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Archive for March, 2014

If you want to learn how creationists argue, ask them to respond to Stephen Jay Gould’s 1994 essay, “Hooking Leviathan by Its Past.” The article discusses the transition of whales from land to the ocean, presenting five transitional fossils, and singling out two of them as being beyond dispute. Recently, I challenged creationists to respond, and their answers – or, to be exact, lack of answers – were as insightful as they were predictable.

The exchange began when a creationist I know through free software (who has also been kind enough about my writing that I feel guilty singling him out) reposted my comment on Google+: “Love how the spread of lactose tolerance is showing how evolution can be observed.”

My acquaintance never did address the idea that evolution can be observed. Instead, his first response was that creationists were “still looking for something morphological.” This may be a non-standard use of “morphological,” but it suggests that creationists only acknowledge visually detectable mutations.

See the opportunity to get a response to Gould’s essay, I provided the link to it. My acquaintance, who apparently only knew of Gould through books like Stephen C. Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt, warned me that he “says an awful lot against his co-laborers for the humanist cause” and claimed a difference between micro and macro evolution. When I replied that there was no difference between the micro and the macro, he had no reply.

At this point, apparently feeling out of his depth, my acquaintance pleaded that he was busy, and appealed to the members of a Biblical creationism group on Google+ for help in answering me.

Gould is remembered for the clarity of his prose, and his ability to make science intelligible. Yet some of the members of this group, who make opposing evolution their avocation, had trouble understanding the essay. One admitted frankly, “I was confused as to the point he was trying to make.”

Another seems not to have got past the introduction, in which Gould acknowledges that a lack of transitional forms has been a valid criticism of evolution in the past, writing that “it sounded like Gould was whining about creationists having the upper hand and trying to explain it away.” Instead of trying to understand the essay, he simply posted a few links in which creationists talk about the evolution of whales. Focusing on the incompleteness of some whale fossils, these links were meaningless, since they rejected these fossils for exactly the reason as Gould did.

Similarly, another reply rejected Gould’s essay as being “way out of date,” claiming that it referred to Pakicetus as “an aquatic proto-whale,” but claiming that evolutionists had long ago “conceded it was a land mammal.” The point is somewhat moot, since Pakicetus is not one of the fossils that Gould puts forward as an unquestionable transitional form, but, even more importantly, it is also incorrect, since Gould suggests that it was amphibious, not aquatic. Moreover, an online search quickly reveals that the mainstream view is still that Pakicetus is an ancestral whale and probably lived only partly on land. Under these circumstances, the lofty declaration that “the article is only of interest to historians of evolution. Others should not waste time on it” only emphasizes the carelessness of the reading and research behind the claim.

At this point, the conversation digressed, although, to give him credit, my original acquaintance did show the honesty to admit that, “I really feel ill-equipped to talk about things like this with this quality of evolutionist.”

My acquaintance pleaded that he was distracted, so I told him to take all the time he needed to reply. When I had heard nothing for a week, I posted a summary of Gould’s essay in the hopes of helping the creationists to muster a response. I heard nothing in reply, and, now, after two weeks, do not expect to, especially since my acquaintance was not too busy to continue posting regularly on other matters.

However, reading the few responses that were made, as well as some of the links and references provided, I have come to a few basic conclusions:

  • creationists are not interested in looking at evidence and making up their minds. Their only interest is to discredit opposing views by any means possible.
  • creationist arguments are full of concepts that have no scientific meaning, such as “kind” rather than species, and macro-evolution. Some, too, apparently fail to understand that DNA (which my original acquaintance dismisses as an “exchange of proteins”) is what determines morphology.

  • many creationists lack the background to reply to scientific claims. They rely on the statements of other creationists, and rarely address evolutionist arguments directly.

  • the few creationists who follow evolution from primary sources can rarely do more than nitpick, pointing out the incompleteness of fossils or raising the possibility of parallel evolution – interpretations that evolutionists themselves do not deny. It is only the creationist audience that has trouble with the idea that theories are tentative and subject to revision when further evidence is found.

  • creationist arguments usually avoids talking about the details of anatomy, except to nitpick. In most cases, the arguments depend on the non-scientific concepts invented by creationists. At times, the arguments show a lack of anatomical knowledge that is shocking in a modern technological culture like ours.

Over-generalized, careless, and evasive, the average argument in favor of creationism invalidates itself by being riddled by the simplest of fallacies. Under these circumstances, I am not really surprised that, faced with a direct challenge like Gould’s, the best they can do is avoid making any detailed rebuttal.

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OK, let’s get it straight: just because a tone argument is invalid does not mean that all discussion of tone is invalid, or that the tone you choose doesn’t matter.

A tone argument, as you probably know, is an effort to derail a discussion by suggesting that a point of view would be better received if expressed more politely. Since tone does not affect the truth of a position, a tone argument is a logical fallacy. It could be classified as a sub-set of an ad hominem argument (an attack on the person rather than their position). Sometimes, it may also be an appeal to personal authority, because claiming the right to define the terms of a discussion implies social dominance.

