Today’s reading: Pinker in Skeptic magazine on rationality and “post-truth” culture

November 3, 2019 • 11:30 am

The much- (and unjustly) maligned Steven Pinker wrote the cover story for this month’s Skeptic Magazine, which is available free at the link below (click on screenshot).

The topic is the so-called “post-truth” era in which we live: an era in which reason is said to be expendable and the truth is only what is presented as truth.

Steve begins with an argument he’s made before but bears repeating, and is relevant on the claim of postmodernism is that “truth” is determined solely by those who have power or hegemony:

In his book The Last Word, the philosopher Thomas Nagel showed that truth, objectivity, and reason are not negotiable. As soon as you start making a case against them, you are making a case, which means you are implicitly committed to reason. Nagel calls this argument Cartesian, after Descartes’ famous argument that just as the very fact that one is pondering one’s existence shows that one must exist, the very fact that one is examining the validity of reason shows that one is committed to reason. A corollary is that we don’t defend or justify or believe in reason, and we certainly do not, as it is sometimes claimed, have faith in reason. As Nagel puts it, each of these is “one thought too many.” We don’t believe in reason; we use reason.

. . . As soon as you try to argue that we should believe things by any route other than reason, you’ve lost the argument, because you’ve appealed to reason. That is why a defense of reason is unnecessary, perhaps even impossible.

The “post-truth” era simply means, according to Pinker, that politicians lie, and that sometimes their lies are not only adamantly represented as truth, but also widely accepted as truth. I’ve known this personally since the repeated lies of our government in Vietnam. But those lies didn’t last: they were shown to be false by the very process of rational examination that is now maligned. The only genuine post-truth climate is one represented by Orwell in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the government deliberately expunges any data that could be used to falsify its claims. And even in that novel, Winston Smith—whose job is to revise printed history—and his inamorata Julia clearly realize that the government is constantly lying.

But the main reason we should retire the posttruth cliché is that it’s corrosive, perhaps self-fulfilling. The implication is we may as well give up on reason and truth and just fight the bad guys’ lies and intimidation with lies and intimidation of our own. We can aim higher.

Steve goes on to explain why humans evolved to seek truth, giving several examples from hunter-gatherer societies, succinctly summed up with the aphorism “reality is a powerful selection pressure”, and explains why he persists in using data to persuade people to change their minds, an effort that many deem futile.

Humans are of course irrational in some ways: we have cognitive biases that make us cling to what’s palpably false, there are optical illusions and false conclusions drawn from what we experience in everyday life (e.g., the belief that a spiraling tetherball cut free will continue to move in a spiral path), and so on. Pinker gives a long laundry list of weaknesses in our rationality. But we’re still descended from humans whose existence depended on apprehending truth, and still retain the faculties and dependence on evidence that enables us to find truth.

The weaknesses in reason include what Pinker calls pluralistic ignorance, which he defines as “the spiral of silence, in which everyone believes that everyone else believes something but no one actually believes it.” To wit:

How does a false belief keep itself levitated in midair? Michael Macy and his colleagues show that a key factor is enforcement. Not only does the belief never get challenged, but group members believe they must punish or condemn those who don’t hold it—out of the equally mistaken belief that they themselves may be denounced for failing to denounce. Denunciation is a signal of solidarity with the group, which can lead to a cascade of pre-emptive, self-reinforcing denunciation, and sometimes to “extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds” like witch hunts and other bubbles and manias. Sometimes the bubble can be punctured by a public exclamation that the emperor is naked, but it takes an innocent boy or a brave truth-teller.

When I read this, it immediately brought to mind the behavior of the “cancel culture”, particularly on college campuses, a culture that thrives on denunciation and demonization. I’ll give an example in a later post today: the palpably false belief by some students and faculty at Williams College that the college, and its English department in particular, are infested with “structural racism.” There is not a scintilla of evidence for this, but many students believe it so firmly that they are now demanding the firing of English professors and are about to engage in a student boycott of all English classes.

