Doctor Science Knows

Thursday, March 08, 2007


There's an article in The Washington Post called Harsh Words Die Hard on the Web: Law Students Feel Lasting Effects of Anonymous Attacks. What it's really about is online stalking and harrassment of women, in this case female law students, at a forum called AutoAdmit. AutoAdmit (aka XOXO) is a website for anonymous posting about law schools and law firms, and is apparently a pretty popular place for young lawyers and lawyer-wannabees to go for information -- and trolling. I'm not going to link there, because the place is *skeevy*.

One of the students whose name and picture (taken from her Flickr account) were posted on a thread called "The “Most Appealing” Women @ Top Law Schools" is Jill of Feministe. I've been commenting at her blog off and on all day.

IANAL but I know a good deal about legal action against websites. AutoAdmit is certainly owed a Cease & Desist letter about the photos.

DNS records reveal that AutoAdmit is hosted by Their Terms of Service are here:
and their Acceptable Use Policies are here:

Later, in response to someone who calls himself "autoadmit deity" (but who later backtracked and said he's not actually connected with the site except as a poster):

The information posted is drawn from publicly-available databases such as these:

Are you guys really suggesting that NOT taking down posts with directory information is criminal?

I am boggled that someone running a high-traffic site could be so ignorant of basic netiquette.

Posting personal contact information (including home address, phone number, or cell number) about someone else on a public forum has been an Internet no-no since before your sun burned hot in space before there was "http". It is not generally against the law, but it is against the rules -- the rules of sense and human decency.

The reason it's against the rules (for those of you still wet behind the ears) is because cyberstalking and cyberharrassment are way too easy. They are so easy that putting personal contact info in public is considered ipso facto incitement to harrass -- even if there is no proof that harrassment takes place.

I'm not saying this is the law -- yet. But it's certainly something every sane site administrator or moderator knows, and you have no excuse for not knowing it. The very fact that you took down contact info for posters indicates that you do, in fact, know that this is over-the-line behavior.

What is striking about this particular upheaval is that a large, popular site could go on so long with no grasp of basic netiquette, and with a user base that never seems to have acquired a clue.

The Slashdot article asks if it's "Free Speech Gone Too Far?, but what I'm seeing is not free speech but the absence of socialization. I wonder what's causing such an incredibly dysfunctional system:

1. Is it something about the law itself? -- that so many lawyers and proto-lawyers immediately look for legal solutions and talk only about whether something is legal or not. They don't seem to spend any time asking whether it is right -- or whether it is just plain stupid. They certainly don't seem to pay any attention to any code of behavior that isn't in the law, and even then they wriggle and bitch.

2. Is it something about American law schools and firms? Are they choosing the most vicious, superficial, competitive students, and then putting them into further cut-throat competition? Several of the commenters at Feministe think that may be the case.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Postmodern Science

Slacktivist wrote:
Civility has to do with citizenship, which is to say it has to do with responsibility. To speak as civilized people, as citizens, requires that we be responsible -- to one another and to the truth (and the good, and the beautiful). It requires that we be responsible for our words, that we be willing to stand by them.

This is why I'm impatient with the whole "'I' statements" approach. It has its place, I suppose, in family therapy and the like, but it undermines responsibility. It aims to force us to phrase statements in a way that cannot provoke offense, but it winds up also forcing us to phrase statements in a way that makes their content irrelevant.

. . .

This seems to me to be is a cowardly, irresponsible way to talk. It is, in other words, uncivil.

Let me repeat this with a less significant example. "The Ramones rock!" is a statement, albeit an ambiguously defined one, about the world, about our shared reality. "I enjoy the music of The Ramones," is a statement about me. You can agree or disagree with the former, but not the latter, which is irrefutable but also -- as far as the world and our shared reality goes -- irrelevant.

To be civilized -- to live together -- we need to be able to talk about the world we share. We need to be able to talk about art, politics, religion, economics, science and all the other vital components of our civilization and not just about our own feelings. This conversation doesn't always have to be nice, but it has to be honest and it has to be responsible. That is what "civility" means.

I wrote:

Putting on my scientist and historian of scientist hats:

Science is *all* about I-statements. It is *all* about conversation. There is no conflict between "searching for objective truth" and "comparing personal experiences", because scientists search for objective truth *by* comparing personal experiences. These personal experiences are called "experiments" or "scientific observations". The experiences are limited and controlled, we describe them in exacting (frequently mind-numbing) detail -- the better to compare them to other experiences, while knowing exactly what all parties are talking about.

