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Posts Tagged ‘twitter’

I’ve started following some people I disagree with on Twitter.

Listening to people you disagree with is really quite important. I mean, I talk to hypothetical people I disagree with on this blog all the time, and I act like I’m expecting them to listen. So it’s only polite.

And I do get probably an unhealthy amount of my reporting on what “the other side” think only when it’s been filtered through someone on “my side” reporting on it, with all the expected disdain and righteous indignation that I find it hard not to share.

So I’ve added a few contrarians to my feed. I’m planning to find more blogs to achieve the same thing, too. Feel free to make suggestions. (I’m a libertarian socialist atheist humanist, in case you need a recap on who I’m likely to find utterly antithetical to every value I hold dear.)

Anyway, there’s a particular thought process some of these oppositional commentators seem to spark in me. It goes something like this.

1. This opinion contradicts my understanding of the way things are!

2. I am more rational than to simply dismiss it out of hand, however. I shall follow the attached link and look a bit more closely into what the assertion actually is, and how well it stands up.

3. Well, it isn’t immediately obvious to me what’s wrong here.

4. But something must be, this person’s a tit and clearly on the wrong side of everything.

5. Okay, that’s definitely not a rational conclusion. Can I actually find any holes in this piece of analysis?

6. …No.

7. But it doesn’t mean this person’s right; really, I just don’t understand the subject well enough to have an opinion either way. It’s quite intricately political in an area I’m not well versed in.

8. Is that a cop-out to avoid admitting that I was wrong about something, because this person made a good point?

9. No, I think I really honestly don’t have a clue one way or the other. This seems like a good point, but so did the other stuff I’d already read from the other side. Apparently I can’t reliably tell which of these two opposing viewpoints is making the best points. I really should conclude that I just don’t know what’s going on.

10. Y’know, I probably should’ve started with that before even deciding I had an opinion worth defending.

I’ve also provided myself with a few examples of how a little intelligence and rationality can be a dangerous thing, if they’re deployed and placed strategically so as to continue reinforcing one’s own biases.

In particular, this comes up in my reactions when somebody not part of my “in-group” makes a claim about a contentious subject, as opposed to when somebody who is identified as being on “my side” makes a similar claim, when I don’t have time to fully examine either of them right now.

The contrast between “Hmm, I should study this more carefully later, and also find an informed rebuttal from someone who disagrees, to make sure I’ve got both sides of the story and can fully and rationally assess the truth of the situation” and “Yep, makes sense!” is quite stark.

So I’ve learned some things about my own rationality, and the way my brain works when confronted with ideas and individuals I tend to find unreasonable and infuriating.

On the other hand, I’ve also been reminded that, sometimes, people whose political opinions happen to differ significantly from mine are also horrible. Just unbearably, viciously, despicably horrible.

So there’s that.

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Today I bring you a different kind of grumpy intolerance, and also some poetry. I’ll probably be a prosaic hippy again later.

So Twitter is this place where people like being funny and making self-referential jokes about stuff. Other shit goes on too, but it’s the bit with all the parodies and creatively amusing pop culture references I’m interested in now.

In particular, there have been any number of accounts created in the name of fictional or historical characters, which emulate their style of speaking and writing. One of my favourite examples from days of English yore is Dr Samuel Johnson, and there are plenty more of that ilk.

And while much of this is great fun to follow and join in with, you can probably guess (even if you aren’t familiar with Sturgeon’s Law that predicts it) that a lot of these accounts are crap.

I don’t want to pick on Shakespeare Lyrics in particular – there are surely numerous worse offenders out there, and there’s nothing that offensive about some dismal “songs in archaic language” – but it’s had the ill fortune of irritating me with its unimaginativeness a couple of times now. Also, it has over 30,000 follows, and got over a thousand retweets for this:

We art never, ever, ever, becoming reunited

Seriously? That’s a sufficiently authentic Shakespearean adaptation of a Taylor Swift lyric to impress over a thousand of you?

I can’t find the tweet now that first bugged me a couple of months ago (I’m not entirely certain it was the same account), but it was a fairly similar cut-and-paste job of some olde worlde vocab into a couple of lines of Sir Mixalot. More or less off the top of my head, I tweeted an example of how it’s meant to be done:

“Rebecca, such a strumpet do I spy! / A hip-hop minstrel’s wench she doth resemble!”

“A curvèd rear’s most pleasing to mine eye / On this point, ’tis beyond me to dissemble.”

Now, I’m not going crazy, that’s pretty good, right? Assuming you know the song, that’s a recognisable paraphrasing of “I like big butts and I cannot lie”, and it’s in actual iambic pentameter, right? It’s not just me?

