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.

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Shh!

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.”

Seriously?

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.

Oh.

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.

The “Now What?” Phase

There seems to be a kind of life cycle of skeptical blogs. They start out all excited and frequent-posting, hitting all the usual Skepticism 101 topics, and trying to say something new or interesting about them. But eventually, I think every skeptical blog comes to the “Now What?” phase. You’ve hit alt-med and ghost hunting and cryptozoology and alien abductions and conspiracy theories and antivaxxers and maybe dabbled in a little religion. But once all that’s done, where do you go? There are some choices:

  • Fade Away: There’s only so many ways you can say that homeopathy is bullshit. Your posts are all there, archived for all time on the Internet, and there’s nothing more to say. You walk away, and your blog slowly gathers dust.
  • Firefighting: Keep up with the woo-news. Jump on every new article or claim that pops into your feed or Google Alerts. It might be a little repetitive, but it’ll at least be relevant.
  • Case Studies: Go after every specific story. Instead of talking about hauntings in general, look at each prominent haunting story on its own. Take every claim as new, examine it, and debunk as necessary.
  • Angling: Try to find new ways of talking about the usual skeptical topics. Maybe there’s some larger themes you can draw conclusions about, maybe there are connections to other fields. Maybe it’s just a matter of doing the usual topics as a webcomic or poetry.
  • Diversify: Change the blog focus. Maybe make it more personal, maybe talk about art or video games in addition to occasional skeptical topics.
  • Pioneer: Skepticism is a process, not a set of conclusions, so apply that process to new topics. Political claims? Social trends? Mores and traditions? They’re rife for skepticism and doubt just like any other set of claims. You might end up doing a lot of your own legwork, but you’ll have something new to say and show for it.
  • Quarterbacking: You may have noticed that there are a lot of other people who also agree that UFOs aren’t aliens and Bigfoot is bullshit. You socialize with those people, online or off, and maybe there are some things that you see in this group that you want to praise, or decry. Maybe you think they should be doing things differently to attract more members, or make things more pleasant for people who are already in the group. So you voice some opinions, suggestions, descriptions, or decrees for the community at large.

In truth, I think most skeptical blogs and podcasts do some combination of most or all of the above. The problem comes when people visit a skeptical blog and are shocked–shocked, I say!–to see discussion that isn’t strictly Skepticism 101 on a skeptical blog. “Why are you talking about X? X doesn’t have anything to do with Chupacabras!”

And it might not. But if every skeptical blog spent all its time re-hashing Skepticism 101 topics, it’d get really boring really fast. If you can’t handle skeptical pioneering or occasional quarterbacking, then maybe you should find blogs that engage in more of the firefighting and case studying and angling. But complaining that it’s not strictly skepticism? Well, that just makes you look like an ass.