Quillette banned from Facebook

February 18, 2021 • 9:00 am

A lot of people don’t like Quillette because they consider it an “alt-right” site.  That’s not true: it’s a “contrarian” site that publishes stuff that’s often critical of the extreme or authoritarian Left. And I have to give kudos to editor Claire Lehmann for building up the site from nothing to a go-to site for those who are generally liberal but can’t stand wokeness, censorship, or authoritarianism. While there’s some plonk on the site, there are also a lot of good reads.

The site isn’t full of Nazis or white supremacists, so I was baffled to get a mass email from Claire declaring that Quillette has been banned from Facebook. An excerpt:

As you may have heard, Facebook has blocked Australian users from viewing or sharing news content on their platform. The mass-blocking is in response to new media laws proposed by the Australian Government which would mean that digital giants such as Facebook are required to pay for news content.

I have been critical of the proposed media code. We did not expect to benefit from it at Quillette, and we generally take a neutral position on battles between legacy media corporations and multinational digital giants.

But in resistance to the proposed laws, Facebook has now blocked Australian news sites, and Quillette has been included in the wide net that has been cast. Our Facebook page has been wiped and our links are blocked on the platform. If you would like to share a Quillette article on Facebook you will be unable to, even if you live outside of Australia.

Currently, Facebook is our third source of traffic referral, with the platform having sent over six million readers our way since our inception. Losing this stream of traffic is a significant and unexpected blow, and it will impact our revenue.
Other Facebook pages have also been caught in the dragnet. Australian Government Health Department pages, local Fire and Rescue services, weather services such as the Bureau of Meteorology and academic forums such as The Conversation have all been blocked. This is clearly a ham-fisted response. The proposed code has not been passed into law, yet Facebook is attempting to manoeuvre the Australian Government into submission.
The article referred to in Claire’s tweet is from Bloomberg Technology, and refers to a proposed law requiring sites like Facebook and Twitter to pay news sources when displaying their articles. That would mean, for instance, that if somone shared a news article on Facebook (including the news source itself, many of which share articles on Twitter), Facebook would have to pay that news source. That, of course, is insane, because it’s free publicity from the social-media site and if the news site charges for access, like the New York Times, readers would still have to pay to read an article.

Apparently Google and Facebook objected, and succeeded in securing an “arbitration panel” that would decide how much compensation should be given to the news sources.

But I’m still puzzled as to why Quillette, which isn’t really a “news source”, and doesn’t share direct links to news sources (save as hyperlinks in the text), was blocked—along with first responder and weather pages. Who’s running the railroad Down Under?  At any rate, some folks won’t be able to share Quillette links on Facebook (I’ll try doing it myself) until this blows over. In the meantime, Claire has asked for donations to the organization, and you can follow her personal Facebook page.

I just did an experiment trying to share a Quillette link on Facebook, and it worked (see below). I guess only Australian users can’t put up posts like this:

The New York Times celebrates a cancellation

December 28, 2020 • 10:45 am

Let me get this straight at the outset: in my view, nobody should use the “n-word”, except perhaps in quoting its use in literature or for didactic reasons. Yes, black people use it as a term of fraternity or affection, but I learned from Grania that if the word is to disappear from use, everyone has to stop using it.  It’s almost as if Jews were allowed to call each other “kikes” and “Hebes” but other people weren’t. (We don’t do that.) But at the very least, white people have to stop using it in non-academic circumstances.

So I think that when 15 year old high-school student Mimi Groves of Leesburg, Virginia was filmed in a three-second video four years ago, saying “I can drive, n—–“, (she’d just gotten her learner’s permit), she should have kept her mouth shut. But she didn’t, and now is suffering the consequences. In my view, those consequences are completely disproportionate to this one statement, and yet the New York Times implicitly sees her as having got her just deserts, despite lacking any further evidence of racism in her behavior. In the piece below, it looks as if they’re celebrating her cancellation.

You can see what caused all the fuss at the beginning of this video, which shows what Groves said, with the offending word bleeped out:

As this article recounts (click on screenshot), one of Groves’s friends, a half black student named Jimmy Galligan—who was sick of racism in Leesburg—got hold of that video, held onto it, and waited until the time when making it public would do the most damage to Groves. Then he did the deed, and social media did the rest. The time was after Groves had been admitted to her dream college. Groves was first taken off the cheerleading squad at the University of Tennessee, and then the college asked her to withdraw. It was all because of those three seconds and that one word.

According to the article, both Leesburg and Galligan’s and Groves’s high school were permeated with racism attitudes, and, this being Virginia, I have no reason to doubt that. Galligan, frustrated with the racism and his futile attempts to alleviate it, decided to use the video of Groves as a form of punishment, even though the two were friendly:

The slur, [Galligan] said, was regularly hurled in classrooms and hallways throughout his years in the Loudoun County school district. He had brought the issue up to teachers and administrators but, much to his anger and frustration, his complaints had gone nowhere.

So he held on to the video, which was sent to him by a friend, and made a decision that would ricochet across Leesburg, Va., a town named for an ancestor of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee and whose school system had fought an order to desegregate for more than a decade after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling.

“I wanted to get her where she would understand the severity of that word,” Mr. Galligan, 18, whose mother is Black and father is white, said of the classmate who uttered the slur, Mimi Groves. He tucked the video away, deciding to post it publicly when the time was right.

The time was when Groves had decided where she wanted to go to college: the University of Tennessee (UT).  Galligan then shared the Snapchat video to several social media platforms even though by that time Groves was making statements in favor of Black Lives Matter.  And by that time she’d been admitted to UT and had apparently also made its famous cheerleading team (a dream of hers), even though she hadn’t started going there yet. The story continues with the now-familiar social media mobbing.

The next month, as protests were sweeping the nation after the police killing of George Floyd, Ms. Groves, in a public Instagram post, urged people to “protest, donate, sign a petition, rally, do something” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. [JAC: Note that this is before she knew that the video was spreading.]

“You have the audacity to post this, after saying the N-word,” responded someone whom Ms. Groves said she did not know.

Her alarm at the stranger’s comment turned to panic as friends began calling, directing her to the source of a brewing social media furor. Mr. Galligan, who had waited until Ms. Groves had chosen a college, had publicly posted the video that afternoon. Within hours, it had been shared to Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter, where furious calls mounted for the University of Tennessee to revoke its admission offer.

And she was cancelled; or rather, kicked off the cheerleading team and then had her offer of admission to UT rescinded:

The consequences were swift. Over the next two days, Ms. Groves was removed from the university’s cheer team. She then withdrew from the school under pressure from admissions officials, who told her they had received hundreds of emails and phone calls from outraged alumni, students and the public.