Pinker goes on to give ways to counteract these mass delusions, including adopting “the technique discovered long ago by rabbis: first have your yeshiva students make the strongest possible argument on one side of a Talmudic dispute, then force them to switch sides.” (This in fact is a tactic I used when I taught “Evolution vs. Creationism” as a non-majors course at the University of Maryland. I assigned a series of debates on areas of evolution, and then assigned students to argue the position that was the opposite of their own.) In Pinker’s view, the counters to falsity are becoming stronger, so, as the many fact-checking sites attest, it becomes easier to show up widespread untruths for what they are. The Internet has been immensely valuable in this way:

Even everyday fact-checking has been has been revolutionized by the urban legend tracking site and by Wikipedia, which is now 80 times the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica and pretty much as accurate. (A recent cartoon captioned “Life before Google” shows a man on a barstool musing, “I wonder who played the skipper on Gilligan’s Island,” and his companion answering, “I guess we’ll never know.”)

LOL, as they say. But I remember those times. And so, says Pinker, we live in an area in which rationality is in general growing, but is also bimodal, so there are outliers in which delusion dominates (this is also the argument he makes for well-being and morality in The Better Angels of Our Nature).

One of those outliers comprises American colleges and universities, which in theory should be the guardians not only of truth, but also of methods for seeking truth. Professors have tenure, students pay lots of money for their education, and these institutions have credentialing abilities that make students seek them out for certification in knowledge and skills. But, as you know if you read here, things aren’t all beer and skittles on campus:

Yet despite these perquisites, universities have become notorious as monocultures of left-wing orthodoxy and the illiberal suppression of heterodox ideas (I won’t review the latest follies, but will mention just two words: Halloween costumes). As the civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate has put it, “You can say things in Harvard Square that you can’t say in Harvard Yard.”

(See here, here, here, and here for just a few examples of this year’s College Costume Policing.)

Disinvitations and deplatforming are rife—mainly by students and alumni from the Left—and certain areas of the humanities have become so invested in Regressive Leftist ideology that it becomes impossible to even mention some ideas. Pinker discusses the causes of this conundrum, but whatever the cause the results are clear:

Some of this regression is a paradoxical byproduct of the fantastic progress we have made in equality. Vanishingly few people in universities actually hold racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic attitudes (though they may have different views on the nature of these categories or the causes of group differences). That means that accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia can be weaponized: since everyone reviles these bigotries, they can be used to demonize adversaries, which in turn spreads a terror of being demonized. The accusations are uniquely noxious because it is virtually impossible to defend oneself against them.

Most of us, I think, including me, have to constantly police our views lest they lead to us being called out as bigots or tainted as impure. For example, despite my interest in cleaning up the excesses of the Left rather than repeating the endless denunciations of Trump (views I share, but which are so ubiquitous that it bores me to repeat them), I’m often chastised for bashing the Left instead of making this website into a clone of HuffPost. The result is that when I’m about to criticize Democrats, for instance, I’m obliged to repeat that I hate Republicans and would never vote for any.

And although many readers have said that we needn’t pay much attention to “PC follies” in universities, Pinker gives at least three reasons why we should, one being Andrew Sullivan’s statement that “We all live on campus now.” The result is this:

The regressive left is an incubator of the alt-right. I’ve seen it happen, including to former students. When they see that certain opinions are unexpressable, when they see speakers being deplatformed and people being assaulted or demonized for citing certain facts or advancing certain ideas, they conclude, “You can’t handle the truth!” Since they can’t discuss heterodox ideas with students and faculty in universities, they retreat into an alternative universe of discourse, mainly internet discussion groups, in which these ideas harden and grow more extreme in the absence of critical engagement. When the nuanced, statistical, multifactorial, qualified, tentative and ethically sensitive versions of taboo hypotheses are squelched on campus, the simplistic, all or- none, single-factor, exaggerated, invidious versions blossom outside it. This happens in discussions of capitalism, the causes of being transgender, and differences between ethnic groups and sexes

It’s Pinker’s own willingness to call out the follies of the Regressive Left that has led to his own demonization as a member of the alt-right (not to mention his characterization as a misogynist and white supremacist), despite the fact that he’s a Democrat who donated a sizable sum to that party. He’s also chastised for his conviction that we can progress both materially and morally—a conviction that angers the Chicken Littles of the Left, whose motivating belief is that things are not only getting worse (or at least are as bad as ever), but create a situation that can’t be fixed except by adopting their own remedies.

