"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


How do I get my Petting Zoo colleagues to stop referring to my former employer, Think Tank, as a "corporate funded front group"? There are lots of things you could say about Think Tank (that is, Old Think Tank, as opposed to what became known as New Think Tank just before I came to the PZ). I've said more than a few on this blog. But, goddammit, their Fuck the Polar Bears campaign is not funded by corporations. It is funded by a (very small group of) very rich and very delusional lunatic individual(s). And, no, it's not the Koch brothers, as much as you would like to believe it and my former colleagues at Think Tank wish it were true.

There is now a war of words between Think Tank and the Petting Zoo. It's beyond absurd, and, sad to say, the Petting Zoo started it -- not as an attack but with some wording used in a fundraising attempt that, presumably, they didn't expect Think Tank ever to discover.

I am embarrassed for them. Also, strategically, from the point of view of Expanding Habitats, the new program I'm working in, we're supposed to be getting past this rhetoric of blame.

Yeah. Good luck with THAT when so many people here can't get past their belief that eveybody who works at Think Tank is "evil" and "a dick."

I'm sorry, but just because somebody has an opinion you think is "evil," even if they are blatantly wrong in that opinion, it doesn't make them evil as a person. We call it an ad hominem attack in rhetoric because you're attacking the person and not the argument. Same thing with "dick." When somebody says something dick-ish, it doesn't make them a "dick" as a person. The Petting Zoo likes to hold itself up as representing the moral (as well as factual) high ground, but you know what? Nobody at Old Think Tank ever called the people who disagreed with them -- or was ideologically distant -- "evil" or "a dick."

Can't we have smart AND civil discourse?

What I really want to do is send an email to the president of Old Think Tank and the president of the Petting Zoo introducing them to each other. I'd tell them I like(d) working for both of them and that I think this quarrelling is silly. They should recognize that they're never going to agree on some things and stop the proven-to-backfire attempts at attacking each other's funders. Then I'd invite them out for a drink.

Of course, I will never actually write this email because I'm sure my words would be used against me in one way or another ...



  1. I'm sorry, but just because somebody has an opinion you think is "evil," even if they are blatantly wrong in that opinion, it doesn't make them evil as a person. We call it an ad hominem attack in rhetoric because you're attacking the person and not the argument.

    Asserting that someone is a dick because they hold a dickish opinion has nothing to do with the logical fallacy of ad hominem, and the ad hominem fallacy has nothing to do with "attacking the person and not the argument". The ad hominem fallacy applies to an assertion that an argument is wrong by virtue of some personal characteristic of the individual making the argument.

    "You are totally full of shitte and you are a total fucken dicke": not ad hominem.

    "You are totally full of shitte because you are a total fucken dicke": ad hominem.

    "You are a total fucken dicke because you are totally full of shitte": not ad hominem.

  2. Clearly I didn't clarify. The context is slightly more complicated. A personal characteristic can be a worldview. Holding that worldview, according to some, makes you a total fucken dicke. Everything you say is totally fulle of shitte because you are total fucken dicke.

    Problems arise when the person who is totally fulle of shitte because he is a total fucken dicke for holding a totally fucken dick-ish worldview says something factually true that no one believes because they are too preoccupied telling themselves and the rest of the world what a total fucken dicke he izzzz.

  3. Ahh. Well, I think people reasonably employ heuristics by virtue of which they discount independent factual assertions by someone who has demonstrated the propensity to assert other facts that are both false and totally fucken dickish.

    Yes, this may lead at times to the ad hominem fallacy, but there is only so much time in the day. It is quite reasonable to weigh the costs and benefits of employing this heuristic and come out on the side of paying attention only to people who don't have a history of asserting false and dickish facts even at the risk of a false negative (i.e., incorrectly ignoring a true fact).

    If I don't consider someone a reliable source of factual information on the basis of my prior experience with their accuracy, then I very appropriately discount the likelihod that a future factual assertion of theirs is accurate, independently of the content of that future assertion. This is referred to in the Bayesian understanding as taking account of the prior probability. It is as much a probablistic fallacy to fail to take account of the prior probability as the ad hominem is a logical fallacy.

    But yeah, concluding, "Well, this one single time this individual asserted a false and dickish fact, and therefore the prior probability that any new fact she asserts is true is zero", is potentially not a good application of Bayesian probability. Although this would depend on the nature of the false and dickish fact.

    For example, if someone has earnestly asserted in the past that the universe was created by a supernatural being in a physically real one-week process that occurred 6000 actual years ago, I set the prior probability that any future fact they assert will be accurate extremely close to zero. And when the prior probability is close to zero, there is extremely little incentive to attempt to discern the independent probability of the asserted fact being true. It is much more efficient to seek out individuals for whom the prior probability is at some reasonable distance from zero, and then pay attention to them.

  4. Yeah, there's some of that prior probability stuff in play, which makes total sense in a lot of situations, but this particular situation is a little different. The whole Fuck the Polar Bear Campaign is based on false and dickish "facts." So, on the one hand, it's perfectly reasonable to assume a low probablility that the fucken dickes promoting it will say anything true about anything else. However, on the other hand, if your mode of attacking the Fuck the Polar Bears Campaign is to assert repeatedly and publicly that everyone has a right to their own opinions but not their own facts and then you yourself ignore facts stated by the Fuck the Polar Bear dickes because they contradict your opinions about what is motivating the Fuck the Polar Bear Campaign ... well, it's counterproductive.

  5. Ahhhhhhhhhh could it be that one group is just jealous than the other since they sound as if they have an unlimited source of cash? ...and this other group would like to have this source of cash? I ask since I often wonder how much of the basis of these sorts of discussions/arguments is really based on the simple thing as access to cash/sources of funding.

  6. No, the Petting Zoo and Old Think Tank have completely different sets of supporters. Supporters of one organization would not support the other. Ideological differences.