“They’re angry, and they want to see some action,” an admissions official told Ms. Groves and her family, according to a recording of the emotional call reviewed by The New York Times.

Ms. Groves was among many incoming freshmen across the country whose admissions offers were revoked by at least a dozen universities after videos emerged on social media of them using racist language.

The rest of the article is devoted to describing the atmosphere of racism in the Leesburg schools, which does seems pretty dire and reprehensible. The n-word was used often, and black students were disciplined disproportionately.  The NYT describes this atmosphere in detail, and one can’t help but feel that the racism of Leesburg, not of Mimi Groves, is the real subject of the article. That’s fine, except that Groves’s rescinded offer, for using one word in a three-second video, is characterized as “retribution” for that racism. There’s no other record of Groves’s behaving or speaking in a racist way; she is serving as the scapegoat for the whole atmosphere of racism in Leesburg. And yet the NYT says things like this, which seem gratuitous:

Ms. Groves, who just turned 19, lives with her parents and two siblings in a predominantly white and affluent gated community built around a golf course.

Is Groves a racist? I wouldn’t call her one despite the use of that word four years ago. For she has no history of racism, and was taught to despite the attitude. Would a racist put up a post asking people to support Black Lives Matter?

Here’s some more from the article:

On a recent day, [Mimi] sat outside on the deck with her mother, Marsha Groves, who described how the entire family had struggled with the consequences of the very public shaming.

“It honestly disgusts me that those words would come out of my mouth,” Mimi Groves said of her video. “How can you convince somebody that has never met you and the only thing they’ve ever seen of you is that three-second clip?”

Ms. Groves said racial slurs and hate speech were not tolerated by her parents, who had warned their children to never post anything online that they would not say in person or want their parents and teachers to read.

But there’s no stopping the mob. I emphasize again that Mimi Groves used a racial slur, and should not have. But should she have suffered the loss of a college admission four years later? It was not as if her whole life had been an act of racism.

More:

Once the video went viral, the backlash was swift, and relentless. A photograph of Ms. Groves, captioned with a racial slur, also began circulating online, but she and her parents say someone else wrote it to further tarnish her reputation. On social media, people tagged the University of Tennessee and its cheer team, demanding her admission be rescinded. Some threatened her with physical violence if she came to the university campus. The next day, local media outlets in Virginia and Tennessee published articles about the uproar.

. . .The day after the video went viral, Ms. Groves tried to defend herself in tense calls with the university. But the athletics department swiftly removed Ms. Groves from the cheer team. And then came the call in which admissions officials began trying to persuade her to withdraw, saying they feared she would not feel comfortable on campus.

The university declined to comment about Ms. Groves beyond a statement it issued on Twitter in June, in which officials said they took seriously complaints about racist behavior.

Ms. Groves’s parents, who said their daughter was being targeted by a social media “mob” for a mistake she made as an adolescent, urged university officials to assess her character by speaking with her high school and cheer coaches. Instead, admissions officials gave her an ultimatum: withdraw or the university would rescind her offer of admission.

“We just needed it to stop, so we withdrew her,” said Mrs. Groves, adding that the entire experience had “vaporized” 12 years of her daughter’s hard work. “They rushed to judgment and unfortunately it’s going to affect her for the rest of her life.”

Now Groves goes to a community college online in California, and yes, her life has been severely affected. I suspect that’s exactly what Mr. Galligan wanted, and why he waited to release the video when it could do maximum damage to Groves.

My take: Groves spoke thoughtlessly, but showed no other evidence of racism, and even apologized before the video became public. Galligan could have discussed it with her personally, which is the way I would handle it if someone called me a “kike”.  And the University of Tennessee could have simply asked Groves to issue a public apology, mirroring the one described below, without kicking her out of the school. More from the article: 

One of Ms. Groves’s friends, who is Black, said Ms. Groves had personally apologized for the video long before it went viral. Once it did in June, the friend defended Ms. Groves online, prompting criticism from strangers and fellow students. “We’re supposed to educate people,” she wrote in a Snapchat post, “not ruin their lives all because you want to feel a sense of empowerment.”

For his role, Mr. Galligan said he had no regrets. “If I never posted that video, nothing would have ever happened,” he said. And because the internet never forgets, the clip will always be available to watch.

“I’m going to remind myself, you started something,” he said with satisfaction. “You taught someone a lesson.”

I’m sorry, but although Galligan certainly experienced offensive behavior because he’s half black, his behavior towards Groves was not admirable. He did what Cancel Culture dictates: rather than fix the situation by talking with his friend, he decided to ruin her life. As Mimi’s friend said, “We’re supposed to educate people, not ruin their lives. . ” Had Groves shown a pattern of racist behavior throughout high school, that would be another thing—but she didn’t. There is a time for forgiveness and reconciliation, and that time was before Galligan released his video. He is not a person I admire, though I sympathize with the racism he experienced.

I’m not the only one who feels that the NYT doesn’t see anything wrong with this incident. By going into the racism of the entire town, describing Grave’s home as “in a predominantly white community”, and detailing incidents in local schools that did not involves Groves, it make Groves implicitly complicit in the racism.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines “reckoning” this way (the only definition relevant to the use above):

6. The settlement of accounts or differences between parties; the settling of scores or grievances; an instance of this.

Were scores really “settled”? Did Groves receive her just deserts for using that word in 2016? Why choose a headline like that?

Well, you can judge for yourself.  As for me, I think that Galligan behaved very poorly in trying to ruin somebody’s life, and that the New York Times thinks that that’s just fine. Here are two people who agree with me (I wouldn’t call Galligan a “psychopath”; that word is too strong):

Scott Greenfield has a blog post about it, linked in his tweet below.

Two things that Cancel Culture needs—besides engaging with ideas rather than trying to destroy people—are some compassion and a sense of proportionality. And if you don’t think that Cancel Culture exists, you’re sorely mistaken, for that’s what took down Mimi Groves.

Google Easter eggs

October 24, 2020 • 1:30 pm

Reader Mark Sturtevant called my attention to something that most of us probably don’t know about: Google “Easter Eggs”: results of searches that yield a bonus.

He found one this way:

I did not know that Google had ‘Easter eggs’.
But here is one:
In Google, type in: wizard of oz
Click on the red slippers,
then click on the tornado.
Yes, it’s a little cute “find” that you have to know about to see.  When you Google, you’ll see this; click on the red slippers and then after some kerfuffle you’ll get a tornado. Click on that and you’ll get a different kerfuffle.

