I run a pretty small blog here, so I’m always excited to see the little counter dealie up on the WordPress toolbar showing big lines to represent how many hits I’m getting. It’s a nice change of pace from the vast flatness I usually see. So, being curious, I sometimes check out where my hits are coming from. One recent source of visits has been a thread on the JREF forums, linking specifically because of my spat with Tim Farley. Here’s the relevant post:
Poster "Humes fork" saying "Tim Farley in a kerfuffle [links to my "Unskeptical Complaints" post] about Block Bot. Not surprisingly, what makes them angry is disagreement with them."
I’m not going to engage with that tired bit of mythology. I’ve dealt with variations before, and it’s repeated there without basis or substance. It’s an empty phrase, and you can judge for yourself whether or not what made me angry was “disagreement.”

But I found myself thinking about this post today, because of a Facebook post by JREF president D.J. Grothe:

There is an impressive distemper these days on the internets.
Many smart, good people that I know personally seem to fear this “call-out culture” online that is going on right now in many communities online. Folks are immobilized by a moral scare or panic that they think they are watching unfold presently. As for me, I think it all seems increasingly like some surreal science fiction imagining of some bizarre future dystopia. And so, I say:
Consensual sex — between any mature adult male or female etc. — is a human good. It is something that should be prized and promoted (would there be world peace if people just had more and better sex, ha?).
But instead I think unduly-moralistic scolds end up actively diminishing human flourishing by their sex-negativity.
And I curse the unholy alliance of the quack far-left so-called feminists: a different kind of ardent feminist than I am — and the authoritarian anti-sex rightist religionists whom I used to run with decades ago. (How the heck is it that these two equal opposites agree on so very much these days, and the two last decades, too?).
I have a disturbing answer, but it doesn’t work for a social networking or FB comment..

More accurately, my thoughts were spurred by D.J.’s response to some critical comments on that Facebook post. First, feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte posted this:

“I love consensual sex! It’s awesome. I couldn’t agree more. That’s why it’s super critical that consent exists, because when consent isn’t there, sex—and sexual behavior ranging from flirting to intercourse—stops being great and even really “sex” and starts being harassment, assault, and rape. So yea, feminists! By making consent a front and center issue, we can make sex better, more pleasurable, and more frequent—after all, nothing makes people less willing to have sex than being afraid that their right to say no won’t be respected. One question, though: Can you name some of these “feminists” that you’re talking about that oppose consensual sex? I’m pretty well-versed in feminism and don’t know any of the ones you’re talking about.”

Look at that! Not a nasty word, not an intemperate statement. It’s positively cheerful, with a genuine question at the end, looking for that thing that skeptics love above all, evidence in support of some claim. It got a whole bunch of likes, apparently more than anything else on the thread!

D.J. deleted the comment.

In response, Lance Finney posted this:

I’m curious what your commenting policy is on your wall. Earlier, I saw a comment from Amanda Marcotte that praised consent and asked you for examples of feminists that matched the description you gave in your first comment in this thread.
Did you delete her comment?
If so, why? As I recall it, there wasn’t anything abusive about her comment. If you have a policy of deleting contrary comments, what is the trigger?

Look at that, perfectly polite! A question of clarification! If there’s one thing skeptics love as much as evidence, it’s clarity and good questions!

D.J. deleted the comment and blocked Lance Finney.

So, um…who is it, again, who can’t handle disagreement? I eagerly await an answer from the JREF boards.


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.

…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.

Meme Debunking #4: The Faceless Troll Horde

A group of multicolored troll toys. In my last post, Tim Farley seemed preoccupied with the notion of “anonymous trolls” to the point where he seemed incredulous that non-anonymous non-trolls could both have stellar credentials and also, even if just on occasion, be bullies, harassers, and assholes on Twitter.

