How to ruin your reputation.
Paolo Attivissimo is a tech journalist and a semi-celebrity; he’s by far the most prominent debunker in the Italian language web. His work to dispel myths and conspiracy theories is well known and appreciated (including by yours truly): among other things, he and his collaborators created websites dedicated to debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories, or the Moonlanding hoaxes (in Italian).
Well, he just became unhinged.
A few days ago, he published an embarrassing, painful-to-read article against Donald Trump. Here it is (in Italian):
FAQ: perché ce l’ho con Trump presidente? Perché sono un debunker (FAQ: why am I mad at President Trump? Because I’m a debunker).
Its’ just pathetic: he sounds exactly like the conspiracy theorists that he used to silence with the compelling force of hard facts.
In his tirade you can find a bunch of harsh, bitter words against the US President Elect and his staff; yet he doesn’t offer any supporting evidence. We are supposed to take his word for it. Unless we, Italian readers, are fluent in English: in that case, his points would come out as self-evident…
He defines Trump an imbecile, an idiot surrounded by smart weasels. He’s even inclined to pass a judgment on his body language and tone of voice: in his view, they match those of fraud artists selling false stories.
For all that rage, the only factual assertion that Attivissimo produces is a bit silly, given the breadth of his attack (all translations are mine):
he wants to block NASA’s climate research, thus depriving us of climate data
This is just stretching it, based on a partisan interpretation of some statements that are anything but alarming (and, let’s be honest, they pertain to a minor administrative issue, compared with all the pressing stuff on Trump’s plate.) This article explains what this is all about: a Trump adviser suggests they want to focus NASA’s future activity to space exploration, bringing it back to its roots, while leaving climate research to other agencies; he also added that they want science not to be politicized.
Maybe Attivissimo could have pointed out for instance that James Hansen, director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was arrested in 2013 for a “civil disobedience” protest against the Keystone Pipeline, together with other green activists, in front of the White House (according to Fox News, that was at least his 4th arrest).
This is the same Hansen who was instrumental in influencing USA policies when in 1988 he testified in front of the Senate on Global Warming… but with the help of a trick: the hearing was scheduled in the hottest possible summer day, keeping the windows of the room open all night and guaranteeing there was no air conditioning… (I can testify that the summer heat in Washington is surprisingly brutal.) That’s the level of adherence to scientific objectivity and best practices with which they tried to push the legislators. But there are entire books describing other episodes showing an unsettling level of unethical behaviors and tampering coordination in climate science.
And getting back to NASA, an agency that nowadays can’t even bring humans to space, lacking a launcher (astronauts reach the ISS using the old Russian Soyuz), remember how Obama repurposed it in part to dedicate their efforts to public relations with the Islamic world? From the mouth of Charles Bolden, NASA administrator:
One, he wanted me to help reinspire children to want to get into science and math; he wanted me to expand our international relationships; and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.
That’s a pale shadow of what NASA used to be. Attivissimo himself, being a space exploration geek, doesn’t like this state of affairs.
And yet, he insists the real problem is Trump, described as “antiscience”, or even better: “anti-reality”!
As an observer of The Donald and his ambitions, I’m gonna get out on a limb and predict he not only desires to be remembered as the guy who gave new impulse to NASA endeavors, but before 2020 he will push with great fanfare for a new, ambitious Mars human exploration project.
But wait, here’s the real lunacy!
The most questionable choice Attivissimo made: he opened his article with the photo I also put here for your consideration: Trump is waving from the podium, but the angle and the timing are ideal to suggest to obsessed fools that in this particular instance he was using the Nazi salute… Not satisfied, our journalist/debunker even added a caption: “No, this is not a photomontage”
Uhh! You don’t say!
I’m sorry, this is hallucinating. And if it’s a collective hallucination, that’s even worse.
There’s no reason tiptoeing around it: this is one of those cheap, vulgar tricks meant to spread disinformation.
Once again, as I evidenced when dealing with a Snopes articles (further examples in future posts), we are facing professional fact checkers that indulge in the same behavior they are so readily chastising when it’s others, and specifically political adversaries, who are guilty of such deceptive tactics. Usually they are acting as professionals though, bringing to the table subtle, seemingly reasonable arguments; here instead Attivissimo loses it.
Pressed by readers in the comments section, he comes up with a gallery of unsustainable prejudices. Luckily, his position of debunker prevents him from backtracking and deleting that questionable content.