Then I found out (by Googling, of course), that there’s a Big List of Google Easter Eggs. Some are retired, but there are enough to amuse you for a while. I don’t know how one finds these things; presumably people hit on them by accident. But how did they know to click on the red shoes? Does that triangular symbol to the left tell you?

In which I deconstruct a NYT profile of Steve Pinker

July 16, 2020 • 12:00 pm

The New York Times has a new profile of Steve Pinker, with a photo that, while nice, doesn’t include his cowboy boots. It concentrates mostly on the letter signed by 550+ academics calling for the Linguistic Society of America to rescind Pinker’s “distinguished fellow” and “media expert” status. Since I’ve discussed that letter in detail, I won’t go over it here, but simply give my take on some of the statements in the NYT’s generally fair profile. I’ll just add, by way of self-aggrandizement, that you read about that here  (as well as the letter in Harper’s that Pinker signed) well before it appeared in the paper of record. And the NYT’s report adds little to what I said. Further, you can read me for free!

Click on the screenshot to read.

The Times comments are indented, while mine are flush left.

The linguists demanded that the society revoke Professor Pinker’s status as a “distinguished fellow” and strike his name from its list of media experts. The society’s executive committee declined to do so last week, stating: “It is not the mission of the society to control the opinions of its members, nor their expression.”

Good for them! That’s a slap in the face to the letter signers. But then there’s this:

But a charge of racial insensitivity carries power in the current climate, and the letter sounded another shot in the fraught cultural battles now erupting in academia and publishing.

What power did it carry if it didn’t accomplish what it set out to do? The “power of Twitter”? (I’d add that “sounded another shot” is bad writing. “Fired another shot” would be better.)

In an era of polarizing ideologies, Professor Pinker, a linguist and social psychologist, is tough to pin down. He is a big supporter of Democrats, and donated heavily to former President Barack Obama, but he has denounced what he sees as the close-mindedness of heavily liberal American universities. He likes to publicly entertain ideas outside the academic mainstream, including the question of innate differences between the sexes and among different ethnic and racial groups. And he has suggested that the political left’s insistence that certain subjects are off limits contributed to the rise of the alt-right.

This is the kind of wording that I read differently from others, perhaps because I think the Times has an agenda.  Why does somebody have to be “pinned down?  What are the “pins” on which we’re to be impaled? “Progressive woke leftist,” “Liberal”, “Centrist,” “Conservative, and “Nazi”?  Pinker is a left-centrist, I suppose, but one who thinks for himself and is unwilling to accept “received wisdom” without data behind it. The description of his intellectual independence is positive to me, not “something hard to pin down,” and why bother to pin someone down in the first place? All they had to say is that he’s a liberal but has independent opinions that often don’t jibe with the mantras of progressive Leftism.  The Times would prefer somebody to be pinned down because it fits better into their Manichaean ideology.

The origin of the letter remains a mystery. Of 10 signers contacted by The Times, only one hinted that she knew the identity of the authors. Many of the linguists proved shy about talking, and since the letter first surfaced on Twitter on July 3, several prominent linguists have said their names had been included without their knowledge.

Several department chairs in linguistics and philosophy signed the letter, including Professor Barry Smith of the University at Buffalo and Professor Lisa Davidson of New York University. Professor Smith did not return calls and an email and Professor Davidson declined to comment when The Times reached out.

These people are a bunch of yellow-bellied cowards. Why would they sign such a strong letter and then refuse to talk about it, or decline to comment? I suspect it’s because their “accusations” proved to be a bunch of nonsense and that many of them are embarrassed to have signed it. I’d love to chat with some of them and ask them, for instance, why referring to Bernie Goetz as “mild-mannered”, when several liberal media did at the time he shot people on the subway, is such a sin. And who included people’s names without their knowledge?

The linguists’ letter touched only lightly on questions that have proved storm-tossed for Professor Pinker in the past. In the debate over whether nature or nurture shapes human behavior, he has leaned toward nature, arguing that characteristics like psychological traits and intelligence are to some degree heritable.

The heritability of the traits mentioned, like IQ, is not in question. IQ is at least 50% heritable within populations, becoming more heritable with age—up to 80%. What you do with those data is contentious, but the NYT implies here that the data simply reflect Pinker’s “arguments” rather than real scientific evidence. It’s like saying this: “In the debate about whether evolution or creation is true, Pinker has leaned toward evolution, arguing that observations like the fossil record and biogeography support evolution.” This way of describing real data as a sort-of-opinion is implicitly anti-science.

The clash may also reflect the fact that Professor Pinker’s rosy outlook — he argues that the world is becoming a better place, by almost any measure, from poverty to literacy — sounds discordant during this painful moment of national reckoning with the still-ugly scars of racism and inequality.

Partly, I’m sure, but note that Pinker was demonized by the far Left long before George Floyd was murdered. And his claims about the moral improvement of humanity are more than arguments, as they’re based on data. That’s why Better Angels is filled with graphs. Many of his claims about things getting better are simply uncontestable.

Finally, a telling omission:

The linguists insisted they were not attempting to censor Professor Pinker. Rather, they were intent on showing that he had been deceitful and used racial dog whistles, and thus, was a disreputable representative for linguistics. . . .

Umm. . . here’s what the original said (my emphasis):

We want to note here that we have no desire to judge Dr. Pinker’s actions in moral terms, or claim to know what his aims are. Nor do we seek to “cancel” Dr. Pinker, or to bar him from participating in the linguistics and LSA communities (though many of our signatories may well believe that doing so would be the right course of action). We do, however, believe that the examples introduced above establish that Dr. Pinker’s public actions constitute a pattern of downplaying the very real violence of systemic racism and sexism, and, moreover, a pattern that is not above deceitfulness, misrepresentation, or the employment of dogwhistles. In light of the fact that Dr. Pinker is read widely beyond the linguistics community, this behavior is particularly harmful, not merely for the perception of linguistics by the general public, but for movements against the systems of racism and sexism, and for linguists affected by these violent systems.

There’s more than just “censorship” here; in particular there’s the claim that they aren’t judging the morality of Pinker’s actions. That claim is laughable in view of the letter’s repeated accusations of racism and sexism against Pinker, and the implicit accusation that Pinker knew exactly what he was doing with his “dog whistles”. Aren’t those connected with morality? I think the funniest sentence in the letter, and the most duplicitous, is the first sentence in the paragraph above.

As I said, I think the profile, by and large, is pretty good and objective. But it leaves out crucial parts of the kerfuffle, and irks me by implying that data-based claims are simply “arguments”.

