Wednesday, 29 August 2012

'Because It's There' And Other Bad Reasons for Using Twitter

These days it seems like every time I go online I see a new communications person (usually a former communications staffer with some big organization) offering their services as a Twitter guru of some kind. Everywhere you go, somebody seems to be offering seminars like 'Twitter for non-profits' or 'How to maximize your marketing reach through Twitter'. Far be it for me to pooh-pooh anybody offering such services, it does lead me to wonder if the corporate and non-profit world's current obsession with Twitter is becoming a tad overkill.

Don't get me wrong - I like Twitter a lot and find it a very useful tool - one that I'm still learning. But the current Twitter craze is reminding me in many ways of the ESL/EFL obsession that took hold in East Asia in the late-1980s and 1990s. For a time it seems like just about everybody in Japan, Korea and Taiwan (and later in Mainland China) was convinced that mastery of the language of King James and Mickey Mouse was the solution to absolutely every problem and English conversation schools began to outnumber noodle stalls and karaoke bars in Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei. At the peak of this craze, advertising for language school chains like Japan's once-supreme but now largely eclipsed NOVA bordered on the insane (and borderline sexual), featuring handsome, impeccably groomed American men bestowing magical English fairy dust on grateful young Japanese women. Who knew English was such an aphrodisiac?

This wasn't a good reason in high school and it still isn't.
The current Twitter obsession - at least among North American businesses and organizations - is not far from this. Everyone seems to want to use it, and if they are using it they want to be using it better than anybody else - or at least better than their competitors. There are currently more social media monitoring tools out there than I can name and every self-styled communications blogger purports to have some kind of 'edge' on Twitter to share with the world. But when it comes down to it, Twitter, like the English language, is a tool, and like any other tool it's not going to suit every job or every organization. And like any type of tool - be it a saw, a chisel or a shotgun, it requires a need in order to be of any use.

For an organization considering adopting Twitter as a tool, there are three obvious (at least to me) questions that its communications staffers need to ask themselves, namely
  • Do I have a story to tell that lends itself to 140-character vignettes?
  • Do I have important information to disseminate?
  • Is there anybody else out there who is already disseminating this information effectively?
  • Do I have the time and the resources to devote to the upkeep of this tool? (See last week's post on the similarities between having a dog and having a social media tool.)

These are not easy questions to answer and require a great deal of thought and research. However, the following criteria are more straightforward, namely a list of wrong reasons to be on Twitter. If you're thinking about adopting Twitter as a tool - and any of the following rationales for adopting it apply - I think it would be wise to re-examine your priorities.

Useful tools in some professions but perhaps not yours

1) Because it's there.

This old mountaineering adage holds no water when it comes to social media tools. A lot of things are there. There's Twitter, yes. There's also Foursquare. There's Yammer. There's the now completely ubiquitous and unsexy Facebook. Hell, there's your frickin' telephone! Just because it's there to be used doesn't necessarily mean that you should be using it.

2) Because it's cool.

No, it really isn't. Even if this were a legitimate reason for using Twitter, this now six-year-old digital tool lost just about any claim to 'coolness' it ever had at least four years ago. In fact it was pretty much officially declared uncool in 2008 - and is now firmly into Facebookville.

3) Because everybody else is using it.

Now this actually is cool!
Actually, this isn't true. In my own research of airport social media best practices, I was surprised to learn that Montréal-Trudeau International Airport doesn't use Twitter at all. In fact they've sized up the tool on several different occasions and each time come to the conclusion that it didn't suit their needs, and in fact would be an unnecessary drain on their resources. Instead they invested in creating a mobile app which, since it's launch at the tail end of 2011, has proven to be very popular among Montrealers. This app, coupled with the airport's old-fashioned phone hotline, do pretty much anything a Twitter feed is designed to do - without the human resources required to be constantly manning a Twitter feed. Sometimes the old tools really are the best ones.

4) I'll look like a laggard if I'm not on Twitter.

Again, not true. Unless you're in a job like mine where you're actively involved in researching what tools different companies and organizations are using, nobody is out there sussing out whether or not you, personally, are tweeting or not. And if they are they've got WAY too much time on their hands. Truth be told, if your organization is communicating well with the tools it's using, nobody is going to fixate on the tools you're not using. Really, nobody cares!

5) I need it to establish myself as a source of first resort in my area.

This may or may not be a legitimate reason for being on Twitter, but it leads back to the original point about whether a) you really do have unrivalled access to certain information and can provide it better than other organizations, and b) you have the time and human resources to devote to the task. The latter point is the undoing of some organizations that leap into Twitterstan before thinking through what they hope to achieve with it. And the trouble with establishing yourself as a source of first resort on anything is that people come to expect this of you - and failing to deliver the goods in this regard will do far more damage to your organization's reputation than not being on Twitter in the first place ever could.

6) The board of directors wants me to.


7) I like the cute birdie symbol.

I've never actually heard this articulated as a rationale for using Twitter, but it's probably safe to say it's not a good reason for doing so. Perhaps you might consider a company mascot - and hiring an 18-year-old kid to stand outside the building in a bird costume. At least the kid can go home at 5 pm and leave the bird costume at the office.

P.S. Christina Rontynen, if you're reading this post, my whole business about Twitter educators was in no way directed at you. And if you are looking for a great social media consultant and educator - and you happen to be in the Calgary area, Christina, the President of CIPR Communications and currently a digital media advisor for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, really knows her stuff. You can follow her on Twitter at @crontynen or check out her cheeky political blog (which she co-authors with her husband Peter Pilarski) at

Friday, 24 August 2012

10 Social Media Rules I Learned From My Dogs

My wife and I are proud parents of the two most wonderful creatures on earth. Both of them came to us from A Better Chance Animal Rescue shelter in Pincher Creek during the summer of 2008 and have been with us through for very challenging but transformational years for us both. Deedee is an eight-year-old Bichon Frise/Poodle cross and Mochi is a Pomeranian/American Eskimo cross of the same age. While we've only had them for four years, these two ridiculous little love balls are so firmly entrenched themselves into my life that I can scarcely remember what life was like without them around.

As a writer, much of my output over the past few years has been crafted with little Mochi curled up catlike in my lap, with Deedee occasionally pestering me with a toy when she decides I've clearly been sitting on my ass for long enough and it's time I moved my body. While I have nothing against cats or cat people per se (and many of my best writer friends are feline devotees), I've always been of the opinion that dogs are a wise choice of companion for anyone in any creative vocation that involves a lot of sitting and typing. As a writer, it would be very easy to become completely sedentary, and dogs are probably the single best safeguard (with the possible exception of human children) against this problem.