At first he tries to downplay the scope of his choice, while pretending to test the reactions of his readers:
did I write somewhere that such gesture represents a Roman or Nazi salute? Absolutely not.
But then he relies on a partisan interpretation from the extreme left website Raw Story: fans raising their hand to say they’ll vote for Trump are seen as maliciously hiding a secret, knowing full well what that gesture is supposed to mean, as a signal, a dog whistle…
Now you know it: if you try to communicate anything by raising your hand, from now on you may be rightfully labeled a Nazi.
And he piles on:
But the promise to deport all Muslims, to keep people with the wrong skin color from entering the country, to “make America great again”, they all remind me of one thing:
Only someone who didn’t really follow the Presidential Election, or is completely impervious to facts, could pretend that Trump may want to deport all the Muslims from America, or that fighting illegal immigration could have anything to do with skin color (also, most immigrants aren’t necessarily that dark skinned, at least compared to many Trump supporters, warmly embraced by the Donald.)
Those who are blinded by their ideology tend to project on their enemy their stubborn refusal to observe the differences.
That’s how you could mix up a promise to expel illegal immigrants (mostly from Latin America), that we can expect to happen only for a portion of all the undocumented, with the measures intended to prevent potential hostiles from entering, that is aimed at Islamic terrorists and their sympathizers.
For a thinking American a Muslim that happens to be a US citizen deserves a completely different treatment from a foreign Muslim coming from some unstable region of the world, where a lot of Islamic extremists live.
A nation can be symbolized by a boat: you can’t let everyone get on board, or it’ll capsize. You need to make it work, granting specific rights to citizens, and that necessarily implies restrictions on aliens. Dura lex.
For a “progressive” borders are instead a nuisance and a fundamental injustice. We’d necessarily need to subscribe to their utopic vision; by stipulating that we are all equal on principle, the inevitable consequence becomes that everyone has a fundamental right to get everything they want!
A newcomer, often openly hostile to the very existence of your nation, in this vision should be granted equal treatment to that of citizens. Of course it would be wonderful to be able to satisfy everyone; but we need to remember the boat metaphor. Doable ≠ ideal. A civilization can be saved on a small scale, where the pieces more or less fit together and the whole structure stands! Not through the entropy of a giant dysfunctional state entity, clinging to the hope that somehow things will turn out fine.
But this whole argument is beyond the grasp of those like Attivissimo. That’s why when Trump, breaking with conventions, captures the attention of his followers with the crude face of a sophisticated political analysis, and he promises a drastic approach to limit or stop Muslims and/or people coming from unstable regions from coming to the US, he reflexively jump at the opportunity to cry: “this guy wants to expel all Muslims!”
(We could add: it’s true that Trump took some heat for giving different versions of his idea about what to do to block potentially dangerous new immigrants. But this is not necessarily a sign of lack of resolve or clarity. It’s about sending messages aimed at testing reactions, helping people gradually adapt their perception to reality: a nation doesn’t need a moral permit to defend itself. There’s no overarching duty to ignore the nature of what is happening, for fear of being labeled as racists discriminating against a non-race. Border rejection policies should be based on security concerns, not on moral blackmail.)
In that phrase not only Attivissimo fails to undestand the distinction between anti-terror provisions and anti-illegal immigration policies. He explicitly creates a new, imaginary scheme: deporting Muslims, keeping dark-skinned people out!
Once a reader rightfully asks him for some supporting evidence for such an extraordinary claim, Attivissimo comes up with a pathetic evasive maneuver, painfully similar to those adopted by 9/11 truthers when he cornered them with a rational deconstruction of their fantasies:
Do you really need me to tell you explicitly? Isn’t all he said and did during this electoral campaign enough?
Can you relate with my outrage?
Burying your head in the sand: pro-immigration rhetoric, anyone standing in the way is the Villain.
If someone is still deluded into thinking that the next Trump Administration won’t be consisting of racists, bigots, sexists, intolerant and ignorant people, it means they buried their heads in the sand
And wait for this brilliant argument:
Donald J. Trump, who incites hatred against immigrants, is himself a descendant of immigrants
Technically there’s no definite moment when your family ceases to descend from immigrants: are you still one, if only one of your grandparents came to the country? What if it was a great-great-grandfather? You get the picture. To make sense, this definition requires to include the entirety of humanity. We all descend from people who “traveled” to a new place. Hence, the entire idea becomes useless.
