Oh, Uncle Richard

Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson made a joint statement denouncing and decrying the harassment and other bad behavior in the atheist movement.

This is a good thing. It’s good because after “Dear Muslima,” after all the asinine things Dawkins has said on Twitter and elsewhere, the dedicated antifeminist harassers have taken his comments as a sign of his tacit approval of misogyny and harassment. For him to join forces with one of the prime targets of antifeminist, anti-“FTBullies” abuse, sends an important, necessary message. All the kudos to Ophelia Benson for pursuing this, and kudos to Dawkins for recognizing that this is an important issue that required his comment and clarification.

But.

But “Dear Muslima” was three years ago, three years of non-stop abuse directed at atheist feminists, in many cases by Dawkins fanboys, in many cases by people who believed Dawkins was unambiguously on their side. It’s impossible to see this statement and not wonder why it didn’t come a lot earlier.

But Ophelia Benson had to reach out to Dawkins and apparently hold his feet to the fire a bit1 in order to get the statement made at all. This statement would hold a much greater amount of power if Dawkins had initiated it. As it is, it’s far to easy for the naysayers and harassers to say that Dawkins was bullied into this, that he’s doing it reluctantly.

But Ophelia Benson is the person who made the statement with Dawkins, and while she’s certainly been on the receiving end of tons of abuse, imagine how much more impact this would have had if Dawkins had made a joint statement with Rebecca Watson. Imagine if he had apologized for that, had expressed horror specifically at how his ill-conceived and fallacious attack had painted a target on Watson’s back. Imagine if he had finally put to rest the claims of blackballing2 and unambiguously supported Watson’s presence in the community. You’ll have to imagine, because obviously that didn’t happen.

But the statement, while clear, is still open to the same reinterpretation and spin that we saw back in the “don’t be a dick” debacle, that we see any time harassment policies arise. People who are motivated to be assholes will use motivated reasoning to justify continued assholery. Some already are dismissing this statement as Dawkins being duped, others undoubtedly will argue that what they’re doing isn’t bullying or harassment, but criticism and satire; that the FTBullies use terms that could be called “vulgar epithets” and they’re bullies (it’s right there in the name!) so it’s okay, or so Dawkins was really, slyly, calling out the FTBullies themselves and Benson was just too dumb to see it. We can reasonably guess this will happen because it’s what they’ve been saying for years now. Tu quoque and false equivalence are the air and water of the pro-harassment crowd.

But, and perhaps this is the most significant but, it doesn’t seem like Dawkins has actually learned anything. There is no admission of error in the joint statement, no acknowledgement of the seriously problematic things Dawkins has said about race or Islam or rape or molestation or abortion. And then, the very same week, he goes back to the “Dear Muslima” well, the “mild paedophilia” well, of trying to rank horrible tragedies as if their harmfulness could be measured with an SI unit, as if any positive purpose could be served by doing so, as if drawing a distinction between extremes weren’t a common tactic used to dismiss things like “mild paedophilia” and date rape. This blunder makes it unfortunately clear that Dawkins hasn’t internalized any of this, hasn’t realized that the reason people see him as an ally in their racism and misogyny and anti-Arab bigotry isn’t just because of one bonehead comment to Rebecca Watson three years ago, but because of a larger pattern of statements and behavior.

So it’s hard to see this statement as anything but a symbolic gesture. It’s a good symbolic gesture, a necessary symbolic gesture, but it’s hard not to wish it hadn’t come sooner, with a different motivation, with a clearer message, and with an indication that it represented real reflection and substantive change. Hopefully it’s a first step, and not a destination.


1. Ophelia Benson noted in the comments below that Dawkins needed convincing, not pressure, so I have corrected the account.

2. This is not to suggest that the claims of blackballing are incorrect, merely that I haven’t seen Dawkins confirm or deny them, and whether or not they have been true, denying them now would be valuable.

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Following the Block Bot

Happily for some, there won’t be much in the way of fisking today. There’s only a few things I wanted to really comment on, though I suspect it’ll still make for a ridiculously long post.

First, holy crap. I realize that not everyone who watches Virtual Skeptics is up to speed on all the internecine skeptical blog drama, so a recap may be necessary. That’s part of why a video is a poor choice of medium to respond to blog posts1: if you need to spend an extended time summing things up, down to the details of the programs involved2, maybe it’s better to find a venue where most of your audience will already be up to speed, or one where you can accomplish the recap with a link.

That aside, I suspect he would have gotten fewer people upset at his lack of immediate response if he hadn’t kept popping up on Twitter and Facebook to talk about it, make excuses, and leave multiple comments bemoaning his lack of time to respond. I sympathize with being too busy to blog; you can see how long my posts tend to be. But I don’t go around in a huff posting on social media about how I don’t have time to blog and besides everyone’s ignoring most of what I wrote anyway. That takes time too.

