Why renaming Git’s master branch is a terrible idea

Back in May (in the inauspicious year of 2020) a thread in the Git mailing list with the tile of “rename offensive terminology (master)” was started, it lasted for more than a month, and after hundreds of replies, no clear ground was gained. The project took the path of least resistance (as you do), and the final patch to do the actual rename was sent today (November).

First things first. I’ve been a user of Git since 2005 (before 1.0), and a contributor since 2009, but I stopped being active, and only recently started to follow the mailing list again, which is why I missed the big discussion, but just today read the whole enchilada, and now I’m up-to-date.

The discussion revolved around five subjects:

  1. Adding a new configuration (init.defaultbranch)
  2. Should the name of the master branch be changed?
  3. Best alternative name for the master branch
  4. Culture war
  5. The impact to users

I already sent my objection, and my rationale as to why I think the most important point–the impact to users–was not discussed enough, and in fact barely touched.

In my opinion the whole discussion was a mess of smoke screen after smoke screen and it never touched the only really important point: users. I’m going to tackle each subject separately, leaving the most important one at the end, but first I would like to address the actual context and some of the most obvious fallacies people left at the table.

The context

It’s not a coincidence that nobody found the term problematic for 15 years, and suddenly in the height of wokeness–2020 (the year of George Floyd, BLM/ANTIFA uprising, and so on)–it magically becomes an issue. This is a solution looking for a problem, not an actual problem, and it appeared precisely at the same time the Masters Tournament received attention for its name. The Masters being more renowned than Git certainly got more attention from the press, and plenty of articles have been written explaining why it makes no sense to link the word “masters” to slavery in 2020 in this context (even though the tournament’s history does have some uncomfortable relationship with racism) (No, the masters does not need renaming, Masters Name Offensive? Who Says That?, Will Masters Be Renamed Due to BLM Movement? Odds Favor “No” at -2500, Calls for The Masters to change its name over ‘slave’ connotations at Augusta). Few are betting on The Masters actually changing its name.

For more woke debates, take a look at the 2 + 2 = 5 debate (also in 2020).

The obvious fallacies

The most obvious fallacy is “others are doing it”. Does it have to be said? Just because all your friends are jumping off a cliff doesn’t mean you should too. Yes, other projects are doing it, that doesn’t mean they don’t have bad reasons for it. This is the bandwagon fallacy (argumentum ad populum).

Even if it was desirable for the git.git project to change the name of the master branch for itself–just like the Python project did, it’s an entirely different thing to change the name of the master branch for everyone. The bandwagon argument doesn’t even apply.

The second fallacy comes straight out of the title “offensive terminology”. This is a rhetorical technique called loaded language; “what kind of person has to deny beating his wife?”, or “why do you object to the USA bringing democracy to Iraq?”. Before the debate even begins you have already poisoned the well (another fallacy), and now it’s an uphill battle for your opponents (if they don’t notice what you are doing). It’s trying to smuggle a premise in the argument without anyone noticing.

Most people in the thread started arguing why it’s not offensive, while the onus was on the other side to prove that it was offensive. They had the burden of proof, and they inconspicuously shifted it.

If somebody starts a debate accusing you of racism, you already lost, especially if you try to defend yourself.

Sorry progressives, the word “master” is not “offensive terminology”. That’s what you have to prove. “What kind of project defends offensive terminology?” Is not an argument.

Adding a new configuration

This one is easy. There was no valid reason not to add a new configuration. In fact, people already had configurations that changed the default branch. Choice is good, this configuration was about making it easier to do what people were already doing.

The curious thing is that the only places in the thread where the configuration was brought up was as a diversion tactic called motte and bailey.

What they started with was a change of the default branch, a proposition that was hard to defend (bailey), and when opponents put enough pressure they retreated to the most defensible one (motte): “why are you against a configuration?”

No, nobody was against adding a new configuration, what people were against was changing the default configuration.

Should the name of the master branch be changed?

This was the crux of the matter, so it makes sense that this is where most of the time debating was spent. Except it wasn’t.

People immediately jumped to the next point, which is what is a good name for the default branch, but first it should be determined that changing the default is something desirable, which was never established.