My beloved social media consultants
Over the past couple of years I've become heavily involved in a variety of social media tools and strategies. While my pre-PR self was largely ambivalent to social media, I've since embraced it with full aplomb and found that it suits my eclectic interests, my taste for pithy, compact messaging and my borderline ADD personality. As I've become more and more enmeshed with the SM tools I use, I've come to view my blog, my Twitter feed and my Facebook page as pets of a sort, pets that need to be fed, taken for regular walks, taught new tricks, disciplined on occasion and otherwise given attention. And as a dog parent, such commitments are old hat.

While I most definitely would not advocate discrimination against non-dog owners in any capacity, I do suspect that if I were hiring a social media coordinator and I had two otherwise equally qualified candidates, I might be inclined to go with the candidate with a dog at home. (And if they both have dogs, I'd have to figure out some other way of deciding.) I would certainly be interested in hearing from the cat owners who read this blog - I know who you are - on any similar parallels to life with miniature panthers prowling the house. I can only speak to life with dogs, but the parallels between canine companionship and a thriving social media existence are undeniable.

1) It's a bona-fide commitment.

I should preface this point by saying that I in no way equate abandoned blogs with abandoned dogs. Abandoned blogs, of which there are many, merely clutter up cyberspace, whereas abandoned dogs, of which there are also far too many, are condemned to a horrible and terrifying existence that no sophisticated being should have to endure. Nevertheless, the type of commitment that's required in maintaining a successful blog or an otherwise substantial social media presence is akin to that of having a dog in your life. That dog needs to be fed, given stimulation and otherwise attended to. And while a neglected Twitter feed or blog may not poop on your rug as a statement, it's still a visible stain on your online presence.

2) Consistent daily routines work best.

Anyone with a dog in their life knows the importance of daily routines. Dogs are creatures of habit and are generally happiest when they know when to expect their walks and when to expect their meals. If you've got this in place, you can leave them alone for much of the day feeling confident that they won't get stressed and destructive. The same goes for social media. The best way to get it working for you is to be consistent in your timing and quantity of postings so that your publics follow your rhythms. Once you start skipping out on your morning Tweets and Facebook posts and things fall out of sync, you lose your two-way communication - just as skipping out on walks disrupting patterns is a great way to have bratty hounds on your hands.

3) Consistent messaging is the key.

The key to teaching dogs new tricks, as any dog owner knows, is consistency. Use the same key word and the same gesture over and over again and chances are they'll finally get the hang of it - and before long it'll be ingrained in their muscle memory. At eight years of age (firmly in middle age), Deeded is still learning new tricks, constantly challenging us to up the ante. The same rule applies to digital PR. If you want to get messages across, be it the importance of transparency on the part of construction unions or the exciting new routes offered at your local airport, consistency is key. Keep plugging away at those key words and your publics will catch on.

4) At the same time, don't be too repetitive.

If you're churning out exactly the same message ad nauseam, your audience will eventually tune out. Likewise, if you walk your dogs on exactly the same route every day and only do the same three tricks with them ever, you'll have under-stimulated and probably frustrated dogs. Keep that consistent messaging but take different approaches - an online promotion, a survey, photos and video, et cetera. This is the SM equivalent of spicing things up with your canine friends and taking an occasional trip to a beach or a set of trails you rarely visit.  

5) Don't micromanage your networks.

When dogs mingle in off-leash areas or at stay-n-play facilities, the animals invariably go through a process of sizing one another up and figuring out a pecking order. Sometimes this results in small spats between dogs, and as a dog parent it's sometimes hard not to intervene and 'tell off' a dog that's exhibiting dominant behaviour. Nevertheless, this is a natural process for dogs, which have inherited the hierarchical instincts of their lupine ancestors, and something that's best left to the dogs themselves to deal with. Such is also the way with social media publics. While you provide the structure, the only way to have truly free-flowing two-way communication is to let your people sniff each others' butts and find their natural place in the mix.

6) But do lay down the law when necessary.

Anyone who has watched The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan knows about the importance of asserting leadership with your dog and making sure you remain the Alpha. The same applies to your social media publics. When discussions get out of hand, shut it down, invite the person in question to communicate with you offline or otherwise do what you have to do to diffuse the situation and restore order to your communication networks.

7) Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries!

Dog owners know all about that fine line between giving your four-legged friend the tender loving care and attention they deserve and letting them completely dominate your life. Likewise, any social media manager who values their sanity needs to fit downtime into their life. Dogs, if permitted to do so, will very happily leap onto the kitchen table and eat directly off your plate - and once you let them do that they'll get positively tetchy when you deny them that privilege. As for social media, some positions do indeed require that you be 'on-call' when off-duty (especially anything involving crisis communication), but even in positions like that (especially in position like that), offline time is a must in order to avoid burnout.

8) Take sensible precautions and be vigilant.

Being a responsible dog owner means following municipal bylaws and taking sensible precautions like neutering/spaying and de-worming your animals, making sure they see a vet on a regular basis and otherwise ensuring the safety of your dog - and the rest of the public. In social media terms, this means ensuring you have the necessary firewalls and antivirus software in place, that staff usage policies (whatever they be) are clearly communicated and that rules are being followed. A lack of online safeguards has the potential to do great harm to your organization, just as an unhealthy and uncontrolled dog will cause great harm not only to itself but also to other dogs and potentially humans. While excessive vigilance is counterproductive, normal precautions should keep your social media activities - and life with Fido - running smoothly.

9) Have fun and be engaged.

Dogs, above all, are fun and highly entertaining animals with completely addictive personalities. While many dog behaviour experts advise against thinking of your dog as a miniature human, they do nonetheless possess wonderfully complex personalities which make them absolutely marvellous and enriching company - provided you really, truly engage with them. Likewise, the social media world is a beguiling and often amusing petri dish of human interaction. As the social media voice of a company or organization, conveying an appealing brand identity means engaging with people in a friendly and human manner. A push-only approach characterized by automaton-type posts is a waste of effort. Spirited exchanges with your publics is not only good for your company and your brand but will also make your job a whole lot more fun.

10) Old dogs do learn new tricks.
The old girl's still got game!

