Good science communication means never calling them “retard” – even if you’re Nassim Taleb

Communicating science to people who aren’t scientists is very hard to do well. Nassim Taleb should be very good at it, based on his enormous book sales and even more enormous opinion of his own skills. But we all have our demons, and Taleb has succumbed to his. Rather than encouraging a healthy discussion about science, he’s picked a side and declared all-out war on the people who disagree with him. Taleb even admits that his strategy is to prevent conversations from happening by abusing and insulting people who question him, and encouraging his followers to join in. What’s the point of that strategy? It doesn’t help communicate science, resolve legitimate questions about the facts, or even address the supposedly evil motives of his critics. All it really does is feel good. Nassim Taleb has chosen self-gratification over real engagement. Let’s talk about why that’s unproductive and unethical.

Anger Controls Him by Jessica Flavin

Taleb has been kicking up the dust lately on Facebook and Twitter, encouraging his readers to not even listen to people who disagree with his beliefs about GMOs. I caught an edge of it when I saw his contemptuous remarks about a scientist I follow, Kevin Folta:

Lowly Individuals

“Disgusting” and “lowly” aren’t so bad; Taleb also likes to call his critics “retard.” Here’s a quick and important lesson in effective communication (and just generally being a decent human being): don’t call anyone a “retard.” It’s a particularly ugly way to conduct a debate, or even shut it down. It feels like an edgy, cool thing to say, which is why people like Taleb use it to preen, but that edginess just comes from being “deliberately juvenile.” The buzz they get from it comes at the expense of credibility. It’s Trump talk—exciting in the moment, but in the long run we only remember the ugliness and foolishness of it.

(If you don’t take anything else from this piece, at least make an effort to learn from Taleb’s terrible example. If you have something meaningful to say, then say something meaningful–purge pointless slurs like “retard” from your vocabulary. If the word doesn’t sound so bad to you, remember that slurs never offend the speaker. When you’re speaking, you’re affecting other people.)

Taleb loathes Folta because Folta, chair of the Horticultural Sciences department at the University of Florida, used $25,000 of Monsanto’s money to fund outreach talking about his research. Note that Monsanto didn’t pay for any of his research, and overall the money was less than half a percent of his lab’s budget. The funds were publicly disclosed, not passed under the table in greasy paper bags. But to Taleb, using Monsanto money to fund outreach is a crime beyond all reason. (Just don’t ask him who funds his own travel budget.)

Travel Costs

Now reasonable people could have a very interesting conversation about whether it’s a good idea to take Monsanto money to fund outreach. But Taleb didn’t leave any room for reasonable people or an interesting conversation: “retard,” “lowly person,” “fuckoff,” and “strawman” (in response to a good, relevant question) don’t do anything to explore the issue, or even defend one side of it. By itself that’s not such a big deal. There are a lot of jerks in the world, and even more on Twitter.

What caught my eye particularly was that Taleb’s crassness is part of an intentional strategy to destroy conversations about science. On his Facebook page, he posted a short recipe for arguing with “GMO Propagandists:”

Self-aggrandizing, demeaning to everyone else.
Self-aggrandizing, demeaning to everyone else.

He compares “shills” to the mafia and tobacco companies, and tells his readers not to engage with them. In my experience, if you talk about science online sooner or later someone will call you a shill. It doesn’t mean anything more than “someone who has an opinion I don’t like.” Taleb is unusually honest about this! Point two of his strategy identifies who the shills are to him: people who ask questions he thinks he’s already answered.

I can’t think of any way to comedically overstate how arrogant Taleb’s position is. If he thinks he’s answered your point already, you’re a “shill” for raising it. And don’t you think he believes that he’s answered all the good arguments already? It’s a powerful defense against having to seriously consider someone else’s perspective: if I haven’t addressed it, it’s a stupid argument. If I have addressed it, you’re a shill for not agreeing that I won that argument. It doesn’t leave any room for good-faith disagreement, because disagreeing with Taleb’s conclusions is prima facie evidence that you’re a shill. If you claim to have the science on your side? Shill. If you question his evidence? Shill. If you question his logical fallacies? Shill. If you deny that Monsanto influenced you? Shill. If you deny being a shill? Shill.

Taleb’s boorish attack on Folta shows how the defense mechanism works. Folta offered to sit down with Taleb personally to discuss the science of GMO safety, something Taleb has been posturing about. Doing that is risky for Taleb; he doesn’t have the expertise or data to go toe-to-toe with an actual biologist on the evidence. So rather than having to do so, isn’t it convenient that he can just define Folta as a shill, a “disgusting fellow,” and a “lowly individual?” It lets him play a fun, exciting game rather than doing the hard and risky work of putting his ideas to the test. That’s particularly tricky for Taleb because his thesis is essentially that biologists have the burden of showing that GMOs are safe (as opposed to GMO opponents showing that they aren’t). When they try, though–shut up, shill! And so Taleb builds a wall around his opinions.

Taleb’s tantrum is reprehensible, but at the end of the day it’s his own business whether he is willing to listen to actual experts. He does more harm by setting a bad example. He’s not just refusing to engage opposing opinions himself, he’s encouraging his readers and followers to do it too:

“The method is to treat people like you as if they were nonthinking animals. What can you do about it?”

