Krauss: Words Don’t Matter

Appropriate note of caution and the need to consider context and interpretation:

At the bottom of the copyright page of the latest editions of Roald Dahl’s books, a new notice now appears. “Words matter … The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvellous characters.”

On the surface, it seems whimsical and innocuous. However, it signals a recent effort carried out by his publisher, Puffin, to rewrite his classic texts to make them less “offensive.” Words like “fat” and “ugly” have been culled, whole phrases rewritten, and, of course, gender-neutral terms have been added in places.

While highly reported on in the media, this rewriting of classic literature is just the most recent manifestation of a central facet of the new dangerous trend to label language as a form of violence, under the guise of the very mantra that introduced the new bastardization of Dahl’s work: Words Matter.

As a writer, one might think I would be more sympathetic to this claim, but I am not. I recognize and celebrate the potential power of words, but I understand that whether this potential is manifested depends completely on the recipient. The pen may be more powerful than the sword, but only if the words reach a receptive audience. There is a fundamental difference between verbal assault and physical assault. The impact of the former, as potentially harmful as it may seem, lies purely in the mind of the listener. Not so for physical violence.

Saying “Words Matter” or “Words have Power” is like repeating the old mantra “Knowledge is Power.” But that doesn’t make any of them true. Knowledge alone confers no power, however much we might wish it were so. Ask most environmental scientists, or reflect on the fate of the ancient Librarians of Alexandria. It is what you do with the knowledge that matters. The same is true for words.

T.S. Eliot also wrote, in his masterful poem Four Quartets 1, “Words, after speech, reach Into the silence.” Words disappear after they are spoken. The only place they may persist is in the mind of the listener. What we do with the words we hear is uniquely determined by a combination of culture, experience, education, and conscious or subconscious reflection. At a very basic level, each of us has the power, at least in principle, to parse and interpret what we hear, and, if necessary, to do so in ways that positively benefit our psyches and our lives, or, alternatively, in ways that may cause emotional pain and trauma.

While Eliot may have also bemoaned the slipperiness of language in the lines from Four Quartets quoted above, part of the power of words at the same time lies in their ability to be imprecise, vague, and even disingenuous. Language must be interpreted, and that opens up a host of opportunities. It is also why we must all interpret what we hear or read.

Noam Chomsky once said to me, when we were discussing religious beliefs, “I don’t care what people believe. It is what they do that matters.” Beliefs can influence actions, of course, and so can words. Words have the power to incite violence, but this depends on the receptiveness in the mind of the listener. The call to jihad may motivate a suicide bomber, but for those whose minds have not been prepared for years through exposure to religious dogma and indoctrination, it falls on deaf ears. Similarly, most of us could see through the lying hyperbole of Donald Trump on January 6th, 2021, but those who then gathered outside the US Capitol Building were already true believers and were primed to act.

Without context and interpretation, and unless one chooses to internalize them, words are impotent, and that gives us power over them, not vice versa. We may be influenced by what we read or hear, but we own our responses, including our actions, which, after all, speak louder than words.

This notion is anathema in the modern world, however, because it implies that if you feel traumatized or offended by what you hear or read, it is primarily your problem to deal with. The trauma may be very real, but the underlying psychological issues and healing processes are ones that you, not others, need to take primary ownership of. You have not been victimized; you have been traumatized. There is a difference.

It is relatively well known that I am an atheist, but I also grew up in a Jewish household. For much of my professional life, neither of these factors made much of a difference. However, that has been changing, due in part to the fact that antisemitism has been on the rise. I am beginning to see pejorative comments online about my being a “Jew.” On a societal level, this is certainly a worrisome trend, but on a personal level, it means absolutely nothing to me. My reaction is to immediately discount the rest of what the speaker has to say, while at the same time feeling a bit sorry for their stupidity and ignorance.

This response is probably cultural. While I was young, whenever I saw signs of antisemitic exclusion, like some club not accepting Jews, it seemed that Jews had banded together to build a nicer club down the road. The response to antisemitism was not a sense of victimization, but rather an incentive to be better and do better. Such a material response may be a luxury of circumstances that is not available to all, but the psychic response is always available. Die Gedanken Sind Frie (“Thoughts are free”), after all.

It is also important to note that words are not static. Their meanings evolve over time as language and culture evolve. Rewriting the words of speakers or writers of the 17th century, or the 1950s, so that they adhere to the cultural sensitivities of the present time robs us not only of great literature but also of historical perspective. Repeating the mantra “Words Matter” as a rationale for censoring words or silencing others, is often simply code for “Coddle Me.” To edit Roald Dahl or Ian Fleming, so that young adults are never exposed to words or situations that might not be considered appropriate for popular discourse today is to stunt their intellectual and emotional growth.

