September 09, 2018

"Plain English" in medicine

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I was suspicious this week when the BBC and other British media ran stories that doctors were being told to "use plain English" when communicating with patients. Like a lot of descriptions of language, Plain English seems intuitively straightforward, but actually isn't. There is no objective way to say that some ways of talking or some sets of words are "plain" and others are--I don't know--"elevated."

The closest we could come, I think, would be to say that we should avoid jargon, which is a specialized vocabulary used by a group of people engaged in a common activity, usually associated with a profession. But if plain English were really being used in this way, then it would cover football commentators when they describe a strike as a header and plumbers when they describe a pipe banging as being caused by air hammer. And no one complains that football commentators and plumbers need to use "plain English." So challenges to plain English aren't straightforwardly a demand that people avoid jargon, or use words in a constrained, common-parlance sort of way. Plain English is instead at least partly based on the people who use particular linguistic features as much as it is based on the actual linguistic features being used. Plain English is, in other words, ideological.

My initial suspicion was piqued by the reports that patients were having trouble understanding doctors. For instance:

The Royal College of GPs is also on board. Vice-chair Prof Kamila Hawthorne said: "I have seen a number of patients who have asked me to 'translate' the letter they have received from the hospital, which has been little more than a medical summary."

Prof Hawthorne is referring specifically to written communication. That detail was not clear in TV reports I saw, which (to me) suggested that patients were complaining about not being able to understand doctors in face-to-face communication. Writing is different from speaking, so I take no issue with Prof Hawthorne's observation. I remain suspicious, though, about the more general communicative frame presented in the media (that patients can't understand what doctors are saying) and the ideologies that might have led to this particular story being picked up by British media. My suspicion is bolstered by the appearance of the word translate in the Hawthorne quote.

Specifically, I am suspicious that demanding that British doctors use plain English encodes an objection to British doctors speaking using foreign-accented English. A report to Parliament in February 2018 noted that 12.5% of NHS staff "say that their nationality is not British." The largest proportion of non-British staff are Indian. And these non-British staff are disproportionately doctors; the report shows that 12% of NHS doctors are Asian (mostly Indian and Pakistani) and that 20% of NHS doctors received their qualification in Asia. In total, only 74% of NHS doctors are British and only 64% were educated in Britain.

So, many NHS medical encounters will take place between a British-born patient and a doctor who speaks a non-British-sounding English. I suspect that, if patients are truly complaining about the English being used by NHS doctors, at some level they are complaining about English not sounding sufficiently British.

Again, this is only a suspicion. It should be developed into a hypothesis, and then tested. It could be tested, e.g., by patient satisfaction surveys that track the degree to which patients feel they understand their doctors and the national origin of those doctors.

Nevertheless, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges would do well to remember that there is no such thing as objectively plain English. When they advocate for doctors to use plain English, they are advocating something on behalf of ideology rather than fact (which seems like a patently-non-medical thing to do).

The non-objective nature of the advice to use plain English is highlighted by the advice given under the "Keep it suitable" section of the BBC story about the advice. For instance, the article suggests:

They should think about softening the impact of potentially sensitive information by using a more non-committal style, as with: "During the examination, the tremor and stiffness in your right arm suggest that you have Parkinson's disease."

But softening information and using a non-committal style is, in a sense, the opposite of plain English. It obscures diagnoses. A patient's natural response to the exemplary sentence is "Do I have Parkinson's or not?" (!?!?!!?!).

The word-focused guidance isn't helpful either. For instance, I think it's fair to accept that oedema is not part of general vocabulary. But surely seizure is, and surely seizure is more medically accurate than fit?

These contradictory linguistic prescriptions reflect competing communicative goals, which include being precise, being empathetic, being kind, being brief, and being understood. These goals are much more complex than simply using plain English.

It's crucial that doctors and patients work together to communicate medical information in ways that are indeed precise, empathetic, kind, brief, and understood. It's laudable that the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges advocates for the achievement of these goals. But a call for doctors to use plain English is unlikely to provide much practical guidance, and may reinforce problematic ideological biases.

September 02, 2018

The Real News about Fake News


The term fake news has two meanings. When mainstream media like BBC, the Times, and CNN say fake news, they mean ‘fabricated stories on social media.’ When politicians associated with the political right say fake news, they ‘mean mainstream media like BBC, The Times, and CNN, which are biased in favour of liberalism.’ When mainstream media talk about fake news, they reinforce this second meaning, and de-legitimate themselves as an instrument to protect democracy.