Anyway nobody noticed because I’m not a Twitter megastar and life moved on.

Today Kirsty goaded me by retweeting another effort from the same account:

Oh Mickey thou art indeterminately divine, thou art indeterminately divine thee explode my cerebellum, greetings Mickey, greetings Mickey.

Fucksakes.

Okay, first: scientists didn’t even begin to understand the cerebellum’s function until the 1800’s, so it’s unlikely Shakespeare would have mentioned it at all, let alone used it as a casual synonym for “mind”.

Secondly, there’s still nothing that scans. You’re just swapping in some high-falutin’ words with no context and expecting us to be impressed. And thousands of people are, depressingly. Currently 8,129 retweets on that one. Fucking hell. I should start myself one of these accounts.

But mostly, this kind of thing is exactly what would run through any mentally functional person’s mind within seconds of considering how to cross the memes of “contemporary songs people like quoting” and “Shakespeare talk”. “We art never, ever, ever becoming reunited” is what you do to make an anachronism of We Are Never Getting Back Together without even trying. Anyone could do it to that level.

So I had a proper go at turning some modern pop lyrics into very loosely Shakespearean-style poetry, in a way that not just anyone could do without applying some effort, not that they’d necessarily want to. If I truly cared about my art, I’d have stretched it out into a proper sonnet, but life is short.

Dear ladies unrestrained by marriage yet:
If romance be your driving aspiration,
And someday true love falls into your net
And makes you raise your arms in celebration,
Do not risk losing what you sought so long,
And ever tighter to it you must cling.
Draw inspiration from that old love song:
Thou shouldst ensnare their digit with a ring.

That’s how we play in MY house, bitches.

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As well as not doing much blogging or writing any new stories, my Twitter feed went a bit dead for the last couple of weeks, while I’ve been mopey about work prospects and whatnot. It perked up a bit today. Here’s what’s been inspiring me to brevity, mostly regarding the London mayoral election.

RT @sturdyAlex: Whether you decide to vote or not and, if you do, for whom you vote, make it a conscious decision.

Much better advice there than just “whoever you vote for, make sure you vote”.

Vote for Boris. Because how likely is Ken to toss on about wiff-waff at the Olympics? Come on, gay people, get on board.

NB “privilege”. RT @amolrajan: Hate all politicians? Can’t be arsed to vote? Shut up and grow up. People died to give you this privilege.

Just decide which power-hungry arsehole you hate least and tacitly accept their authority over you. That’s called being mature.

RT @41un: @writerJames @amolrajan No candidates here have policies. Isn’t it an abuse to increase the work of the counting officer with a random vote?

I drop half a carrot just by the bridge. After a flash of snuffly nose, it’s dragged out of sight underneath. Guinea pigs are adorable.

I may have got a bit bored with politics toward the end of the day.

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You know when Irish rock band U2 released an album titled How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb?

You remember how they were then arrested and spent several years in Guantanamo Bay under suspicion of possessing illegal fissile material and intent to tamper with restricted government nuclear facilities?

No, you probably don’t. One reason why you don’t remember this is that nobody ever really suspected them of any kind of dangerous or unlawful activities relating to weapons of mass destruction.

It may have been possible that this album title was a surprisingly overt expression of a malicious intent to commit a terrorist act, made by individuals whom nobody has ever had any other reason to suspect.

But it’s more likely that they had their own, more benign reasons for using that particular combination of words, in a way that wasn’t quite literal.

In fact it’s a lot more likely. It probably never even occurred to anyone to weigh up the respective probabilities. They didn’t even waste time investigating the potential nuclear threat, because it was so vanishingly remote.

Unfortunately, that wisdom is something we seem to have lost in recent years.

Otherwise, when a British guy called Leigh joked on Twitter about “diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up” and his plans to “destroy America”, he and the friend he was travelling with wouldn’t have been handcuffed and detained overnight on arrival in the US before being denied entry and sent back home.

Even after five hours of questioning (and a night sharing a cell with Mexican drug dealers), they had still failed to explain the notion of “humour” to airport officials. Their interrogators didn’t find any grave-digging shovels in the tourists’ possession (and yes, apparently they checked), or anything else to suggest that they might have been doing anything other than hyperbolically discussing their party plans. But it was still deemed safest not to let them in.

The phrase I’ve heard that most pithily sums up the problem here, to my mind, is “Suspicion Fail“. The criteria for valid suspicion outlined in that post make sense: you should only view a person’s behaviour as suspicious if it is consistent with “bad” behaviour (such as intent to commit a crime), and inconsistent with innocent behaviour.

