An “intellectual romance” »« An argument from false authority

The link between status and virtue

This question of credentials, accomplishments, fame, status, titles, and what it has to do with whether or not someone can behave badly. As I discussed yesterday, Tim Farley seems to be claiming that fame and titles in the skeptic/atheist world are incompatible with acting like a shit. I say “seems to be” because it’s not clear exactly what he’s claiming. I’ve asked him to clarify but so far he’s said only that that’s a small part of the post, which doesn’t help and is frankly beside the point.

He says

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.

He lists 10 examples of such involvement; he says

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.

And that a quick scan of their Twitter feeds turns up little in the way of “attacking, threatening or spamming”; and that

these well-respected people are being listed right alongside some vicious troll accounts, and not being clearly distinguished from them.

He does not say “these people are important and famous, therefore they can’t possibly be intermittently or steadily unpleasant on Twitter.” But he hints at it. That seems to be what he wants us to conclude, even though he doesn’t spell it out. (If he had, he probably would have noticed how silly it is, and either deleted it or done a better job of arguing it.)

What’s the hidden premise here?

I suppose it’s one that I share, in a way. It’s something like people who do good thoughtful work are thoughtful people, and thoughtful people don’t harass or pester or jeer at other people on Twitter.

I do think that, up to a point. It’s why I keep being surprised by people who are thoughtful in other contexts, being astonishingly childish or malicious or brutal on Twitter or blogs. But at the same time I also know better – I know that if only because I’ve had so much experience of it over the past couple of years. But it’s not only that; I do know it from other sources. Doesn’t everyone?

Isn’t it notorious that fame and status can make people feel entitled and reckless? Hello? Bill Clinton and Air Fuck One? Every rock star ever? Bernie Madoff? Dominique Strauss-Kahn?

And no, intellectuals and academics are not immune. Far from it. There is no preener like an academic preener.

So no. It’s sad, but no, being a star in the (tiny) atheist/skeptic movement is not a guarantor of always-thoughtful-behavior.

 

Comments

  1. carlie says

    I’m still confused by it as well. Does he completely misunderstand the purpose of the block bot? It’s not to put a police hit list together, it’s to avoid people who have already been observed acting badly towards others on Twitter. The thing his besties have in common with the others on the list isn’t that they’re spam accounts, or troll accounts, it’s that they have all tweeted harassing and annoying things at other people to the point that the people in charge of the block bot list don’t want to put up with it any more. There’s nothing unfair about that, no matter who the person doing it is.

  2. Al Dente says

    From what I can tell, Tim’s objection to the block bot is that he likes, admires or respects some of the people on the lists and thinks anyone using the bot is being mean by blocking people Tim likes, admires or respects. I may be wrong. Tim Farley’s thoughts on the matter are rather opaque.

  3. says

    cliobellenis, I woke up this morning to a long discussion on Twitter that included me by virtue of my having documented some of what one of the people he lists has tweeted. Now, he doesn’t want to discuss individuals on the list. That he made up. Of individuals he singled out.

  4. Bjarte Foshaug says

    As I recently wrote on Twitter, past merits don’t earn you any “bonus points” that can be “cashed out” in the form of a free access to say or do stupid or immoral things without criticism now.

  5. Anthony K says

    As I recently wrote on Twitter, past merits don’t earn you any “bonus points” that can be “cashed out” in the form of a free access to say or do stupid or immoral things without criticism now.

    I understand the Pope is looking to sue Tim Farley for copyright infringement, as they claim to have invented the concept of indulgences first.

  6. Anthony K says

    It’s sad, but no, being a star in the (tiny) atheist/skeptic movement is not a guarantor of always-thoughtful-behavior.

    The fact that this even has to be said is an example of this. I mean really?

    (Unlike others, I never had much respect for Tim Farley and his “What’s the Harm?” collection of emotionally appealing anecdata. You ever try to recommend that site to someone into alt-med and not a total flake? They’ll laugh you out of the room.)

  7. Anthony K says

    Unlike others, I never had much respect use for Tim Farley and his “What’s the Harm?” collection of emotionally appealing anecdata.

    Totally wrong word. ‘use’ is the one I meant.

  8. says

    I don’t mind What’s the Harm as a response to that particular question, and it’s nice to see skeptics using pathos instead of thinking that it’s somehow an inferior component of argumentation. It’s just a shame that Tim, at least in this instance, fails so completely on the logos front. And this constant deflecting and excuse-making is making his ethos sag too.