It seems like a symptom of this larger notion that Amanda Marcotte dissects at length in this Raw Story post that everyone else but me has read already. Here’s the relevant section (but read the whole thing):

But as awful as trolls are, they do serve a major purpose, if people are willing to accept that these are actual people expressing actual opinions, instead of imagining them, as too many people do, as almost a force of nature that the internet willed into existence and not people at all. That purpose is revealing that misogyny exists and it is widespread.
That’s why it’s uncomfortable to have so many people insist that there’s an easy fix for troll targets, the “ignore the bullies and they’ll go away” fix, usually spouted by people who haven’t considered for a moment that the trolls may very well be actual people who are trying to protect and perpetuate sexism.

We have this tendency to see “trolls” as an anonymous, faceless other, the Vashta Nerada of the Internet, existing in the shadows, omnipresent, and without intent beyond “lulz” or identity beyond stereotypes about neckbeards and basements. It’s a compelling notion, because it allows us to engage in that “it can’t happen to me” kind of wishful thinking. Trolls aren’t people you know, they’re other people. Abusers and harassers can’t be speakers and comedians, they’re other people. People who are apparently just trolls, just anonymous, because we have a very hard time thinking in complex terms about people in general. If a person does good in one arena, it makes us think they must do good in all arenas. It’s hard to believe that your favorite director molested an underage girl, that your college buddy is a date rapist, that the prominent figure in your movement whose books you own has some unexamined sexist beliefs and doesn’t take criticism well. People tend to respond in three ways to these kinds of revelations: denial, defense, and denunciation.

The first allows one to sidestep the cognitive dissonance entirely, and maintain that simplistic worldview that heroes are heroes and only do hero things, villains are villains and only do villain things, and there’s no in-between. Great for cartoons, not so much for real life.

The second relies on the very shaky notion that there’s some virtue in having one’s scales balanced between harmful and helpful actions, or even having a surplus of helpful to balance out the harm. “Yes, Ted beat his wife, but what about all that time he’s put in at the soup kitchen?” It’s a desperate position, and I think largely an untenable one.

The third is more difficult to accomplish, I think, and not a perfect response either. You go from support to opposition in a single turn, and simply change which black-and-white category you’re slotting the person into.

Much harder is recognizing the cognitive and social biases involved in our relationships with people, and recognizing that people can both help and harm, and that one doesn’t necessarily excuse the other. Trolls are people, and some of them are probably people you know. Statistically, you probably know a rapist and almost certainly know multiple rape victims, just as surely as you know divorced people and southpaws. We get nowhere by thinking of trolling (and other forms of bullying and harassment) as some inevitable thing perpetrated by a faceless, unknown force. Only by recognizing reality in all its discomforting complexity, can we actually address the problems.

Unskeptical Complaints

If you’re reading a blog as small as this one, chances are you know about the problem of online harassment of women, trans* people, people of color, LGB people, and other minorities. It’s a problem in just about every subculture with a significant online premise, from the skeptic/atheist community to comic fans to video game nerds to sci-fi/fantasy buffs, and so forth. Different groups are attacking the problem in different ways, but there’s a pretty general understanding among social justice supporters that this is a symptom of larger problems that will only go away if the overall culture changes and the systems of kyriarchy are dismantled. In the meantime, we need to find a way to deal with the trolls, harassers, assholes, and disingenuous arguers that flood various timelines and hashtags. One such stopgap solution is the Atheism+ Block Bot, helmed by Oolon1.

The Block Bot grew out of various needs in the social justice wing of skepticism/atheism, and the problem of online harassment has grown large enough to garner international attention, which led to a media promotion of The Block Bot on BBC Newsnight. It’s nice to see this issue getting mainstream coverage, and hopefully it’ll lead to more substantial action.

Skeptic activist Tim Farley took issue with the idea of the Block Bot as a general-usage or all-purpose solution to the problem of online harassment, and there’s a kernel of truth to his complaints. The Block Bot isn’t a perfect solution for everyone, even though it has grown and expanded its scope since its first appearance (I’ve noticed people in the comic fan community using/talking about it, for instance). Most of Farley’s complaints rest on that premise, which is a little like complaining about your toaster because it doesn’t accommodate every kind of baked good. That’s not what it was built for or intended to do. It’s the “Atheism+ Block Bot” for a reason, though the basic principle could be adapted for most groups.

