Is there an echo (echo, echo) in here?

It seems like the accusation of various blogs and spaces being “echo chambers” is showing up more and more. In honesty, I’ve used it myself to describe various communities. In a particular recent example, D.J. Grothe of the JREF called the commenters of Greta Christina’s Blog “ditto-heads.” Others in related threads have referred to a collective of atheist and feminist blogs as “echo chambers” where dissenting opinions are stifled. Less charitable commenters, have referred to such environs with Godwin-loaded terms like ‘lockstep’ and ‘brownshirts’ and ‘re-education.’ The most famous such “echo chamber” among atheist/skeptical blogs is at Pharyngula, where the horde simply parrots whatever PZ says, and violently assaults anyone who dares to disagree.

Or so critics imply (or occasionally state outright).

There are a couple of problems with this critique. The first is that it is not actually a critique. At least in many cases, it’s used to dismiss the arguments of people in comment threads, or fans of bloggers. Used in this way, the “echo chamber” accusation becomes both an ad hominem and an argument from incredulity. The dismisser cannot imagine how a group of people could legitimately arrive at another position, and so they must be under the thrall of some charismatic leader. Thus, their opinions can be dismissed.

Let’s address the first part: that commenters in alleged “echo chambers” are necessarily swayed by the opinions of the charismatic leader at the top. I think, in most cases, this gets the causal relationship exactly backward. It’s almost certainly true that there’s a correlation between the opinions of a group of blog commenters or forum members and the opinions of the person(s) running the forum or blog, and it’s almost certainly true that those opinions have been influenced by that writer. But these are not (at least in most cases) cult compounds. People are not isolated in locked rooms, forced to use Pharyngula as their only source of information and companionship. These are people who came to Pharyngula independently, and stayed of their own volition.

In other words, I tend to read blogs (and magazines and books and watch TV shows and YouTube channels and so forth) written by people whose views generally agree with mine, who comment on issues that I care about, and who present information or opinions in an entertaining and/or informative manner. I suspect that this is almost universally true. I only have so much time to read and watch TV and listen to podcasts; why would I spend a majority or plurality of time on sources that don’t interest me, enlighten me, or entertain me? This isn’t to say that I wall myself off from alternative opinions (more on that in a moment); it means that I’m going to spend more time reading Skepchick and Pharyngula and Slacktivist than, say, Mike Adams’ Health Ranger blog.

And when I read the Health Ranger blog, I’m not expecting to actually learn anything new (except inasmuch as it might teach me new things about bad arguments, or lead me to do debunktional research), and I’m anticipating entertainment by way of hilariously irrational and terrible arguments, which may further entertain me by giving me something to write a blog post about. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t consider Adams’ arguments–I’ll evaluate them based on logic and evidence, like any other claim–but I don’t enter with high expectations.

So, to the point of the “echo chamber,” I think you’ll find that blogs with established commenter communities tend to have commenters who agree with the bloggers because if they disagreed, they’d be reading other blogs. Which kind of reverses the whole cause-effect relationship tossed out by the “echo chamber” criticism. Commenters don’t share the blogger’s opinion because they’re part of that community; they’re part of that community because they share the blogger’s opinions.

And, of course, even with the infamous Pharyngula horde, there “lockstep” just isn’t there. PZ has been called out by his own commenters on more than one occasion (the RDF forums affair and bunny comic brouhaha come to mind), which exposes the other point: even if I seek out communities that represent my opinions, I will almost certainly never be able to shield myself from views with which I disagree. I love Slacktivist, and I even love Fred Clark’s articles on his faith. I disagree with his conclusions and I think his reasons for theism are weak at best, but I’ve learned a lot from reading those posts, including how a liberal Christian can reconcile his beliefs with the Bible, and how overly-simplistic the notion that fundamentalists take the Bible “more literally” is.

And the same can be said for “Penn & Teller: Bullshit” or “Skeptoid” or any of a number of other blogs I read, podcasts I enjoy, or shows I watch. I can scarcely imagine how one might even go about setting up an “echo chamber.”