What mainstream media mean when they say fake news

  1. A Nexis search on 12 August 2018 found 21 unique stories with the term fake news.
  2. Three of these 21 were quotes attributed to Donald Trump, 2 were attributed to MP Judith Collins, and 1 to an attendee at a rally. One was in a story by Russian state media, which probably shouldn’t count as mainstream media. The remaining 14 were straightforward instances of news stories discussing fake news.
  3. The remaining 14 stories used fake news to refer to fabricated stories in online media, especially in India, where such stories contributed to lynchings. Other stories used fake news in a more general sense for fabricated news, as in Conor Brady’s editorial in The Times:
There can come a point at which a convergence of populist pressures, the attenuation of resources and the gathering of existential fears will combine to render the watchdogs toothless, opening the way for the purveyors of rumour, untruth and fake news.

What right-wing politicians mean when they say fake news

  1. Donald Trump first used the term fake news on Twitter on 10 December 2016. As of 12 August 2018, he had used it in 259 tweets.
  2. 40 of those 259 tweets name CNN. Most of these do not respond to anything that was reported on CNN, but simply invoke the name:
  • Trump invokes CNN as a metonym. CNN is symbolic for all mainstream media, which (in this meaning of fake news) report news according the liberal biases of reporters, rather than reporting facts. This is indicative of a strategy by politicians associated with the political right to cast all mainstream media as biased in favour of the political left.

What happens when mainstream media report on fake news

  1. When a news story uses the term fake news, it reinforces the term as being part of the public vocabulary. So, when news stories talk about fake news, they legitimate the label, fake news.
  2. When the mainstream media and right-wing politicians use the same word, it seems like they are talking about the same thing. In other words, when mainstream media use the term fake news to describe fabricated news and right-wing politicians use the term to describe the mainstream media, it appears that they are agreeing with each other.
  3. This means that each time mainstream media media like BBC, the Times, and CNN talk about "fake news," they confirm the realness of fake news.
  4. By reinforcing the realness of fake news, mainstream media legitimate the claims of Trump and other politicians associated with the political right that fake news is a large problem. Therefore, the mainstream media provide a foundation for claims that mainstream media are fake news. By attempting to differentiate themselves from fabricated information, mainstream media are perpetuating politicians’ attempts to de-legitimate them.


Fake news is a problem. But the bigger problem is that fake news has two meanings, and the mainstream media are helping politicians de-legitimate the mainstream media by reinforcing the politically motivated meaning of fake news. The mainstream media are thereby supporting their own dissolution as an instrument to protect democracy.

August 04, 2018

Rhetorical Fallacies: False Cause

Actions have consequences. People do things and, very often, those things cause other things to happen in the world. This sort of intuitively obvious cause-effect relationship is “causation.” One of the ways that we measure causation is by calculating the extent to which two sets of data are related. Health professionals can look at incidence of lung cancer, and count how often it is that someone who is diagnosed with lung cancer is also a smoker. More specifically, if health professionals structured the study this way, smoking and lung cancer would both be “binomial” variables, because they would have “yes” or “no” answers. We would likely test whether the correlation between lung cancer and smoking was statistically significant with a Chi-Square test. It’s also, course, possible to establish correlations between “continuous” variables—e.g., the number of cigarettes a person smokes and the mass of tumors. This could establish a more linear relationship, like as a person smokes more cigarettes, the mass of their tumors increases. In either case, we’d use this correlation as evidence of causation: smoking cigarettes causes, or at least increases the incidence of, lung cancer.

However, in an equally obvious sense, two things can happen independent of each other. For instance, I taught in an English department at a university in Missouri from 2014 to 2017. During those years, the football team won two national chamionships and the basketball team won one. It is possible that the Powerpoint slides I showed to freshmen about argumentation and sentence structure percolated up to the varsity teams and equipped them with critical thinking and reasoning skills that enabled them to outplay their opponents. In which case, to the fans of Northwest Missouri State University football and basketball, you’re welcome. However, I confess that it’s more likely that I had nothing whatsoever to do with these championships. Furthermore, even though across the whole history of the university, there’s a fairly strong correlation between my being on faculty and national championships (in the case of basketball, the university only won a national championship while I was teaching in the English department!), there’s still no causation. Regardless of statistics, we must use a rational perspective on events to determine (and show) that two events which are correlated are also connected. Otherwise, we risk confusing correlation for causation.