This isn’t just bad manners, it’s destructive. Taleb is intentionally tearing down the kind of back-and-forth conversations that are critical to helping laypeople (like himself) form educated opinions about the safety of GMOs and other scientific subjects. And he’s doing with ugly, personal insults that demonize the other side of the debate, just because it’s fun. It’s a terrible, foolish strategy.

I’ve written a few pieces here about how important it is to treat the other side in a public debate like decent, honest human beings, and what happens when you don’t. On one level, demonizing the other side prevents you from seriously considering their perspective. That’s true not only because it keeps you from really understanding the points they’re trying to make, but also because it builds a wall around your own beliefs. It’s very difficult to ever decide that you’ve been wrong about something if you’ve been spitting on the people who disagree with you; changing your own mind would mean admitting they might have been right all along. So the more contempt you have for the other side, the less likely it is you’ll ever reconsider your own beliefs. For example, Taleb probably feels secure ignoring scientists like Folta because he’s read some of the scientific literature on GMO safety. But if he hates scientists who disagree with him this much, is he likely to be objective about that research? He’s building his bias insult by insult.

On a larger scale, turning a conversation into a poisonous us-vs.-them battle signals to onlookers that there are sides to be picked. That’s especially dangerous in a very public discussion, such as a Twitter or Facebook thread, in which at least one party is famous and attracts a lot of those onlookers. Much of the time people who are recruited by these conversations pick the most sympathetic side, which may not be the one you want them to. But even when they agree with you, if you’ve turned the conversation into a battle you’re going to attract people who want to fight rather than think. Science communication should be about starting conversations and answering questions, not battlefield tactics for shutting down the opposition.

Aside from these serious consequences, behavior like Taleb’s is just plain crass and offensive. Calling someone a “retard” is an appalling breach of plain etiquette. Obviously many people don’t care about being polite, and obviously Taleb is one of them. So should he care? Of course! If he wants to persuade people, being a public jackass is a poor way of doing it. It has some benefits to his cause, such as encouraging his fans to be more aggressive attacking the people who question him. But in the long run it just eats away at his credibility.

So given all the problems with Taleb’s approach, why would he—or anyone else in his position—act this way? I can only guess, and my guess is that it feels good. It feels good to be the good guy. It feels good to know who the bad guys are. It feels especially good to triumph as the good guy, and put the bad guys in their place. Taleb is embarrassingly forthright about his own heroism: “Truth and Reason prevail and those who take the most risk for the sake of Truth will be the heroes.”  Do you think he’s talking about anyone other than himself? He’s wrong, though. The thing about being a hero or a good guy is that they’re meaningless labels if you write them on your own nametag. Humans are too subjective and too biased to reliably tell whether we’re the good guys–which makes it especially foolish to abandon any pretense at objectivity. Taleb doesn’t know for sure whether he’s in the right, and he can’t seriously scrutinize his own position if doing so means admitting he was wrong to scream insults at the people he hates.

Taleb’s not going to take my advice on this. I criticized him, which makes me not worth listening to. But you can do something about it to protect science communication and just plain old civility. If you agree with Taleb’s overall position regarding GMOs, have a conversation about it. Don’t scream “shill!” to escape the conversation, really get into it. Discuss the evidence. You don’t need to agree or even understand it right away. If you can’t have that conversation, you aren’t in a position to make an informed decision about whether he’s right on the merits or not.

And if you don’t agree with Taleb’s position on GMO’s, have a conversation about it. His infantile behavior is dangerous because it poisons the well from which we all drink; don’t let it. Offer and participate in meaningful conversations all the same. People like Taleb won’t participate, and we can’t change that. But we don’t have to. In the long run, refusing to have a conversation is a self-limiting strategy. By trying to disqualify everyone who disagrees with him from civilized debate, Taleb and those who follow his tactics merely disqualify themselves.

Advertisements

55 thoughts on “Good science communication means never calling them “retard” – even if you’re Nassim Taleb

  1. erickorbly August 14, 2015 / 4:33 pm

    He’s ugly on the inside too I guess. Most people when called on this sort of behavior realize it’s not cool. This guy is everything that science isn’t. You know the idea is tested & retested until certainty is slowly inevitable.

    Besides if someone thinks GMOs are not good then don’t eat them. If you’re cool with GMOs then by all means let us know about any side effects!

    • guest August 16, 2015 / 3:14 am

      Maybe he has a brain tumor that is causing him to act out?

  2. Jo August 14, 2015 / 4:50 pm

    He makes complete sense to me. He says what too many of us feel about modern science-priests.

  3. Jim Easter August 14, 2015 / 5:23 pm

    I scrolled down to this little box to say something positive about this post, but got derailed by JO’s comment. I guess I agree with the “too many of us” part — it is distressing to see how many people seem to feel that the systematic exploration of the real world is somehow suspect. Interestingly, when JO needs to dismiss science, he uses the language of religion: “science-priests.” In my view, this has it exactly backward. The one thing that distinguishes science from everything else is that science can be wrong. A scientist’s argument is always hostage to the evidence, and the scientist must negotiate on those terms. The priest is in the much happier situation of knowing the truth before the evidence is presented. To which category Nassim Taleb belongs is left as an exercise for the student.

