Doing good science is amazingly -- and I think not coincidentally -- like doing good democracy.  Sharing information and skeptically assessing it -- testing it against other knowledge -- is key to advancing in both areas.  In both politics and science, we can scream "I'm right!" or scream "You're wrong!"... or we can take the time to lay out the details of the ideas asserted, expose their weaknesses or missing information, reveal anything overlooked or suppressed, discuss it to death... test it to failure... and by so doing, arrive at a more educated understanding, and a more effective public practice. 
US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote: "If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence." Concurring, Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927).  

That link and the famous quote are the opener to a good, open-access article on counterspeech as the only democratic, non-violent remedy to disliked speech.  The authors of "Counterspeech 2000: A New Look at the Old Remedy for "Bad" Speech" discuss several prominent cases, on different scales and involving different actors:

1. effective and ineffective responses to a hate-group chapter publicizing itself through participating in roadside cleanup in Missouri; 
2. a supermarket's choice to favor lawsuits over news reports on unsafe food handling, instead of conventional public relations;
3. a massive internet "education" campaign by the maker of an herbal diet supplement to counter unfavorable news reports before they even aired;
4. the U.S. anti-smoking media campaign funded by the tobacco industry settlement;
5. efforts to attack a NYC exhibition of art seen as "sacrilegious."

In these clearly summarized cases, they highlight several issues I find key for understanding how and why counterspeech works:

(1) Many kinds of counterspeech are available, from informal and post-hoc to highly organized and in advance; from affordable to artistic to outrageous to quietly effective.  As someone noted, white segregationist structures weren't dismantled by MLK's elegant philosophy and speech but by the fact that 10,000 of his friends were standing with him as he spoke.  Pick the right form of counterspeech for yourself, your issue and your audience. 

(2) Counterspeech is ultimately, and often immediately, more effective than violence, lawsuits, and economic attacks that simply seek to silence speech. That's not just an ideal or a belief. 

(3) Counterspeech is deployed in "the court of public opinion" or "public marketplace of ideas", rather than in actual courts, which may be both far more expensive and, often, less effective.  The authors feel corporate lawyers seem not to have learned this; is this because as lawyers, they see everything as a lawsuit?  Just as sometimes angry people use counterspeech more to vent their rage than to change things?  The authors note, counterspeech can have "a purgative role, allowing a dissatisfied message recipient to ventilate his or her thoughts rather than engage in destructive conduct"; that's good, but counterspeech should be more than, as Joy Ann Reid puts it, "throwing your socks at the TV screen" whenever the idiots are spouting BS.  Counterspeech should be focused on driving out the false and fallacious speech, to remedy the public situation, not just to deplore or oppose it. 

(4) Counterspeech has been called too weak by some.  It may be more difficult to mount where time is not available (as Brandeis noted); where less-powerful socioeconomic minorities have unequal access to tools (e.g. money, publicity); and where hatefulness has intimidated or traumatized those who would counter such speech (i.e. bullying). We're all learning how to stand, and ally, against bullying; are allies the best remedies for the other problems (time and tools) as well?

(5) Successful counterspeech draws media attention and thus amplification. Nowadays, 18 years after this review's publication, this includes social media as well as news media, and may also be considered to include "business as media," that is, businesses and business leaders who join in and even lead counterspeech movements (for example, Penzeys Spices or Patagonia).  Why are businesses increasingly more visibly political? Because, as this 2016 Stanford business review article says, while it depends on who your customers are, in general, "
national retailers seem to have decided that the progressive pressures are the safer option...the progressives have won the cultural war."

(6) Counterspeech campaigns must be strategic and informed as to the "Who, What, How, and When" of their speech. This is basic communications:
(a) who is to be reached by the counterspeech? (the "target audience") 
(b) what media should be used? (billboards, internet, PSAs, etc.) 
(c) what types of appeals will work best? (fear, humor, facts, children's voices, scientists, religious authority, etc.) 
(d) how often should the counterspeech be made (one big march, hourly ads, etc)

All of the SftP's members who are longtime activists on the streets, on the campus, and in city hall will recognize that now we're onto the "Basics of Organizing," as the great Shel Trapp of Chicago codified very simply in his pamphlet of the same name.  Trapp's Basics of Organizing is the best short manual I know (about 22 pages), and it's free! Also, as a totally pre-internet document, it's still amazingly on-point as to how ordinary people WIN even if they have little money or skills. 

