About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Talking to the media, a cautionary tale

by Massimo Pigliucci
So, a few days ago I and other members of New York City Skeptics, including Julia, were approached by an affable young journalist named Jonathan Liu, who writes for the New York Observer. He asked if he could join one of our meetup discussion groups — which happened to focus on the question of whether there is something special and unique about humans when compared to other animals — as well as our Drinking Skeptically event. He also followed up with both Julia and me asking us a number of questions via email about skepticism and our personal take on it.
We were all pretty pleased with the experience until the article actually came out. What follows is a brief analysis of Mr. Liu’s writing, to give you a flavor of how a journalist can easily distort things to suit whatever agenda he has, for whatever reason he happens to have it.
Liu starts out by writing: “It's a well-trod truism of folk science that you can’t prove a negative. But can you build a popular movement — or at least a well-received dinner party — around one?”
Well, it may be a truism of folk science, but it is wrong. There are plenty of situations where proving a negative is very easy. Not only both logic and mathematics abound with proof of the impossibility of X (where X can be a conjecture, theorem or whatever), but there is a number of empirical negatives that are also easily provable. For instance, if I claim that I do not have a million dollars in my bank account, it is child's play to verify my (negative) statement in a matter of minutes.
But never mind that. Contra Liu, the skeptical movement isn’t built around proving negatives. It is built around the positive value of critical thinking (which you would think journalists would make their own), and the simple Humean idea that “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”
The reporter then mentioned that I was sitting in the middle of the dinner table, at the “Da Vincian midpoint” (as in The Last Supper), while managing to get my name misspelled throughout the article (Pigulucci), despite our email correspondence, which included the correct spelling. I guess the Observer is short in the editorial and fact checking departments these days.
After having spent an inane amount of time complaining about the neighborhood of the restaurant (Kips Bay, midtown east Manhattan), and commenting on a cast I was wearing because of a recent surgery (and even on the exact type of pain killers I was using) — all clearly relevant to the issue at hand, Liu described me as approaching the Platonic ideal, “or at least the Wachowskian archetype,”** of a modern epistemologist of science. Okay, I can live with that.
Liu must have been desperately searching for mythological figures to analogize me with, because immediately afterward I was compared to Jesus (!!), who apparently used to gesticulate like an Italian (Liu did not disclose the source of this phenomenal piece of historical information, probably reserving it for another sensational article in the Observer).
Why the parallel with Jesus? Because apparently the people participating at the dinner discussion were (almost) my “disciples,” and Pigulucci [sic] “finds the idea of God and believers in God — not to mention homeopathy — insipid, violently ignorant and begging for forcible conversion.” Actually, I find those ideas anything but insipid, since they affect the lives of millions; though they are indeed the result of ignorance, but the phrase “violently ignorant” is a category mistake (ignorance is not the sort of thing that can be violent, though it can lead to violent actions). As for forcibly converting homeopaths, or Christians, I haven’t the foggiest notion of where Mr. Liu got that one from. Perhaps Jesus told him.
The Observer piece then continues by labeling New York City Skeptics as a cult. Now a cult is often defined as “a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” Hmm, let’s see. Well, NYCS is indeed a small group, and it probably isn’t impossible to find someone somewhere who considers our activities “strange” (though “sinister” would be pushing it). At least as strange as New Yorkers might find a group of people getting together for dinner and talking about things they are interested in — that is, not at all. But “having religious beliefs”? By what sort of distorted conception of religious belief does what Mr. Liu observed that night qualify as such? We are not told, though inquiring minds (apparently not those of Liu’s editors) wish to know.
For Liu “Skepticism starts with the feeling of being under siege by the nonthinking. It becomes Skepticism with the faith that there must be people out there who think like you do — that is, who think.” Well, that’s actually close to the mark, except that we like to think that we go by evidence not faith. But just as my spirits (metaphorically speaking) were beginning to lift a bit, I learned from Mr. Liu that skepticism has recently turned “[in]to something like a distinct, aggressive and almost messianic mentality.” Distinct, yes. Aggressive, maybe, though nothing compared to the aggressiveness of fundamentalists and homeopaths. Messianic? Here we go again with the projected Jesus complex!
Finally, perhaps remembering that the Observer allegedly caters to New Yorkers interested in the cultural activities of their city, Liu ends by asking (rhetorically): “how often does an enlightened New Yorker really have to come up against the messy particulars of superstition unless he’s somewhat titillated by seeking them out?”
Had he done his homework, he would have found out the answer quite readily: until the very same week of the meetup, New Yorkers had been treated to an inane message of the anti-vaccination movement, displayed in full colors on the CBS billboard in Times Square. But that’s a fact that was much less interesting to Mr. Liu than the type of earring I wear (a black diamond, if you need to know).
** I had to look this up. I assume he meant it as in the Wachowski Brothers’ use of archetypal figures in the movie The Matrix. Right...