Pinker interviewed in New York Times

November 22, 2018 • 2:30 pm

For a bit of a digestif this Thanksgiving, have a look at a new interview of Steve Pinker in the New York Times. As it emphasizes the progressivism I’ve described on this site before, you might not learn much new, but you will find out whether he intends to run for office, how his work on the world’s improvement has changed him personally, why people still reject Pinker’s progressivism despite copious data in its favor, and, as the interviewer asks, “Does it matter that some things are improving if other things are getting worse?” (What a question!)

John Loftus’s recent book on the Outsider Test for Faith

November 21, 2014 • 11:11 am

I’ve finally finished reading theology, though I suspect I’ll dip into it now and again when my stomach feels strong enough. Now I can cleanse my brain by reading some heathen literature, and have just finished John Loftus’s book, The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion is Really True (Prometheus, published March, 2013).  I recommend it to readers, particularly those who haven’t followed John’s scattered writings about this idea:


I’ve written about the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) before, and you can read an early version of John’s idea here. It’s a simple idea, but one that nobody had formally proposed as a way to gauge whether one’s religious beliefs are “correct.” In this book, John present the theory in extenso and discusses (and rebuts) some of the criticisms offered by religionists like Alvin Plantinga.

As Thomas Henry Huxley remarked when hearing about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the idea of natural selection, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.” That’s the way I felt when I heard about the OTF. Loftus first notes that the vast majority of believers get their religion from their geographic location, for that’s where one’s parents, peers, and clerics are. If you’re born in Saudi Arabia, chances are high you’ll be a Sunni Muslim; if you’re born in Brazil, in all likelihood you’ll be a Catholic (see the map below).

That means that virtually no people choose their religion after weighing all possible religions or even more than one religion (in fact, in some Muslim countries you can be killed for choosing anything but Islam). Rather, people assume a faith by simply inheriting their beliefs, largely through indoctrination.  Is that any way to choose something that people consider of the greatest import? After all, if you choose wrongly, many religions say you’ll be consigned to the pit of Hell. Other religions maintain that only their adherents (and not all of them) will go to Paradise, while others simply vanish into nothingness after death. Very few religions claim that they’re no truer than any other religion.

So isn’t it the rational thing to do to scrutinize existing faiths before you choose one? That’s the basis for John’s OTF, which is summarized below, from pp. 16-17 of his book:

It is highly likely that any given religious faith is false and quite possibly that they could all be false. At best there can only be one religious faith that is true. At worst they could all be false.

. . . So I propose that: . . . The only way to rationally test one’s culturally adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use to examine the other religious faiths they reject. This expresses the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF).

Of course, if you do that properly, you’re going to wind up an atheist, for every believer dismisses all other faiths as lacking evidence. If you take that attitude towards your own faith, you should abandon that, too. And that is the point. The beliefs most important to people are, as we know, not only irrational in content, but irrational in how they were chosen.

A lot of the book is occupied by John’s discussion of challenges from believers, including those who think the OTF shows that their religion really is best (Plantinga is one of these) and those who claim that there should be an “outsider test for atheism” (that’s ridiculous given that atheism is based on the view that one requires evidence for belief).

The book ends with two cute maps, showing the difference between disparate and divisive religious beliefs and the unifying nature of scientific inquiry. The colored maps below come from John’s website, Debunking Christianity:

Modern Distribution of World Religions

World Distribution of Modern Science




A bizarre critique of Christopher Hitchens: he wasn’t a skeptic about his cancer

April 15, 2013 • 6:01 am

Thanks to alert reader Michael, I’ve made my first visit to the Dublin Review of Books site, where you can read a review of Christopher Hitchens’s last book, Mortality. The review is by Seamus O’Mahony, who seems uniquely qualified for the task:

Seamus O’Mahony is a physician with an interest in medicine and literature. He has written pieces on AJ Cronin, Axel Munthe and Somerset Maugham for a variety of medical journals.

O’Mahony’s essay is called “The Big D,” which I presume refers to “death,” and it’s simply the most bizarre critique of Hitchens I’ve ever read.  We’ve all seen Hitchens attacked post mortem for his drinking, his promotion of the Iraq war, his “unthinking” atheism, and so on, but O’Mahony goes after Hitchens for—wait for it—being overly optimistic about surviving his cancer.  Yes, the skeptic Hitchens, says O’Mahony, was not so skeptical about the odds of beating his disease; in fact, he supposedly acquired a kind of faith that he would survive. So, in the end, Hitchens was quasi-religious after all.