As I mentioned earlier in this post, Deedee, age eight, is still learning new tricks. In fact she seems to be a late bloomer in this department, like a 50-year-old human who gets fired up to return to grad school or return to a long-neglected musical instrument with a vengeance. Likewise, older audiences should not be discounted as social media publics. Recent research in the US showed that a full half of adults aged 65 and up are now online and one out of three online seniors regularly uses social networking sites. While social media coordinators still tend to view their assumed public as under 50, this is increasingly not the case - and messaging should not be exclusively aimed at younger demographics. Likewise, don't assume that your 10-year-old pooch isn't up to learning to do a figure eight or speak on command. It happens.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Postcards from PR Purgatory - 9 Reasons Why Todd Akin's Career Is Toast

The only thing more stunning than Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin's jaw-droppingly stupid and offensive remarks about rape and pregnancy over the weekend was the swiftness and decisiveness with which his party dropped the hammer on him. While it's still too early to conduct a full post-mortem on Akin's seppuku moment this weekend, it would appear - at least for now - that the once-high-flying Republican senate candidate's career is well down the crapper. After all, politics does occasionally require a human sacrifice, and this particular lamb was begging to have its throat slit.

Prior to this weekend, the Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Missouri's 2nd district appeared likely to succeed in unseating the state's Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. That is until Sunday, August 19, when the hardline anti-abortionist politician defended his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape with the following words:

"From what I understand from doctors, [impregnation from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child."

It's difficult to know where to begin with this. Stepping aside from the fierce misogyny on display here, one is hard-pressed to think of a more ridiculous statement ever made by an elected politician in a First World democracy. Even Iranians generally have a better grasp of reproductive science than this guy. Making it all the more terrifying to people with brains is the fact that this buffoon, as member of the US House of Representatives, sits on the  House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. This is the same man who was instrumental in passing Missouri’s 'Right to Pray' amendment, which allows school children to opt out of any educational assignments that conflict with their beliefs - specifically sex ed. This is the equivalent of appointing Osama bin Laden to the Department of Homeland Security.
"Things in the grammatical realm that is counter to how they're supposed to be"

Of course, Todd Akin is merely the tip of the iceberg. Numerous commentators have remarked that Akin's views are in fact compatible with the mainstream of US Republican social conservatism. On the abortion front, some have noted that newly minted GOP VP candidate Paul Ryan is a co-sponsor (along with Akin and 62 others) of a 'personhood' bill that defines human life as beginning at fertilization, a bill that many believe would also outlaw birth control and in-vitro fertilization. As for misogynistic statements, few excelled in this category quite like former Republican leadership candidate Rick Santorum, who famously condemned legalized abortion as "license to do things in the sexual realm that is [sic] counter to how things are supposed to be." In other words, don't be a slut.

Speaking of slutdom, Santorum and his ilk can scarcely hold a candle to some of the more egregious statements made over the years by the US right wing's favourite talking heads. Conservative radio shock-jock Rush Limbaugh stirred up consternation earlier this year when he called Georgetown University Law Center student Sandra Fluke a 'slut' and 'prostitute' for her support of mandating insurance coverage for contraceptives. Half a year later, he's still on the air, with most stations standing with him. Rush's female counterpart Ann Coulter once famously advocated revoking women's right to vote, while also advocating a Middle East policy along the lines of "Attack their cities, assassinate their leaders and convert the people to Christianity." She still sells books. And then there's the late Reverend Jerry Falwell who infamously welcomed the 9/11 attacks as divine punishment. His death sparked an outpouring of eulogies.

Blatantly misogynistic remarks have long been par for the course among GOP politicians. In 1990, Texas Republican gubernatorial nominee Clayton Williams infamously compared rape to the ever-changing Texas weather, remarking that “As long as it’s inevitable you might as well lie back and enjoy it.” More recently, millionaire Santorum backer Foster Friess quipped that women ought to use aspirin to pregnancy, specifically by "putting it between their knees." Words such as these are a sadly apt reflection of the party's policy agenda, which has included defunding Planned Parenthood and allowing employers to deny insurance coverage for anything deemed morally or religiously objectionable to employers, such as contraception, HIV/Aids testing and pre-natal care for single women.

Considering the Republican Party's horrible track record on issues of consequence to the 50-plus percentage of the American public with ovaries, the swiftness of the rebuke against Todd Akin seems like a remarkable change of tune. And yet, in the scarcely 24 hours since the prospective senator's badly chosen words, Republican leader Mitt Romney and the entire GOP apparatus have been on the rampage in their quest to drive Akin out of the senate race. While Clayton Williams and other unreformed misogynists within the GOP might have escaped with their careers intact, it is looking increasingly as though Akin has kicked his own political bucket.

Why him and not others before him? Here are nine reasons why Akin won't be bouncing back from this one anytime soon - if at all.

1) His remarks were equal parts misogynistic and idiotic.

Calling Sandra Fluke a "slut" for advocating on behalf of contraception or telling women that they should "just lie back and enjoy it" are awful things to say for any right-thinking human being. Akin's remarks this weekend are equal to the aforementioned ones in the woman-hating department (What exactly is 'legitimate' rape, Mr. Akin?) while at the same time astonishingly stupid and ignorant - not to mention completely indefensible on any medical grounds. Moreover, his claim to have been informed by "doctors" that the female body has "ways to try to shut that whole thing down" can only mean that he was lying or that he keeps company with terrifyingly negligent medical professionals. Regardless, in politics you can generally get away with being an moron or a douchebag. Being both at the same time is a liability.

2) The GOP has reached the tipping point on this issue.

Akin's comments this week are regrettably simply the latest in a long list of anti-woman outbursts from the Republican Party - a fact that the party's mandarins are without doubt acutely aware. This latest stunner comes not long after Friess' Aspirin remark and Limbaugh's outburst against Sandra Fluke, and Romney and company - eager to avoid alienating every single woman in the country - are treading carefully. In the end, the GOP will have to persuade at least some women to vote for it if they want to form the next US government.

3) Akin is an elected official, not a media pundit.

Limbaugh and Coulter could probably have gotten away with this. They are, after all, talking heads who make a living by offending liberal sensibilities - and as such are accorded greater latitude. (Granted, Rush's ferocious backpedaling in the aftermath of the Sandra Fluke controversy showed that even a shock jock like himself doesn't necessarily have a get-out-of-jail-free card for this sort of thing.) Nevertheless, somebody like Rush can count on their grassroots supporters to sustain their livelihood in the wake of potentially debilitating controversies. Akin, on the other hand, whose career depends on a mandate from the masses, enjoys no such latitude.

4) He doesn't have a religious title.

