MoP 2 : A One-Way Conversation

We’re not particularly looking to blog about censorship. In general, we think the problem (in, e.g., Australia and the US) is overhyped. The much greater problem is self-censorship, where the media and the society at large can’t think or write about what they fail to see; so, for example, a major country can have a military coup, but no one seems to notice. Sometimes, however, the issue is close enough to home and the censorship is sufficiently blatant, that it seems worth noting.

Greg Ashman, who we had cause to mention recently, has been censored in a needless and heavy-handed manner by Sasha Petrova, the education editor of The Conversation. The details are discussed by Ashman here, but it is easy to give the story in brief.

Kate Noble of the Mitchell Institute wrote an article for The Conversation, titled Children learn through play – it shouldn’t stop at pre-school. As the title suggests, Noble was arguing for more play-based learning in the early years of primary school. Ashman then added a (polite and referenced and carefully worded) comment, noting Noble’s failure to distinguish between knowledge that is more susceptible or less susceptible to play-based learning, and directly querying one of Noble’s examples, the possible learning benefits (or lack thereof) of playing with water. Ashman’s comment, along with the replies to his comment, was then deleted. When Ashman emailed Petrova, querying this, Petrova replied:

“Sure. I deleted [Ashman’s comment] as it is off topic. The article doesn’t call for less explicit instruction, nor is there any mention of it. It calls for more integration of play-based learning in early years of school to ease the transition to formal instruction – not that formal instruction (and even here it doesn’t specify that formal means “explicit”) must be abolished.”

Subsequently, it appears that Petrova has also deleted the puzzled commentary on the original deletion. And, who knows what else she has deleted? Such is the nature of censorship.

In general we have a lot of sympathy for editors, such as Petrova, of public fora. It is very easy to err one way or the other, and then to be hammered by Team A or Team B.  Indeed, and somewhat ironically, Ashman had a post just a week ago that was in part critical of The Conversation’s new policy towards climate denialist loons; in that instance we thought Ashman was being a little tendentious and our sympathies were much more with The Conversation’s editors.

But, here, Petrova has unquestionably screwed up. Ashman was adding important, directly relevant and explicitly linked qualification to Noble’s article, and in a properly thoughtful and collegial manner. Ashman wasn’t grandstanding, he was contributing in good faith. He was conversing.  Moreover, Petrova’s stated reason for censoring Ashman is premised on a ludicrously narrow definition of “topic”, which even on its own terms fails here, and in any case has no place in academic discourse or public discourse.

Petrova, and The Conversation, owes Ashman an apology.

11 Replies to “MoP 2 : A One-Way Conversation”

  1. Thanks for this post. May I just take the opportunity to clarify my position on climate change? I am not a denialist and I do not advocate for The Conversation publishing articles from denialists. However, I do think denialists should perhaps be allowed to comment, particularly on issues unrelated to climate change. The current policy suggests their accounts will get cancelled. I don’t like this on free speech grounds. I’m not sure why this position is tendentious.

    1. Hi Greg. Should I delete your comment for being off topic?

      I thought that other post of yours was, in total, a little tendentious. There are plenty of topics where the overwhelming weight of evidence means there’s not much, if anything, to debate, and I’m very ready to believe, as you claim, that the merits of phonics is one such topic. Nonetheless, not all such “decided” topics are broadly accepted as decided. So, as I’m sure you agree, one should very step carefully in this area.

      For me, the determiner is good faith. Generally, if a person is arguing in good faith, together with crossing some very low bar of fact and reason, then I’m reluctant to see any such person censored. But I don’t detect any such good faith in climate denialism. Ever. All I see is a rabid dismissal of scientific truth. So, I’m pretty comfortable with a broad brush policy of “Fuck ’em”. Should that go as far as to ban such people more generally from The Conversation? Maybe not. But not definitely not.

      1. Hi, Marty. I’m puzzling over what you find tendentious about Greg’s post. You haven’t said. He presented a point of view, but he did so up front and honestly, so how was it tendentious?

        I, like Greg, am disturbed by what seems to be a growing tendency to silence voices that don’t chime with the consensus. Wouldn’t it be better to either ignore the “dangerous idea” or to counter it with better information? Or do the editors of the Conversation feel that there is something so compelling about climate-change scepticism that readers must be protected from it?

        I am also disturbed by the readiness to condemn the person rather than the argument. This gives us an excuse to sidestep any argument raised — and that, to my mind, really is bad faith!

        1. Hi, Janita. What I found a little contentious about Greg’s post was equating (maybe equivalencing is more accurate) phonics-denial with climate-denial. I don’t think there is anything remotely like the same culture of wilful ignorance and fetishistic triggering associated with the former as there is with the latter. And, I don’t see any evidence that “counter[ing] with better information” works whatsoever in the case of climate-denial. As such, I’m quite happy to side with The Conversation in treating climate-assholes as a special case, while being open to Greg’s criticism of banning the assholes entirely.

          More generally, I have a huge amount of time for those who don’t “chime with the consensus”. You’ll find very little chiming on this blog! I am massively supportive of free speech as a principle, and I’ve been badly censored by idiot chimers more than once. But that doesn’t mean “free speech” can’t become its own fetish. The Conversation may have made a political error in shutting up climate-assholes, but I don’t think they’ve made a moral error. I am quite happy to condemn (the behaviour of) a person arguing in bad faith. Yes, allowing people to play a bad faith card is dangerous, and it should be played to the point of censorship only rarely and not, for example, in the case of phonics-denial. But now, in 2019, I do not believe there exist good faith climate-deniers. It is not their just their arguments that are awful; it’s their behaviour as well.

