September 25, 2013

Popular Science Shutting Off Comments

There was a time I would have begged Popular Science not to shut off the comments feature.

A few years back I encouraged the former editor of the Springfield News-Leader to implement an open comment system. I said at the time — and still believe — that it is the best way to jump-start discussion. But I also said that some kind of control system would have to be created in order to mitigate the usual crap we suffer from trolls, flamers, and the ideologically blind or politically motivated.

The current editor implemented the current system that uses Facebook as the comment engine — a good move, I think.

Popular Science is choosing to give up. And I like the reasons:

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

Just today on Facebook I saw a meme that read: Only Science can disprove science. Simplistic as all memes are, but there’s a deep truth here: the rhetoric of science, with its rigorous process of invention (i.e. the scientific method), is not open to persuasion from interlocutors employing different rhetorics (i.e. no scientist cares about your opinion of science). The very method of invention employed by scientists to discover and transmit (persuade) knowledge contains the further argument that one can only challenge the knowledge of science on its home field. We can certainly debate the merits of that, but one thing appears clear to me: One does not challenge the findings on, say, climate change, by arguing that it’s a hoax perpetrated by politically motivated geeks in lab coats for the purpose of world socialist revolution.

On that home field that is.

While political steps we might take to fight climate change might indeed have the effect of challenging capitalist assumptions, the purpose of studying climate change is not to have that effect. The purpose is to understand what is happening and why it’s happening.

The persuasive strategy of the “politically motivated” people identified by Popular Science is, among other things, to change rhetorical venues or change the venue that Popular Science provides and, thus, undermine expertise and trust in science and scientists.

Remember: Rhetorical strategy is about winning. Popular Science is taking its ball and going home to prevent the other team from scoring. It remains to be seen what if any effect this has on the popular discourse of science.

In any case, I understand and sympathize with their frustration.

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April 16, 2013

Really? Again? … Well, Yes.

So, yeah, Rhetorica is changing a bit … again.

My grumpy phase appears at an end, so the whole Doom Files thing is a non-starter for me. I’m an optimistic person with an annoyingly enthusiastic personality. So  gloom-and-doom was always a bit of a stretch.

You’ll notice the blog portion of the site no longer has a separate title. The blog will now simply be Rhetorica, and all of my media empire will remain under the banner of The Rhetorica Network.

I’m now going to be casting a much wider net over the culture with the focus remaining rhetoric.

Let’s see how this goes :-)

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April 7, 2013

Social Media And The Damage Done

I like social media as much as anyone else. I use Facebook and Twitter. I consider them excellent professional tools. And these services offer much entertainment. Facebook, Twitter, and other such services are natural products of the interactivity made possible by the internet and multimedia devices.

Plus, it’s hard to beat being able to easily stay in touch with people you enjoy. I tell my students about reuniting with two old friends from college a few years back. We’d lost track of each other because it was easy to lose track back in the day. All it took was one lost phone number or one move with no forwarding address. They can hardly believe such a thing was possible. Today, you can hardly shake someone even if you want to.

One of the fun things we do with social media is share interesting stuff we find on the internet. This desire to share interesting stuff is exactly the urge that gave birth to blogging. And cat memes.

I’ll continue stating the obvious by noting that all this interactivity and sharing also carries an ideological trap — getting suckered into sharing hoaxes that either have the ring of truth or that you fervently wish to be true. That ring is a function of the content conforming to ideology, not conforming to discernible facts. Two recent examples from Facebook:

ScreenHunter_08 Apr. 07 09.52

ScreenHunter_09 Apr. 07 09.54

Both of these are nonsense and utterly false. Checking with Google took seconds. And checking the links for the telltale signs of bullshit took only a few more seconds (biggest clue among many for both: no primary source links). I suspect the one about the Pope was an April Fool’s joke (tip: never share anything on 1 April). And yet these were shared as if true.

Who doesn’t enjoy a funny website? Here’s one you should check out: Literally Unbelievable — a site dedicated to highlighting posts on Facebook that take stories from The Onion seriously.

Har dee har har, right? Well, wrong. Such credulity — enabled by the refusal to do even minimum checking — is a hallmark of the our failing culture’s canon of invention. We have drawn cultural, political, social, economic, and religious battle lines and refuse to seek stasis, i.e. common ground where we agree about the content of disagreement.

I have no doubt there are people in this country today who believe these two false stories. The damage done is clear.

How do we stop it? Step one: Pass along nothing in social media until you’ve spent at least a moment checking it out. And don’t be enamored of the source. Credible news organizations and learned people have been suckered, too. I’m guilty, too. I’ve passed along nonsense, too. I’m embarrassed, too.