But once you reject such nonsense, you can appreciate a meaningful distinction: a huge group of people coming to a community, uninvited, destabilizing it, has nothing to do with people becoming part of a new reality, in a civil and orderly fashion. Opposing an uncontrolled influx of illegal immigrants has nothing to do with a well regulated legal immigration process. That’s something Trump made abundantly clear: he wants to guarantee the rule of law and the ability to decide who enters the country, he is in favor of legal immigration. Pretending otherwise, even insisting he’s inciting hatred and violence, is either completely dishonest or unbearably stupid.
But remember: all this insisting on your duty not to oppose illegal immigration has a sinister net effect: it prevents any integration. This in turn causes hatred, separated communities, violence, widespread crime.
See Western Europe: in many cities, in the last few years, Muslim immigrants created new enclaves, ghettos where there’s no place for the laws, customs and even language of the host country. They then proceed to prevent outsiders from trespassing, to the point of throwing stones at firefighters!
That’s what you get when you justify lawlessness in the name of some inevitable victimhood status, and you label anyone who wants to maintain order as a racist and a xenophobe.
It’s precisely those social activists making excuses for self-segregating criminals that create the conditions for hatred to grow and become unstoppable! And yet they are also assuming the role of the righteous preachers pointing fingers and denouncing the exasperated westerners for their insufficient self-deprecating zeal for multiculturalism.
You can’t force a social experiment on entire populations. They will grow angrier and angrier!
You can consider yourself fortunate that a reaction, for now, comes from reasonable people like Trump, instead of violent wannabe dictators!
The zero point of leftist hysteria: Nazis everywhere!
I tried to reason with Attivissimo on his blog, pointing out the ludicrous nature of his accusations, starting from the malicious photo.
To no avail. Once cornered regarding the absurd pretense to label people raising their hands as Nazis, Attivissimo loses his cool and goes:
If you listen and see the declarations made by Trump’s supporters, you’ll discover that they are indeed Nazis and they know full well that they are using an ambiguous gesture.
That’s why I said he was in meltdown. “Trump’s supporters are indeed Nazis” is a phrase that I think (hope!) Attivissimo himself would disavow, eventually!
That’s losing control of your emotions. No contact with reality whatsoever.
This is a serious problem: mainstream media criminalizing anyone who tries to do something to stop the decline of a civilization. That’s bound to force people to become more and more frustrated and unreasonable. They are effectively pushing people towards a dictator, since they present becoming a hate-filled extremist as the only possible alternative to their self-destructive value system.
In the meantime they incessantly cry wolf, calling any politician opposing their “progress” a new Hitler!
If you are not with us your only choice is to become Nazis. That politician you like is clearly a Nazi, it doesn’t matter what he says. His supporters are Nazis. We know what they secretly think.
The day a wolf will come, who’s gonna believe them?
Furthermore, people at that point will be used to think of themselves as deplorable xenophobes, even a bit racist.
The Attivissimos of this world can pat themselves on the back for their embodying the ideal of Defender of All That Is Good, while spitting rage at those that are desperately trying to be reasonable.
Where he keeps retreating and attacking on new fronts; gender theory and schools
There was a somewhat long exchange with him on his blog; he had to abandon the unsustainable Nazi allegation, but while stonewalling me and coming up with lots of badly regurgitated talking points, he tended to retreat to familiar territory.
Hence he went into school curricula. The predictable risk of the new Administration pushing for creationism being taught in schools.
My rebuttal: actually, they are going to remove federal constraints. Washington shouldn’t dictate what will be taught to your children; that’s the parents’ prerogative, choosing a school that reflects their values.
Of course this means running the risk of scientifically incorrect ideas being taught. It’s a price you should pay.
On the long run those theories that work won’t need overzealous government inspectors to gain traction; on the contrary, some pseudo-scientific ideas may win if the system forces pupils to comply and accept the official truths, thanks also to teachers’ penchant for conformism.
I’m not very concerned by what the students may hear (or not hear) that one time in their lives when a teacher will illustrate the theory of evolution. I’m very worried instead of this irresponsible indoctrination of small children, brainwashed into thinking that being a male or a female depends on how you feel about it. That’s how many poor saps, targeted when they were fragile and confused about their identity, maybe lacking social skills (see this article about Asperger subjects), will end up with their lives ruined, chasing the illusion of a “cure” through fighting their bodies and their biological sex. Another well-meaning, cruel social experiment.
