Travis Pangburn: Chickenhawk

Travis Pangburn, as PZ has brought to local attention, is interested in orchestrating a “war of ideas”. Yet, like the numerous “chickenhawks” of the USA right-wing who constantly advocate the nation commits acts of war while avoiding ever serving in the military, Pangburn seems to flee from those wars when they might involve him fighting on the front lines. One interesting manifestation of this is the strong possibility (examine the evidence for yourself) that Pangburn uses sock puppets to stick up for him, rather than arguing his case himself. But really, the entire thread over on Pharyngula about Pangburn’s latest project is at least as illuminating.

PZ focuses an initial critique on one portion of Pangburn’s article introducing his new website: the list of IDW movement leaders (copied from the IDW site) that Pangburn would consider leaders of his “intellectual warm blanket” movement. In addition to poor writing, e. g.

Where is the data? No is my answer.

this piece is relentlessly cringeworthy for its seeming insistence on rigor while simultaneously and scrupulously avoiding exactly that. What is the methodology to determine which persons qualify as “leaders”? We don’t know. And yet this wouldn’t be a problem if Pangburn weren’t so insistent that “data” determines the answers. At the same time he purports to want critique, he avoids making specific arguments that might be subject to disagreement. All we know are that Pangburn considers some of the listed IDW leaders to be true leaders, while the rest are not. “Evidence” as a word is invoked, yet actual evidence and its rational relationship to any particular conclusion are everywhere absent.

For a variety of reasons, some of the early comments were quite critical. Surprisingly, at comment #10 Pangburn himself shows up making what will soon to become a familiar recommendation/command:

You guys should read my whole article before commenting. PZ generally misrepresents it here.

What is particularly odd about this, and foreshadows future problems, is that nothing in the larger article negates the earlier comments. The first comment is from a familiar figure to those who have ever watched The Atheist Experience, Russell Glasser:

That list absolutely offends me to my core. Not for any ideological reasons, but as a person whose primary work involves organizing and presenting data for a broad audience.
The text “is one of the leaders of this movement.” and “Not a leader of this movement.” each take up about 40 characters to deliver one bit of information. … Why can’t he just post a table with “Y” or “N”? Or why not two separate lists … Tremendous efficiency fail, and a headache to read.

As will surprise no one, reading the original article in full does nothing to address Glasser’s problem with the text. PZ chimes in declaring “the whole thing” to be “a miserably written mess”. Not only is “read the article” no response to PZ who has read the entire article, but “miserably written” is a characterization hardly to be changed by adding more words. The next three comments are tangential to Pangburn’s topic, and reading the full article could do nothing to render them more or less valid. Perhaps Bernard Bumner’s (comment 6) characterization of what Pangburn said as “charmless wishful thinking” and “bitter toadying” might theoretically be challenged by some yet-unread portion of writing on The War of Ideas website, but such opinions rely on inference rather than plain text and, unfortunately for Pangburn I have read the entire article and can vouch that nothing changes the context sufficiently to convince anyone their inferences are invalid.

Raven (comment 7) points out that any moderated comment section will perform largely the same function as Panburn’s emerging website, listing “Reddit, Youtube, Patheos, Freethoughtblogs, Facebook, [and] Twitter” as existing fora that make The War of Ideas unnecessary. As it happens, there is nothing in the original text Pangburn insists we read that addresses differences and similarities between TWoI and any of these sites or services (much less all of them). And how could Pangburn not have known that the essay would fail here?

In comment 8 I point out that the leaders Pangburn has chosen skew toward white men. Spoiler! Nothing in the longer work changes that, either. The last comment before Pangburn’s admonishment is this, by Muz:

Has anyone coined Cargo Cult Reasoning yet? If not I will. And there’s some up there. It reminds me of 19th century notions of “science” in that “I have rigorously applied analysis acording to systematic criteria of my own making. Therefore my conclusions are scientific!” sort of way.