In his famously vitriolic 'eulogy' for the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Christopher Hitchens remarked that "You can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called 'reverend'." While many took offence to his posthumous pillorying of the late televangelist and political commentator, Hitch does have a point. Be it Falwell's extraordinarily insensitive remarks in the aftermath of 9/11 or Pat Robertson's equally appalling explanations for Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake, preachers - at least in the US - seem to get away with barking mad statements with alarming frequency. In fact it seems to go with the job.

5) He doesn't have the necessary eccentric charisma to pull this sort of thing off.

There is a certain type of politician that seems to be able to weather any and all shitstorms. London mayor Boris Johnson has, since assuming office in 2008, managed to offend just about everybody from the Irish to Papua New Guineans. Tokyo's beloved trashy author-turned-ultranationalist governor Shintaro Ishihara makes Johnson look like a lightweight in the offensive remarks category, picking fights with everyone from the French to elderly women who he once opined were “useless” beyond their reproductive years. If you're going to make a career as an eccentric rottweiler, you either have to be an equal-opportunity douchebag like Ishihara or a specialist prick like far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders who has made a career out of being a professional Islamophobe. Either way, you have to truly own your offensiveness.

6) The GOP doesn't need him.

Akin's remarks have made him a liability to the Republican Party in the face of a key senate race in which his continued presence looked to make a walkover for Democrat Claire McCaskill. And with little national profile beyond his home state (at least until his remarks on rape this weekend), he probably doesn't seem worth the PR effort from the standpoint of the party loyal. In other words, the party will probably have no reservations about throwing Akin under the proverbial bus should it prove expeditious to do so. And it's certainly looking that way.

7) Social conservatism is on the wane.

When George W. Bush was elected in 2000, social conservatism was on the march and the Republican Party - abetted by outgoing president Clinton's marital indiscretions while in office - could claim to its supporters that it held the moral high ground. Not so in 2012.With gaping economic disparities, stubbornly high unemployment, a widespread distaste for Bush-era neoconservatism and a rejuvenated secularist backlash against the religious right, the evangelical wing of the Republican Party doesn't have the same power that it had a decade ago. After a nauseatingly unimpressive parade of candidates rose and fell like a procession of lemmings, the GOP finally coalesced around a priggish Northeastern plutocrat (of downplayed Mormon faith) running on the basis of being a successful businessman and not being Barack Obama. In 2012, social conservatism is a side-dish but most definitely not the entree.

8) Ageist double-standards.

At 65 years of age, Akin is no Paul Ryan. And unfortunately, we live in an ageist culture where idiotic remarks are more likely to be forgiven if the speaker is of a youthful disposition. In fact, there is little if any difference between Ryan's stated views on abortion and Akin's, but Ryan's youthful image coupled with his fiscal conservative and Tea Party cred will invariably see him through. American culture is notoriously ageist, and as such Akin's seniority and lack of media moxie are definite strikes against him.

9) Two words - social media.

When Clayton Williams compared rape to the Texas climate back in 1990, there was no Twitter or Facebook to circulate his remarks. And while he lost the 1990 gubernatorial race, he only did so by a narrow margin and remained a popular figure and emerged again as a major fundraiser for John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008 - at which time his 1990 remarks re-emerged as a point of controversy. Had he made those same comments today, they would have been circulated through cyberspace in no time and would invariably have resulted in greater political damage.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Aboriginal Science - Pseudoscience Or Valid Paradigm?

These days, skepticism seems to be all the rage. Thanks to the onslaught of the 'nu-atheism' over the past decade as exemplified by Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali as well as the exploits of celebrity debunkers like James Randi and Michael Shermer, mainstream intellectual culture appears to have taken a much-needed turn away from lukewarm political correctness to the point where skepticism and secular humanism is the new new-age spirituality. While 'atheist' remains a loaded term, 'skeptic' anymore is tantamount to 'intelligent' - at least in the less benighted corners of the developed world.

The Webster-Merriam Dictionary defines skepticism first and foremost as "an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object," while also noting the term's frequent use within the context of religious faith. These days, skepticism is largely synonymous not only with the world's major religions but also with new-age beliefs, alternative healing modalities, traditional worldviews and anything else deemed pseudoscientific. And in the hard-edged world of the nu-atheists, this means a no-quarter attitude to many of the cultural sensitivities that we've learned to take to heart. After all, how can we criticize Southern Baptist faith healing without applying the same standard to Inuit shamanism or Ibo animism. To do so would be cultural relativism, which, the skeptical argument goes, is far more racist and orientalist than applying an even standard to all of the world's cultures and creeds.

The trouble with the skeptic movement - if you can call it that - is that there does exist a fine line between skeptical inquiry and cultural imperialism. And while I agree with Sam Harris and others that entire groups of people can indeed be wrong on scientific as well as moralistic fronts (the Taliban being a textbook case), I also take the view that as skeptical inquirers we need to be careful when stepping onto unfamiliar cultural terrain and indeed 'skeptical' of our own intellectual grounding. Such is the case of so-called 'Aboriginal science', a term that has gained considerable traction in Canada as well as in Australia over the past decade. A growing chorus of indigenous intellectuals, together with their non-Aboriginal supporters, have taken the position that indigenous knowledge has historically been written out of the mainstream (i.e. Euro-American) scientific narrative and that 'Aboriginal science' should be elevated to a position equal to that of 'western science'.

Important learning....but does that make it science?
There are several obvious problems with this argument from a skeptical standpoint. For one, it implies that 'science' is a cultural construct - and that this construct is intrinsically western. It also implies, much the same way that religions do, that there are multiple truths and that all points of view should be given equal weight regardless of how well they stand up to objective 'scientific' scrutiny. At first glance, this argument sounds disturbingly similar to the argument put forth by advocates of 'Intelligent Design' creationism, who routinely cast the mainstream scientific community as a sort of intellectual cartel dead-set on silencing theories that don't mesh with its ideological (read Darwinist) axioms.

At first glance, the Aboriginal science argument indeed sounds a lot like the intelligent design argument. Aboriginal science advocates such as George Hobson argue that western scientists "have a tendency to reject the traditional knowledge of native peoples as anecdotal, non-quantitative, without method and unscientific." A 2005 article in the University of Victoria newspaper The Ring makes similar claims, namely that 'western science' has effectively written out an equally valid scientific viewpoint. In this article, Gloria Snively, an associate professor of science, environmental and marine education, asserts that:

"The big, central questions here are what is science, and is aboriginal knowledge science. We're saying it is science, and that every culture has its own science. Right now, there's a complete blank—traditional knowledge is not only devalued, for most teachers it doesn't exist."

