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A Good Question PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

I frankly don't have as much time as I'd like to look through the comments following the items that appear on SWIFT, and I'm sure I thus miss a lot of good material. At this article, I discussed some differences between UK and USA English usage, and though I was tempted to get into car parts - the English have "boot," "lorry," and "petrol" where we have "trunk," "truck," and "gas" - I settled on some place names and proper names. The item got 1,826 hits and 37 comments within the first 24 hours, among which was one from "BillyJoe" that I believe needs my attention.

The androgynous BillyJoe asked:

And, pray tell, what is this doing in Swift?

- though he/she omitted the interrogation mark. While I hope most of our readers assumed a correct answer to that query, I should provide a formal explanation.

Language - both written and spoken - is, in my opinion, the single most important advantage that humans have over all other forms of life on Earth.  I therefore have an admitted preoccupation with its use, particularly in connection with material that I originate and/or process.  The pages of SWIFT get my close attention, and though I might have chosen to state my reasons for including this item, I failed to do so. Differences in grammar, spelling, and usage can often lead to misunderstanding in the ever-changing and ever-evolving English language, and if my understanding of other languages were as proficient as that of my "mother tongue," I'm sure I'd find the same problems there, as well.

As a youth, I was briefly distracted by a book titled, "Science and Sanity" to which I was introduced by a close friend. Written by Alfred Korzybski, a Polish Count, it introduced me to the "general semantics" concept that he developed, and the idea that he called "time-binding" - perhaps the only nugget of sooth that I learned from the book. This referred to the fact that our species has the ability to communicate with coming generations and learn from the past, by means of the written and spoken word - and now, of course, via video data as well. Animals cannot do this with any meaningful accuracy, so far as we know, and language is essential to our use of this advantage. Thus, my preoccupation with this facility.

Communication of data, ideas, and emotions should be treated with great respect and paramount attention. When we lose touch with others, we lose our connection with the future of our species.

Please forgive this perhaps overstated excuse for evoking your inquiry, BillyJoe...

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written by MJG, December 05, 2008
"For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk"
- Stephen Hawking, on "The Division Bell" by Pink Floyd
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written by latsot, December 05, 2008
I'm not sure I'll ever understand why random people appoint themselves to prescribe what other people should and shouldn't post on their own sites.
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written by cwniles, December 05, 2008
wow, so much for sarcasm....this is a bit late but just thought I would mention that Billy Joe was clearly being sarcastic and if you read his/her other comments, you would see that.

Unless somehow I am missing the sarcasm in your post which is completely possible, I am rather dense.
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lol
written by Cuddy Joe, December 05, 2008
Poor Billy Joe. As cwniles notes, Billy Joe did identify his comment "And, pray tell, what is this doing in Swift?" as sarcasm a few posts later. The irony is that it has been Billy Joe who has been the most supportive (perhaps defensive is more accurate) of Swift articles of late that stray topically from the skeptical ranch.

At the risk of retort, sometimes it feels like previously we had one Swift host who was 99% attentive and now we have multiple Swift hosts and hostesses who are each 20% attentive.
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written by Cuddy Joe, December 05, 2008
Billy Joe's explanatory post:

(Quote) "My entry was a joke of course - as much of a joke as Randi's article was light hearted. And of course it was a prediction of things to come.

Thank you, Jon, for falling into the stew." (End quote)

The devil's in the details, eh?

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written by chindog, December 05, 2008
to Latsot:
I'm not sure I'll ever understand why random people appoint themselves to prescribe what other people should and shouldn't post on their own sites.


How does a person determine if they are random, and how does one tell the difference between people who are random and those who are not?
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written by Son of Rea, December 05, 2008
Not only is language our primary advantage over other creatures, it probably holds the largest influence over how we perceive reality....be it an accurate perception or otherwise.
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written by BillyJoe, December 05, 2008
Yes, the irony. smilies/smiley.gif

I can confirm that my comment was indeed sarcastic.
But, in his defence, James Randi could not have known that without having read comments to other articles in Swift where I have been criticising others for objecting to authors' selection of topics.

