Pharyngula: Too little, too late

I debated for a while about actually posting this, because it strikes me almost as a selective rant that wouldn’t appeal to many others, but then I realized that the background message is something most skeptics should probably be aware of.

Over at Pharyngula a few days ago, PZ Myers tasked his numerous and active followers to help select who, among the frequent commenters he sees, should be added to his Dungeon, the list of people blocked and unable to comment – the point being, his commenters often include regulars who troll, derail, or disrupt threads. Among the suggestions he was receiving were a few people who opined that his comments section had become fairly insular and unwelcoming to new contributors overall, and I chimed in with agreement, following up (after being urged by one to actually contribute) with the reasons I had for seeing it this way.

It didn’t go well at all, and I was both labeled a “concern troll” and excoriated for displaying assumptive attitudes, something I felt I was fairly clear about not having. You are welcome to examine this if you like, since I post there (and elsewhere) as “Just Al,” and the replies to me are usually designated as such. I quoted whoever I was responding to as I went, but there are still 266 comments to pick through. What the experience told me personally was not only that I was correct in my evaluation of the comments section, but that they were not terribly open to a difference of opinion, much less constructive criticism.

The amusing part came a couple of days later, when Myers admitted that he was testing his commenters, having noticed the behavior himself. He had included a stipulation that the nominations include a self-evaluation of the person doing the suggesting, as a subtle means of getting commenters to examine their own behavior. It doesn’t appear he was impressed with the results. (I admit that I did not evaluate myself, partially because I do not contribute too often to Pharyngula – the comments reach ridiculous numbers in very short periods of time – and because I had nominated no one myself, for the same reason; basically, I wasn’t familiar enough with specific names to single them out.) How this whole exercise actually went over with the Pharynguloids I cannot say, because after my fun experience I simply gave up on reading their input.

Okay, that’s the back story; now the part that, to me at least, has more bearing. Pharyngula appeals to outspoken atheists, critical-thinkers, and similar personalities, because that’s what PZ Myers displays. He’s unapologetic about his views, but makes a good case at the same time. However, it appears that no small number of people feel that being outspoken about the same topics means they’re being smart, which hardly follows. Moreover, free-thinkers (another phrase I don’t like but have nothing to replace it with here) sometimes get the attitude that this brilliance from possessing the same opinion means they do not have to communicate with the peons that hold differing opinions – or that when they do, they’re justified in copping an attitude.

This is a common enough trait, seen throughout the internet anyplace where groups of people with the same interest gather, whether it be in sports cars, gaming, conspiracy theorists, pet psychics – whatever. There often becomes a distinctive “us” and “them,” with little grey area. I have posted about this twice, so obviously I have issues with it. The disturbing part about finding this on Pharyngula is that it is supposed to support critical examination, and the very concept of free-thinking relies on being open minded. Forums such as his should be prominent examples, rather than just another select clique. Worse, if anyone really feels that things like atheism or critical-thinking should be more accepted within society, they have to demonstrate why they’re beneficial, and what they can do. If you’re trying to sell the idea of giving weight to all evidence, you have to be open to that evidence first, and open to those with a different viewpoint.

I have no doubt that Myers is a pretty good example of this – he’s certainly displayed it numerous times in debates, discussions, and interviews. Perhaps, however, this isn’t as prominent in his blog posts, where he targets the extreme examples of religious abuse, bigotry, and warped thinking. And while he admits that he only skims his readers’ comments, how unaware was he of their slide away from unbiased thinking and into self-congratulation? Of all people, did he forget that this is a standard facet of churches, and even cults?

Further, he may even have supported this, admittedly subtly. There are few blogs where the owner not only has a distinct following, but recognizes it and addresses them by a specific name, creating an “in group.” It continues with Myers’ encouragements of “Pharyngulation:” linking to an online poll with the express purpose of overwhelming it; and with his “Order of the Molly” awards for commenters who exemplify… well, it’s not clear what they exemplify, except perhaps outspokenness. There really isn’t a definition of what the title, proudly displayed by many Pharynguloids, says about the winner, and the selection process is by nomination within the group. There is something to be said when someone can both win this award and nearly get banned, and it’s apparently happened twice now.

Finally, there’s the return of Phil Plait’s infamous advice. Many people, me included, didn’t agree, but in some cases people took it as a challenge to go exactly in the opposite direction – again, this is polarized thinking, not terribly useful. Myers himself addresses this only semi-effectively; while encouraging forceful and merciless responses, he manages to inject some caveats about doing so with good arguments. This is a bit backwards, as far as I’m concerned: emphasis should always be on the argument, and forcefulness is a tool, only a tool, for specific circumstances.

The point is, even among atheists, free-thinkers, critical-thinkers, and so on, there are good and bad examples, and human traits still remain human traits. But it isn’t enough to declare yourself among some group of special brains, and certainly not an excuse to stop engaging them or get egotistical about it. This goes for any select group of people, regardless. But it’s most especially disturbing, even embarrassing, to see something like this coming from people who proudly consider themselves open-minded. It’s not a title, it’s a practice. You don’t pass a test to be considered such – you have to demonstrate it every time. The moment you stop, you aren’t. It’s that simple. And if you feel you’re doing just fine because you’re among people who won’t correct you, you’ve failed – you correct yourself. Peer support is for the weak.

It is also wielded impartially. Even if you know a commenter or poster from long association and are largely in agreement, this isn’t an excuse to let them slide when you disagree, most especially when it’s a topic you openly address with someone you don’t know. If your standpoint on an issue is based on careful deliberation, then presumably it doesn’t change based on who disagrees with it, does it? That’s certainly one of the messages that critical-thinking carries, and even names as a specific fallacy: “Appeal from Authority,” the practice of assuming that someone is so highly regarded they cannot be wrong. We shouldn’t actually need to create a subset of this fallacy called, “Appeal from My Homeys,” should we?

I came close to removing Pharyngula from my blogroll over this. Not as an act of spite, and it was even the perception of this that actually stayed my hand. However, I maintain that short list over there as my recommendations of both interesting posters and good approaches to thinking, and while Pharyngula remains, because Myers’ posts still demonstrate it, his commenters have become just another chanting rally, which is worthless.