Either way, the description of a tone argument is a feminist contribution to the study of rhetoric, and offers genuine insight into the tactics of human interaction. Giving tone arguments a name makes them easier to identify and counter, and helps to discredit anyone would would use such an essentially dishonest tactic.

Notice, however, that the description is extremely specific. The problem is not the mention of tone as such, but its use as a distraction from the main topic of a discussion. The fallacy lies in the attempt to derail, not in the mention of tone.

This is a distinction that people often fail to make. For instance, Julie Pagano jumps from tone arguments to a declaration that “Some of the things feminism has to say are hard – there’s no nice way to say them. It’s also not my job to act pleasing and friendly on all occasions. If you regularly find my tone to not match your interests, feel free to find another source – I won’t be mad. I will be frustrated and contemptuous if you use a tone argument on me.”

Even more strongly, in a blog entry entitled, “Dealing with the Tone Police,” Ragen Chastain writes, “We have a right to all of our emotions, including being pissed off. We have a right to all the vocabulary, including swear words. We have a right to all of the types of activism, which includes using anger as a tool. We are not responsible for other people’s feelings and we don’t have to let the tone police dictate the way that we react to, live in, or work to change a messed up world.”

Both these declarations have been widely linked-to, usually with enthusiastic expressions of agreement that suggest that the view expressed by both is widespread.

To some extent, I can share that agreement. Anger is empowering – especially anger in a good cause. I can see, too, how constantly hearing the same tired rationales for sexism and misogyny being trotted out as though they were new would make anyone want to lash out, all the more so if they feel they are being ignored.

At the same time, such statements not only misinterpret the tone argument (at least as I understand it), but fail to consider why tone arguments are such a frequent fallacy. In a world of pure logic, anyone using a tone argument would instantly lose an argument, and be discredited in the eyes of any audience. But any time you have an audience, you are just as likely to be judged by your tone as your logic, and this is a fact that activists can’t afford to ignore.

I feel like I am stating the obvious here, but tone, like every other aspect of debate, has been a concern of rhetoric for over two millennia. And the consensus of this meta-discussion is that anger generally loses arguments so far as public opinion is concerned. In particular, an angry woman hands her opponents cheap labels like “hysterical” and “strident” to discredit what she says.

(Don’t believe me? Then do an online search or two on tone and rhetoric. Hell, do thirty or forty or a hundred. What I’ve summarized is so basic that I doubt you will find any expert in rhetoric or public speaking who says anything different. This consensus is frustrating, and certainly unfair as it applies to women, but it’s the social context in which we exist).

Look, I’m not saying you’re not entitled to your anger. Sometimes, even the most patient of people have had enough of acting sensibly and want to explode. Even though they know they’re not acting in their own best interests, the temptation to lash out sometimes becomes irresistible.

But don’t lie to yourself. Don’t make the mistake of imagining that, because expressing your anger is potentially addictive that you are doing anything to promote your cause when you express it. Far more often than not, you’re only helping people to dismiss what you stand for so that you justify your emotions.

Most of all, don’t make the mistake of justifying yourself by citing tone arguments. A tone argument is an tactic of attack, to be used when your opponents stoop to derailment, not a concept that defends your own expression of emotions.

Be angry, if you can’t resist. But don’t be surprised if self-expression doesn’t work out like you expect – or if a white, middle-class, middle-aged man like me turns out to have a point after all.

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Years ago, I was the fourth person hired at a start-up. I was also the first non-programmer, which meant that I was an outsider, tolerated for a few useful abilities that nobody else wanted to concern themselves about, and often condescended to in an allegedly friendly way as I struggled to increase my spotty knowledge. Perhaps that was why I was sensitive to what happened when the first women were hired.

The other employees were young men in their twenties, some single, others in permanent relationships that were up to several years old. Thrown into an empty office several floors above the parent company, the company had the atmosphere of a locker room – nothing too raunchy, you understand, just a group of young men acting the way they had been taught to act, with a lot of casual talk about women and equally casual squalor of the sort left by men who had never been responsible for picking up after themselves.

By contrast, I was older and long-married, which were other reasons why I was an outsider. As the company slowly grew, continuing all male, I had plenty of confirmations of my belief that men and women tend to civilize each other, and that one-gender groups were about as appealing as an old sock growing mildew at the bottom of the laundry basket.

Then an office manager was hired. In those days, the position was as inevitably filled by women as programming jobs were filled by men, and this new hire was no exception. The all-men’s club was about to change.

I was responsible for bring the new hire up to speed, since she would be taking over tasks that I had been doing for lack of anyone else to do them. Tentatively, before she arrived, I suggested a few changes in daily behavior, like removing the soft-core anime screen-savers, and maybe making an extra effort to make her welcome. My suggestions were mocked, although, to be fair, when the time came some of the other male employees did seem to make a bit of an effort.