 

Reddit bans “hate speech” but only against certain groups

June 30, 2020 • 10:45 am

As I’ve said before, I think one can make a reasonable case for designating certain crimes as “hate crimes”. For if groups like Jews, blacks, or gays are targeted repeatedly for their identity alone, then increasing the penalties for such crimes, if you can establish the reasons for the crime, will act as a deterrent beyond the normal deterrents of the law.

Hate speech, though, is a different matter, for it often falls under the First Amendment, and, even when it doesn’t it’s always a slippery concept. While it’s fairly easy to define a hate crime (you need a motive and a victim), hate speech is notoriously hard to pin down. I’ve written about this many times before, emphasizing that one person’s free speech—speech intended to provoke discussion—is another person’s hate speech. I’ll mention Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, Christina Hoff Sommers, Charles Murray, Louis Farrakhan, and others whose speech has been deemed not just hate speech, but speech that should be banned, and certainly not heard. While the courts can adjudicate hate crimes, who would you choose to adjudicate hate speech? (Hitchens was famous for asking that question.)

Well, Reddit has taken it upon itself to adjudicate the speech on its platform according to new guidelines given below (click on screenshot). I’ve put their guidelines below, indented. (Emphasis is mine.)

Rule 1: Remember the human. Reddit is a place for creating community and belonging, not for attacking marginalized or vulnerable groups of people. Everyone has a right to use Reddit free of harassment, bullying, and threats of violence. Communities and people that incite violence or that promote hate based on identity or vulnerability will be banned.

Marginalized or vulnerable groups include, but are not limited to, groups based on their actual and perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, or disability. These include victims of a major violent event and their families.

While the rule on hate protects such groups, it does not protect all groups or all forms of identity. For example, the rule does not protect groups of people who are in the majority or who promote such attacks of hate.

Some examples of hateful activities that would violate the rule:

  • Subreddit community dedicated to mocking people with physical disabilities.
  • Post describing a racial minority as sub-human and inferior to the racial majority.
  • Comment arguing that rape of women should be acceptable and not a crime.
  • Meme declaring that it is sickening that people of color have the right to vote.

Additionally, when evaluating the activity of a community or an individual user, we consider both the context as well as the pattern of behavior.

Of course Reddit has the right to regulate speech on its site as it sees fit; it’s a private organization. The First Amendment doesn’t apply there, though I always think private organizations should adhere to the courts’ interpretations of the First Amendment as far as possible. What is troublesome here is that while groups are protected on the basis of “race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, or disability”, these rules don’t apply if a group is “in the majority”. I’m not sure what that means, unless it refers specifically to white people or women (who outnumber men).

And if that’s what it means, does that mean that it’s okay to denigrate white people, like Louis Farrakhan does with his hateful diatribes against both whites and Jews? Is it okay to denigrate women because they comprise 50.8% of the U.S. population. (It needn’t be added that, of course, denigrating men will still be okay.) If Reddit is in Israel, is it okay to go after Jews?

My point here is that although Reddit can ban hate speech, why should there be exceptions about who can be hated without sanction based solely on their numerical predominance? Bigotry and hate are bigotry and hate, no matter who the target. Note that “posts describing a racial MAJORITY as sub-human and inferior to the racial MINORITY” would be fine under reddit’s rules. In fact, that’s just what Farrakhan does, but is that okay?

If you’re going to ban hatred of people for belonging to groups, it should apply to all groups, not just minorities.

Here’s Maajid Nawaz on his LBC show, who apparently shares similar views on the “inconsistent application” of social-media censorship. (Click on screenshot to hear his exercised but reasonable argument.):

 

h/t: Ben, Malgorzata

Jon Chait on Left-wing illiberalism, and why it needs to be called out

June 17, 2020 • 1:30 pm

In an increasingly woke New York Magazine, there are two breaths of fresh air: Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Chait. Chait, like me, calls himself a liberal but spends a not inconsiderable amount of time excoriating the excesses of the Left, an endeavor he extends and explains in this week’s column (click on screenshot to read it):

Chait’s theme is based on a couple of examples of Authoritarian Left social-media hounding. Several involve something that seems to have become anathema to the Left: calling out those protestors, especially in antiracist demonstrations, who commit violence, arson, looting, and so on. Although nobody explicitly approves of this behavior, even mentioning it now brings a “yes but. . .” from certain segments of the Left. I myself have been criticized for decrying violence (mostly on the grounds that “it was minor and look at Trump on the other side”), and I won’t dwell on the kinds of ripostes that are used not to defend violence but to minimize it.

As I’ve mentioned before, though, such tactics are not only immoral, but counterproductive. Work by Princeton professor Omar Wasow has shown that, in the Sixties, black-led protests that were nonviolent tended to sway people towards Democrats in the areas of the protests, while violent protests turned people towards “law and order” Republican candidates. Wasow claims that his data show, for instance, that this effect may have swung the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon.

Well, I haven’t read Wasow’s paper, but let’s assume, since it was peer reviewed, that it’s worth considering. One who considered it was David Shor, a Democratic data analyst who committed the sin of tweeting out Wasow’s results:

Although that tweet is innocuous, it was the beginning of the end for Shor, as the social-media opprobrium began. Chait notes:

It is easy to see why a specialist in public opinion whose professional mission is to help elect Democrats while moving the party leftward would take an interest in this research. But in certain quarters of the left — though not among Democratic elected officials — criticizing violent protest tactics is considered improper on the grounds that it distracts from deeper underlying injustice, and shifts the blame from police and other malefactors onto their victims.

And so, despite its superficially innocuous content, Shor’s tweet generated a sharp response. To take one public example, Ari Trujillo Wesler, the founder of OpenField, a Democratic canvassing app, replied, “This take is tone deaf, removes responsibility for depressed turnout from the 68 Party, and reeks of anti-blackness.”

Shor replied politely:

But after a short review, Shor’s employer, Civis Analytics, fired him. He was accused of all sorts of ridiculous things, as Chait recounts:

Over the weekend, “Progressphiles,” a progressive data listserv, announced it was kicking Shor out, according to another member of the group. Shor, who did not respond to comment, has been a member of the group but has not posted there in two years. The entire reason for his removal is the controversy over his “racist” tweet:

David Shor, a member of this community, knowingly harassed and bullied another member of this space. In response to a well-deserved call in over a racist tweet, he encouraged harassment that led to death threats instead of choosing to learn and grow from his mistake. We as the Progressphiles Moderators, professionals in this industry, and as people, absolutely condemn this behavior. It is unacceptable to make people on this list and in this community feel unsafe for calling out wrongdoings. We cannot begin to decolonize our minds if we do not create safety for those fighting against white supremacy. It is on all of us to do this work, but especially to show up for those already doing it and make sure they are safe. By not acting, we are perpetuating the racism and sexism we know exists on this list and in our community at large. As such, we have removed David Shor from Progressphiles.