You don’t just start discussing with your partner what color of apartment to choose. First, your girlfriend (or whatever) has to agree to live together!

Virtually any decision has to be weighted in with pros and cons, and they never considered the cons, nor established any real pro.

Pro

If the word “master” is indeed offensive, then it would be something positive to change it. But this was never established to be the case, it was just assumed so. Some arguments were indeed presented, but they were never truly discussed.

The argument was that in the past (when slavery was a thing), masters were a bad thing, because they owned slaves, and the word still has that bad connotation.

That’s it. This is barely an argument.

Not only is very tenuously relevant in the present moment, but it’s not actually necessarily true. Slavery was an institution, and masters simply played a role, they were not inherently good or bad. Just because George Washington was a slave owner, that doesn’t mean he was a monster, nor does it mean the word “master” had any negative connotation back then. It is an assumption we are making in the present, which, even if true: it’s still an assumption.

This is called presentism. It’s really hard to us to imagine the past because we didn’t live it. When we judge it we usually judge it wrong because we have a modern bias. How good or bad masters were really viewed by their subjects is a matter for debate, but not in a software project.

Note: A lot of people misunderstood this point. To make it crystal clear: slavery was bad. The meaning of the word “master” back then is a different issue.

Supposing that “master” was really a bad word in times of slavery (something that hasn’t been established), with no other meaning (which we know it isn’t true) this has no bearing in the modern world.

Prescriptivism

A misunderstanding many people have of language is the difference between prescriptive and descriptive language. In prescriptivism words are dictated (how they ought to be used). In descriptivism words are simply described (how they are actually used). Dictionaries can be found on both camps, but they are mainly on the descriptive side (especially the good ones).

This misunderstanding is the reason why many people think (wrongly) that the word “literally” should not mean “virtually” (even though many people use it this way today). This is prescriptiveness, and it doesn’t work. Words change meaning. For example, the word “cute” meant “sharp” in the past, but it slowly changed meaning, much to the dismay of prescriptivists. It does not matter how much prescriptivists kick and scream; the masses are the ones that dictate the meaning of words.

So it does not matter what you–or anyone–thinks, today the word “literally” means “virtually”. Good dictionaries simply describe the current use, they don’t fight it (i.e. prescribe against it).

You can choose how you use words (if you think literally should not mean virtually, you are free to not use it that way). But you cannot choose how others use language (others decide how they use it). In other words, you cannot prescribe language, it doesn’t matter how hard you try: you can’t fight everyone.

Language evolves on its own, and like democracy: it’s dictated by the masses.

So, what do the masses say about the word “master”? According to my favorite dictionary (Merriam-Webster):

  1. A male teacher
  2. A person holding an academic degree higher than a bachelor’s but
    lower than a doctor’s
  3. The degree itself (of above)
  4. A revered religious leader
  5. A worker or artisan qualified to teach apprentices
  6. An artist, performer, or player of consummate skill
  7. A great figure of the past whose work serves as a model or ideal
  8. One having authority over another
  9. One that conquers or masters
  10. One having control
  11. An owner especially of a slave or animal
  12. The employer especially of a servant
  13. A presiding officer in an institution or society
  14. Any of several officers of court appointed to assist a judge
  15. A master mechanism or device
  16. An original from which copies can be made

These are not even all the meanings, just the noun meanings I found relevant to today, and the world in general.

Yes, there is one meaning which has a negative connotation, but so does the word “shit”, and being Mexican, I don’t get offended when somebody says “Mexico is the shit”.

So no, there’s nothing inherently bad about the word “master” in the present. Like all words: it depends on the context.

By following this rationale the word “get” can be offensive too, one of the definitions is “to leave immediately”. If you shout “get!” to a subordinate, that might be considered offensive (and with good reason)–especially if this person is a discriminated minority. Does that mean we should ban the word “get” completely? No, that would be absurd.

Also, there’s another close word that can be considered offensive: git.

Prescriptives would not care how the word is actually used today, all they care about is to dictate how the word should be used (in their opinion).

But as we saw above: that’s not how language works.

