don’t get to speak up if they have anything to say that she finds offensive.

And who’s protecting my right not to be offended?

You don’t have one, you pompous, self-absorbed cunt. And if you can point to a single instance of an atheist ever claiming such a right for themselves, I’ll happily suggest they join you in shutting the fuck up.

Chrissy Satterfield, your utter contempt for anyone else’s rights is despicable. Please, for the love of anything which is capable of inducing such an emotion in your twisted, blackened heart, find a dictionary, look up the word “compassion”, and spend a few minutes trying to understand why some fellow humans might consider this a desirable attribute.

(Hat-tip to the Friendly Atheist, who is well named, particularly in comparison to the tone of my own tirade.)

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Okay, so here’s something that’s brought me out of my summer heat-induced stupor to try and form some opinions.

Skeptics and atheists. Where’s the overlap? Can you be one but not the other? Should they have distinct organisations and meetings, keep well apart, work together when their goals are shared?

D.J. Grothe’s blog post discusses this in the context of Pamela Gay’s recent appearance on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast. Pamela’s an astronomer and a science educator, but also a Christian, and the podcast is entirely populated by outspoken atheists. Some people saw some friction in these two worldviews appearing together on the same show.

Personally, I really don’t have a problem with having people discuss science on a skeptical show even if they believe in God. When it comes to her scientific field of study, Pamela Gay knows what she’s talking about, and has a lot to contribute. And I think any skeptical organisation should be pleased to welcome people like that.

The issue seems to be whether or not someone has any skeptical blind spots so massive as to damage their credibility in all other areas of critical inquiry. And this probably needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis, but the particular case of Dr Gay seems like a fairly straightforward one.

I’m tempted to also say that, if we do too severe a job of hounding any scientists or keen skeptics for their religious beliefs, it will make the skeptical movement less accessible and approachable to a lot of people who are interested in science, but don’t want to be told that belief in God is silly or unfounded. The supposed danger is that we’ll be seen as grumpy, unfriendly, god-hating dogmatists, with no tolerance for beliefs that go against the scientific orthodoxy.

Although I can’t claim that the entire skeptical movement avoids this kind of fundamentalism, it certainly doesn’t describe most of us. But I’m never quite sure how patronising this is to theists, and I’m wary of becoming cynically “accommodationist” of views that deserve firm skeptical criticism. There’s also a danger of treading too lightly and being too over-sensitive to people and ideas that are just wrong, so that you never dare to call out bullshit even when it’s doing real damage.

But of course it’s possible to question someone’s views without demonising them as an unworthy skeptic. When Pamela Gay speaks at TAM 8 in Las Vegas in the coming week, I imagine she might have a few discussions with some of the atheists there about religious belief, a few pointed barbs might fly back and forth, and then they’ll all head off together to get something to eat or watch Phil Plait bitchslapping some astrologers. There’s plenty of common ground there still, and nothing stopping people from getting on well with and appreciating the value of others with whom they disagree.

If she were a dowser as well as a skeptic, then this might cast serious doubt on her ability to reason critically and analyse evidence in general, and her scientific credentials would be less persuasive. But she’s a moderate Christian. There’s a lot of those around. Culturally, it’s a very easy thing to be without also being crazy or stupid or ignorant. I think you’d have to be a whole lot wackier in your ideas than this before reaching the point where skeptics shouldn’t want to be associated with you at all.

Also I agree with pretty much everything PZ Myers says here.

(And if that sounded like an abrupt ending, that’s because it’s lunchtime.)

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