There is a discourse among discussions of pretty much any controversial issue that I have begun to notice and as I notice it is begins to irk me. I’d love to be serene enough to just notice it, but it does irritate me. I call this new phenomenon “all the rage, none of the content”.
What happens is that someone vehemently and passionately presents an argument, like, say, “Global Warming isn’t real”. They support their claims with assertions like “no scientific consensus” and “no empirical evidence” and “it’s getting colder!”. It is then explained to them that there is a consensus in the only meaningful way a scientific consensus can be measured: the content of the papers published on the question; there is masses of evidence from more frequent and powerful extreme weather to historical climate data in ice cores, paleopalynology, dendrochronology; “Climate Change is the more accurate name, and ‘warming’ is a simplification into the realm of meaninglessness.
Over time, the stance of this person changes to “anthropocentric Global Warming isn’t real”. They continue to cite the prediction that some places get colder, but they add the assertion that this warming isn’t exceptional. And they make this assertion with the same confidence and rage as they originally denied climate change with. It’s as if they had always said this and they keep up their rage. But none of the content is the same.
Creationists have done the same thing when they could no longer sustain denying variation and adaptation, they simply invented the term “microevolution” and acted as if they’ve always maintained this distinction. “Intelligent Design” proponents have done the same thing, claiming to have never claimed theological links to the idea. And opponents of GM crops shifted from ‘obvious danger’ and ‘Frankenfood’ arguments, to ‘no evidence it’s safe’, to ‘environmental dangers’ to ‘risks to indigenous farmers’ and ‘concerns over the nature of big corporations acting as a monopoly’; but they never skipped a beat on their rage, intolerance, confidence and assumed knowledge. Greenpeace did the same thing in response to Bjorn Lomborg’s articles preceding The Skeptical Environmentalist.
Something similar happened over at a blog called Shadow to Light. The poster, Michael, is concerned at characterising a 12 year-old girl in the comments section of a post by The Friendly Atheist. To a considerable extent, Michael has a point: some commenters are being unnecessarily unforgiving and attacking of a 12 year-old. (This is particularly true when you consider she’s probably acting under the advice of a parent and it’s them who deserve the scorn, but that’s a suspicion.)
The story is that the girl, Jordan, was in a lesson with the learning objective of developing her critical thinking ability; more specifically, being able to distinguish between factual claims, opinions and commonplace assertions. One of the statements Jordan was asked to categorise was “God exists”, which the (Christian) teacher had said was a “commonplace assertion”. Jordan had decided this was actually a “factual claim” (see debate here). Somehow, at some point, Jordan introduced the word “myth” and insisted that the teacher had claimed God is a myth. (Jordan remembered “fact” and “opinion” pretty well when testifying to the School Board on the same day, but completely replaced “commonplace assertion” with myth.) For this post I want to ignore much of the detail and discussion, like the fact she was reading from a script and seems to be articulate beyond the level of a 12 year-old who can’t distinguish between a myth and a commonplace assertion, or that the accusation against the teacher are now pouring in from parents about her general aggression to students. This part of the post is about the commenters and Michael’s response.
What counts as aggressive and what counts as pointing out what needs to be said isn’t an easy distinction. The fact Jordan complained and got the teacher investigated (risking disciplinary action) in response to being challenged or a teacher being (possibly) mistaken or poorly organised does need to be mentioned, as does Jordan introducing the word “myth” into the discussion. However, I join Michael in saying the comment “This little bitch is freaking OUT because the question made her stop and wonder for a second” is clearly in the “attacking” camp and not simply pointing out what needs to be said. Which is what makes this post so strange:
Michael keeps up his attack on New Atheists and the Friendly Atheist, saying that the attacking comments are indicative of New Atheists and, because he’s refusing to filter the comments out, The Friendly Atheist as well. In fact, Michael has 3 consecutive posts on this exact issue, pointing out that New Atheists are aggressive, mistaken and only getting worse. So, what’s strange? Simple: “ETA [sic]: I stand corrected. Mehta has now deleted the posting and banned the user. I thank him for this.” This is regarding the commenter that called Jordan a “little bitch”. I picked this comment not because it’s the only one I know of to be deleted, but because I brought Michael’s attention to it. I did that because the first reply to that comment was someone taking that commenter to task, obliterating Michael’s claim that aggressive commenters were not being dealt with.
Michael fully acknowledged that The Friendly Atheist has in fact blocked commenters. Michael’s argument against the Friendly Atheist evaporated entirely: he is editing and removing comments and users if they overstep the mark. Michael has acknowledged this. He even went back into the post, edited to say the comment had been deleted, but did not go so far as to say his accusation against The Friendly Atheist is not supported; neither did he take down the three posts or edit them and his comments to remove the accusations directed at The Friendly Atheist. All the rage; none of the content.
My conversation with Michael went on and we got to the point of discussing “factual claim” and “Commonplace assertion”. It is worth noting, then, that “factual claim” and “Commonplace assertion” carry a considerable overlap: a factual claim is not necessarily correct, it is simply a statement that claims truth and doesn’t contain any value judgements. This showed the exercise the teacher had set up/stolen from TES.co.uk (or similar) was very poor: the categories should have been truth, false, opinion or unsubstantiated claim. Michael’s new content, carried over by the preceding rage, is now the teacher’s failure to understand the basic philosophy that underpins their critical thinking lessons. That is so far removed from ‘saying God is a myth’ that I’m pretty sure everyone can see the “all the rage; none of the content” diet of the argument.