So, the first specific part of the video response that rubbed me the wrong way was “people were mad because it wasn’t easy enough to get rid of them [harassers] on Twitter.” It’s true that blocking only does so much, and shutting down the accounts only leads to the creation of new accounts. But one of the big problems, and one that’s glossed over here and later when Farley talks about Twitter changing their policies, is that Twitter often wasn’t enforcing their own existing rules regarding abuse, harassment, and threats of violence. Adding a “report abuse” button is all well and good, but if Twitter continues to handle it like they’ve handled some threats (1, 2, 3) to Anita Sarkeesian (just as a prominent example), then it’s not worth a whole lot.

The next bit:

So a BBC reporter on BBC Newsnight got interested and did a report on it, and got the guy who wrote Block Bot on there, and did a report. And people have argued with me that I am ignoring the commun—who the Block Bot is written for, and that the report covered that, and I have gone back diligently and watched the report several times, and they’re wrong, okay? You honestly watch that report, it does not explain that the Bot is for a specific community, you only see the name of that community briefly on screen, it says “Atheism+ Block Bot,” nowhere do they explain what that means, they don’t explain what Atheism+ is, and they don’t explain—and I’m not gonna get into all the details, you can go read my blog post if you’re interested in all the details—but there’s three levels of blocking, and they never explain the other two levels, they just, they barely reference them in the report.

He’s right, the report is very brief on the subject of the Block Bot. The relevant section is about 2 1/2 minutes long, just enough for some basics. I can certainly understand why they didn’t go into what levels 2 & 3 meant, because that’s on the website. I can also understand why they didn’t go into what Atheism+ was, because that’s mostly irrelevant to the point they’re making in the interview. I would think that someone who wasn’t a part of “atheism” plus or otherwise, would recognize the name “Atheism+” at the start of the Block Bot’s name meant “hey, this probably isn’t for me,” kind of like when I see an ad for Christian Mingle or women’s vitamins.

But the kicker is that while the report doesn’t outline in specific detail the intended audience of the Atheism+ Block Bot (aside from talking about how it was made by supporters of Rebecca Watson and displaying the name), it also doesn’t support the absurd conclusion that Farley leapt to, which is this notion that the Atheism+ Block Bot is meant to be a solution for everyone, effectively making Ool0n and Aratina Cage the moderators for all of Twitter.

As I noted before, what Ool0n actually promotes in the video is Twitter making it possible for people to create shared block lists, using the same technology as the shared follow lists. Mason asks him why Twitter doesn’t implement what Ool0n’s done themselves; if the intent were the one Farley took away, why wouldn’t Ool0n say “well, they don’t need to, I’ve already gone and done it for them” or something along those lines?

Ool0n has consistently been promoting the shared block list as a strategy. He’s been open about this, and that’s the impression I took away from the interview (and from the accompanying article, which is a bit clearer). The video is not explicit about who the Block Bot is for, but there’s nothing to support the conclusion that Farley drew, “that this was a good tool that everyone on Twitter should use.” He says later that he “really didn’t even want to write” the post. And if he’d maybe thought for a moment, “hold up, does Ool0n really think he ought to be in control of who gets blocked on Twitter? Isn’t that a bit megalomaniacal?” and then thought “maybe I’ll send the guy a tweet to make sure that’s what he meant,” he could have avoided the whole thing.

I do think this implies a practical suggestion for the Block Bot, which is to put the link to the source code on the front page, with a clear statement like “Specific harassment problems in your Twitter community? Build your own block bot!” And maybe add to the FAQ a “who is this for?” question, largely unnecessary back when the people it was for, and the people it intended to block, were the only ones who knew about it.

This bit tickled me:

I pointed out a lot of things about how the Block Bot works that were unclear to everyone. They, maybe they were clear to the people who run it, and the people who are using it, but other people were very confused

So, the people actually making use of the Block Bot were clear on how it works, but other people, perhaps people who’d never bothered to look at the website or the FAQ, perhaps people who only got their information about it after it passed through the filter of harassers and trolls whining about their freeze peach, were unclear.

Farley talks repeatedly about people being rude to him. I’m sure I’m in that group, though I don’t think I displayed any “rudeness” until he came into my comment thread with tired myths (“They are simply people that (some, all?) Atheism+ people disagree with on some topics”) and deflections. But then, Farley’s idea of rudeness seems to be that peculiar one that prevails in parts of skepticism, where it only ever works one way, and mostly appears to mean “using swear words” or “not being sufficiently deferential to your betters.” Jumping to an absurd conclusion and writing 4,300 words about it without bothering to check with the people involved? Not rude. Buying into a malicious myth that certain groups just can’t brook disagreement when you can’t find immediate evidence that they acted reasonably? Not rude.

