Monday, July 16, 2007

The Nature of Doggerel

I think now's a good a time as any to talk about what "doggerel" means, since I've recently gotten up to #111. Just what makes a word or phrase worthy of being "doggerel?"

As some have misunderstood, being usable as doggerel doesn't make all instances of use doggerel. I thought "misused, abused, or just plain meaningless" made that clear. Perfectly legitimate words like "wellness," "energy," and "quantum" have legitimate uses. It's not the word itself that counts, it's how it's used.

A large chunk of doggerel entries involve subject changes, also known as red herrings. Woos will often try to cast skeptics in whatever negative light they can find or, more commonly, invent. It's not all that different than political and schoolyard debates where "winning" is determined by who can sling the most irrelevant mud at his opponent. Actually talking about, say, health care reform or budget balancing is boring for the typical member of the public. They need something that can fit on bumper stickers.

One thing I've been seeing more of, lately is the accusation that we're racist/sexist/whatever based on the person whose sloppy logic we're attacking. Are the woos really that stupid? On instance for a while back involved a thread attacking Oprah for supporting "The Secret." Apparently, by woo logic, pointing out the logical absurdities of believing a sloppy, contradiction-filled, ad hocked retread of an old hypothesis and calling a famous black woman stupid for falling for it makes us racist against blacks and sexist against women. The same thing happens with Allison DuBois, where criticizing people with a purely negative impact on society is apparently the root cause of spousal abuse or something. It's really insane. I'm beginning to wonder if anyone even knows what racism and sexism are. Being black and/or female doesn't shield you from criticism. If Oprah were a white man, I seriously doubt we'd change our behavior. Racism and sexism are about treating people differently for being or not being a particular race or sex.

It's because of these playground attitudes that most arguments with woos aren't about the data: They're about us trying to convince them that smearing mud everywhere is not a legitimate debate tactic. They're about us having a regular set of standards while woos argue that their pet hypotheses are special and innately deserve special treatment, exceptions, and double-standards. In short, the woo has "permission" to be racist, irrelevant, cowardly, defeatist, cynical, pessimistic, and so forth in order to avoid discussing what really matters: The truth. Life with woos would be much easier if they were willing to just talk about experimental protocols, statistics, and so on.


Anonymous said...

Your last paragraph describes why I so often simply walk away from debates with woos, or even with my friends who hold certain woo-ish ideas. No matter how many times I try to steer the argument back to the facts, it keeps getting bogged down in red herrings, completely unsupported claims, and yet more red herrings meant to hide the lack of support for those claims. Of course I keep coming back and trying, because I love bashing my head against walls like that, but it really gets to me some days.

Anonymous said...

I read an essay a while back (can't remember where) about the cult-like qualities of AA that contained a phrase that resonated with me: "Thought-stopping cliches". The basic idea, if I remember correctly, was that groups develop a canon of words and phrases which are repeated in the face of challenges to their ideas with little or no regard to meaning or context. For instance, AA members are fond of repeating "There's no chemical solution for a spiritual problem", or something along those lines, in response to just about any challenge to their methods. Constant recourse to cliches like "other ways of knowing" or "don't you think there's something more than just the world?" sound a lot like that to me. They're uttered more to put an end to a line of inquiry than to contribute to the substance of the debate. A lot of the doggerel you're pointing out seems to be examples of these thought-stopping cliches. Some people us words like "energy" and "worldview" without any regard at all to what the words actually mean, and do so in a way more geared towards shielding ideas from criticism than towards providing actual substantive arguments in favor of the ideas. And it's really frustrating to get into a debate with someone who uses language this way, seeing as they're more interested in protecting overvalued ideas than in persuading others through critical analysis and examination of evidence.

Anonymous said...

Are the woos really that stupid?

On the off chance that that isn't a rhetorical question: yes. Well, perhaps "stupid" isn't the word - more like "completely unfamiliar with even the most basic processes of reasoning". However, "stupid" is close enough...