Think of it this way: the vast bulk of capitulation of the Left to the Authoritarian Left comes from one thing: the desire to avoid being called a racist, the worst word someone on the Left can imagine.

Another of Chait’s examples is Lee Fang, identified as “a left-Wing Intercept reporter.” Fang’s sin was issuing a correction to an oft-misscited statement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

This ignited a bitter fight on Twitter with Akela Lacy, who also works for the Intercept, and Fang was called a racist. He apologized, and so far has not been fired.

Chait’s last example is that of Tom Cotton’s editorial in the New York Times calling for the military to be inserted into cities where there were demonstrations as a possible means of preventing violence and damage. I thought it was misguided, impractical, and wrongheaded, but black Times staffers made the claim that the editorial put them in danger. It’s a sign of the Times, so to speak, that these claims are actually taken seriously rather than being dismissed with a horse laugh. The paper, which originally defended its decision to publish Cotton’s piece, backed off, put a disclaimer on it, and then fired James Bennet, the editorial page editor.

As I noted, the reasons for backing off on the editorial: its tone and its claims, were hypocritical, since the paper’s Left-wing editorials regularly have “contemptuous” tones and often make factually dubious claims. Chait agrees:

What made this explanation so strange and obviously jury-rigged is that nothing like this standard has ever prevailed at the Times op-ed page before. The Times publishes overstated, contemptuous, and even factually questionable columns routinely. Nor does the paper normally treat minor factual quibbles as grounds to withdraw publication. Driving home the double standard, the Times news story about the op-ed erroneously described Cotton as having called “to send the military to suppress protests,” when he had argued explicitly the opposite. Cotton rejected the “equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters,” and urged, “a majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.” (The story corrected this significant error three days later after critics highlighted the incongruity.)

Cotton’s column broke open a longer-standing debate over whether the Times should run conservative columns. Numerous progressive critics, both inside the paper and out, either frontally oppose inviting any conservatives to contribute, or else hold those columnists to a standard of accuracy and cogency far higher than they hold more ideologically congenial writers, whose factual and logical errors draw little controversy.

. . .The most concerning thing about the Cotton episode is the logic that was given to pull the column in the first place: “Running this puts Black people, including Black @nytimes staff, in danger,” a phrase repeated thousands of times on social media.

The line of reasoning here is perfectly coherent. We can easily imagine a world where Cotton’s op-ed persuades Trump to deploy troops, who then kill protesters and reporters, many of them black. But we could envision a similar sequence resulting from any number of op-eds. Suppose the Times had given an op-ed to an advocate of repealing Obamacare at the crucial moment, persuading John McCain to supply the deciding vote to eliminate it. Millions of people would have lost insurance, and as a direct result, tens of thousands of them would have died.

Many other policy debates have life-and-death consequences: the environment, unemployment, and so on. On nearly all these issues, the brunt of policy failure falls disproportionately on black Americans, who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, losing their insurance, being harmed by pollution, and other threats.

Whenever I hear that words make somebody feel “unsafe,” and those words aren’t violations of the First Amendment, I tend to dismiss the argument. Or rather, “feeling unsafe” is not an argument at all, it’s an emotional reaction.

And so Chait decries the conflation of words with actions, one of the problems with the Authoritarian Left. As Chait notes, “The norm of suppressing a belief because somebody saying it makes them or others unsafe has left a trail of absurd or horrifying episodes in academia and elsewhere that many progressives insisted didn’t matter because It Wouldn’t Happen Here. And yet as this norm spreads, its central flaw has never been resolved: Any definition of “unsafe” that aims for a Tom Cotton will hit a David Shor or a Lee Fang.”

Finally, Chait explains why he criticizes the excesses of the Left, and he does so far better than I could have. Yes, I get this kind of criticism all the time. Why do I spend so much time kvetching at the Left when Donald Trump is clearly a more important danger to the Republic? My answer is that you can find criticisms of Trump everywhere in the liberal media, that I share the fear of this narcissistic moron, but I prefer finding a niche that isn’t fully occupied. It’s not interesting to me to simply echo what everyone else says, putting it in my own words. Further, I truly believe that the excesses of the Left—and that includes violence committed by those demonstrating (or joining a demonstration) for a just cause like the murder of George Floyd—will drive moderates into the camp of Donald Trump. So I prefer to do my bit there rather than accomplish almost nothing by adding my voice to the huge choir on liberal media mocking and criticizing the “President”.

Chait is on my side here:

The preconditions that permitted these events [the social-media demonizing and the firing of liberals] to go forward are the spread of distinct, illiberal norms throughout some progressive institutions over the last half-dozen years. When I wrote about the phenomenon in 2015, a common response was to dismiss it as the trivial hijinks of some college students, a distraction from the true threats to democratic values. It certainly was (and remains) true that the right poses a vastly greater danger to liberalism than does the far left. My own writing output reflects this enormous disproportionality. It is also true that the intended (if not always actual) target of the left’s illiberal impulses — entrenched systems of inequality — remain an oppressive force in American life, and that the cause to dismantle them is just.

Nonetheless, it is an error to jump from the fact that right-wing authoritarian racism is far more important to the conclusion that left-wing illiberalism is completely unimportant. One can oppose different evils, even those evils aligned against each other, without assigning them equal weight.

. . . Without rehashing at length, my argument against the left’s illiberal style is twofold. First, it tends to interpret political debates as pitting the interests of opposing groups rather than opposing ideas. Those questioning whatever is put forward as the positions of oppressed people are therefore often acting out of concealed motives. (Even oppressed people themselves may argue against their own authentic group interest; that a majority of African-Americans oppose looting, or that Omar Wasow himself is black, hardly matters.) Second, it frequently collapses the distinction between words and action — a distinction that is the foundation of the liberal model — by describing opposing beliefs as a safety threat.

I’d add to this what I said above: a third argument against the Left’s illiberal style is that it drives moderates or those on the fence toward the Right. As the Left eats its own, so those in the middle look on and their thoughts turn towards Trump as someone who can stop the madness. This is precisely why the violence of Leftist demonstrators is not a good thing for either the Left or for the country.

And I’ll finish by adding that on top of the examples Chait gives of people demonized for calling out violence, we can probably add Andrew Sullivan, whose New York Magazine column two weeks ago, most likely damning protestor violence, was apparently censored and went unpublished. It’s a fine kettle of fish when you get censored, or called a racist, for simply criticizing violence.

