Pascal’s Reporter

[Trigger warnings for rape, misogyny, harassment]

I’ve been following the recent harassment discussion pretty closely, and I feel like I’ve been learning a lot. While the last year or so have given me a serious crash course in feminism, gender politics, and privilege, this last month has shown that I’ve still got a ways to go. Case in point, this comment left by Willow on Ophelia Benson’s post about how threatening e-mails have kept her from going to TAM:

look it’s all ok for people to say she can decide what she wants to do with the threats. NO IT IS NOT!

if you are raped and do not report it and someone else is raped, you are partially responsible for that rape.

In this case, Ophelia has an obligation to report the threat and to share with other women, jerk men do not just attend TAM. They ATTEND lots of skeptic/humanist conferences. NOT outing this guy and reporting him, is like “oh well, I’m safe, good luck to the rest of you women.”

No, as a woman Ophelia has an obligation to her fellow women to keep them safe, and also to make sure these guys don’t “win”. To say “I quit” is to say “you win jerk man that has threatened me” and he has learned “wow threatening women really works well! I will try it more often!”

She can not attend and should not if she feels unsafe. But not posting the threat and who made it? That is not reporting a crime against women. Women don’t do that to women.

My first, knee-jerk reaction to that was that Willow had a point. “Evil triumphs when good [people] do nothing,” and all that. As bad as it was to be the victim of harassment, wouldn’t it be worse to see your harasser go on to other people, knowing you could have done something?

So I was surprised when the commenters rose up with righteous anger at Willow’s suggestion. My knee-jerk first reaction was that they were overreacting, that they were flying off the handle over a reasonable point. It’s easy to say “the rapist is 100% responsible for the rape,” but isn’t reality a little more complicated than that?

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past few years, if there’s one lesson that I keep returning to re: issues that concern the non-privileged, it’s the one that PZ Myers taught over a year ago: learn to shut up and listen. I didn’t post my knee-jerk reaction, in part because I recognize that the “jerk” part is there for a reason.

And so I read the responses, I read Stephanie Zvan’s heartbreaking story and the stories of her commenters, and I put some goddamn thought into the whole situation. And I realized why my knee-jerk reaction was wrong.

One problem with Willow’s position is that it’s something like Pascal’s Wager. Unlike Pascal’s Wager, it presents an actual dilemma: report or don’t report. But like Pascal’s Wager, it makes unsupported assumptions about the risks and benefits of the choice to report.

The dilemma presented in this scenario appears to be this (I’m using rapist per Willow’s example, but it applies equally to harassers):

Risks Benefits
Report Might not be believed Prevent rapist from harming others
Keep the rapists from winning
Fulfill obligation to help other women
Make others aware of the rapist
Don’t Report Allow rapist to freely harm others
Teach rapists that intimidating tactics work
Fail obligation to protect other women
Be partially responsible for all other rapes committed by that rapist
Remain safe (?)

I hope that’s not too much of an exaggeration. The problem is that it ignores several key realities. The first is that reporting carries with it a number of costs on its own. We’ve seen a microcosm of that just recently, with the recent harassment reports and the responses of trolls, MRAs, and misogynists of every stripe to them. We’ve also seen an authority figure treat claims and complaints of harassment dismissively, and show little inclination toward supporting the targets and victims of harassment.

Now imagine that instead of harassing e-mails or creepy guys in bars and crowds, we’re talking about a rapist. And imagine that instead of the president of a particular organization, we’re talking about police officers. Imagine that the rapist isn’t some anonymous Internet asshole, but a friend, family member, or other acquaintance of the survivor, as it is in 2/3 of rape cases. You can block anonymous commenters, you can have security remove the asshole from TAM, but you can’t necessarily escape the taunts and threats and harassment of the accused and their friends and family, who you may have to encounter on a regular basis.

And you’ll probably have to encounter the rapist as well, because only about 1/4 of reported rapes lead to an arrest. Of those, only another 1/4 will spend even one day in jail, and the average convicted rapist will spend only 5 1/2 years in prison.

