Is Noakes the North Korea of epistemology?

This entry is part 16 of 29 in the series Noakes

On November 25, I gave a talk with the above title at an event hosted by SAAFoST* and ADSA**. Unfortunately, the proceedings weren’t recorded, so you won’t be able to hear the superb presentation that preceded mine, by Dr. Celeste Naude, who focused on an evidence-based approach for differentiating between varying macronutrient-focused diets.

Those of you who are interested in the topic of diets, and specifically the role Prof. Noakes has played in popularising the LCHF approach to diet, might already know of the recent study by Naude and others, which found that low carb diets showed a similar reduction in weight to other diets. Noakes’ response to that study was to say that the “researchers have no clue”. I leave it to you to determine who you find more persuasive.

You won’t be able to watch my talk as presented either, but in case it’s of interest, I decided to record a version of it in any case, accompanied by the slides I showed on the day. By contrast to Dr. Naude, who focused on science, I focused on rhetoric, hyperbole, and sound scientific reasoning – or, the lack of it.

You can find that recording immediately below, followed by the approximate text of the presentation. It hasn’t been edited into essay form, so is telegraphic in places. Lastly, I’ve embedded the presentation slides at the end, for no particular reason.

*SAAFost: the South African Association of Food Science and Technology

**ADSA: the Association for Dietetics in South Africa

Is Noakes the North Korea of epistemology?

Betteridge’s Law – any headline that ends with a question mark can be answered with “no”.

Of course, “no” is part of the answer here – if we are asking the question of whether Prof Noakes is a propagandist who leads a repressive state, and is implicated in various human rights abuses, the answer is clearly no.

I’m also make no claims with regard to their relative levels of sincerity. In the case of Prof. Noakes, I’m of the view that he is utterly sincere, and desires nothing but to enhance the health and wellbeing of those he engages with. He’s received far too much abuse related to claims regarding a profit motive, for example, and I think that sort of abuse unjustified, and deplorable.

But that’s not what my title is alluding to. Instead, I’m highlighting the fact that the North Korean press machine has a habit of making hyperbolic claims, and Kim Jong Un for appearing in various baroque, grandiose, and sometimes merely perplexing situations, all to buttress his mystique and support a particular narrative.

This narrative is of him being misunderstood, a maverick, and a person who has privileged access to knowledge and opportunity that he is able to share with the enlightened or anointed. He serves as an inspiration, and in doing so, the impression created is more important than the evidence – marketing is the point, rather than content.

This is the sense in which Noakes is the North Korea of epistemology. As I will show, he displays a pattern of what philosophers and psychologists call “motivated reasoning”, which can be defined as confirmation bias turned up to 11.

You all know what confirmation bias is, I’d imagine: our predisposition to take evidence that confirms what we believe seriously, while discounting contrary evidence. What motivated reasoning adds is a substructure or foundation to this, in which the agent develops background rationalisations to justify holding the beliefs that others argue are false, or at least not settled conclusively at this point.

The motivated reasoner might see conspiracy instead of disagreement, and tends to react defensively to contrary evidence, seeing conspiracy, or dismissing it out of hand for other reasons instead of responding to it on its merits.

I ignore what I consider not to be evidence” – Noakes.

The goal of my talk today is quite simple. I want to suggest to you that regardless of any debate on the virtues of the Banting diet – which I’m not interested in discussing, and haven’t expressed any public view on – there’s a language, method, and character that we should all value in scientists and scientific enquiry.

I believe that any of us who work in fields including science, education, or journalism have a responsibility to encourage a responsible epistemic approach, rather than to aim for persuasion above all else.

By this I mean an approach that is objective as regards the evidence, where we are willing to be wrong, and where we resist attacking the character or motives of opponents when arguments are the relevant issue.

Prof. Noakes has frequently set a bad example in these regards, and my concern as an educator – particularly one active in the field of critical reasoning – is that with 50 000 Twitter followers, and as an engaging and hard-working media personality who has garnered as many accolades as just about anyone you can think of in South African science, he has a powerful influence on how people perceive scientific activity.

One of the virtuous traits I mentioned a moment ago was a willingness to be wrong. Defenders of Noakes might immediately retort that of course he’s willing to be wrong – after all, he famously changed his mind on carbohydrates! And while this is a notable change of mind, it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) reassure anyone that it’s representative of a general disposition. As you’d know, it’s a single data point, and we don’t find a pattern in a single data point.

More to the point, perhaps, is that his own language regarding that change of mind comes with significant warning flags regarding his commitment to sound reasoning. Take this example:

At a public discussion with his erstwhile supervisor, Lionel Opie, in May 2014, Noakes told the audience “I’ve said one thing, and now I’m saying the exact opposite. And they can’t both be wrong. And that’s key.”