Is this simply pseudoscience along the lines of intelligent design creationism? To my mind, the answer is yes and no. Given that the generally accepted definition of science the world over is that of a quantitative, non-anecdotal approach to studying the universe, it is probably fair to say that the traditional oral transmission of knowledge does not constitute a separate 'science'. Science requires universal applicability in order to be of any consequence, which makes the notion of separate sciences abjectly non-scientific. On the other hand, it's an indisputable truth that North America's indigenous people possess vast knowledge of the lands they have inhabited for millennia, and that this knowledge has been systematically overlooked by Euro-American scholars. In this sense, the advocates of 'Aboriginal science' have a very strong case indeed.

While it's easy for western scientists to reject the notion of an 'Aboriginal science' on the grounds that science is simply science and belongs to no specific culture, such arguments do little to curry favour with ethnic and cultural groups that have for centuries been consigned to the margins of our society. Science may indeed be simply science, but the cultures that have dominated its language, its institutions and its practice have for centuries been white westerners (as well as, of course, men, which remains a significant problem in our culture). Moreover, traditional knowledge indeed has a colossal amount to offer to scientific knowledge, particularly in regards to its practical applications in terms of sustainable living.

It's still a bunch of white dudes.

To mind, the crux of the problem is linguistic and cultural rather than scientific. While few - if any - of my scientist friends would deny the importance of learning from all available sources and maintaining an open mind, most would invariably balk at the notion of separate 'sciences' based on cultural delineations. Science is indeed science - an ever-expanding body of knowledge that has benefited from wave after wave of discovery and innovation, much of which (especially over the past couple of centuries) has come out of the 'western' world. On the other hand, the word 'science' has, thanks to Euro-American parochialism and patriarchy, become synonymous with grey-haired white men in lab coats (in other words people who look and sound like Richard Dawkins). No amount of 'skepticism' can erase this fact, and to those who have been excluded for centuries, this matters a lot.

The word 'science' is a loaded word, a word which to many is - wrongly or not - synonymous with Eurocentric intellectual elitism. This, to my mind, is the main shortfall of the nu-atheism movement heralded by Dawkins and others. While Dawkins is a canny communicator, a phenomenal wordsmith and arguably the best PR man ever thrown up by science, he and his fellow travellers fail to adequately acknowledge their own inherent privilege - and how that privilege is perceived by people from other socioeconomic and cultural background who might otherwise embrace their worldview. If I were a scientist eager to encourage all of humanity to climb aboard Spaceship Science, I would be making it my mission to demonstrate how all cultures throughout history have contributed to the betterment of scientific knowledge and address this all-important issue of privilege. Call it political correctness if you like. I just call it good communication.

We need a lot more of these.
From Aboriginal standpoint, this means not only greater collaboration between scientists and Aboriginal elders but also improved science education in reserve schools, for which increased funding is needed. It means more Aboriginal science teachers and conferences like TEDx Hobbema and TEDx Six Nations. (If we can have a TEDx Mogadishu, surely we can have one of these!) It means a cultural reframing of what science is with a view to making the scientific world friendlier and more inclusive.

It might even behoove the scientific community to follow the example of Canada's Christian churches and embark on its own healing and reconciliation campaign and atone for past indiscretions against indigenous groups, which have included plundering gravesites, trespassing on traditional territories and generally treating indigenous people like lab subjects rather than as equal partners in the pursuit of knowledge.

And as for the Aboriginal worldview, I would argue that it constitutes a school of philosophy rather than a separate stream of science. But then again, who's to say that philosophy is a less important academic discipline than biology or physics? It is, after all, a 'social science'.

Monday, 6 August 2012

When Bad Communication Kills - The Korean Air Saga

Last week the Calgary Herald announced that South Korea's flagship airline was "very interested" in establishing nonstop flights to Alberta through Calgary, making YYC the airline's third Canadian destination after Vancouver and Toronto. This is hardly surprising considering Alberta's current economic ascendency, as well as Korean Air's continuing runaway success. The past decade has seen the airline emerge as one of the world's largest, most prolific and top-ranked carriers, with its resplendent new hub at Seoul-Incheon International Airport increasingly predominant among East Asia's top airports.

While few people familiar with Korean Air's recent market onslaught (or, for that matter, with the increased Asia-Pacific presence in Alberta's oil industry) would have been surprised by last week's headline, those familiar with the carrier's history might well marvel at how far it has come since it very nearly got banned from Canadian skies altogether. By the late 1990s, Korean Air had developed an unfortunate reputation for having its planes fall out of the sky. Following the airline's most recent fatal incident in 1999, when a cargo 747 plowed into the earth right after takeoff from London's Stansted Airport, the Canadian government told the airline it was considering revoking its landing privileges at Canadian airports. Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines and Air France suspended their partnerships with KAL and the US Federal Aviation Authority downgraded its safety rating - while the US military banned its personnel from using the airline.

The airline's rap sheet from the 1970s to the 1990s was indeed egregious. Between 1970 and 1999 Korean Air racked up over 700 fatalities and lost a total of 16 aircraft in a string of disasters. The most famous incident occurred in 1983 when a KAL Boeing 747 strayed off course into highly restricted Soviet airspace over Sakhalin Island and was shot down by an Su-15 Interceptor in a case of apparent mistaken identity, killing 269 people. In an incident 14 years later, an overtired captain dealing with bad weather and malfunctioning ground equipment smashed his 747 into Nimitz Hill in Guam, killing 206 out of 231 passengers. And in another alarming although non-fatal incident in the early 1990s, a domestic flight from Jeju to Daegu performed a belly-landing after the flight crew had failed to lower the landing gear.

Culture or Language....Or Simply Bad Practices?

In the aftermath of the Stansted crash, Korean Air, now threatened with the possibility of international blacklisting, enlisted the help of an official from Delta Air Lines to conduct an audit of the airline's flight operations. Since virtually all the airline's accidents had resulted from human error rather than structural problems to the aircraft or other such non-human variables, the investigation focused exclusively on KAL's flight crews, covering everything from pilots' command of the English language (the lingua franca of commercial aviation) to the airline's hiring and training procedures. It was investigations of the latter that produced the smoking gun. The firm hired to audit the airline's training procedures noted that the KAL crews were "trapped in roles dictated by the heavy weight of their country’s cultural legacy," namely a Confucian culture in which subservience to authority was considered paramount.

