Saturday, June 24, 2006

The care and feeding of trolls

First you take a 2 × 4 ...

Like any ecosystem, the blogosphere is inhabited by a wide variety of species, each highly adapted to its own specialized niche. Many of the blogosphere's residents are timid lurkers who scuttle about as quietly as possible. There's a smaller group, however, whose denizens are more visible, leaving their spoor behind them as they track through the blog environs that suit them best. A tiny group sits at the top of the blogosphere ecology, holding sway over vast domains, the über-bloggers who attract the most attention, adulation, criticism, and hits.

One of the tiniest groups of all, however, comprises the creatures commonly known as trolls. While they might spend much of their time lurking, when the impulse strikes them they cannot resist bursting out from the underbrush and raising a cacophonous wail. Some even appear to have the power to maintain their screeching without ever drawing breath. In some cases, the only way to deal with them is to put them quickly out of their misery. However, that runs counter to the prevailing culture in the blogosphere, which is strongly inclined toward maximizing free speech and the untrammeled exchange of ideas. The true troll, however, doesn't have any ideas to exchange and engages in the mere semblance of debate. It can be a wonder to behold.

The troll is not an entirely new phenomenon. He appears to be a lineal descendant of the crank, a genus whose species can be found infesting almost every field of human endeavor. Martin Gardner documented many cases of scientific cranks in his classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, first published in 1952. In his introductory chapter, Gardner looked back at one of his distinguished predecessors, recounting an example whose implications for today are as significant as they were a century ago:
Even on the subject of the shape of the earth, a layman may find himself powerless in a debate with a flat-earther. George Bernard Shaw, in Everybody's Political What's What?, gives an hilarious description of a meeting at which a flat-earth speaker completely silenced all opponents who raised objections from the floor. “Opposition such as no atheist could have provoked assailed him”; writes Shaw, “and having heard their arguments hundreds of times, played skittles with them, lashing the meeting into a spluttering fury as he answered easily what it considered to be unanswerable.”
Today's blog troll has the same thick skin as the crank of old and often retains the crank's skill of leaving his opponents spluttering in frustration. So far as answering questions is concerned, however, the modern troll is less concerned with answering them as evading them. This convenient adaption makes it possible for the troll to forage among the comment threads and leave his imprint even though the teeth of his arguments are very dull indeed.

A fascinating case of a lumberingly impervious troll occurred recently on Pharyngula, the biology and science blog maintained by Professor Paul Z. Myers of the Morris campus of the University of Minnesota. Professor Myers styles himself as “PZ” and almost everyone follows suit in so addressing him. PZ subjected himself to the ordeal of reading the anti-evolution chapters in Godless, the new book by right-wing demagogue Ann Coulter. Coulter's stock in trade is unbridled screeching at the top of her lungs, preferring heat to light. Her act has reaped monetary rewards from the extremist fringe of society (which unfortunately has way too much political power these days), and I suspect it's opportunism rather than sincere belief that motivates her. No matter. Coulter decided to enlist in the evolution wars on the side of the creationists and PZ thought it reasonable to dissect her arguments. None of them survived PZ's deft vivisection.

Enter the trolls

PZ was immediately attacked by droves of Coulterites, at least those able to type out quick messages on their keyboards before their drool short-circuited the electronics. Without exception, the attacks lacked any intellectual heft. They offered abuse rather than reason. PZ responded with a challenge, which he discussed in a follow-up post:
Responses to my challenge at the end of this article are trickling in, but so far, none of them are filling the bill. Let me explain what is not an appropriate reply:
  • Cackling that Coulter must be right because she's got “liberal panties in a twist” is not cogent.
  • Telling me that the “WHOLE BOOK PROVES LIBERALS ARE THE PROBLEM WITH AMERICA” is not cogent.
  • Promising to pray for me, or assuring me that I will burn in hell, is not cogent.
  • Explicit details about how Ann Coulter is sexier than “fat harry hippie jew girls” is not cogent.
Here's the simple summary. Ann Coulter has written this long book full of creationist gobbledygook. I can't possibly take the whole thing apart, so I'm asking the Coulter fans to get specific in their support. Pick a paragraph that you agree with and that you believe makes a strong, supportable point about science—anything from chapters 8-11 will do. Don't be vague, be specific. I'll reply with details of my disagreement (or heck, maybe you'll find some innocuous paragraph that I agree with—I'll mention that here, too.)