 

Pinker gets flak for tweeting about the “malignant delusion of the afterlife”, deletes tweet but defends himself here

June 4, 2020 • 1:30 pm

I don’t really follow Twitter, but sometimes it makes news when a prominent person deletes a tweet, as when Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times’s 1619 project deleted several tweets, including one drawing a distinction between being “politically black” and “racially black.” That made news, as did the tweet below issued about two weeks ago by Steve Pinker and then deleted. This puzzled me as I didn’t really see anything wrong with the tweet itself, though I didn’t read the linked Washington Post article.

I found out about the deleted tweet from reader Ginger K., who sent me this article from the respectable-sounding American Council on Science and Health (click on screenshot to read), which says it’s a nonprofit advocacy group but, according to sources cited in its Wikipedia article, is heavily funded by corporations, and takes some bizarre stands that align with corporate sponsorship.

At any rate, the author, a microbiologist, took issue with Steve’s statement that religion is a malignant delusion. Apparently Berezow’s main beef is not that it’s a delusion, but Pinker’s claim that it’s a malignant delusion. But he clearly implies in the last sentence that the idea of an afterlife is also wrong (I’m betting Berezow is a believer, but at least, judging by his critical review of Faith Versus Fact in Forbes, he’s a “believer in belief”). Here’s the heart of Berezow’s beef, his rhetorical filet mignon:

The other day, Dr. Pinker made a rare and unfortunate misstep. In a tweet that has been since deleted (but is still available on Facebook!), he claimed that belief in an afterlife is a “malignant delusion” because it “devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier.” This is total nonsense.

Let’s set aside the debate on whether there is an afterlife or whether any religious beliefs are true. Religious people (who, in general, tend to believe in an afterlife) are happier and more civic-minded than non-religious people. They are also likelier to have better mental health. We appear to be evolutionarily wired for belief in a higher power, so even if religion is a bunch of hogwash and fairy tales, it’s still good for you and for society.

There’s so much more. Research published in the Journal of Medical Ethics shows that “doctors who described themselves as non-religious were more likely than others to report having given continuous deep sedation until death” and “having taken decisions they expected or partly intended to end life.” Yikes. One could easily expect the exact opposite. If a doctor believes in the afterlife, perhaps he wouldn’t be so worried if a patient made the transition sooner rather than later. But, counterintuitively, that’s not what the researchers discovered. It was the non-religious doctors who took actions to end lives.

On second thought, maybe it isn’t quite so counterintuitive. Have you ever noticed how many hospitals are named for Catholic saints? That’s because religious people in general, and Catholics in particular, have an obligation to tend to the sick and dying. During the plagues of antiquity, Christians famously put their own lives on the line in order to care for the stricken.

Simply put, Dr. Pinker’s claims are demonstrably wrong. Let’s hope he comes around to accepting this evidence-based worldview.

Note that Berezow says claims in the plural. That presumably means that religion is not just salubrious, but that there is an afterlife. And if you take an “evidenced based world view on that”, then no, you don’t have to buy heaven or hell.

There is no evidence here save the claim, which can be argued, that religion makes people happier, and makes doctors less likely to sedate people about to die (morphine overdoses and so on).  Whether it’s better to prolong terminal illness or give morphine with the patient’s consent can also be argued, but I’d opt for the latter.  Berezow’s whole argument hinges on religion being salubrious, even if it is wrong.  I’d add, but I must be brief, that you have to take into account not just individual happiness but societal well being, and, as Steve argues convincingly in Better Angels, one of the main impediments to moral progress in the last several centuries has been religion, which is an obstacle not just to scientific advances but to rational thinking about morality. He reprises some of those arguments in his email below, and I’ve argued at length (in Faith Versus Fact, among other places), that true morality as we conceive of it today is not religious morality, but some kind of innate or secular societally-based morality. Plato demolished God as a source of morality (well, piety, really, but it’s the same logic) in his Euthyphro Argument.

And to claim that you should believe in something because it makes you happy and “civic minded” (like American evangelicals?) reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s quote about the “happiness of credulity”:

“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.”

I wrote to Steve asking why he deleted the tweet, that I had no issue with it, and added that I was just inquiring and had no intention of repeating what he said. But after he answered me, he said I was welcome to quote him on this site. So I am. Steve’s words are indented, and the quotes he gives indented further. To his credit, one of the reasons he deleted his tweet was because the article he quoted wasn’t as strong an argument as he liked. But read on for Steve’s whole email response (yes, this is the kind of emails he sends):

From Pinker:

As you can imagine, the tweet triggered a flood of obscene and abusive emails. This would not by itself have led me to take down the tweet, but on re-reading the Washington Post op-ed that I linked to (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/20/whats-really-behind-republicans-wanting-swift-reopening-evangelicals/), I realized that the empirical case for attributing resistance to Covid shutdowns to belief in an afterlife was thin — the author cited just one quote from one Evangelical politician. Together with the fact that my tweet-length comment was more provocative than necessary given the space available to explain my views, the lack of data to establish the connection made me reluctant to keep the tweet posted. (With today’s polarization, I don’t think it’s a good idea to piss people off without a strong argument.)

I do strongly suspect that belief in an afterlife encourages a lack of rational concern for societal problems. A similar argument was made in a more recent article in The Spectator https://spectator.us/eschatology-stupid-christianity-coronavirus/ , with a telling quote from Hulk Hogan, though still without data. And we have good reason to think that belief in God’s goodness abets climate change denial — the 2000 Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship addressed the “so-called climate crisis” and other environmental problems by affirming that “God in His mercy has not abandoned sinful people or the created order but has acted throughout history to restore men and women to fellowship with Him and through their stewardship to enhance the beauty and fertility of the earth.”

We also know from Philip Zuckerman and Gregory Paul’s correlations (and additional ones I conducted for Enlightenment Now) that more religious countries and states do more poorly on just about every indicator of societal well-being, even (in the case of my analysis) holding GDP statistically constant. But in comparisons across political units, many variables are intercorrelated, we could use a good data scientist, statistician, or econometrician to squeeze causation out of the correlation matrix and show that religious belief per se leads to policy complacency. I would bet it does.