While a statement like that plays well to a crowd – and in this case, did result in some appreciative chuckles – it’s nonsense as far as logic is concerned.

He’s presenting his change of mind as evidence that he’s right now. And there are two immediate problems here – one is that the argument only gains traction if you agree with him that he was wrong before. If you think he was right then, then you’d think that he’s just strayed into error now.

The second way in which the logic is fundamentally flawed is that he’s suggesting that the audience embrace the logical fallacy of the false dilemma. What I mean is that the truth might actually be undiscovered, and exist somewhere in the middle – it’s not the case that one of the two extremes he’s suggested at various points have to be correct. We have other options, and he’s misrepresenting the choices available to us in leaving them out.

We should all – maybe A-rated scientists, teachers, and public figures in particular – have a concern for good scientific thinking and clear reasoning in expressing the conclusions we’d like to see adopted. Science does not work in absolute truths – it’s an inductive process, whereby we chisel away at falsehoods to arrive at a clearer understanding of what’s most likely to be true. The example above recommends absolutism, despite that being manifestly incompatible with the messy world of empirical data.

At various points in today’s talk, I’ll be showing you examples of statements like these, made by Prof Noakes on public media. There are many more such examples, but it would be tedious to belabor the point through repetition.

But I mention this to offset concerns you might have that I’m indulging in cherry-picking here – the pattern is unmistakeable in itself, and more to the point, many of the examples I’ll show you are examples of Noakes responding to critics accusing him of over-simplifying. In other words, even after applying the principle of charity and seeking clarification from him, his responses validate the concerns I’ll be highlighting.

A taxonomy of trouble

For ease of reference, I’ve loosely categorized the issues into 5 groups:

  • Indiscriminate use of sources
  • Ad hominem & double-standards
  • Exaggeration and immunity to error
  • Salesmanship over science
  • Errors in scientific reasoning

INDISCRIMINATE USE OF SOURCES

Chemicals that may cause diabetes – Noakes links to Natural News.

This is the site that argues that Microsoft are developing eugenics vaccines. And that HIV doesn’t cause Aids. And Icke? The world is controlled by reptiles from outer space, who live in underground tunnels and take on human form (Thatcher, Bush)

Next they say it has been discovered before. Lastly they say they always believed it. Louis Agassiz.” – Noakes links to evolution-denier.

This from a series of tweets explaining how his conclusions will be vindicated in the end. But if you’re going to suggest that there are better and worse ways of proceeding in science, perhaps better examples than Agassiz could be chosen. He is, after all, an evolution-denier, and a proponent of scientific racism – does one want to cite him as an authority on the scientific method?

“@natachab Weston Price http://amzn.to/15c8xRz believed superior nutrition of trad societies protected against TB. Need LCHF HIV/TB trial” – and to a “holistic dentist”.

Weston Price – “holistic dentist” whose treatments included homeopathy. The site carries numerous articles arguing that vaccines cause autism. Current board member Joseph Mercola has received at least three FDA warnings for making misleading and/or unsubstantiated claims regarding the products he sells.

AD HOMINEM & DOUBLE STANDARDS

Starting on a sound note…
. @katjanechild Only you know what motivates you, Katherine. My advice: Play the ball, not the man and you will go far.”

Obese dietician from British Dietetics Assoc tells us on BBC News that @DrAseemMalhotra article is wrong. Will believe her when she loses wt

I do not understand why you pay any attention to Dr Witt, who has absolutely no qualifications in this field and is a few years out of medical school.”

On Anthony Dalby, a more recent critic: “Noakes said the doctor who said that happened to weigh 120kg.”

[email protected] @Briganto @livinlowcarbman @youmustbenuts That happens when the truth is not on your side. Yet to meet an obnoxious LCHF advocate

Prescription? A mirror.

OVERSTATING THE CASE/IMMUNITY TO ERROR

If you don’t eat carbohydrates, you don’t have to worry about cancer” – @ProfTimNoakes . Moerse gevaarlike stelling!!!

Noakes responds: “@RugbyPrinses Where and when did I say that? Or did someone else say I said that?Do you honestly think I would make such absolute statement?

Franschhoek: “If you’re insulin resistant, you do not have to get any disease whatsoever. If you eat a high-fat diet all your life, you will not develop diabetes, you will not get cancer, you will not get dementia. That I can guarantee you” – that’s where, and when (audio).