Because the letters I am getting suggest that those fans have some comprehension problems, I'll spell it out.
  1. Read Coulter's book, Godless. (uh-oh, I may have just filtered out 90% of her fans with that first word.)
  2. Pick ONE paragraph from chapters 8-11 that you think is just wonderfully insightful, and that you agree with entirely.
  3. Open up your email software, and compose a message to me. You can use a pseudonym, but please do use a valid email address. I won't publish your address, but I'm not going to reply to people I can't contact.
  4. Type in the paragraph that you think is solid and believable. Yeah, it's a tiny bit of work, but it'll save me the trouble of typing it in myself. You're a believer, it's worth it, right?
  5. Explain briefly why you think this paragraph is good stuff. If you want to explain a little bit of the context in justification, that's good too.
  6. Send it to me.
That's not so hard now, is it? I'm finding that Coulter fans are fervent and enthusiastic and insistent, so asking them to take baby steps with me and show me the simplest first fragments that will lead to my comprehension of the wit and insight of the faboo Ms Coulter shouldn't be too much to ask.
PZ's clarification was just what the doctor ordered. The results were practically instantaneous and virtually miraculous (not actually miraculous, because there's no such things as miracles—except possibly for the fact that Coulter still has any credibility left):
Coulter Challenge status, day 4

Official number of attempts to address my challenge of the science in Coulter's book:


I seem to have drawn in one Coulter fan in the comments who can't shut up, but he hasn't got the guts to stand up for anything specific that she has said.
As you can see, PZ was essentially correct when he surmised that the conditions of his challenge were too restrictive. The Coulterites were fulsome in their praise of their harridan heroine, but they hadn't actually read her book or—if they had—deduced any reasons why her arguments might have any actual validity. However, as he noted, one lone, brave Coulter fan had not quit the field. Sure, he hadn't read the book and he couldn't offer any reasons why her point of view had any merit, but he lumbered bravely into battle time and again with PZ's minions. As epics go, the struggle of Tumbler against his goddess's detractors was more like a saga in its stubborn length than it its stirring clash of arms, but it had its amusing moments. Herewith are some excerpts, beginning with insults hurled by some of the Pharyngula commenters, including yours truly:
You gave them a five or six step procedure. Word is they're busy setting up research on how to count beyond three.

Posted by: Arun Gupta | June 20, 2006 08:38 PM

Has everyone seen the footage of Coulter running, arms akimbo, hands flapping in fear, away from that thrown pie? (Not that I advocate throwing things at speakers, mind you.) I guess that's what her defenders are doing now—bravely running away.

Posted by: Kristine | June 20, 2006 09:08 PM
Word is they're busy setting up research on how to count beyond three.
To be fair, you know, the Coulterites are very, very devout. How can they count beyond three when they always try to obey holy scripture?

Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.
Posted by: Zeno | June 20, 2006 09:09 PM

Funny, Zeno. After reading Kristine's comment I was think[ing] “brave Sir Robin.”

Digby also has a post up from a troll who sent a long defense of Coulter.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope | June 20, 2006 09:25 PM

Giving credence to Gupta, Zeno and Kristine is blanket endorsement of the modest university standards they've taken for an education. At least Coulter had no qualms about quoting from Mein Kampf, banshee that she is. That means she reads sometimes. They grow bored when they try to read. C students and party animals who have but one rule. Cheap shot.

Over at Arianna's blog some of the others thought they had Ann's number: calling her a tranny, a man, a beast with an Adam's-apple; you know. Constructive criticism. Nobody had any rebuttal of her outrageous opinions. Just diatribe and vituperation.

