Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for January 2011

The poor underrepresented women of Wikipedia

with 2 comments

For the second time in about six months, I today encountered a view that Wikipedia’s “gender” situation would be problematice. Below, I will briefly discuss and critique some of the ideas in the light of the premise that “less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are women” (a premise which matches my own experiences reasonably well and which is not put under investigation):

  1. Efforts to increase the number of women are hampered by “traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving realm that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women”.

    Leaving the issue of whether increasing the number of specifically female editors is a worthy goal aside:

    The traditions of the computer world are of disputable relevance.

    Obsessive fact-loving is a pre-requisite for a good encyclopedia. The facts must not be compromised in order to increase the proportion of female editors. Any solution must, therefore, involve making women involved despite their aversion or to change the women’s attitude—not Wikipedia’s. (This assuming that the claim was correct in the first place.)

  2. A stated goal is to increase the proportion of women, yet the discussion is based on an argument that “Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table,” and “If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb.”—which is an argument to increase the absolute number of participants (be it of either sex or specifically women). Correspondingly, the goal should be to increase the number of women—not the proportion of women. Indeed, the way Wikipedia works, a sinking proportion can actually be good, e.g. when we see X new women and 100X new men instead of X women and X men (with X having the same value on both occasions; the conclusion is obviously symmetrical when the increase of men is fixed and that of women variable). This, certainly, is an exception, but the point that absolute numbers matter, not relative, stands clear.

    Notably, the other article (published in a Swedish newspaper; I do not recall the details) was largely based in a failure to realise this basic principle and the common Swedish fallacy that any difference in outcome is a sign of difference in opportunity that must be fought.

  3. “Even the most famous fashion designers — Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo — get but a handful of paragraphs.”

    The noticeably more famous Coco Chanelw and Yves Saint Laurentw have noticeably longer articles. In addition, the writings need not be limited to the “personal” articles on the designers, but can extend into e.g. articles on the companies they founded. For that matter, the articles on e.g. Charles Rollsw (as in Rolls-Royce) or Bentleyw are not overly long either.

  4. ‘Adopting openness means being “open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists,” ’.

    If Wikipedia is to be open, then it has to be open to everyone who does not misbehave and breaks the rules that are in place. To imply (as is done here) that men would have more difficult and high-conflict specimens than women, is … misandrist. Notably, in my experience, the proportion of women who fall into these categories is higher than for men; notably, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that misogynism would be flowering due to openness. The whole angle seems to be cheap rhetoric and additionally risks throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  5. ‘But Catherine Orenstein, the founder and director of the OpEd Project, said many women lacked the confidence to put forth their views. “When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies,” she said.’

    One of the beauties of Wikipedia is that complete anonymity is possible (as far as other users/editors are concerned). If the minority feeling stems from being a woman among men, the solution is simply to chose a male or neutral alias and/or to get over any irrational fixation on sex instead of opinion where others are concerned. If it stems from the opinion—well, it is the same for everyone with a minority opinion and being a woman is irrelevant.

    More importantly, Wikipedia is not based on personal opinion on this-and-that, but on references, scientific consensus, and similar items. Opinion is, then, relevant as to which scientific hypothesis is dominating, what sub-issue or hypothesis should be given what weight, what articles are not up-to-par quality-wise, etc. Long discussions, even fights, on such topics notwithstanding, the opinions in the actual matter at hand are easy to push through—just find a reference from a credible source and put in the text that “Smith [97] writes that …”.

  6. Much of the article can be paraphrased as “Women do not feel welcome and therefore do not participate.” (where, I argue, this feeling is largely irrational).

    Here it should be noted that Wikipedia is not intended for men—but it is intended for adults. Not participating due to the (usually) imagined feeling that one is not welcome, is not adult behaviour.

    Further, the question must be raised whether this is actually the explanation. Consider alternatives (which all match my experiences) like men being more likely to have a deep fascination with or knowledge on a particular topic (often referred to as “being a nerd”), simply having a greater drive for accomplishment, or being more prone to discuss bigger issues in a bigger forum (while women prefer smaller and more personal circles). Notably, the article it self claims “a participation rate of roughly 85-to-15 percent, men to women, is common — whether members of Congress, or writers on The New York Times and Washington Post Op-Ed pages.”—to accuse e.g. “traditions of the computer world” is, then, absurd. To claim that it would be a minority issue does also not pan out—this might have been true for Wikipedia (where men could have had an advantage through a greater interest in computers) alone, but seeing that the same numbers apply where there has been no such entry barrier for quite some time, we would have to postulate explanations that are implausible from an Occamian view.


