Something’s rotten in the discourse …

So, Jason Rosenhouse is commenting, with some specific examples, about a new debate about the tone of scienceblogs:

My title refers to the last paragraph of his post:


“Don’t like P.Z.? Or Dawkins? Then don’t read them. It’s OK, really. Just spare me the lectures about how they’re symbolic of some rot in the discourse …”


Actually, I’m going to argue that, yes, at least P.Z. is symbolic of some rot in the discourse, and that his entire post flat-out proves my point.

So, while I could comment on how he addresses Dreher and Heffernan, I’m going to leave that out to focus on the precise arguments he makes that prove my point.  And I’ll start with an outlining of my specific point:

Rosenhouse. Myers, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Coyne et al all want to claim that we should, in fact, employ critical thinking about all propositions, and should always be strictly and properly rational in our dealings.  This, then, should include how they approach “converting” people to their point of view and how people do, in fact, get so converted.  If incivility can be shown to work against that and provide mechanisms for discussion that are not rational, and if that incivility can then be shown to be aimed at influencing people in an irrational way to come to their point of view, then they have a big problem … in that they are trying to convince people to follow only rational methods using an irrational methodology.

So, let’s look at some quotes from the post:


“Incivility is a tool in the arsenal. It is very good for calling attention to an issue and to a point of view. If the incivility is backed up by a good argument it can be very powerful.”


But isn’t a good argument, on its own, very powerful?  Here, at least he seems to be saying that you can use incivility to draw people to the issue, where hopefully good discussions ensue.  But counter-intuitive or really good arguments do that, too — or, at least, they should.  And, in fact, the whole underlying point from the New Rationalists (no, don’t go looking it up; I just grabbed it off the top of my head) is that we’re supposed to pay attention to good arguments, and use that to decide what to pay attention to.  It’s a little bit worrisome to find Rosenhouse seemingly advocating not doing that.  But it gets worse later on, so we’ll pick this up again after a short digression into …


“Or consider The God Delusion. Can anyone argue with a straight face that Dawkins would have been a more effective advocate for his view had he written a stodgy academic treatment of his material?”


Wait … are you saying that Dawkins didn’t write a stodgy, academic treatment of his material?

(Badoom chish).

But there’s an important point here: I don’t consider Dawkins all that uncivil, throughout most of it.  There are times when he mocks instead of argues, and he engages in rhetoric far more than he should, but overall it’s relatively, um, polite.  I find the arguments quite lacking, but that’s my biggest reaction to reading The God Delusion, as evidenced by the partial critique I have up; I don’t think I really comment on tone at all, but do comment on content.  About the only time I can think of that I critiqued tone was when I commented that he spent a half a page translating the Ontological Argument into a schoolyard argument … and then only did that to lament that he spent that long doing that and so little time actually examining the best arguments against the Ontological Argument.

So, no, Dawkins isn’t that uncivil, and his book is one that strikes me more as being wrong than as being nasty or rude.  So, perhaps, we need to settle on what counts as rude and what doesn’t.  Overall, Dawkins doesn’t strike me as rude, and neither does Sam Harris and neither does Dan Dennett.  Hitchens and P.Z. Myers do strike me as rude.  Jerry Coyne has his moments of jerkiness, but I don’t generally call him out on tone either, except when he takes a long running rant at something about his opponents … and then does it himself (see this post of mine for an example: ).  And that’s more about, again, the irrationality than the tone itself.

So, what counts as rude?  I’m not sure anyone knows, which might be something we want to settle first.  But, at least Rosenhouse and I can agree that Myers can be a bit rude, and go on from there.


“As for P.Z., I get it that some people do not care for his style. The cure for that is to not read him. I would point out, though, that he routinely provides some of the very best biology posts you will find anywhere. Some of us come for the contempt for religion, and then stay for the science.”


Well, see, that first point is kinda what Chad Orzel complains about below: you tick some people off, and they don’t stay.  So they don’t get the science.  And that would be … bad, don’t you think?

But the key point is that Rosenhouse says that some of them come for the contempt of religion — explicitly, then, the rudeness — and then stay for the science.  And I have to ask: why do you come for the contempt of religion?  Why is that appealing to you?  Why is someone ranting rudely and insulting religion and, at times, religious people appealing to you?  I, personally, don’t even like reading blogs that agree with me, let alone blogs that do so rudely.  I don’t learn anything from blogs that agree with me, and certainly don’t learn anything from blogs that are basically rude about the topics so that some people who disagree with me get driven off before being able to argue about why I’m wrong.


“On the more general question, I think Chad is concluding too much from Heffernan’s piece. She visited the site, found it rude and left. Oh well. But how many other people visit the site precisely because they see a lively conversation going on? How many other people like the passion and the politics and would simply find it boring if everyone wrote in staid, academic terms?”