Which brings us to the other prong of the problem with Willow’s wager: According to at least one study most (63%) of rapists are repeat offenders, averaging 5.8 rapes in a lifetime. While superficially this might support the point of Willow’s wager–if you don’t report, he’ll rape again!–the truth is a little simpler: even if you do report, chances are he’ll rape again. 4.8 more times, in fact. Since many (probably most) rapes go unreported, since 97% of reported rapists never serve jail time, and since that remaining 3% serves an average of 65 months in prison, chances are reporting will not prevent the rapist from committing more rapes.

And so Willow’s Wager rests on two flawed premises: Reporting is not without significant costs, and overwhelmingly does nothing to prevent additional instances of rape. Which is not to say that survivors shouldn’t be encouraged to report–increased rates of reporting are partially credited with the drop in sexual assault rates in the last 20 years or so, but it does mean that one can’t reasonably shame rape survivors for deciding that the risks of reporting outweigh the benefits, and it means that one can’t reasonably blame rape survivors for their rapists’ repeat offenses.

Ignorance is Bliss

Crommunist has a fantastic post up discussing some more of the recent sexism dust-up, centering around some Twitter comments and insults made regarding Rebecca Watson, who I’ll reiterate is awesome. In particular were some comments made by an ignorant twit named Ian Adelstein, who is like a Misogyny Bingo Card unto himself. I just looked over there and found ‘some of my best friends are feminists,’ which is kind of like Rick Santorum’s gay friends and all the good Daleks.

But the best part is the hole this dickbag has dug over his use of the phrase “uppity cunt.” He apologized up and down for his use of the c-word, but the idea that a word like “uppity” might be insensitive or offensive? Perish the thought! Some choice quotes:

“@Samuel_Erkison damn. I had no idea! Thanks! I just thought it meant arrogant. Sorry @jamiekilstein and Rebecca Watson.” (link)

Which was a graceful admission of ignorance and apparent apology. I give him an 8.5, taking points away because he didn’t @-reply to Rebecca.

If only he’d stuck the landing:

@Chris___B yea the uppity thing blew my mind. Had no idea that word was offensive now too. (link)

“Now,” of course, means “for the last 130 years.” Continuing…

@Chris___B baggage for some people. The dictionary doesn’t even define uppity as offensive. (link)

Did you know that dictionaries are meant to provide detailed connotation information, including dictating whether or not a word is offensive? I mean, describes that it was “originally used by blacks of other blacks felt to be too self-assertive (first recorded use is in “Uncle Remus”),” and the first result on a Google search for the word brings up Urban Dictionary, which gives definitions like “Taking liberties or assuming airs beyond one’s place in a social heirarchy. Assuming equality with someone higher up the social ladder” and “Word used by racist old white Southerners to refer to any black person who looks them in the eye. Usually followed by nigger.” But no, the word is just a synonym for “arrogant,” nothing more. We certainly won’t get into the fourth link produced by a Google search.

@Chris___B b/c of the thesaurus. They are used interchangeably to most, besides liberal d bags. Go vote for Obama, pussy. (link)

“Yep, only liberal d-bags like Joel Chandler Harris and the Online Etymology Dictionary think the word might mean more than “arrogant.” Go vote for Obama, you pussy! Also, I’m totally not a racist or misogynist. And more liberal than you!”

This is, obviously, a brilliant move for the bigots out there who want to avoid the nasty social implications of their bigotry. Let me offer a few more, which you can use at your leisure:

  • “When I said she should ‘know her place,’ I just meant it’s important to know how to get back home!”
  • “Right, a ‘woman driver’! A woman who drives! Look it up in the dictionary!”
  • “When I called you a pussy, I just meant you were like a scaredy-cat! Most people use it interchangeably!”
  • “I didn’t say you couldn’t make yourself a sandwich too! And where else would you do it but the kitchen?”
  • “I didn’t know ‘fembot’ was offensive! I just meant that you’re hot and have guns for nipples!”
  • “Guys can be sluts too! Plus, women use the word, so it’s okay!”
  • “When I said that she sleeps with men to pay your rent, I just meant that she sublets her small apartment to a male tenant, and they have similar schedules! Apparently to liberals, ‘sleep’ means ‘have sex with,’ now.”

