Adventures in Ethics and Science

(It’s worth noting, however, that this may also be useful advice for interactions with others offline.)

I don’t know what’s in your heart. I don’t know what’s in your mind. I don’t have direct access to either of those (because I’m a distinct person from you), and if I did, you’d probably feel violated.

The only sensible data I have on what’s in your heart and your mind when I’m interacting with you online is how you present yourself — and your regard for others — through your words.


Here’s the thing: words are an imperfect tool for communication. There are lots of them, which makes it tough to pick the right one, and then you have to string them together just so. And, after all that work, the person with whom you’re trying to communicate may still not get what you’re saying*. They might even think you were trying to say something else and get mad about it!

Is this frustrating? You bet! Shouldn’t you be entitled, therefore, to expend a little less time and effort choosing your words, instead just shooting from the communicative hip and sorting out communication misfires as they happen?

Perhaps. But let’s think about whether this is a consistent course of action. (Here, I’m not worried about an I-contain-multitudes kind of inconsistency so much as a making-yourself-an-exception-to-the-rules-by-which-you-wish-other-to-play inconsistency. We ethicists have a thing about that.)

If you opt out of the effort of communicating carefully – of actually thinking about how your words will likely be received (or could possibly be received) by their intended audience, you’re counting on that audience to assume, going into the communication, that you’re a good guy**. Depending on the circumstances, this might mean asking people to take on faith that you’re someone who helps others, eats his vegetables, and could never harbor, even subconsciously, an unkind, unjustified, or biased thought in his head or in his heart.

But, are you asking your audience to interpret your words in the light of the “I’m a good guy” assumption regardless of your actual words (because it’s a lot of work to think about how those words might come across to other people)? Do you think it’s unfair for the people with whom you’re trying to communicate not to make that assumption as they try to decode your meaning? If you’re getting upset that your words are being misunderstood – that they may even be causing hurt and offense – then this is what you seem to be doing.

Do you notice that this spreads the burden pretty unevenly?

You can say what you want, because you’re a presumptive good guy, but if those quickly chosen words feel like pokes in the eye, others are still supposed to give you the benefit of the doubt and respond with appropriately worded criticism. You didn’t mean to hurt anyone, after all. So it’s not really fair for them to hurt you (say, by expressing pain that your words felt like pokes in the eye to them).

Heck, you may even want to reserve the right to disagree with the appropriately worded criticism. You might think those who took offense at what you said are just wrong to do so – because a good guy like yourself doesn’t go around saying offensive things! The right thing for them to do, clearly, is to accept the non-offensive interpretation that you are offering for what you said (even though it’s a pain to do the extra work of offering that non-offensive interpretation, since they shouldn’t have taken offense based on how you said it in the first place, what with being a good guy and all).

In this little scenario, you’re communicating a lot more than you might have thought you were. You’re conveying that your audience ought to assume your good intentions even if your actual words cause them pain. Your conveying that your audience ought to invest the time and effort to work out the most sympathetic possible interpretation of your words, but that you should not have to invest much time and effort in actually choosing those words to make your intended point clearly. If you dismiss your audience’s claim to be hurt or offended by your words, you seem either to be claiming privileged access to that audience’s hearts and minds, or to be saying that their hurt and offense doesn’t really count. At the very least, you are putting your need to see yourself as a good guy above the perceptions of others, even when their perceptions are informed by your words.

I don’t know what’s in your heart. The only sensible data I have on that is how you present yourself — and your regard for others — through your words. Communication is hard, but this is reason enough to share the labor involved. Intention and effect come apart even when we try our hardest to communicate clearly, but our attempts can become more successful if we pay attention to our past failures and treat as credible the reactions of the people with whom we were trying to communicate in our attempts. Discounting pain because we did not mean to cause it doesn’t help us avoid causing more pain in a future communication misfire. Instead, what it does is undermine the plausibility of the “good guy” assumption.

Indeed, in the unlikely event that we achieved perfect transmission and perfect reception in our attempts to communicate, we might still disagree about many of the things about which we were communicating. Those distinct hearts and minds clinging to words as a way to connect with each other also have distinct experiences and interests, priorities and plans. Engaging with each other – even successfully – does not make us all the same person. Agreement is not the ultimate goal. Taking other people seriously in a conversation ought to be.