The 1999 crash proved to be particularly telling. The cause of the accident was discovered to be a malfunctioning attitude indicator on the captain's side of the controls, which led him to bank the jet until it spun out of control. More tellingly, it was discovered that the first officer's indicator had been working perfectly but that he had failed to inform his commanding office that he was jeopardizing the flight. Studies of the flight's voice recorder shed further light on the climate in the cockpit leading up to the crash, in which an overbearing and increasingly agitated captain had instilled such a climate of fear that none of his subordinates dared question his decisions - even in an apparent life or death situation. The audit also laid blame on Korean Air's longstanding policy of hiring pilots directly out of the ROK Air Force, a practice which exacerbated the strict hierarchical culture among KAL flight crews.

Following the audit, Korean Air announced vast, sweeping changes to its HR practices. The airline stopped hiring its pilots out of the military. Major changes were made to its training procedures, and edits were made to instruction manuals so as to reflect the unique characteristics of Korean culture. The moves were astonishingly successful. Since the Stansted crash, Korean Air has not had a single fatal accident and apart from a single incident in 2007 when a KAL 737 accidentally landed on an unoccupied taxiway at Akita, Japan, instead of the intended runway, the airline has not had a single accident of any kind.

Did language do this?
The Korean Air turnaround is a remarkable success story by any standard. How, then, was it achieved? Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, writes extensively on the Guam disaster (KAL 801). In his analysis of the accident, he contends that the Korean language itself may have hindered effective cockpit communication. Gladwell points out that the Korean language has six conversational levels indicating hierarchy; for example, you would speak differently to your father than to your younger sibling, and different still to your grandfather. In the case of Flight 801, the captain was tired and losing focus while the first officer, who was also subordinate to the captain in military ranking, could do little except 'hint' at a potential danger, and only indirectly. In other words, within the hierarchical structure of the Korean language, he had no means of yelling "You're too low! Pull up NOW!!!"

Others, however, have questioned this prognosis. In a review of Outliers in Asiance magazine, Korean-born American author Sae Park disputes Gladwell's language theory, noting that the author failed to consult a Korean speaker when analyzing the (translated) transcript of Flight 801's flight recorder. Park contends, upon further examination of the transcript, that the flight engineer (who was in fact older than the captain) was not speaking to the captain in a particularly deferential manner, and that while the first officer did refer to his commander as kijang nim (lit. 'honourable captain'), this is no different than referring to a judge as 'Your Honour' in English. And while she concedes that hierarchy rooted in traditional Korean culture (and compounded by military strictures) may well have exacerbated existing problems in the cockpit, Park argues that the notion that the Korean language contains intrinsic barriers to saving a plane in a time of crisis is ridiculous.

What, then, was the problem at Korean Air - and how did it get its act together so quickly? While a militaristic cockpit culture grounded in traditional Korean Confucianism was without doubt a major factor (a fact that the airline itself acknowledged), Sae Park also notes that by the 1990s the airline was facing a pilot shortage as a result of its rapid route expansion through the 1980s andearly 1990s - paralleling the country's explosive economic growth. While a pilot shortage may have contributed to the airline's poor safety record during that time, as it has with other airlines in the past, this situation may ironically have helped it in the long run. By the time of the Guam and Stansted crashes, KAL had already begun recruiting non-military pilots and training them in-house so as to alleviate its shortage of pilots. In the aftermath of Stansted, these already existing processes were simply made universal.

Nevertheless, the real story at Korean Air was the new standards that former Delta vice-president David Greenberg helped introduce. These included rigourous new training and testing standards and new 'cockpit culture' standards, as well as reforms to company promotion and transfer practices that put an end to placements based on connections and friendships. The airline also purchased new crash-warning systems and other technology and began hiring more foreign pilots, a move the airline hoped would both alleviate its pilot shortage and help create a better cockpit communication culture. Whatever the airline did, it appears to have worked, as Korean Air's safety record since the Stansted disaster has been virtually spotless.

Orientalism vs. Universal Best Practices

In her critique of Outliers, Sae Park accuses Malcolm Gladwell of ethnocentrism in his analysis of Flight 801 and Korean Air's onetime safety issues. While Park acknowledges that the rigidly hierarchical cockpit culture that once defined Korean Air's operations was indeed a safety liability, she criticizes Gladwell for making broad generalizations about Korean culture - and the Korean language - that, in her view, amounted to linking Asian-ness (or at least Korean-ness) with one's likelihood to crash a plane. (Call it 'Flying-While-Korean'.) "Implicitly, this logic also privileges western culture," she asserts. "The 'other' is blinded by cultural demands to the point that they are helpless to even save their own lives if it goes against their heritage, while in the west we're lucky to have the rationality to see through such false premises."

It's not just 'eastern' culture.
While Park has a point, it should be noted that modern-day best practices in cockpit communication have been arrived at through decades of trial and error and can in no way be said to be intrinsically 'western'. In fact, cultural characteristics generally associated with 'western' culture have also been implicated in fatal air accidents. In 1978, in one of the worst air accidents in pre-9/11 US history, a Pacific Southwest Airlines Boeing 727 slammed into a residential neighbourhood outside San Diego after colliding with a Cessna 172, killing 144 people - including seven on the ground. While the primary cause of the crash was discovered to be a miscommunication between the PSA crew and the San Diego air traffic control, analysis of the 727's flight recorder found that the crew had been chatting informally with one another on their descent and had not been paying adequate attention to their surroundings.

One of the changes brought about by the industry in the aftermath of PSA Flight 182 was the 'sterile cockpit' rule, which required that cockpit conversations be restricted to matters related to the operation of the aircraft during critical phases of the flight - normally below 10,000 feet. While this rule is in force across the industry, it has been notoriously difficult to enforce. Its importance was highlighted once again following the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in 2009 where, in a situation eerily similar to PSA 182, a Bombardier Q400 commuter plane spun out of control and crashed into a residential neighbourhood in Buffalo, NY when its overtired crew were distracted by their own conversations upon descent into Buffalo. These incidents - and other like them - clearly illustrate that while excessive rigidity in an airplane cockpit is a liability, excessive formality is equally dangerous.

While excessive informality in the cockpit has been widely acknowledged as a safety hazard, none of the writings on the subject - to my knowledge - have seen fit to link this phenomenon to western or American culture in spite of the fact that virtually all the high-profile cases of cockpit chatter leading to accidents have taken place on US airlines. Perhaps Park does indeed have a point when it comes to western double-standards when it comes to behaviour and best practices. It's also worth noting that at the same time that Korean Air was subjected to FAA downgrading and restrictions on its expansion, the same restrictions were also applied to KAL's smaller competitor Asiana Airlines, which to date had had only one serious incident. Perhaps there was a modicum of ethnocentrism at work.