I’m tired of that nonsense. I think it’s far worse to argue in bad faith than to use naughty words. I don’t think anyone in this movement has earned exemption from criticism or has shown that they are incapable of bad behavior. I think being dismissive can be far ruder than being aggressive. And I think yet another outsider thinking they can wander into a conflict that’s been raging for years, do a casual scan of the environment, and make authoritative pronouncements about what people’s motivations are, is pretty damn disrespectful. It’s like walking into the LHC having read a Wikipedia page on the Standard Model and saying “you guys must not really want to find the Higgs Boson, or you’d just look harder for it.”

Getting to the meat of people’s disagreements with the post, Farley says:

And I knew that I did not want to get into, and we said this in the comments of this post, of this YouTube, I did not want to get into who’s on the Block Bot, who’s not on the Block Bot, why is this person blocked, because that is a rat hole. I just wanted to talk about how it works, how is it administrated, are there bugs in the code, does it do what it’s supposed to do.
And I needed a way to bring up the issue of, “hey look, this guy’s on here, and this woman’s on here, why are they on here?”

Emphasis mine. So here, I think (being charitable), is a limitation of speech-vs.-writing. Someone who wrote those two bolded phrases so close together would, I hope, notice the obvious contradiction between them, but that’s harder to do with off-the-cuff speech. As someone who does a lot of off-the-cuff speech for a living, I understand how that can happen.

Farley goes on to obliquely reference one of Stephanie Zvan’s posts about people on Farley’s list, saying she “made my point,” which is (allegedly) that there’s no evidence logged on the Block Bot site for why each individual account made the list.

And you know what? I agree with that. It would be a great resource in these discussions if we could easily call up a screenshot of relevant or representative examples of tweets that got someone added to the block list. There may even be an easy way to implement that; I don’t know. All of my knowledge of computer code is limited to HTML tags. But I know that just stripping the URL from offensive tweets wouldn’t be particularly useful, since tweets get deleted and accounts get deleted and whatnot. A screenshot would be better, but it still takes a bit of time even to just “print screen” and copy and crop it into a decent image file, let alone uploading all those image files to be linked from the block list. I don’t know how much of that could be automated, but I do suspect that the handful of people running the Block Bot have day jobs and social lives too.

Keeping records on that sort of thing would be great, and I’m glad some people have been independently cataloging the abuse. But it’s a step beyond the general goal of the Block Bot, which is to protect people in this community from at least some of that abuse, and not something that is necessary to its function.

The only reason this would present a problem, again, is if you assume Ool0n and his friends want to be the moderators of all Twitter. If you don’t make that assumption, then you can opt-in to the system whether or not you know the specific offending tweets for any specific one of the six hundred-odd people on the list, trusting Ool0n and the administrators to make their decisions based on good reasons, or you can refrain from using the system, or you can make one that suits the needs of your particular community.

Back to the list of credentials (I’m tackling these next few bits slightly out of order):

And I did not intend to say that any of those people on that list shouldn’t be blocked. What I intended to say was, I, and I think others, look at the list, and see some of the names, and if you happen to know who those people are, and even if you click through and see their current feed, you sit there and go “well, the current feed looks pretty good,” scroll scroll scroll, “why is this person blocked?” So they should be listing the evidence. First of all, they should be recording the evidence, and there’s no evidence that they actually are. And, they need to, um, they need to have a way to look through it, and a lot of people are into the concept of “name and shame,” and I think that’s perfectly compatible with that. If you believe that it’s important to name and shame people, and it’s important to block these people, well, put the evidence of why they’re annoying there, and let people judge.
Um, and that was my point.

And later:

I knew it was an argument from authority. My choice was, this authority [points at himself], or some other authority, it was the only way I could think of to make that argument. And it was a wrong choice, I admit it now. And I have marked it with strikeout.

Emphasis mine. So, the only way Farley could think to make this point was with an argument from authority. That should have set off alarm bells in the mind of any skeptic, that maybe this point was a bad one, or maybe there was a better way to do this, but he barreled through anyway, and it’s nice to see that he’s recognized, at least to some degree, how problematic it was.

The issue is this point he’s saying he wanted to make. You can go back and read his article to find where he says that the Block Bot administrators should be tracking why each person gets blocked, and making that information available to the users. You won’t find it. It’s not there. The closest you get is in the conclusion section, where one of the bullet points reads “Require administrators to supply a reason or piece of evidence (e.g. a tweet) for any add,” which still says nothing about making that information publicly available so people can judge for themselves. Farley has been framing the lead-up and the response as though people “misunderstood” his point, but it the only way to have gotten that point from what he actually wrote would have been through telepathy.

