Friday, January 22, 2010

On "civility"

There is apparently a live debate about what constitutes "civility" in among scientific blogs. There are a number of issues with this debate I'd like to address.

First, framing the debate as about civility unacceptably biases the discussion right from the start. There is no such thing as objectively civilized standards; there are only the standards generally employed in particular "civilizations" (in the looser sense of more-or-less organized groups of people communicating with each other). Rather than asking what standards do or do not (objectively) constitute "real" civility, it seems more productive to ask directly which standards are in effect in different places, to what extent we can analyze the effects of those standards, and to what extent — and for whom — those effects are desirable.

Henry Gee, a senior editor for Nature, alleges that he has been sharply criticized for asserting any standards on the basis that "the enforcement of ground rules is an act of white male patriarchy and acts to exclude certain subsets of society from taking part." Unfortunately, although Dr Gee says that "some otherwise intelligent and articulate people seem to believe" this criticism, he doesn't directly cite or quote anyone. We should be immediately suspicious of anyone, especially a professional scientist, who paraphrases a critical opinion without citing and quoting its proponents. Abstract generalities are acceptable enough in philosophy (philosophers are expected — perhaps even required — to bullshit) but when we're talking about the real world, we need specifics.

While there are plenty of stupid people out there capable of expressing a stupid opinion, it's also plausible that Gee is obtusely misunderstanding the criticism that some particular standards reinforce white male patriarchy, and that these standards unacceptably exclude certain subsets of society from taking part. Because the debate is framed in an inherently misleading way, on what objectively constitutes civility, and civility is good by definition, then a criticism of objectively good standards is easy to interpret as a criticism of standards in general: who would argue for standards that are objectively bad?

Coturnix offers one direct criticism of standards in the scientific community. It's clear that Coturnix does not argue against the concepts of standards in general:
The form and format of a scientific paper has evolved towards a very precise and very universal state that makes scientist-to-scientist communication flawless. And that is how it should be... [emphasis added]

Coturnix says that part of scientific academic training consists of mastering "the formalized kabuki dance of the use of Scientese language." He may be correct or incorrect, but he has introduced an opinion before he has introduced any facts. The essential metaphorical feature of Labuki is the dominance of arbitrary conventions; mastery of the art form consists of skillfully executing these difficult conventions; mastery does not consist of using these conventions to structure the presentation of new ideas. Contrast Kabuki with narrative fiction, which has conventions — from spelling, grammar, punctuation; to sentence and paragraph structure; to standards of verisimilitude (Twain justly criticizes Cooper for violating those standards) — that primarily serve to make the communication of the author's ideas more effective. The standards of Kabuki are arbitrary and definitional -- the standards are the art form; the standards of narrative fiction are (or are intended to be) utilitarian and instrumental. You cannot contravene the conventions of Kabuki: Kabuki is nothing but convention; you can break the conventions of narrative fiction, however, if you can still tell a good story enjoyable by an ordinary literate person.

So it's difficult to immediately see precisely what Coturnix refers to by "the kabuki dance... of Scientese language." On the one hand, he doesn't seem to be talking about the "precise" and "universal" language of scientific papers; he's clear that this language is instrumental, and he approves of these forms. It's unclear if he means the language of scientific papers applied to "Letters To The Editor of scientific journals, conferences and invited seminars." In these contexts, "the formal rhetoric" is "Fine, but..." But what?

Rather than telling us specifically what standards he's referring to, Coturnix goes on to stress the exclusionary nature of standards in general, in clearly pejorative language. Standards are "essential for the Inside Club to make sure that the Barbarians remain at the Gate and are never allowed inside." Insistence on these standards "is the way to keep the power relations intact." [emphasis added] Standards have "always been the way to keep women, minorities and people from developing countries outside the club, waiting outside the Gate."

Since Coturnix is not explicit about precisely what standards he's referring to (he mentions only one actual standard, "don't get angry"), it seems easy to interpret his comments as pertaining to standards in general, or alternatively a charge that some unspecified standards of academic discourse are completely arbitrary (i.e. an "inherently dishonest" kabuki dance). But we cannot evaluate whether either of these assertions are true.

All standards are exclusionary: we don't want imprecision or ambiguity in scientific papers, and we therefore exclude papers which don't meet the accepted standards that enable precision and clarity. It doesn't matter if one does not want to or cannot meet these standards by virtue of one's race, sex, religion or national origin: you can't write a comprehensible scientific paper without adhering to the standards. (Alternatively, you could demonstrate by example that you can write a clear, accurate and precise paper without adhering to one or more elements of the standard, which would argue effectively that those particular elements were not instrumentally necessary.) It doesn't matter why you can't use correct spelling, grammar or structure: you can't write effective narrative fiction if people don't understand what you're saying. (Again, if you can write a good story without some convention, then the convention requires modification.)