But it doesn’t have to stop with women!

  • “The thesaurus says ‘chink’ is a synonym for ‘weakness,’ and that’s all I meant.”
  • “What? He was doing hard work in the hot sun! Of course his back is going to get wet!”.
  • “Oh my god, now you liberal politically correct word-police want to make ‘boy’ an offensive word? He’s a boy, isn’t he? It’s a synonym for ‘male’! You’re the one bringing his race into it!”
  • “Duh, ‘faggot’ just means ‘a bundle of sticks,’ moron. Look it up. All it means is that I want to set you on fire.”

There you go, bigots! Let your ignorance be your force-field, and you can shield yourself from all consequences!

I shouldn’t have to note that Dictionaries are not the arbiters of offense and that intent isn’t some magic get-out-of-saying-offensive-shit-free card, but apparently I do. Words mean more than their dictionary definitions. If you call someone a goose-stepping brownshirt, you’re not saying that they walk like a bird and dress in earth tones. Anyone who would disagree with that either has their head so far up their ass that they’re chewing on polyps, or is too dumb to function.

The First Rule of Elevators

If you just keep pressing buttons, you’re never going to get to where you want to be.

Way back on June 20th, 2011, Rebecca Watson posted a YouTube video about some recent experiences she’d had with Mythbusters, robots, oh and a guy propositioning her in an elevator.

Almost a full year later (I suppose the next 19 days may change something dramatically), you can still find MRAs and misogynists harping about the incident, as if it were the first and only instance in history in which a woman felt somewhat unsafe or harassed or targeted at a gathering because of her sex. I didn’t have to do a “Ctrl+F” for long on a recent post to find someone using the incident to dismiss harassment, concerns about harassment, and conversations about sexism across the board.

It’s not hard to see why the sexists have latched onto the issue: it was a prominent incident, it kicked off a lot of the conversation, and it was a situation where a woman deigned to tell men that a woman’s opinion and personal choices were at least as valid as a man’s desire to get laid. Even Dick to the Dawk to the P-h-D joined in–and on the side of the MRAs! So now, every time the sexism conversation comes up, some exasperated MRA will summon the ancient spirit of Elevatorgate as their Guardian Force. Perhaps they think that drawing the connection will show that all women’s complaints are just as overblown and out-of-proportion and silly and dismissible as they clearly think Rebecca’s was. Perhaps it’s more sinister, a way of saying “remember Elevatorgate? Remember what we did to Rebecca Watson? You don’t want to bring that shitstorm down on your head, so you’d better shut up if you know what’s good for you.”

Unfortunately for the MRAs, all the damage dealt by the Elevatorgate spirit is self-inflicted. I realize that the MRAs and misogynists have blown up the incident into Rebecca Watson cruelly bullying a well-meaning, awkward young man–maybe a child?–who just wanted to drink coffee with a famous skeptic in his hotel room at 4 AM and had no other intentions, by saying that he attempted to rape her, and then calling for a blanket ban on all sex with men everywhere, as well as a boycott of books by Dawkins, who was gallant enough to stand up for the real problems women face and wasn’t blinded into acquiescence by Rebecca’s celebrity.

But to anyone with a reasoning brain that doesn’t suddenly fly into rage-mode when it hears Rebecca’s name or when someone talks about women’s issues, what happened is that a guy ignored her explicitly-expressed wishes, followed her into a confined space, and propositioned her. She then said “guys, don’t do that.”

And for her troubles, she’s become the target of going-on-a-year’s worth of constant abuse from a variety of corners, in the form of name-calling, threats, and what do you know, plans to assault her at TAM.

For the MRAs who haven’t figured out the problem with this yet, if you want to diminish and dismiss women’s concerns about sexism and misogyny in the skeptical movement, the precise wrong way to do it is to continue attacking someone for saying “guys, don’t do that” a year ago. Every time a misogynist resurrects the spectre of Elevatorgate, they’re reminding the reasonable people out there that a woman can’t say something as simple, calm, and reasonable as “maybe don’t corner women and proposition them right after they said they didn’t like being hit on and were going to bed” without receiving over-the-top abuse for a year.