I expected the same thing to happen here, and my comment was meant to pre-empt that. Depite that, a few posts later...surprise, surprise!

Now, I must also admit that I have critised some authors for not reading the comments to their articles and, as a result, not correcting mistakes in their articles that have been identified in these comments. And I singled out Randi as being one of the culprits.

Therefore it is a double irony that he has actually read some comments, picked out one of mine, and then mistaken its intent.

smilies/smiley.gif

Anyway, the consolation prize is that I had the oddly strange experience of finding myself quoted by Randi on the home page of the JREF website.

regards,
BillyJoe.
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written by BillyJoe, December 05, 2008
Just to add...

Randi was not really criticising me for my comment.
In fact he titled his piece: "A Good Question". smilies/smiley.gif

BJ
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written by Cuddy Joe, December 06, 2008
You're a STAR, baby! Could Hollywood be far behind??
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written by cwniles, December 06, 2008
I have to admit that when I first read the comment in question, I did initially take it at face value. I just read the subsequent posts before posting myself.

and Billy Joe, not only did you get quoted, you got identified as "androgynous"! thats funny (I also liked Cuddy Joe's sly little defensive as opposed to supportive jab)

To be fair to Mr. Randi,there were several posts that seemed serious in intent, criticising the content of the post. Some character calling himself Jon comes to mind if I remember correctly....and who knows, I guess it's at least possible we all missed the sarcasm in Radi's post.
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written by AMFCook, December 06, 2008
And not just written or spoken langauges, but also signed; as in American Sign Language. One who is quite adept in ASL can communicate with any American also adept in ASL. However, one who possess' skill and proficiency in ASL, can not communicate with a deaf individual from another country in sign because what the foreigner learned in their sign classes is completely different from American Sign Language. There are no simularities in the signs made with the hands. Sign language is not a "universal" form of communication between deaf people of different countries.

I am proficient in American Sign Language but would not be able to communicate with a deaf person from Great Britain because their sign language is not the same as ASL.
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written by Cuddy Joe, December 06, 2008
Billy Joe's first album (of androgynous rock): Billy Joe & The Spiders From Mars
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written by BillyJoe, December 06, 2008
Well, you're all just jealous, I know. smilies/cool.gif
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written by Skeptic, December 06, 2008
I can see Randi's point, but critical thinking applies to *everything* -- politics, morality, the economy, etc. included. While this goes to show just how important critical thinking is, it is a negative for a critical thinking *web site* like SWIFT.

The reason? It is always tempting to comment on the latest political bruhaha or economic upheaval and show how a lot of it is due to lack of critical thinking. No matter how relevant to critical thinking the comments individually are, if the political and economic posts start to dominate SWIFT, the site will lose many readers. Not because they necessarily hold a different political opinion, but simple because that's not what they come to the SWIFT blog to read.

P.S.

Randi writes he was merely "briefly distracted" by general semantics as a youth, which strongly suggest he knows it's a crank theory, but perhaps he should have been more explicit about it. Like most crank theories, it's divided between true but obvious observations (we transmit information using language) and deriving absurd conclusions from them (the very "to be" is bad).
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written by Cuddy Joe, December 07, 2008
Skeptic: "No matter how relevant to critical thinking the comments individually are, if the political and economic posts start to dominate SWIFT, the site will lose many readers. Not because they necessarily hold a different political opinion, but simply because that's not what they come to the SWIFT blog to read."

Hear, hear. Not to mention that issues of politics and economics are rarely solvable by critical thinking alone, being inherently matters of individual choice between positions that typically have good and bad attributes. The result, as we have seen, is a comments section where emotions take over intellect, ironically the antipathy of critical thought and an excellent way to create divisions between skeptics.

