Daily Archives: October 2, 2013

Pro Tip for Science Denialists: How to win a debate with a scientist

First, get a list of over a dozen things you want to say. They don’t have to be true, and many, even most, of them can be versions of each other. Then, when you are in the debate, do this:

Scientist: “If there’s one thing you should take away from this discussion, it’s…

Denialist [interrupting]: Thing one, thing two, thing three, thing four, thing five.

Scientist: “Actually, that thing four you said, that’s not really true ..

Denialist [interrupting]: Thing six, thing seven, thing eight, thing nine, thing ten.

Scientist: We can’t be sure of everything but one thing we are pretty sure of is…

Denialist [interrupting]: I’m sure of thing eleven, thing twelve, thing thirteen thing fourteen.

Moderator [scowling at denialist]: Let’s give the scientist a chance to explain thing two.

Scientist [flustered]: Thing two.. Well, what is really important is that, well, that’s not important; to know why thing two is incorrect you need to understand ….

Denialist [interrupting]: thing fifteen, thing sixteen, thing seventeen, thing eighteen, thing nineteen

Moderator: Well, that’s all the time we have, please join us next week..

Denialist [interrupting]: thing twenty, thing twenty-one, thing twenty two ….

Denialist wins debate.

A Short List of Candidates for Mayor of Minneapolis

A few days ago I wrote a note to each of several trusted fellow political activists asking them to provide me with a short list of which of the many candidates running for Mayor of Minneapolis they would feel comfortable with winning this important race. I did not ask for their number one choice, but rather, which of the candidates they would be reasonably comfortable with if they won. These fellow travelers in local politics were assured that I would include any and all names they gave me on the list, the list would be alphabetical and not ranked, there would be no indication as to who listed what candidate, and the names of the individuals I asked for this advice would be confidential. (I actually promised to destroy the replies.)

The reason I did this should be obvious to anyone following the Minneapolis Mayoral race. At present there are 35 candidates running for mayor. This includes a number of individuals who currently or have held public office in the area, or are otherwise politically involved, and are clearly serious candidates. It also includes a number of individuals whom it is hard to take seriously, such as the person who named himself after a well known movie pirate and one person running under the “Last Minneapolis Mayor” ticket. (I’m not sure if that candidate expect to be the last mayor of Minneapolis, or is making a statement that we’d like to keep the last mayor in office.) Many other candidates, perhaps most, are serious candidates (though often, it seems, with very narrow agendas). The problem is, there is no such thing as a serious candidate if the following two things are true: 1) There are dozens of candidates; and 2) a particular voter is not savvy to the local politics and is thus faced with a huge list of seemingly random names among which it is expected that the voter makes an informed choice.

One can get mad at individual voters for not paying enough attention to be able to vote responsibly in the election for their own mayor. But one can absolutely not expect a citizen to have a cue as to what to do when faced with this absurdly long list. Also given the large number of candidness and the fact that Minneapolis has a ranked-vote system, it is quite possible that a candidate with a funny name (such as the afore mentioned pirate) would be added as third choice by a lot of voters just for fun. And then get elected. Such a thing would not really be democracy in action. It would be something else.

I don’t vote in this election; I live in a different city. But I hold Minneapolis to be a “third home town” because my time spent living in that city is important to me. Also, Minneapolis is a big important city in my larger community. So that’s one reason I’m doing this. The other reason is that Julia just moved to the city and this is her first year ever being able to vote. That made me think of all the other first-time voters in the city, and the possible cynical (and very appropriately so) they may develop when approached with the problem of ranked voting (which is already a complication, though not much of one) and a multi-page ballot (I assume) because so many people simply signed up to be mayor.

The current situation with the Minneapolis mayor race is a joke. Minneapolis, however, is not a joke. It is a wonderful and important city. Clearly, the process has failed and needs to be revised.

My noting that the process has failed, by the way, is not a negative comment on the endorsement system itself. I do have some negative comments on that, but I am not dismayed that the DFL caucus system did not produce a candidate. That actually happens every time there is an open seat for Mayor, it seems. For what it is worth, I do have a few reform suggestions for the caucus. First, make the caucus about the caucus, not about the “very important business” of the party. A typical caucus involves hours of messing around with party business followed by the endorsement of a candidate, and if there is not enough time for that, or everyone is exhausted, that part is shortened. It should be the other way around. The caucus should involve ONLY the endorsement, and a separate meeting held later (or earlier) should address party business. Second, the mayor race appears to have no primary step. There should be one, perhaps. That might involve a third reform, that is, making the race partisan, which it currently is not. I have no useful opinion on whether or not that should be changed.