Written by michaeleriksson

January 31, 2011 at 4:52 pm

No—Homeopathy does not work

with one comment

For the future, I plan to not be drawn into discussions of whether homeopathy works or various aspects of the argumentation and evidence in the issue—be it with Robert Hahn or someone else. (Separate posts on specific sub-issues may still occur, however.) Instead, I will simply link here—with the request that the supporter of homeopathy read the below links and refute the discussions present there first. In the exceedingly unlikely event that he manages to do so, I will be willing to reopen the issue.

The following lines of counter-arguments are faulty and/or dishonest and will not be accepted:

  1. The claim that experimental evidence shows that homeopathy works; in particular, in combination with the claim that attempts to e.g. point to a lack of a known mechanism are merely a cover-up intended to discredit this “fact”.

    As pointed out repeatedly in the links, experimental evidence speaks against homeopathy. The accepted (weak) effects are all explained by non-medicinal factors. (Cf. the item on anekdotal evidence.)

    Exception: If, theoretically, the supporter can show a subsequent change in scientific consensus on experimental evidence, this is obviously allowed. I stress that merely pointing to the existence of a few hundred published-in-CAM-journals papers are not enough—consider the number of studies showing the opposite, the significantly lower credibility of these journals compared to the leading mainstream journals, the often lower scientific value (worse methodology, smaller samples), and publication bias. Also note the discussions of meta-studies, including Linde’s, in the linked-to articles.

  2. Ad hominem towards the authors or their sources (including accusations of self-interest or being bought by the pharma industry): If their ideas, reasoning, or facts are faulty—attack these instead. If not, well, then there is no justification whatsoever in attacking the man. Also bear in mind that it is the homeopaths who have the greater self-interest in the issue (i.e. any attack based on self-interest will strike even harder in the other direction) and that it is exceedingly unlikely that the totality of the opposition would be faulty in this regard.

    Exception: If a convincing case can be made against an individual debater, study, whatnot, with regard to e.g. methodology (not merely an alleged motive) then this may obviously legitimately be used to question an individual statement or result.

  3. As a special case: Denying non-homeopaths the right to speak on the issue. These may be less knowledgeable in the subject field, but may also bring superior knowledge or ability in other areas, including scientific methods or critical thinking. The denial is particularly weak when the outsiders are medical researchers from other areas. Further, good and correct science can be explained to outsiders in a way that is convincing—if some field as-good-as-consistently fails to do so, then this speaks strongly against it. Science bears up to scientific scrutiny and critical investigation by outsiders—quackery does not. Indeed, unwillingness to allow outsiders the opportunity to poke holes and unwillingness to constructively engage critics are themselves strong (but not conclusive) indications of quackery.

    Further note that the critics are not limited to outsiders. The possibly most notable examples are Edzard Ernstw and Willem Betz, who were both once homeopaths and now are vocal critics.

  4. Anekdotal evidence: “I know that homeopathy works! I have tried it succesfully myself.”

    There are a number of reasons why individual experiences can seem to indicate that something works when it, in fact, does not. Cf. some of the below links.

    Among explanations we have e.g. the placebo effect, coincidence and natural healing (if a thousand sick people take a particular preparation, at least some of them are likely to, by themselves, become healthy at the “right” time by sheer coincidence), an increased tendency to take medicine when a problem is at its peak, confirmation bias, and “extra-medicinal” factors like a better patient–physician relation. Further note that it is not inconceivable that some less-than-religious homeopaths would prescribe conventional medicine every now and then…

Primary sources should be used with caution in any attempt at refutation (but are certainly allowed): There is much value in primary sources, but they are also dangerous and, if possible, secondary and (to a lesser degree) tertiary sources are to be preferred (just as with e.g. Wikipedia’s take on sources). Note e.g. the greater risks of partiallity, statistical noise, methodological errors, and mis- or over-interpretation when using primary sources. This is particularly important for laymen, who often draw too fargoing conclusions from research (as proved by any number of journalists over the years). Note also that if a primary source claims X, then there may be two others that claim non-X.