In rhetorical analysis, confusing correlation for causation may be called a “false cause” fallacy. An arguer (either intentionally or unintentionally) interprets two events that are correlated as being causally connected. President Trump, potentially committed this fallacy in his January 2, 2018 tweet, where he suggested that he could claim responsibility for 2017 aviation fatality rates:

Merrit Kennedy reported later that day that there were actually two fatal accidents involving turbo-prop planes in 2017, so there is potentially some equivocation in Trimp’s tweet--there were no fatalities on commercial passenger jets. But, the claim that 2017 was the safest year on record is valid.

The issue is whether Trump’s being “very strict on commercial aviation” in the time “since taking office” caused the safe year. In order to show that the correlation between Trump being president and the absence of air traffic fatalities is connected in a causal relationship. To make this claim, we would need to know in what ways Trump has been “very strict on commercial aviation.” Ideally, we could point to a specific event. For instance, if Trump had signed an executive order directing the Federal Aviation Administration to increase penalties on airlines for pilots who fly fatigued, then Trump could claim that greater enforcement of safety regulations had flights to be safer.

It’s not clear that any action taken by Trump during 2017 could have contributed to a increase in passenger air safety. Alternatively, Trump could have a stronger claim to causation if the event of his inauguration corresponsed to a change in airline safety numbers. However, Kennedy quotes an Associated Press report that, at the time of Trump’s tweet, in the United States there had been no air fatalities since 2013 when an Asiana Airlines flight crashed in San Francisco. So, airline safety during Trump’s presidency appears to be a continuation of airline safety during Barrack Obama’s presidency, rather than a consequence of any action by Trump. It seems likely, then, that Trump has committed a false cause fallacy by claiming credit for airline safety as a result of his being “very strict.”

On the other hand, Trump may be indexing some more complex psychological frames. It’s possible that he means for “very strict” and for references to airlines to subconsciously recall his travel ban. In this frame, his tweet about air statistics would actually mean something like:

I signed Executive Order 13780 on March 6, 2017, which banned entry by immigrants under various conditions from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. People traveling on planes from these countries would have committed terrorist attacks by exploding or crashing these planes, thereby causing passenger air fatalities. Because of my Executive Order, these people didn’t fly on planes, and so they did not commit terrorist attacks, and so there were no air fatalities.

I think this may have been what Trump actually meant by the real tweet on Jan. 2, and may have been something like what it encoded for his supporters. While there are clearly other reasoning issues in the hypothetical tweet, it would at least do better to establish that an action caused a consequence, so that correlation is connected to causation. The actual real-world tweet of Jan. 2 doesn’t do this, and thereby commits a false cause fallacy.

July 21, 2018

Rhetorical Fallacies: Straw Man

In good argumentation, a person who is making an argument will summarize or restate a claims of their opponents and then respond to them. (In great argumentation, an arguer will summarize and restate their opponent’s position to make sure that they are genuinely talking about the same things, and potentially work toward consensus. But that’s a separate point.) In a straw man argument, an arguer summarizes or restates a claim that their opponent does not actually hold. They attribute that false claim to their opponents and then respond to that. The straw man argument can be an extreme version of an opponent’s claim, a misleading interpretation of an opponent’s claim, or even just something the arguer has made up. The person making the strawman argument is able to “win” against the false claim because it’s not a real claim. The opponent doesn’t really hold the position. Very often, no rational person holds the position. So the person making the strawman argument has defeated an argument, but it’s not actually an argument that existed in the world prior to them making up the argument just to defeat it.

The idea behind the name “straw man,” by the way, is something like, “you create a fake person, filled with straw, and then fight it.” It’s an easy fight to win because it’s not a real person.

President Trump released a string of tweets on Jan. 12, 2018 to defend himself from a claim that he had described African nations as “shithole countries,” questioned why the United States would want to accept immigrants from Haiti, and said the U.S. show desire more immigrants from Norway. Amidst tweets where Trump claimed his language was “tough” but not derogatory, he tweeted:

The Democrats’ position on DACA negotiations is, of course, irrelevant to the question of whether on not Trump made disparaging remarks about African nations and immigrants from majority-black countries, and described a desire for immigrants from majority-white countries. The opposition of “our Country” to DACA is also highly loaded. Trump is indicating that the people most directly affected by DACA are not part of “our country.” These people, who were brought to the United States as young children and who have lived in the US for most of their lives, are literally part of our country. Indeed, the point of DACA is to offer a pathway to American citizenship to these people, which would formally make them part of our country. But the opposition of “our Country” to DACA casts people who benefit from DACA expressly as not part of “our Country.” Trump furthermore claims that the people he includes in DACA are benefitting at the cost of people he includes in “our Country,” potentially inciting conflict between “our Country” and (primarily Latino) immigrants.