  1. This article has convinced me. I should join New York City Skeptics and go drinking with you guys.

  2. Well, at least he spelled your name wrong.

  3. Perhaps Liu was referring to proof of a hypothetical negative, because otherwise in reading his article, he doesn't seem all that dumb as you've described him.
    He certainly seem to spot right off that psychotherapists don't know doodly about the belief systems of whales.

  4. Yeats said regarding journalists that there is nothing in them but "tittering jeering emptiness." It's wise to avoid them.

  5. Why were the diners "slack-jawed" at Leslie's comment?

  6. Because she insisted that whales' communication is just as sophisticated as human language. She also said there is empirical evidence that there is no difference between a human brain and a chimpanzee... Predictably, the journalist had to pick on that one contribution to the discussion.

  7. That makes a lot more sense than what's described in the article.

  8. "The Observer piece then continues by labeling New York City Skeptics as a cult."

    The piece by the (arguably misnamed) Observer certainly implies that the NY Skeptics were like a cult, but I don't see an explicit labeling as such. The only place I even see "cult" mentioned is in the quote, "I spent my 20s in a cult. I'm now devoted to Skepticism because I want to understand how I ever could have believed the things I believed." That's a relatively minor point, though. I get the impression that Liu's angle was Skepticism as just another religion, and he force-fit what he saw to fit in that mold.

    BTW, I stumbled on a year-old Cracked article called "6 Subtle Ways The News Media Disguises Bulls**t As Fact." Sadly, it seems on topic for this blog post.

  9. @Oyster Monkey
    Ha! That might be the high point of his article.

  10. This is why I won't ever do an interview or allow a reporter near me without a signed contract giving me final right of refusal. I won't demand editorial content, but I would require that any parts about me be excised entirely.

    This is also why I am never interviewed. :-)

  11. Well, if nothing else, I enjoyed the voyeurism into your social life that the article provides, Massimo. :-)

    Reading it also made me miss living in NYC, where the demographics make regular gatherings of this kind feasible. [Such was the trade-off of escaping to the country, although the (skeptical) web definitely helps to alleviate that.]

  12. You gotta give the guy a break. He was from the New York Observer, not the New York Thinker.

  13. @J. J. Ramsey

    "For New York City Skeptics, the sect that sponsors the monthly dinner"

    So, right, he labels the NYCS a sect, not a cult. Not much difference there...

  14. Well, send a letter to the journal, or check next time what he writes before it is too late, if that is possible.

    Why a journalist can not attend and/or be interested in such things?

  15. Really glad you posted this. The Observer has been known, I think pretty much since inception, as a vanity paper where no one is paid much, there is no fact checking, and people are encourage to be as opinionated as they like - the more so, the better. Seeing you as a focus of approval presumably set off the instinct of a certain type of "reporter" that they will "explode the myth" and "call it as they see it". The facts that they don't know what they are talking about, misconstrue contexts, focus on irrelevancies - in short, perhaps, indulge the neuroses that make them the particular individual they are, without too much concern about 'correspondence' to truth - are all pretty much non-issues with The Observer. You are a brave man, and you are the stronger for the mild vitriol flung in your direction. And now we all more about Jonathan Liu....

  16. The idea that Jesus gesticulates like an Italian is also a reference to The Last Supper.

  17. What, the "animated" version? ;-)

  18. This is why Milan Kundera stopped giving interviews and instead only agreed to the publication of full dialogues which he had the right to edit.


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