A common counter-argument against clinical studies, that homeopathy would demand an individual treatment and that merely giving every patient the same cure is misleading, does have some merit. However, I am well aware of it, it is not (taken by itself) enough to convince, and there is no need to repeat it. Consider that better results in individual treatment are also what a non-medicinal explanation predicts (in particular, when several remedies are tried until something “works”), that clinical trials are still valid investigative tools (if a particular remedy is good for only one in ten, then this should still make a noticeable difference in a large enough sample or a meta-analysis), and that the alleged extreme inconsistency in results is contrary to what would be expected a priori if a medicinal effect was present (the mechanims in the human body are very similar from person to person and so complete deviations in result are very rare, allergies and over-sensitivities excepted). Further, the obvious main line of homeopathic research would then be to find better classifications and groupings to systematically pin-point the right remedies, with uses including better treatment, integration of similar methods into school medicine, and … building better samples for clinical trials. Such attempts have not been successful, which speaks strongly for a non-medicinal explanation of any success stories. Indeed, by Occam’s Razor, it is more likely that the different effects on individuals are either just an excuse or a misinterpretation of events—not an actual difference.

On with the links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeopathye Note the extensive discussions pro and contra on the talk pages.

http://www.homeowatch.org/e Many further links, including an own research over-viewe.

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=11e Note: First of five parts. The other parts are linked from there.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/45/45.pdfe A thorough parliamentary report (UK) which includes both a high level conclusion and (in the appendix) more detailed statements and research overviews. A brief non-PDF summary from a different sourcee.

http://apgaylard.wordpress.com/2009/09/06/a-homeopathic-refutation-part-one/e (The second part deals with the dangers of homeopathy and is of little relevance to this particular discussion.)






http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1874503/table/tbl1/e Overview of meta-analyses and re-analyses based on a much-touted-by-homeopaths work by Linde. (Similar, more extensive tables are present in the PDF report above.)

Also of interest:

http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/holmes.htmle A long, very well-argued, and well-known refutation of homeopathy by Oliver Wendell Holmes; however, also a very old text, which could be unfair to the homeopathy of today in at least some regards. On the plus-side, it shines some light on why there really was no reason to expect homeopathy to work in the first place.

http://www.ukskeptics.com/article.php?dir=articles&article=it_works_in_animals.phpe A brief view on homeopathy and animals—a topic otherwise given little space in the linked-to articles.

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=4e A broader discussion of alternative medicines and pitfalls. Generally, this site (also present with an article series above) appears to have a large number of articles of direct or indirect relevance.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 26, 2011 at 5:57 am

Boycott “like”!

with 3 comments

Today, “like” buttons and similar mechanisms are ubiquitous. In principle, they can fill a good function, e.g. in giving users better opportunities to reach high-quality material. In practice, there are many flaws, including that:

  1. They allow companies to build profiles on users, which can then be abused for advertising purposes.

  2. They open the doors for manipulation through “like spamming”.

  3. Valuable items that lack mass-appeal are even worse off than before.

  4. “Helpful” tips of the “you may also like” kind often give very poor advice and also do damage through taking space and cluttering user interfaces.

  5. Approval/disapproval is often expressed based on a superficial impression that does not match long-term preferences. (Where items like music are concerned, but not e.g. blog entries.)

  6. The sheer amount of “like” buttons is so large that they start to become intrusive, trivial, and lacking in importance.

Looking at WordPress and its “like” button, it has been only a nuisance to me: Every time I receive a “like”, I also receive an annoying and user-despising email on the lines of “Congratulations! X liked your post! Now go check out what he writes—you may like it!”, which is just a PITA.

My recommendation: Boycott “like” buttons, disable them were possible, do not click on them when you see them, and let this insanity die out. (Obviously, if/once the number is reduced so far that they make sense again, there would be nothing wrong in using them.) If you really do like something, then spread the word instead: Write your own post with a link to a blog, tell your friends about that book/movie/song, recommend that new store/website, …

In WordPress, the setting that controls the like button is currently to be found under “settings/sharing” in the admin area.

Note: This post is partially a reaction to a recent “freshly pressed” post titled The Like-ification of 2011e.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 22, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Twain-censorship outdone

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Recently, there were a great number of blog entries dealing with the highly disputable decision to censor the “n-word” in Mark Twain’s classic works (e.g. heree). Today, I note that a Swedish children’s classic has suffered an even worse fate—non-publication. As e.g. morning paper SVDe writes, publisher Rabén & Sjögren wanted to sensor the word “neger” in the work “Ture Sventon i Paris”. After a veto from Sveriges Författarförbund (a union/interest organisation for Swedish authors), the publisher decided to cancel the planned re-issue rather than to use a word that was perfectly acceptable and unremarkable in 1953 when the book was first published and which did not lead to any protests against earlier re-issues.