Censoring and other strictures on language are not the solutions. Rational discussion and even ridicule are. Words themselves can be the greatest tools to alter the impacts of other words. After all, words aren’t, or shouldn’t be, treated as if they are sacred. Allowing them to be said out loud often robs them of their power. In 1972, the comedian George Carlin was arrested for disturbing the peace for performing a routine in which he described the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”:  “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “cocksucker,” “motherfucker,” and “tits,” expressing amazement that they could not be used regardless of context. He later said:

I don’t know that there was a “Eureka!” moment or anything like that … It’s just impossible to say “this is a blanket rule.” You’ll see some newspapers print “f blank blank k.” Some print “f asterisk asterisk k.” Some put “f blank blank blank.” Some put the word “bleep.” Some put “expletive deleted.” So there’s no real consistent standard. It’s not a science. It’s a notion that they have and it’s superstitious. These words have no power. We give them this power by refusing to be free and easy with them. We give them great power over us. They really, in themselves, have no power. It’s the thrust of the sentence that makes them either good or bad.

The next time someone says “words matter,” ask them why. If they say it is because words can cause them harm or offense, suggest they consider growing up. That, too, may offend, but maybe those words, and a subsequent discussion, can also do some good.

Director Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, described the purpose of many of their skits:

Use your brain, use these things. That was essential to Python, as far as I was concerned. And causing offense was a part of that. It’s to shock people. To shock them out of their complacency, their timidity, their caution in life. Be bold, fall on your face a couple of times. It doesn’t hurt that badly. You bounce back up. It’s okay.

A recent gripping Quillette piece extolled the courageous writing career of Salman Rushdie and discussed his newest book, Victory City, published six months after he was stabbed on stage in August 2022. The title of the Quillettearticle, “Words Are the Only Victors,” refers in part to the final words of his heroine as she buries her record of her city’s final moments of destruction in a clay pot beneath the earth.

In a world governed by hate and irrationality, it may be true that in the aftermath of violence, words may be the only victors. But in a world where words are treated as if they are both weapons and attackers, and where we shield ourselves from them for fear that they might induce feelings in us that we don’t like, we don’t become the victors—we only further victimize ourselves.

Source: Words Don’t Matter

Krauss: Artificially Intelligent Offense?

Of note, yet another concern and issue that needs to be addressed:

…Let’s be clear about this: Valid, empirically derived information is not, in the abstract, either harmful or offensive.

The reception of information can be offensive, and it can, depending upon the circumstances of the listener, potentially result in psychological or physical harm. But precisely because one cannot presume to know all such possible circumstances, following the OpenAI guidelines can instead sanction the censorship of almost any kind of information for fear that someone, somewhere, will be offended.

Even before ChatGPT, this was not a hypothetical worry. Recall the recent firing of a heralded NYT science reporter for using “the N-word” with a group of students in the process of explaining why the use of that word could be inappropriate or hurtful. The argument the NYT editors made was that “intent” was irrelevant. Offense is in the ear of the listener, and that overrides the intent of the speaker or the veracity of his or her argument.

A more relevant example, perhaps, involves the loony guidelines recently provided to editors and reviewers for the journals of the Royal Society of Chemistry to “minimise the risk of publishing inappropriate or otherwise offensive content.” As they describe it, “[o]ffence is a subjective matter and sensitivity to it spans a considerable range; however, we bear in mind that it is the perception of the recipient that we should consider, regardless of the author’s intention [italics mine] … Please consider whether or not any content (words, depictions or imagery) might have the potential to cause offence, referring to the guidelines as needed.”

Moreover, they define offensive content specifically as “Any content that could reasonably offend someone on the basis of their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, marital or parental status, physical features, national origin, social status or disability.”

The mandate against offensiveness propounded by the RSC was taken to another level by the journal Nature Human Behaviour, which indicated that not only would they police language, but they would restrict the nature of scientific research they publish on the basis of social justice concerns about possible “negative social consequences for studied groups.” One can see echoes of both the RSC and Nature actions in the ChatGPT response to my questions.

The essential problem here is removing the obligation, or rather, the opportunity, all of us should have to rationally determine how we respond to potentially offensive content by instead ensuring that any such potentially offensive content may be censored. Intent and accuracy become irrelevant. Veto power in this age of potential victimization is given to the imaginary recipient of information.