People will decide how they want to use the word “master”. And thanks to the new configuration “init.defaultbranch”, they can decide how not to use that word.

If and when the masses of Git users decide (democratically) to shift away from the word “master”, that’s when the Git project should consider changing the default, not before, and certainly not in a prescriptive way.

Moreover, today the term is used in a variety of contexts that are unlikely to change any time soon (regardless of how much prescriptivists complain):

  1. An important room (master bedroom)
  2. An important key (master key)
  3. Recording (master record)
  4. An expert in a skill (a chess master)
  5. The process of becoming an expert (mastering German)
  6. An academic degree (Master of Economics)
  7. A largely useless thing (Master of Business Administration [MBA])
  8. Golf tournaments (Masters Tournament [The Masters])
  9. Famous classes by famous experts (MasterClass Online Classes)
  10. Online tournament (Intel Extreme Masters [IEM])
  11. US Navy rank (Master-at-Arms [MA])
  12. Senior member of a university (Master of Trinity College)
  13. Official host of a ceremony (master of ceremonies [MC])
  14. Popular characters (Jedi Master Yoda)
  15. A title in a popular game (Dungeon Master)
  16. An important order (Grand Master)
  17. Vague term (Zen master)
  18. Stephen Hawking (Master of the Universe)
  19. Inside joke (master of your domain)

And many, many more.

All these are current uses of the word, not to mention the popular BDSM context, where having a master is not a bad thing at all.

Subjectiveness

Even if we suppose that the word is “bad” (which is not), changing it does not solve the problem, it merely shuffles it around. This notion is called language creep (also concept creep). First there’s the n-word (which I don’t feel comfortable repeating, for obvious reasons), then there was another variation (which ends in ‘o’, I can’t repeat either), then there was plain “black”, but even that was offensive, so they invented the bullshit term African-American (even for people that are neither African, nor American, like British blacks). It never ends.

This is very well exemplified in the show Orange Is The New Black where a guard corrects another guard for using the term “bitches”, since that term is derogatory towards women. The politically correct term now is “poochies”, he argues, and then proceeds to say: “these fucking poochies”.

Words are neither good or bad, is how you use them that make them so.

You can say “I love you bitches” in a positive way, and “these fucking women make me vomit” in a completely derogatory way.

George Carlin became famous in 1972 for simply stating seven words he was forbidden from using, and he did so in a completely positive way.

So no, even if the word “master” was “bad”, that doesn’t mean it was always bad.

But supposing it’s always bad, who are the victims of this language crime? Presumably it’s black people, possibly descended from slaves, who actually had masters. Do all black people find this word offensive? No.

I’m Mexican, do I get offended when somebody uses the word “beaner”? No. Being offended is a choice. Just like nobody can make you angry, it’s you the one that gets angry, nobody inflicts offense on other people, it’s the choice of the recipients. There’s people with all the reason in the world, who don’t get offended, and people that have no reason, and yet they get easily offended. It’s all subjective.

Steve Hughes has a great bit explaining why nothing happens when you get offended. So what? Be offended; nothing happens. Being offended is part of living in a society. Every time you go out the door you risk being offended, and if you can’t deal with that, then don’t interact with other people. It’s that simple.

Collective Munchausen by proxy

But fine, let’s say for the sake of argument that “master” is a bad word, even on modern times, in any context, and the people that get offended by it have all the justification in the world (none of which is true). How many of these concerned offended users participated in the discussion?

Zero.

That’s right. Not one single person of African descent (or whatever term you want to use) complained.

What we got instead were complainers by proxy: people who get offended on behalf of other (possibly non-existent) people.

Gad Saad coined a term Collective Munchausen by proxy that explains the irrationality of modern times. He borrows from the established disorder called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.

So you see, Munchausen is when you feign illness to gain attention. Munchausen by proxy is when you feign the illness of somebody else to gain attention towards you. Collective Munchausen is when a group of people feign illness. And collective Munchausen by proxy is when a group of people feign the illness of another group of people.

If you check the mugshots of BLM activists arrested, most of them are actually white. Just like the people pushing for the rename (all white), they are being offended on behalf of others by proxy.