It is a sad state of affair indeed, when politically correct irrationality can have such consequences.

(US readers should note that the Swedish situation is far worse than the US already because “neger” never had a status comparable to “nigger”, but would be more in line with “negro” or possibly even “black”. This until just a few decades ago, when there were suddenly cries that it was an evil word—probably more under the influence of the US PC-movement than from rational considerations about meaning, etymology, and how the word was actually perceived by speakers and listeners alike.)

Unfortunately, these two cases are nothing new, although Mark Twain is one of the most prominent victims. Among earlier cases of “anti-racist” censorship, I note e.g. The Bowdlerization of Dr. Dolittle e. Politically correct (or otherwise ideologically motivated) fiddling of other kinds has even affected the Bible (see e.g. 1e, 2e, 3e)—potentially distorting the actual meaning of a text that is the fundament of the religion of two billion people…

Written by michaeleriksson

January 21, 2011 at 1:27 am

Science and reason

with 12 comments

As mentioned earlier, I had a piece in planning about about a few posts by a controversial Swedish professor, published Spiritist, and believer in Homeopathy—Robert Hahn. As it turns out, a reasonably full treatment would require dozens of pages, which forces me to re-think that idea. My current plan is to write a limited number of posts on various topics relating to some selected ideas and arguments of his. The number and the time frame are currently unclear (do not hold your breath), but the below is the first:

One of Hahn’s main claims appear to be that reason is bad for science—specifically, that reason leads scientists away from observable facts, allows them to explain away observations they do not like, cements their pre-existing opinions, whatnot. (See e.g. [1]e).

This claim is it self based on faulty reasoning: Science needs more reason, not less. Above all, those who correctly use reason are less likely to be caught up in excuses, more likely to interpret observations in line with reality (not with their own pre-conception of reality) respectively be more open to alternate explanations, more likely to critically examine and re-examine their opinions, and so on. Importantly, they are far more likely to apply Occam’s Razor on excessively complicated explanations, to avoid begging the question, to not confuse correlation and causation, etc.

He has a particular beef with the application of reason by outsiders, having the correct insight that outsiders can lack critical pieces of understanding and information, which can lead them astray; but failing to consider that those cases are easily resolved by the insider explaining, using reason or clearly established empirical facts, why the outsider is wrong. Should the insider not be able to do this, well, then it is time to ring the alarm bells. Ask a physicist to defend the counter-intuitive claim that a light object falls as fast as a heavy object (when the effect of air resistance is sufficiently small) and he can explain about energy conservation, potential and kinetic energy, and the connection between both types of energy and mass (all extremely well-supported by observation). Alternatively, he could explain about gravitational force, inertia, and the connection between acceleration and force (again, extremely well-supported by observation). Ask an astrologer to defend the counter-intuitive claim that a human’s life and personality are strongly determined by the configuration of the night sky at the time of his birth and no good answer will be forth-coming.

Looking specifically at observations (e.g. in a medical study) there are at least two important issues where reason is an absolute must: Firstly, interpretation of the observation and its implications. Secondly, critical examination of the correctness/representativeness of the observation and what lead to the observation. An only slightly caricatured example (I deliberately avoid the, in context, more natural area of Homeopathy, to avoid a new debate on that topic):

A gender-scientist visits a pre-school, observes that the boys and girls are treated differently (e.g. wrt attention given) and concludes that this prejudiced different treatment teaches the children to assume certain unnatural “gender-roles” and that this must be counter-acted. This line of thought has a number of problems in terms of lack of reasoning, including (but likely not limited to):

  1. The difference in treatment can arise because of individual variations in the children, non-representative behaviour in the adults, or previous mutual experiences between the involved children and adults. (A much larger study would be needed.)

  2. There is more than a fair chance that the observations were at least partially flawed due to a too casual form of observation or a pre-existing bias.

  3. The presence of an observer could have affected the behaviour of the observed, e.g. in that some boys wanted to play tough in front of the visitors or some teachers wanted to be more exemplary “motherly”.

  4. A specific causality (children of different sex are treated differently as a consequence of “gender stereotypes”) is assumed, when there are other options available—including that boys and girls behave differently to begin with, causing the adults to merely react to this behaviour.