Which is the primary reason that anyone else brings up Elevatorgate: not because of the actual incident, not even because of Rebecca’s discussion of the incident, but because of the response to the incident, that dozens if not hundreds of people came out of the woodwork to offer rape threats and slurs and abuse in response to a reasonable request to treat women like people with agency first, and sex objects second. The actual incident wasn’t evidence of a problem with sexism and misogyny within the skeptical and atheist movements, but the response to the incident showed that the problem was big, sensitive, and prone to exploding at the slightest provocation. And as it turns out, a lot of guys seem to have that problem.

So my advice to the MRAs is to let sleeping elevators lie. Stop calling on the ghost of Elevatorgate. It doesn’t help your case, and only really serves to remind everyone else that you’re aligned with a vitriolic, reactionary, frothy-at-the-mouth group of people who are all too willing to spew bile and threaten violence at people on the Internet. If you want to help your cause, find new ways to ignore and dismiss the concerns of women.

Or, you know, listen to and address them. But that would never work.

Why I don’t go to TAM

There’s been a lot of well-deserved drama in the Skeptosphere lately, mostly because JREF president D.J. Grothe has gone and stuck his foot in his mouth again regarding women and sexism in the skeptical community. Better blogs have the fuller story, so I won’t get into it. But I thought I might get into the reason that I’ve never been to a TAM and am likely never to go. After all, I’m a straight white cis middle-class dude: by virtue of my magical penis, I need never worry about being groped, fondled, dismissed for “misinforming” skeptics about my “sexual exploits” with “skeezy” people, or otherwise treated like women typically seem to be within and without the skeptical community.

No, the reason I’ve never been is simple: it’s too goddamn expensive.

We can leave aside the cost of a plane trip and a hotel, and the costs of food and so forth in Las Vegas. Four days of TAM cost $475, or $425 if I renew my JREF registration (which, thanks to the president, is looking like a less and less likely proposition). I come from a background of comic book and sci-fi conventions, and so that informs my assessment of typical convention stuff. Maybe if I attended other sorts of conventions instead, like TED or professional conferences, my opinion would be different. As it stands, if I wanted to get a four-day pass to the world’s biggest annual comic convention, I’d be shelling out less than half of what I’d pay for TAM ($150). When I attend conventions typically, I drop less than $80 on the ticket, leaving plenty of money for other stuff. And I just do not understand what makes TAM so different from Comic-Con or Dragon*Con ($105) that requires such a markup. Is it because TAM, unlike other conventions, is held in a casino? You’d think that would drive down the costs. Is it because TAM has so many speakers that charge exorbitant honoraria to speak? I suspect that’s part of it. Is it because TAM doesn’t have vendors selling books and the like? I honestly don’t know, having not been to one. But boy, that seems like a major oversight; I have to imagine that tables selling skeptical books (for people to potentially get signed) would make a stunning profit at TAM, and if said vendors paid for the floorspace, it would drive the cost down, right?

But I really don’t know. And while a few years ago, I might have made a point to save up for some TAM down the line, these days I’m far more likely to focus my attention on something like Skepticon or CONvergence, which are both closer to me and more cost-effective. It’s a bummer that I probably wouldn’t meet the Mythbusters or even Penn & Teller, but between the attitude of D.J. Grothe toward very real problems in the community, some of my (and my friends’) experiences with various douchebag luminaries in the community, the coddling of religious views and attacks against people who actually apply skepticism to religion, and the various boundary issues of members of this community on the whole, I don’t have any inclination to bother.

Speaking of those boundary issues, it’s not just women who have to deal with them–they just have to deal with more and worse. I won’t relate the story of one friend, but I know someone who had an experience with a moderately prominent skeptic which is still a source of discussion and revealed one of the movement’s nice guys to be a pretty awful person. I myself had some asshat in the comments at Blag Hag track down my Facebook account so he could harangue me outside the comments about how he’d responded to me, and what a jerk I was for insinuating that he was sexist. And I’m a nobody, occasionally commenting on blogs I like, and this was a startling but ultimately shallow breach of privacy and netiquette–I can scarcely imagine what bigger bloggers like Rebecca Watson or Jen McCreight go through on a daily basis.