The strawman, though, occurs in Trump’s claim “Democrats want to stop paying our troops and government workers in order to give a sweetheart deal, not a fair deal, for DACA.” This would be a valid claim if and only if Democratic negotiators had proposed to eliminate funding for the military and all Federal employees (presumably even members of Congress?). Of course, no one in Federal-level mainstream American politics--Democrat, Republican, or otherwise--has ever made any such proposal. To do so would be absurd in every way imaginable. At a purely symbolic level, no legitimate politician could take such a position because the military is so beloved in the American electorate. But it would also be disastrous economically because of the huge role the military-industrial complex plays in the American economy, and administratively because of the gargantuan amount of work done by Federal employees to manage Social Security, justice, food safety, air traffic, interstate commerce, and on and on. It would be even more ridiculous for Democratic members of Congress to negotiate on behalf of a very small number of people (who cannot, at present, vote), at the cost of the voters in their constituencies who would lose the economic impact of military service, military contracts, and military installations, and who would lose all the recourse to Federal services that they currently enjoy.

So, yes, Trump is right. The Democrats would be wrong to demand that the US stop paying the military and Federal workforce in order to make a sweetheart deal for DACA. But the Democrats aren’t demanding that. No one is. It’s a stupid position. So Trump is right against a stupid argument he fabricated, not an actual argument being made by his opponents.

With more careful argumentation, we can get to a valid basis for Trump’s argument. Democrats, at the time of the relevant negotiations, had threatened to vote against increasing the Federal debt ceiling if DACA was not re-authorized. In 2013, Republicans refused to increase the Federal debt ceiling as a means to defund the Affordable Care Act. This resulted in the Federal government furloughing non-essential employees for more than two weeks, including many military servicemembers. This was politically and economically problematic. It was unpopular at the time, and resulted in a downgrade of the Federal government’s rating for its worthiness to borrow money. So, here is how Trump could have constructed a valid argument about the Democrats’ position:

The Federal government needs to borrow money to continue to operate. In order to do so, Congress must pass (and I must sign) a bill to allow the Federal debt ceiling to be raised. Otherwise we cannot borrow more money. If the Federal government cannot borrow money, it will not be able to pay workers. Therefore, the government will shut down until the debt ceiling is raised. In the past, Republicans have used debt ceiling negotiations as a way to make demands for their own legislative agenda. For instance, in 2013, Repulicans in Congress refused to raise the debt ceiling for a brief period as a way to try to defund the Affordable Care Act. This resulted in a Federal shutdown, which I supported. Here’s some of my tweets from 2013:
I tweeted that last one on Sept. 20, 2013, but I've deleted it from my Twitter account. Huh. Anyway, in 2013, the Republican decision not to raise the debt ceiling, which I supported resulted in a government shutdown. As part of this, Federal workers and military servicemembers were furloughed. So we literally stopped paying our troops (until they were given backpay later on). I also claimed the United States would benefit from a shutdown earlier in 2017:
I tweeted that last one on May 2, 2017, but I've deleted it from my Twitter account. Huh. Anyway, Democrats now want Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to be re-authorized. They are threatening to vote against raising the debt ceiling as a negotiating point if DACA is not re-authorized. If the debt ceiling is not raised, the government would again shutdown until it is raised. This would likely result in military servicemembers and other Federal employees being temporarily furloughed. This negotiating strategy was wrong when the Republicans used it (and I supported it in 2013 and 2017), and it’s wrong for the Democrats to use now. #DisentangleDebtCeilingNegotiationsFromOtherIssues

Clearly, this valid argument would take several tweets to express. It would, however, avoid the straw man argumentative fallacy, and provide a legitimate space to discuss substantive issues. Also, Trump would have to not delete his past tweets when they conflict with his current actions and positions.

Though, to be fair, it would still be a nonsequitor to the context in which the straw man occurred--Trump’s slurs against majority-black countries and expressed preference for majority-white countries--and the opposition of “our Country” to DACA would still be problematic as an incitement to race war.