Free and open access to information, even information that can cause pain or distress, is essential in a free society. As Christopher Hitchens so often stressed, freedom of speech is primarily important not because it provides an opportunity for speakers to speak out against prevailing winds but because that speech gives listeners or readers the freedom to realize they might want to change their minds.

The problem with the dialogues presented above is that ChatGPT appears to be programmed with a biased perception of what might be offensive or harmful. Moreover, it has been instructed to limit the information it provides to that which its programmers have deemed is neither. What makes this example more than an interesting—or worrying—anecdote is the emerging potential of AI chatbots to further exacerbate already disturbing trends.

As chatbot responses begin to proliferate throughout the Internet, they will, in turn, impact future machine learning algorithms that mine the Internet for information, thus perpetuating and amplifying the impact of the current programming biases evident in ChatGPT.

ChatGPT is admittedly a work in progress, but how the issues of censorship and offense ultimately play out will be important. The last thing anyone should want in the future is a medical diagnostic chatbot that refrains from providing a true diagnosis that may cause pain or anxiety to the receiver. Providing information guaranteed not to disturb is a sure way to squash knowledge and progress. It is also a clear example of the fallacy of attempting to input “universal human values” into AI systems, because one can bet that the choice of which values to input will be subjective.

If the future of AI follows the current trend apparent in ChatGPT, a more dangerous, dystopic machine-based future might not be the one portrayed in the Terminator films but, rather, a future populated by AI versions of Fahrenheit 451firemen.

Source: Artificially Intelligent Offense?

Krauss: In Defense of the Universal Values of Science


The progress of modern science has been a truly global phenomenon, a fact worth celebrating, just as the technological fruits of science have, to varying degrees, impacted the lives of everyone on the globe.

Scientific breakthroughs have paid no heed to geographic boundaries. Modern algebra owes its origins to 10th century Arabic mathematicians. Around the same time Chinese astronomers recorded an early supernova that formed the Crab Nebula, even when no record of this remarkable object was made in Europe. In spite of the attempts by British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington to quash the impact of an otherwise unheralded young Indian physicist, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the latter’s groundbreaking work on stellar evolution altered our picture of stars so significantly that he was later awarded the Nobel Prize for his work.

Nevertheless, the postmodern notion that empirical scientific knowledge is somehow culturally derived, with little or no objective underpinning, has continued to persist in various social science and literary corners of academia far removed from the rush of scientific progress.

Until recently, it seemed inconceivable to imagine that any physical or biological scientists could become so misguided as to argue against the empirical basis of their own fields. But we are living in strange times. This week, the Divisional Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Oregon sent an email to faculty “to encourage you all to attend this exciting presentation!”, by a visiting physicist, which was described as follows:

Title: Scientists vs. Science: Race, Gender, and Anti-Intellectualism in Science

Abstract: Black thought can help us free science from the white supremacist traditions of scientists. Scientists vs. Science will use Black feminist and anti-colonialist analyses to show that white supremacy is a total epistemic system that affects even our most “objective” areas of knowledge production. The talk hinges on the development of the concept of white empiricism, which I introduced to give a name to the way that anti-intellectual white supremacy plays a role in physicists’ analysis of when empirical data is important and what counts as empirical data. This white empiricism shapes both Black women’s (and other) experiences in physics and the actual knowledge produced about physics. Until this is understood and addressed directly, systems of domination will continue to play a major role in the practice of physics.

On its own, this racist nonsense would not deserve remarking on here, even if it does lead one to wonder how its author, who apparently doesn’t understand the empirical basis of her own discipline, could gain an appointment at a physics department. But the response it produced by the administrator at Oregon is more worrisome.

The Dean at U. of O. should know better, being a professor of Anthropology, although his specialization in Folklore and Public Culture suggests he might be particularly sympathetic to arguments that knowledge is culturally or racially derived.

The Dean’s email apparently received wide circulation beyond U. of O. in the academic community. A tweet from Bruce Gilley, who is a professor of Political Science and Public Policy and on the board of the National Association of Scholars saw what the U. of O. Dean had missed, namely that the underlying pretext of the talk was itself racist. As he remarked “Neo-racism is now spreading like wildfire in the academy with the normalization of racist and anti-scientific ‘research’ that freely denigrates people based on their race. This talk below will use ‘black feminist and anti-colonial analysis’ to debunk ‘white empiricisim [sic].’”