Just for bringing this problem to attention, I was met with a well deserved chastisement from Attivissimo:
I’m sorry, I don’t waste time with homophobic bigots.
There you go.
How could a brilliant guy lose control like that, jeopardizing his credibility in the process?
♦ I’m attempting an explanation in my next article. It’s about overconfidence: when you’re used to prevail over inferior adversaries, and you step into unfamiliar territory, where you can’t apply the reasoning processes you’re familiar with.
♦ Another clear answer comes from Scott Adams:
As Trump continues to defy all predictions from his critics, the critics need to maintain their self-images as the smart ones who saw this new Hitler coming. And that means you will see hallucinations like you have never seen. It will be epic.
The reason this will be so fun to watch is that we rarely get to see a situation in which the facts so vigorously violate a hallucination.
♦ Attivissimo is a hardcore skeptic. He, too, lives in a “progressive” bubble (though slightly different from the one you are used to: he’s not falling for some fashionable anti-science canards, like opposing GMOs).
He was also the proud translator in English of the article by Luigi Garlaschelli et al. where they asserted they had finally found a process to recreate the Shroud of Turin. In reality even a cursory look at a magnified photo of the linen proves that the artifact produced by Garlaschelli had completely different features from the Shroud image.
More than anything else, I remember Attivissimo for displaying a quite remarkable acrimony against the Catholic Church. The kind of anti-religious prejudice that is proudly accompanied by an undeserved sense of superiority and a righteous indignation for things he understands only superficially.
Addendum: he’s not 100% wrong about Trump. There are some half truths here and there
Even at the risk of making myself enemies from all camps, I must add that at times Donald Trump used incorrect data or retweeted content that wasn’t truthful.
This fact first of all doesn’t authorize people to inflate things out of proportion, let alone start hallucinating and comparing him to Hitler. Secondly, remember that all politicians are guilty of the same kind of mistakes or misrepresentation, in various ways. Those “on the correct side of issues” are both protected by the media, and easily going with the flow, not needing to come up with original ideas. Doing the opposite is way more difficult. It’s easier to make mistakes when exploring uncharted territory; your mistakes are more evident and everybody wants to challenge them. But going against the grain is more than necessary; it’s vital.
Trump is a perfect representative of people typically committing formal mistakes as I discussed in another article: he’s direct, vague and blunt like most of the electorate is. The principle is that of offering
factually inaccurate assertions, that exaggerate a claim that is substantial and deals with a real problem that is recklessly downplayed by the media
This is a natural reaction to the subtly deceptive manipulated news from the “respectable media”: in a way, they had it coming.
This instinctive approach, drawing conclusions based on common sense, is far from foolproof. It’s easy to make mistakes that way. But don’t overestimate the track record of experts either.
Lessons learned? Well, it’s a wise choice to never rely on the judgment of anyone. We all make mistakes. Avoid falling for the clever prose coming from the mouth/pen/keyboard of next fashionable guru.
This Attivissimo scene is worth pondering.
Of course we should reject his pretense to smush together in a neat all-inclusive package all sorts of unrelated assertions about various subjects, from Global Warming to fracking, gender studies, attacking Trump, conspiracy theories and so on.
But we shoud also avoid the opposite mistake. We shouldn’t throw away the results coming from proper science together with the pseudo-scientific pretenses of mainstream “skeptic” modern journalists and activists.
It’s a good thing if you take the Global Warming scare as a mostly misleading idea based on some irrelevant truths (I’ll get back to this topic in a future).
And, well… if you are among those who believe in chemtrails, 9/11 conspiracies, crop circles and the like, you may be acting like idiots, but we may hope you’ll cause limited damage.
But I’m begging you, please, please! Don’t skip vaccinations! You risk harming your children and everyone around you.
There’s no easy recipe to determine which voices are the ones you can rely on.
People who push for their ideology to be taken for granted, banking on their reputation as men of science, are irresponsible fools, damaging science itself in the eyes of the public.
But never trust those who are rejoicing at the sight of once reputable sources of knowledge failing to respect proper standards, because then they can step in and pretend any arbitrary theory could claim prominence.
If you hear anyone mentioning “mainstream science” or “traditional medicine”; if he presents himself as “alternative”, ostracized and misunderstood, run! Run for your life!