“Sweden becomes first nation to reject high fat dogma!” Noakes was making this claim in 2013, when the SBU report wasn’t even available in English, RT’ing AuthorityNutrition & Diet Doctor.

The authors of the (independent) body eventually had to step in and tell people to stop saying this. Report just on obesity, not necessarily generalisable, and:

Two mis-interpretations have, in our opinion occurred in the wake of the publication of the SBU report. One is that low carb high fat is by far better. Yes, during the first 6 months you lose weight faster on low carbohydrate diets. But after one and two years that diet has no advantage than other diets for obesity.

After having this pointed out to her, Teicholz blocks me and others. I couldn’t point it out to Noakes, because contrary voices also get blocked from being heard on his timeline. Contrary to what I think the ideal approach – of seeking out ways in which you could improve your arguments – motivated reasoning can involve simply shutting out dissent.

Then, addiction, where I fear that the LCHF movement is doing great harm to public understanding of the difference between compulsive and destructive behavior, and lifestyle choices which can be better or worse but are not intrinsically problematic.

From Real Meal Revolution:

The final blow to the gut: because carbohydrates are nutrient-deficient and often packaged with salt and sugar, you feel the need to eat more of them, thereby putting yourself into a near-perpetual cycle of weight gain.
Unless, of course, you break the addiction…

There’s plenty of “addiction” talk on his Twitter feed, as well as a partnership with Harmony Clinic in Hout Bay, that offers in and outpatient treatment for sugar addiction. Well, Harmony Clinic now liquidated, so perhaps not anymore.

The problem is – there’s no compelling evidence for sugar addiction, yet, and the case is being overstated in the service of promoting Banting.

What should we then say about so-called “addictive” foodstuffs? The first thing to remember is the point Paracelsus made in the 15th century – “the dose makes the poison”.

While there might be no safe number of cigarettes to smoke, there will be a dosage of carbohydrates, or sugar, that’s unproblematic in all but the most rare of cases.

Let’s look more closely at sugar addiction, and addiction in general. Two papers are typically cited as evidence for sugar being addictive. But what they mostly reveal is that science journalists no longer read or understand the journals, and that the public – and some professionals – are far too trusting when it comes to the sensational headlines that convey elements of those studies to us.

First, the Avena study, published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews in 2007:

“we suggest that sugar, as common as it is, nonetheless meets the criteria for a substance of abuse and may be “addictive” for some individuals when consumed in a “binge-like” manner.”

Pause there – who might be inclined to consume in a “binge-like” fashion? Perhaps someone with a pre-existing impulse control disorder, who happens to latch on to sugar – the reverse inference from the bingeing to the sugar might get the causal direction entirely back-to-front. We’ll get back to the neurochemistry later, but also, notice the scare-quotes – the author is hedging her bets, with the text only weakly supportive of any claim to sugar addiction.

One is perhaps reminded of a line from Lewis Carrol’s “Through the looking glass”, where Humpty Dumpty said: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Then, there’s Johnson & Kenny’s paper in Nature Neuroscience (2010) on junk food and addiction, also conducted on rats.

“Notably, it is unclear whether deficits in rewards processing are constitutive and precede obesity, or whether excessive consumption of palatable food can drive reward dysfunction and thereby contribute to diet-induced obesity.”

As in the Avena study, we don’t know whether an impulse control disorder is simply being expressed – rather than discovered as an effect, resulting from the junk food – in this experiment.

Yes, if you grow to like something (or find it rewarding), you’ll seek it out. This does not mean the thing is innately addictive. In fact, Hebebrand’s recently published paper in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews concludes that if anything, “eating addiction” rather than “food addiction” best captures what’s going on when people compulsively over-eat. The food is an expression, not a cause of the impulse control disorder.

We can easily engage in a battle of link-sharing – but the point is that the truth is complex, and not settled by individual studies. In this case, there’s one clear issue with using these studies as definitive, and this is that both of these studies use brain imaging to support their conclusions.

As Sally Satel (who works as a psychiatrist in a methadone clinic) puts it, brain scanning is “a perfect storm of seduction”. The technology promises great revelations and great objectivity. More to the point of my presentation today, it offers the possibility of eliminating your responsibility for what’s wrong with you – we can say, “it wasn’t me, it was my brain!”

This image is interesting is that it neatly summarises why you can’t reach firm conclusions from fMRI data. This fish is in fact dead, yet the scanner showed signs of brain activity.

fMRI data are suggestive, and weakly so at that, in that they reflect neural correlates of various stimuli, and nothing of the perceived and subjective mental responses to those stimuli.