What is particularly incriminating is that posting the “read the original” assertion implies that such things will be addressed. Yet if you do read the original there is nothing at all that spells out a reproducible algorithm, rubric, or methodology that would allow anyone to check the validity of Pangburn’s reasoning. Far from refuting the accusation of “Cargo Cult Reasoning”, the reference to the complete article only confirms Muz. Pangburn is implying that his article does not employ CCR, and yet reading the article reveals nothing to support this. After this admonishment and after reading the article, one comes away with the distinct feeling that Pangburn actually subjectively feels like he did make a rigorous argument. Yet since it is objectively true that no rigor is present, “read the article” ends up communicating nothing more than, “It’s not bad reasoning because I say it’s not bad reasoning and if you think it’s bad reasoning then you obviously haven’t understood it thoroughly enough”.

Very cargo cult. Much Peterson.

It doesn’t get any better from there. Tabby Lavalamp and Pangburn have this exchange:

Lavalamp: Only four white guys are “leaders”. Excuse me while I pretend to lift my jaw off the floor…
Pangburn: Read the whole article Tabby. It was regarding out of those who were listed on the “IDW” website.

Huh? How does reading the whole article address the situation that Lavalamp identified? Are there more leaders listed in the original than in the quotes pulled out by PZ? Nope. Are there more than 4 total leaders identified…well, arguably. Pangburn wishes Dawkins would be a leader but also asserts that Dawkins would reject the “honor”. And in any case, the section with Dawkins was quoted by PZ, so reading the full article would change nothing.

Does Pangburn not know this? Does Pangburn actually believe that there are 48 more leaders listed in the original article’s sections not excerpted here? Of course not. Ultimately, unless this person going by the internet ‘nym Travis Pangburn is not the real Pangburn and does not actually know the contents of that article, this can only be a dishonest attempt at dismissal without refutation. And if the person isn’t the real-life Pangburn then the attempted defense is dishonest in a different way.

Now might be a good time to mention that the one unforgivable sin on Pangburn’s new venue is argument in bad faith. It will be interesting to see how a site which bars people who argue in bad faith will tackle the problem of a founder who gives every appearance of arguing in bad faith.

Things get no better later in the comments. Pangburn plays the “read the whole article” card a total of 4 times, yet it’s clear that a number of commenters (including myself) did read the entire original. And how does he respond to those commenters’ criticisms?

Not. At. All.

He does acknowledge that those criticisms exist:

I’m fine if you guys don’t like the article. I just ask that people be intellectually honest.

Yet there is no engagement with the criticisms themselves. The closest Pangburn gets is in an exchange between Siggy at #26 and Pangburn at #28. Even here, however, the criticism is this:

Siggy: A moderated discussion space open to any topic? That’s nothing special. Most blogs have moderated comment sections, many forums are moderated, even many Facebook communities fit the bill. Your website makes it out like it’s a novel idea, which does not inspire confidence in your experience maintaining moderated internet spaces.

“Open to any claim”? Practically speaking, every discussion space has its scope, …. Saying you are “open to any claim” does not convey to me that you are open to any claim, it conveys a community that doesn’t understand itself.

Pangburn: This will be moderated based on a requirement for good faith discussion. As far as I know, this would be the first platform to do this. Maybe not though. Well I think it’s a novel idea, others may not.
My community is everyone. I have people from extreme right wing to extreme left wing. Good skeptics and crappy thinkers. This movement is for everyone.
Every claim is acceptable on the platform. Regardless of how stupid a moderator might think it is.

Siggy’s assertion here that Pangburn is lacking awareness, both in relation to fora like Reddit where it is possible to make and to argue any claim and where the subreddits are so numerous it is not difficult to find places where they kick people out for commenting in bad faith and in relation to the limitations of Pangburn’s own efforts. You can’t lionize figures like Jordan Peterson and expect that everyone will feel welcome to use your site or even that the community drawn to a site that lionizes Peterson will be open to any claim in fact. Can you imagine how the commenting community of a site lionizing Peterson as a movement leader would react to the claim that Peterson’s fame, intelligence, and rationality are dramatically overblown and that his assertion that art showing snakes fucking means that ancient people knew the structure of DNA is proof that he’s full of crap?

Pangburn’s reaction to Siggy’s claim isn’t to openly explore the limits of Pangburn’s own awareness. It’s not even to show a basic understanding that being nominally open to any claim is not the same as being functionally open to any claim and therefore a large amount of social outreach work must be done in order to achieve the vision of the website. Siggy says that Pangburn is being naive when claiming his website is for everyone and Pangburn replies, “My community is everyone.” This is not so much a refutation of Siggy’s basis for concern as a confirmation of it.