There are two big conflations here:

1) Read Myers’ blog, and read the comments, and ask yourself how many people who, in fact, disagree with Myers on religion post there regularly.  I’ve skimmed comments and haven’t found all that many, and those that do tend to, in fact, be those that I would consider kooks.  The same thing can be seen at Coyne’s site, and at any number of specific topic sites (I’d list religious ones, but, again, don’t read ’em as per the previous paragraph).  How can you have a lively conversation or discussion on a topic without having the other side willing, able, and welcome to get into the conversation, too?  People who are on the other side of the topic might be less willing to post in a rude atmosphere, and people who do are likely to start angry and irrational and more on the defensive and less open to being convinced.  That’s not the hallmarks of a rational discussion, to me.

2) Passionate and rude are not, in fact, synonyms.  My writing tends to be stodgy, but my speaking is not, because I use tone of voice and other things to indicate that I, in fact, care about the topic.  Yes, that’s harder to do in text, but note that at no time does passion require insult or, in fact, even anger.  You don’t have to hate your opponents to be passionate about a topic.  You don’t have to insult them.  And you certainly shouldn’t call them idiots for the grand crime of disagreeing with you.

But, onto a deeper point: why does he — and why do others — like passion?  Well, passionate argument engages the emotions, and doing that makes almost anything more entertaining.  And it has been proven time and time again that engaging the emotions is dangerous.  It can make you believe things that are ridiculous, or hold those beliefs more strongly than you should.  In fact, this is precisely what a lot of the New Rationalists argue against in terms of religion or other “woo”: the emotions of people are being used to get them to suspend their rationality and believe irrationally.  So, then, what other purpose can the passion that Rosenhouse admires so much be achieving?

(BTW, being Stoic-leaning, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m suspicious of passion.  But also note that far too often I’ve seen people say weak arguments passionately and have the people who are on their side say that it was a devastating rebuttal.  No, the argument’s not that strong, but the insults make people cheer, and that’s good enough for rationality, right?)


“And that’s precisely the problem with all the hand-wringing about tone, the worries about driving people away for excessive nastiness, and the fretting about what is and is not convincing to people. The same features that some people find offputting are precisely the ones that others find attractive. Discourse that drives some people away form your cause draws other people to it.”


The problem is that Rosenhouse never bothers to ask: is it a good thing that tone alone can draw people to your cause?  What does tone have to do with the rationality of your arguments?


It’s like profanity in comedy. I think George Carlin and Robin Williams are two of the best comedians in the history of the business. But I know a lot of people who find them crude and offensive. No problem. For them we have people like Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby. Profanity is one tool in the comedian’s arsenal. Used properly it can increase the effectiveness of a routine. But it can also turn people off. Different strokes for different folks.

Why do people find it so complicated that different styles of writing are appropriate in different contexts? Or that different people respond to different things? Polemicism and incivility are tools in the arsenal. Used properly they can achieve things that are near impossible to achieve in any other way. Used improperly they are just obnoxious and unpleasant. Many of us are attracted to writing with a clear viewpoint and a strong opinion. Others do not like that. That is why we need many different people doing many different things. We need both warriors and diplomats as the saying goes.”


Well, first, the analogy doesn’t work because all the comedians are trying to do is make me laugh.  What makes people laugh is, in fact, entirely a subjective matter; people all have their own things that they find funny.  For example, I tend to dislike crude humour and dislike profane humor, and adore puns and clever comments — even if those have a sexual undertone.  Others prefer crude humour.  And since that’s a completely subjective matter, that’s all okay.

Things change when you’re trying to convince someone about the facts of the world.  All that should matter, then, is the strength of the argument and the reasoning.  If someone — anyone — is saying that they wouldn’t accept the argument if it was said a certain way, but would if it was said another, that’s kinda a problem, and the whole problem that the New Rationalists are arguing against: we let irrelevant things determine whether or not we’ll accept or reject an argument.

So, I ask this, honestly: what do incivility and polemics add to the strength of any argument?  The answer is: nothing.  Being swayed by incivility, passionate expresion, polemics, and rhetoric are precisely the sorts of things that indicate a lack of critical thinking.  If we employed critical thinking, we certainly wouldn’t need to be entertained or have our emotions engaged to determine what to accept and what to reject.  We wouldn’t be swayed to the side of the most passionate speaker.

So, given that, why is Rosenhouse adovacting this?  At best, he could say that it’s a stop-gap until we can get people thinking critically, but I’d reply that this, in fact, presumes he’s correct and some very smart people don’t think he is.  Thus, applying bullying and polemic and rhetoric and insult and emotional manipulation to convince people to side with something that the arguments may not support is, in fact, dangerous, wrong, and completely opposed to the principles that the New Rationalists say that we should be following.

I’m willing to engage in reasonable debate, even with passionate people.  The rudeness, insults, and mocking, however, serve no purpose in the debate, and if Rosenhouse is really saying that they work, then that should scare the heck out of him, because it means that people are relying on irrational mechanisms to accept the things that they should accept just using reason.  It boggles my mind that this doesn’t scare him.

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