Monday, February 1, 2010

How to make a point

When we don't like what someone is saying/thinking/propagating, particularly in the political sphere, we tend to shout at them. By "shouting" I don't necessarily mean raising one's voice, but it certainly indicates rising temper. People shout a lot on their blogs, and I've done far more than my share in the past.

But it's always greatly bothered me that anyone (myself included) should have to descend to the low level implied by "shouting" when there are better ways to make a point. As a nice recent example, I quote a dialogue from a blog maintained by a physicist called "Lubos". I won't link to his blog, which you're free to look for if you want, and I won't say more about him here precisely because it's hard for me to do so without shouting. In fact I suggest you don't visit his blog since you'll very likely end up shouting.

Instead (like me, on this occasion) try to appreciate that this particular debate has a clear winner, and it's not the one who shouted. Rather, it's another blogger called Eman, about whom I know nothing except for the admirable and even inspiring tone of her (or his) postings. The following exchange (I've corrected a few obvious typos but left others in) says it all. Please read.


reader Eman said

Dear Dr.Lubos

Thank you for your blog. I have a comment about the following: "On the other hand, I do feel that the assassinations of their key nuclear folks could be the most human way to stop the nuclear threat coming from Iran". Do you think if Arab countries started targeting Israeli nuclear scientists, would the world justify what they are doing? As the western world see Iran as a threat, Arab countries share the same fearing regarding Israel? I don't see targeting scientists human at all.

My Regards


Dear Eman,

Thanks for your comments. Well, I am not an Arab which might be the reason why I don't share the thinking you attribute to the Arabs but do share the thinking you attribute to the West. They're not "equally" valid. One of them is correct and the other one is wrong.

First, Israel probably has its nuclear weapons already. It's too late to target Israeli scientists.

Second, it's clearly not what the assertive Muslims want, anyway. Israel is dangerous for them by its very existence, because it shows that Allah doesn't have and can't have the control even over the Middle East, so He clearly can't control the world. They're bothered by the very existence of a state of a highly achieved nation - the Jews - and they want to remove it off the map. We've heard many of these things and continuing terrorist attacks at various places show that these are not just words.

This threat - especially from Iran - must be taken seriously because millions of lives could be at stake. 20th century nuclear technology in the hands of 1st-millenium-style religious bigots is simply a dangerous combination that must be prevented. It's being prevented by a combination of diplomacy and military decisions that could include bombing of the military sites in Iran and probably bigger ones in the future. This could bring some casualties. Assassinations of the individuals who actually do this research could be more human - a question would be whether it would be enough. It's surely not perfectly human, but there are no perfectly human solutions to certain big enough threats that Israel and the West is facing.


reader Eman said...

Hello Dr.Lubos
I think the west don't understand the arab world well. I am an Arab. Arabs is bothered from Israel, because it occupied an Arab Land. Israel has been established by expelling the natives (palestanians) out of their homeland. Before 1948 Israel was not on the map. There were only palestanians. I don't call for expelling jews from palestine, but a fair solution for Israeli people and palestanians. There are alot of Arab christians who share the same fearing towards Israel, they are not muslims to think they want God to control all the middle east. I don't hate jews, they are my human fellows. But I wouldn't at all support any kind of unjustice toward any race .

And what Israel is doing with palestanians is for sure unjustice.




Dear Eman,

please try to learn how to spell "Palestinians" (which is nothing else than Arabs who live on the full territory of Israel).

Israel was not on the map in 1947 but only Jews were on the de facto (cultural and political) map in 1000 BC, 10 BC, 100 AD, and so on.

1948 is closer than the dates above - but all of them belong to the distant history. We live in 2010 and Israel surely IS on the map. Could you please kindly notice and stop assuming that it's not on the map and/or dreaming that it is not on the map?

I think it's very obvious that the existence of people like you in an alive form is a direct threat to the lives of millions of Jews who live in their old homeland.

Best wishes


reader Eman said




Rahul Basu said...

He is supposed to be a scientist (string theorist?) who are expected to think rationally. I am ashamed for my species.