  9. Anthony K says

    I don’t mind What’s the Harm as a response to that particular question, and it’s nice to see skeptics using pathos instead of thinking that it’s somehow an inferior component of argumentation.

    Thanks for that response. Thinking on it, I do agree with this. I retract that criticism, since the site probably does answer that question. I think was relying a little too heavily on my own personal experiences: I don’t often get asked that particular question very often.

  10. Sili says

    Now, he doesn’t want to discuss individuals on the list. That he made up. Of individuals he singled out.

    Not surprising. He dismissed Dubio/Cogito for Fisking – such long responses were a warning sign of a waste of time.

    Sorta amusing coming from a Gish-galloper.

  11. says

    Not surprising. He dismissed Dubio/Cogito for Fisking – such long responses were a warning sign of a waste of time.

    Yeah I got dismissed for not reading his whole post! It was tl;dr, and given the bits I ignored were the fallacious bits about “credential” you’d think he wouldn’t mind too much. But then I guess his “bananas” gotcha at the end sort of gives him away … I thought it was a jokey addition, but he clearly takes his nanas seriously.

  12. Cam says

    So, I know of a Very Famous Fiddler with a prodigious talent for both performance and composition. He’s a big deal. He’s the most famous and accomplished musician in his style, and he’s probably the most best-known fiddle player working today. He’s a genius of a musician with an intriguing outlook on music instruction as well.

    He’s also, pretty well undeniably, a histrionic shithead online. He attacks people baselessly and he repeats himself endlessly. He fumes and shouts and howls over tiny disagreements. I’m fairly sure that at least one Facebook group nearly imploded under the force of his bullying and self-promotion. Either he’s hired a whole series of social media interns with personality disorders, or he himself has no home training whatsoever.

    I haven’t tangled with the guy personally, and I don’t plan to. If I ever come to his attention, I will block him; heck, I’d block him now except for my morbid curiosity. This doesn’t mean that I’ve lost respect for his musicianship. (In fact, I think it’s a credit to his musicianship that he can get anybody to work with him; they’re sure not doing it because of his great humaneness.) All it means is that I never want to be on the receiving end of his nonsense.

    Nothing about this is unusual. Nothing about blocking the Very Famous Fiddler would be unreasonable.

    Fame isn’t incompatible with shitheadery in the music world; why would it be in the skeptic/atheist world?

  13. says

    It wouldn’t, especially since it’s so likely to foster shitheadery. Fame makes people feel important and special (take a listen to Priss Choss some time – he unabashedly talks about “people like you” when being interviewed), which tends to make them think they get extra privileges to be shitty because of how important and special they are.

  14. Cam says

    “People like you”? How charming of him.

    The whole “but these are important and serious and deeply involved people!” thing just… I mean… what? Aroo?

  15. says

    Tim Farley seems to have ignored the fundamental nature of Twitter as a social medium – that it is a messaging service with a hard size limit that is best suited to short, snappy messages – with the corollary that a person’s status has very little to do with how they use the medium. Just by virtue of being { A Research Fellow for a U.S. think-tank | A Consultant for Educational Programs | An organizer for a state-level skeptic group | An Emmy and Golden Globe award winning comedian | A TED Fellow | A philosopher, writer and critic }, a person’s accomplishments in other media has little bearing on how that person interacts with others in 140-characters-at-a-time installments.

    There is also the fact that since the late, great rifts (when the reaction to the words ‘Guys, don’t do that’ unleashed a torrential shitstorm) in these parts, there has been a more-or-less continuous programme of non-stop harassment going on, and people are rightly sick of those who are still going on with it. It’s two years plus with no end in sight (and I’ve been around for all of it, incidentally, and could wish to be doing many other much more pleasurable things on a free Sunday afternoon than having to write comments like this). This is why the level 2 and level 3 block lists looks like a who’s who of the slyme-pit and all of their chatty, tweety pals.

    However, I think it is no secret that people like myself who have the ability to add Twitter accounts to the Block Bot’s lists have given long and very serious thought to adding accounts that belong to people who have considerable status elsewhere of Twitter, and the potential for backlash that might occur if we did (and which has at long last come to some prominence).

    In the end though, the decision at the time was relatively simple: are these users of Twitter being an annoyance a fair proportion of the time in their tweets (or in more serious cases, a persistently anti-social pest or troll)? Is this a once-off meltdown, or is it a pervasive feature of their Twitter usage? (It is also not uncommon for the level on the blocklist to be reassessed if a Twitter account noticeably improves or worsens over a period of time, as not everyone is constant in their usage volume-wise, or in the subject matter of their tweets.)