Shel Trapp: The Basics of Organizing  

Get your copy downloaded (Mitchel, you must already have one - or ten - in the original form! Who else does? Herb?) 

I actually am sending that link to The Basics of Organizing out this very morning to the members of my local county's Medicaid for Idaho Organizing Team -- I am in Idaho, often called the "reddest of red states," and we are WINNING the campaign to put Medicaid Expansion on the statewide ballot next November.  And we're learning a LOT in so doing, and building a new movement of citizen activists who know what to do.

We are winning health care for 78,000 Idahoans without (the state is only about 1.5 million).  These are mainly low-income, working adults.  Every year some die because they can't afford health care.  Despite the largely paid-for, effective federal offer of Medicaid Expansion, Idaho's GOP governor and legislature turned it down because of hatred of Obama and all things federal.  Despite the fact that:
-- they have no plan of their own. 
-- in 2015 the governor's own working group recommended taking Medicaid Expansion (as a number of smarter Republican governors like John Kasich did). 
-- the proof that it gets people healthier and better able to work; 
-- the people without healthcare aren't shiftless moochers but working adults at painfully low pay (mainly in agriculture, construction, restaurants, health care). 
-- the political risk that denied healthcare and affordable housing, demands for a raise in the state's minimum wage will just keep growing.  
-- Medicaid Expansion will solve the crippling problem of county property taxes currently being drained to cover "indigent" emergency room and hospital costs; 
-- it will support those red rural counties by keeping their hospitals open (the campaign has found, as Maine did in their successful ballot initiative last November, that the support is just as strong in rural areas as urban); 
-- it will expand jobs in healthcare by letting 78,000 people finally start going to the doctor, dentist, physical therapist, mental health worker, addiction treatment plan, drugstore, etc. 

What a perfect issue to introduce a lot of the "resistance" to the joys of actually using the tools of government (citizen ballot initiatives and existing federal programs) to end a huge problem, instead of just sitting at home yelling at the idiots on TV. 

We're actually lucky that Idaho is such a backwards state, because there are so many things to improve.  It's fun to collect signatures for something that over 60% of the state already supports!  But many people are afraid to support it publicly - to do more than sign their own name.  That's the "suppression" of speech that blankets my region like a wet cloud, comprised of equal parts race-baiting politics and gay-baiting Mormon religion.  So our campaign is also advancing the goal of teaching people once again how to speak up in civility, about civic issues.

The statewide grassroots organization (Reclaim Idaho) that wrote the medicaid expansion petition also focuses on education and public land conservation -- so next we may move on to science education, and countering climate change.  Meanwhile, we'll see about electing new representatives on that ballot next November as well.

What are YOU involved in doing to change and improve things where you live?


Claudia Pine

On Wed, Jan 31, 2018 at 4:21 AM, Mandi Smallhorne <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

Hi Larry and Claudia,

I think we’re the only ones still active from the original team of moderators – as I remember it, Kamran pulled out; and Herb has expressed his wish to be uninvolved – he is retired and very engaged in music composition now.

What do we do? I have all the email addresses of members; I have been considering sending each an individual email, asking them what they would like to see covered in this forum, maybe a three-to-five question questionnaire. That way you’d avoid getting into a to-and-fro on the list itself. And if we invited comment, that might be interesting.

I just feel that the dominance of Maggie Zhou and Mitchell is toxic for many, and we need to yank it out of their hands somehow. I don’t want to banish them, but dilute them. (I cannot believe that on a science forum, I am reading posts that seriously quote Mike Adams from Natural News. I keep wanting to yell, “You do know that this man is mates with Alex Jones? You know, doomsday rightwing conspiracy theorist, tight with Trump?”)

More posting from the rest would be ideal.

So I have thought maybe I could post science I find in my routine trawl through the science info sites I belong to, such as EurekAlert, to provoke a bit more discussion or response from others? I could also post links to science blogs such as ScienceBabe.

What do you think?



Mandi Smallhorne

Freelance science journalist and writer


African Federation of Science Journalists

SA Science Journalists Association

Board member:

World Federation of Science Journalists

PO Box 2826

Wilropark 1731


South Africa

Tel: 27 11 672 3555

Cell: 27 82 881 8270


Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are. ― Benjamin Franklin

The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.  -- Paul Cezanne