I had started writing a post about a recent example of misbehavior in climate science where a new methodological paper was published in Nature as a "comment" so as to avoid any critical review/examination of the methodologies because it had a "sexy" headline. Then I realized how pointless it was. That sort of shadiness is nothing new, and nobody really cares.
I was still in the mood to write though, and fortunately, my Twitter feed provided a perfect oddity to discuss in this tweet:
https://t.co/lXNE1wg5VM fabricated definitions of "run train" after the fact to protect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This was incredibly corrupt and shady. Partisan, fraudulent dictionaries are exactly what the world needs right now. @Dictionarycom https://t.co/GqcbKi6uBi
— Joe Duarte, PhD (@ValidScience) February 28, 2019
I've always held a love for words. There was even a time I wanted to become a lexicographer (basically a person who makes dictionaries). The idea a major dictionary would fabricate definitions for political purposes was so strange I had to investigate. And boy am I glad I did.
To explain, let's consider three quotes from the article. First:
Strangely, it never at any point discloses what “run train” means, which is especially odd given that this is a dictionary website. This also makes the op-ed useless. After all, how could anyone evaluate what Ocasio-Cortez said without knowing what it meant?
This quote raises an interesting point. Why would an op-ed published on ictionary.com about a person's use of the phrase "run train" not provide a definition for the phrase? That would be bizarre. Only, this point is quickly undermined when the article says:
In their op-ed, Dictionary.com gave two false definitions for run train:
The first is as “a lewd sexual act.” The second is “to work on multiple things at once, such as in a game or in a competition.”
Here the author acknowledges the op-ed provides two definitions for the term "run train." It's very strange to say an op-ed doesn't disclose what something means while it provides definitions for what the thing means. Yes, technically if you provide a false definition you did not disclose the true definition, but that is a form of semantic gamesmanship which serves no legitimate purpose. It's just so this guy can make his rhetoric more inflammatory.
But where things get truly bizarre comes later:
The second definition is even more problematic because I think Dictionary.com plagiarized Urban Dictionary and altered the definition to fit its bizarre partisan goals. Searching on this phrase yielded no results outside of the Dictionary.com article¹ — I tried DuckDuckGo, Yandex, Google, and Bing. However, Urban Dictionary’s seventh (and heavily downvoted) definition for run train reads:
To do work on multiple people in a game or anything that has competition. IT IS NOT ANYTHING SEXUAL.
Dictionary.com seems to have changed people to things. They then claim that Ocasio-Cortez must have meant this fabricated, fictional meaning that Dictionary.com made up after the fact. Unlikely.
With that out of the way, let's look at what is claimed here. In the same breath we're told this op-ed fabricates a "fictional meaning that Dictionary.com made up after the fact" and it seems to have "plagiarized Urban Dictionary." How could you possibly plagiarize and fabricate something at the same time? To fabricate requires one create, to plagiarize requires one copy.
Now, one might say this isn't contradictory because changing "people" to "things" in this definition creates a new, fabricated meaning. To anyone who would, I have to ask, how desperate are you? The op-ed provides two definitions for a phrase, but because you say those definitions are wrong, the op-ed didn't disclose the definition of the phrase? You say the article changed a single word from "people" to "things," and you claim that means it fabricated a definition? That's just pathetic.
Of course, as a lover of semantics, I don't mind parsing subtle nuances in language. But that's clearly not the point of this article. It's author is not trying to do that. Just look at his constant reference to Dictionary.com doing things. This was an op-ed. The fact this article constantly refers to Dictionary.com as having done things in pursuit of some political agenda because of an op-ed it published is absurd. Op-eds often do not reflect the view of the publisher. Taking a single op-ed and citing it as proof of nefariousness in an organization is absurd and obscene. And most importantly, it's lazy.
You can't simultaneously ask people to parse your language finely for subtle nuances and rely on generalizations so gross they amount to outright misrepresentations. I mean, you can. People find ways to overcome cognitive dissonance all the time. It's just... you shouldn't. Because... it's bad.
Then again, this article also contains flat out lies. Let's look at part of one of those earlier quotes again:
They then claim that Ocasio-Cortez must have meant this fabricated, fictional meaning that Dictionary.com made up after the fact. Unlikely.
This is as obvious a falsehood as one could ever ask for. This is how the fifth paragraph of the op-ed begins:
Given the context of her sentence, one could assume Ocasio-Cortez meant the latter definition of run train, but it’s impossible to be sure because her reps declined to comment.
I like to think I am good at semantic hair-splitting. I've tried to use my talents at it to find as much justification as I could for the things this article says about the op-ed in question. There's nothing I can do about this one though. The op-ed explicitly states "it's impossible to be sure" what definition was intended while the article criticizing it explicitly states the op-ed claims the speaker "must have meant this fabricated, fictionarl meaning." There is no way to square these two statements. Put bluntly, the author lied.
Now, one might think this provides a "Gotcha!" moment as this could just be a mistake, not an intentional deception. There are three problems with that argument. First, the author of this article levies accusations of dishonesty without giving any consideration to the possibility of mistakes. That argument would require holding this post to a higher standard than the article in question. Which would be fine. I think that higher standard is appropriate. But if we use it, we must also hold the article in question i sfundamentally flawed.
Second, there is more than one way to lie. Even if the author of this article believed what he said to be true, an implicit promise when speaking about something is that you have actually looked at it. The fact he made a such a blatant fabrication, one easily seen to be false for anyone who reads just the first five paragraphs of the op-ed, proves he couldn't have read this article. He might have looked at it, but he did not read its contents.
Third, it ignores the history involved. I offered a caveat about my use of the word "lie" in regard to this individual in a previous post, and despite responding to me, he never challenged my choice of language. Also, that history involves this same author wildly making things up, multiple times. First he began by claiming articles didn't say things they clearly said. When shown they did say those things, he responded with the insane and demonstrably false theory that the articles were secretly changed to discredit him. And then the lies continued.
Now, the purpose of this post isn't to continue some grudge against this guy. I just happen to think he's a perfect example of something that's troubled me for a long time. There are people who say things so obviously false there is no rational way they could believe what they say. At the same time, they seem to genuinely believe what they say. This led me to ponder something in that last post, which I'll now repeat:
So what are we supposed to do about things like this? When a person says something so completely untrue, how should we react? Should we calmly correct them as though they made some honest mistake? Should we label them a liar? Should we ignore them and allow their falsehoods to go uncorrected?
I honestly don't know. I know one thing though. I know people should not be able to escape accusations of lying by lying (to themselves?) so much they delude themselves into believing their own lies. That isn't right.
I still don't have an answer to that.