  5. Even if different treatment occurs, it does not necessarily follow that it will have a major impact or the kind of impact that gender-scientists often propose (e.g. that women are excluded from technical professions because they are “forced” to play with dolls as children). Above all, it does not in any way, shape, or form follow that different treatment would be the only explanation for differences in later behaviour.

(Note that the point of the above is not to deny that the way children are treated can affect their development or their behaviour in adulthood, but to illustrate where “science” without reason can lead—a theory that need not reflect reality and which can do more harm than good.)

One of Hahn’s arguments against the use of reason is a list of statements that he claims as proof of how reason has lead people astray. (Rather than digging for the English originals of the statements that he presents in Swedish, I point to an article of my own which discusses a similar set of silly (?) statements). This argument contains several weaknesses, including that many of these statements are incorrectly attributed, misquoted, or made-up (not, I stress, by Hahn), being urban legends of sorts. Other problems are discussed on the linked-to page, including that they need not be silly when read in their original context. The biggest obstacle, however, is that these statements, when actually faulty, are not based in reason—on the contrary, reason would have prevented them! Indeed, these statements could be much better used as proof of something completely different, namely that people who should be experts are not always right, be it absolutely or when compared to outsiders with a better head—the opposite of what Hahn himself feels where e.g. Homeopathy is concerned.

For instance, one of Hahn’s quotes (attributed to Lord Kelvin) states that flying machines heavier than air are impossible. Application of reason shows this to be a preposterous claim (when taken as a general statement, with no unstated constraints wrt to e.g. the minimum size of the machine or the time frame involved—and assuming that the statement was at all made): Birds can fly despite being heavier than air; ergo, heavier than air flight is possible. Now, there might be some hitch which would make it impossible for machines to fly when heavier than air; however, this is extremely unlikely by Occam’s Razor, considering the possibilities of making machines with a better lift-to-weight ratio by e.g. miniaturization, considering the existence of various kites and gliders, and considering the, even then, on-going advances in motors and materials. True, reason has not showed us that e.g. manned flight would be possible in a heavier-than-air machine and this question (and a number of others) must still be left to the engineers and scientists; however, the literal statement could with near certainty be ruled as incorrect already in Kelvin’s days—and it could be so by many an intelligent and educated layman using reason. Further, if Kelvin did make this statement (subject to the above reservations), he either did not use reason or he was not displaying an intelligent and sound mind at the time.

It is true that some who try to use reason fail miserably (and that no-one can claim perfection). This is not an argument against reason, however—just as little as a medical study with poor methodology would be an argument against medical studies. The very core of science lies in the interaction between observation and reason—without reason we have no science. (Outside of highly theoretical areas, the same applies to “without observation”.)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 16, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Yet another group of absurd debaters

with 7 comments

(Remark: Apart from Creationism, religion has hardly ever been a topic on this blog, so I take the opportunity to stress that my opinion of religion and typical religious organisations is mostly negative. I am, however, also a believer in fair debate based on arguments, facts, and reasoning—not, even be it against things of religion, cheap rhetoric, misrepresentations, and insults.)

Following up on the tags of my latest post, I encountered a blog entry calling the Pope a “card carrying Nazi”e. Having repeatedly seen this faulty (and, probaly, libelous) claim made based on his membership in Hitler Jugend, I left a correction:

The Pope is by no means a card-carrying Nazi. To quote from Wikipedia:

> Following his 14th birthday in 1941, Ratzinger was conscripted into the Hitler Youth — as membership was required by law for all 14-year old German boys after December 1939[9] — but was an unenthusiastic member who refused to attend meetings.[10] His father was an enemy of Nazism, believing it conflicted with the Catholic faith.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Ratzingerw )

The reply was a confounding:

I think his anti-gay and anti-woman edicts state exactly what he is!

(I note, with an eye on later comments, that no reservation was added that “nazi” had been intended in a metaphorical sense. In addition, “card-carrying” does speak against a metaphorical use, and points to a formal membership or, in an extended sense, very strong support on an ideological level.)

I will leave the question whether the Pope is anti-gay and anti-woman aside (but I do make the reservation that it is not uncommon for PC groups to have extremely broad and unfair definitions of terms like these). However, as I continued,

[e]ven if someone makes anti-X edicts, that does not automatically make him a Nazi. Raising taxes does not make a US president a communist, for that matter.