It’s a disgusting allegation, one that demeans anyone who wants to survive a deadly disease.

The interesting part of the essay is O’Mahony’s professional assessment of esophageal cancer, of the kinds of treatment Hitchens received, and of Hitchens’s odds (apparently only 3% of those having stage 4 esophageal cancer survive more than five years).  As you’ll know if you’ve read Mortality or the Vanity Fair essays on which it’s based, you’ll know that Hitchens underwent a long regimen of surgery and chemotherapy, and even tried gene-based therapy with the help of his friend, Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health. It all failed. O’Mahony thinks that Hitchens should have had a better appreciation of the odds.

Here are a few snippets to give the tone of the review:

I am intrigued by Mortality for one main reason, which is this: Hitchens’s beliefs about his advanced cancer and its treatment were, for a man whose fame rested on his scepticism, uncharacteristically optimistic. I hesitate to use the word delusional, as he admitted that he would be very lucky to survive, but he clearly steadfastly hoped, right to the end, that his particular case of advanced cancer might lie on the sparsely populated right side of the bell-shaped curve of outcome statistics. He famously mocked religious folk for their faith in supernatural entities and survival of the soul after bodily death, yet the views expressed in Mortality are just as wishful and magical. “The oncology bargain [oncology is that branch of medicine which deals with the treatment of cancer],” writes Hitchens, “is that in return for at least the chance of a few more useful years, you agree to submit to chemotherapy and then, if you are lucky with that, to radiation or even surgery.” Years? I must now confess to a professional interest. I am a gastroenterologist in a large acute hospital, and I have diagnosed many patients with oesophageal cancer. “Years” is a word not generally used when discussing prognosis in Stage Four oesophageal cancer, “months”, in my experience, being a more useful one.

About Francis Collins’s suggestion that gene therapy might be tried:

[Collins]This great humanitarian is also a devotee of the work of C.S. Lewis, and in his book The Language of God has set out the case for making science compatible with faith.”

Ironically, it is the Christian who has to lower the expectations of the sceptical atheist. Hitchens proposes to Collins that his entire DNA, along with that of his tumour, be “sequenced”, “even though its likely efficacy lies at the outer limits of probability”. Indeed. Collins is circumspect, conceding that if such “sequencing” was performed, “it could be clearly determined what mutations were present in the cancer that is causing it to grow. The potential for discovering mutations in the cancer cells that could lead to a new therapeutic idea is uncertain – that is at the very frontier of cancer research right now.” Diplomatically put, Dr Collins.

It could be argued that [Hitchens’s] approach to his cancer treatment was at odds with much that he previously professed to believe (or not believe) in. In God Is Not Great, he coined the withering phrase “the tawdriness of the miraculous”. . . His wife, his friends and his doctors might wish to remind themselves of what Hitchens wrote in God Is Not Great: “Those who offer false consolation are false friends.” In his memoir, Hitch-22, he was scathing of such wishful thinking: “I try to deny myself any illusions or delusions, and I think that this perhaps entitles me to try and deny the same to others, at least as long as they refuse to keep their fantasies to themselves.”

And, finally, the last blow, implying that Hitchens was, at the end, not so very different from any religious believer:

As news of Hitchens’s cancer diagnosis first became widely known, evangelical Christians speculated on the internet about whether his illness would lead to a religious conversion. In Mortality, Hitchens scoffs at the notion. But in his time of “living dyingly”, he did find a kind of faith. This was not a return to the Anglicanism of his upbringing, or the Judaism of his mother’s family. Hitchens, the arch-mocker, the über-rationalist, the debunker of myth, found solace and consolation in the contemporary rites of genetics and oncology. Reviewing Arguably (Hitchens’s final prose collection), the philosopher John Gray observed: “That Hitchens has the mind of a believer has not been sufficiently appreciated.”

I find this manifestly unfair—in fact, a passive-aggressive claim that “Hitchens was religious, too!” masquerading as a dispassionate medical analysis.

Hitchens admitted openly that he didn’t want to die. He was only in his early sixties, and had tasks to do and children he wanted to watch grow up. His life was full, and I imagine must have been immensely fun.  Under such circumstances, is it analogous to religion to think that you might be one of those rare survivors of cancer? After all, there is a nonzero survival rate, and 3% is a probability much higher than that of God’s existence.