In slightly more detail: Increased blood flow and a boost in oxygen are treated as proxies for increased activation of neurons, and from there we induce to what those neurons are doing. We compare that data to a baseline, and subtract the one from the other, averaging out over the many data points of all participants in a study, with software filtering out background noise, and creating the seductive images.

But our experimental conditions are imperfect – think of the difficulties of creating appropriate baseline tests, for one – and large sample sizes cost a lot of money. Add to that the fact that our brains can process the same stimuli in different regions – no one specific area can reliably be said to perform the same task for all of us – and it should be clear that it’s far too soon to reach definitive conclusions from fMRI data.

The philosophical problem is one of reverse inference – we reason backward from neural activation to subjective experience. But if identified brain structures rarely perform single tasks, one-to-one mapping between activation in a region and a mental state is very speculative.

To avoid the false positive of the fish brain activity above, we need to use multiple comparison fMRI, which comes at far greater expense in terms of cost and time. But headlines don’t have space for subtleties, and furthermore, novel and exciting claims get the public’s attention. If your fMRI scans can be said to show that sugar is more addictive than cocaine, you’re guaranteed some prime media attention, and who can blame you for trying to capitalize on that? Well, perhaps nobody can blame you if you’re trying to sell newspapers. And perhaps we can blame you, or be rather concerned, if you’re presenting yourself as a responsible scientist.

We can’t tell – yet – whether fMRI scans indicate an impulse that is irresistible, or one that simply hasn’t been resisted. But it’s easier to make choices when you believe that there’s a choice to make, rather than a forced one, such that an “addiction” narrative might support. Diminished expectations of agency lead to diminished agency – if you’re not aware of your choices, it’s more difficult to make choices. So, it’s politically useful to say that carbs are addictive – but that isn’t equivalent to it being true.

But at least we have a following. The great failing in science is not to be wrong – it is to be irrelevant.” – Noakes

SALESMANSHIP OVER SCIENCE & SENSITIVITY

Robin Williams was a vegan.Vegetarians are twice as likely to suffer mental illness.Humans are designed to eat meat.” @ProfTimNoakes RT’ed, the day of Williams’ suicide.

Response when challenged:
“@theviscountess @HermanBeukes Was Mr Williams informed about association between meat-free diet and mental health? http://1.usa.gov/1t2janN”

Then when people point out how poor that paper is, he appeals to the association, even though when anyone cites associational data in favour of low fat, he rejects it.

Dr Bill Wilson wonders if the Carbohydrate Associated Reversible Brain (CARB) disorder played a role in Newtown tragedy http://bit.ly/URArgp”… Where a 20-year old fatally shot 20 kids, and gun control might be a more interesting conversation.

ERRORS IN SCIENTIFIC REASONING

What does the future hold for a pastry chef?
@PastryKeegan The public will decide. In era of social media, public will eventually discover what works for each, independent of “experts

Why are “experts” being trivialized here? Experts do exist, and the public are often misinformed. If experts disagree with you, then you defeat them in the battleground of expertise – peer reviewed journals. An army of laypeople doesn’t make the scientific case.

Why is journo Gary Taubes pushing for scientific studies into #LCHF diets (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2014/10/07/gary-why-we-get-fat-taubes-speaks-out-on-diet-studies-including-his-own/ …) while @ProfTimNoakes focuses on populism?

[email protected] Because change will only come when public understands truth expressed in @garytaubes book. New science will not change that”

“New science” will not change the truth? And again, a scientist calling for less science?

September 2014, Australia

So, I watched it. Here’s one rather interesting bit (the text below is copied from a previous post):

And you must never trust consensus guidelines, because they are anti-science. Science is not about consensus, it’s about disproof, disbelief and skepticism. It’s not about consensus. When you’ve got consensus, you’ve got trouble.

This conflates two very different stories into one, to serve the rhetorical purpose of granting credence to the underdog-story. The two stories are first, that yes, dogma is antithetical to science. The second is that if a preponderance of evidence points in a consistent direction, consensus guidelines could be well-justified, and it would only be irrational or inattentive people who would not believe in that consensus.

In the second story, you’d have been rational to believe in the consensus account even if it later turns out to be false. The point is that denying a well-justified consensus doesn’t make you a better scientist – it makes you a conspiracy theorist, or simply wrong about the facts.

In other words, consensus guidelines that emerge out of honest engagement with the evidence, and that are open to correction, are not anti-science at all. They are the product of good science, and their later overturning (if that happens) in favour of a new consensus is also the product of good science.

You don’t measure or identify good science from its conclusions – because we don’t know that those will survive future data – but by method, and by openness to correction in light of evidence. The first kind of story mentioned above, involving dogma, is of course an example of bad science. That doesn’t mean that consensus is by definition bad.