BTW his present post has a hefty amount of Rajendra Pachauri bashing. (Mr Motl, apart from his other sterling qualities, also appears to be a climate change denier). And his post and the comments following have, in keeping with the general tone of this reading matter, a healthy dose of old fashioned racism. (Did Pachauri really write this book?)

Need to wash my face and hands, after this...

Sunil Mukhi said...

Yes Rahul, not just a racist but a white supremacist (who once claimed on his blog that Indians, among others, are less intelligent than white people, and then added with exquisite condescension: "which makes it all the more remarkable that the Indian physicists I know are so smart" or words to that effect).

But I fear that I (and you) digressed from the point. The Motls are a dime a dozen, but it's the Emans who really inspire.

I'm reminded of the following fable: A sadhu is found to be carrying a priceless diamond around with him. A greedy shopkeeper in the village covets it and steals it when the sadhu is apparently sleeping. But the sadhu opens an eye and says "oh you can keep it if you like, I really didn't need it anyway". Thereafter the shopkeeper falls at the sadhu's feet and says "I don't want the diamond. I want whatever it is you have that allows you to give away the diamond so easily."

Me likewise. I want whatever it is Eman has, that empowers her (I assume "her" is correct) to answer a Motl in such even-handed, humane and gentle terms. This is true strength of character. Notice even the restrained eloquence of her concluding "thank you", resisting the temptation to offer a stinging retort.

I should mention that this dialogue haunted me for several days after I first came across it, which is why I thought of posting it here.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Sunil - if you are a regular reader of Motl's blog you must be a masochist :) Or perhaps someone else pointed you to that dialogue.

Yes, responses on the lines of Eman's are rare, but no less cutting (perhaps more cutting) than a "shouting" response. Unfortunately, understated irony, or even politeness, are not widely understood these days. Motl does a fine job of discrediting himself. In fact, I am sure he thinks in what passes for his mind that he has found a new convert.

Rahul Basu said...

Well, to be fair (to all sides really and I am not considering the Motl side) the Eman's of this world are rather rare -- whether Arab or Israeli. It is a rare trait independent of species.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Rahul S: No I'm not a regular reader of LM's blog and went there recently only to see whether there was a discussion on the recent proposal by Erik Verlinde that gravity is an entropic force. There was indeed quite an interesting discussion (I may try to blog about this topic sometime), and it included a nontrivial debate between LM and Erik and others, but in the end LM abusively trampled on everyone and that was that.

Once there, I ended up drifting through the blog (quite possibly out of masochism as you say), and like the proverbial lotus blooming in the muck, Eman's comments rewarded my efforts.

Rahul B: Yes that is my point exactly. I don't want you to faint at my new-found (and possibly short-lived) humility, but this little exchange made me realise there is a way I would like to be, which I am not at present.

Anirbit said...

I feel very peaceful to see you disagree with Lubos's general trend of argument. Especially to see that you too like me see a racist and white supremacy tone in many of his writings.

Earlier when I said that in public some devotees of Lubos Motl in TIFR came down upon me saying how could I say that when he has such great publications in string theory especially since he did all his "big" things as a grad student.

For one thing I am not capable of judging his scientific achievement since I don't know any String Theory and further I couldn't see how that could have any correlation to his having or not-having racist ideas.

Last year I had tried commenting on his blog where he seemed to have dumped all the blame for global warming and pollution on the developing countries and he seemed to propose that the "first world" countries need not feel obliged to do anything to reduce global warming. He seemed to take the stance that the developed world participating in reversing global warming was like "white man's burden".

So I had commented that at the verge of a possible crisis it doesn't seem prudent to debate whose fault is it since if disaster strikes nature will not distinguish between "first world" and "third world". Instead if global warming is scientifically established to be a serious threat then everyone should participate in the safety measures.

Somehow Lubos labelled me as a "third world communist" for proposing such ideas!

I failed to understand further as to how suddenly communism entered a global warming discussion or what exactly did "communism" have to do at all with what I was saying which seemed very simple and obvious stuff to me!

Sunil Mukhi said...

Good for you Anirbit. When LM loses a logical argument he lashes out with a personal attack, very much like a little child smashing the crockery and bursting into tears. What's good is that people like you (and Eman) handled your side of the argument with logic and patience. I really believe that combination always wins in the end.