Actually, that’s not entirely true. We all can imagine precisely that, because we know of at least one infamous actual echo chamber: Uncommon Descent. In that case, it’s clear how you create that kind of environment: ban anyone and everyone who disagrees, and delete their posts. The closest I’ve ever seen to that in the skeptical/atheist community was the You’re Not Helping blog, and rampant banning was the least of that blog’s problems.

There are, of course, accusations that PZ’s blog does precisely that. I don’t know, looking at the threads I linked earlier, it sure seems like Jadehawk; Caine, Fleur du Mal; and Josh, Official SpokesGay are still around and posting, despite disagreeing with PZ (in some cases, quite vehemently) in the threads I linked above. Sorting out any actual “PZ bans anyone who dissents” claims from sour grapes and mudslinging would be a fairly difficult feat, and surely a prominent skeptic like Grothe would know better than to take claims of that sort at face value.

But let’s finally get to the dismissive nature of the “that’s just an echo chamber” accusation. For the sake of argument, let’s accept the premise: the Pharyngulistas (as our example) accept everything PZ says and march in lockstep across the Internets to promote his uncritically-accepted opinions.

So fucking what?

This is why the dismissal fails as a critique: it is wholly without substance. It is a red herring, a non sequitur which says nothing about the claims or opinions being discussed. Even if Pharyngula beamed out mind control rays that placed each and every reader under the thrall of Svengali Myers, it would not be a response to any argument presented by those mind-controlled horde members. The source of the claim, argument, or opinion is immaterial. What matters is its substance, not its source.

Those who are using the “echo chamber” claim as a way of deflecting criticism or dismissing arguments are not engaging in the argument. They are using the same fallacious tactics and intellectually dishonest techniques that we all learned back in Skepticiism 101, and there’s no reason to accept that kind of red herring in any good-faith argument or conversation.


8 Responses to Is there an echo (echo, echo) in here?

  1. Ticktock says:

    I think the echo chamber comments are more directed at the fact that people within the chamber are spending so much focus within their own sphere that they lose perspective other spheres. It's like Twilight fans so obsessed with whether they are Team Jacob or Team Whoeverthefuck that they forget to find a real guy to date. So, PZ gets hate mail from bozos who are mad at his desecration of a cracker, which makes him more inclined to paint christians as horrible people, which makes his commenters enthusiastic about being angry atheists, which makes PZ more likely to write more hateful articles against christians. Meanwhile, many of these angry atheists within the echo chamber are forgetting that they have many reasonable friends and family who are christians but not fundamentalists or creationists. These friends and family feel judged by all the anger, which seems perfectly justifiable within the chamber (witness Greta's blog about why atheists are angry). And all of a sudden we've become the bigots in this scenario because we can't even seem to accept people for believing something different as us.The thing I don't understand is how you can defend the loyal-to-a-fault followers of authority figures within our community. What's wrong with an echo chamber? It squashes dissent, idolizes authority, and favors the faithful… not exactly the most skeptical traits.

  2. Doubting Tom says:

    Great. Now is there any evidence at all that this is actually happening?Has PZ become more antagonistic toward Christians since the cracker incident? Do the commenters at Pharyngula not code-switch, choosing different ways of talking to different people in different contexts? Does Greta's list of grievances to be angry about really only seem reasonable within an echo chamber (and is she advocating being angry all the time to everyone)? Are the people in this alleged echo chamber really intolerant of the idea that people be allowed to believe different things?Please show your work.As to the "squashing dissent, etc." portion, it sounds a lot like you didn't actually read the post. Can you establish that the causal relationship (the existence of these "loyal-to-a-fault" fanbases causes the lack of dissent) points in the direction you suggest? Or could it be that there's a "loyal-to-a-fault" fanbase because it's made of people who already mostly agreed? Pharyngula must be the only place I've seen where squashing dissent and idolizing authority means that the commenters will occasionally rake the blog owner across the coals for getting things wrong or going too far or posting news that's a year old. Far more troubling, I think, is the "echo chamber" (no, not really) of people who like to exaggerate everything that happens at Pharyngula (and Skepchick) to make them sound like bastions of cultlike unreason.