And I can’t help but think that Hitch really knew his prognosis. Remember how often people asked him how he was, and his answer: “Dying, like all of us.”  He was no slouch, and would have looked up the statistics. But if there might be a way to live, why not try it?

On top of all this, O’Mahony admits that Hitchens was certainly given false hope by his doctors:

Why did Hitchens harbour such unrealistic expectations? It is clear that his oncologists (he would appear to have consulted several) actively encouraged his misplaced optimism. Oncologists prefer the word “hope” to “delusion”. Over the years, I have witnessed many cancer patients, after protracted (and ultimately futile) therapies, facing death with all the preparedness of Carol Blue and Christopher Hitchens. These patients often experience a sudden deceleration in medical intensity from high-tech, invasive intervention to a side room, the morphine infusion and the chaplaincy service. Oncologists naturally tend to emphasise the positive, concentrating on the good news flashes, such as the “clear” scan. Most doctors will only impart the cold, bare facts when cornered and directly questioned, usually by patients with the necessary medical knowledge. As a profession, we are loath to appear “blunt” and “uncaring”.

Indeed, I experienced just this when my father died of lymphoma ten years ago. As an ex-Army officer, he was in Walter Reed hospital, and in bad shape.  We all knew the end was nigh, and we considered putting him in hospice care. But hospices in Washington require that admitted patients be no more than roughly six weeks away from death.  I tried to find out my father’s prognosis, and the doctors just shuffled their feet, hemmed and hawed, and talked vaguely about “well, it could be a few weeks, it could be months,” and so on. In other words, they talked about the tails of the survival distribution.  But I needed something more for the hospice care. I went up through the chain of doctors, and finally cornered the head surgeon in an examining room. “Yes, I know there’s variation,” I told him.  “But I want to know what the mean survival time is for someone in my father’s condition.”  (I would have said “mode”, but that may have been too arcane.) He finally admitted that it was less than two weeks.  My father died within a few days without ever having left the hospital.

Yes, I suppose patients should be given an honest assessment of their odds, and of the time that probably remains—if they want to know.  As O’Mahony notes, doctors with a terminal disease die very differently from laymen: knowing the odds, physicians often abjure the last-ditch treatments and “go gently.” But Hitchens was not a doctor: he was a patient who didn’t want to die young.  As most of us know who saw him or his videos, he bore his illness bravely, and, though he never said outright “I am going to die soon,” everyone knew that he would—including, I suspect, himself.

O’Mahony’s essay is worth reading for the medical details, but in the end it’s a mean-spirited and misguided attempt to drag Hitchens down to the level of religious believers.  O’Mahony couldn’t do that by speaking about deathbed conversions, but he does it another way.

Guest post: Pigliuicci defines the “community of reason”

August 13, 2012 • 5:51 am

In a post over at Rationally Speaking, “The community of reason: a self-assessment and a manifesto,” philosopher and one-time biologist Massimo Pigliucci defines what he calls the “community of reason,” sets out criteria for belonging, criticizes those who pretend to belong but violate Massimo’s canons for inclusion and, finally, names those whom he considers role models of rationalism.  I thought it was a pretty good post, though marred by a few unfair accusations and by Pigliucci’s willgness to name good atheists but not bad ones. At any rate, guest poster Grania Spingies, a member of Atheist Ireland, has set down her reaction.


Pigliucci reviews our community of reason

by Grania Spingies

Massimo Pigliucci has a new article up at Rationally Thinking called “The Community of Reason, a self-assessment and a manifesto.”

He lays out his criticisms of the loosely associated group of atheists, skeptics and secularists and tenders his recommendations for how things can be improved. I agree with quite a lot of what he has to say.

The atheist /skeptic online community is not always a bastion of the very best of rationality and reason, and is often rife with muddled thinking, odd ideas and sometimes plain anti-science beliefs. One is mistaken in assuming that the labels “atheist” or “skeptic” denote a worldview that means the same for everyone. An atheist can, for example, be an climate-change denialist, or someone can claim they are a skeptic but then profess skepticism about the efficacy of vaccines, e.g.:

It is also true, as Pigliucci notes, that lot of people in this community use personal abuse instead of critical analysis when confronted by people with whom they disagree. But it is worth noting that in recent weeks a number of prominent bloggers and atheists have drawn attention to the fact that this tactic is harmful and damaging, and that several prominent websites are doing something to address this by implementing moderation policies and advisories on how to engage in civil debate.

