Sunday, November 25, 2007

Bonesparkle revisited

A while ago I read an article called "The problem with democracy in America…". Perhaps you read my response, but probably not. Well, the author, Bonesparkle, somehow or other got wind of my meager offerings. Soon after, another article, entitled "The sorry state of skepticism in St. Louis", appeared on their site. It wasn't exactly complementary, but that's no problem. I'll take this opportunity to respond to the points therein.

Bonesparkle enumerates the points, and I will follow suit.

1: I wish my judges were less anonymous.
In their opening salvo they refer to me as someone writing under the “nom de blog Bonesparkle,” although it’s painfully apparent that they didn’t feel a need to invest 30 seconds in clicking on the Writer page to review my bio (and one can’t help but wonder how that would have affected their critique).
I assure you, my critique would have been exactly the same given any details of Bonesparkle’s life, or none. Judging an idea based on aspects of the author is an ad hominem, so I do not feel I need to research an author before analyzing his or her work. And I refer to the author as “Bonesparkle” because that’s how the posts are signed. My posts are signed with my own nom de blog, “Flavin”, but you’ll never see that in Bonesparkle’s article. I am referred to as “they” for some reason, as if I am the entire Society. Or perhaps it’s used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun; I don’t know.
Further, I have to take it on faith that they’re in fact graduate students in St. Louis, because they don’t do their readers even the courtesy of an About page (that I could find), let alone bios on the actual people who fancy themselves a viable panel for “critical examination” of that which falls into their view.

Perhaps I’m simply quaint and old-fashioned, but I like to know who’s pronouncing judgment on me. There’s always the possibility that credibility might matter.
Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I like to think that my writing stands on its own, regardless of who I am or what I do. As I said, judging an idea based on aspects of the author is an ad hominem

2: They reject the wild assertion that our society is more complex now than it used to be.
Untrue. I do not reject this assertion for the same reason I don’t accept it. There isn’t any evidence in the articles either way.
Once upon a time a monkey figured out that whacking another monkey with a stick was more effective than using its paws. There you had an innovation with decided ethical implications. This means that prehistory was as technologically complex as the current day.
This is a straw man. Obviously technology has progressed exponentially just in the past century, let alone since prehistory. I was responding to this passage from the original article:
Society is unimaginably more complex now, 85 years on, and if anything citizens - excuse me, consumers - are even less capable of understanding the issues that shape their lives than they were then.
Leaving aside the “complexity” that neither of us took the time to define, there is a clear claim that citizens are “less capable of understanding the issues that shape their lives than they were [in the 1920s].” This claim is completely unsupported. My examples tried to address this by citing examples of issues that have challenged understanding in the past, and perhaps they failed to do so. But taking down my examples does nothing to address my point that Bonesparkle makes a claim and doesn’t provide supporting evidence.

3: In St. Louis-style skepticism, all you need to disprove a rule is an exception or two.
Note the mild ad hominem in “St. Louis-style skepticism”; we’ll see a lot of that. And I was never trying to disprove any rules, only point out a lack of evidence. We’ve already seen a lot of this so far, and we’ll see more.
We’ll begin by ignoring the intellectual dishonesty involved in intimating that I somehow established a doctorate as a prerequisite for voting. Second, we’ll ignore the even more egregious intellectual dishonesty in leading their readers to believe that I said a PhD makes you smarter “across the board.” I said no such thing.
Well, for fairness, I said no such thing either. Here Bonesparkle is addressing my statement that, “[w]hile I’m sure we would all like to think having a PhD makes one more informed and intelligent across the board, I’d like to see some evidence that it’s so.” If this read as me trying to put words in Bonesparkle’s mouth, I hastily apologize. I meant no such thing, and this was the farthest idea from my mind. I was trying to address my small audience, made mostly of graduate students, and this was the “we” to whom I referred. I was trying to be a bit clever, and it seems to have fallen flat. Again, I apologize.