Science is indeed about “disproof, disbelief and skepticism” – but all of these serve to challenge any existing view and replace it with a better one. They are tools, or methods, for reaching a better consensus, not for rejecting consensus in general.

The simplest way of putting the point is this: Noakes would like it to be the case that medical practitioners and educational programmes see the light, and teach the same message he professes. In other words, he’d like his own views to be the basis of a new consensus, because he believes that the existing consensus is wrong.

When you’ve got dogma, you’ve got trouble. And when you’ve got consensus, you might have dogma. But you might also have a bunch of responsible people agreeing that yes, that’s what the data imply, and until we learn something to overturn our view, the evidence leads us – as rational, responsible scientists – to a certain consensus.

In short, while the quote above can play as a sexy soundbite for undercutting received wisdom, it’s another instance of Noakes playing scorched earth with understanding of the scientific method.

He might say that the public health concerns are too significant to care about niceties like the ones I’ve been talking about today. To that, there are two immediate responses. First, sloppy thinking should arguably never be encouraged. For someone who is regarded as an inspiration by many budding scientists, and who is one of South Africa’s most decorated scientists, one might even argue that he has a moral obligation to encourage sound scientific thinking.

The second response is that even if this were true – that we should misrepresent the strength and consensus behind a certain dietary position, in order to save lives – we should be able to debate how far we’re allowed to take the misrepresentation.

But this would require agreeing that misrepresentation occurs, and Noakes insists that it’s others who are being obtuse rather than himself. More disturbing, perhaps, is that those who do disagree are ignored or blocked, or characterized as shills, or victims of “groupthink”.

In conclusion, two tweets that show the best and worst of Prof Noakes:

[email protected] @umduzu @JSDKirby @davegreenway Many of my most vocal critics think science is easy and definitive. It is nuanced and complex

Yes, it certainly is, and I wish he’d take his own counsel on these matters.

Overlooked: If I am wrong, all that suffers is my reputation. If diet-heart is wrong, billions suffer. Scary responsibility.

This is the worst, obviously, in that the consequences of him being wrong could be far more acute. The logic here is entirely circular, in that his conception of being “wrong” simply ignores all the harms that competing views say could result from a high-fat diet.

He’s assuming he’s right, even while speculating about the consequences if he were wrong.

Even Noakes’ supporters should expect more of him, for two reasons:

  1. The scientific method deserves better.
  2. If he’s right, he’s impairing the credibility his viewpoint garners. The same dietary advice could be given without the “aid” of examples like these, and that might well get the revolution taken seriously in a far more widespread fashion.

 

Honest communication about science

This entry is part 8 of 29 in the series Noakes

It’s easy to lose objectivity when we feel strongly about an issue. Some of the things we feel strongly about might also be of great consequence, making it even more difficult to separate the strength of your emotional commitment from the strength of your argument. Some of the comment following my blog posts regarding Prof. Tim Noakes‘ research (especially on Twitter, where nuance is sometimes in short supply) ask why people like me focus on these issues, when obesity (or diabetes, or whatever) are such enormous problems – and the answer is simple, albeit two-fold.

First, because the more important something is, the more important it also becomes that our reasoning be sound, so that we can stand a better chance of convincing doubters. And second, because there are more problems in the world than simply obesity (etc.), and just because one of those is your focus, doesn’t mean it has to be mine. Furthermore, in what might come as a shock to some, it’s possible to focus on more than one of those problems at a time – you can promote critical reasoning while also caring about public health, for example.

I attended EthicsXchange this morning, a TEDx-style event where 11 speakers spoke on ethical challenges and potential responses to them. The Doctor has written about this event also, focusing on some of the hyperbole (such as the ‘addictive’ nature of sugar) we encountered on the day. Besides a general grumble regarding the oddity of an ethics conference that featured no ethicists, it was a worthwhile event. My favourite presentations were the ones that focused on the complexities and apparent contradictions we sometimes encounter in seeking the good, and I thought that my Vice Chancellor, Dr. Max Price, and Peter Bruce of Business Day did the best job of raising those issues.