In addition to societal inaction, there are, of course, even more malignant implications of belief in an afterlife. As I noted in explaining the death toll of the Crusades and Inquisition in Better Angels:

Institutionalized torture in Christendom was not just an unthinking habit; it had a moral rationale. If you really believe  that failing to accept Jesus as one’s savior  is a ticket to fiery damnation, then torturing  a person until he acknowledges  this truth  is doing him the biggest favor of his life: better a few hours now than an eternity later. And silencing a person before he can corrupt others, or making an example of him to deter the rest,  is a responsible public health measure. Saint Augustine brought the point home with a pair of analogies: a good father prevents his son from picking up a venomous snake, and a good gardener cuts off a rotten branch to save the rest of the tree.[i] The method of choice had been specified by Jesus himself: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15:6).

Once again, the point of this discussion is not to accuse Christians of endorsing torture and persecution. Of course most devout Christians today are thoroughly tolerant and humane people. Even those who thunder from televised pulpits do not call for burning heretics alive or hoisting Jews on the strappado. The question is why they don’t, given that their beliefs imply that it would serve the greater good. The answer is that people in the West today compartmentalize their religious ideology. When they affirm their faith in houses of worship, they profess beliefs that have barely changed in two thousand years. But when it comes to their actions,  they respect modern norms of nonviolence and toleration, a benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all be grateful.

And then there are the suicide terrorists…

There have been a couple of other replies to my tweet, including one from the conservative blogger and radio host Dennis Prager:

https://www.arcamax.com/politics/fromtheright/dennisprager/s-2366593?fs and the online edition of Newsweek: https://www.newsweek.com/authors/lee-habeeb-0

(I wrote to Prager offering to debate this with him, but have not heard back.)

These articles recycle the usual secular arguments for religious belief: the religious give more to charity, and so on.

I’d add an additional point in response to the secular argument for religiosity, which I noted in Enlightenment Now:

It’s long been known that churchgoers are happier and more charitable than stay-at-homes, but Robert Putnam and his fellow political scientist David Campbell have found that these blessings have nothing to do with beliefs in God, creation, heaven, or hell.[i] An atheist who has been pulled into a congregation by an observant spouse is as charitable as the faithful among the flock, whereas a fervent believer who prays alone is not particularly charitable. At the same time, communality and civic virtue can be fostered by membership in secular service communities such as the Shriners (with their children’s hospitals and burn units), Rotary International (which is helping to end polio), and Lions Club (which combats blindness)—even, according to Putnam and Campbell’s research, a bowling league.

Just as religious institutions deserve praise when they pursue humanistic ends, they should not be shielded from criticism when they obstruct those ends. Examples include the withholding of medical care from sick children in faith-healing sects, the opposition to humane assisted dying, the corruption of science education in schools, the suppression of touchy biomedical research such as on stem cells, and obstruction of lifesaving public health policies such as contraception, condoms, and vaccination against HPV.[ii] Nor should religions be granted a presumption of a higher moral purpose. Faitheists who have hoped that the moralistic fervor of Evangelical Christianity might be channeled into movements for social improvement have repeatedly gotten burned. In the early 2000s, a bipartisan coalition of environmentalists hoped to make common cause with Evangelicals on climate change under rubrics like Creation Care and Faith-Based Environmentalism. But Evangelical churches are an anchor faction of the Republican Party, which adopted a strategy of absolute noncooperation with the Obama administration. Political tribalism carried the day, and the Evangelicals fell into line, opting for radical libertarianism over stewardship of the Creation.[iii]

Similarly, in 2016 there was a brief hope that the Christian virtues of humility, temperance, forgiveness, propriety, chivalry, thrift, and compassion toward the weak would turn Evangelicals against a casino developer who was vainglorious, sybaritic, vindictive, lewd, misogynistic, ostentatiously wealthy, and contemptuous of the people he called “losers.” But no: Donald Trump won the votes of 81 percent of white Evangelical and born-again Christians, a higher proportion than of any other demographic.[iv] In large part he earned their votes by promising to repeal a law which prohibits tax-exempt charities (including churches) from engaging in political activism.[v] Christian virtue was trumped by political muscle.

And from Professor Ceiling Cat: I’d add that a lot has happened since 2016 to support Steve’s argument that evangelical Christians haven’t improved America, and it can be encapsulated in a five-letter name that starts with “T” and ends with “p”. The malignancy of at least extreme Abrahamic faith as a termite in the foundations of American society is obvious.

 

Is Facebook spying on you?

April 19, 2020 • 10:30 am

I spotted this post on a friend’s public Facebook postings, and found it hard to believe. However, it seems to be true:

Now I just did this, and, sure enough, there was a list of sites I’ve visited, though the last entries were on April 16. Here are a few of mine that were recorded (I’m usually not on Facebook):

Now maybe everyone knows this, and maybe I’m being paranoid, and maybe nobody cares about being spied on (how do they do this when you’re not logged into Facebook?), but just in case, I’ve taken screenshots of what you have to do to not get spied on, and have put them below step by step.

So, following the instructions at the top about for seeing this stuff and deactivating whatever spyware Facebook is using, click on the arrow at the extreme right at the top of your Facebook page:

You will see this. Click on “settings”:

Then click on this bit to the left in blue:


Then click on this:

You’ll get this. Click on the red-outlined bit (you may have to enter your Facebook password):

You’ll see this. It tells you what “off-Facebook activity” is, i.e., how they spy. Oy! Then click on the red box:

You’ll get this (it’s a long process); click on the blue box:

You’ll then get to the money site (for Facebook!). You can click the blue dot to turn off future spying activity, though when you mouse over it, you’ll get a warning like the one below this screenshot:

Clearly, Facebook doesn’t want you to make them stop spying. In fact, because I don’t want to be logged out of WordPress, and because sometimes it’s convenient to log into websites with Facebook, I didn’t do anything. I’m a coward. But I just thought I’d let you know.

 

Which social medium is most useless, annoying, or harmful?

February 23, 2020 • 12:15 pm

And here’s another poll to while away the time. This came to me when I was watching a television show yesterday about Chicago food and it praised a restaurant for having “Instagrammable food”. That immediately turned me off. Yes, food should be pretty, and yes, I do post pictures of what I eat in restaurants, but putting food pictures up is not the main reason I eat. And I’m well aware that for many people—especially the odious “influencers”—Instagram is nothing more than a way of showing off, either showing what you look like or showing what you consume (the latter to get goods and money).

I have no use for Instagram, and almost never look at it. I like Facebook simply because it allows me to connect with my friends (mostly real friends, as I don’t accept friend requests from somebody I don’t know or who doesn’t look like someone who could be my friend). Further, Facebook has lots of cool cat and other animal photos; in fact, I follow nearly as many animal-related sites as I do “friends”. Twitter I use to put up links to the posts at this site (and call attention to photos or articles that I think might interest people but don’t warrant a post on this site, but I don’t follow anyone there because I don’t have the time. And Twitter fights are about the most unproductive thing imaginable. I’ve never seen anybody change their mind in a Twitter squabble, and the site seems to bring the worst out in people.