In the case of the “destroy America” tweets, these guidelines were not followed with any competence. Anyone who understands anything at all about the way people talk in casual conversation, and the flippancy and inconsequentiality that characterises a significant proportion of Twitter usage, could tell you that this guy’s tweets were entirely consistent with someone innocent of any terrorist intent.

If you are determined to take things that literally, all the time, regardless of the context, in the hope of catching the very occasional terrorist, then if you cast your net widely enough you are inevitably going to achieve a false positive rate which does more damage to society than any atrocity you manage to prevent.

And by the way, if you think what happened is made slightly less unconscionable because the joke tweet in question “wasn’t funny”, then congratulations, you don’t understand anything about anything.

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Oh yeah, and I hope you all had a fun Christmasorwhatever over the last few days.

– “Let us allow ourselves to be made simple.” That’s a lot of what’s wrong with religion in one sentence, right there.

– A Christian pastor’s advice to a rape victim, based on the advice given in his holy book that billions of people take seriously: “It’s too bad that you didn’t force him to kill you instead. That way you could have at least died a virgin.

– Bruce Hood’s written a book I’m looking forward to reading, about how “there is no ‘you’ inside your head“. His Royal Society Christmas Lectures start tonight, too.

– Some corporate people still don’t really seem to understand how Twitter works.

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Crap! Judge Jacqueline Davies has made a preposterous legal ruling. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise…

Well, I suppose I’d better not finish that sentence. At least, not with anything more serious than “I’ll write an angry letter to a local newspaper and consider lodging some sort of official complaint”.

You may need some context if you don’t know what’s going on. In January, a guy called Paul Chambers vented some frustration on Twitter by posting the following, perhaps rather injudicious tweet:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!

The message eventually found its way to the airport security staff, and from there to the Crown Prosecution Service. At no point, as far as I can tell, did anybody actually feel threatened by the message, or consider that it might constitute a forecast of genuine domestic terrorism.

Because honestly, who would do that? He responded to the irritating and inconvenient cancellation of a flight he was going to catch to meet a girl, by posting the above message to his followers on Twitter. Is anyone really interpreting this tweet as being Phase One of a sinister plot to actually plant explosives in an airport and set off a massive detonation, as retribution for this annoyance? How is it possible to see this as anything other than an expression of comically impotent exasperation?

Nobody was ever in any danger as a result of the message. Nobody was delayed or inconvenienced, since the airport just got on with things as normal and deemed it no credible threat when it was brought to their attention. At worst, the guy deserved a caution, and a suggestion that he be more careful about such flippant references to terrorism in future, in case another such joke be taken seriously someday.

He was arrested for a “bomb hoax” offence, then charged and convicted under a different law regarding public communications of an “indecent, obscene or menacing” character. He was fined £1000, faces larger legal costs, and has just had his appeal turned down.

This has made a lot of people very unhappy and been widely regarded as a bad move.

David Allen Green has been acting for Paul Chambers since shortly after he heard about the case, and describes the background here and here. He also published a guest post by Paul’s partner, who blogs as CrazyColours, and who he was planning to fly over to meet in the flight referred to.

Martin Robbins updates us on the ludicrous War on Irony.

Heresy Corner posted about this on Thursday, after the appeal was turned down. I was initially wary of his conclusion that it is now “illegal to talk in your native idiom”, but now I’m honestly not so sure. That the message is “an instantly recognisable joke” seems obvious. Some people, of course, will fail to get it. But those are not people we should feel obliged to pander to. We don’t need to arrest everybody who says something that those humourless people find threatening, just like we don’t need to censor every comedian who wants to use a rude word so as to placate the screeching “won’t somebody think of the children” crowd.

David Mitchell wrote for The Observer about this after the conviction.

Mark Phillips has explained the linguistic structure of the joke, and how it clearly casts Paul Chambers in the role of beleaguered underdog with humourous intent.

Matt Flaherty has written a wonderful open letter to Judge Jacqueline Davies, which is slightly scary in revealing just how flawed and dangerous the reasoning behind this decision really was.

A fund supporting Paul Chambers as he continues his legal battle and/or normal life has been set up.

And, of course, the Twitterverse has not been impressed by this week’s decision.

Over the course of yesterday, many thousands of people used the #IAmSpartacus hashtag to tweet an exact duplicate “threat” against Robin Hood airport, myself included. Nothing could more solidly make the point that such a thing can be publicly declared without being remotely menacing.

Nobody sane could possibly conclude, from reading these tweets, that thousands of conspirators are simultaneously announcing an evil terror plot. We’re clearly doing it for a joke, or to express our frustration, or to make some sort of point.