Except I don’t have to imagine it, because it’s all right there on the web. Every time the topic comes up, out flood the MRAs and apologists, whining about the topic, shouting down any discussion, denying that there’s a problem, calling out the “ugly” “fembots,” and this time around, siding entirely with D.J. Grothe. It might be guilt by association, but perhaps the JREF president should consider just which people are jumping to his defense, and whether or not that might speak louder than women commenting on the real problems in the community.

Timely Resurrections

I’m working on going through the archive and updating the internal links to fit with the new server, which would apparently be much easier if I had independent hosting for this blog. But since I don’t I’m doing it the hard, time-consuming way, and the side-effect is that old posts are being republished and showing up in the RSS feed. So enjoy the resurrected articles as they pop up, and keep an eye out for new material as well.


You might have noticed that the blog here disappeared for a little bit, and it may do so again, for reasons I’m not at liberty to divulge. The good news is that I’m finally migrating the whole shebang over to WordPress, where it’ll have its own domain name and everything (hopefully prompting me to post more frequently…we’ll see). Anyway, the switch would be all over and done with already if WordPress weren’t so screwy with migrating comments. Hopefully in the next day or so, though, and then I’ll tell all y’alls to change your links.

Internet Priorities

The Internet readily accepts as polite the use of warnings to indicate when content might be inappropriate if your boss is walking by your computer screen.

The Internet readily accepts as polite the use of warnings to indicate when content might reveal the significant plot details of recent media.

But suggest that people preface content which might induce flashbacks in folks with PTSD or related stress disorders, and it’s “hypocritical” and “arbitrary,” and “control[ling] your sexuality.”


Anointed with Oil

I saw this on a church sign today (though I didn’t have time to take a picture, hence the Church Sign Maker):
I suppose it's a kind of love.
I think they might have misspelled “lube.” On the other hand, I think I’ve found a new slogan for K-Y.

What is D.J. Grothe talking about?

As long as I’m still on this basic subject, there’s another claim that Grothe made which is being met with some serious skepticism, and rightly so. Here’s the quote, emphasis mine:

But I’d certainly hope that these “call-out” posts against various people in skepticism for real or supposed sins do in fact generate a lot of hits, because if they do not, I see little other real-world pay-off. I have been told by two people now who have been personally involved with one of the controversialist blogs that there has been explicit direction from that blog’s founder to this effect.

The overwhelming chorus of responses to this claim has been to ask for names. Who are these “two people”? What “controversialist blog” are they involved with, and what was the nature of the involvement? Why does Grothe apparently accept their claims at face value, over the statements of other bloggers on these so-called “controversialist blogs” who have provided information that shows this is not the case?

And those are all reasonable questions that Grothe needs to answer if this claim is meant to be taken seriously, and not as an intellectually (and otherwise) dishonest bit of mudslinging. But I had a different question when I saw this claim, one I haven’t heard anyone address: what the hell is Grothe talking about?

Because I don’t know of many blogs at all that are run in the way that Grothe’s claim suggests: a blog founder at the top, with writers (or other people involved) who are subordinate content-producers. In fact, of the blogs I follow (many of which, I suspect, Grothe would call “controversialist”), I can think of only two blogs that have anything like that structure: Friendly Atheist and Skepchick. Both of those sites have a (real or perceived) main blogger/”blog founder,” and a host of other writers.

Now, maybe these are the blogs that Grothe means to indict–in fact, I’d be surprised if Skepchick weren’t on his list of “controversialist blogs.” But how feasible is his claim if these are the blogs he’s talking about?