It’s the talks on scientific themes that I want to briefly address here. I do so mostly as a prompt to those of us who speak or write about science to remember that we do live in an age of celebrity, short attention-spans and a lack of patience for complex arguments. What this adds up to is beautifully illustrated by a recent xkcd panel, reproduced below:

xkcd on headlines as clickbait

Sensation and hyperbole grab attention. TEDx-style talks are meant to be slick, yes – and it’s also not a bad thing to make science compelling (quite the contrary, in fact). But we should remember that science is about the method, not the conclusion. When we forget to reinforce the method of good science in expressing our conclusions, we’re sending the message that things are a) more certain and b) easier than they actually are. Of course there are permissible shortcuts, or liberties. When we say that we know, for certain, that smoking is a cause of cancer, it’s only a pedant who asks you to confess that yes, of course, nothing is ever absolutely certain and there might be some other factor we haven’t spotted, with smoking and cancer being caused by that, etc.

When we get to a certain level of justification, we can say we “know” something – even though what/where that level of justification is can (rightly) be contested. But what we should not do is say things like:

  • “The literature says that X” – when we know full well that some of the literature says X, while other literature says Y, with no clear consensus having yet emerged.
  • “We now know that X” – where X is really your preferred view, and not at all “known” but instead the subject of significant dispute

And then, there are some words that we just know – going in to our talk, or sitting down to write our column – that people are going to invest with greater significance than is merited. Words like “caused”, or “proven”, or even sometimes, “evidence”.

I’m not saying that we need to include a ream of disclaimers with every sentence. But if a popular science talk or piece of writing doesn’t make it quite clear that there’s room for reasonable doubt, it’s doing a disservice to the goal of getting people to think more critically and clearly about knowledge-claims.

No matter how important the scientific subject under discussion, the goal of promoting sound reasoning is a worthy one too. And there’s no reason why one of these goals has to be pursued at the expense of the other.

 

More on dealing with trolls

As submitted to Daily Maverick

(Note to pedants: I realise that the previous post – and this one – uses the word “troll” atypically. This is both because I think the definition could usefully be broadened, and because it’s a useful, evocative word).

If you don’t believe that hostility (or sometimes, something more accurately describable as abuse) on Internet comment threads is a problem, then this post will be of no or little interest to you. I say this to let you know that you should cease reading, rather than skipping to the end to leave a hostile comment. You always have that option, even though people seem more and more reluctant to exercise it.

But if you do think this a topic worth discussing, you’d most likely recall that last week I discussed what appears to be a marked decrease in civility on the Internet. What used to be localised has arguably been generalised, and we’ve now got a significant chance of encountering a troll in the comments thread of Daily Maverick, never mind their ancestral homes of News24 and PoliticsWeb.

One thing that we can all do about this is to temper how we respond to provocation, whether perceived or otherwise. This is part of the remedy for situations in which we might be perceived to ourselves be the troll, or perhaps where we provide one of them with a useful provocation. The advice to not feed trolls remains sound, but it perhaps doesn’t go far enough.

This is because what I’ve always understood as not feeding a troll is simply not responding to their provocations. While mocking someone who seems deserving can provide pleasure – both to other commentators and to spectators – it’s mostly just a way of feeling superior. It usually won’t change anyone’s mind, and serves simply to affirm a group identity as one of the smart, sophisticated set (or so you might think of yourself), rather than the sort of person represented by the ingrate you’re now making fun of.

In other words, directing your scathing wit at a troll might be encouraging another sort of negative aspect of character, while doing nothing to modify the target’s behaviour – except for encouraging him (sadly, it usually is a him) to try harder. It’s perhaps these sorts of considerations, among others, that led Jean Kazez, a philosopher at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, to offer what I thought to be three quite useful prescriptions.

The first prescription she offers has already been addressed, above and last week, and calls for some reflection on appropriate uses of our time and energy – particularly for those of us who do act like trolls online. The second and third, however, call for a complete disassociation from those who do, rather than the more typical exhortation to not encourage them.

Kazez suggests that we should cease any participation in fora where significant bullying takes place, and also cease from interacting with people who do participate in those fora. In summary, both those who bully and those who enable the bullies need to discover that they will lose their “seat at the table” of adult debate.

In a local context, perhaps this could mean never even attempting to engage in a comment thread on certain sites, or promptly removing oneself once certain commentators arrive to hijack the discussion. If the chances are high enough (and sometimes they seem certain) that the usual race-baiting will ensue, what’s the point of yet another attempt to call for a nuanced consideration of how (for example) neo-liberalism is being used as a catch-all term meaning “an economic stance that I don’t agree with”, and is therefore not a useful contribution?

My primary concerns around the advice to disengage involve the potentially instructive role that more sober comments can play. Even if it’s true that engagement typically encourages, because trolls love being given attention, there are nevertheless some fence-sitters lurking who are potentially receptive to productive disagreement.