The issue I had was with his “Problem 5.” That is, his second “Problem 5.” The first “Problem 5” is problematic as well–“blocks have consequences” he says, and I say “so should being an annoying asshole online.” If you’re worried about ending up on a Level 2 or 3 block list, maybe don’t say the kinds of intentionally ignorant, antagonistic, baiting, or bigoted types of things that lead to people wanting to block you en masse.

Which is where his Problem 5b picks up. Farley takes issue with the point that many of the people on Levels 2 and 3 aren’t “just anonymous trolls that deserve it.” The problem is that his entire objection is built on a mountain of logical fallacies, at least one of which is belied by the example he led off with2.

The problem isn’t just anonymous trolls. In fact, I suspect it’s rarely strictly anonymous trolls and far more frequently pseudonymous trolls, but that’s pedantry. Anonymity is a convenient shield for trolls and harassers to hide behind, but not everyone feels the need to do so. There are plenty of people on the Block Bot’s lists, and on the various pages documenting this harassment who are perfectly willing to say abusive, offensive, and antagonistic things right next to their real names and faces. Anonymity is a red herring.

And Farley should know this, since he begins the post by talking about his dealings with Dennis Markuze/David Mabus, who spent decades abusing, harassing, and threatening people on the Internet under a stable pseudonym, and who wasn’t stopped or mollified once his true identity was known. Markuze is a special case, being more prolific, more overtly abusive, and more clearly in need of help than most of the people on the Block Bot’s list, but he’s still a stunning example of how anonymity/pseudonymity is neither necessary nor sufficient for this kind of behavior.

But Farley’s justification is a stunning example of Skeptics Being Profoundly Unskeptical, which I think I’m going to have to make into a post category for how often I talk about it. Here’s the relevant bit:

However, just 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. They include:

  • A Research Fellow for a U.S. think-tank who is also deputy editor of a national magazine, and author of numerous books
  • A Consultant for Educational Programs for a U.S. national non-profit
  • A long-time volunteer for the same national non-profit
  • An organizer for a state-level skeptic group in the US
  • A past president of a state-level humanist group in the US
  • A former director of a state-level atheist group in the US
  • An Emmy and Golden Globe award winning comedian
  • A TED Fellow
  • Co-founder of a well known magazine of philosophy and author of several books
  • A philosopher, writer and critic who has authored several books

These are not anonymous trolls. They are not likely to be arrested anytime soon. Most of these people regularly speak at national conferences to audiences from several hundred to over a thousand people. Starting from the publicly available block list you can click the names to go directly to their Twitter feeds, I see little evidence that these people are attacking, threatening or spamming anyone.

This would make for a great game of spot the fallacy, wouldn’t it? Farley lists all these qualifications, but none of them are “noted anti-spam crusader” or “longtime anti-bigotry activist,” not that those would be excuses either. See, none of these qualifications are inconsistent with “abusive […] anti-feminists, MRAs, or all-round assholes” or “annoying and irritating”3. It’s possible to be an Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning comedian and also be an annoying asshole who delights in baiting feminists with disingenuous arguments, just as it’s possible to be a Ph.D. biochemist who believes in intelligent design. This is a pro hominem argument, an argument from false authority, that these people’s lofty credentials make them somehow incapable of being bigots, jerks, trolls, abusers, or just antagonistic assholes to specific groups of people.

The last paragraph there is a doozy of arguments from ignorance and unstated major premises. “I see little evidence” is very different from “there is no evidence,” and the mechanics of Twitter mean that offensive tweets are often lost to the depths of a person’s timeline after a relatively short amount of time. But there’s plenty of evidence that prominent skeptics are capable of being petty, antagonistic, obtuse, bigoted (both in overt and unintended/unconscious ways), and asshole-ish. Some skeptics love poking various hornets nests, some love directing snide comments and thinly-veiled insults at people/groups they disagree with on social media, some keep dredging up sexist/racist/homophobic arguments and tropes time and time again even after hearing repeated responses/debunkings, some hyperbolically respond to the slightest criticisms with howls of NaziCommieStasi witch-hunt inquisitions. Farley’s right, they’re probably not going to be arrested anytime soon, but that’s because being an annoying, antagonistic asshole isn’t a crime.