Every experience is personal. The first step in getting to an objective, impersonal truth is to know the personal: to know where you stand, to know what your lab chemicals are made of, to know what time it is and how fast the wind is blowing. That's why it's so important that scientific results be reproducible: when we do that, we're saying that two people can have the same experience.

a little further on, when an example of temperature-measurement came up, I wrote:

What I'm trying to say is that the statement

The temperature in the room is 22°C

is *also* a description of personal experience. These days, it's the experience of looking at a thermometer that you know has been calibrated, so it's a very restricted, controlled personal experience. Back in 1700, when there was no generally accepted scale for measuring temperature or technology for doing so, scientists had to specify their personal experiences measuring temperature in great detail before a fact like that could be agreed upon.

Ludwig Fleck's Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact is a detailed examination of how a specific "objective scientific fact" (in this case, the Wasserman Reaction for syphilis) has to be developed through communication and consensus -- by comparing personal experiences, in other words.

in response to ako, who said:
Second, prefacing things with "I feel" has a completely different effect than adding specifics.

I said:

Not when we're talking about human emotions. The different kinds of I statements used to talk about thermodynamics ("I observed the thermometer") versus morality ("I feel abortion is murder") versus culture ("I feel The Ramones rock") can be varieties of the same basic approach: working toward objective knowledge by comparing experiences.

The statement "I feel The Ramones rock" is *more specific* than "The Ramones rock", and opens the door to adding yet more specifics: "I feel The Ramones rock because . . .", "I like 'Sheena Is a Punk Rocker' better than 'Rock n Roll High School' because . . ." "Personally, I think Keds are stupid because . . ."

and then added:

Here's another way of phrasing it:

Personal, subjective experience is repeatable. For instance, a lot of people personally feel The Ramones rock. However, there are also people who feel The Ramones suck. The important question for a Ramones-lover isn't "why do some people have wrong feelings about The Ramones?" but, "What is different between us, such that we listen to the music together but have different reactions?" And because we're talking about complex human reactions, we have to start with I-statements.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Left-Right differences in civility

There's now a civility discussion over at Slacktivist. I said:

There is one point on which I've found total agreement between Left & Right Blogistan: each side finds the other shockingly uncivil.

Logically, this means either: the Right is more uncivil, the Left is more uncivil, or both are vile pits of boiling incivility but you only notice the other guy's. I've wondered for quite some time if there could be a way of quantifying incivility, so that we could tell which is true. What would you measure and how would you measure it?

one response included:
I'd probably also measure their tendency to label or categorize the other as a tactic for avoiding the substance of what they say (i.e., replying to an argument with "yeah, but you're just a liberal/neo-con/bleeding heart/bigot/whatever").

to which I said:

Of the various dimensions you suggest, I think the easiest to measure in volume would be labeling: specifically, nick-naming. I've seen this on both Left & Right, so I'm sure there's something *to* measure, and I think it would be a good stand-in for a lot of other factors that are very difficult to determine objectively.

Patrick Ishmael tried to quantify online vulgarity using Google & George Carlin's list of Seven Dirty Words, and found the left to be much, much more vulgar. There are a lot of methodological problems, though, and I don't see that strict linguistic vulgarity has any particular correlation with civility.

I later said:

One interesting set of comparisons would be meta-discussions such as this one. Can anyone point to a similar discussion to this one in Right Blogolandia? Google leads me down a mazy of twisty passages all the same.

Francis had an excellent reply to my "right? left? both?" comment:
Option d: the two groups mean different things by civility. The right wing blogs I've been to have invariably been polite to anyone who is there who is not directly insulting - whereas many of the left wing ones are quite prepared to tell people that they are being idiots. On the other hand, when the insults start flying on the liberal blogs, they will normally be justified and with evidence backing them up whereas the right wing appear to pull things out of thin air far more - but only do this once a more considerable reserve of politeness has been broken.

Also, there is a different approach to attacking groups - when an authoritarian (and here rather than the previous point about discourse is where the authoritarian liberal divide appears), they reflexively assume that any person who is there is not part of the group they are attacking (or they wouldn't be there in the first place or are one of the few "exceptions that prove the rule" (I detest that perversion of a phrase)) whereas when a liberal attacks a group it is much more careful because there is an underlying assumption that anyone who claims to be a member of the group actually is and that there are sensible people who are - and hence liberals tend to pick out specific individual targets (which is a right-wing breach of civilised conduct (see the first half of this comment)) to avoid splash damage - but by doing so, the right wing perceives this as personal.

Francis' observations seem to say that conservative (or at least authoritarian) blogs as have firm group borders, while liberal blogs have permeable group borders. This strikes me as extremely plausible and well worth further research.

Which definition of civility do the libertarian blogs follow, do you think?