Posted by: tumbler | June 20, 2006 10:49 PM
Tumbler's arrival in the thread looked at first as if it might just be a quick exercise in solemn finger-wagging. We were to learn different. While Tumbler has a point about the value of invective when it comes to making an argument, he has entirely missed the key fact that Coulter's diatribe had already been demolished by PZ. We were merely dancing about the funeral pyre. Tumbler, however, was not ready to give any evidence that it was still alive.

Attack of the party animals
Over at Arianna's blog some of the others thought they had Ann's number: calling her a tranny, a man, a beast with an Adam's-apple; you know. Constructive criticism. Nobody had any rebuttal of her outrageous opinions. Just diatribe and vituperation.
Are you seriously expecting that? Constructive criticism in the comments of a blog that already provides enough criticism? I can't help but wonder what your point is. Are you saying that random commenters haven't done much more that comment randomly (surprise! and welcome to the Internet), or are you saying the because goofballs from around the world say goofy things nobody has provided any real criticism of Ann Coulter? (Psst! The comments are preceded by the actual posts. And welcome again to the Internet. You'll find that it's nothing like your strange assumptions. Also that there's lots of porn.)

Posted by: pough | June 21, 2006 02:03 AM

Dear me, I've been outed as a party animal! I have to share this with my tiny group of friends, who will be much amused. Anyway, tumbler is totally wrong: I was a B student! At Caltech. (Yay! Party school!)

Posted by: Zeno | June 21, 2006 02:08 AM


I know you went to Caltech and all, so I feel compelled to clear this up:

"We deliver kegs" on every store within two miles of campus (including stationers and TV repair places): Party School.

30-year-old D&D games continuing under Fleming: not so much.

Posted by: Llelldorin | June 21, 2006 05:27 AM

Welcome to the club, Zeno, for I've been outed as a party animal malapropist with a C average. News to me, and to my transcripts.

BTW, I have read Mein Kampf. All English Lit party animals have to. I will admit that it put me right to sleep.

Posted by: Kristine | June 21, 2006 08:51 AM

Let us get this straight. Just because Ms. Coulter quotes Mein Kampf, that absolutely does not mean she has read it. She is the quote miners quote miner. If a snippet of text, totally out of context or not, will fit her thesis, she will use it.

Posted by: DouglasG | June 21, 2006 09:46 AM

I'm sure I have the greatest respect for Ann Coulter :-) :-) ; but I don't think her supporters can count beyond three.

BTW, Greetings, Zeno, I too was a Caltecher—a graduate student, though.

Posted by: Arun Gupta | June 21, 2006 09:39 PM
Tumbler came back for more. We were perfectly willing to oblige, but the exchange was beginning to pall:
I can't call myself a Coulterite, but I'm liberal enough to put some anti-Coulterites here down.

These are the diversity set; in favor of all diversity except Republicans and Christians. They'll defend my right to say something when they really hate what I say. —Not.

She's a piece of work. No, I haven't yet read Godless: But every Thursday she has her column featured in Drudge, and I love to read that. Makes me happy because she's on my side, at a comical tangent.

Tons more clever than Doonesbury, whose work is certainly insensitive. Was she shocking; about the Jersey Girls, etc., —? ? ? A little. George Clooney made light of another man's Alzheimer's diagnosis (Chuck Heston) and there was no Liberal hissy-fit. He makes more money, and has many admirers. I like George. Cool Ann is entitled to some money and fans for her tactless barrages.

Posted by: tumbler | June 21, 2006 11:28 PM
Greetings, Zeno, I too was a Caltecher—a graduate student, though.
Oh, a Tech grad student! Arun, I humbly make obeisance before my master and render the sign of the Big T. ;-)

Posted by: Zeno | June 21, 2006 11:33 PM
They'll defend my right to say something when they really hate what I say. —Not.
My, my, my; tumbler is wrong again. Card-carrying ACLU member here, buddy. I staunchly defend your right to say any silly-ass thing you wish to say (unless you're keen to offer sectarian prayers at a public school graduation, in which case, screw you). Defending your right to speak whatever you like, however, is not the same thing as agreeing to refrain from pointing out its silly-assness.