The reply:

I’m sorry that you completely missed the entire point of the original post. Your defense of the Pope and segue of comparing raising taxes and communism and the US president are rather confusing.


  1. How a switch is made to ad hominem.

  2. How the sub-issue actually under discussion is dropped, with neither a concessation nor any arguments as to why the issue is not conceded.

  3. How an incorrect claim (in context: accusation) that I would be defending the Pope is made, although I have so far merely pointed to a factually incorrect statement (respectively, an extraordinary statement that would require extraordinary proof).

  4. How an analogy showing why the attribution of Nazism over anti-X claims is absurd is dismissed and (likely) deliberately misinterpreted as an attempt to “segue” to an irrelevant topic.

I stand by my answer:

It seems rather that you miss the point of my commment: There is no indication that Pope is now or has ever been a Nazi. If you dislike and want to criticize him or his action, use factual arguments—not unwarranted and irrelevant accusations. (In particular, accusations that many victims of WWII or the Holocaust could see as offensive for trivializing their experiences. Your complaint about a possible gay–nazi comparison [the topic of the original post] becomes very hypocritical in this light.)

The following reply from another commenter (webwordwarrior), I found both rude and highly misleading—and, as with several similar comments, far-going claims about the Pope were made without any kind of support:

Mr. Eriksson – the other commenters have been very patient with you. Why do you insist on playing these silly word games? The man may or may not have been a literal Nazi. (Given how many new revelations and records keep emerging from that regime, I think it’s safe to say we’ll never know.) Whatever the case, his actions since becoming a well-known Cardinal are so anti-human (child, woman, gay, Muslim, take your pick) that he’s at least Nazi-like. The metaphor may be strong, perhaps even incendiary, but his abuse of power to oppress deserves no better.

Again, I stand by my answer—except in as far as it is overly polite.

With all due respect, your claims that I would be playing word games when I rectify a repeated and unfounded accusation (I note that the “Hitler Jugend” connection has often been used to imply a very literal “the Pope is a Nazi”) and that the other commenters have been patient (after three brief and factual comments from me, all entirely justified) borders on the ridiculous.

As for what the Pope has or has not done since, I cannot speak with authority—I tend to leave religious issues to those who actually are religious. However, none of it is on par with starting a global war or the Holocaust; nor is there any justification in making an ideological association. (Further, AFAIK, most or all of it has been basically re-affirming the previous position of the Catholic Church.)

In the (at the time of writing) last comment, the highly offensive and tiresome white-hetero-men-are-privileged–everyone-else-is-a-victim claim rears its ugly head again:

Those of us being targeted by the Pope don’t have the luxury of not paying attention to him, as you seem to have. With all due respect, you speak as though you come from the privilege of being white, male, and heterosexual. If this is indeed correct, you are the power structure of the world.

There are so many things wrong with such statements that it boggles my mind that anyone can take them seriously—even apart from their common use (as above) as an unethical and misleading ad hominem. Consider e.g. the extreme over-generalisation and factual error that is contained in grouping all white (etc.) men into one homogeneous group and further painting this group as privileged—where most are not. (Indeed, a very strong case can be made that women form a more privileged group in many countries, including, definitely, Sweden and, likely, the US.) Alternatively, take the fact that the resulting minority is a fairly small one: After each special-interest group has had its say, we speak of non-Hispanic White, straight, Christian, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, non-immigrant, whatnot, men. In the end, we have a small fraction of the population allegedly dominating the world.

By and large, this offensive claim is not one iota better than various racist, anti-gay, whatnot, sentiments—and, in this, it is one of the most widespread hypocrisies of our day.

Looking specifically at the quote above, an additional concern is what need “us” actually has to pay attention to the Pope: His influence on non-Catholic countries is limited, even other varieties of Christianity (let alone secular institutions) have very different ideas on many issues, and particular notice is only relevant when and where he changes the Church’s take on various issues. His opinions will have a very limited impact on the lifes of even a black homosexual woman in the US, Canada, and most of the rest of the world. The situation is possibly different in e.g. Mexico, but now we mostly talk countries where being a non-Hispanic White is no advantage. Even here in Cologne, one of Catolicism’s historically most important cities, it is common to see same-sex couples holding hands or even kissing in public—and hardly anyone even takes notice anymore.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 9, 2011 at 8:15 am

Blogroll update

with one comment

A few months ago, I encountered a twelve-part article series on the medieval witch hunts.e Being swamped with other things, I only read the first few parts at the time. Having now completed the reading, I would like to belatedly recommend it to others. Particular value is found in giving detailed information on the Catholic Church’s actual position on witches, who the typical perpetrators where, etc. Most of us have probably already learned in history class that the stereotypical image of a persecuting church is exaggerated and outdated (numbers of victims rivaling the Holocaust is certainly a fringe view), but the detailed treatment gives a noticeably deeper understanding. In other areas some more surprising pieces of information is found.