Galileo would have discovered four moons of Jupiter with his telescope regardless of his sex or pigment, and DNA is a double helix regardless of whether it was Rosalind Franklin’s crystallography that demonstrated it, or Watson and Crick’s analysis of that empirical data. Empirical evidence is not white, or black, and the term “black theory” makes no intellectual sense.

As it turns out, the U. of O. talk was abruptly cancelled, with no reason given in the announcement. I agree with Professor Gilley’s assessment that, having been announced, a better course would have been to have proceeded with the talk, and allowing those present to then ridicule its premise via intelligent rebuttal.

I wonder however, whether that would have happened, or whether there would have been polite applause, for fear of appearing racist by asking pointed questions. I happened to attend another online talk by this individual, in this case a physics seminar. Each slide shown also included a reference to a different racist incident that had happened in the US. Speaking to other colleagues after the seminar, I wasn’t the only one who questioned the appropriateness of this political commentary from beginning to end in a seminar on dark matter, as would I would have equally squirmed had each slide quoted a different lie uttered by Donald Trump when he was President. Yet none of us spoke up at the time to raise any concerns.

We need to be willing to be more vocal up front in our critical assessment of nonsense emerging in academic science settings. In more reasonable times, this nonsense would never have passed the selection criteria applied by seminar organizers in any serious academic department in the first place. In current times, such gibberish instead helps promote a dangerously distorted view of science that can fall upon receptive ears among even senior academic administrators.

Source: In Defense of the Universal Values of Science

Krauss: Why Is Scientific Illiteracy So Acceptable?

Good question and discussion:

In the mid-1980s, when I taught a Physics for Poets class at Yale University, I was dumbstruck when I gave the students a quiz problem to estimate the total amount of water flushed in all the toilets in the US in one 24-hour period and I started to grade the quiz. In order to estimate this, you have to first estimate the population of the US. I discovered that 35 percent of my Yale students, many of whom were history or American studies majors, thought the population of the US was less than 10 million! I went around campus interrogating students I met, asking them what they thought the population of the US was. Again, about one-third of the students thought it was less than 10 million and a few even thought it was greater than a few billion.

How was such ignorance so common in a community commonly felt to contain the cream of the crop of young US college students?

Then it dawned on me. It wasn’t that these students were ignorant about US society. It was that they were rather “innumerate,” as the mathematician John Allen Paulos had labeled it in a book he wrote in the 1980s. They had no concept whatsoever of what a million actually represented. For them, a million and a billion were merely both too large to comprehend.

It remains a badge of honor for many who like to describe themselves as highly cultured or artistic to describe themselves as mathematically challenged, or to say that their brains aren’t wired for mathematics. Because many of those they hold in high esteem have made similar claims, there is no real social penalty to them for doing so.

When it comes to science rather than mathematics, it isn’t so simple. Proudly proclaiming scientific illiteracy is not de rigueur. Instead another refrain has recently become popular among politicians and public figures: “I am not a scientist, but…” Equally prominent, is the statement “I believe in science” (as if there is a choice) which is then followed by some scientific gibberish.

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once said, “Reality is that which continues to exist even when you stop believing in it.” The line between being scientifically or empirically controversial vs being politically controversial has been blurred to the point of erasure. In Washington, and many other seats of government throughout the world, belief trumps reality.

Different aspects of the problem were on display recently during the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett. When asked by Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy about her views on climate change, she said: “You know, I’m certainly not a scientist,” and added, “I have read things about climate change—I would not say I have firm views on it.” Later, following questions from Kamala Harris about whether she acknowledged a relationship between smoking and cancer, and whether the coronavirus is infectious, both of which she answered in the affirmative, she was asked, “And do you believe that climate change is happening and is threatening the air we breathe and the water we drink?” Coney Barrett responded, “I will not do that. I will not express a view on a matter of public policy, especially one that is politically controversial…”

It would have been appropriate for Justice Coney Barrett to argue in both cases that the confirmation hearing was not an appropriate place to discuss her scientific expertise but rather her legal expertise. However, that is different than claiming, as she did, to have insufficient knowledge of the issue to possess any viewpoint at all.

In this, and all areas where scientific evidence is both public and sufficiently overwhelming, public figures who even feign ignorance for reasons of political expediency should be called out. In her second exchange, having established her bona fides regarding the science of smoking or the coronavirus, an appropriate response from Justice Coney Barrett to Harris’s last question might have been to answer that yes, climate change is a scientifically established fact, but that she was not going to be roped into commenting on related controversial public policy questions.

