how tone is becoming the new censorship

Egged on by cranks and quacks, the media seems obsessed with how nice someone is instead of whether what they're saying makes any sense.
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There’s certainly something to be said for a defense of an argument based not on the weight of evidence and research behind it, but the personal feelings of its author and how rude he thinks you were in refuting what he presented with absolutely zero data behind it. It’s a very weak defense. Over the last year, I’ve heard and read so many discussions about proper tone, I’m starting to wonder if atheists and scientists are now supposed to counter religious propaganda or the bloviating pundits of Templeton and the Discovery Institute by starting all their rebuttals with “a thousand pardons my kind sirs and ladies” and a disclaimer that if anything they said or presented was offensive, the offended parties can seek them out for retribution at such and such locations or by calling such and such phone numbers to set up a grievance session. And what gets lost as we waste our time practicing curtseys, bows, and holding our pinkies out while sipping tea, is the actual argument itself, the merits of what’s being said, you know, the actually important stuff, not just the trivial minutia of tone or custom surrounding the discussion. But cranks and crackpots are using this minutia to play censor in the media.

Here’s a fresh example from PZ about a philosophical journal’s review of creationist epistemology, or rather, how creationists are making a philosophically flawed argument by relying on a deity that’s by definition out of our realm of knowledge or understanding. Basically, the arguments in question say, you can’t make a logical proposition by relying on something beyond human epistemological limits since probing your conjecture is a wholly impossible task. Sounds pretty solid. If I were to write a paper describing how an algorithm I used has to have run with a much smaller time complexity than it’s supposed to because I had a priest bless my laptop and it must therefore now run faster, my colleagues and professors would examine me with a bewildered look in their eyes and ask me if I was felling all right or whether I need to take it easy for a couple of days. Also, an observant logician would note that I didn’t provide any proof that the algorithm ran faster, didn’t state how I had gone about measuring time complexity and whether that method was sound, and my claim that it was faster due to divine intervention seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of how time complexity is measured, as well as a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. And she would be absolutely right. Unless you change code, you don’t get a better time complexity value because time complexity is a measure completely independent of how quickly a computer will actually execute the algorithm itself, referring to the actual logic involved.

All right, so what’s the problem, you ask. Seems like a pretty wonky description of abstract reasoning at a very high, academic level. Well, the creationists whose arguments were chosen to show why creationism lacks a plausible, philosophically sound backing, took offense to being called out by name and having their faulty tries at logic dissected in an academic journal. So they did what cranks nowadays do best, ran to a nearby fainting couch and got the editors to put in a note criticizing how harsh the philosophical arguments in favor of proper scientific methodology were, sort of like the mature content warning labels you used to see on CDs. Note that they didn’t challenge the refutations themselves, that they didn’t publish a counter-argument trying to elaborate on why they thought an argument from ignorance coupled with a deus ex machina is sound logic. They simply whined to the editors who did their best impression of human milquetoasts and warned that a scholarly view of creationism’s follies was harsh for… well, apparently pointing out that their thread of thought was not logical in the first place. This behavior reminds me of the time that New Scientist yielded to empty threats from one very obnoxious and self-centered crackpot who decided that an article about how to spot pseudoscience in books was a direct shot at him when it spoke of broad trends in literature masquerading as popular science and promoting misleading or wrong ideas about how the world around us works. Only what makes this a lot worse is that we’re not talking about a pop sci magazine. SYNTHESE is an academic publication and it might be setting a very, very bad precedent by giving cranks a tool for censoring well-deserved critique.

What’s next? Should journals start retracting studies showing that another researcher got bad data or lacked enough rigor in his experiments to make the conclusion he did and demonstrates something very different on the grounds that the researcher’s feelings were hurt and that experiment really meant a lot to him? Whatever happened to actually defending your academic positions with data? Do we really want to allow a limp-wristed editor to dictate how scientific and academic discourse takes place because some people can’t take a little much needed criticism that’s vital to the continuation of science, so much so that it’s starting to become a problem in academic circles? When was there some sort of edict which mandates that we must either be as inoffensive as possible or right but not both, and why are there so many scientists and skeptics trying with all their might to adhere to this unwritten pseudo-rule while their opposition uses it to silence them? Now, if the papers in question were really rude and called the creationists whose ideas they criticized idiots, which would certainly be language unbecoming of public academic discussions, I could see some semblance of a point and grant the disclaimer some value. But that’s not the case. The paper simply says that creationists do not advocate a philosophically sound position and uses two creationists who published their views in the very same journal as examples, while being polite enough to gain admission to the Ms. Manners School of Public Debate with ease. And the two tender simpletons who think they’re beyond reproach took offense at the notion that they might be wrong and went crying to the editors. If this is how creationists think science is done, it’s no wonder they struggle. Crying aloud about your hurt feelings is the act of a spoiled child, not a scientist.

# science // academia / creationism / creationists / religion


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