I’m now arguing that the discipline of verification is more than an essential practice of journalism. It must now be an essential practice of citizenship in the social media age.

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March 22, 2013

Rhetoric And The War Ten Years On

I had to go back and read what I had written ten years ago at the beginning of the war with Iraq.

If you had asked me just a day ago what my position on the war was at the time, I would have told you that I was against it, largely because I did not think a case had made on anything more than emotions. I was also wondering how the whole “keep spending while we cut taxes” thing was going to work.

Few of my concerns showed up on Rhetorica. I was too busy doing my rhetorical analysis thing. A post I wrote on 3 February 2003 — Making A Case For War — was typical. I was continuing to respond to the State of the Union address and various criticisms of it. At the time I wrote:

Should we be fired up for war? Should we fight Iraq? I do not know. I leave such questions to the war bloggers. My interest in this is the rhetoric of war as it appears in the Bush 2003 SOTU [broken link]. If his goal is to prepare us for war, if his goal is to persuade us that war is right, then he is doing the time-honored thing to make that case: appealing to our emotions.

But part of what I was doing in this post was wondering about what kind of appeal the American public really wanted — not that such a thing is easy to determine. Here’s how I concluded:

The thinking seems to be–and I agree–that Bush needed to use facts to outline his argument for war. If this sentiment is indeed pervasive, it may indicate an as yet unarticulated rejection of war. If no facts are forthcoming, then all that’s left are emotional appeals. And if we are crying for facts, then we may be crying for peace.

And that, Rhetorica readers, is about as close as I came to taking a stand on one of the most important issues of the 21st century.

While it has never been difficult to determine my politics — I have been transparent about it in various ways — it was a rare thing for me to make political stands in the course of examining and criticizing the rhetoric of the press-politics relationship. The name of this blog used to be Press-Politics Journal, not The Doom Files.

Much has changed in ten years.

Many people are revisiting their relationship to the start of war recently given the grim anniversary of our unprovoked attack on Iraq. I was alerted to Peggy Noonan’s retrospective by a tweet from Jay Rosen:

She laments the damage done to the Republican Party by our rush to war. I think she may be right.

What we’re reading here is simply more shallow punditry — one of the primary currencies of the  rhetoric of a failing culture. Compared to damage done to our state, our nation, and our economy, the damage done to any particular political party is nothing. She pays only the slightest of lip service to the damage done to all of us as she pretends to be offering cogent commentary about politics. I’m reminded of fiddles and burning cities.

Given the damage, I think all of us who spoke publicly — journalists, bloggers, pundits, politicians – about the run-up to war owe our society an apology to the extent that we did not deal in facts and reality as we allowed ourselves to be swept along by emotion. Many of us on the left and right allowed ourselves to be cowed by those who questioned the patriotism of anyone with the nerve to ask tough questions or point out inconvenient facts. We over-reacted to 9/11. We attacked a country without provocation. We tortured people. We killed so many that the count may never be known. We destroyed our reputation in the world. We ruined our economy.

I am sorry.

I wrote about rhetoric — certainly a worthy project. But I did not say enough about what I think the rhetoric really indicated.

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January 15, 2013

Crisis Actors in the Twilight Zone

In a post-fact world, all you have to do to stir up the rubes is suggest conspiracy. The conspiracy doesn’t have to make any sense at all; it simply needs to conform to ideology. It now appears that the rhetoric of conspiracy today demands a high level of pathetic outrageousness to get attention.

Take the whole “crisis actor” thing as an example. Gene Rosen is caught up in this now because many anti-government gun nuts so want the Sandy Hook massacre to be something other than what it actually is that they are willing to point fingers at parents and other residents. The claim: they are actors working for the government.

You can scratch your head until it bleeds. There’s no making any sense of that.

Here’s what would happen if the government actually tried to use actors to deal with the press: Even in the current sorry state of American reporting (stenography, actually), the press would find out and have a gleefully good time pointing it out after much huffing and puffing about being hoodwinked.

But, obviously, to the anti-government gun nuts, the press is a liberal tool of our socialist president. Nothing — not even a list of biases worse than partisan bias – will change fevered minds.

Crisis actors do exist, but they are far more likely to be employed by public relations firms than government. The case of Nayirah — a person acting as a young nurse giving testimony to the non-governmental Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990 — provides an excellent example.