________

* Here, I’m only thinking about the straightforward case in which your message is being received by someone with whom you intended to communicate. The structure of online venues like blogs increases the chances that your words will be picked up by an audience that was not your intended audience, and that can complicate things a lot. To the extent that some blogs are intended by their writers to be intimate loci of venting to a group of people who “get” them without too much explanation (something we all seem to need in our lives), that may amplify the opportunities for misfire. I suppose one has to decide where to allocate one’s effort in making communication work, realizing that explicit or tacit “I wasn’t talking to you” can communicate a lot, too.

** I’m in the camp that uses “guy” as a non-gender-specific word. If you don’t like that usage, substitute “person” for each instance of “guy” above.

Comments

  1. #1 Laelaps
    February 12, 2009

    Well said, Janet.

  2. #2 costanza
    February 12, 2009

    I disagree – words are a perfect means of communication. There are lots of them, all differing by connotation and capable of being strung together in an enormous number of ways. Simply because those in the sciences are trained “from birth” to a limited level of expression (3rd person passive voice) does not mean the language fails…only those who try to use it.

  3. #3 NJ
    February 12, 2009

    I disagree – words are a perfect means of communication.

    Really? Well, I am thinking of a statement in American English that makes use of the word “dog”. Am I using it as a verb or as a noun?

    Clearly, if words are a perfect means of communication, with no possible ambiguity, then you can answer my question with ease. If you cannot, then we can consider your statement as falsified, and you to be as competent as your Seinfeld namesake.

  4. #4 Nat
    February 12, 2009

    I concur with Laelaps. Definitely well said.

  5. #5 Chris Rowan
    February 12, 2009

    I disagree – words are a perfect means of communication. There are lots of them, all differing by connotation and capable of being strung together in an enormous number of ways.

    Sure, there’s always the perfect sentence to convey your meaning. There’s also always the perfect, killer, move to play in a game of chess – but it’s existence does not mean that you are necessarily going to find it.

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    February 12, 2009

    Or (NJ and Chris) it’s possibly a typo. In context, s/perfect/imperfect/ seems quite likely.

    Which is another way of looking at the same basic point.

  7. #7 Austin
    February 12, 2009

    I concur, well said, Janet.

    As scientists or science enthusiasts, we should all be aware that words and phrases have variable or changed meanings which connote degrees of negative or positive meaning depending on the various subgroups of people with whom we communicate.

    The most common of these words may the “N…..” word. It is accepted for one group of persons to use the term, and may even be considered to be a term expressing “friendship”. Yet another subgroup is accused of “hatred” when the term is used

    Not long ago I had a female friend tell me a highly sexual joke. My first thoughts upon hearing the joke was not whether it was funny (which it was), but whether I would have been accused of a serious breach of the laws of the land had I repeated that same joke in mixed company.

    Recently, a news moderator on MSNBC offered a rapid and unsolicited apology for, when congratulating the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on its recent anniversary; he used the term “colored people” instead of the more current “persons of color”.

    In describing mental deficiency, utilization of the antiquated terms idiot, imbecile, or moron is considered to be inflammatory and derogatory speech. Currently there is serious discussion in several professional disciplines concerning whether to abandon the use of the terms “mental retardation”, and possibly even “mental deficiency”, because these terms have also become associated with an intensely negative emotional valence.

  8. #8 ambivalent academic
    February 12, 2009

    I’m just going to chime in with another “well said.”

  9. #9 PalMD
    February 12, 2009

    Wow. I wish i’d written that, but i couldn’t find the right words.

  10. #10 D. C. Sessions
    February 12, 2009

    Wow. I wish i’d written that, but i couldn’t find the right words.

    Thereby distinguishing yourself from others [1] who also can’t find the right words but post anyway.

    Hmmm… I think Janet was referring to us! Must contemplate.

    [1] $SELF included

  11. #11 Azkyroth
    February 12, 2009

    A corollary: if you (nonspecific) find yourself responding negatively to someone’s comments, and they are surprised by this and ask why you consider it inappropriate, they deserve a Real Grown-Up Answer. If you fail to provide one, for whatever reason, they are justified in ignoring your complaints.