Do things finally get better after this? In a word, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

There are a number of substantive criticisms following this exchange (including some made by me), but Pangburn has nothing to add. The sole Pangburn comment after that point is #41

Who’s a conservative?

after Susan Montgomery’s #40 arguably implied that Pangburn is one. Note, of course, that Pangburn doesn’t attempt to define terms much less bring evidence to bear. A half-formed question is all Pangburn has to offer. And this would be pitiful enough if it didn’t come in the middle of so many longer discussions to which Pangburn could have replied. it took only 21 minutes before Pangburn noticed and replied to Montgomery’s comment. If he had wanted a “war of ideas” he had had more than 4 and a half hours to respond to mine.

And that tells us all we need to know about Pangburn up to this point. He wishes the stolen valor of being thought a warrior without ever standing for the fight. He is a chickenhawk who has through his actions confirmed that the very name of his “War of Ideas” website is a declaration of bad faith.


  1. Dunc says

    I have a pretty useful heuristic that kicked in the instant Pangburn showed up: if somebody implores you to read their article (or worse, watch their video) without giving at least some hint as to how doing so will address whatever the point at issue is, they’re almost certainly not worth bothering with.

    Also, If you’re going to complain of misrepresentation, you need to be a bit more specific than just claiming some sort of generalised misrepresentation. What was misrepresented, and how?

  2. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Ahh, I remember the war of ideas. So many thoughts, cut down in their prime. Sibling vs. sibling, with their trusty muskets of contrarianism, firing wildly across the battlefield of debate. It was the worst of times.

  3. DanDare says

    I read the whole sequence of comments before coming here for your analysis. You are spot on and your thoroughness and clarity are awesome. Thank you.
    And “read the article” is probably just to increase his metrics.

  4. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    As I pointed out, the “Who’s a conservative line?” to me was the moment I stopped taking him seriously. (Not that I had before, but doubly so). Because it shows that Travis is still all-in on the sole trick that modern conservatism has stumbled onto: posing as if you’re apolitical so you can slowly indoctrinate people. Travis being unwilling to admit that he has stances on things like antifa makes him a liar. Travis and his ilk pretending that they are in no sense doing identity politics is obviously self-refuting *even if we grant that they are just against identity politics*. You can’t act like you simultaneously aren’t involved with a thing and then say you oppose the thing. By opposing the idea of identity politics, even if the IDW did nothing else (and they do: they are in fact engaging in cis-gender Anglosphere white rich straight identity politics), they are opposing some gaining within identity politics and opposing others losing ground or not gaining further ground. That’s doing identity politics. But playing dumb serves Travis’ ideological needs.

    Which means that his site will be a clusterfuck, because it has administration (at the highest levels no less!) who can’t recognize their biases and acknowledge that those biases may be a problem.

    Pangburn also showed an incredibly mealy-mouthed lack of critical rigor in favor of meaningless feel-good marketing rhetoric when he said that everyone is part of the IDW as long as they’re in favor of the war on truth, but that’s a different discussion.

  5. says

    [The War of Ideas] has administration… who can’t recognize their biases and acknowledge that those biases may be a problem.

    Yep. This is indeed the worst part of the IDW and all similar self-congratulatory, nominally skeptical folks: the constant denial that they have any viewpoint or political agenda save supporting the promotion of truth and free speech as a mechanism for finding truth.

    It is sadly, and ironically, quite dishonest, though I don’t doubt that many such people are dishonest with themselves and so not consciously dishonest with others. With someone like Pangburn there are so many indications that he’s aware of his own dishonesty, and yet the human mind’s capacity to fool itself it quite extensive, so you never really know. But whether or not the deception is at the conscious level, it’s clear you won’t get any “good faith” argument in any venue Pangburn organizes.

    he said that everyone is part of the IDW as long as they’re in favor of the war on truth

    I laughed at this because I had considered describing his website as The War ON Ideas instead of using Pangburn’s name for it. War on truth works equally well.

    On the hopeful side, however, my opinion of Pangburn’s rhetorical efforts can only improve!

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