Withdrawing entirely from debate costs us those opportunities. Limiting or ceasing interaction with those who do participate is even more radical, and involves forsaking the opportunity to set an example, persuade or encourage others to be more reasonable. But perhaps this is the point – we are still too optimistic about how often such opportunities arise, and about how often there’s any reward from taking them.

As someone who has by now spent more than two decades at a university, it’s perhaps easy to accuse me of naiveté here – maybe this is just how people talk in the “real” world, and it’s the Socratic dialogue that was always the fantasy. If it is civilised conversation you want, in other words, have it with carefully selected friends or in a filter bubble you’ve created for that purpose.

Outside of those environments – which bring with them a limitation on our own capacity to learn from difference, and from debate – it sadly seems true that most of the time, our engagements with abusive elements of the Internet are doing nothing to stem the tide of anger and misunderstanding. In the meanwhile, though, they do give the trolls something else to scream about.

On dealing with trolls

As submitted to Daily Maverick

One of the things that the Internet has been good for is broadening the range of perspectives in any given conversation. Of course certain barriers need to be overcome: to participate, you need an Internet connection and a suitable gadget. Nevertheless, conversations have been democratised, thanks at least in part to being able to more easily discover who is interested in talking about the same things as you, and the fact that it’s relatively inexpensive to join in.

However, the filter-bubble remains a problem. Not only do the personalisation features of search engines like Google give you results that reinforce existing prejudices; we also like it that way – it’s called confirmation bias, and too few of us take active steps to combat its negative implications (if we’re even aware of the potential need to do so). There’s another concern though, one that I’ve mentioned in the past but would like to explore a little further today: the question of online abuse and the extent to which it might cause some voices to withdraw from the conversation entirely.

An example from a few minutes ago will serve to illustrate: “screw u, u doos, first of 90% of big business in S.A is owned by whites and top man is white, so cry me a river!!!” is what someone just told me on Twitter after I repeated an overheard joke about members of the UCT Senate’s prospects of employability at Woolworths.

Now, seeing as some folk have been calling me a racist for a few weeks now, thanks to my defending  Woolworths and SAA’s affirmative action policies, we can be sure that the grammar-impaired person who tweeted that at me is clearly unaware of this context. That’s fine – I’d expect most people to be. However, just in case there is some context, one might think a little tempering of the hostility is merited when (over)hearing something that offends you.

Not so for this person, it seems, and increasingly not so for those who comment in these pages and elsewhere. And then there’s the next layer of trouble, which is where the filter-bubble ends up resulting in a congregation of these hair-trigger folks into one “room”, as it were. At some point, all possibility for debate ceases to exist because of the mutually-assured idiocy of a collection of angry people, each paying less attention than the next.

Because there seems to be no chance of changing anyone’s mind, some of those who might otherwise try to do so eventually resort to measures like turning off comment functionality, stop engaging in comment threads, and eventually – stop engaging with certain pockets of the Internet at all. This has two consequences: the collection of trolls and angry folk are made more homogenous, and thus apparently stronger, and likewise, the collection of those who consider themselves “virtuous” is furnished with another example of why they are special, and right – and their homogeneity increases too.

So, one day we’ll end up with half the Internet grunting angrily at each other, while the other half recites passages from Plato. Unless we find some way to arrest this escalation of hostilities, or unless I’m wrong about the trend (and I hope I am). In a future column I hope to explore potential legal remedies for online bullying, such as those currently being considered in New Zealand and elsewhere. But because less regulation is always preferable to more, we should also consider what each of us could or should do, simply in our capacity as members of the Internet community.

First, I’d argue that we can sometimes be accused of placing too little or too much emphasis on history, and not enough on our own conduct. Too little, in the sense of the tweet I quote above where zero effort was made to see if an interpretation is the correct one. And then too much, in the sense that we sometimes expect new entrants to a conversation to know minute and technical historical details of that conversation – and then abuse them when they get a detail wrong. There’s sometimes too little patience for any kind of induction period, and so-called “newbies” need the thickest skins of all.

To remedy this problem, I offer one suggestion: that when a debate gets heated, we should try to remember that no matter what’s come before, we’re constantly at a new decision-point, where we – and only we – are responsible for what we say in response to something we find provocative. Sure, someone else has committed a wrong, and we can be inflamed by that. But essentially juvenile questions of “who started it”, while diverting, seldom help illuminate the question of how it can be ended. In other words, I’m suggesting that we learn (or remember) some manners.

Start saving for Norway

Not necessarily because you want to come here. It’s just that, if you do, you’d need to have started saving for it quite a while in advance. The pint of Heineken sitting alongside me, for example, cost around R80. The cheapest food at this pub is a margarita pizza for R170, and even your most basic Burger King combo meal will set you back around R110. Anyway – I’m here, and thus my complaints would most likely sound hollow. So just FYI, start saving.

