Friday, July 27, 2007

Letters to the editor: How dumb is TOO dumb?


Apparently, the National Post has, for the last couple days, been dealing with the fallout of a piece on atheism, that fallout including letters to the editor as sophomoric and idiotic as this one:

Re: Science, Atheism & God, Letter To The Editor, July 26; The God That Whined, Barbara Kay, July 25.

When Pierre-Simon de Laplace published his famous work Celestial Mechanics, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte asked him if God appears anywhere in his treatise. Laplace responded, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

Upon hearing this, the eminent contemporary mathematician Adrien-Marie Legendre remarked: "Such a pity. A beautiful hypothesis. It explains so many things."

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Eli Honig, Toronto.

Now I'm sure that that counts as devastatingly witty repartee amongst Mr. Honig's circle of friends, but it is, as I hope you can appreciate, content-free swill of the highest order.

God ... a "beautiful hypothesis" that "explains so many things." Why, yes ... yes, it does. In fact, it can be used to explain pretty much everything, can't it? Puzzled? Intellectually stumped? No problem, God did it. How did Noah get all those animals on the Ark? God did it. Why do bad things happen to good people? Hey, God's responsible.

Yes, "God did it and he works in mysterious ways" does explain everything, doesn't it? Which means, of course, that it explains absolutely nothing. To say that God did it is as vacuous and uninformative as saying that the Great Green Arkleseizure or the Flying Spaghetti Monster did it. In short, it explains nothing whatsoever, which is what makes Mr. Honig's literary smirk so thoroughly unjustified. But that's not why we're here.

I've become more and more curious about how some letters make it to the letters page. Obviously, some editor must have read that piece and decided, for whatever reason, that it deserved publication. Maybe because it was allegedly amusing or because the editor thought it had actual intellectual value. But are there, in fact, any intellectual standards for published letters whatsoever? Sure, it's nice to let everyone have their say, but is there some boundary beyond which something is just too freaking boneheaded to see the light of day?

For example, whenever the topic of biological evolution comes around, there is invariably someone who gets to say in print, "Evolution is impossible because it contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics." No, it doesn't, but that never stops some editor from giving said moron their 15 minutes of fame by reprinting it. But why?

Does the editor not even realize that that claim is utter horseshit? Can editors really be that ignorant? Or is it that they just don't care? Is it not their problem whether a letter is total nonsense? Or does that just not fail within their mandate?

Seriously, for those of you involved with modern journalism, what's the deal here? Is there a limit to the dumbassitude that will be accepted for the letters page? Or is there just no such thing as too stupid?

ONGOING DEVELOPMENTS: In the comments section, "m@" writes:

To the credit of our local paper, The Record, Jeffrey Shallit's letters almost always appear in response when they print some cro-magnon's anti-evolutionary views. I don't know if it's a matter of giving equal time, or something, but at least they print Shallit's very persuasive prose in response.

To that extent, it's a good thing, but it doesn't address the issue of why newspapers continue printing the same illogical rubbish time and again. Say said Cro-Magnon writes in, claiming the aforementioned Second Law violation, after which I write in, demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that that position is hogwash.

I may feel satisfied until the issue comes up again, at which point the newspaper will print the same idiotic claim sent in by a different reader. And on and on and tediously on.

It's one thing for everyone to be entitled to their own opinion. But it's quite another for that opinion, after it's been savagely debunked, to keep showing up in the letters section on a regular basis. Put another way, I don't want the paper to graciously print Jeffrey's stinging rebuttal. I want it to stop publishing the same stupid shit again and again when, by all accounts, they know it's crap.

12 comments:

M@ said...

To the credit of our local paper, The Record, Jeffrey Shallit's letters almost always appear in response when they print some cro-magnon's anti-evolutionary views. I don't know if it's a matter of giving equal time, or something, but at least they print Shallit's very persuasive prose in response.

900 ft Jesus said...

I don't know how editors decide on what letter goes in, but I have noticed that over the past couple of years, many Canadian newspapers have deteriorated as far as content, spelling, grammar, accuracy.

This from yesterday - ctv news - John Baird is quoted as saying: "We were ensured from those on the scene the testing is taking place and (residents are) safe in the short term."

Now, Baird is an idiot, but I doubt he said "ensured." This happens quite a bit. Typos, spelling, headlines that are so awkwardly written they seem to reverse the meaning of the article.

There was that bit of laziness as well, quoting a blogger as a source - not the first time this has happened either.

Trading quality for speed, maybe. Like me, on a Friday, just wanting to get the hell off my computer and not checking my own grammar and spelling!

J said...

Replace the word "god" with the word "magic" and you see how useful the hypothesis is. Lovely? Maybe. Simple? Certainly. But incredibly useless as a hypothesis.

E in MD said...

Seriously, for those of you involved with modern journalism, what's the deal here? Is there a limit to the dumbassitude that will be accepted for the letters page? Or is there just no such thing as too stupid?

I don't work in journalism but it would seem to me to be perfectly obvious why they do it.

It sells.

Think about it? The wingnuts buy it because it's confirming their already held biases.

The people in the middle buy it because they wanna know what's going on.