So how could Farley have written this section without the argument from authority? Here’s an option (note that this is paraphrasing/rewriting, using as much of Farley’s actual language as possible, but is not altogether a direct quote):

A casual scan down the list of Level 2 and Level 3 blocks reveals people, many of whom I know personally, who are deeply involved in the atheism, skepticism, secularism and humanism movements all around the world. From the publicly available block list, you can click the names to go directly to their Twitter feeds, and in many cases, you’d see little evidence that these people are attacking, threatening or spamming anyone. It’s possible that these accounts have tweeted malicious, harassing, or just annoying things in the past, but that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent to anyone just looking at their recent feed. The administrators should supply a reason or piece of evidence (e.g. a tweet) for each person on the list, at least at Levels 2 and 3, so newcomers can see why those names made the list, and judge whether or not they want to block those levels.

That’s one possibility; there are others. None of them required listing credentials as if they were relevant, or going off on how the levels aren’t clearly distinguished (outside of the sign-up page, where they are), how the people on these lists are just there because of “disagreements” with members of Atheism+, and how some poor confused soul might miss out on valuable tweets by blocking all three levels of offenders without knowing why those people were blocked.

Note how none of those claims serves to make the ‘administrators should keep evidence and make it available’ point that Farley says he was trying to make, and I have a suspicion as to why that is: it wasn’t actually the point he was trying to make. Now, that’s a rude accusation I’m sure, but I can’t imagine any other reason for this comment he left on my response to the post:

You are missing my point. I was not saying “these authorities are on the list therefore it is bad”, I was saying that if you actually look at what those people do on Twitter they are demonstrably not abusers/harassers/whatever. They are simply people that (some, all?) Atheism+ people disagree with on some topics. I repeated several times that I do not begrudge them the right to use the block bot in this way, but I think it reflects poorly upon them as skeptics that they are so unwilling to be questioned.

Emphasis mine. Strange how on August 2nd, this was his point, while five days later, it was the far more reasonable ‘put the evidence of why they’re annoying there, and let people judge.’

I commend Farley for not taking the logical next step and editing that point into the original post.

I’m not going to speculate on why Farley has so dramatically changed what he says his point was. What he said was his point in the comment here is much closer to what’s actually written in the article than what he said was his point in the video. And in that comment, it looks like he’s bought (in part or in whole) into the “FtBullies/Atheism+ can’t stand disagreement” myth that has taken various forms over the last year or so, but bears little resemblance to reality. The article’s argument hinges on this ‘they blocked these people just because they disagreed’ notion to make the ‘what if they block someone you want to hear from because of a disagreement you’re not involved with’ point that closed out the section, and that wasn’t later struck out.

I’ll leave the reader to decide if “if you actually look at what those people do on Twitter they are demonstrably not abusers/harassers/whatever” jives with the point Farley says Stephanie Zvan made for him.

Moving on, one thing Farley says a lot is that a community should be able to block whoever they want for whatever reason. Which is why quotes like “you don’t have to look very far to see people going ‘why am I on this thing? What did I do?’ And, um, that shouldn’t, that shouldn’t be happening” are so mystifying. Even if we ignore all the people who are out there spreading active misinformation, even if we ignore that people who say the most racist, misogynistic, and otherwise bigoted things often think of themselves as progressive non-bigots (does the phrase “I’m not racist, but” ring any bells?), I really don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that we’d ever be at a point where anyone on the list says “yes, I completely understand why they blocked me.” Because even when there are well-documented reasons for blocking a person, we still see examples of them saying they were blocked for no reason. It doesn’t matter what level of harassment a person is engaged in; once blocked, they’ll still say it was just because they “disagreed” with “feminist dogma” or whatever. This thing that Farley says “shouldn’t be happening” is going to happen no matter what, because of disingenuous people.

Well, and because of dog-whistles and subtweets and subtle digs. Assholes of all stripes, from the highest echelons of politics and religion on down to the high school halls and online Twitter feeds, have learned the time-honored art of using coded language to say apparently innocuous things that actually aren’t. It’s why Republicans can claim that they’re not being racist when they talk about “terrorists” or “Muslims” or “foreign influence” or “illegals,” and it’s why certain assholes can claim innocence when they talk about “the real bullies” and “know-nothing bloggers” and “professional victims” and whatnot. Displaying those tweets as evidence of annoyance leads to the same thing that Farley says “shouldn’t be happening”–“what did I do? how is that ‘annoying’? doesn’t everyone hate ‘professional victims’?”

But I do agree, it’d be beneficial for those tweets to be cataloged. I just don’t know that there’s a feasible way of doing it on the Block Bot’s scale.

Farley spends a bit of time toward the end of the video going after Ool0n’s character:

But, last week, independent of this whole thing, Ool0n decided to block one of the accounts of Anonymous, the giant hacker collective. And he decided to start taunting them about it. And as a result of, right when my blog post went up, and through Friday and Saturday, the Block Bot was actually being Denial of Service attacked by Anonymous. Um, and he continued to taunt them, including calling the Block Bot “unblockable.” And, y’know, Ool0n, you, like I said, you’ve been nice to me, but that shows really poor judgment. Taunting Anonymous publicly on the Internet is about the dumbest online thing I can think to do. Um, and that’s the person who’s running the Block Bot for you.