P.S.: About that “Not”, buddy. The post-fix negation operator is so over.

Posted by: Zeno | June 21, 2006 11:39 PM

Dear Zeno:

I wasn't accusing the ACLU, of not caring. The defenders of diversity (It makes us strong) is who Um talking about. Have I said a silly-ass thang? I never say much else. But take it for what it's worth.

I defend your right to undress too. Ugh.

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 12:53 AM
As one might have expected by now, Tumbler insisted on missing the point of my remark about my defense of his right to prate nonsense. Oh, he wasn't talking about me, he wasn't talking about the ACLU, he was talking about some other people. Those “diversity” people over there. Not any of the nice people who were whomping on him at Pharygnula.
The present-day Democrat party numbers many demagogic members like Kristine; always purloining somebody else's wisdom (Hoffer) in order to smear you. It's just a wonder she's not laying genocide, in fact, at Cool Ann's doorstep. But it's enough for now to say, “That's Coulter, I agree.” This is called a lock-step to that old party-line.

It's past her to identify the left she upholds now as Lenin's useful idiots of old-timer's Life mag.

Speaking for myself, I admire the Soviet society that lived under a despot, consumed by fear that the children in their own house would denounce them to the NKVD. It actually happened, and so did gulags.

Thanks to Reagan's bold negotiations and John Paul II's spiritual leadership in Poand, better times arrived for them. In fact, religion, which the Comintern thought was cooked forever, is reborn in that society. (Must be caused by the next stage in evolution of the species.) I like to contemplate these events as I do here now. I've been listening to Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony as I surf Kristine's erudition; conducted by, of all musicians, a German born in the late 30's.

Anyway, Coulter and I do not deserve being associated with Hitler's or Mussolini's crimes. We're Americans. And we have the first ammendment to keep us safe from demagogues' futile finger-pointing.

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 11:10 AM

I most certainly did not associate you with Hitler, tumbler, and I would advise you to be very careful how personal that you decide to get in this forum.

Posted by: Kristine | June 22, 2006 11:39 AM

Dear Dylan,

I thank you for sending me a link to the interview by Mr. Paxman. I enjoyed that.

Ironically, my considered opinion is, Yes; he was never aggressive or antagonistic with Ann Coulter.

I even appreciated his Brit pronunciation of Coulter; using my own preferred style. I call her Cool Ann and Paxman says Cool-tair. Obviously to my taste.

But for someone to say he disparaged her, or made her seem a fool; and “she was unprepared—” isn't remotely true. Her replies showed NO qualms, no hesitation and were even startling in their relentless calm.

You say she's hardly known in Britain. But if her book moves, and it will, it'll explain clearly what she's all about. Considering that England is much more a reader's country than ours, where nobody likes anything but bodice-busters—the public will appreciate Coulter. I know I do.

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 11:42 AM

Dear Kristine:

You yourself only agreed with PaulC. He went far along those demagogic lines, or maybe I'm over-reacting. All he says is, “Maybe they would not have gone along with genocide, but it's easy to imagine Coulter in an earlier day gushing over parades of those ‘wholesome’ young people in Italy and Germany.” To which you say, “Yeah. That's Coulter.”

You know it's a weasel's way of defaming Coulter and her “ilk”—as others around here say—as Neo-Nazis. Her American style, popular enough today everywhere, is made to seem outrageous and fascist. Only Coulter isn't at war with liberalism as much as she's satirizing it. People like Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock and a few others do it every day. They do it to Republicans, religious Americans, and talk show hosts. These are your gang; folks Ann calls Godless. And many are. Not all, but VERY many.

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 12:00 PM

“Being associated” is such a vague term that I'm not sure anyone can escape it. The GOP's favorite comic Dennis Miller never lost an opportunity a few years back to associate people like me with Neville Chamberlain's appeasement and indirectly Hitler's invasion of Poland. I mention him rather than Coulter only because I don't have any handy citations from her comparing Iraq war opponents to Chamberlain, whereas it was a well known part of Miller's schtick.