The content (apart from the hashtag) in Paul Chambers’s original tweet was exactly the same. I submit that the only reasonable interpretation of his tweet is also identical. It was a joke, or to express his frustration, or to make some sort of point.

After joining in with this, I then spent the next hour or so trying to think of Monty Python references to go with the obvious follow-on to the #IAmSpartacus hashtag, namely: #ImBrianAndSosMyWife. “What have the Crown Prosecution Service ever done for us?” and so forth. Nobody paid much attention.

And that’s more or less the current state of play. I’m actually on my way into London now to watch Brendon Burns tell jokes which will almost certainly be far more offensive, threatening, and scandalous than anything anyone’s got into trouble on Twitter for. Sleep tight.

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After the recent tabloid-driven kerfuffle of hysteria, Stephen Fry has written about the silliness of it all in his usual wonderful way, and reinforced my inclination not to trust any news I haven’t learned through Twitter these days.

Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Twitter is a wonderful venue for very quickly sharing ideas and spreading news, but it’s still liable to various traps of misinformation – the substantial unquestioning backlash against Stephen’s own entirely misconstrued comments are a prime example, in fact, of just how far out of hand things can get.

But it’s a vast improvement on the current state of British tabloids.

Anton Vowl and Minority Thought have both highlighted a not-remotely-isolated incident of the Daily Express yelling about MUSLIMS! MUSLIMS and the terrible things THEY have been doing to US good, decent BRITISH folks.

We’re all in this together, lads. Against all of them.

Roshonara Choudhry is a Muslim extremist who was sentenced to life imprisonment this week, for the attempted murder of a government minister who’d supported the Iraq war. At the sentencing, some people in the public gallery shouted their disapproval. Outside, three guys stood around with messages printed out on sheets of A4 paper looking like something out of Chris Morris’s Four Lions.

And what the Express take from these shouts of impotent fury and flimsy signs from extremist sympathisers of a would-be murderer is that THEY are all out to get US.

Where “they” means Muslims. All of them, the entire homogeneous mass. The ones who keep blowing themselves up out in those foreign places with lots of sand, the two million or so who live in the UK who all come from different denominations and practise with differing strictness of observation, all of ’em.

And “us” means a particular subset of British people. It’s not entirely clear who “we” are. We’re not Muslims, that’s for sure. We live in the UK, or spent a while doing so at least. We’re probably not all white. And I suppose some of us might not be Christian, so long as we don’t look too foreign. But we know who is and isn’t welcome in our country, that’s for sure.

They’re callously driving home of what they know is a winning narrative, and it’s thoroughly unkind.

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A brief report on my colossal achievements of the day.

Rhys Morgan posted a link on Twitter earlier today to this comment on a blog discussion about the notorious non-medicine Miracle Mineral Solution. It’s one of a series of comments in which someone called Maria asserts that Rhys’s father is using him to make money, by attacking fake medicine on other people’s blogs.

At one point, she even seems to claim that Rhys himself doesn’t exist – or at least, that the online presence attributed to him is actually a cynical ploy by his father to rake in the Big Pharma payouts.

I and hundreds of others have seen Rhys in the flesh and can confirm that he is neither a hologram nor an urban legend. So, this particular piece of alt-med lunacy is just funny.

Kash Farooq tweeted:

@rhysmorgan Ahh. “Big Pharma pays you” conspiracy, now is it? I preferred the conspiracy theory that claimed you didn’t exist.

To which I replied:

@kashfarooq This sounds like a fun game. @rhysmorgan shot JFK! #rhysmorganconspiracytheories

And thus a hashtag game was born. Some of my favourites include:

Soylent Green is @rhysmorgan!!

It was @rhysmorgan swimming in Loch Ness in the 1934 photograph

@rhysmorgan is just a big hole through which aliens enter the hollow earth

‘Peer reviewed’ actually means that @rhysmorgan checked it to make sure it fitted with Big Pharma’s agenda

Paul the octopus knew too much about @rhysmorgan.

And many, many more.

Apparently it was the third highest trending topic, either in all of Twitter or just in the UK, or something. I missed it because I was in a meeting. But it’s pretty awesome. This is the stuff I feel proud of these days. Maybe in years to come I’ll feel ashamed that I ever considered something like this an accomplishment. Especially if I ever actually get a damn novel finished.

Incidentally, I just thought of the title for this post now, several hours too late. Maybe it’s just as well I didn’t come up with it sooner because it’s terrible.

As a brief post-script, there are currently 51 comments on this post, and the debate seems to be carrying on. And it’s hilarious. Join the fun!

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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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