July 15, 2018

Cognitive bias and bad policing

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Mia Irizarry posted a video on June 14, 2018, which shows her being verbally assaulted and physically threatened by Timothy Trybus for wearing a Puerto Rico shirt. The video also shows Officer Patrick Connor standing close by and ignoring Irizarry’s requests for help.

As of July 11, Trybus had been charged with hate crimes, and Connor had resigned his position. These seem like promising first steps toward justice.

I’m drawing on this Irizarry’s video to think generally and theoretically about roles that language and cognition might play in policing.

I need to acknowledge and apologize at the outset of this writing that I am extrapolating away from Irizarry’s experience and trauma. That’s gross and unfair to her. In the real world, the most important thing that can come out of this experience is justice for Irizarry. Her video, though, reveals larger insights that may point toward ways to reduce unjust policing, and I want to pursue those insights. But ultimately, I’m pursuing something theoretical inspired by this video, and not commenting on the actual events that are shown in the video.

The specific question I want explore is—operating under the assumption that Connor was a moral, well-intentioned, professional police officer—why did Connor fail to intervene on Irizarry’s behalf?

I think issues related to language and cognition may be part of the answer to this.

On the cognition side, I suggest it’s possible that the expectations Connor brought to the situation blinded him to events that were happening immediately in front of him. Language in the video can reveal some of this cognitive blindness.

Police were called to the scene because another man (he’s wearing a black shirt in the video and appears to be Trybus’s friend) was choking a woman. I suggest that Connor understood all events in the context of solving the problem of the man in black choking the woman, and as a result failed to recognize anything that didn’t fit into that context.

This is evident in several moments:

  • At the beginning of the video, Connor has positioned himself next to the man in black in a position to control his movements.
  • At 5:30, the man in black seems to move toward someone shouting at him in the distance, and Connor shifts to block him. This shows that Connor is capable of controlling a dangerous person, when he’s motivated to do so.
  • At 9:56, Connor separates Trybus from the man in black. This move is presumably intended to segregate the Trybus from the man in black so that they can’t coordinate their stories (and not to safeguard Irizarry).
  • At 23:35, Connor tells Irizarry, "When I was called here, it was between these people."
  • At 29:59, after taking information from Irizarry about the Trybus’s attack on her, Connor returns to trying to collect information about the man in black choking a woman: “Did you see any of the stuff between these guys?”

Connor is not alone is showing this bias.

  • At 16:58, an officer interviewing Irizarry asks twice about whether it was Irizarry’s party that called the police, reflecing the need to close out the call that the police received (rather, e.g., than to help any people in need on the scene).
  • At 17:37, the officer tells Irizarry that they had been called about the man in black--"We got the call it was a male choking a female"--reflecting a continued fixation on the incident of the call.
  • At 21:43, an officer approaches Irizarry and again asks about girl who was choked by man in black.

The expectations police bring to the situation also reduce their ability to perceive Trybus as a threat.

  • At 21:43, the officer apologizes, "We know these guys."
  • At 23:44, Connor tells Irizarry that he knows Trybus and "At no time was he going to attack you."
  • Perhaps most significant of all, at 16:41, following Irizarry's account of events, the officer clarifies "But he didn't touch you? Just made you--" The officer’s question reveals a bias toward minimizing the threat posed by Trybus to Irizarry. Note the difference between her question and the more neutral, “Did he touch you?” The officer’s wording shows that she presumes Trybus only made Irizarry uncomfortable and did not actually assault her.

In short, bad policing may have happened here in part because of the expectations officers brought to the situation. Connor’s case is especially egregious, but it seems clear that there was broader potential for police cognitive bias to cause blindness to the violence being done to Irizarry.

It’s well established that people--including highly competent professionals--can fail to recognize seemingly obvious information when they are focused on complex tasks. It’s possible that Connor really did fail to see that Irizarry was being attacked just feet away from him. This could’ve happened because he was so fixated on solving one problem, that he was cognitively blind to anything that wasn’t directly part of that problem.

To be clear, I don’t mean this as a defense of Connor. But I think there are insights for policing in this observation. Bad policing probably often happens because of the way police perceive situations based on the expectations they bring to them via prior information.

In Irizarry’s video, language reveals some of these expectations. It may benefit police and society to look for ways that language might also help combat cognitive bias.