Black people did not ask for this (the master rename (but probably many don’t appreciate the destruction of their businesses in riots either)).

Another example is the huge backlash J. K. Rowling received for some supposedly transphobic remarks, but the people that complained were not transgender, they were professional complainers that did so by proxy. What many people in the actual transgender community said–like Blair White–is that this was not a real issue.

So why on Earth would a group of people complain about an issue that doesn’t affect them directly, but according to them it affects another group of people? Well, we know it has nothing to do with the supposed target victim: black people, and everything to do with themselves: they want to win progressive points, and are desperate to be “on the right side of history”.

They are like a White Knight trying to defend a woman who never asked for it, and in fact not only can she defend herself, but she would prefer to do so.

This isn’t about the “victims”, it’s all about them.

The careful observer probably has already noticed this: there are no pros.

Cons

Let’s start with the obvious one: it’s a lot of work. This is the first thing proponents of the change noticed, but it wasn’t such a big issue since they themselves offered to do the work. However, I don’t think they gauged the magnitude of the task, since just changing the relevant line of code basically breaks all the tests.

The tests are mostly done now, but all the documentation still needs to be updated. Not only the documentation of the project, but the online documentation too, and the Pro Git book, and plenty of documentation scattered around the web, etc. Sure, a lot of this doesn’t fall under the purview of Git developers, but it’s something that somebody has to do.

Then we have the people that are not subscribed to the mailing list and are completely unaware that this change is coming, and from one day to the next they update Git and they find out there’s no master branch when they create a new repository.

I call these the “silent majority”. The vast majority of Git users could not tell you the last Release Notes they read (probably because they haven’t read any). All they care about is that Git continues to work today as it did yesterday.

The silent majority doesn’t say anything when Git does what it’s supposed to do, but oh boy do they complain when it doesn’t.

This is precisely what happened in 2008, when Git 1.6.0 was released, and suddenly all the git-foo commands disappeared. Not only did end-users complained, but so did administrators in big companies, and distribution maintainers.

This is something any project committed to its user-base should try to avoid.

And this is a limited list, there’s a lot more than could go wrong, like scripts being broken, automated testing on other projects, and many many more.

So, on one side of the balance we have a ton of problems, and in other: zero benefits. Oh boy, such a tough choice.

Best alternative name for the master branch

Since people didn’t really discuss the previous subject, and went straight to the choice of name, this is where they spent a lot of the time, but this is also the part where I paid less attention, since I don’t think it’s interesting.

Initially I thought “main” was a fine replacement for “master”. If you had to choose a new name, “main” makes more sense, since “master” has a lot of implications other than the most important branch.

But then I started to read the arguments about different names, and really think about it, and I changed my mind.

If you think in terms of a single repository, then “main” certainly makes sense; it’s just the principal branch. However, the point of Git is that it’s distributed, there’s always many repositories with multiple branches, and you can’t have multiple “main” branches.

In theory every repository is as important as another, but in practice that’s not what happens. Humans–like pretty much all social animals–organize themselves in hierarchies, and in hierarchies there’s always someone at the top. My repository is not as important as the one of Junio (the maintainer).

So what happens is that my master branch continuously keeps track of Junio’s master branch, and I’d venture to say the same happens for pretty much all developers.

The crucial thing is what happens at the start of the development; you clone a repository. If somebody made a clone of you, I doubt you would consider your clone just as important as you. No, you are the original, you are the reference, you are the master copy.

The specific meaning in this context is:

an original from which copies can be made

Merriam-Webster

In this context the word has absolutely nothing to do with master/slaves. The opposite of a master branch is either a descendant (most branches), or an orphan (in rare cases).

The word “main” may describe correctly a special branch among a bunch of flat branches, but not the hierarchical nature of branches and distributed repositories of clones of clones.

The name “master” fits like a glove.

Culture war

This was the other topic where a lot of time was spent on.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this topic myself–even though it’s the one I’m most familiar with–because I think it’s something in 2020 most people are faced with already in their own work, family, or even romantic relationships. So I’d venture to say most people are tired of it.

