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Don't Feed the Trolls?

by Richard Gant

February 17, 2017

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Donate Why did that poster deserve a cogent reply?

Here's the context: I'd written about "birth certificate bonds," and someone had come along to attempt a rebuttal that essentially started with "wake up, sheeple" and ended with "you are all fools." It's classic trolling behavior, really. Brian Dunning responded to him first, and I weighed in as well. Shortly thereafter, Fred asked the above question and I've been thinking about it ever since. Why did that poster deserve a cogent reply?

It was obvious that the poster here wasn't asking genuine questions, or hoping for answers, or even engaging in a genuine discussion. But I answered him anyway, and in retrospect, Fred's question is a good one. Why did I respond? Was it out of sheer bloody-minded belligerence, or did I have some other motive? And, to be honest, the answer is "yes." I am bloody-mindedly belligerent (online, at least), but I did have another reason. But to understand it, we'll need to talk about a couple of dishonest debate strategies.

Gish Galloping and JAQing Off

You have probably heard of the "Gish Gallop" before, even if you don't know it by name. It is, in short, a strategy based on W. C. Fields.

The person who makes use of this strategy is attempting to spew out "a flood of individually-weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort." The idea, obviously, is to sow confusion and to make the user appear to be smarter and more knowledgeable than he (or she) might actually be.

A related strategy is "Just Asking Questions" (which I've heard described in hilarious fashion as "JAQing off"). It follows a similar pattern to the Gish Gallop, but it doesn't even present an argument. It just tosses out question after question after question, hoping to sow confusion and cause doubt without ever actually expecting an answer, and it looks something like this: "If Richard Gant isn't Batman, why hasn't he ever been seen with Batman? Why does he own a Batman shirt? Where was he the night Batman beat up the Joker? Where was he when the Riddler kidnapped Stephen Fry? Isn't it awfully convenient that he just happened to state he lived in a different city, the same day that Batman defused the Penguin's atomic bomb?"

Yes, that was clearly a ridiculous example. But, on the face "just asking questions" is intended to be ridiculous. The whole point is to put your opponent off guard, and (more importantly) plant an idea in the listener. The brain, after all, remembers misleading statements as easily as it remembers accurate ones, and correcting that incorrect information is extremely difficult. So the JAQer wins a double victory.

The sad thing is, both of these strategies are terribly effective, particularly in a spoken debate. The JAqer or Galloper can spew out a vast quantity of "alternative facts" in an extremely short time, making it impossible to counter all of them. The end result is that the defender appears to lose.

So why did you respond?

I'm bloody-minded and belligerent, and somebody was wrong on the Internet.

Alright. Seriously now.

Seriously now, the question that started this whole thing was "Why did that poster deserve a cogent reply?" He'd been JAQing off, after all, and clearly wasn't interested in receiving an actual answer. But I'd written one anyway. Why did I bother?

Other people read these articles. Most of those people, I assume, are interested in the topic of the article—either because they've heard of it before and are looking for information, or because they've never heard of it at all and are curious. I bothered because of those people, the ones who really do want answers. So I provided those answers, as a sort of follow-up to the original article.

Perhaps more importantly, though, I bothered with a response because it made me learn something more. Gish Galloping is easy, because it just requires a superficial approximation of knowledge. JAQing off is easier still, because you don't have to know anything. You just have to spew ignorance. Addressing those tactics is difficult, because you have to learn something and then apply that knowledge. I didn't know the answers to some of the questions, so it pushed me to do some research. Then I got lost reading articles about (in this case) the Federal Reserve, and learned a lot of cool new things that I either had forgotten or never known. Sometimes, learning is its own reward.

Finally, I bothered because I'm a skeptic. This requires me, when I'm being intellectually honest, to try to learn the facts about something. I happened to know he was wrong, because I had some expertise in the subject. But there might still have been some validity to some of the claims he made. It turned out there wasn't, but I wouldn't have known that for sure without doing the research.

Go ahead, feed the trolls. Facts are poisonous to them.

by Richard Gant

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