    • Ben August 14, 2015 / 8:23 pm

      The idea of the science priest, though, is distinguishing between science itself and the formalisms of science and the politics of scientific institutions.

      There are scientists who are proving or disproving theories, and there are people who doing scientific looking things that don’t really prove anything, and there are the institutions that hold editorial control over the publishing of scientific papers and the various press releases.

      And it is often claimed that being for or against some policy is “pro or anti-science”, but that demonstrates a thoroughly disingenuous naivete about how the sausage is made.

      “To which category Nassim Taleb belongs is left as an exercise for the student.”

      This is an excellent demonstration of how tempting it is to pick sides.

      • Erm December 14, 2015 / 5:18 am

        That’s some tremendous word salad you’ve tossed up there; however you failed to address the primary critique of the OP you responded to – adherance to the scientific method.

        “Scientific looking things” either adhere to the method or they do not, Taleb’s implications without evidence clearly do not. QED: his position is anti-science.

        We’re not “picking sides” here, we’re considering the evidence and concluding accordingly; conversely it is Taleb who is forcing the sides.

        Personally I’ll stick by the people discussing evidence rather than gaslighting.

  4. Colin August 14, 2015 / 5:55 pm

    Thanks for the positive comment, and thanks even more for making it thoughtful.

  5. David Colquhoun August 14, 2015 / 6:26 pm

    Congratulations on an excellent piece. Having been the butt of Taleb’s ire myself, I appreciated it.

    It seems that he has a reputation for this sort of behaviour. “Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an asshole. He never misses an opportunity to be sexist, racist, and generally prejudiced” http://michispencer.com/nassim-nicholas-taleb-antifragile/

  6. Jonathan Kent August 15, 2015 / 2:28 am

    Shame, really. He can be a very incisive thinker but he sells himself short here. As for debates with scientists I have to say I’m sceptical when I know that said scientists are in receipt of money from vested interests. We expect science and scientists to be neutral, but often it isn’t. Studies that don’t reach the right conclusions get discreetly buried (especially in pharmaceutical research…cf Ben Goldacre), scientists carefully researching which side their bread is buttered…
    For me the issue with GMOs is that it’s impossible to know the consequences of releasing them into the environment. The causal chains are too difficult to track and too complex. Change at a genetic level happens in nature but some changes that happen in a lab couldn’t happen in nature and it’s simply very difficult to draw an enforceable line between a ‘natural’ or nature mimicking change and something that couldn’t. Moreover in nature these changes seem to come slow and steady. Lots at once isn’t something we have any experience of.
    And that’s before we get onto the issue of corporations not being constructed as moral entities and acting in their own and not wider interests… Anyone who watched as they tried to patent basmati rice and developed suicide seeds should at least have had qualms…

    • Anonymous August 16, 2015 / 4:39 pm

      Everything you’ve stated is completely incorrect, and has no basis in reality.

      You should really educate yourself rather than eponing on something you obviously haven’t bothered to learn about.

      • Colin August 16, 2015 / 5:03 pm

        I really do love a sharp retort, but I also want to practice what I preach. Instead of just saying that he’s ignorant, why not explain what he’s got wrong specifically? The comment you left will never persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with you.

      • Jonathan Kent August 17, 2015 / 8:55 am

        I’m taking it that this is either spam or an attempt to illustrate the point about debate descending into abuse.
        Or as Christopher Hitchens put it; ‘that which is advanced without evidence can be dismissed without evidence’, so until you a) provide some b) have sufficient courage of your convictions that you drop the anonymity I guess it’s ‘pfffft, bye’.

        • Foster Boondoggle August 17, 2015 / 10:56 am

          The key to both what you wrote and to what Taleb is claiming is this sentence: “The issue with GMOs is that it’s impossible to know the consequences of releasing them into the environment.” All of Taleb’s mathiness is empty without first granting this claim. But why is this true? Or rather, why is it any more true of a genetically engineered organism than of one created by mutation breeding or wide crosses? History is full of examples of unanticipated spread of introduced organisms, so this is not a meaningless concern. But every single one of these cases (e.g., phylloxera on grapes in europe, the fungus that caused the irish potato famine, the bacterial wilt currently wiping out clonal bananas around the world, etc.) has been non-GE. So the evidence to date is sharply stacked against this claim. That being the case, it’s incumbent on you to make a more substantive argument than to say, in effect, “this is some newfangled thing, so be very afraid”.

          Given that GE organisms to date are of already highly derived (that is, human engineered, though not via “GE” as understood) and not prone to self-propagation in the wild, the claim seems implausible on its face. Hybrid corn and soy don’t seem to run rampant outside the fields they’re planted in, for example. They’re adapted to their human use, not as wild plants. Similar observations apply to things like the Arctic apple or the fast-growing salmon.