Obviously, reading about the witch hunts is also valuable with an eye on somewhat similar modern phenomena concerning e.g. child-porn or satanistic child abuse.

While recommending the series, I also raise a warning that the site (bibleapologetics.wordpress.come) is likely to be partial, which may or may not be reflected in some of the articles (e.g. when comparing Church and Science).

By the FIFO principle, Mansförtryck och kvinnovälde [pdf]e is removed. That entry was first discussed here.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 8, 2011 at 4:56 am

A guide on how to handle comments (for blog owners)

with 7 comments

A few thoughts on what to do and not to do with comments:

  1. Do not reply to each and every comment. The result is almost invariably low content and low quality, something better left unwritten. Reply when there is an actual reason, e.g. to clarify a misunderstanding, dispute an issue, acknowledge an error, … Thank-you replies should be limited to those comments that have truly brought value. (Other rules apply if an off-blog relationship to the commenter is present.)

    Yes, there are blogging experts who claim the exact opposite. Their idea is to maximize “followers” by making everyone feel welcome (or similar). This idea is flawed in several regards, most notably that maximizing followers should not be the goal for the typical blogger, but also that quality usually beats quantity and that those readers who actually contribute with insightful comments are not impressed by low-value replies.

  2. Allow for a threaded discussion. Doing so makes it easier to keep an eye on who has said what to whom on what sub-topic. The WordPress default depth of three is well chosen between the wish for good threading and the need to avoid comments that are just a few words per line; and is also a good choice for minimizing confusion—too shallow and too deep threads can both be very confusing when several parties discuss. If you deviate from three, four is likely the second best choice.

  3. Use the “reply” function. Do not, absolute not, add your answer to the original comment. Doing so makes it hard to keep a threaded discussion going, more or less excludes any third party in advance, and screws up the email notifications about new comments.

    If the addition is partial or interspersed in the original comment, there is high risk that other readers will be confused as to who said what. Note that a change in e.g. color, bolding, or similar, will not always be clear to other readers and will not appear at all in the email notifications.

    Do not answer using a “non-reply” comment, for the same reasons as why threading should be enabled.

  4. Think twice about editing others comments at all. If you do, make it very clear what you have changed and why you did so. Be particularly vary of “helpful” language improvements. Not only is there a risk that the change accidentally distorts the original intention, but there is also a great many opinions on what is considered correct/better. If the comment is hard for third-parties to understand, but you feel that you have understood it, then simply write a reply with a paraphrase and inquire whether you are correct.

    Think thrice before deleting selective parts of a comment—and if you do delete make very, very certain that the contents are not distorted. (Valid partial deletions can occur e.g. when a comment contains severe rudeness towards another commenter, but also makes a good point or gives a good argument along the way.)

    There is a special circle in Hell reserved for those who deliberately alter the meaning of someone elses comments.

  5. Err on the side of too little censorship.

    This topic has been discussed in many other of my posts (search for e.g. “censorship”.) As to date, I have myself kept back a whole of two (non-spam) comments in almost a year of blogging—both of a kind that there would have been nothing left if I had tried to selectively delete parts of them (cf. above). 210 have been published.

A very good example of how not to do it can be found at [1]e (no threading, low value replies, replies in the comments, censoring of dissenters). Another example is [2]e (partial in-comment replies and confusing changes to comments in bold).


As I have observed time and again after writing this post, there is another very important rule:

If a blog owner edits one of his own comments (or, in some cases, the original post), he should do so in a manner that does not alter the meaning, extend or shorten the text, or otherwise make changes that moves the comment away from its original state in a non-trivial manner. (Correcting typos and grammar errors, replacing an unfair slur written in heated moment, and similar changes are usually not a problem.) In particular, to deliberately publish a comment in a half-done state (as an equivalent to a save-operation in an editor) and then continue editing, borders on the inexcusable—use an external editor for such purposes.