          1. Perhaps the equivalence is that the Conversation’s moderators see phonics espousal as just as far beyond the pale as you see climate-change denial.

            I live in a small community and frequently rub shoulders with climate-change deniers, so for me their adherence to one particular belief doesn’t sum them up. The people who scoff at the notion of anthropogenic climate change are the same people who rescue plover chicks from drains, volunteer as firefighters, comfort widows and raise money for marine rescue. Not arseholes, in other words, just mistaken. It seems to me to be more a matter of identity than reason: “I belong to this tribe, therefore I oppose what that tribe thinks.” The way around this is to steadfastly decline to engage in identity politics.

            I see no reason to censor any comment as long as it is not abusive.

            (Free-speech can become a fetish? I do think free speech is a cornerstone of any decent society and the suppression of dissent is a hallmark of tyranny. But I agree with you that people of malicious intent are quite capable of “gaming” the privilege, being snide, sneaky, sophistical, deploying all sorts of dishonest debating tricks, purveying misinformation. So what do we do? Close them down? Only if they threaten, harass or persistently attack the person rather than argument, I say.)

            1. Hi again, Janita. I don’t think we really disagree that much, but I’m happy to chat. I’ll make a few points.

              1) I agree that a climate denialist can in any and all other aspects be a model human being. So, yes, it is lazy of me to call them assholes. But it is also highly inaccurate to focus simply on the poverty of denialist “arguments”, as if these arguments appear out of nowhere. I think you are correct that some, but by no means all, of climate denialism is tribal. But so what? Sure, one doesn’t expect great standards of reasoning in the Conversation, but one can expect more than the thoughtless and/or trolling regurgitation of denialist lunacy, which is all that it is, and pretty much all that it can be. So, in the context of climate debate, I think they’re behaving like assholes, and I’m comfortable with The Conversation saying “Fuck ’em”.

              2) Nonetheless, I agree that it is reasonable to query the Conversation’s new policy, and obviously I’m not a knee-jerk defender of the Conversation. Our conversation started with my post whacking their education editor! The deletion of Greg’s comments suggests a hair-trigger censoriousness, and a sleazy taking of sides, that is entirely inappropriate for an editor of such a site.

              3) In particular, I understand your point of view, that only abusive comments should be deleted. I’d probably be even more tolerant: the “abusive” criterion can be used in bad faith in exactly the same way that the “good faith” criterion can be used in bad faith.

              4) I don’t think the Conversation editors regard phonics as beyond the pale, and I don’t think Greg is claiming that they do. Rather, I think Greg, somewhat impishly, is suggesting the editors contemplate having whole word learning et al be declared beyond the pale. Indeed, I would agree that whole word learning is beyond the pale, just not, in my view, to the point worthy of censorship.

              5) I agree very much with your last, parenthetical paragraph. I absolutely loathe censorship. But I also loathe trolling and wilful stupidity, and people are allowed to expect reasonable conversation that is free of it. When I refer to fetishising free speech, it is the tolerance of and/or deceitful use of “free speech” to actually mean “free to behave like an asshole” to which I’m referring. To me it always comes down to good faith. Yes, that is dangerous, and one should err very, very, very much on letting things be said. But I think there is always a judgment call to be made. To pretend otherwise is the fetishising.

              1. Marty, you have been the soul of tolerance in bearing with my objections. I do think that we agree on more points than we disagree on, and I won’t keep pestering you, but one last observation: Your point about making a fetish of free speech holds true in a real-life meeting or forum, where there is business to be done and time is limited. In that situation, digressions, nitpickery and ideological tub-thumping waste everyone’s time are best put a stop to. Online forums are time-rich, however, and sillinesses can simply be ignored. Let ’em thump their tubs to their hearts’ content.

                1. Janita, I can think of more than a few people who would lift an eyebrow at your “soul of tolerance” description.

                  Online fora are such weird things. Honestly, I don’t see the attraction, and don’t really understand the culture(s). But I don’t think it is so easy to ignore the silliness. It seems easy for such fora to become swamplands. On a low visibility, focussed blog such as this there’s no issue (I’ve deleted exactly one comment out of 1000+ for crossing the line.) When I was writing for The Age, however, the “silliness” was excruciating.

  2. I read the articles on play; the suggestion about learning through play goes back at least to Socrates (Republic, 536d-537a).

    1. Thanks, Terry. Of course the issue here is not the merits of or history of play as part of learning. The issue here is of a gatekeeper being ridiculously and needlessly censorious. You would agree, I assume, that such behaviour is not to be countenanced?

  3. Some years ago, The Conversation published two articles in the same issue (I think) on nuclear power; one in favour by an engineer, and one against by an environmental scientist; both involved statistics and discussion of risk. Later I was involved in presenting a course on engineering statistics. So I asked the students to compare the two articles in a short essay; I wanted their views on the articles rather than their views on nuclear power. Although the students were not training to be nuclear engineers, members of society might reasonably expect that engineering graduates should be able to discuss this, and, for me, it was important that they be able to think about probability and statistics in this context.

    So it was useful for me, as a teacher, to have two contrasting views published in The Conversation.

    The bottom line was that about 50% of the students thought that the engineer had better arguments, and about 50% thought that the environmental scientist had better arguments. A well-balanced class.

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