The trouble was, those efforts were nowhere near enough to overcome the habits of several unsupervised months. The new office manager was barely out of college, and visibly nervous about stepping into this atmosphere. Not only did she have no experience exercising the authority she was supposed to have, but many of the other staff members talked to her breasts more often than her face. Once or twice, she almost certainly heard her body being evaluated by some of the men.

Watching this, I felt like apologizing on behalf of the company, but I was equally unsure of how to use authority. I worried, too, that bringing the topic into the open would only add to everyone’s discomfort, especially since I am a man myself.

However, I soon concluded that, as annoying as my treatment had been, it was trivial compared to the office manager’s. After all, while not a programmer, I was quickly learning enough to hold my own. I had also discovered that, short of being familiar with the technology, the next best thing was to show a willingness to learn. Over time, I was gaining limited acceptance, at least among some of the programmers.

At best, though, the office manager had only a professional interest in the technology. But even if she had been willing to learn, I realized that she would never be fully accepted, simply because she was a woman. Too many of her fellow employees were asking her out – and none of these suitors had the maturity to accept the authority of a woman they hoped to date.

The second woman had the advantage of being a bit older and a bit tougher. Also, she was a technical writer, and the male programmers were only too glad to have private conversations with her. But her situation was similar, and she was too different from the office manager for either to support the other.

Another woman, hired to help with the Japanese translation of the company’s products, was even more isolated because of her limited English. Still another, hired as a receptionist, had to endure the graphic designer moving his computer so he could sit with her. She already had a boy-friend, but had no idea to handle the situation – and neither the office manager nor I had enough support from the company founder to get the designer to change his behavior. If anything, many of the programmers applauded his chutzpah.

The only woman who held her own was the finance clerk, whose expertise nobody disputed. About sixty, she could also assume a motherly role, treating the rest of the staff as children. But if she ever helped the other women cope, I never observed it.

For myself, I never did figure out how to intervene effectively, and after ten months at the company, I realized it would eventually fail and moved on. But I wonder, sometimes, if I would ever have noticed the difficulties of the women if I hadn’t been in a position to empathize, or felt partly responsible for them. Certainly, I was the only man who ever expressed concerns, even if I were too inexperienced to do anything.

However, what bothers me most about that situation is how routine it was. Few of the programmers were ogres of sexism. They were nothing worse than young men, and, while they were conditioned the way that most young men are in our culture, most of them were too introverted and polite to be the worst representatives of that conditioning.

Nor were the female employees particularly sheltered. Yet, despite being constantly thwarted in their efforts to carry out their jobs, none complained or made any effort to improve their situation. Instead, the women simply acted as though such difficulties were nothing new – which, of course, they weren’t.

Long before this experience, I had counted myself a feminist. Yet somehow I had managed to miss how ordinary this systemic sexism actually is. But since then, this reality has been like a bad smell that, once noticed, spoils all the other smells. It is a perception that I have no way of turning off. And, ever since, I have wondered frequently at the crassness of many men and the patience of most women, and worried about how much I contribute to the problem and whether I do enough to help solve it.

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Yesterday, Benjamin Szumskyj emailed that his Fritz Leiber: Critical Studies, was now officially out of print. I turned sombre at the news, because that anthology marked the last remnant of my academic aspirations.

In any number of alternate universes, I am probably teaching English at some university. For years, that was my intention in this one. But finances, family, and a reluctance to work towards a doctorate put an end to those ambitions years ago. I was so disillusioned by academia that I even stopped my critical work on the American fantasist Fritz Leiber and emerged myself in the world of technical writing. All that survived was Witches of the Mind, the revised version of my master’s thesis, selling a few copies every year and being praised by the half dozen other people in the world who were interested in the subject.

Several years later, Szumskyj, then a semi-professional fantasy scholar, contacted me, praising Witches and eager to lure me out of academic retirement. Mostly, I resisted the temptation, but he did manage to coax from me a contribution for Critical Studies, “The Allure of the Eccentric in the Poetry and Fiction of Fritz Leiber.”

The writing of the article was a painful reminder of academic discourse; as Phred Nguyen, the member of the Vietcong in Doonesbury said when hearing Marxist jargon for the first time in a long while, I kept thinking, “Man, I’d forgotten we talk this way.” I enjoyed writing it as a prolonged daydream of what might have been, and I think I managed to say something original, but after it was done, I had no desire to follow up with more articles. Literary analysis was no longer what my life was about.

Still, now that the rights have reverted, I like the idea of giving the article a semi-permanent home. I’m posting it here under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license for any who might be interested in what else I write when I’m not discussing free software. After all, it’s not everyday that you get to read a relic of an alternate universe.

allure-of-the-eccentric-by-bruce-byfield

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