          If you have an argument that goes beyond “we don’t understand these things well enough”, by all means present it. Taleb would probably like to hear it as well, since his premise doesn’t go any further. But in the meantime, yours and his are just arguments from ignorance and fear.

          • Jonathan Kent August 17, 2015 / 12:25 pm

            “Given that GE organisms to date are of already highly derived (that is, human engineered, though not via “GE” as understood) and not prone to self-propagation in the wild”
            Well have a quick scan of this and then reconsider that statement: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/genetically-modified-crop/
            Just to label caution fear is no more than a toned down version of abuse. It’s a perfectly reasonable point to make that nature is a web complex of complex relationships and that an action in one part of that web could produce a reaction in another. Nor is it unreasonable to suggest that while we have plenty of experience of the impact of some sorts of genetic modification, we have very little of those modifications that could only take place in a lab and not nature.
            Moreover the basic point was making that science isn’t the neutral, supra-political and unimpeachable discipline it was perceived as pre-1950 hasn’t been addressed. Have a look at this – it’s well attested, the EU is considering changes to rules regulating pharma testing so that all tests should be registered in advance so that results are harder to hide. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/aug/14/drug-companies-bury-negative-research
            Scepticism is a healthy human instinct. It protects us against potential risk and threats. I think we have every reason to be sceptical about corporations that are driven above all by profit and for whom risks are either cost factors or responsibilities to be dodged through lawyering and PR.

            • Foster Boondoggle August 17, 2015 / 2:05 pm

              That’s interesting. I don’t think it changes the basic argument though. The claim is that there’s a risk not just of organisms in the wild, but of “systemic” disaster. My point is that there’s no reason to credit this claim. In this particular example, had the canola cross-pollinated with a non-GE variety, no one would have paid any attention. But that non-GE variety could have any number of novel traits created by means such as mutation. Almost surely this has happened in the past.

              And the point also remains that while there are (variety-specific) cases of monocropping combined with new pathogens causing (usually local) problems, up to and including famine (e.g., the irish blight, (1) those have happened without GE and (2) there’s no reason to think GE makes them more likely (other than fear of the technology, and no I don’t think there’s a more apropos word than “fear”), and (3) this is a problem of monocropping (as with banana), not GE.

              You also wrote “in nature these changes seem to come slow and steady”. This is a red herring, one that Taleb uses as well. There’s no particular reason to think “slow and steady” changes won’t cause massive disruption at some point (as Taleb himself notes elsewhere – e.g., a bridge fails all at once when a slowly increased load exceeds its capacity). The great oxygenation event in the earth’s history was entirely “natural” as well as massively disruptive to the prior ecosystem, though everyone reading this is presumably grateful for it. Moreover, there’s nothing “slow and steady” about introduction of hybrid (non-GE) corn varieties or mutagenically created grapefruits (themselves a result of human intervention).

              I agree that science as a methodological principle is neutral, while scientists as individuals may not be. But I think if you look at the way the GE debate has unfolded, with such charlatans as Seralini, Carman, Vrain and Huber making big names for themselves with cargo cult methodology and enthusiastic followers among the committed anti- campaigners, arrayed against national bodies such as the AAAS, the EFSA, the AMA and others – organizations that exist entirely independently of GE agendas.

              The question remains why out of all the methods used for modifying organisms for human purposes, GE should get singled out for such special concern. I don’t see the handwaving of “impossible to know the consequences” or “slow and steady” as helping to answer that question, except insofar as it makes clear the kinds of vague fearmongering that has been amplified in this debate.

              • Foster Boondoggle August 17, 2015 / 5:46 pm

                Badly edited sentence in the next-to-last para: “… Seralini, Carman, Vrain and Huber … AAAS, the EFSA, the AMA and others….” should read

                “On the anti- side you have such charlatans as Seralini, Carman, Vrain and Huber making big names for themselves with cargo cult methodology and enthusiastic followers among the committed anti- campaigners, On the other you have national bodies such as the AAAS, the EFSA, the AMA and others – organizations that exist entirely independently of GE agendas. It’s pretty clear where the motivated reasoning and deceptive “science” is going on.”

              • Jonathan Kent August 18, 2015 / 5:03 am

                Just to pick a claim at random – you link the emergence of a new pathogen to the Irish famine of 1847-8. Evidence?

                • Foster Boondoggle August 18, 2015 / 5:47 pm

                  “New” in that it had not been present in Europe prior to the famine. It also appears not to have originated in the same area as the affected crop.

                  http://www.pnas.org/content/111/24/8791.short

                  Abstract: The potato late blight pathogen was introduced to Europe in the 1840s and caused the devastating loss of a staple crop, resulting in the Irish potato famine and subsequent diaspora. Research on this disease has engendered much debate, which in recent years has focused on whether the geographic origin of the pathogen is South America or central Mexico. Different lines of evidence support each hypothesis. We sequenced four nuclear genes in representative samples from Mexico and the South American Andes. An Andean origin of P. infestans does not receive support from detailed analyses of Andean and Mexican populations. This is one of a few examples of a pathogen with a known origin that is secondary to its current major host.