Neither can we evaluate the charge that "Scientese" has the essential properties of Kabuki — stylized, definitionally rigid, content-free — because Coturnix asks us to read several paragraphs of abstract denunciations of unspecific standards before he gives us a clue what he's talking about. Indeed, the entire middle section lacks merit: It's clear that Coturnix doesn't like something, but we have no idea what specifically he dislikes.

Coturnix eventually mentions a specific context: "The debates about 'proper' language exist on science blogs themselves." Coturnix appears to argue that it's inappropriate to require that blogs adhere to the standards of scientific papers. An attempt to move the discussion of a scientific paper away from blogs was "resisted fiercely." But it's unclear why such attempts require fierce resistance. The whole point of blogs is that the content cannot be regulated by anyone but the authors. "Fierce resistance" need consist of nothing more than saying, "No."

I was recently accused of "incivility" in my recent criticism of Matt LeBlanc. My response to the accusation was a simple shrug: if you don't like what I write, don't read it. DB0 recently objected to my refusal to publish one of his comments, and my request that he not comment further here. Again, my response was simply that it's my blog, and I'll publish or reject comments as I please. He had a lot of unpleasant (and unjustified) things to say about me on his own blog, and good for him: he can write what he pleases — and accept or reject comments as he pleases — on his own blog.

It's interesting to note that Coturnix does not justify a different set of standards on blogs by appealing to the obvious fact that blogs are a different venue from scientific papers and the formal channels of scientific communication. While praising them in a short whisper, he condemns the standards themselves (or something) in an extended shout: these standards are racist, sexist, classist, completely arbitrary and without any effect on content or efficacy of communication; they serve (only?) to exclude "some people... [who] are just as good as scientists as the folks inside the club." Blogs are not just different, they are better, because they foster "honest" discussion, and avoid the "inherent dishonesty of the formalized rhetoric."

I have no doubt that some of the standards of formal scientific discourse are indeed arbitrary, some of the standards unfairly and unjustly exclude people we want — as honest seekers after scientific truth — to include, that some of these standards are unnecessarily and unjustly racist, sexist, classist and serve only to perpetuate and maintain individual's power within the hierarchy hindering (or at least failing to further) the pursuit of scientific truth. But I need to know which standards have these effects. Without specifics, I cannot know which standards deserve whispered praise and which deserve shouted condemnation. It's just not enough to say, "those formal steps were designed by Victorian gentlemen scientists, thus following those steps turns one into a present-time Victorian gentleman scientist" as if that was a substantive criticism.

Coturnix raises several objections in his article.

Coturnix claims that cience is hierarchical. Fair enough, it does indeed seem so. Is it bad that science is hierarchical? I have no idea. I can tell that Coturnix doesn't seem to like hierarchical organizations, but I don't know why, other than the unproven and implausible implication that hierarchical organizations are inherently sexist, racist, classist, and arbitrarily exclusionary. Hierarchies work for some tasks, they fail badly at others; they have advantages and disadvantages. Do assholes sometimes act to preserve their position in the hierarchy, sometimes at the expense of performing the tasks the hierarchy exists to implement? Of course: that's one of the primary disadvantages of a hierarchy, a disadvantage that has been mitigated in different ways. I have no idea what he proposes as an alternative, especially for efficiently allocating money and time.

Coturnix alleges that some mostly unspecified standards in the scientific community are Kabuki-like: i.e. completely arbitrary and without utilitarian value. He appears to imply that these standards — mastery of which constitutes a substantial part of academic training — exist only to further white male privilege. Is this true? I have no idea.

Coturnix alleges that mainstream science journalists deprecate blogs as non-hierarchical, democratic publications, where formal standards don't apply. That's a fair allegation, but one that doesn't require all that much debate. You can't censor my blog; you're entitled to your opinion, and entitled to express it, but I have the ability to simply ignore your opinion. (It would seem contradictory to complain that mainstream journalists have no right to express an unfavorable opinion about blogs.)

Fundamentally, the problem is caused by an attempt to establish objective standards of discourse. There aren't any. All standards are fundamentally arbitrary or exist to fulfill some other arbitrary desire. Take away the quest for objective standards, and it's fairly easy to conclude that pluralism reigns: create a venue and establish whatever standards you please; the readers will decide on the value of those standards in that venue. If you want to change the standards of a public venue, tell me why I should change those standards, and give me evidence that those standards have an unwanted effect.

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