  3. Ticktock says:

    Even in Greta's speech, she mentions the hate mail that she gets, which she uses in her justification for why she is angry in a very influential speech. She never once lists anything good about religion or any reason not to hate christians. It's clear to me that atheists are looking to these leaders as an influence for how they should react to religion, but these atheist leaders are magnet rods for extremist christians. So, their followers are receiving a daily dose of extremism, which may be worsening their extremism. This is my observation/opinion, and I can't prove it any more than you can prove the opposite. I can say that I've seen FB friends posting smart ass bigoted anti-christian links on their wall, and that many of these friends are also rabid fans of freethought blog. Whether there is correlation or causation is beside the point because it reflects echoing dogma within the community, and that dogma is reinforced when any sort of dissent or opposing viewpoint is viciously attacked. It wouldn't be called an echo chamber if people would say "I disagree with you and here's why…" instead of "fuck those guys" and comments agreeing with those sentiments. And yes, I have evidence that that has happened.The very fact that PZ has had to call off his dogs from threatening people IRL, or that Greta sicks her fanbase on commenters who disagree with her, is a sign that they are idolized in a way that is inappropriate for people who are reason-based. And for people to feel that they can't disagree without being shamed publicly and viciously? That's a shameful way for our community to act. And it's become the norm now where we've accepted that anyone who argues against the idolized opinion will have an entire article dedicated to them. I fully expect you to start calling me a retard by the end of this. That's what I get for disagreeing.

  4. Ticktock says:

    By the way, I don't hold myself exempt from the echo chamber. I'm just as guilty as anyone. We all have to remember that we focus WAY too much time and attention on our obsession when we've decided to dedicate a blog or podcast to that obsession. Eventually, we lose perspective that the rest of the world doesn't give a shit about things like elevator-gate, gelato-gate, or whether Wal-Mart is selling homeopathic drugs. I think it's important that we are aware of the echo chamber… that we all tend to go to the same blogs, listen to the same podcasts, attend the same conventions, and generally speak within our own bubble. The reason that I'm bothering to write a comment here is because I think that denial of this echo chamber is problematic. If we're not aware of our own inclinations and influences, we won't allow ourselves to question them.

  5. Doubting Tom says:

    She never once lists anything good about religion or any reason not to hate christians.She also never lists her top ten favorite pie recipes, or the best places to learn the tango, and for the same reason: that's not what the speech/post is about. Read the second paragraph: "I'm not going to be as polite and good-tempered as I usually am in this blog; this piece is about anger, and for once I'm going to fucking well let myself be angry." That's not a "you should be angry all the time" statement. That's a "I'm not usually angry, but these are reasons why anger is sometimes justified" statement. As is the rest of the damn article, and presumably the speech based on it (I haven't gotten around to watching it yet). This is my observation/opinion, and I can't prove it any more than you can prove the opposite.Then the "echo chamber" accusation fails to hold water. Null hypothesis, and all that.I can say that I've seen FB friends posting smart ass bigoted anti-christian links on their wall, and that many of these friends are also rabid fans of freethought blog.Shock horror. I've got oodles of Facebook friends, some of whom can't go a day without posting some condescending drivel about how everyone needs Jesus (or worse–daily horoscope updates). I don't typically respond, despite being a "rabid fan of freethought blog" [sic]. If you're never seeing those kind of posts, then it sounds like you're the one in the echo chamber. It wouldn't be called an echo chamber if people would say "I disagree with you and here's why…" instead of "fuck those guys" and comments agreeing with those sentiments. And yes, I have evidence that that has happened.Funny that you neglect to provide any. And yet, I'm pretty sure that even just the two links I placed in the original posts to Pharyngula threads where folks in the echo chamber disagreed with Lord High PZ, had more "I disagree with you and here's why" than "fuck those guys." The times I see "fuck those guys" tend mostly to be in response to people who aren't open to dialogue, the trolls and demagogues and real extremists. Because as bigoted as the Facebook posts you may see are, somehow I doubt that they're quite so bad as the threats of violence and death that the "extremists" at FtB occasionally receive and post about. Which brings us back to the good ol' false equivalence that comes up whenever atheists are outspoken. An atheist says something "smart-ass" about Christians, and it's "extremism." A presidential candidate says that kids are better off with convicts as parents than gay people, a community attacks a 16-year-old high school student for trying to enforce the Constitution, when "Teach the Controversy" is rearing its ugly head again, well, that's what? Moderation? Par for the course? Expected?What you appear to be saying is that the FtB crew whips up their readers into a frothing, foaming fervor by informing them about what's going on in the world, vis a vis religion.

  6. Doubting Tom says:

    The very fact that PZ has had to call off his dogs from threatening people IRL, or that Greta sicks her fanbase on commenters who disagree with her, is a sign that they are idolized in a way that is inappropriate for people who are reason-based. I'd sure like to see a link to Greta Christina siccing fans on commenters who disagree with her. As to the former, doesn't it suggest exactly the opposite of what you're claiming? PZ's position on violence, threats, and so forth is no secret. It's quite well-known. That he would have to call off the dogs who, if they "idolized" him, never would have been called on in the first place, sure doesn't speak well to the degree of unreasoning sway he apparently has over them.I think the more reasonable hypothesis is the greater internet fuckwad theory rearing its ugly head once more. The Internet makes it quite simple to fly off the handle and send an angry missive to someone that goes too far, and that's not a consequence of Pharyngula. That's a consequence of people with emotions facing little in the way of repercussions for allowing those emotions to get the better of them. If FtB as a source is guilty of anything, it's bringing to light stories that (justifiably) make people upset. If you read about Orthodox Jews hurling feces at eight-year-old girls or Muslim Imams defending genital mutilation on alleged medical grounds, and you don't get upset, then I kind of pity you. But that emotion is best channeled into constructive action, and not angry vitriol. And for people to feel that they can't disagree without being shamed publicly and viciously?The only person who can control how you feel…is you. But the idea that one cannot express disagreement with the "idolized opinion" without experiencing some public shaming is simply, obviously, and demonstrably wrong. In fact, it seems like it "reflects echoing dogma within the community," specifically the community of loosely-affiliated accommodationists and anti-PZ/anti-FtB folks who perpetuate a distorted caricature of what the place actually looks like. Two or three years ago, we were all the unthinking minions of Pope Dawkins, following blindly along to his shrill intolerant decrees. Today it's the same bullshit, but with a different supposed Pope, I guess. And it's just as free of evidence now as it was then. I fully expect you to start calling me a retard by the end of this. That's what I get for disagreeing.Yep, go through my blog history, see all the times I've even used the word "retard," and examine just how I treat dissenting comments. Or no, just go on assuming that your distorted caricature of what FtB fans and commenters are like–"rabid," "dogs," 'dateless Twilight fans," "angry," "bigots," "extremis[t]," "shameful"–is accurate, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

  7. Doubting Tom says:

    As to your last post, it sounds to me that you're using "echo chamber" in a really loose way, meaning "anything that influences us." I agree that we're all influenced by the media we consume. I don't agree that those influences necessarily represent an "echo chamber," and I don't think the case has been made to support that claim. As to the last point, yes, not everyone cares about gelatogate or elevatorgate, and that's fine. That's insider pool. But there are other things–Wal-Mart selling homeopathic remedies, religious intolerance in Israel and New Jersey and Rhode Island, sexism in general, anti-vaccination lunacy, etc.–that maybe people in general should care about. And yeah, I think one of those things is "the injustices perpetrated in the name of extremist religion." It's entirely possible that your smart-ass atheist Facebook friends are Reddit bottom-feeders whose deepest thoughts fit on their bumper sticker. It's also possible to post reasonably about being upset about fundamentalist religion–and to have reasonable Christian friends and family feel unjustly judged for it. Good. Because maybe it'll start getting them to care about that, about the people who are claiming to speak and act on behalf of "Christians" or "Christianity" or "God" or "families" or "traditional values." Maybe it'll get some more moderate and liberal Christians raising their voices and getting upset at the extremists who are dragging their religion through the mud. Maybe then the next Cranston High School school prayer case will be fought by a liberal Christian instead of an atheist. Because there are some things that people should care about, that people should get upset about, and you'd think Christians would think "Christians who give Christianity a bad name" would be one of them.

  8. Pingback: Projection | Dubito Ergo Sum

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