                  • Jonathan Kent August 19, 2015 / 1:09 am

                    Sighs. This is where I bow out. You say something is ‘new’. It’s not, it’s simply been introduced to a new environment. It emerged in the normal course of things,the new thin was that there was human intervention (introducing the crop and subsequently the pathogen). There are plenty of examples of humans introducing new species (Australia – cane toads) with devastating effects. We introduce new genes into the environment, ones that couldn’t have emerged naturally but only in the lab, and we have no idea what the consequences could be. They could be benign but they could be devastating. Just because we’ve found traditional ways of screwing up our planet doesn’t of itself recommend that we develop yet more.

                    • Foster Boondoggle August 19, 2015 / 8:55 am

                      So by your definition only a GMO could fulfill the criterion of being a “new” source of disaster, because everything else has ancestors and emerged in the “normal” way (whatever that is – e.g, mutating and being carried by humans to another part of the world is “normal”). Nice way to define your way to winning a debate.

                      Your middle sentence “plenty of examples” is exactly my point. This has nothing to do with GE. It has to do with monocropping (the potato) or geography. You still haven’t given one reason (other than “organisms that couldn’t have emerged naturally”, which simply begs the question) to think that there’s something unique to GE that makes this more likely. And that’s exactly what’s wrong with Taleb’s argument as well.

                    • jibalt December 31, 2015 / 3:02 pm

                      “Sighs. This is where I bow out. ”

                      Yes, cognitive dissonance has overcome you. You “pick a claim at random”, get a competent and accurate response, but it doesn’t fit your ideology, so you just repeat your dogma, because it’s all you have.

                      Taleb is right about the futility of debating people who operate from scripts, but he’s pointing his finger in the wrong direction.

  7. Anonymous August 15, 2015 / 6:33 am

    I really enjoyed this. Thank you. I’m hesitant to share it though because I don’t want to bring Taleb to my friends’ attention since I’m part of the fairly well-educated but mushy-moderate, busy-parent crowd. (Or the exact demographic that needs to be reached by both sides.)

    You could say that I’m an example of Kevin Folta’s successful outreach. I wasn’t super-invested in the idea that GMOs were bad but I assumed they were because why else would “GMO Free” be a label on some of my food? I stumbled across Folta after reading this Pew survey on scientific consensus and public perception, http://pewrsr.ch/1wF3R2h. I was shocked to learn that there is a scientific consensus on GM food. I had no idea.

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at both sides of this argument and have been shocked at the vitriol and irrationality from the anti side. I’ve enjoyed Folta’s calm, accessible approach to teaching GM. Now that I understand the science, the whole argument seems ridiculous and vaguely embarrassing for the anti crowd. I’m not sure what Taleb is trying to accomplish other than wallowing in his own ego trip because he’s obviously intelligent enough to grasp biology. Clearly, science communication is not his goal.

    I hope Folta pushes through this and continues his public science communication. I also hope more scientists join him but I don’t blame them for being reluctant after witnessing what’s gone down in the past week.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful piece.

  8. Amy Porterfield Levy August 15, 2015 / 6:41 am

    I really enjoyed this. Thank you. I’m hesitant to share it though because I don’t want to bring Taleb to my friends’ attention since I’m part of the fairly well-educated but mushy-moderate, busy-parent crowd. (Or the exact demographic that needs to be reached by both sides.)

    You could say that I’m an example of Kevin Folta’s successful outreach. I wasn’t super-invested in the idea that GMOs were bad but I assumed they were because why else would “GMO Free” be a label on some of my food? I stumbled across Folta after reading this Pew survey on scientific consensus and public perception, http://pewrsr.ch/1wF3R2h. I was shocked to learn that there is a scientific consensus on GM food. I had no idea.

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at both sides of this argument and have been shocked at the vitriol and irrationality from the anti side. I’ve enjoyed Folta’s calm, accessible approach to teaching GM. Now that I understand the science, the whole argument seems ridiculous and vaguely embarrassing for the anti crowd. I’m not sure what Taleb is trying to accomplish other than wallowing in his own ego trip because he’s obviously intelligent enough to grasp biology. Clearly, science communication is not his goal.

    I hope Folta pushes through this and continues his public outreach. I also hope more scientists join him but I don’t blame them for being reluctant after witnessing what’s gone down in the past week.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful piece.

    • Jennifer Raff August 15, 2015 / 7:31 am

      I am always interested in how people make up their minds about issues like this. Thanks for sharing your thought process! And yes, I think you’re right that there is great reluctance by many scientists to be outspoken on issues the public finds controversial. I get called a “shill”–or worse– almost every day. I’ve gotten used to it, but it was quite a shock at first!

  9. Robert Wager August 15, 2015 / 10:07 am

    A couple of recent science reports well worth reading:

    Impact of GE crops on Farm Sustainability in the US- National Academy of sciences 2010

    Planting the Future- European Academies Science Advisory Council 2013

    Bvoth are free on-line and both lay out the real science on this issue.

    cheers

  10. karenlernst August 15, 2015 / 11:41 am

    Thank you for pointing out the destructive portions of this type of rhetoric. Shutting down conversations is certainly no way to win on-lookers, and those of us engaged is science discussion should be frequently reminded of this.