It is exceedingly difficult to conceive of a intellectual endeavor or topic that could not be improved by critical thinking, but if the idea "if it can be improved by critical thinking, it's proper content for SWIFT" holds sway, then nothing is off the SWIFT menu, and there is nothing that couldn't be a topic for SWIFT, including a SWIFT treatment of applying critical thought to questions like, "who are the hottest Hollywood stars?" or "can critical thinking help you find a mate?" I risk a slippery slope fallacy of srgument here, but I see a slide in the direction of this sort of topic choice in two blogs I regularly visit, SWIFT and the new Skepticblog, where among other iffy topics, Michael Shermer has posted on nothing but libertarian economics. When Shermer and other notable skeptics post on skepticism, critical thinking, logic, and reason, I am interested, but I don't really care what his politics or economics might be. That is not to say I disagree with them, but there are so many political blogs that do a far better job of it because that is their expertise and it exceeds that of any notable skeptic and that is the raison d'etre for their blogs.

My greatest fear is personal and quite selfish - I fear that as skeptical media content grows in popularity, the ever-present need of funding and finances will divide goals into serving two masters, and like TV, newspapers, radio, etc., the 'product' will succumb to the same "ratings mean everything / hit counts rule" mentality that have so diminished and polluted general media, that is, I'd absolutely hate to see my beloved, time-honored SWIFT devolve into an online Entertainment Tonight! / Access Hollywood! -type mentality.

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written by BillyJoe, December 07, 2008
Skeptic,

No matter how relevant to critical thinking the comments individually are, if the political and economic posts start to dominate SWIFT, the site will lose many readers.

So, do you think the political and economic posts have started to dominate?
And if readers are unable to have a sceptical attitude towards the political party they support, are they really being sceptical. Do you really have to support the Iraq War, Sarah Palin, and the Religious Right just because you vote republican?

Not because they necessarily hold a different political opinion, but simple because that's not what they come to the SWIFT blog to read.

But who elected you as the representative of those who come here to read. Don't you think that, perhaps, this is just your personal view, agreed to by a few others around here who have been moved to reply, and not the general view of Swift readers.
And what's to stop you from avoiding articles that have a political slant. Do you read the entire newspaper from cover to cover?
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written by BillyJoe, December 07, 2008
Cuddy Joe

My greatest fear is personal and quite selfish - I fear that as skeptical media content grows in popularity, the ever-present need of funding and finances will divide goals into serving two masters, and like TV, newspapers, radio, etc., the 'product' will succumb to the same "ratings mean everything / hit counts rule" mentality that have so diminished and polluted general media, that is, I'd absolutely hate to see my beloved, time-honored SWIFT devolve into an online Entertainment Tonight! / Access Hollywood! -type mentality.


If Swift starts to have sponsors about whom they are unable to write anything critical, I will be out of here. I can just barely tolerate the present ads - like the one for matchmaking analysis based purely on you name and your partners name that appeared when I opened the page today.

But, I thought your complaint was that Swift will lose readers if they continue to post political commentary.

(BTW, thanks for your posts earlier on correcting Randi's interpretation of my comment. smilies/smiley.gif)
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written by Cuddy Joe, December 07, 2008
"But, I thought your complaint was that Swift will lose readers if they continue to post political commentary."

That was Skeptic's complaint, not mine. I could see that though. Jbspry left because of this and other issues. My fear is that widening the topic menu to include anything even remotely skeptical, or surrendering to whatever raises hit rates, therefore ad rates, will slowly but surely lower the heretofore high quality SWIFT readers have enjoyed and will dilute the overall content to something no recognizable to historical SWIFT fans. It is the rare media outlet that avoids this when another 'master' ($) is allowed on the throne.

"(BTW, thanks for your posts earlier on correcting Randi's interpretation of my comment."

No problem, my pleasure, facts is facts. Sorry about the 'defensive' vs 'supportive' small dig - couldn't resist, lol. Remember those old cartoons where the wolf and the shepherd dog would chit chat and offer ploite salutations while punching in, go at each other's throats for an eight hour shift, then return to polite salutations while punching out? Let's be those guys, only figuratively re: 'at each other's throats', lol. All kidding aside, nothing I say ought be taken too seriously, and I love getting 'digged' as much as delivering the dig, if it's done well, of course.
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written by BillyJoe, December 08, 2008
Cuddy Joe,

I like your attitude. smilies/smiley.gif

BJ
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