My vote for the most useless social media site is Instagram, as it’s Solpsism Central; and my vote for the most harmful one (in terms of stirring up trouble and fostering hatred and division) is Twitter. That doesn’t mean that Twitter, on balance, reduces social well being—only that it does more to injure well being than other sites.

But here, you vote. And if you don’t want to vote, weigh in below.

The first poll is about which site is the most “useless”, that is, adds the least value to the planet:

And another poll. By “harmful” I mean “on balance, creates the greatest reduction in well being or the least total improvement in well being”.

And post comments below.

 

Tom Chivers has a theory about the latest Dawkins kerfuffle

February 19, 2020 • 1:00 pm

Tom Chivers is a journalist and science writer who, like me,  was taken aback by the negative reactions to Richard Dawkins’s recent tweet about eugenics. (Remember? Richard said eugenics would “work” in the sense of changing population means in humans, but immediately added that he was against it.) Now, at UnHerd, Chivers has proposed a “theory” to explain the dichotomous reaction. (It did seem pretty dichotomous, with lots of people understanding what Richard was trying to say but a big number demonizing Dawkins for “favoring eugenics.” There were a few, like me, who understood what Richard was saying but thought he should have said it in a longer piece rather than vomiting it out on Twitter. Or not said it at all.)

First, an earlier tweet from Chivers in which he expressed the rudiments of his idea:

 

Click on the screenshot below to read Chiver’s theory, which is his:

So Chivers’s idea, which is his, is that there are two types of people: the “high-decouplers”, which, in a statement like Dawkins’s, can easily separate the “is”s from the “ought”s. They can see that he’s making a statement about the malleability of human traits to artificial selection and, at the same time, realize that this doesn’t mean Dawkins favors such intervention.

Then there are the “low-decouplers”, which couple Dawkins’s “is” statement with his “ought” statement. (I’d prefer to call the groups “couplers” and “uncouplers”.) These people embed Richard’s “eugenics would work” statement in a political and cultural milieu, and are unable to separate them. Ergo Richard, by saying “eugenics works”, is somehow justifying Nazism. That isn’t an exaggeration, as you can see if you’ve followed the pushback.

As an example of a low-decoupler, I posted a tweet from a scientist who called Richard a “clown” who was “supporting eugenics” and deserved to be denounced. When I asked in my post if that scientist actually read what Richard wrote, I was denounced by the person (a woman) as a “sexist asshat”. (The exact wording was “So in addition to ‘Fuck eugenics’ and “Fuck dawks,’ I’d like to add, Fuck Jerry Coyne you sexist asshat”.) That, I realized after reading Chiver’s piece, was double “low-decoupling”: not only was the person unable to decouple Dawkins’s “is” from his “oughts”, but was unable to decouple my mild criticism of her from the presumption that I was a “sexist” (and an asshat, too). What would imply I was a “sexist” beyond her own sex?

So here’s Chivers’s take (a quote, not the full piece):

I have a rule that I try to stick to, but which I break occasionally. That rule is “never say anything remotely contentious on Twitter”. No good ever comes of it. Arguments that need plenty of space and thought get compressed into 280 characters and defended in front of a baying audience; it is the worst possible medium for serious conversations.

. . . The analyst John Nerst, who writes a fascinating blog called “Everything Studies”, is very interested in how and why we disagree. And one thing he says is that for a certain kind of nerdy, “rational” thinker, there is a magic ritual you can perform. You say “By X, I don’t mean Y.”

Having performed that ritual, you ward off the evil spirits. You isolate the thing you’re talking about from all the concepts attached to it. So you can say things like “if we accept that IQ is heritable, then”, and so on, following the implications of the hypothetical without endorsing them. Nerst uses the term “decoupling”, and says that some people are “high-decouplers”, who are comfortable separating and isolating ideas like that.

Other people are low-decouplers, who see ideas as inextricable from their contexts. For them, the ritual lacks magic power. You say “By X, I don’t mean Y,” but when you say X, they will still hear Y. The context in which Nerst was discussing it was a big row that broke out a year or two ago between Ezra Klein and Sam Harris after Harris interviewed Charles Murray about race and IQ.

. . .That’s what I think was going on with the Dawkins tweet. Dawkins thought he’d performed the magic ritual – “It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice” =  “By X, I don’t mean Y.” He is a nerdy, high-decoupling person, a scientist, used to taking concepts apart.

But many people reading it are not high-decouplers; they hear “eugenics” and “work” and immediately all of the history, from Francis Galton to Josef Mengele, is brought into the discussion: you can’t separate the one from the other.

. . . But I think the decoupling thing makes me understand a bit more why Dawkins’s tweet got people so angry. Sometimes the ritual fails, and the spirits break through the warding circle.

Chivers also explains that Dawkins’s tweet, which seemed to appear out of nowhere, was actually aimed at Andrew Sabisky, a nasty piece of work and a former advisor to Boris Johnson (he appears to have just resigned over racist remarks).

At any rate, Chivers gives some other examples of quotes from people who were demonized because the proper decoupling wasn’t done. Some of those quotes are harder to parse, and Chivers seems to have some sympathy with the victims.  As he says “I think the decoupling thing makes me understand a bit more why Dawkins’s tweet got people so angry.”

Well, the “coupling/decoupling” dichotomy is useful, I think, but hasn’t helped me understand more deeply why Dawkins’s tweet got people so angry. They were angry because they deliberately misinterpreted what he said—either that or they couldn’t read or were just thick. What puzzles me is why so many people were and are so eager to demonize Dawkins. Jealousy is one reason, I suppose, but I don’t think that quite covers it. After all, there are psychological reasons for a seeming inability to decouple that the theory doesn’t cover.

Chivers argues that it’s easier for scientists to decouple because they’re “used to taking things apart,” but I don’t buy that, either. It is those who are enraged by Dawkins—and they include many scientists, who have demonized him for his tweet)—or are determined to bring him down, who can’t decouple in this case. How bright do you have to be to understand that Richard was talking about the efficacy of artificial selection and not that it should be used in humans? Is that so hard—especially when Richard immediately explained what he meant in other tweets?

I will probably use the designations of “couplers” and “decouplers” in the future, as it’s good shorthand for people who link (or don’t link) things that shouldn’t be linked. But I don’t think that giving these groups names helps us understand them or their motivations any better.