Shatner v Reddit: racists group there to "incite and spread their hatred"

Captain Kirk takes on the hive-mind.

William Shatner has had it up to here with reddit and he's letting them know about it.

The former Captain Kirk, who has been an active user of the site for a couple of weeks now, made a suggestion on the ideasfortheadmins subreddit to allow for private messages to be turned off. (He is understandably annoyed that his mailbox filling up with fanmail obscures more important functions of the site.) That suggestion, which was relatively well received, bubbled up into Shatner expressing his dismay at the less-salubrious aspects of the site, writing that:

Reddit has been the first 'mainstream' site that I have been to that actually appears to allow racists and other hate mongers to group, congregate, incite and spread their hatred. There's entire subreddits that allow it.

When reddit's free-speech brigade — the same wing of the site which is so dedicated to "free-speech" that the Gawker network remains banned from posting links to a lot of subreddits over Adrian Chen's unmasking of shock-poster Violentacrez — took Shatner to task over this, arguing that banning for racism would be against the site's rules, he pointed out the site has other rules too, which are never enforced:

  • Remember the human. When you communicate online, all you see is a computer screen. When talking to someone you might want to ask yourself "Would I say it to the person's face?" or "Would I get jumped if I said this to a buddy?"
  • Adhere to the same standards of behavior online that you follow in real life.

The general reddit view of the right to anonymous free speech trumping all other rights has got the site in trouble before. Subreddits focused around creepshots (sexualised pictures of women taken without their consent), jailbait (sexualised pictures of under-18 year olds) and beating women have all hit the news in the last few months. Bizarrely, this has happened at the same time as the site has become a standard fixture on the PR trail for celebrities in all walks of life. The "Ask Me Anything" format reached its apotheosis when Barack Obama turned up shortly before the election, and a growing number of visitors stick around afterwards.

The problem is that reddit runs itself like a social network while presenting itself like a monolithic site. Few blame Twitter or Facebook for the content they host, because the sites are so clearly run by the users. The question for reddit is whether, as its mainstream acceptance butts heads with its putrid underside, that decentralised nature will become common knowledge. If it doesn't — if the site and its admins continue to appear responsible for everything they allow — there could be trouble ahead.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”