In any event, here is my list. This is, to reiterate, a list of candidates that people I trust, who are generally politically progressive Democrats, can live with. There is actually quite a bit of political diversity on this list. It happens to include the list I myself would have made.

votemgnA Short List of Candidates for Mayor of Minneapolis:

A Short List of Candidates for Mayor of Minneapolis:

  • Betsy Hodges
  • Bob Fine
  • Don Samuels
  • Jackie Cherryholmes
  • Jeffrey Wagner
  • Mark Andrew

Closing Commenting

Popular Science, one of the longest running and, well, popular, magazines that deals with science has a website. Last Tuesday, on-line editor Suzanne LaBarre announced that Popular Science would no longer have comment sections on most of its pages. The reason sited was that “Comments can be bad for science.” She noted:

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

She is absolutely correct. It seems, in fact, that attacking science in the comment sections of blogs and web sites is a cottage industry practiced vigorously by a very active minority of readers (we hope). And it may well be effective. Last January, Chris Mooney wrote:

Everybody who’s written or blogged about climate change on a prominent website (or, even worse, spoken about it on YouTube) knows the drill. Shortly after you post, the menagerie of trolls arrives. They’re predominantly climate deniers, and they start in immediately arguing over the content and attacking the science—sometimes by slinging insults and even occasional obscenities.

Chris talks about a study done by researchers at George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication (and others) that showed that these negative comments can be effective in ruining readers’ perception of the validity of science written about on line.

The study did not examine online climate change trolls directly—but there is good reason to think that the effects of their obnoxious behavior will, if anything, be worse. … When it comes to climate change… “the controversy that you see in comments falls on more fertile ground, and resonates more with an established set of values that the reader may bring to the table,” explains study coauthor Dietram Scheufele, … If commenters have stronger emotions and more of a stake, it stands to reason that the polarizing effect of their insults may be even stronger—although, to be sure, this needs to be studied.

… This is not your father’s media environment any longer. In the golden oldie days of media, newspaper articles were consumed in the context of…other newspaper articles. But now, adds Scheufele, it’s like “reading the news article in the middle of the town square, with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it.”

(Click through to CM’s post to get the link to that study.)

Chris told me “It is indeed possible to moderate comments to make them productive, but it is a huge amount of work. So I’m not that surprised that Popular Science opted not to do it.”

Will Oremus writing at Slate disagrees. He notes:

Sure, some very important scientific questions are pretty much settled … But LaBarre’s metaphors conjure an image of science as an ancient and immovable stone fortress, from which the anointed few (Popular Science staff writers, say) may cast pearls in the direction of the masses below, but which might crumble to dust if the teeming throngs aren’t kept at bay. This conception is antithetical to the spirit of free inquiry that has always driven scientific discovery.

And here, in Will Oremus’s comment (and elsewhere) I see a flaw. The assumption implicit (or not so implicit) in Oremus’s commentary in Slate is that comments contribute to the science directly, by becoming part of the “spirit of free inquiry.” And I’m sure this is a feeling shared by many of the comment trolls of whom we are speaking.

The problem is, this is largely a made up fantasy. There are two distinct things going on here. One is science, which involves free inquiry and lots of communication among scientists, and the other is public understanding of science, which is very important because it is a key part of the process of translating science knowledge into science policy, especially in a society that thinks of itself as a democracy.

The comment trolls are not ruining science. They are ruining public perception of science. The commentary on web sites and blog posts is not part of the science conversation that produces scientific results (or, if so, rarely).

I wrote an opinion piece for The Scientist expressing this view, and it was put up this morning. Please go and have a look: Opinion: Part of the Conversation? On whether online comments help or hurt science.

If you have a comment on any of this, please feel free to add it to the page at The Scientist, or below, or both. I don’t have any control over the comment section at The Scientist, but here on this blog, have at it, even if you are a troll, as long as you are not a spam bot (and I can tell the difference, usually).