    I also wonder why Tim Farley was so cautious not to name names, despite giving obvious hints about their identities by listing their various achievements. I will be so bold as to give the name of someone who has the highest of statuses within the atheist community because of his public prominence as an evolutionary biologist and household name atheist, but who can also be somewhat of a nuisance on Twitter: Richard Dawkins. Of late, his tweeting habits could certainly be regarded as annoying to the targets of them, which are usually equally prominent theists. If he were unwise enough to be tweeting regularly on the subject of the internecine division within atheism – which he usually* does not, a few examples aside – then there would be no question about adding his Twitter account to one or other of the Block Bot’s lists, also.

    * Usually is the key word here. Dawkins’ twitter has in excess of 12,000 tweets, and those which have been targeted against members of the atheist and skeptic community during the current ‘deep rifts’, such as his passive-aggressive tweets against some Skepchick campaigns, are a distinct minority.

  16. hoary puccoon says

    What I noticed about Tim Farley in this instance was his complete absence of logic. Somebody is a TED scholar, therefore he couldn’t be saying anything in any context that should be blocked??!? (Note that being a TED scholar isn’t anywhere near as big a deal as being the mayor of San Diego.)

    Then Farley argues about which blog people should be arguing on. (His own, of course. Where, not incidentally, he has the right to block.)

    And THEN his rebuttal to a comment is that it has too many words in it?!

    At no point did he make any logical argument.

    Aside from not appearing overly bright in the exchange, his whole attitude reeks of entitlement. A synopsis of his entire argument would be: “I had a rejoinder to each of your points, so you should bow to my authority. How dare you presume to examine what I said to see if it actually makes any sense or not.”

    In the entire exchange, he is providing positive proof that someone with something of a reputation can bog down a site with time-wasting drivel– and might well be a candidate for being blocked.

  17. Sili says

    So, I know of a Very Famous Fiddler with a prodigious talent for both performance and composition. He’s a big deal. He’s the most famous and accomplished musician in his style, and he’s probably the most best-known fiddle player working today. He’s a genius of a musician with an intriguing outlook on music instruction as well.

    This makes me curious, since I only recall the name of one fiddler.

  18. mudpuddles says

    I do think that, up to a point. It’s why I keep being surprised by people who are thoughtful in other contexts, being astonishingly childish or malicious or brutal on Twitter or blogs.

    I like to think of myself as a thoughtful person. I am not a famous person, though I am well known within the limited academic, scientific and diplomatic circles in which I work. I speak at a number of events every year on important issues of human rights and environmentalism. I always hope to be considerate, reasoned and sensitive to wider perspectives. I am not unfamiliar with speaking on TV and radio or in the press. And I recently behaved like a bit of a shit over on PZ’s blog. It was a minor misunderstanding between me and another commenter, but I didn’t take the time to clarify the issue that irked me. Instead, I decided to be wounded and I hurled a very nasty insult. Something I’m not proud of in the slightest, and I have apologised since.

    Thinking about it, I know that if I had not been anonymous on the blog, I would have been far more cautious and less ready to “shoot first, ask later” so to speak. In other words, in my case, and I’m sure in a lot of other cases, the privilege of anonymity made it easier to slip into some bad behaviour. Nothing against anonymity – I couldn’t comment or participate here or on many other areas of the web without it – but I guess I’m suggesting it adds an additional layer to Ophelia’s argument; whilst Tim Farley’s friends / colleagues might be perfectly gentlemanly, considerate, empathetic and polite in their public lives, it really doesn’t mean they can’t also be asshats occasionally.

  19. mudpuddles says

    …and I believe everyone has the capacity to misbehave in situations where the normal checks on open displays of bad behaviour are removed.

  20. Acolyte of Sagan says

    mudpuddles @ #21; so, so true. I once worked in a pub opposite a theatre, and one day had the honour of breaking up a rather vicious fight between two well-known – though in the circumstances less-than distinguished – actors with reputations to rival Alan Bennett’s. The cause of their fisticuffs? A rapidly escalating disagreement on whether a line should be delivered with emphasis on “To be, or not to be?” or “To be, or not to be?”
    Sadly, not only was this in a time prior to camera-phones, it was pre-CCTV too, else I would have had footage worth a pretty penny to the scandal-mongering rags.

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