I assume, for instance, that Connor was dispatched to the park to stop the man in black from choking a woman. Of course, if a person is being attacked, that is unquestionably the most important intervention. But if Connor had also been dispatched to “help anyone else there who needs help,” would he have been less cognitively blind to the threat to Irizarry? What if “and provide any other help you can” was a standard mantra for the police department? What if officers were expected to report formally not only on how they responded to calls, but also on any other good samaritan work they did on a site. What if, once Connor radioed that the immediate crisis of the man in black chocking a woman was under control, dispatch standardly radioed back, “Does anyone else need help?”

I don’t know that the answers to these questions would really be better policing. But, if we take it for granted that Connor was a moral, well-intentioned, professional police officer, his being blinded to Trybus’s attack on Irizarry through cognitive bias the only explanation I can find for his failure to intervene. If that’s true, police departments would be well served to look for ways to reduce the effects of cognitive bias. Language may play a role in this.

July 14, 2018

Rhetorical Fallacies: Cherry Picking

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“Cherry picking” is when an arguer reports evidence that is favorable to their argument, but ignores valid evidence that is disfavorable. Valid argument and, more importantly, valid reasoning demands that we take all evidence into account, even when it disagrees with our beliefs and desires. Actually, it would probably be more accurate to say that valid argument and reasoning demand that take evidence that disagrees with our beliefs and desires especially into account. Finding problems and challenges to our ideas helps us make our ideas better.

President Trump’s tweet on Dec. 29, 2017 demonstrates the fallacy of cherry picking:

Strictly speaking, “East” is problematic as a location. The “East” isn’t actually a place in the United States (i.e., some cities, like Boston and New York and definitely part of the East, but cities like Atlanta or Pittsburgh are more marginal). It was also unlikely when Trump tweeted this message that every location in “the East” would have its coldest ever recorded year (and after the fact, we know this was not the case; in Boston, e.g., it got as cold as 3 degress (F) on New Year’s Eve, failing to match the record of -8 degrees of 1917). It’s also not clear what he is referring to when he says that the U.S., but not other countries, “was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against.”

More to the point for cherry picking, though, is Trump’s implication that cold temperatures during the winter refute the reality of global warming. It was indeed very cold the day Trump tweet. According to historical data on, in Boston, the mean temperature on Dec. 29 was 23 degrees colder than the day’s historical average. In Washington, DC, Dec. 29, 2017 was nearly 13 degrees colder than average. But ten days earlier on Dec. 19, Boston was 9 degrees warmer than average. Boston was also 9 degrees warmer than average one month earlier on Nov. 29. Washington, DC--where Trump would be well positioned to enjoy unseasonably warm weather--was 16 degrees warmer than average on Dec. 23, 13 degrees warmer on Dec. 19, and 11 degrees warmer on both Dec. 5 and Nov. 29.

Trump can only validly claim that a single period of cold as evidence against global warming if he also admits a single period of warmth as evidence in favor of global warming. So, in Washington, DC, the week of Dec. 18-24 was unseasonably warm. If Trump were arguing fairly, he would’ve tweeted:

Global warming is making things hot for Santa. The U.S. should spend TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to fix this! #DreamingOfaWhiteChristmas

Of course, no such tweet came from @realDonaldTrump. Trump is not actually weighing all information regarding global warming, but rather selectively tweeting cherry-picked evidence that supports conclusions he seeks. His evidence is cherry-picked, so his reasoning is invalid.

For argumentation purposes, it’s crucial to understand that dismissing Trump’s tweet as cherry picking does not inform debates about the reality of global warming. That’s a matter of climate science. But to understand and interpret the findings of climate science, we need to admit evidence in a valid and honest way. We must consider evidence objectively, and not in a manner that intentionally reaches a conclusion we’ve reached beforehand.

June 17, 2018

The Dr. is in the house…but not in the news

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The BBC reported on 15 June 2018 that “the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail had proposed to change its house style to only refer to medical doctors by their titles.” On 16 June 2018, the story also said, “In BBC style, the title Dr is used for doctors of medicine, scientific doctors and church ministers who hold doctorates, when relevant.” (I only note this because, when I initially read the story on 15 June 2018, I’m sure that it said that the new Globe and Mail policy was consistent with BBC style guidelines, so I believe there’s an unacknowledged amendment to the originally published version.)