    I also just want to point out that using ableist terminology like the R-word tips one’s hand. Ableism should always be called out, and making jokes or insults out of human beings harms us all.

    • Randy Wright August 18, 2015 / 6:05 am

      So when comedian Lewis Black noted that Glenn Beck has “Nazi Tourette’s Syndrome,” you would say it “harms us all”?
      I have to disagree (your call whether I’m doing it respectfully or not). I suggest the “low information crowd” has been the beneficiary of this sort of “caretaking,” and the result has being a deterioration of the “intellectual caliber” of this country’s population. As a result idiots* like Beck are able to exploit the “make nice crowd” (I have enough credentials to label that sort of behavior as “codependent,” incidentally), and the result has been a dumbing* down of the population; as a former teacher I’ve got plenty of scars from parents who were mortified that their little Johnny or Josephine was embarrassed in my classroom.
      I’m a serious disciple of the immortal Mark Twain who noted a single blast of humor was far more effective in derailing a ridiculous argument or position than the most carefully worded and eloquent statement to the contrary.
      Finally, I read just enough from the “no nothing crowd” (it’s hard not to these days), and I assure you they don’t handicap themselves in such a matter when offering up their rhetoric, and privately they laugh at those who do.

      *Note that the two words with an asterisk are essentially “ableist,” and to suggest they should be vilified because of this quality–as opposed to simply characterizing them as “name calling” and deciding whether their usage is appropriate or no–is silly and ignores the long history of their use in the venacular.

      • Colin August 18, 2015 / 6:52 pm

        Words like “idiot” and “dumb” are categorically different from “retard;” I encourage you to review the links in the piece regarding how that word in particular is seen by the people it most disrespects.

        I’m a serious disciple of the immortal Mark Twain who noted a single blast of humor was far more effective in derailing a ridiculous argument or position than the most carefully worded and eloquent statement to the contrary.

        If you think just shouting “retard!” at someone is humorous, you have a lot more to learn from Mark Twain. And derailing a conversation isn’t hard–NT does it by turning them into personal battles, and encouraging his followers to block just about anyone who disagrees with him. That kind of disengagement is nothing to aspire to.

        • Randy Wright August 18, 2015 / 11:24 pm

          Sorry Colin, but I wouldn’t be lecturing me on the subject of etymology unless you’re prepared to produce a PhD in English (I completed most of a Master’s Degree in that subject; left the program in good standing and could return to finish it at any time). And having “lost” an embarrassing debate–where I once took a position similar to yours in a grad class–I’ll give you some friendly advice to do your homework before tossing brickbats. I’ll also suggest not offering up “straw men” statements that you can conveniently incinerate and proclaim victory for the forces of enlightenment. There’s nothing I said that indicated I thought calling someone a “retard” was anything humorous.

          Look up the origins of the words I purposely marked; “Idiot” was an actual “level” in I.Q. tests until the mid 1960’s, along with “imbecile” and “moron.”

          http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2010/03/the-words-moron-imbecile-and-idiot-mean-different-things/

          “Dumb” has a similar history, and such words were originally used in a pejorative fashion just as “retard” is today. Name-calling is name-calling, period, and you’re free to dictate the rules on your blogsite (and I have no problem observing them, and I don’t use them in my regular speech), but you should be aware of language within its historical context.

          Otherwise you’ll look foolish (whoops, I did it again).

          And I don’t generally go around shaming people, either, the way you attempted with me (you might also look at your “one up” attempt in Transactional Analysis terms; that’s another area I have grad experience in as well), particularly someone who is trying to motivate someone else to “think outside the lines.”

          I promise, I was reading Mark Twain long before you were born, and one dilemma I face now is trying to look his quotes up on the Internet and discovering people are claiming he said a lot of things I know for a fact he didn’t. He was quite honestly the most famous American of the 19th Century, and his caustic skewering of sacred cows–including scientists–is the stuff of legend. The same was true of H.L. Mencken two generations later, and I worry that in our quest to “make nice” that people perpetuate the very evils they claim to be so against.

          It’s about consequences, honest, and I grew up in a generation that endured them and brought about authentic change rather than offering simple lip service.

          • Colin August 19, 2015 / 12:23 am

            I noticed you left the same comment twice; I only approved one of them. I apologize that your comments aren’t showing up right away. Some comments get hung up in moderation and have to be manually approved; I don’t know what triggers it, but it might have been your link.

            Sorry Colin, but I wouldn’t be lecturing me on the subject of etymology unless you’re prepared to produce a PhD in English (I completed most of a Master’s Degree in that subject; left the program in good standing and could return to finish it at any time).

            That’s moderately impressive, and wholly irrelevant. If you look at my comment, you won’t see me lecturing anyone on the subject of etymology. I don’t care about etymology, except as a proxy for what I do care about: how language actually affects communication. That’s why I encouraged you to follow the links to see how the word is received, rather than referring to any specific history behind the words. There are two obvious, relevant differences between words like “retard” and words like “idiot:”

            First, the words are received entirely differently by the people most likely to take serious offense at the casual use of the word. I have not found any commentary or outreach objecting to the use of “idiot” comparable to that which I linked to, which poignantly illustrates the hurt people cause (whether or not it’s intentional) by using “retard” as a slur.

            Second, the words are received entirely differently by the people the speakers’ targets. Calling someone an “idiot” is rude and probably won’t create a productive conversation. But all in all, it’s a staple of rude conversations. Its ubiquity makes it bland enough that it doesn’t cause much real offense. “Retard,” on the other hand, causes much harsher reactions. People take it more personally. Consequently it is much more effective at disrupting meaningful conversations; people who will let “idiot” wash off their back will not do the same for “retard.” Which is one reason why people use it—they want to create a harsher reaction. (The other is that they want to be feel or be seen as edgy and provocative, which is a little different.)

            And I don’t generally go around shaming people, either, the way you attempted with me (you might also look at your “one up” attempt in Transactional Analysis terms; that’s another area I have grad experience in as well), particularly someone who is trying to motivate someone else to “think outside the lines.”

            I looked at my comment again, but I’m still not sure where I tried to shame you. Was it that I said “retard” isn’t a good way to use humor to derail a conversation? I am sorry if it seemed like an attempt to shame you; that wasn’t my point. I meant nothing more than what I said: words like “retard” are not effective humor, and an awful way to try to “derail a ridiculous argument or position.”

            I promise, I was reading Mark Twain long before you were born…

            That’s less impressive and no more relevant than your unfinished PhD.

            … I worry that in our quest to “make nice” that people perpetuate the very evils they claim to be so against.

            I’m not tracking your point here. Perhaps you could be more direct? What evil might I be perpetuating here?

            • Randy Wright August 19, 2015 / 3:15 am

              Thank you for pulling the duplicate post (or not letting it through). You’re correct that it didn’t appear right away, and I sent it a second time. You can well imagine my thoughts when I concluded I couldn’t post a reply, and you’re doubtless correct; they were unprintable. I have had the experience, on other Internet sites, of being immediately barred for making some pointed observations and comments on some obvious silliness or inconsistency. The one that comes to mind involved the “Obama Birth Certificate Scandal,” with a poster claiming a “digital forensic examination” had shown it to be fraudulent. That one was certainly pseudo-science (a favorite subject of Jennifer’s), and I took the liberty of poking fun of some other absurdities that were obvious to me, and before I was barred, the moderator lectured me on the importance of “speaking to the subject.”
              None of that is your responsibility; I only note we all “bring a lot to the table” in Internet debates, for starters, and woe unto the scientist who tries to bring a “scientific agenda” to language and rhetoric. Science is useful in understanding language and the principles of usage, but I was in a Master’s level “History of the English Language” before I learned where and how it could be applied appropriately. I’ll stand though, on my statement, noting “historical context” is important if often transitory, and “geography” is also a factor. As an example, consider the term “redneck” was once extremely pejorative, and these days a group of hillbilly sorts have embraced it.
              Here incidentally is the shaming statement, “If you think just shouting ‘retard!’ at someone is humorous, you have a lot more to learn from Mark Twain.” I have no doubt I have a lot to learn from Ol’ Clem (an old professor’s nickname for him), but I’ll plead a lack of time at the present moment and suggest 45 plus years of regularly revisiting his works at least honors him as the master wordsmith and storyteller he was. Enough…
              The other element you bring to your writing is a strong reliance on “process comments,” and per my clinical training (I worked for a time in a rehab and my counseling skills are pretty much up to par even if I don’t use them these days), the focus and agenda with them is “control,” and it’s reasonable to ask whether that’s an appropriate element to bring to a discussion (because, among other things, of the “one up/one down” quality that can work to inhibit discussion).
              And yes, my last paragraph was infested with them; I’ll suggest though, that I have far more awareness of that element in my prose (when I chose to bring it to a discussion) than I see in you, at least judging from your questions.
              (See the Old Bobbie Burns quote, “Wud the gift the Giver givest”).
              Finally–and this ties it back to Twain–I’m a huge believer in effective use of humor, even to the point of “drawing blood.” Saul Alinsky recognized this principle, and I see no reason, for example to spare the whip on Nassim Taleb; he’s obviously not interested in learning anything new, and his agenda is simply seeking to gratify his narcissism with the fawning of his sycophants.
              Unfortunately, the Universe is notoriously inconsistent with its gifts of the ability to make people laugh.

              • Colin August 19, 2015 / 3:25 pm

                I’m not sure that we disagree about much. I agree that humor is a wonderful spur to good conversations, and I appreciate–even love–sharp, strong conflict in a conversation as long as it’s productive in some meaningful sense.

                My criticism of Taleb is not that he’s being a jackass. I adore many jackasses. It’s that his specific type of jackassery has the effect (and is intended to have the effect, I think) of shutting down meaningful, important conversations for no good reason. In other words, being sharp and funny is good. Being sharp and funny solely for the purposes of self-aggrandizement, or to shut down a viewpoint that should be considered, is bad. And I think we agree about that.

            • jibalt December 31, 2015 / 3:25 pm

              This is a good response overall, but it’s rather obvious where you tried to shame him: the intent of words like “you have a lot more to learn from Mark Twain” and “nothing to aspire to” is clearly to evoke a (internal) response like “Yeah, that’s embarrassing; I should do better”.

              • Colin December 31, 2015 / 3:28 pm

                That wasn’t my intent, but it’s reasonable to read it that way. Thanks.

          • jibalt December 31, 2015 / 3:19 pm

            “Sorry Colin, but I wouldn’t be lecturing me on the subject of etymology ”

            Well, that’s dumb, since a) he didn’t do that and b) etymology isn’t relevant here.

      • Eddie September 28, 2015 / 12:38 am

        Since we’re quoting Mark Twain here, he said, “never argue with stupid people; they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”

  11. Black Swan December 8, 2015 / 12:46 pm

    Who is Kevin Folta? Right – nobody. If you had read at least one of Nassim’s books you could have understood why he can call guys like Kevin Folta a “disgusting fellows”.

    Why would a true scientist argue with a Monsanto PR guy?

    • Chris December 8, 2015 / 4:07 pm

      Question: are the companies working with GMOs (Arctic Apple, etc) and not affiliated with Monsanto okay?

      Taleb is a professor of finance, and does not have a science background. His expertise in biological processes is about as good as another finance professor, Gayle DeLong, is in autism. Apparently she thinks any child receiving speech/language therapy in a school is autistic. Which is a big surprise to those who stutter, have hearing losses, dysarthria, and other speech/language disorders. Perhaps she thinks Stephen Harking is autistic because he uses a speech synthesizer computer to speak.

      I am sure both Prof. Taleb and Prof. DeLong are very good at economic and financial matters, but they both seem to think if they are good in one area of study, the are good at all of them. Except they have shown to no indication they understand the issues. They both seem to be affected by a variation of Nobel Disease.

    • Colin December 9, 2015 / 3:08 am

      Who is Kevin Folta? Right – nobody.

      Professor and chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, and a legitimate expert in the subject Taleb is supposedly examining: the safety of genetically engineered crops. It is a very strange analysis that equates “subject matter expert” with “nobody.”

      Why would a true scientist argue with a Monsanto PR guy?

      I’m not sure who the “true scientist” is supposed to be here. Between Taleb and Folta, Folta is the one actually doing scientific research. Nor is he “a Monsanto PR guy.” Any more than Taleb’s apparently significant investments in the organic food industry make him an “organic PR guy.”

    • jibalt December 31, 2015 / 3:30 pm

      He’s far more of a somebody than you are. He is also far more intelligent and intellectually honest.

  12. LFP2015 January 15, 2016 / 2:36 pm

    Love your blog but you are clearly out of your element in the GMO debate.

    Regardless of your opinions about GMOs, it’s remarkable that you are actually defending Kevin Folta. He’s more of an embarrassment to academia than Taleb, by a long shot.

    “Don’t call me a shill for Monsanto when it’s not what I do and really I come with full disclosure.” — Kevin Folta https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-eiqLLiXBk

    “I have no financial ties to any of the Big Ag companies that make transgenic crops, including Monsanto.” — Kevin Folta http://kfolta.blogspot.com/2013/09/another-six-degrees-of-monsanto.html

    Contrary to all Folta’s assertions, his emails revealed “his close ties to Monsanto and other biotechnology-industry interests”. Those “close ties” included a no-strings-attached $25,000 grant from Monsanto, and payments for his travel to see politicians, the media and others that the industry wanted him to meet with.

    http://www.nature.com/news/gm-crop-opponents-expand-probe-into-ties-between-scientists-and-industry-1.18146
    http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2015/09/monsanto-professors-gmo-PR

    This is a classic case of academic-corporate corruption, not to mention lying. And you defend him?

    Independent research is the last bulwark we have against the complete corporate takeover of the United States. The last thing we need are blatant liars and shills like Folta encouraging and participating in the collapse.

    • Colin January 15, 2016 / 2:56 pm

      Love your blog but you are clearly out of your element in the GMO debate.

      Are you not? Your comment has nothing to do with the science itself—it just perpetuates the tactic of character assassination as a tool for shaping the debate. Folta handled his disclosures very poorly, but I haven’t seen either (a) any distortive financial ties ($25k is a small fraction of a lab budget, donated no-strings-attached as you noted, and used for speaking rather than research) or (b) actual problems in Folta’s research. Compare to, for example, the Seralini research, which has been roundly debunked on the merits rather than merely via attacks on Seralini’s funding.

      Is Folta wrong on the merits?

  13. Replying to a gentle reader October 6, 2017 / 6:13 am

    Who is this Nassim Taleb anyway? Why even give him a platform and complain instead of just ignoring him? (Remember that’s how Trump won)

    • Colin October 8, 2017 / 1:56 pm

      Sorry it took so long to approve your comment, we’ve been tied up with a new baby.

      Taleb is a highly visible public figure; no post I write about him will affect his extremely large platform at all. Otherwise, I agree and I think about the Streisand effect often when deciding what to write about.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s