I’ve been scrolling back through the Friendly Atheist archive. So far, I’ve seen four posts on sexism/feminist issues; one written by Hemant, one written by a guest named Claudia, one written by regular contributor Megan Wells, and one (a comic) by regular contributor M J Shepherd. That’s going back to December 22nd, and touches specifically on the Reddit incident and Penn Jillette’s promotion of Mallorie Nasmallah’s letter–only one post mentions any names and could reasonably be termed a “call out” post. Other microscandals from the intervening period–Ben Radford’s bad science on dolls, the comments made to Greta Christina which have formed much of the discussion with Grothe–have gone unmentioned, so far as my quick survey found. In addition, I saw little if any evidence of other “controversialist” posts, going after prominent skeptical figures for “supposed sins.” If the decree went down from Hemant on high, then it doesn’t seem to have had much effect. There’s far more commentary on religion and atheism in the news than on insider pool between skeptics at Friendly Atheist.

So what of Skepchick? Well, they certainly comment on the sexism and misogyny issues, and were at the forefront of calling out Ben Radford, Mallorie Nasmallah, r/atheism, and last year, Stef McGraw and Richard Dawkins. Maybe this is the blog Grothe meant. Maybe MasalaSkeptic or Elyse Anders came to him and showed e-mails where Rebecca Watson sinisterly, tenting her fingers, ordered the Skepchick horde to attack the straight white men in the alls of skeptic power. It’s the only way to explain all those posts, written by such diverse Skepchick writers as Rebecca Watson, Heina, Rebecca Watson, Rebecca Watson, Rebecca Watson, and Rebecca Watson.


Well, clearly, if Rebecca’s order from on high to attack the privileged leaders of the skeptical community actually went out, it didn’t go very far.

Grothe’s claim is starting to look pretty dubious on his face, but perhaps his language is simply unclear. Maybe by “blog’s founder,” he meant “the founder of a blogging network,” like FreethoughtBlogs. Maybe someone over at FreethoughtBlogs shared some insider information on orders from Ed Brayton or PZ to go after the white male non-feminist hierarchy. And a bunch of the other bloggers, most of whom have been blogging for years with well-developed styles and spheres of expertise and influence, took this advice and started–or perhaps redoubled–their efforts to root out even the most trivial examples of potential sexism among prominent skeptics.

I suppose that’s possible, but I’d sure like to see the evidence. Especially since a major factor in the founding of FreethoughtBlogs was apparently the potential moderating/censoring hand of National Geographic when they took over ScienceBlogs. But surely bloggers who bristled at the idea of even sharing space with the corporately-owned Pepsi blog wouldn’t mind having new overlords dictate content.

As someone who followed Greta Christina’s Blog and Blag Hag (and to a lesser degree, Almost Diamonds and Butterflies and Wheels) before the FreethoughtBlogs move, I can’t say that I’ve noticed a marked difference in the blog content. What I have noticed is an uptick in the frequency of ridiculously sexist acts among the atheist/skeptic communities, and an uptick in the number of people willing to call out such behavior. Maybe there was an order from on high at FreethoughtBlogs to go after prominent skeptics (doesn’t explain Skepchick’s participation, but maybe they’re in cahoots), but it sure would look a lot more like grasping at straws and desperate attempts to paint skeptical leaders as misogynists if those same skeptical leaders weren’t doing things that can be so easily interpreted as misogynistic. No one from FreethoughtBlogs went over and started making rape jokes at a 15-year-old Redditor. No one at Skepchick forced Ben Radford to write a clueless article where he justified gender essentialism with appeals to antiquity and popularity and evo-psych in complete ignorance of the scholarly work on the subject. Grothe can complain about people calling out skeptics for “supposed sins,” but it’d be a lot harder to do if those skeptics stopped committing those sins.

The most charitable interpretation of Grothe’s claim here is that he’s accepted the words of actual people who have actual evidence that some blog founder someplace issued instructions to call out skeptics for their real or supposed sexism. He’s not denying the content of these “call out” posts (diminishing, but not denying), which amounts to saying ‘I’m upset that people would notice these instances of perceived sexism and talk about them publicly.’ The least charitable interpretation is that Grothe is maliciously lying to dismiss and discredit people with whom he disagrees, in the service of greater perceived harmony among the community–to set a policy of not policing our own. I suspect that the truth is somewhere in the middle, but in no case does it reflect positively on Mr. Grothe.

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

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

Or so critics imply (or occasionally state outright).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So fucking what?

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

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