Bonesparkle takes the point too far, however. We see a hasty generalization in this statement:
And at this stage you have important data on the ethical foundations of the St. Louis Skeptical Society.
I think Bonesparkle could do with a dose of the good advice from end of the article. I’m sorry if my statements were easily misinterpreted; I’ll do my best to avoid this in the future. But this in no way impugns the ethics of my group. I have apologized for my statements. Will we see the same from Bonesparkle? I would hope one who is quick to judge intellectual dishonesty would strive for the peak of honesty in one’s own writings, either not basing accusations on misinterpretations or at least retracting those accusations when suitable corrections have been made.

A few more straw men follow, based on this form: a claim is made, a few examples are presented, and the claim is pronounced true or false as desired. However, this has nothing to do with my statements. My examples were not intended to prove or disprove anything. They were ancillary to the main point: that Bonesparkle makes claims without supporting evidence. The examples could easily be dispensed with, and perhaps I will do so in the future.
By the way, is it just me, or is there a certain … asymmetry … to people making a point of billing their graduate-level credentials in the masthead and then suggesting that education doesn’t necessarily make you smarter?
I suggested no such thing. Education and intelligence are correlated*; those who complete more schooling tend to be more intelligent than those who complete less, on average. I’d be interested to see how strong this correlation is, however. Forgive me, but here’s an example: are those who drop out of high school in the fourth year more or less intelligent, on average, than those who drop out of college in the first year? An interesting question, and one I’d certainly not make any concrete statements about. What I actually said was, “the premise that intelligence makes one more suited to vote or to represent the public is flawed.” This was the assertion of Bonesparkle’s first argument, and this is what I argued against. Perhaps my argument was ineffective if it could so easily be changed from being about intelligence and voting to being about intelligence and education.

4: In St. Louis, skepticism means you’re responsible for the veracity of things you never said and, in fact, have never even thought in your whole life.
For example, they pretend I said that there’s not a single qualified elected representative in America.
Well, I did quote another statement from Bonesparkle I think is pretty clear.
Brilliant people are a minority in any nation, and the excellence of any endeavor requires the participation of that elite group. In America they are despised and mocked, and under no circumstances are they elected to high office. [Emphasis mine]
This says there are no “brilliant” or “elite” people in high office, and this is what I responded to.

5: Finally, just for the record, with St. Louis Skepticism the burden of proof is always on you.
As the claimant, it most certainly is your responsibility to present evidence supporting your claims. It is not my job to provide evidence to disprove them unless I make counterclaims, which I did not. That’s not just how skepticism works in St. Louis, but all over the world.

Truly, I appreciate the earnestness and effort that went into this critique.
In all honesty, I appreciate the time and effort put into the response. As Bonesparkle pointed out, we are new as an organization, and even newer as a blog. In fact, my critique of this article was one of my first pieces of critical writing, and I’m sure it showed. But, cutting off the obvious ad hominem before it begins, this greenness in no way makes me wrong. My points stand: you make the claims, you support them. I make the claim that this support is not present in the article, and my evidence is numerous quotes. The response failed to address my claim, my evidence, or the lack of evidence in the original article. We only saw a collection of non sequiturs, ad hominems, and straw men.

I say again that I sincerely appreciate Bonesparkle’s work. I need this kind of analysis to grow as a critical writer. But the flaws in my writing were not flaws in my reasoning, which Bonesparkle failed to address.

We end with a piece of advice, possibly given in sarcasm, but still taken very seriously.
I would advise the St. Louis Skeptical Society to pay closer attention to the context of that which they are critiquing and to approach their subjects with a bit more respect and a good deal more attention to intellectual honesty.
I have tried to follow this advice in my current response, and will continue to do so in the future.

UPDATE: *Since I did make a specific claim here, I found a reference backing up my assertion that intelligence and education correlate (abstract).


Kelly said...

I think you've been perfectly clear that your original intent was to merely point out the lack of evidence for the claims made in the original article. It's a shame Bonesparkle's response didn't even address that fact, but instead focused on nitpicking and character generalizations.

Hopefully Bonesparkle will now point the critical analysis finger on himself and supply the missing evidence to back his claims.

Flavin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flavin said...

Yeah, that's the hope. He hasn't posted anything on his site since I put up my response, so maybe he's taking his time to check all his own references.

But, really, he hasn't posted anything since his post. I doubt mine had anything to do with it and, truthfully, I doubt he cares.

(And next time I'll use the preview button.)