Part of me sees this as the same kind of fallacious nonsense Farley pulled with the whole “credentials” section, just as ad hominem instead of pro hominem. ‘Here’s one thing that’s true about this person, so you can judge from that how fit they are to do a largely unrelated thing.’ “Taunting hackers online” is a bit more related to “administering an online service that targets trolls” than “research fellow for a think-tank” is to “harassing people on the Internet,” so it’s not quite as bad.

Now, I only saw bits and pieces of what Farley’s describing as it unfolded, so I asked Ool0n if he thought it was an accurate description. He didn’t think so (1, 2, 3, 4), and said he’d post about it when he gets home. (Edit: here’s that post.)

But from my perspective, as someone who’s sympathetic with the aims of the Block Bot but doesn’t actually use it, would I want someone like Ool0n, who ‘taunts Anonymous,’ running it? Well, yes, absolutely. Ool0n echoed my opinion in that fourth linked tweet there, but if I’m someone who’s getting harassed by trolls online, I’d like the person who’s running the service protecting me from that harassment to be someone who’s not cowed by prestige, power, or online shows of force. I like and agree with a lot of what gets done under the Anonymous umbrella–their campaign against Scientology, their truly heroic actions in the Steubenville case–but that doesn’t mean that any hacker who adopts the label “Anonymous” is necessarily acting in anyone’s best interest, or even on behalf of Anonymous as a larger group. And I’d want the Block Bot to be administered by someone willing to stand up to anybody.

The last thing I want to address is this bit of insufferably smug hypocrisy:

Uh, frankly, I was very insulted that a lot of the kind of, y’know there’s, I won’t get into who’s who, but there was kind of a very “gotcha” attitude toward my blog post, of “aha! We’ve discovered that Krelnik is a bad skeptic,” and they all focused on that one section where I listed credentials, and talked about how it was an argument for authority.

Well, yes, I’d say knowingly making arguments from authority is unskeptical. It’s a leap, I know. But boy, there’s that “focused on that one section” thing, as if it weren’t obvious deflection again. It reminds me of the cranks who say “read my book” or the conspiracy nutters who dodge criticisms and questions by sending you on YouTube scavenger hunts. The only way “you took that out of context” is a defense against criticism is if the context answers the criticism or renders it invalid. That’s not the case with the list o’ credentials section of Farley’s post, which only looks worse in context.

But as long as we’re looking at context, I have a hard time taking that “‘gotcha’ attitude” complaint seriously when one considers this:

But I know that some people didn’t read my blog post because I put a booby trap in the blog post about four paragraphs up from the bottom. I hid a sentence in the middle of a paragraph that said you were supposed to use a certain word when you commented.

Paris in the the spring You have got to be fucking kidding me. ‘I’m very insulted at the ‘gotcha’ attitude that people have only focusing on one small part of my post, and I know they didn’t read the whole thing because I put a ‘gotcha’ in one small part of my post, nyah!’

It’s true, I skimmed over that part of the post. Part of that is because it came after the conclusion. Part of it was because the “long-term prospects” for the Block Bot were irrelevant to any part of my critique, and indeed, to any of the critiques I’ve seen elsewhere online. Part of it is that a paragraph whose thesis was “A second looming problem for The Block Bot is it may become a victim of its own success,” made it even more clearly irrelevant, even to the points Farley made above. I skimmed that portion of the post and judged it to be not germane to my problems with the rest of the post.

Now I’ve gone back and read that section in grand detail, and it turns out that my initial judgment was right. Nothing in that section, including the ‘booby trap’ paragraph, has any bearing on any of the problems I had with Farley’s article. And unless the gotcha had been “Psst, problem 6 is clearly a fallacious argument that I’m just including to see who’s paying attention,” I don’t see how it could have. ‘You didn’t read this clearly unrelated section’ is not a response to the critiques of the rest of the post. It’s a juvenile exercise that insults Farley when he thinks others are doing it to him. And it’s not something he would ever fall for, because he’s certainly not the kind of person who would look at something quickly to decide whether or not it was worth his time and attention…

And I did read all of your posts. There are a number of red flags that I’ve learned about online commentary and you hit 2 of them: Fisking, and replies that are more than 4x longer than the post they are replying to.

Long experience has told me that discussions in that state go nowhere.
(Source)

…oh. Nevermind.


1. Farley’s comments here implied that it was his official or only response to the matter. If I’d known he was still planning to take the time to respond in a written medium, I could have saved quite a lot of time yesterday. And today, for that matter.