    Another corollary: if someone phrases a statement in a manner that either A) a reasonable person would, on reflection, realize to lend itself to unflattering misinterpretation or B) just happens to rub you (non-specific) the wrong way (perhaps because due to inadvertent use of “dog-whistle” code words or general phrase construction you’ve come to associate with a specific group of trolls or nutjobs), and, upon being informed of this, corrects their phrasing and explains what their actual position is, it is very poor form to continue responding, throughout the discussion, to what you initially thought they were saying.

    I may have more.

  12. #12 eh
    February 12, 2009

    Best elucidation so far.

    And you’ll excuse me if I say fuck the euphemistic talk and just bookmark this for the next time Greg puts his foot in his mouth and then gets all indignant because we can’t / won’t read his fucking mind.

  13. #13 D. C. Sessions
    February 12, 2009

    Human languages are not efficient. I use the word, “efficient” in the sense of a particular term of art, that used in standards setting. An “efficient” standard is one where compliant entities are guaranteed to interoperate, but which incurs minimal additional burden on them in so doing.

    Example: SAE standard 6-32 screws and nuts will always mate with some clearance. The specification for the nut and screw requires that the nut have a minimum opening larger than the screw’s maximum size. That way they don’t bind up with the obvious problems of the screw being larger than the hole in the nut. The gap between them, though, is just margin and constitutes inefficiency which is tolerated for the sake of ensuring that things always work.

    In that sense, human language is not efficient. It’s horribly sloppy. What’s worse, it doesn’t always ensure that the receiver of a message will always receive the meaning that the sender intended. By the time we add the wherefores, parties of the first part, parties of the second part, and furthermores that are necessary to have a reasonably unambiguous statement we also have lawyers for saying “Good Morning.”

    In general, barring lawyers at our elbows, it’s best for us all to be more specific than we think necessary and more generous in our interpretations than we think we should have to be — because human language is inefficient and it’s a good way to avoid both going nuts and being screwed.

  14. #14 Danimal
    February 13, 2009

    Well said. As a guy who is bilingual, but doesn’t write well in either language I could not agree with you more with this post. Well communicated and hopefully my post doesn’t unknowingly piss someone off (Isis, Zuska, the Assmonkey). Often what I mean (write) in jest is misinterpreted. Written words lack deliverance (body language). Also I am very sarcastic at times with the intent of being funny. I was only a lurker in this until now.

  15. #15 Radioactive afikomen
    February 13, 2009

    I find this post particularly poignant as someone just coming off of an argument.

    Good food for thought.

  16. #16 Anthony McCarthy
    February 13, 2009

    One of the primary issues in discourse is the real motive behind it. And it quite often isn’t clarity or honesty. On blog threads, the real motive doesn’t often have a lot to do with finding out the truth or finding new facts but in reinforcing attitudes and mouthing rote factoids.
    It’s that way in a lot of interaction but most blog threads seem to run on that kind of motivation. Which makes them a waste of time.

    When someone produces evidence that goes against the prevailing, received viewpoint, the real motive in those kinds of discussions become clear. That’s probably something that you have to cope with instead of correct. The bonding charge that those addicted to that kind of stuff get out it probably guarantees you can’t change it. I think that accounts for the high hit rate for some of the most popular blogs.

    Whether or not you want to put up with the garbage to find the small number of useful ideas is the deciding factor in participating.

  17. #17 chris
    February 13, 2009

    Simply because those in the sciences are trained “from birth” to a limited level of expression (3rd person passive voice) does not mean the language fails…only those who try to use it.

    I didn’t become a scientist until my 20s. And* I’ve never written anything in the 3rd person. I’ll bet I’m not that unusual amongst my scientific brethren (sistren?) in that, either.

    * Yeah, I occasionally slaughter the sacred cow of conjunctions beginning sentences.

  18. #18 scicurious
    February 13, 2009

    Awesome, Janet!! You’re my favorite voice of reason in the blogsphere.

    It is also useful to point out that, though these problems appear in daily speech, they are exacerbated on the internet. I have found that people often have a way of saying something that sounds perfect in their heads, and then proves to be either incomprehensible or offensive on screen (or even when said out loud if they cannot perfect certain aspects of vocal modulation). Think very carefully before you hit “post” or “send”.