The story examined a “row” that followed a tweet by Dr. Fern Riddell, who noted that it was appropriate for media to use the title of address that she has earned rather than to arbitrarily re-title her. The BBC predictably framed the story as two-sided conflict, highlighting sexist attacks via Twitter on Dr. Riddell by men and inspiration PhDs who were women had taken from Dr. Riddell’s advocacy.

The way a story is framed affects the way we think about it (obviously). The BBC frames the Globe and Mail’s style decision and the various resultant tweets as a two-sided conflict, so we are channeled to interpret all information in the context of that two-sided conflict. Our role is to read the story and pick which side has won and then, of course, join that side. It’s very difficult to interpret information through a different frame than the one we’re given.

In the case of this story, we’re missing a fairly obvious conclusion: The Globe and Mail (and BBC) are stupid for using titles in stories at all. They should update their style guides to simply use last names. Here’s why:

1. Honorifics are unnecessary in news.

Titles like “Mr,” “Ms,” “Dr” etc. are a fairly lame form of honorifics. Some languages have really interesting honorific systems, but English hasn’t had much going on in the honorifics department since thou got eaten up by you.

All honorifics do social work. In English, these titles help us out in a space where we need to address someone by their name, but it might be impolite to address them by their first name. So we need them for formality, to bridge social distance, etc. Strictly cultural stuff that helps us be polite.

But the news is under no obligation to be polite. News isn’t normally addressed from one person to another the way conversation is. News isn’t supposed to make people feel nice. It’s supposed to be detached and objective. The news can do that better without honorifics.

2. Titles like “Mr” etc. don’t add anything to the news.

A news story uses names so that readers know who did what and/or what happened to whom. Titles don’t provide any referential help beyond what we already get from a person’s last name. Consider:

  1. Dr. Riddell received hostile emails.
  2. Ms Riddell received hostile emails.
  3. Miss Riddell received hostile emails.
  4. Riddell received hostile emails.

There’s absolutely no difference in the way that the three possibilities refer. Each one has the exact same subject, and there’s no way that a reader could interpret the referent of (4) as different from the referents of (1)-(3).

News writing is supposed to be concise. Word counts and character counts are supposedly at a premium. Here is a case where writers can cut one word out of their stories for every single time they refer to a person.

Somewhat bizarrely in the BBC story, Dr. Riddell is referred to by her first name, “Fern.” It would be interesting to know if she recommended this, or if they adopted it as a strategy on their own. If BBC did it on their own, they’d better refer to “Jeremy” in the next story they write about Labour.

3. Dropping all titles gives the media a really easy way to be progressive.

Or, at least, to appear progressive. Or just not actively regressive.

Look, we can agree that it’s stupid to give women a title on the basis of whether or not they’re hitched, and that if we were starting English today we wouldn’t do the Miss/Mrs thing. Right? And we’re 30ish years past that being an interesting thing to say? Yeah?

Ok, good. So now we can acknowledge at least that the title system we have doesn’t cover everybody. For instance, people under 18. (I dare you to post that we should call 5-year-old boys Master.) Also people who are/identify as transgender, non-gender-conforming, ungendered, cross-gender, etc.

At some point, the news must handle these. I mean, at a really banal level, there’s some copy editor somewhere wringing their hands over who to conform to the style guide in a story about a thirteen-year-old who identifies as transgender. But at a bigger level, some day some news board of directors is going to debate how to position the outlet’s position on social issues and how the readers will take their activism (or not) and how advertisers will react.

Or just quit using titles, and they never have to deal with it. So, in the interest of lazy self-interest, news media should drop all titles of address period.

4. There’s no way to apply a style guide on titles consistently.

In the case of the BBC’s stated style guide--“Dr is used for doctors of medicine, scientific doctors and church ministers who hold doctorates, when relevant”--it’s unclear how the relevance standard would be determined. I’ve been interviewed for the news a few times. In each case, I got interviewed about the stuff that my PhD is in. So my “Dr” is directly relevant. (Which is the point Dr. Riddell was making with her initial tweet.) I guess maybe if I was interviewed about baseball, they wouldn’t use “Dr”--but why on earth would I be interviewed about baseball? (I dislike the shift, btw.)

And what about titles like “Reverend” or “Lieutenant Colonel”? These are often used in American media at least, and I suspect that few news outlets would welcome the right-wing backlash that would accompany a story about the liberal media disrespecting veterans by refusing to call them by the titles they earned. But PhDs earned the title “Dr,” so “earning it” is not going to be a standard applied to all people equally.