Whatever the case, Korean Air's near-impeccable safety record since its post-1999 reforms clearly illustrates that Korean-ness is not a liability while behind the controls of an aircraft - and that passengers flying KAL out of Calgary, or anywhere else in the airline's ever-expanding network, have nothing to fear from boarding one of its planes.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Drinking Games for Skeptics - 20 Logical Fallacies You Hear Everywhere

Infographic poster example

If there's one trait that applies to virtually every public relations professional I've ever met, it's a well developed sense of skepticism - and heightened bullshit radar. As PR pros, our job is to sniff out bad information and replace it with good, cogently worded information, thereby leaving one's stakeholders a little better informed and less confused than they were before. At least that the idea. While PR people are human beings with their own unique political and social baggage and inclinations, I've found people in the field to be remarkably centrist, relatively decoupled from ideological anchors and, above all, deeply skeptical of what they hear. I would further argue that you have to be in order to do your job properly.

As an undergraduate one of my most memorable classes was a philosophy course on rudimentary logic, which outlined all the typical logical fallacies that people commit. Anyone considering a career in public relations would, I think, be well advised to take a class in rudimentary logical analysis, or at least to read up on the subject. Logical fallacies are to a PR pro what turbulence is to airline pilots - something you have to learn how to smoothly and serenely as possible.

While some classic fallacies are easy to debunk, others are less obvious and can easily go undetected until it's too late. The latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer ran a wonderful article by Jesse Richardson on the Top 20 Logical Fallacies. The author also created a website complete with downloadable posters on the subject, which make for a great educational tool.

It also makes for a great drinking game. Choose 20 different poisons, assign each a number, and then turn the TV to Fox News. Take a shot for each logical fallacy committed. Trust me, you'll be horizontal and unconscious in no time.

1) Straw Man - Misrepresenting someone's argument to make it easier to attack.

Industry want to alleviate labour shortages by easing restrictions on temporary foreign workers. Union leaders respond by asking their industry counterparts why they hate Canadian workers so much that they don't want to invest in apprenticeship programs. Environmental activists express concern about a proposed pipeline project, to which the government to accuse them of trying to actively sabotage the country's economic growth. In the absence of a good argument, deliberately misinterpret the other guy's argument and go to town on it.

2) False Cause - Presuming that a real or perceived relationship between things means that one is the cause of the other.

Religious conservatives are particularly fond of this one. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Pastor John Hagee claimed that the disaster was divine intervention directly linked to the Gay Pride event that was scheduled to take place in New Orleans on the day the hurricane hit. While it would be technically impossible to disprove this assertion, the fact that the French Quarter (the 'den of sin' where the parade was scheduled to take place) was one of the few parts of the city relatively unscathed by Katrina makes this argument more than a bit suspect.

3) Slippery Slope - Asserting that if we allow A to happen, then Z will consequently happen too.

Another favourite of the religious right, particularly when it comes to same-sex marriage, which, as well all know, will lead to rampant polygamy, incest, bestiality, drug-fueled orgies and the wholesale collapse of our society's moral equilibrium. Somehow we've managed to stave this fate off in the eight years since same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada, but it's probably only a matter of time. Likewise, the National Rifle Association would have you believe that any attempt to place restrictions on individual ownership of firearms will herald the arrival of a North Korea-style absolutist state. Again, we appear to have slipped the gauntlet here - at least for now.

4) Ad Hominem - Attacking your opponent's character or personal traits instead of engaging with their argument.

We all have plenty of first-hand experience with this one. From childhood disputes that ultimately culminated in "Yeah,'re a poopy-head!" to supposedly sophisticated political debates that devolve into name-calling and occasional profanity. (Yes, Justin Trudeau, I'm talking about you!) But more often than not it's more subtle than this. In the absence of a solid argument, organizations with an axe to grind will go after their adversary's track record for... whatever's handy, be it a reputation for opposing unions, a past association with socialist organizations, a few years in an Islamic school in Indonesia.... or whatever else serves as a convenient blunt verbal cudgel.

5) Appeal to Emotion - Manipulating an emotional response in place of a valid or compelling argument.

The so-called 'pro-life' movement lives and breathes this fallacy. Lacking in concrete arguments, pro-lifers tend to resort to "Bbbbbut the bayyybeeeessss!!! You're killing bayyybeeeessss!!! It's a life! Why do you hate baayybeeesss?!?" The same approach is also employed by groups ranging from PETA ("Look at how cute these seals are - and how hot the models holding the placards of the cute seals are!") to Alberta's Wildrose Party ("Remember the Alamo New Energy Policy, when Alberta was betrayed way back when! Build up that firewall!"). Just stick to the facts and bear it out - that's about all you can do.

6) The Fallacy Fallacy - Presuming that because a claim has been poorly argued, or a fallacy has been made, that the claim is necessarily wrong.

This is another one much loved by religious conservatives, and opponents of the theory of evolution in particular. 'Intelligent design' advocates are often quick to point to the infamous Piltdown Man hoax as evidence against evolution. Yes, it was a colossal embarrassment within certain quarters of the scientific community, but it did absolutely nothing to detract from the overwhelming body of evidence in favour of evolution by natural selection. Finding a bad apple in an orchard does not mean that you leave the entire harvest to rot.

7) Tu Quoque - Avoiding having to engage with criticism by turning the accusation back on the accuser.

Also known as the Pee-wee Herman defence, this logical fallacy has defined Israel-Palestine peace negotiations since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, as well as India-Pakistan conflicts over Kashmir and any number of other intractable geopolitical conflicts.

8) Personal Incredulity - Saying that because one finds something difficult to understand it therefore must not be true.
This is another favourite of the anti-evolution lobby. "If evolution is true, why are we not seeing animals transform into other animals? I just simply can't fathom how one species could change into another." And so on and so forth. This faulty line of argument closely parallels the notorious "I'm confused" commercials produced in 2009 by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) in opposition to same-sex marriage, which essentially takes the view that "It seems weird, therefore it must be wrong." The fact that something seems 'odd' or 'confusing' does constitute grounds for it being wrong. If anything, it's simply an argument for better education so that said phenomenon becomes better understood.

9) Special Pleading - Moving the goalposts or making up exceptions when a claim is shown to be false.