All I want to say is that in this war I see three clear factions. The progressives, who are in favor of ANTIFA, BLM, inclusive language, have he/him in bio, use terms like anti-racism, or intersectional feminism, and want to be “on the right side of history”. The anti-progressives, who are pretty much against the progressives in all shapes or forms, usually conservatives, but not necessarily so. But finally we have the vast majority of people who don’t care about these things.

The problem is that the progressives are trying to push society into really unhealthy directions, such as blasphemy laws, essentially destroying the most fundamental values of modern western society, like freedom of speech.

The vast majority of people remain silent, because they don’t want to deal with this obvious nonsense, but eventually they will have to speak up, because these dangerous ideologies are creeping up everywhere.

For more about the subject I can’t recommend enough the new book of Gad Saad: The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense.

It really is a parasitic mindset, and sensible people must put a stop to it.

Update: The topic has been so controversial that as a result of this post reddit’s r/git decided to ban the topic completely, and remove the post. Hacker News also banned this post.

The impact to users

I already touched on this on the cons of the name change, but what I didn’t address are the mitigation strategies that could be employed.

For any change there’s good and bad ways of going about it.

Even if the change from “master” to “main’ was good and desirable (which it isn’t), simply jumping to it in the next version (Git 2.30) is the absolute worst way of doing it.

And this is precisely what the current patch is advancing.

I already briefly explained what happened in 2008 with the v1.6.0 release, but what I find most interesting is that looking back at those threads many of the arguments of how not to do a big change, apply exactly in the same way.

Back then what most people complained about was not the change itself (from git-foo to “git foo“) (which they considered to be arbitrary), but mainly the manner in which the change was done.

The main thing is that there was no deprecation period, and no clear warning. This lesson was learned, and the jump to Git 2.0 was much smoother precisely because of the warnings and period of adjustment, along with clear communication from the development team about what to expect.

This is not what is being done for the master branch rename.

I also find what I told Linus Torvalds very relevant:

What other projects do is make very visible when something is deprecated, like a big, annoying, unbearable warning. Next time you deprecate a command it might be a good idea to add the warning each time the command is used, and obsolete it later on.

Also, if it’s a big change like this git- stuff, then do a major version bump.

If you had marked 1.6 as 2.0, and added warnings when you deprecated the git-foo stuff then the users would have no excuse. It would have been obvious and this huge thread would have been avoided.

I doubt anyone listened to my suggestion, but they did this for 2.0, and it worked.

I like to refer to a panel Linus Torvalds participated in regarding the importance of users (educating Lennart Poettering). I consider this an explanation of the first principles of software: the main purpose of software is that it’s useful to users, and that it continues to be useful as it moves forward.

“Any time a program breaks the user experience, to me that is the absolute worst failure that a software project can make.”

Linus Torvalds
Linus Torvalds schools Lennart Poettering on the importance of users

Now it’s the same mistake of not warning the users of the upcoming change, except this time it’s much worse, since there’s absolutely no good reason for the change.

Update: the git.git developers listened to my advice and they eventually added a warning.

The Git project is simply another victim of the parasitic mindset that is infecting our culture. It’s being held hostage by a tiny amount of people pushing for a change nobody else wants, would benefit no one, would affect negatively everyone, and they want to do it in a way that maximizes the potential harm.

If I was a betting man, my money would be on the users complaining about this change when it hits them on the face with no previous warning.

The amount fallacy

Finding a new star nobody has found before is rare, but it happens—the same goes for fallacies. Errors in reasoning happen all the time, and most of those times people don’t bother looking up the specific name of that error; identifying it as an error suffices. When an error is too common, somebody eventually bothers to name it and thus a fallacy is born. It’s convenient to name fallacies because it saves time trying to disentangle the logic; you can just google the fallacy, and soon enough you will find examples and explanations.

I believe I have found a new fallacy, but unlike most new fallacies, this one has been under our nose for god knows how long.

I’ve decided to coin it the “amount fallacy”, although a close second was “toxic fallacy”, and also “sweet spot fallacy”. This concept is far from new, but it doesn’t seem to have a name. It has already been spread around in toxicology for at least four centuries with the aphorism “the dose makes the poison”. The idea is simple: everything is toxic. Yes, even water can be toxic, it all depends on the amount.