  19. #19 ctenotrish
    February 13, 2009

    Whoa, there. I swing by for my Friday Sprog fix, and end up finding one of those unexpected, thought-provoking, change the way I read and write comments posts? Why yes, yes I did. So let me add my voice to those above: Well put, Dr. JS. Cheers, ctenotrish

  20. #20 Hope
    February 13, 2009

    “One of the primary issues in discourse is the real motive behind it.” – I heartily concur! I think that this, rather than the slipperiness of language, is the real problem. Some bloggers treat their blogs like a (public) diary; whether they want to have a conversation with anyone that involves sentiments other than “amen – preach it!” is often unclear.

    “Whether or not you want to put up with the garbage to find the small number of useful ideas is the deciding factor in participating.” – I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that no, it’s just not worth it. *Sigh*

  21. #21 J-Dog
    February 13, 2009

    It might be interesting to also look at the other side of the coin, for example, communicating – or trying to – with someone that you know very well.

    Based on previous past behavior or communication the words ” Is that a new sweater?” could be interpreted as “I can’t believe you are wearing that!”, or “I hope you didn’t spend a lot of money on that sweater!”

    Words are fun, and they mean things, but you can’t go wrong asking ” So, what do you mean?” – unless you do it too darned much!

    This is great Dr. S, but I can’t figure out of your post is good or bad, since it reminds me of my Sociology Of Language class years – I mean decades- ago. Good to be experienced, but good to think back. Either way, thanks.

  22. #22 Tony Jeremiah
    February 13, 2009

    There seem to be two distinct issues you address here, that may interact: (1) writing clarity and (2) the writer’s intent.

    I partially agree with the statement that words are an imperfect tool for communication. The partial agreement comes from the assumption that it is more accurate to say that writers can differ in degree of writing coherency, with coherency partly based on writing ability. So it might be more accurate to say that words are more or less accurate in communicating a writer’s intent, based partly on writing ability. Writing clarity can also be influenced by the writer’s knowledge about what s/he is writing (i.e., greater coherency with more knowledge about what one is writing), the reader’s own background knowledge about what s/he is reading, and as a somewhat more complicated influence, the writer’s intent.

    It’s reasonable to assume that a writer’s intent can be influenced by their emotional state while writing. A writer’s intent can be to display dominance concerning knowledge of a subject, share information, and/or to engage in intellectual discourse. It’s also reasonable to assume that a writer’s intent can be based on the reader’s own interpretation of the writer’s intent, which can be influenced by their own emotional states. Concerning the relationship between clarity and intent, it’s reasonable to assume that clarity decreases when one writes in an emotionally-charged state.

    When words are exchanged in an online environment, there is much greater opportunity for miscommunication given a significant portion of communication is nonverbal, which is non-existent in an online setting; one has to infer intent. Again, this can be influenced by the reader’s emotional while reading and/or the writer’s actual intent (also influenced by emotional state).

    Based on this, it’s probably best when in an online setting, that one waits until a reasonable neutral emotional state is achieved before communicating in an online setting, especially with topics involving significant emotional content (something usually recommended when exchanging emotionally-charged emails).

  23. #23 arvind
    February 13, 2009

    I would like to add to the chorus and say “extremely well said” Dr.Free-ride, but that expression would fall woefully short in describing the awesomeness of this post.

    Also, scicurious’s comment reminded me of this xkcd strip:

    http://xkcd.com/481/

  24. #24 Danimal
    February 13, 2009

    Jan you ROCK!!! It seem most agree. Or should I say Frau Professor Doktor Doktor Janet D. Stemwedel you ROCK!!

  25. #25 Stephanie Z
    February 14, 2009

    As you say, ping.

  26. #26 Azkyroth
    February 14, 2009

    (I should note that while I kind of got the feeling this post was in response to a specific disagreement I hadn’t been following, my corollaries were inspired by general experiences of my own.)

  27. #27 Eva
    February 15, 2009

    Well said! I recently was misunderstood by some people when I wrote a sentence that turned out to have another meaning that I hadn’t seen, and I upset some people who had absolutely no reason to be upset! And that was while I was trying very hard to write clearly, so it was also upsetting to *me* to realize that I wasn’t clear after all…

    But, that being said, this post is itself not entirely clear. As someone who does not read all the science blogs on the net, it is clear that there is something that triggered this. Even though these ideas are clearly always true, it seems very much like something that was set off by an incident, and Stephanie’s post supports that hypothesis. (Here I was very tempted to say “confirms that”, but that isn’t entirely true. As far as I know, she could be seeing things that aren’t there, as just another example of general misunderstandings online. Intuitively, I believe her on the time line of events, though.)