This is a particular favourite of professional 'psychics' whose abilities have been thrown into doubt. Alleged clairvoyant and TV psychic Sylvia Browne pleaded for public sympathy following an incident where she falsely claimed that an 11-year-old boy had been abducted and killed - only to be found alive four years later - that "I think it's cruel to jump on this one case in which I was wrong." (This was but one of several well-publicized 'mistakes' made by the multimillionaire celebrity psychic.) She also famously rebuffed the James Randi Foundation's invitation to prove her abilities empirically in exchange for a million-dollar prize, alleging that the conjurer-turned-debunker was an 'ungodly' man. In other words, you have to believe it to see it.

10) Loaded Question - Asking a question that has an assumption built into it so that one cannot answer it without appearing guilty.

Any PR practitioner with media relations training knows all about this trap. An oil company spokesperson is facing a panel of bloodthirsty journalists following an oil spill and one of them broaches a question along the lines of "Does Dweebcor make a policy of cutting corners on safety inspections of its ships or was this simply the result of negligence and poor oversight?" Take a deep breath, count to ten and stick to your messaging and your information. And if you need to drop an F-bomb, make sure you do it under your breath.

11) Bandwagon - Appealing to popularity or the fact that many people do something as an attempted form of validation.

The phrase "1 billion Chinese people can't be wrong" is as dangerous as it is false. A billion people can easily be wrong, as were the many millions of Chinese people who fell under the sway of Mao Zedong's seductive but disastrously misguided economic policies. (The country's population had yet to reach 1 billion at the time of the Great Leap Forward.) People are wrong about countless things, things which do not become any less wrong when similarly misguided individual band together in large numbers.

12) Appeal to Authority - Using the opinion or position of an authority figure, or institution of authority, in place of an actual argument.

Remember the old Camel cigarettes commercials (I certainly don't but I've seen the archival footage) that proudly boasted that "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette"? That's an appeal to authority - if doctors like it, it must be good. Likewise, the extraordinary success of that great mid-2000s pseudoscientific blockbuster The Secret rested on its highly publicized blessing by Oprah Winfrey, Montel Williams and various dubious self-help gurus with impressive sounding job descriptions like 'philosopher' and 'metaphysicist' etc. Unbridled quote-mining from the likes of Gandhi, Einstein and Mother Teresa also helps.

13) Genetic - Judging something good or bad on the basis of where it comes from or from whom it comes.

This is a favourite of authoritarian leaders the world over, particularly in places like Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and other countries with an antagonistic relationship with the US and its allies. Any allegations of corruption, brutality and electoral manipulation from western media are quickly shot down on the basis that the Yankee pig-dogs hate us, ergo the allegations are lies.

14) Begging the Question - A circular argument in which the conclusion is included in the premise.

How do we know that homosexuality is wrong? It says so in the Bible. And the Bible is Holy Scripture and infallible. End of argument.

15) Appeal to Nature - Making the argument that because something is natural it is therefore valid, justified, inevitable or ideal.

Echinacea is a genus of herbaceous flowering plants in the daisy family, Asteraceae. It gives you dark urine - and that's about it. So why is the public in love with it? It's 'natural', don't you know, unlike those nasty chemical pharmaceuticals. By that same argument, black mamba venom is also good for you. In actual fact, black mamba venom is probably more effective than echinacea in curing, say, the common cold - inasmuch as death has been shown to fix all known cold symptoms. And that has been demonstrated emperically.

16) Anecdotal - Using personal experience or an isolated example instead of a valid argument, especially to dismiss statistics.

Last month on Brush Talk I took Jerry Agar to task for a particularly odious article in the Toronto Sun in which he essentially accused all poor people of being lazy bums who expect to be taken care of by the system. While most of the responses I received were positive, a few individuals took the opportunity to point out instances in which people successfully raised themselves out of abject poverty through sheer determination, hard work and a modicum of luck. While I don't deny that this occasionally happens, I also don't deny that there have been people who smoked heavily their whole life and still lived into their nineties.

17) Burden of Proof - Saying that the burden of proof lies not with the person making the claim but with those who deny the claim.

There is a profoundly good reason why suspects in criminal cases are considered innocent until proven guilty, namely that it's effectively impossible to 'prove a negative'. Moreover, if the evidence simply isn't conclusive, the accused walks. While few would question the wisdom of this logic within the context of jurisprudence, this logical truism seems to go out the window. It's all fine and good for you to allege that global warming is a conspiracy of climate scientists or that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, but it's your job to explain why - not everybody else's job to explain why not. And no, a lack of response to your allegation does not constitute support for your side. Chances are nobody thinks it's an argument worthy of a response.

18) Ambiguity - Using double meanings or ambiguities of language to mislead or misrepresent the truth.

Also known as the "I'm A Frayed Knot" argument. Opponents of the theory of evolution love to attack 'Darwinism' on the grounds that a society defined by Darwinism (i.e. 'Social Darwinism' along the lines of Nazi-style eugenics) would be a horrible society in which to live. Aside from the obvious failure to discern 'truth' from 'that which I would wish to be true' (e.g. "It can't be raining because I wouldn't want it to be raining."), anyone who makes this argument is making the error of using two very different usages of the term 'Darwinism' interchangeably. Similarly problematic arguments have been used by opponents of doctor-assisted suicide by arguing that Hitler engaged in mass campaigns of 'euthanasia'. This is also known as 'guilt by association', of which Hitler was also a fan.

19) 'No True Scotsman' - Making what could be called an appeal to purity as a way to dismiss relevant criticisms or flaws of an argument.

Angus declares that Scotsmen don't put sugar in their porridge, to which Lachlan points out that he is Scottish and he puts sugar in his porridge. Angus then angrily accuses Lachlan of not being a 'true Scotsman'. Alas, political pundits of all stripes do this when one if their own breaks ranks on an issue. Staunch Republicans even have a special term of those within the party considered soft on issues like gun rights and abortion as a cheap means of discrediting any internal dissent. Likewise, left-leaning intellectuals from Michael Ignatieff and Christopher Hitchens who expressed support for removing Saddam Hussein in 2003 were excoriated by many ideological purists as faux-left turncoats.

20) Black or White - Presenting two alternative states as the only possibilities when in fact more possibilities exist.

"Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," stated US President George W. Bush in September 2001. In fact there are plenty of ways in which people could be opposed to the way in which the War on Terror was being carried out but not an actual advocate of al-Qaeda and its goals, the highly charged post-9/11 climate in which these words were spoken makes this utterance perhaps more forgivable. When it comes to Stephen Harper accusing his environmental critics of being "enemies of the government of Canada," however, there is no such excuse. This is Orwellian demagoguery pure and simple.

Drunk yet? I sincerely hope so.