Speaking of what the first amendment actually does as opposed to what you think it does, its effect is to keep Miller safe from any repercussions to making this kind of “association” whether I deserve it or not. And that's a good thing. I'm not sure what part of the constitution you think keeps us safe from demagogues; the Bill of Rights allows demagoguery because suppressing it would hurt other forms of political speech. The first amendment is not a scapular that one wears to ward off those pesky demagogues, but a very brave declaration that rights will be upheld even when they cause us inconvenience.

Obviously, neither you nor Coulter is responsible for the rise of Hitler. For that matter, I think very few people that have ever lived (including Ann Coulter) would be able to countenance Hitler's crimes with full understanding. It is, however, a matter of historical record that a lot of people rationalized the worst bits away at the time and admired the parades, the industry, and up to a point the anti-semitism. Before the US joined WWII, there were all too many Americans among them. So declaring oneself an "American" is no protection from being associated with Hitler. The fact that Coulter, myself, and probably you were not alive at the time is sufficient protection.

Note: there were many foolish people on the left who admired Stalin and were willing to soft-pedal the atrocity that was China's cultural revolution under Mao. Again, I wasn't alive and don't “deserve” to be associated with them. Oddly, that doesn't seem to stop Coulter from somehow linking everything she does not like to “Darwinism” in her latest opus.

Posted by: PaulC | June 22, 2006 12:06 PM

Very good rationalzations, Paul;

OK— you're clearly a man whom I could trust. If you conceded such a trait to me, you'd be half-way to understanding Ann Coulter. The fact you don't understand her, and have cast her in the meanest possible mold, leads me to think you find evil traits sticking out all over us conservatives.

I find conversing here with you, above-average intelligent as you seem, very stimulating. You're entitled to your prejudices. Ann Coulter is also entitled. I am almost 70 years old now, and have a great depth of experience to share; as well as an above average way of understanding. And it's mainly because I recall as a 7 yr-old, the pressures upon our country which WWII exerted. I remember Pearl Harbor; and my mother sending a box of fudge to my uncle in the Solomon Islands, etc., —and so— I'm amused at Coulter stating balls-out, “Invade their countries, kill and conquer and convert them to Christianity ...” She speaks like a brat without fear. It's funny!

Just like referring to W as “chimp” and “shrub” is meant humorously. It also descends into stupidity as we hear many Dems and Libs saying vile things about Barbara Bush, or making it appear we went to Iraq only for OIL. It hasn't even an appearance of good humor to say the things they all say at Huffingtinpost Blog. Every fourth word filthy and filled with loathing. (And, yes. They're protected by the 1st ammendment. But they AREN'T amusing, as Ann Coulter is amusing. They're dirty.)

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 12:55 PM

All good things must come to an end—bad things, too

Although Tumbler had poured many, many words into the comment thread (I haven't even included all of them here in these excerpts!), people at PZ's blog are mostly smart enough to notice when we're getting lots of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
It seems to me this thread has strayed very far from PZ's original intent; he wants a Coulter fan (that eliminates me) to offer up a passage from chapters 8-11, and then show why he/she supports said passage.

Here's your opportunity, tumbler. I humbly suggest that you have your chance, right here and now, to show us.

I cannot do so, because in spite of reading 10 or so books a year, I refuse to buy a Coulter book.

Let's right this ship and allow tumbler to defend Coulter in the manner PZ described. That's what this thread is all about, right?

Posted by: MikeM | June 22, 2006 06:45 PM

Quite right. Money, mouth, etc.

Posted by: Righteous Bubba | June 22, 2006 06:54 PM

Good point. I thought it was a fairly straightforward request, yet Tumbler babbles on and never makes the effort to address it.

Posted by: PZ Myers | June 22, 2006 07:18 PM

Holy cow; I haven't bought a single one of Cool Ann's books. I only read her out of a weekly column on Thursdays.

