Combating Rationality with Irrationality
As a skeptic/atheist, I spend a fair amount of time reading popular blogs by individuals who think like I do. It makes sense, right? We all seek our tribe.
I do try to read stuff written by people with whom I disagree as well but that sort of thing tends to piss me off (I can only read so many creationist screeds) so I confess I don’t do nearly as much of that.
So in the last week, there has been a dust-up at FreethoughtBlogs (FtB) over the issue of harassment policy at skeptical conferences.
I’m not going to go over the whole thing because what I find extremely concerning is how one of the “rational” individuals in the argument uses some extremely poor data gathering to support his position. I do have to summarize, though.
Recently, they have added a few new bloggers over at FtB, one of whom is a guy who does a lot of skeptic YouTube videos. He goes by the handle Thunderf00t.
His first major blog post was about the current dialogue surrounding misogyny and a desire for harassment policies at Skeptic conventions. He thinks folks are pushing things a bit too far.
OK so far. Fair. He is disagreeing with a lot of other folks at FtB, which is a good thing because the site shouldn’t be a bunch of sycophants simply nodding in agreement with each other. Healthy debate is a good thing.
I would go further and argue that he did it on purpose. I don’t know this for sure but I do know that there are (currently) 40 bloggers on FtB and they are adding more. If you are new to the network, why not post something that will get some attention?
Anyway, he makes his post and some other bloggers on the network get a bit upset. I don’t think this should have surprised him given that he knew he was arguing a position contrary to the view of several other prominent bloggers on the site.
PZ Myers, in particular, issued a rather lengthy and yes, somewhat condescending response. I’ve been reading PZ for a while. Condescension is one of his favorite tools and it shouldn’t surprise someone when he pulls it out.
So after some back and forth (in which Thunderf00t is just as condescending as PZ), Thunderf00t does what he does best, he creates a video about the altercation and asks folks who follow him on YouTube to vote: who is more correct, him or PZ. Then he posts a blog about the results.
I read all of the above with a sort of detached interest. I disagree with Tunderf00t on the issue of harassment at conferences in that I think there should be policies in place to protect everyone and to ensure that the people in charge know what to do when a harassment situation arises.
But then, I’ve organized conferences and I know what kinds of problems can arise when a clear policy is not in place.
I also think that Thunderf00t is looking to rock the boat a little bit and hey, he has the right to speak his mind. Other members of the same community have an equal right to tell him they think he’s wrong.
So one of his most recent posts, he accuses the FtB community of groupthink (because four or five of the 40 bloggers chose to say they thought he was wrong) and goes on to engage in the most flimsy research possible in order to achieve the results he wants.
That annoys me because the guy is a scientist and he should know better.
Let’s look at what his methodology is:
1) Post a video where he reads his blog post and parts of PZ’s response on his YouTube Channel
2) Ask the people who watch the video to rank their opinion of his POV vs. PZ’s POV on a scale of 0 – 10 with 0 being “I totally agree with PZ” and 10 being “I totally agree with Thunderf00t”
3) He looks at the first 500 comments, extracts the 174 votes and creates a graph of the results.
OK, so does anyone besides me see anything wrong with his approach?
Well, let’s start with the video. He reads his post in a very calm, measured voice. He sounds quie friendly, quite rational. He has a very nice accent (sounds British). Just about anything read in that tone of voice would sound rational.
He then reads excerpts of PZ’s response in a very condescending, nasty tone. Still his own voice but you can hear the disdain for the opposing argument. The images he chooses for PZ are meant to show him to be an unworthy opponent – one deserving only disdain. Especially when you contrast those with the images Thunderf00t pairs with his argument.
He suggests that his video is going to try to be fair but he shows that it is anything but fair. If he wanted people to fairly judge his point of view, he’d give equal time to PZ. Let PZ read his own post and provide his own images in support.
The presentation style Thunderf00t chose cannot possibly hope to be objective. And it isn’t. I find it hard to believe objectivity was his goal.
Then we can look at his data gathering technique.
He asked thousands of people who already watch his videos and like them to tell him who was more rational – him or some other guy these folks didn’t really know. Not only that, he asked YouTube Commenters to decide who was more rational.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to Thunderfoot but YouTube commentors are not exactly the cream of the crop when it comes to rationality.
Look at how many 10’s there are compared to anything else. Almost nobody considers there might be a nuanced middle ground. They all vote for Thunderf00t at a 9 or 10.
He also only took the first 500 comments. That means the folks who agree with PZ probably hadn’t had time to find the video yet because his YouTube followers got there first because they were already following him. He didn’t get anyone who follwed PZ until after he posted the video to FtB with his results already in place.
And finally, he uses a biased scale. By putting himself at 10 and PZ at 0, he has already implied that PZ’s point of view is wrong. To the average voter, a higher number is the equivalent of better.
His graph, therefore, is filled with so many different kinds of biases as to make it completely useless. Yet he believes he can use it to defend his position.
So his scientific method was to create a video that clearly shows his own bias and ask a bunch of biased people for their unbiased opinion. The result?
Did he think anything different would happen? Of course he didn’t! He rigged the contest and then has the nerve to suggest that it proves his point.
It doesn’t prove anything. It is analogous to a Christian walking into a mega church and asking everyone who believes that Jesus died for our sins to raise their hand. He posed a question to a friendly house and got exactly the answer he wanted.
His observation that more folks over at FtB are on PZ’s side makes sense because PZ has the biggest readership on the site (at least I assume so – his is the flagship Blog). That means that the majority of the people reading FtB are going to agree with him.
If PZ tried to engage in the same polling procedure on FtB, he would win.
And he would have proved nothing. The same way Thunderf00t proved nothing.
As I said before, Thunderf00t is a scientist. He should know better.
I’m not a scientist but I sure do like science a lot. I don’t like it when someone claims to be a scientist and fails to use good methodology.
He is using YouTube to suggest that the folks on FtB (who disagree with him) are out of touch. His methods show he is at least as out of touch as they are.
The result? I can’t take him seriously and, in my opinion, nobody else should either.