On Tone

Contextual note: this post is one of several on the memorability debate.

Punching Up vs Punching Down

Few clearly sees himself as punching up: he’s the David, the lone voice in the wilderness, the underdog. The Goliath that he’s fighting against is the slowly turning wheels of entrenched academia in general, of which the academics who dominate conferences like InfoVis are an instance in particular. All of his language frames himself as somebody who is fighting the good fight.

In contrast, nearly every academic I’ve heard from who has seen his newsletter has reacted in shock, and there’s a palpable sense that Few crossed a line. I think that’s because we see it as punching down: he’s a senior person who is publicly attacking a junior person, and there’s a strong convention against doing that in academia.

I need to think more about exactly why that social convention exists. My first speculation is that it’s a reaction to the strong hierarchical system of academia. Senior people have direct power over more junior ones in so many ways (hiring, reviews, tenure) that there’s a sense of noblesse oblige – that those with power and privilege have a duty to those who lack that power. (Or, if you like the pop culture superhero version better than the snooty French version – “with great power comes great responsibility”.)

I might in the future write a longer post just on this subject, but there’s a lot of ground that I want to cover so I’ll move on.

Pseudo-Science as Fighting Words

It’s disingenuous at best for Few to accuse somebody of doing ‘pseudo-science’ and then express surprise that people are getting upset. That’s like complaining that I can’t believe that person over there hit me in the face — when all I did was kick him in the stomach!

His later comments said that the academics are not open to feedback and are slamming the door in the faces of people who don’t have PhDs following their names. I don’t agree that the irritation expressed by many academics at his remarks is fair to interpret as sign of a disrespect towards all non-academics; they’re a sign that his rhetorical choices have made people angry at him in particular.

‘Pseudo-science’ is fighting words: that label is a direct personal insult to the intelligence and integrity of a scientist. Of course there will be an emotional response. It’s implausible to me that Few does not understand that this word choice would be a red flag. He made the deliberate choice to frame this debate as fight rather than a discussion. He even admits in a later comment to being “intentionally provocative”.

I suggest that the label of ‘pseudo-science’ should be reserved for things like Intelligent Design, where there is a deliberate attempt to cloak a non-scientific practice in the garb of science to deceive.

If his goal is to make a useful contribution to the extensive and ongoing debate about the methods of science, he should not start things out by slinging personal insults. That choice makes it a lot harder to find a way to work with him. Given his choice of rhetoric, I’m not sympathetic to his position that the people who protest his tone are missing the point of his scientific critique. He made that bed, he gets to lie in it.

On Rhetoric

Few frequently uses a family of rhetorical devices that I find very irritating.

One of these I’ve seen called by many different names, including the loaded question, begging the question, circular reasoning, or presupposed guilt. Perhaps the best-known example of this device is “Have you stopped beating your wife?”, where either a yes or a no answer implies guilt because of the false presupposition.

Here’s one of many examples from the comments:

“If you disagree, you should defend the review process, not by quoting statistics about the number of papers, etc., but by explaining why poor research papers are accepted.” (Few to Fekete, post 27)

No. Fekete doesn’t have to explain *why* poor research papers are accepted because he did not agree with your assertion *that* poor papers are accepted.

Here’s another example that’s even more blatant:

“My statement that professors who produce research papers such as this one will encourage their students to produce pseudo-science is not speculative, assuming that you accept my premise that this paper qualifies as pseudo-science.” (Few to Heer, post 20)

No. Heer explicitly *rejected* the premise that this paper qualified as pseudo-science, in the directly preceding paragraph. He most certainly did not accept the premise.

A related device is the insinuation of things that people did not mean, for example:

“What do you suggest that the infovis research community should do to prevent the kinds of flaws that you and I have both identified in this paper?” (Few to Heer, post 26)

Misleading. This phrasing strongly implies that Heer agreed with all of Few’s assertions – but he did not. Heer’s answer deftly sidesteps the attempted trap: “… I would have raised the issues I noted above (which only partially intersect with yours)”. (Heer to Few, post 33)

A third rhetorical device is the continual interweaving between facts that are well substantiated and agreed on by others, and his own opinions – without clearly distinguishing between the two – to present the misleading impression that everything he says is a faithful reflection of the conventional wisdom.

On Passion

Even as I’m irritated by Few’s choices of tone and rhetorical style, the silver lining is that I appreciate his passion for the cause of improving the work that we all do in the field of visualization. I’m delighted that the field is vibrant enough that we both care enough to argue about it – and that a bunch of other people care enough to follow that argument as well through tweets, blogs, and other social media avenues. That’s much better than apathy or disinterest!

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