Curiosities/Observations

  • The mad rush for duty-free as the sardines exited customs at the airport was a certain clue that you don’t want to buy booze or cigarettes in the city, unless you can help it. The queue there involved a far longer wait than customs itself, and the rationality of spending time in this queue was confirmed while browsing a wine shop. Not just a wine shop, mind you, but a “Wine Monopoly”. That is in fact its name. All wine and spirits are sold exclusively by the state, with prices partly determined by alcohol content, in a clear attempt to legislate morality. Which is of course fine if you’re a rich banker or lawyer, but not so good for the average geezer sunning himself in the park at 8pm. (These long summer nights are rather pleasant.)
  • Chatting to a local on the night I arrived, I was told something odd about schooling here. Basically, children are not evaluated in any substantive way before the age of 14 (or maybe 16 – he was plying me with drink). This is of course in service of their manic egalitarianism, which dictates that kids shouldn’t be made to feel special, or inferior, before adults believe they can deal with it. So instead of exams, tests and report cards, teachers can only offer nebulous advice such as “maybe you should take a look at that maths textbook sometime? I hear it has lots of cool pictures.” Or something – I haven’t spoken to a teacher to see how this plays out.
  • You need to be an active member of a church to become a gravedigger.
  • The most commonly-found food is the polser, which is a hot dog, and raisin buns (whose Scandiwegian name I cannot recall). The polser will set you back around R35, as will the buns, with 3 of them in a portion. But if it’s polser you’re after, rather go to Denmark, where they serve them with crispy fried onions and rémoulade. These Norwegian ones (at least the ones I’ve found), have neither, and are thus crap. Denmark wins, and I have no biases to disclose.

  • They are into peace, especially in the vicinity of the Nobel Center. I’m here for a humanist conference, and – recent events in Norway notwithstanding – it’s quite striking how the content and tone of dialogue with locals converges on trying to reconcile misunderstandings and resolve tensions. There is far less ego, or at least a different sort of ego. This congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union is being hosted at a reception by the Crown Prince tomorrow night, and the Mayor is also making an appearance at the conference dinner on Saturday. There are flags advertising our conference in the streets. Basically, they take this stuff seriously.

And then, outside of observations on Norway, there’s an embarrassing and (hopefully) humorous anecdote, which involved the Irish. But before I get to that: South African readers, if you think you have a drinking problem, you probably don’t. Because you’re not Irish. The one Irish delegate (implicated in the story I’m getting to) told me about how she and her friends drank vodka all day at school at the age of 16, from their ‘water’ bottles. And this was a head girl, from a middle-upper class background.

Anyway, I was chatting to Annie and her partner Aaron about God, Roy Keane (is that tautologous?) and assorted matters. Aaron wandered off to scrounge for coins to buy another beer. And then, while talking to Annie, I’m pretty darn sure I saw her raise her hand to the side of her face, wiggle her fingers and say “I’m up here”. That sequence of gestures is difficult to interpret as something else, one would think, and also difficult to misinterpret – it usually means “stop objectifying me by staring at my cleavage, you sexist boor”. Except I wasn’t, and hadn’t been.

This freaked me out. If you’ve watched Curb your Enthusiasm (the new series is great, by the way), you might have a sense of how utterly strange, and socially awkward, the next half-hour or so was. Because Aaron had returned, and it was another half-hour before he left, and I finally had the opportunity to resolve whether I was going to live with this misunderstanding, or “put it out there”.

I chose the latter path, and asked her whether she had wiggled her fingers, saying “I’m up here”. She looked at me as if I was alien, insane or both. I repeated the question, mimicking the gesture. Now she seemed convinced I was insane, which I might have exacerbated by saying “look, I realise I probably sound creepy now, but this is quite awkward and needs clarifying”. But she had no idea what I was talking about. And now there was this enormous elephant in the room, and I felt compelled to explain, again, what I thought I had seen – and of course what I perceived it to mean (the thing I may or may not have seen).

But bless the Irish – her quite straightforward response was “Ah, no. If you’d been doing that, I would just have slapped you or stormed off.” So then we got on with talking about Roy Keane, potatoes and so forth, with the discomfort slowly dissipating.

And now it’s Thursday, and the first phase of the visit (leadership training for secular humanist groups, at the IHEU) is over, with the conference proper starting tomorrow. I’ll be sending occasional updates on proceedings through the FSI Twitter account, and the usual motley collection of links and provocations via my account. Be careful out there.