    Either way, if there was a trigger, it would have been useful to acknowledge that in some way, so people could see the context if they wanted to. The post certainly stands well on its own, and I understand why you would rather not have it be part of a link-fest, but it feels very much like something is missing. If there was no trigger, the fact that many people see one is yet another nice example of general misunderstandings online.

    Sigh. So, I have to give a talk in a couple of weeks about why blogging isn’t catching on among scientists, and this is just one of these things. The whole tiny little village atmosphere of “they said this, and he said that, and she did this”. It’s mentally exhausting and time consuming and I wish it wasn’t that way, but at the same time I know it’s unavoidable. Throw a huge group of people together and you’ll get all the things that come with human interaction – even if it’s from behind a computer screen.

  28. #28 Eva
    February 15, 2009

    Wow, I just used up my whole allotment of the word “clear” for the rest of the month with that previous comment, didn’t I?

  29. #29 Heraclides
    February 15, 2009

    I agree with Janet’s sentiment whole-heartedly, but I think as a practical matter people have to also make an effort reading others’ posts.

    At the extreme end of the scale, a few people with “set” views on a subject seem inclined to try to “read a particular tone” into comments, often based on who is writing (or rather who they perceive is writing). For these people it doesn’t seem to matter how much effort you put in!

  30. #30 Lynette
    February 15, 2009

    What Heraclides said.

  31. #31 Diane G
    February 15, 2009

    Best elucidation so far.
    And you’ll excuse me if I say fuck the euphemistic talk and just bookmark this for the next time Greg puts his foot in his mouth and then gets all indignant because we can’t / won’t read his fucking mind.

    Posted by: eh | February 12, 2009 9:05 PM

    Hear, hear!

    & LOL!

    One of the primary issues in discourse is the real motive behind it. And it quite often isn’t clarity or honesty. On blog threads, the real motive doesn’t often have a lot to do with finding out the truth or finding new facts but in reinforcing attitudes and mouthing rote factoids.
    It’s that way in a lot of interaction but most blog threads seem to run on that kind of motivation. Which makes them a waste of time.
    When someone produces evidence that goes against the prevailing, received viewpoint, the real motive in those kinds of discussions become clear. That’s probably something that you have to cope with instead of correct. The bonding charge that those addicted to that kind of stuff get out it probably guarantees you can’t change it. I think that accounts for the high hit rate for some of the most popular blogs.
    Whether or not you want to put up with the garbage to find the small number of useful ideas is the deciding factor in participating.

    Posted by: Anthony McCarthy | February 13, 2009 10:05 AM

    I’ve been formulating a framing of popular blogs involving “fiefdoms and their constituencies of sychophants,” but your more nuanced characterization says it very well…

    As to why blogging is not popular with scientists?–it’s not scientific. The “most popular” on SB are primarily political/philosophical in orientation, subjects traditionally prone to long-windedness & passion (which is not to say they’re not entertaining…)

    One point–online communication is something different from writing, as I well know, being so frequently left in the dust whilst casting around for the right words or just proof-reading…It’s more akin to conversation only w/o, as already noted, the visual and/or aural clues of face-to-face or at least voice-to-ear interaction. …Which is why I finally caved and acknowledged the utility of emoticons, acronyms, etc. :)

    –Diane

  32. #32 Azkyroth
    February 16, 2009

    Another suggestion:

    When you’re actually arguing against, or outright attacking, a third party (either an individual or an abstract representation of a group) who is not present for the discussion, it’s poor form to address your arguments to other commenters in the thread.

  33. #33 Angel
    February 16, 2009

    Well done. I followed the dust-up online and have just done some peace-making/intervention stuff in real world. I would add a corollary to the first corollary:
    If a grown up answer as to why the receiving party was offended is given and the first person re-offends in the same way it can be noted he/she know what they said and meant it. All other claims of innocence are most likey false.

  34. #34 Stephanie Z
    February 16, 2009

    This is also relevant.