2. When he launched into the explanation of how apps work on Twitter, with multiple examples, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a workshop I went to recently to learn some new software for work, which included a lengthy description of how to use the red “x” button to close a window.

Dear Skeptical Community,

I’ll keep this open letter brief, unlike most of my posts. Just three quick things, said entirely generally and not directed at anyone in particular, except, you know, the people I’m obliquely talking about.

  1. It’s all well and good to talk about being reflective and critically examining our beliefs and practices to determine whether or not they’re right and well-supported and rational. But it’s just empty words if you don’t follow through with it. As skeptics, we ought to be willing almost to the point of eagerness to be criticized, to be proven wrong with evidence, and to admit our mistakes, change, and move on. You can talk about the value of critical self-examination, but it’s worthless if you don’t actually do it.
  2. To the Don’t Be a Dick crowd: from what I’ve seen of the vast majority of you, we have a very strong disconnect regarding what it means to be a dick. I get it, Phil didn’t clarify, and so you were forced to read into his comments whatever you think is dickish behavior, and assume he was calling out the same kind of things you would in that position. Me, I think that Rorschach Test quality of his speech qualifies it for the recycling bin, but your mileage may vary. The one thing I’d caution, though: when avoiding being a dick, try not to be a douche.

    See, you have dicks, right? Dicks are pointy and kind of simple and not really much to look at. Dicks are often hard and unyielding, and they have a tendency to pop up at the most inopportune moments, and sometimes they overstay their welcome. Dicks sometimes go where they’re not wanted, and they often make a big mess. Some people really like dicks, and some people don’t, and that’s fine. Dicks are an acquired taste.

    But then you have douches. Douches go in most of the same places as dicks, but they tend to look very different. Douches are sleek and clean; they’re more flexible than dicks, and they’re a lot easier to handle. Douches smell better than dicks, and they say they just want to make everything better, to clean things up with their refreshing, summery demeanor. The problem with douches, though, is that they really aren’t adding anything. In fact, they’re generally pretty unnecessary. They thrive in large part because they’ve convinced a lot of people that they need douches, because everything has just gotten so dirty recently–mostly because of those awful dicks. Douches might look and smell nice, but ultimately they’re just cold, artificial plastic, and outside of their limited realm of actual necessity, they subsist on feelings of self-loathing and dirtiness that they’ve helped cultivate.

    In more specific terms, I don’t see how false politisse, passive-aggression, holier-than-thou moralizing, and hegemonic “ur doin it wrong” edicts are any less negative than the name-calling, screaming, and whatever else gets attached to the “dick” label. Whether or not you call them retarded, passive-aggressive bullshit like criticizing people in general terms and making veiled insults is at least as dickish as calling them out to their face and being forthright with your beef. Don keeps reminding me of this quote from “Hamlet”: “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” It’s true, and the veneer of polite discourse and moral high ground doesn’t turn passive-aggressive attacks into non-dick behavior.

    By the way, if you read between the lines there, you might have noticed that this “open letter” to a general-but-specific set of people falls under that description as well. So yes, this time, I’m intentionally being a dick. At least I’ll own up to it.

  3. Finally, I think this is the only reasonable response to the “Don’t Be” crowd–hereafter referred to as the DBs. It’s really amazing how apt this is:

Sincerely,
Tom

Please feel free to dismiss the following

What should have been a relatively academic conversation has become a feud, and I’m already finding it rather tiresome. I’m Phil Plait’s proverbial “dick,” you see, because I referenced an obscure little movie from twelve whole years ago made by a pair of independent directors with only, like, two Academy Awards to their names, and starring a bunch of unknown Oscar-winning actors, which only ranks #135 in IMDB’s Top 250 films of all time. Maybe it would have been better if I’d referenced a series of porn videos of drunk young women.

Also, because I’m snarky and sarcastic. Well, okay, guilty as charged.

So I’m exactly what Phil Plait was referring to, even though Phil’s clarifications make me suspect that even he doesn’t know exactly what he was referring to, and his speech has become a Rorschach Test for whatever tactic(s) any particular skeptic wants to authoritatively decry. Sure, fine, whatever. I’ve been called worse. By myself, no less.

Anyway, Junior Skeptic’s Daniel Loxton weighed in on Skepdude’s tweet:

Now, I’m no great fan of Loxton. I was; I enjoy Junior Skeptic, and I like his Evolution book. But I disagree with nearly everything he writes on skepticism, I think he tends to adopt a very condescending tone and a very authoritarian attitude over the skeptical movement (such as it is), and I lose a great deal of respect for anyone–especially a skeptic–who blocks people for disagreeing with them. You can read through my Twitter feed, if you like; I defy you to find any abuse or insult which would justify blockage.