Why do I have the sneaky feeling this is a big BREAK for youse guys? For P.Z., apparently a person of integrity and good instincts; who had expected nobody on earth could save Cool Ann from his dissecting skills. Just bring it on! Now that I—Moi, cannot deliver her creepy character up for him to carve up, —off the page, as it were— Coulter can't be touched. Unless another reader can supply PZ with the material. I hope so; in order for me to play referee while she's tag-teamed in this Pharyngular match.

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 07:31 PM

Tumbler, you are incoherent; you are deranged; you are making random noises.

If you haven't read Coulter's book, shut up. Trying to defend her when you haven't read it is just obnoxious.

Just for you, though, you could try citing something from those articles by her that you read for free. Extract some of her ‘science’ and defend it—but keep up this vapid twittering about nothing and yeah, I'll ban your butt.

Posted by: PZ Myers | June 22, 2006 07:48 PM
Bloodied, but unbowed, Tumbler continued to talk past everyone who tried to discuss things with him. The topic of Coulter's arguments against evolution were continually evaded. He was a most attractive nuisance to many of the commenters on the blog, people who wanted to engage in a debate and kept trying even after Tumbler's numerous demonstrations that he had no intention of ever addressing the substance of the issue before the assembled multitudes. He jumped to another thread, where he finally copped the “more in sorrow than anger” attitude, and shuffled out the door. For the dwindling number still reading, it was a kind of conclusion, but you still felt that someone who could string words together should also be able to engage in an argument. As one commenter noted, however, it was like the Monty Python sketch. We were saying, “I came here for an argument!”, whereupon Graham Chapman politely informs that we're talking to the wrong man: “Oh, I'm sorry. This is abuse!”
Please, PZ, I haven't shut up thus far—because in these grounds no one except me has the ability or impetus to keep you honest. Everybody's your liberal crony. You'd crow with wild abandon were it not for a single voice HERE, opposite this narcissism you consider above repoach [sic]. As for guts; I've given Pharyngula enough hell for one man; and you & your cohorts never seem to bring me to heel; you only retort with animosity. While I, because I realize this is private property, take care not to be too feisty or abrasive. You'd just silence me the same as Arianna has; knowing perfectly well there's no reasonable way to rebut me. You'd axe my entry into this blog like cowards. Can't face honest competition. And I'm not even pretending to be a doctor or professor. Strange how you've had to recoil at the straightforward posts of one self-educated Christian & conservative. You were supposed to bang me up with flair, and you whimper because I don't “shut up.” OK, if I haven't read the book we're quarreling about—it's not on account of you. You haven't intimidated me. But why are you claiming to be unchallenged? Do you think this blog had national importance enough to draw fire from all 52 [sic] states? Don't flatter yourself. Take what you're offered.

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 11:58 PM
Gee, what exactly did Tumbler think he was offering? A lively but brief discussion ensued concerning the possible identity of the two extra mystery states cited by Tumbler. He stuck around for a while longer, persistently offering his credentials and quoting some Italian phrases to demonstrate his expertise in opera. He didn't exactly clear the room (hey, I like opera!), but it was more of the same—always off-point and always impervious.

Tumbler really needs to find a nice bridge to live under. Venturing into the light certainly did not suit him.

Update: Good old Tumbler found himself a second wind. I declare it takes him longer to say goodbye than Cher's farewell tour. At last count, the Coulter Challenge status, day 4 post has 180 comments, with Tumbler still in excellent form for dodge-ball. “Bang! You're dead!” “No, you missed me!” “No, I didn't!” “Yes, you did!” The rest writes itself.


Anonymous said...

It is hard to read his posts and not feel a little sorry for the guy. (Yeah, I am liberal!) I mean, does he need attention that badly? Is he really that out there? (That's a liberal's term for raving looney.)

Hmm... perhaps that is why he gravitates to these BLOGS. Perhaps his more natural haughts just tell him to get lost!

Zeno said...

You're right, Anonymous. As exasperating as he is, Tumbler arouses feelings of pity. What is wrong with him, anyway? He tries to project a kind of magisterial dignity, but then keeps wincing when his maunderings are mocked. As well they should be, because his responses are always off-point and peculiar. But it's probably too late for him to learn to play nicely with others.