The people who have half a brain in their head buy it because they want to keep an eye on the wingnuts to keep them from taking over.

Meanwhile, the artificially created controversy continues to make bucks for people like Larry King, and Rupert Murdock and people like Bill 'The Jackass' Donahue get their mindless visages on the Tv and in the news.

Then of course there is the complicity angle. Big media owes it's fealty to religious extremism. So some of them at the very least do it because they have to to 'satisfy the base'

Those left probably do it because they actually believe the garbage they spew and see the rest of us as a threat to their world view.

fergusrush said...

Eli Honig points out that scientists in the past had differing opinions about God, as do scientists today, and you get yourself whipped into a light froth? Touchy.

And j, the author of this gem:"Replace the word "god" with the word "magic" and you see how useful the hypothesis is. Lovely? Maybe. Simple? Certainly. But incredibly useless as a hypothesis.".....do they pay you to be that stupid? Replace the word "god" with any other word and the result is equally useless in the context of the original meaning of the sentence. Do you really think that such an exercise actually proves anything?

Jennifer Smith said...

There does seem to be a misguided effort in the media to appear 'unbiased' by giving equal time to unequal arguments. You can have letters and email from 95 people who take one position and five who believe the opposite, and still find equal numbers of letters from each side printed in order to give 'equal time'.

This bizarre approach has even filtered into our school system. My son's grade 9 science class was shown 'An Inconvenient Truth' as part of their climate unit, and then, just to appear 'unbiased', were shown 'The Great Global Warming Swindle'. They were then asked to pick one side or the other and write a defence of it.

While it's nice that they made these kids aware of the arguments being made by the deniers, there doesn't appear to have been any indication given as to which was supported by the vast majority of scientists and which was largely discredited.

This is how 'creation science' slips in unnoticed.

Dr. Stimplove said...

I have a little experience in journalism: about a dozen years in newspapers, 6 of them as an editor at a mid-sized Ontario daily.

I've never been an editorial page or letters editor, but I can confirm your suspicion that editors often do realize claims and arguments in readers' letters are BS. They publish them out of a feeling that readers ought to feel "ownership" in the paper. I don't agree with that way of thinking, but then maybe that's why was never put in charge of opinion pages.

Indeed, I share your frustration with the practice of giving a platform for dumbass BS about matters of faith. And it goes much further than that, of course. How about the nonsense of "balancing" stories by going to sources that are clearly spouting falsehoods, and/or refraining from just telling readers or viewers that what one group is saying is completely without merit? A good example is the way CNN and other media outlets were so evenhanded in 2004 with the Swift Boat Veterans controversy. One side was uttering complete bullshit, but they were treated as if they might have a point.

Sorry, but I can think of nothing to say that'll make you feel better about this. No benediction, as it were.

Ti-Guy said...

There does seem to be a misguided effort in the media to appear 'unbiased' by giving equal time to unequal arguments.

I think that's the media's worst sin; over-promoting the faulty analysese that conclude that a particular issue has only two sides; that something like Evolution and Creationism are two sides of the same coin (when in fact they don't exist within the same systems of thought). The media then claims that it's a matter of fairness and the ridiculous notion of "balance" that all sides be presented.

the rev. said...

the paper i work at often receives letters from whackjob and we usually print them unless they are calling for someone's death (or suggesting that Japan ever did anything bad in WWII, but that is a whole different thing) often they are religious whackjobs. We in the newsroom love to run letters from kooks because a) they are funny as hell; b) they usually inspire five letters from sensible people debunking their crap and then we can print those. Newspapers very very rarely respond editorially to the letters they receive, so the readers sort of get to whip on the paper while it is handcuffed --I've tried to argue that we shouldn't print letters that contain clear factual errors but my boss isn't buying that arguement. He says the solution to wrong free speech is more speech and just hopes we get letters correcting the obvious bs.

Ti-Guy said...

He says the solution to wrong free speech is more speech and just hopes we get letters correcting the obvious bs.

...and Margaret Wente reads those letters, is chastened by them and vows never to write another stupid column, I'm sure.

Chester N. Scoville said...

Does the editor not even realize that that claim is utter horseshit?

No.

Can editors really be that ignorant?

Yes.

Glad I was here to help!

Red Tory said...

As something of a student of Napoleon, I have to point out that not only is Mr. Honig’s letter fatuous, it’s also quite deceitful.

Honig writes that Napoleon “…asked him if God appears anywhere in his treatise” whereas in fact, Napoleon actually said “"M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator." Laplace did not say "I have no need of that hypothesis," but actually said, “I did not need to make such an assumption.” While that may seem like a bit of a trivial quibble, it puts the conversation in quite a different light. Being a man of reason with a healthy contempt for God and religion, Napoleon found it highly amusing that the Creator figured nowhere in Laplace’s work and was delighted to see his skepticism so clearly propounded in the Mécanique Céleste.

Regarding the “witty” aphorism of Legendre (“Ah! that is a beautiful assumption; it explains many things.”), it seems Honig quite deliberately forgot to mention Laplace’s biting comeback: “This hypothesis, Sire, does explain everything, but does not permit to predict anything. As a scholar, I must provide you with works permitting predictions."

That changes Honig's spin quite a bit, doesn't it.