So that’s my stated bias out of the way. I address Loxton’s point here not out of bitterness, but out of genuine surprise that someone who is so vocal and respected in the skeptical movement could be so very wrong about basic logical fallacies like ad hominem and poisoning the well. I also can’t help but feel a little prophetic with that whole last post I wrote about sloppy thinking.

Edit: I also want to offer a brief point in defense of Daniel Loxton: being a Twitter user, and knowing the limitations of the medium, it’s possible that truncating his thoughts in that medium impeded what he was trying to say, and that the mistakes are due less to sloppy thinking or misunderstanding, and more to trying to fit complex thoughts into ~140 characters. That being said, the proper place to make such a complex point without sacrificing clarity would have been here, at the linked post, in the comment section.

Loxton’s first claim, as I understand it, is that most insults belong to the “poisoning the well” subcategory of the ad hominem fallacy. This is wrong on a couple of levels. While poisoning the well is indeed a subcategory of ad hominem, neither category can be said, by any reasonable standard, to include “most insults.”

A little background: the ad hominem fallacy belongs to a category of fallacies of relevance, which are arguments whose premises offer insufficient support for their conclusions, and which are generally used to divert or obscure the topic of a debate. Ad hominem accomplishes this in one of two related ways: attempting to draw a conclusion about someone’s argument or points or claims by relying on an irrelevant personal attack, and by attempting to divert the topic of a debate from claims and arguments to the character of one of the debaters.

It becomes fairly easy, then, to see why “most insults” do not qualify as the ad hominem fallacy: most insults are not arguments. A logical fallacy, by definition, is an error in reasoning; in order for something to qualify as a fallacy, it must at least make an attempt at reasoning. If I say “Kevin Trudeau is a motherfucker,” I’m not making any actual argument. There are no premises, there is no conclusion, there is no attempt at reasoning, and so there can be no fallacy.

In order for there to be fallacious reasoning, there must first be some attempt at reasoning, which requires some semblance of premises and a conclusion. “Kevin Trudeau says colloidal silver is a useful remedy. But Kevin Trudeau is an idiot. So, yeah,” is more obviously fallacious (even though, as Skepdude would happily and correctly point out, the conclusion–“therefore Kevin Trudeau is wrong about colloidal silver”–is only implied). The implied conclusion is not sufficiently justified by the premises; that abusive second premise says nothing about the truth or falsehood of Kevin Trudeau’s claim. Even if it’s true, even an idiot is capable of valid arguments and true statements.

I could leave this here, I suppose; if poisoning the well is indeed a subcategory of ad hominem fallacies, and “most insults” are not in fact ad hominem fallacies, then “most insults” could not also be part of a subset of ad hominem fallacies. But poisoning the well is a tricky special case, and if there’s one thing I’m known for, it’s belaboring a point.

So what of poisoning the well? It’s a way of loading the audience, of turning a potential audience against your opponent before they even get a chance to present their argument. You present some information about your opponent–true or false–that you know your audience will perceive as negative, before your opponent gets a chance to state their case. The implication (and it’s almost always implied, as Loxton rightly notes) is that anything your opponent says thereafter is unreliable or incorrect.

Here’s where it gets tricky: it barely qualifies as a fallacy, because all the speaker is doing is offering an irrelevant fact about his opponent’s character. As we said, in order for something to be a logical fallacy, it has to contain an error in reasoning. The point of poisoning the well is not to actually commit a fallacy, but to make the audience commit a fallacy, specifically to commit an ad hominem fallacy, by dismissing your opponent’s claims and arguments based on the irrelevant information you provided at the beginning. So poisoning the well is a subset of ad hominem fallacies, where the fallacy is committed by an audience at the prompting of the well-poisoning speaker.

Here’s where Loxton gets it wrong–and only fairly slightly, I might add. I had to do a fairly large amount of research before I felt confident that this was a key point–is that the key feature of poisoning the well is that it’s done pre-emptively. Insults offered after your opponent has stated their case may be an attempt to manipulate the audience into the same ad hominem fallacy, but they do not qualify as poisoning the well.

An example: You open up a copy of “Natural Cures THEY Don’t Want You To Know About” by Kevin Trudeau, and someone has placed inside the front cover a description of Trudeau’s various fraud convictions. Consequently, everything you read in the book will be tainted by your knowledge that Trudeau is a convicted fraud. The well has been thus poisoned, and now you’re prompted to dismiss anything he says on the basis of his personal characteristics.

If someone places that same note halfway through the book, or at the end, and you don’t encounter it until you finish or partly finish, then you may still be inclined to commit an ad hominem fallacy based on the contents of that note. However, this is not poisoning the well, which requires preemption.

There’s an issue here, and it touches on all the talk I’ve been doing recently about using arguments based on ethos in various situations. See, the fact that Kevin Trudeau is a convicted fraud is relevant if the point is whether or not you should trust what he has to say, or bother spending time and effort listening to it. The truth or falsehood of his arguments absolutely stand on their own, but his past as a huckster is of great relevance to the consideration of whether or not to take his word on anything.