And if you use “Dr” because the person is a medical doctor then what you’re saying is the important part of the address is really disambiguating their profession. But then why not refer to “Joiner Smith” in a story about carpentry, or “Nurse Jones” in the same medial story where you quoted Dr. Thomas?

And then suddenly you’ve painted yourself back into the corner of gendered address, since “doctor” is traditionally gendered male and “nurse” is traditionally gendered female.

In short, the Globe and Mail, BBC, and all other news outlets just dump titles.

Last names are enough, and they’re better.

June 16, 2018

gammon is a bad taste of an unsavoury strategy

For a few days in 2018, people talked about gammon.

Defined on Urban Dictionary as, “a term used to describe a particular type of Brexit-voting, middle-aged white male, whose meat-faced complexion suggests they are perilously close to a stroke,” gammon really came into focus when Belfast South MP Emma Little-Pengelly objected to the insult in a tweet. She claimed to be appalled by “a term based on skin colour & age” and objected that “stereotyping by colour or age is wrong no matter what race, age or community.”

Debate followed—particularly over whether gammon is indeed racist. Joe Sommerland summarizes the debate on the Independent. Steven Poole's Word of the Week asked, “Is ‘gammon’ racist or just stupid?” Sean Lang challenged that “the term’s real tin ear comes in its inability to understand that personal characteristics, over which we have no control, should always be kept out of political discourse, even insults.” Joe Murphy attributes the pun to Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson that conservatives must offer more than just “a choice between serrano or gammon.”

As a matter for public debate, gammon will have a short shelf life. A word that lends itself so readily to puns deserves to expire fast. But while the word gammon is not itself particularly interesting, the claim that the word is racist deserves attention. And it is not the word that matters, but the strategy behind the claim.

In short, calling gammon “racist” is intended to build ideological connections between support for Brexit and white identity. Here’s how the strategy works:

1. Recognise group-building potential of an insult.

Gammon insults by making a joke. Jokes inherently divide people into groups: People who laugh at the joke are included in one group and people who get laughed at are excluded into another. If people say gammon, they like it because it unites them and gives some power over the people they insult. If people get called gammon, they don't like it because they're isolated and disempowered. But, an out-group is still a group. And if you can make that group big, it can be powerful.

2. Highlight the right features of the insult for your purposes.

There are lots of ways for gammon to be offensive. It could be that gammon is pink and some white people get pink-faced when upset. It could be that gammon is pork and some religions restrict consumption of pork (as Sean Lang notes), this could be a particularly problematic association for Labour). It could be that only wealthy people can afford the luxury of enjoying a fancy cut of meat with some pineapple on a Sunday. It could be that gammon, as far as meats go, seems antiquated. It could be that gammon is round. Any of these associations may be transferred from the meat to particular groups of people. Highlighting race, especially, and age additionally reflects a conscious choice about shaping the way that people are insulted by the word.

3. Reframe the insult to build a group.

If you highlight the “correct” features of the insult, you can cause the “correct” people to be insulted by it. They then become part of the same group as you. You then share characteristics with them. The fact that you share characteristics reinforces the fact that you belong in a group together. You become more closely aligned to each other and, by default, more clearly aligned against the opposition. The fact that you’re working together against some other group will increase the unity of your group, and you’re likely to become more ideologically aligned.

The point of calling gammon “racist” has little to do with whether gammon is actually racist. The point of calling gammon racist is to unify support for Brexit and other nationalist politics with whiteness. The underlying logic is “attacks on Brexit supporters are attacks on white people, so white people should defend themselves by unifying in support of Brexit (etc.)”.

Labelling gammon “racist” strategically co-opts the language of racial unity in order to foster racial division for the political gain. Moreover, there is really no way to respond. As George Lakoff notes in Don’t Think of an Elephant, when we argue within a particular psychological frame, we reinforce that frame. So if someone argues that gammon is not a racist word, they simultaneously reinforce the possibility that it might be racist. (And the Alt-Right just needs to make a better case that gammon is racist, which is easy since colour is part of the insult’s frame.) And, if the Left points out that the Alt-Right complains about “political correctness gone mad” and snowflakes, then the Left simultaneously legitimates mocking political correctness and snowflakes.

So, there’s really not much to be said about gammon—or that should be said about gammon. But the identify politics that underlie objections to the word as racist matter a great deal, and opponents of Brexit and other nationalist politics would be wise to recognise the strategic implications.

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