The unstated major premises here are that “only anonymous trolls (and certainly not people I consider friends) behave in ways that would merit mass blocking,” which I dealt with above, and “only behavior that is illegal merits mass blocking,” which is the usual response to those complaining about harassment: if it’s not illegal, it’s not really harassment; if it was real harassment, why didn’t you call the police? I’ve responded to this notion, so has Stephanie Zvan, and the fact that Farley is able to spout off with it in such a casual manner shows just how insulated from this stuff he really is.

There are degrees of harassment. Some of it is criminal, some of it is civil, none of it is pleasant for the target. Blocking someone on Twitter is not a punishment that requires a trial and a sentencing phase. And if you were receiving the same disingenuous arguments, the same JAQing off on Twitter day-in and day-out, you might not see it as all isolated innocent incidents. The dude who wolf-whistles at a woman walking down the street might be just one dude, whistling at just one woman, so that’s clearly not harassment, right? But if it’s the thirtieth time she’s had to roll her eyes at that on her walk to work, it takes a different tone. One guy asking a person of color if they wouldn’t rather wash all the color off and be white, or touching their hair and talking about how much they admire it, might be an act of clueless ignorance, but if it happens over and over, it doesn’t matter to the target that the act is being committed by different people. People get worn down. Why should every person have to deal with each individual ignorant microaggression as if it were the first time they’d experienced it? Why would you begrudge people the option to avoid those microaggressions, even if it’s only in one forum? Don’t other people deserve the same ability to check their Twitter mentions without seeing harassment, insults, slurs, ignorance, and abuse that Tim Farley has?

The Block Bot is not a perfect solution for everyone. It’s not meant to be. It’s a decent stopgap for the people who are tired of dealing with harassers, abusers, bullies, and assholes. If you think it’s a problem in and of itself, the solution is to change the culture so there are fewer harassers, abusers, bullies, and assholes, not to buy into a set of fallacies that makes you think only anonymous other-people are capable of that behavior, and that being a prominent speaker (or worse, a friend) puts a person above that capacity.

1. Full disclosure: I don’t use the Block Bot, though I have some of the same people blocked. I do, however, follow the Block Bot and its related Twitter accounts.

2. Yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition. It’s a myth rule. Get over it It is a thing you should get over.

3. The actual descriptions of Levels 2 & 3, from here.

Slow Clap

I started a post recently building off a myth that Ben Radford perpetuated in a recent hilariously terrible screed about (straw-)feminists, but it’s in need of some editing and revising and thinking whether it’s even a good idea before I actually post it.

But then he wrote this bit of inanity, complete with bad photoshop, elevating his rhetorical style to the level of “bad college newspaper satire.” And I scarcely know where to begin.

I think my favorite part is the dig at the fact that PZ Myers hasn’t published a book yet. There’s a relevant criticism in the digital age. Or any age, really, since “publishing a book” doesn’t say anything about…well, anything. Except one’s ability to convince a publisher that they’re worth taking a risk on, and in the digital age, even that’s a diminishing factor.

Comparing peer-reviewed publication citations provides greater hilarity. Especially since BA-in-psychology-cryptid-expert Radford makes digs at PZ’s “writing outside of his field [of biology]”, and being “once known for his work as a biologist.”

If you’re not inclined to read through Radford’s attempt at humor (hint: it’s worse than his poetry), here’s the tl;dr: PZ strawmanned me!

No, seriously, that’s it. Radford made nearly 800 words out of an accusation that PZ strawmanned him. It’s a shame that, in the whole effort, he never actually said what PZ was supposedly strawmanning.

Look, here’s a bit of Arguing 102 for the would-be skeptics and internet debaters out there: it’s awesome that you found a list of fallacies on some website someplace, and you’re so happy that you’re learning all the Latin names and everything. And you totally understand what a straw man argument is and why it’s a fallacy and now you’re seeing just how common they are. In fact, maybe someone crafted a straw man argument in a conversation with you and you noticed it and furiously went a-typing away at your keyboard.