By the same token Senator Harris’s last question reflects a pseudo-religious “I believe in science but I don’t need to think about what it actually means” mantra. Climate change, which is happening, presents numerous potential threats, but not to the air we breathe, as if it were akin to industrial pollutants.

I raise this point, which may seem like mere semantics, because we have to encourage intelligent and literate discourse from both sides of the aisle. Inappropriate claims like this by politicians who want to be on the right side of science but who can’t be bothered to think about what it implies don’t help. Rather they encourage rational skeptics and irrational deniers alike to reject the actual science by dismissing the statements of those who claim to defend it. Similarly, it also helps encourage a distrust of scientists.

I wrote my new book, which presents the fundamental science behind climate change, in part to specifically respond to this sorry state of affairs. Outrageous denials, or outrageous doom and gloom predictions equally subvert the ultimate goal, which is to develop rational public policy. Gaining a perspective of the fundamental science, which I would argue is not beyond the grasp of a Supreme Court Justice, or a United States Senator soon to be Vice-President, is a precursor to proposing rational policies to address one of the most significant global challenges of the 21st century.

I should underscore that when I discuss scientific illiteracy, I am not focusing on how many scientific facts people may remember. I rather mean the process of science: empirical testing and retesting, logical analysis, and drawing conclusions derived from facts and not hopes. The impact of increased CO2 on heat absorption in the atmosphere is something that can be tested, as can the expansion coefficient of water as heat is added, one of the key factors affecting measured sea level rise. Accepting the reality of these is not something that should disqualify you from, or assure you of, a government appointment.

An equally pernicious misunderstanding of the scientific process involves confusions about uncertainty, as we are witnessing with the current pandemic. Epidemiology is a very difficult part of science because it often relies on sparse data that is very hard to accumulate. Like all aspects of science, the conclusions one draws are only as good as the data one has. Yet, politicians and the public alike have often accepted sweeping claims about the perceived lethality or transmissibility of COVID-19 well before appropriate data has been available. Donald Trump was at one extreme, but others who exploited for political reasons early predictions that millions would die usually did not qualify their remarks with either a reasonable estimate of uncertainties, or with the proviso that this dire prediction was for a world where no ameliorative actions were taken.

It is possible, and indeed I expect likely, that we will not have firm knowledge about the details of its lethality or transmissibility for years, or at least until after the current pandemic is over. And even then, uncertainties will remain. This issue has recently taken on a more personal aspect for me, as I write this while convalescing from what appears to be COVID-19. (Thanks to the vagaries of the US healthcare system, and the recent surge of cases, the results of my test will take seven days to arrive, by which time I am hoping to be well on the way to recovery.)

When it comes to public perceptions of medical or scientific prowess, I blame in part science fiction programs on television or in feature films that give the illusion that faced with a technical problem, sufficiently talented scientists and engineers can both ascertain the cause and create a solution in hours instead of years or decades. That is just not the way science often works. Most important scientific developments are not revolutionary. More often than not they are baby steps taken along a long road of discovery. The recent announcement of two new COVID vaccine efficacies has been remarkable, so that perhaps by the end of 2021 most people will be vaccinated. But while two years is lightning speed in this area, many people remain surprised that it has taken this long.

Fewer people may proudly proclaim their scientific illiteracy than their innumeracy, but our cultural role models nevertheless often openly express their lack of comfort with questions that you shouldn’t have to be a scientist to understand or appreciate. I saw it when I taught at Yale, and I saw it in the Senate confirmation room. It is considered quaint to say something like, “my mind just doesn’t work that way” when it comes to science, as an excuse to stop thinking. But we wouldn’t accept that statement so easily if the question related to Shakespeare’s contributions to literature, or the historical impact of the Holocaust.

The Enlightenment was well-named because it led to a greater understanding of ourselves, our society, and our environment, and was accompanied by the rise of the scientific method. Acting for the common good requires subjecting our own ideas to empirical scrutiny, being open to considering and empirically testing the ideas of others, and letting empirical data be the arbiter of reality. The most compelling reason that all of us, most importantly our public figures, should take science seriously, and honestly, was expressed best by Jacob Bronowski, a personal hero who exemplified the union of the two cultures of science and humanities:

Dream or nightmare, we have to live our experience as it is, and we have to live it awake. We live in a world which is penetrated through and through by science and which is both whole and real. We cannot turn it into a game simple by taking sides.

Lawrence M. Krauss is a theoretical physicist and president of The Origins Project Foundation. He was Chair of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from 2007–2018. His newest book, due out in January, is The Physics of Climate Change. 

Source: Why Is Scientific Illiteracy So Acceptable?