The reason is that other commenters may read and answer to the original email notification (even editing offline or using a “reply by mail” mechanism), and changes can cause considerable extra work for them, make the reply unnecessary, cause them to give a reply that does not address all relevant aspects or is confusing to other readers, or similar. This applies even more strongly, and for similar reasons of consistency, to comments that have already received replies from others.

A better way is to add a new comment with a clarification or retraction. This way, the original email notification remains relevant and additional notifications are (automatically) issued for the new comments.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 6, 2011 at 12:37 am

Strawman or hyperbole?

with 2 comments

One of the most common problems encountered in debates (in particular, against groups like feminists or creationists) is the use of misrepresentations in the strawman-line: A statement is made that is partially true, but which is distorted, exaggerated, or otherwise made into an easy, but ultimately irrelevant, target. A classic example is the sometime creationist claim that evolutionists think that pure chance is behind evolution—followed by “counter-proofs” like the analogy with the Shakespeare-replicating monkeys or the jet plane assembled by a tornado.

I recentlye encountered a debater who made several statements that I took (and still take, actually) to be strawmen, but where the author claims that they were merely hyperbole. For example, to support the speculation that children would be affected by what they perceive as “gender-adequate” behaviour:

Pojkar leker inte med bebisdockor. Men män tycker (i allmänhet) om att umgås med sina riktiga bebisar.

(Boys do not play with baby dolls. But men (generally) like spending time with their real babies.)

Now, the second half may or may not be true (I suspect very great individual variations and a far lower “saturation threshold” than for the mothers); however, the first is very decidedly an exaggeration.

The most obvious conclusion is that this is simply a strawman: The reasoning is based on a claimed change in behaviour between boys and men—and this change, if at all existent, is noticeably smaller in reality than in the claim. With the exaggerated difference, a point can be made; without the exaggeration, the point is no longer, or only partially, valid.

(As an aside, even if the statements had been true, the proposed conclusion was but one of several possible explanations. Indeed, the opposite conclusion seems more natural to me: Little boys go by their inborn instincts towards babies, whereas fathers have an altered behaviour towards specifically their own off-spring as the result of some bonding mechanism—or through brain-washing about what the “correct” behaviour for a modern man is.)

My pointing to a strawman, however, was rejected by the author: She had merely used hyperbole—or what Wikipediaw describes as:

[…]the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device or figure of speech.[…]

[…]An example of hyperbole is: “The bag weighed a ton”. Hyperbole helps to make the point that the bag was very heavy although it is not probable that it would actually weigh a ton.[…]

If we are kind and take the author at her word, she actually meant “Boys rarely play with dolls.” and used the stronger formulation for effect. In a next step, the question arises: What proportion of perceived strawmen are actually strawmen and what is merely incompetent (s. below) reasoning/formulation? Seeing that perceived strawmen are particularly common with feminists and related heavy-with-women groups (e.g. the politically correct or those in favour of social-constructivism) and that women are very prone to categorical exaggeration in arguments (“You never take my side!”, “You always forget to [x]!”, “You never do the dishes!”), the proportion could be quite high. If so, this has non-trivial implications both on how a particular misstatement should be interpreted and on how it should be reject/corrected. (While the details will vary from case to case, greater diplomacy and constructiveness is called for when dealing with errors in good faith and incompetence than with deliberate or malicious distortions.)

Obviously, incompetence is better than malice in this case; however, incompetence is bad enough and hyperbole (and similar forms of exaggeration) should be avoided: Most notably, it becomes hard to tell when a statement should be taken literally and when as exaggeration, which damages all involved parties. Further, unnecessary ambiguity is introduced: When I replaced “never” with “rarely” above, I speculated—possibly, the true back-translation is “less often than girls”/“less often than the men in the next sentence”, “almost never”, “not that often”, … Because the author did not say what she actually meant, there is no way to deduce the exact intention from the text alone. (See also an earlier text on litotes, a form of rhetorical understatement.)

More generally, rhetoric is largely the art of making people believe things irrespective of the facts—and as such it should be used sparingly: If the facts support a claim, then the facts can talk and the rhetoric be silent; if they do not support the claim, then rhetoric should certainly not be abused to shout the facts down.

(Note: “Strawman” in the strict sense applies to misrepresentation specifically of the opponents opinion. Above, and often elsewhere, I slightly misapply the word to represent a more general group of distortions that have the common aim of making a weak argument/position/enemy appear to be the “real McCoy”.)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 2, 2011 at 8:31 am