Here’s the thing: there’s a productive way to go about responding to someone’s straw man version of your argument, and a very unproductive way. First, the unproductive way:

“You strawmanned me! That’s a strawman!”

Also, the very unproductive way: “You strawmanned me!” x 258.

The productive way is to go beyond the accusation. The easiest way to do this is to quote your opponent’s straw man argument and either restate your original argument, quote it, or link back to it. Better still is to do that and then explain how your opponent distorted your argument, or why their response failed to address your actual points. That follow-through is actually important; it’s what separates the people who legitimately recognize fallacious reasoning and can explain what’s wrong with it (and thus help make their own arguments look even better) from the people who just learned the term online and don’t really understand the argumentation process, and the people who are using the term as a way to dodge legitimate criticism. Such people–both groups–are fairly common online.

As for Ben Radford, maybe someday he’ll get the hang of this skeptical argumentation and writing stuff.

Manly Must-Reads

I’m not sure where I found the link, probably on Twitter, but I ran across this list of must-read popular science books. It’s definitely not the list I would have compiled (though I admit that my pop-sci reading history is somewhat paltry). I count only two books on the list that I’ve read completely (John Allen Paulos’s Innumeracy and The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean, though his follow-up is on there, and I expect to devour that when it’s in paperback), four other books that I’ve started and not finished (Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics, Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, and Richard Wiseman’s Paranormality, which I’m going to go back to when I finish Richard III), and four more that I either own or wanted to read before seeing the list (The Selfish Gene, Mistakes Were Made, Supersense, and Nonsense on Stilts).

Many of the authors are recognizable, though the choices seem a little odd. Take Dawkins, for instance: I typically see Climbing Mount Improbable and Unweaving the Rainbow on lists like these before River Out of Eden. I would think The Panda’s Thumb or Full House would top Stephen Jay Gould’s list before Wonderful Life.

Then there are the glaring omissions. Not one Carl Sagan book? No Death from the Skies? No Neil deGrasse Tyson or Lawrence Krauss or Michio Kaku? No A Brief History of Time? No women?

Okay, that last one isn’t fair. There are indeed women on the list. Two of them: Carol Tavris and Mary Roach, out of 34 different authors, by my quick count (some books had multiple authors; some authors were on the list multiple times, including Marcus Chown, a name that was previously unknown to me). Somehow, when compiling “must-read” popular science books, three books by Marcus Chown and two “very short introduction” books merit inclusion when books like Silent Spring and Gorillas in the Mist don’t.

Off the top of my head and Amazon wish-list, I came up with this list based on books I’ve read, bought, seen elsewhere on “must-read” lists or in prominent bookstore shelves, or known because of their huge impact on science and society:

  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  • Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey
  • My Life with the Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics by Jennifer Ouellette
  • Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox
  • Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World by Lisa Randall
  • Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart
  • The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

That’s really not much, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that a world-altering book like Silent Spring doesn’t merit mention over, say, The Violinist’s Thumb, which has been out for less than a year. It isn’t a matter of intentional sexism, but it’s this sort of casual blindness to gender imbalances that helps to create and perpetuate the myth that science is “more of a guy thing.” Correcting that image is going to take a good long time and a lot of work, but little steps–like making sure that your “must-read” popular science book list isn’t a giant sausage fest–are not that difficult, and do add up just as the little omissions and microaggressions add up on the other side of things.

Bigots Ruined It For You

[Trigger Warning for rape, misogyny, racism, assorted bigotry]

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic Jain or Hindu, wanting to express your desire to be good, wanting to evoke Shakti with a clear symbolic representation as a flag or tattoo or something. You find the perfect symbol, one that has been used for that purpose since ancient times, the swastika. But you can’t use it. Bigots ruined it for you. A whole army of racists and supremacists claimed that symbol as their own and flew it over a campaign of genocide. It’s tainted, possibly forever. Try to adopt that symbol, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Nazi, a bigot.