It is a sad fact of life that no one person can conduct all the relevant research necessary to establish or refute any given claim or argument. Consequently, we must often rely on trust to some degree in considering how to direct our efforts, which claims merit deep investigation, and which we can provisionally accept based on someone’s word. This splits the hairs between the matter of whether or not a claim is true and whether or not a claim warrants belief. While it’s a laudable ideal to make those two categories as close to one another as possible, that goal remains impractical.

What this means is that, when considering whether or not to believe a claim or accept an argument (again, not whether or not the claim or argument is true), we generally use a person’s credibility as a piece of evidence used to evaluate whether or not belief is warranted. It’s rarely the only piece of evidence, and it only really qualifies as sufficient evidence in particularly ordinary claims, but it’s a relevant piece of evidence to consider nonetheless.

But, and I want to make this abundantly clear, it has nothing to do with the truth of a claim or the validity of an argument, it has only to do with the credibility of the speaker making the claim and whether or not the claim warrants belief. We should be very clear and very careful about this point: Kevin Trudeau’s record as a fraudster has no bearing on whether or not his claims are true. It does, however, have a bearing on whether or not you or I or anyone else should trust him or believe what he has to say.

In other words, if most people told me it was sunny out, I’d take their word for it. If Kevin Trudeau told me it was sunny out, I’d look up. And I’d wonder if he had some way of profiting off people’s mistaken belief about the relative sunniness of a given day.

So, back to the issue of insults. There’s one more problem with saying that “most insults” are a subcategory of any fallacy, and that’s that, at least with fallacies of relevance, the fallacious nature of an argument is in the argument’s flawed structure, in its failure of logic, and not in the words which are used. An ad hominem fallacy is not fallacious because it contains an insult, but because the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Containing the insult is what makes it “ad hominem,” but it’s the flawed logic that makes it a fallacy.

For instance, take this argument:

If a person copulates with his or her mother, then that person is a motherfucker.
Oedipus copulated with his mother.
Therefore, Oedipus is a motherfucker.

The fact that this argument is vulgar and contains an insult has no bearing whatsoever on its validity. And it’s clearly valid; and within the context of “Oedipus Rex,” it’s also sound. An insult alone does not make an argument into an ad hominem fallacy.

Take this argument, then:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates smells like day-old goat shit, on account of his not bathing.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

A valid argument is one in which the conclusion is logically implied by and supported by the premises. The conclusion here is, in fact, logically implied by the premises, and is justified by them. The insulting third premise does not support the conclusion, but the conclusion also does not rely on it. Its inclusion is unnecessary, but including it does nothing to invalidate the argument.

Finally, take this argument:

All men are mortal.
Plato is a really smart guy, and he says that Socrates is mortal.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

This is a fallacious argument–a pro hominem argument, sort of the opposite of ad hominem–because the conclusion is not sufficiently supported by the premises. The conclusion relies upon an irrelevant premise, which renders the logic invalid–obviously, despite not being insulting at all.

I hope I laid that all out in a way that is clear, because I really don’t think I could make it any clearer. It bothers me to see terms which have distinct, specific, clear meanings being applied inaccurately by people who ought to know better. It further bothers me to see skeptics, who of all people should relish being corrected and doing the research to correct prior misconceptions, digging in their heels, committing style over substance fallacies, and generally misunderstanding basic principles of logic and argumentation.

But because I like to belabor a point, and because it’s been several paragraphs since I’ve been sufficiently snarky, let me offer one more example–pulled from real life, this time!–to clarify poisoning the well.


Here, the speaker offers a link to an opponent’s argument, but primes the audience first by obliquely calling his opponent a dick, and moreover, suggesting that the opponent is using tactics specifically identified by an authority in the relevant field as unacceptable and ill-advised. The speaker’s audience, on clicking through to the opposing article, is thus primed to read the article through the lens of the author’s suggested dickishness, and to dismiss it as dirty tactics from a dick, rather than actually considering the merits of the argument. This is classic poisoning the well, which, you’ll recall, is intended to cause the audience to commit an ad hominem fallacy.

We skeptics take pride in our allegiance to logic and evidence; we are aware of our own shortcomings; we are aware that we are fallible and that we make mistakes. In my opinion the above comments about Jenny McCarthy are a mistake that we should own up to and make amends, and stop using it. If you really want to counter Jenny’s anti-vaccine views, choose one of the claims she makes, do some research, and write a nice blog entry showing where she goes wrong and what the evidence says, but do not resort to ad-hominem attacks. We are skeptics and we ought to be better than that.

–Skepdude, “Skeptics Gone Wild,” 8/23/10.


An incomplete list of sources used for this post: