Wednesday, December 21, 2011

No True Scotsman

We saw earlier some examples of semantic flummery  in service of an ideology:
E.g. “marriage equality”, “personhood”, and others.  One variety of such footwork is the “No True Scotsman” maneuver, beautifully described by Wikipedia.  Schematically:

Alice: All Scotsmen enjoy haggis.
Bob: My uncle is a Scotsman, and he doesn't like haggis!
Alice: Well, all true Scotsmen like haggis.

The maneuver is more colloquially known as "moving the goalposts".

The latest example appears in this morning’s New York Times:  "For the first time ever, a government advisory board is asking scientific journals not to publish details of certain biomedical experiments."
A unit of the NIH has asked scientists to withhold certain dangerous details about recent discoveries with  the bird-flu A(H5N1), details which could be of  value to bioterrorists.   Naturally we anticipate squawks about "censorship"  from libertarians.  Bruce Alberts, the editor of America’s most prestigious general-science weekly, Science, and sympathetic to the request, palters with semantics  thus:

“I wouldn’t call this censorship,” Dr. Alberts said. “This is trying to avoid inappropriate censorship.”

Nonsense.  Of course it’s censorship;  NIH is simply arguing (correctly, I believe) that this is an instance of appropriate, of justified censorship.   During the World Wars -- back when we had a War Department rather than a euphemized “Defense” Department -- the government made no bones about calling wartime censorship by its name; since then we have become more mealy-mouthed.   In like fashion, sanctions against falsely crying “Fire” in a crowded theatre  do indeed infringe Free Speech, despite the semantic side-steps of the obfuscationists;  and are right to do so.

Just a note -- no longer about semantics, but about free-speech and its dangers. It is a commonplace of the history of science that, as soon as we know that a thing can be done, even though the details of the successful techniques be not broadly known,  the success tends to be replicated around the world.   Thus, simply having revealed that a bit of poking-about in the lab can breed A(H5N1) into a deadly spreadable pathogen, has already made us all a bit less safe.  That may be a price worth paying for the free exchange of scientific information;  but just so you know.

[Update 19 Sept 2014]  From this perspective, we can conveniently assess the results of yesterday's referendum:

Scotland just voted unanimously for independence !!

For, anyone who voted against independence  is No True Scotsman.

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