Pigliucci gives a list of rationalists that he thinks are good role models:

Sean Carroll, Dan Dennett, Neil deGrasse Tyson, D.J. Groethe, Tim Farley, Ken Frazier (and pretty much anyone else who writes for Skeptical Inquirer, really), Ron Lindsey, Hemant Metha, Chris Mooney, Phil Plaitt, Steve Novella (as well as the other Novellas), John Rennie, Genie Scott, Michael Shermer, Carl Zimmer, etc.

I can’t disagree that these are, in general, outstanding people who have contributed substantially to the promotion of scientific literacy and rationality. But having just called out skeptics who feel that religion is not a proper area of application for skepticism, Pigliucci nevertheless included a number of accommodationists on his list. They do valuable work to be sure, but there are certainly others less charitable toward faith who deserve mention as well.

Pigliucci also lists “bizarre beliefs” that he takes issue with but have sometimes been promulgated by self-styled atheists and skeptics. These run the gamut from the wacky and indefensible alt-med beliefs to the behavior of “scientism”: those who, argues Pigliucci, rigidly and mistakenly apply science to everything.

While I don’t disagree with some of these criticisms (alternative medicine is wishful thinking based on snake-oil salesman pitches), I’m not convinced that others are really a big problem for the atheist/skeptical community at large. Sure, some people hold bizarre ideas and appear impervious to reason. That doesn’t hurt the community. It simply shows that we have a long way to go, and also suggests many potential debates and teaching opportunities for scientists and critical thinkers.

However, there are some items on the list that don’t seem to belong, for Pigliucci oversimplifies the positions put forth by their original proponents. One can hardly hold those proponents responsible for misreading or misinterpretation of what they actually said, even after repeated attempts by authors to clarify their position. Here are a few of Pigliucci’s criticisms of the “community of reason”:

  • Dismissal of philosophy. There are some scientist/bloggers who do this, but most hold a more nuanced position: they are simply critical of the kind of philosophy that reads like theology, involving assumptions and assertions that are dubious and questionable. [JAC: Aside from Alex Rosenberg, I can’t think of many rationalists who completely dismiss the value of philosophy.]
  • Determinism that negates “free will”. I think that most scientists on the determinism side of the Free Will debate are very aware that the science on this subject is not complete and there is still more to discover and learn about the subject. [JAC:  I still maintain that while there is certainly more to learn about the brain, our “decisions” are completely predetermined by physical factors, although a bit of quantum indeterminacy may occasionally intrude. In that sense, at least, our will isn’t free. Nor does Pigliucci offer an alternative.]
  • Richard Dawkins on religious instruction as child abuse. Richard has repeatedly clarified this statement by explaining that he didn’t mean that religious instruction was identical to other forms of child abuse such as beating or neglecting one’s offspring. Rather, he asked us to consider that this idea was meant as a consciousness-raising exercise—to show that brainwashing children in this way is injurious. Yes, some people use this as an anti-Dawkins slogan. They missed the point.
  • Scientism. It is hard—really hard—to find anyone who dogmatically insists that science has all the answers, or is the only way to find any answers. This accusation is nearly always a straw-man. The most extreme position I have seen any of the big name scientist-atheists take is that science is the only way to test whether something is true or not.

Pigliucci also has a list of suggestions of how communities could improve, and many of these are good—and have in fact been seen recently on several other well-known sites and blogs in recent weeks (including this one).

The only one I dispute is this:

Keep in mind the distinction between humor and sarcasm, leave the latter to comedians.

The tone of Ben Goldacre’s excellent Bad Science was at least a part of its attraction for me when I first read it. Goldacre has both the writing skills and the careful research and expertise in his area to back up his snark. Sarcasm works, and sometimes is appropriate. While not everyone who is sarcastic has a good point to make, it isn’t necessarily a conversation-stopper, and even the untrained can sometimes use it with sufficient panache to make it an appropriate weapon.

In that respect, I think this quote from Henry Van Dyke is apposite:

The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.

This community’s strength is its many voices that are silent no more.

. . . even the ones who don’t know their Latin.