Let’s say it’s Halloween. You’re hosting a party for your friends, and you want to put together a costume that’s kind of ironic, something that you put thought into but looks like you just kind of threw it together. You settle on a classic ghost costume–white sheet, head to toe, with eye-holes cut out, like all the kids in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” You could flair it up a bit with a point toward the top, like the little tail bit on heads of those ghosts from Casper. But you can’t wear that costume. Bigots ruined it for you. Dress like that, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Klansman, a bigot.

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic southerner in the United States. You want to represent your heritage with a symbol of the South, something that proclaims in bold, primary colors your love of the land of barbecue and hospitality and Molly Hatchet. There’s a flag you can fly to do just that, except…except it was designed in a bloody war over (among other things) the right to treat some humans as less than human. It’s a well-designed flag, but bigots ruined it for you. It’s been tainted, by the war that spawned it and the continuing centuries of racist policies that followed. Fly that flag over your house, in your garage, on your trailer hitch, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a segregationist, a bigot.

Let’s say you heard a funny joke recently. It’s kind of offensive, because it plays on stereotypes that you know aren’t true, but it’s a well-constructed joke nonetheless. You know you could tell it with perfect timing and get a roomful of hearty belly-laughs. Besides, you don’t believe those stereotypes are true. They’re absurd! But you can’t tell that joke anyway. Bigots ruined it for you. You may recognize that those stereotypes are false exaggerations, and you may know that everyone who hears you tell the joke knows that, but there are people who still believe those things, and there are people who are still hurt by those stereotypes, still affected by their presence in our culture. Tell that joke, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a bigot.

Let’s say that you’re a Christian. You follow Christ’s teachings and recognize that the most important thing–like it says in First Corinthians, like Jesus said to the scribes–is love. You want to express your Christian love by standing up for family values, because families–of any shape or size or configuration–are the purest example in this world of God’s unconditional love, and you value that. You see love as the most fundamental part of the Christian message, the foundation of Christ’s teachings, and so you would call yourself a fundamentalist Christian to express its importance to you. You define sin as that which is opposed to love, acts of jealousy and hatred, and see such acts as the worst crimes that one can carry out against their fellow humans. Despite that, you recognize that no person is truly evil, that those sins of hatred and jealousy come mostly out of ignorance, and that they can be corrected and defeated with love. You would advise people not to get angry at the hateful, but to hate the sin and love the sinner. But you can’t use those phrases–“family values,” “fundamentalist Christian,” “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Bigots ruined it for you. Use those phrases, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a homophobe, a fanatic, a bigot.

Let’s say you want to talk to a stranger in an enclosed space, like an elevator or a bus or subway car. After all, people end up in those things together, and it’s really awkward to just sit around staring at the wall silently or pretending other people don’t exist. Besides, a stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met yet, and you’re a friendly person. So you’d like to seize the opportunity to make small talk. But you can’t. Bigots ruined it for you. Rapists and sadists committing what are, effectively, hate crimes against women, along with violent misogynists and a culture that ignores them and dismisses the concerns of women, that blames victims and makes rape and harassment costly to report, have ruined it for you. Try to strike up that conversation, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a rapist, a violent person, a misogynist, a bigot.

Bigots suck. They make life shitty for lots of people. They make life shitty for the people who are targeted by their bigotry. They make life shitty for people who have to endure the inequalities built into a culture that rose up on bigoted foundations, even as more enlightened people recognize the mistakes of the past and try to dismantle that bigotry. And they even make life shitty for people who, in their innocent cluelessness or lack of empathy, might be mistaken for bigots. The solution is not to lash out at the targets of that bigotry, at the people who’ve suffered the most because of it, for being unable to look into your heart and your past and see that you’re not a bigot at all. The solution is not to lash out at people for being unable to discern whether an action is motivated by bigotry or ignorance. The solution is to realize that bigotry makes things suck for everyone. If you’re going to lash out, make sure you’re lashing out at the bigots. They’re the ones who ruined things.