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October 8, 2012

How Things Work

Aristotle pointed it out oh so many years ago: Humans are moved by emotion more than logic or facts. So using pathos as your primary appeal is an entirely legitimate rhetorical strategy. But pathos does not give one ethical permission to take a Machiavellian route to one’s political ends. For example:

Leading the charge of what were quickly dubbed the “B.L.S. truthers” was none other than Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric, who posted an assertion on Twitter that the books had been cooked to help President Obama’s re-election campaign. His claim was quickly picked up by right-wing pundits and media personalities.

It was nonsense, of course. Job numbers are prepared by professional civil servants, at an agency that currently hasno political appointees. But then maybe Mr. Welch — under whose leadership G.E. reported remarkably smooth earnings growth, with none of the short-term fluctuations you might have expected (fluctuations that reappeared under his successor) — doesn’t know how hard it would be to cook the jobs data.

Pointing out that this is nonsense is, of course, a form of nonsense in itself given human nature cited above. But it’s a form of nonsense I’ve engaged in myself and will continue to engage in until the end of civilization — sometime around 2020 I think.

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October 2, 2012

Feeling A Bit Gay?

After reading this item in HuffPo and this news article, I thought it possible that the press was getting scammed (similar to the blonds-going-extinct joke that suckered the press in 2002). But I did a (very) little checking with Google and Whois and discovered Children of Mary may be a real, if a bit obscure, organization. So here’s the video:

Call this the rhetoric of nonsense made possible by the ease of amateur video production and publication. And if you’re just crazy enough, well, you’ll get a bit of attention in the press because novelty is a news value — especially in its online iteration.

I feel no need to point out why this is nonsense.

Oh, and if it turns out to be a joke, then … bravo! :-)

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September 14, 2012

Rhetoric of the Post-Fact World

This will be a short post because there’s really not much to analyze. In a post-fact world, argument can be as simple as crossing your arms and refusing to budge after making a post-fact claim. One can also stick one’s fingers in one’s ears and screech “I don’t hear you” a dozen times, but that doesn’t play well on TV.

So, yeah, there’s just not enough evidence of President Obama’s natural-born-citizeniness to suit three “top elected Republicans” in Kansas:

The State Objections Board comprised of Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer postponed until Monday action on a complaint filed by a Manhattan resident pending review of a copy of Obama’s birth certificate from Hawaii.

“I don’t think it’s a frivolous objection,” Kobach said. “I do think the factual record could be supplemented.”

Requests were to be sent to officials in Hawaii, Arizona and Mississippi in an attempt to secure copies of the president’s birth records. Obama released a copy of his birth certificate last year, but detractors persist in advancing “birther” arguments that the Democrat lacked standing.

In a culture in which facts have meaning as facts, because, well, they’re facts, this kind of nonsense would be hooted off the civic stage by the people and the press.

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September 6, 2012

When Nazi Rhetoric Is OK

So here’s what South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley:

Harpootlian made the comments in question in addressing Haley holding apress conference in a basement studio at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. amid the Democratic National Convention.

“She was down in the bunker a la Eva Braun,” Harpootlian said, according to The State.

I think we’d all be better off if we let the conservatives own the Nazi invective (or their singular, and idiotic, combination of Nazi-socialist invective re: Obama). We’d be better off because such language would be easier to isolate and hoot off the civic stage if only one side were doing it. When everyone does it, well, it starts to sound normal.

Comparisons to Nazis — and any allusion to anything Nazi equals a comparison — is only appropriate if the person in question is 1) a fascist, and 2) engaged in an active program of ethic marginalization or cleansing. If those two things do not obtain, then using any kind of Nazi rhetoric ought to be out of bounds.

Haley may be a lot of things, but a Nazi is not one of them. Nothing she does is remotely Nazi like.

So shut up.

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August 29, 2012

The Death of Intention

This is just stupid; there’s no other word for it:

In a move blasted by rights groups, a 3-year-old-deaf boy has been told by his Nebraska school district to change the way he signs his name because the gesture resembles shooting a gun.

I’m not talking about the gross inappropriateness of treating a 3-year-old child this way, although that’s less-than-smart, too. I’m talking about the general loss of understanding (or willful misunderstanding) of human intention in communication. At its simplest, one could understand being annoyed (and no more than that) by a young child who meant to signify a gun with a hand gesture. We can understand this as similar to the finger slash across the throat — long understood to mean, among other things, “you’re dead.” But it is clear the child has no such intention. He’s “saying” his name. He’s signifying himself. And, in a move of stunning callousness by education professionals, he’s being asked not to indicate himself. He’s being asked to negate himself.

That’s a tough lesson for a kid that age.

If we are unable or unwilling to understand intention, then we are unable or unwilling to understand much of anything.

The death of intention is something I’ll be following because it leads to exactly this kind of nonsense.

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