This concept applies absolutely everywhere, which is perhaps why nobody has bothered to name it. Is hot water good or bad? It depends on what precisely you mean by “hot”; it can be 40°C, 60°C, 1000°C, or just about any amount. Since language is often imprecise, the fallacy can sneak by very inconspicuously.

It can be spotted much more easily by realizing sweet spots; too little or too much of something is bad. Water above a certain temperature is bad, but so is water below certain temperature. A similar notion is the Goldilocks principle.

As obvious as this fallacy is, it’s committed all the time, even by very intelligent people.

Take for example income inequality. The debate about inequality is still raging in 2020, perhaps more than ever, and the positions are very clear: one side argues it’s possible for income inequality to be “too high” (and in fact it already is), the other side argues income inequality is inevitable (and in fact desirable). These two positions don’t contradict each other; all you have to do is accept that there is a sweet spot. It’s that simple.

Income inequality for different Gini coefficients

Surely it cannot be that easy. Surely people must have realized this obvious fallacy while discussing income inequality. Of course they have! But they also haven’t named it. This makes it so people fall into the same fallacy over and over, and it has to be explained why it’s a fallacy over and over.

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!

William Shakespeare

People often aggrandize the intellectual capabilities of the human mind, so they assume intelligent people surely can’t be making fallacies this ludicrous, and if they do; surely they would realize when somebody points that out, and if they don’t; surely somebody would record this kind of fallacy so others don’t fall for it. But remember that it took thousands of years after the invention of the wheel before humans came up with the brilliant idea of putting them on luggage (around 50 years ago). So don’t be too quick to assume the grandioseness of the human mind.

Here’s another example: immigration. One side argues immigration enriches the culture of a country, the other side argues immigration dilutes the national identity. Perhaps there’s an amount of immigration which isn’t too much or too little? Yes, there’s some people that argue precisely this, except without naming the fallacy.

Another example: exposure to germs. Too many germs can certainly overwhelm any immune system, but too little weakens it. The immune system requires constant training, and in fact there’s a theory that the current allergy epidemic is due to children’s underexposure to germs (hygiene hypothesis).

A more recent example: epidemic mitigation measures. Many people argue that masks must be compulsory, because not wearing them “kills people”, this is of course very likely true. But what part is missing in the argument? The amount. Everything kills people. Just driving a car increases the probability that you will kill somebody. Driving cars kill people; that’s a fact. But how many? Richard Dawkins—a famous evolutionary biologist, and author—recently made precisely this fallacy in a popular tweet.

The same applies to anything antifragile, but the examples are countless: recreation, safety, criticism, politeness, solitude, trust, spending, studying, exercise, thinking, planning, working, management, circumlocution, sun exposure, child play, child discipline, vitamin consumption, etc.

Technically this falls into the category of hasty generalization fallacies; the fact that some rich people are greedy doesn’t mean all rich people are greedy. In particular it’s an imprecision fallacy, similar to the apex/nadir fallacies, except in terms of amounts.

The form is:

  • 1. Some amounts of X are bad
  • 2. Some amounts of X don’t represent all amounts of X (ignored)
  • ∴ All amounts of X are bad

The amount fallacy happens because premise 2 is ignored. An exception could be cheating: a small amount of cheating is bad, even more so a large amount; the amount of cheating doesn’t change its desirability.

Perhaps this fallacy already has a name, but I don’t think so; I’ve looked extensively. Even if it’s too obvious, it needs to have a name, because people commit it all the time.

So there you have it. Any time somebody says something is bad (or good) because some amount of it is bad, be on your guard; that doesn’t mean any amount of it is bad.

How a modern troll argues

Traditionally an Internet troll is a person who starts quarrels or upsets people on the Internet to distract and sow discord, whether for the troll’s amusement, or a specific gain. The classical lone troll wasn’t hard to deal with, once identified all you had to do is follow the classical response: “do not feed the troll”. This worked well in the past, but times have changed.

Nowadays there’s more than one kind of troll.

We have brigading trolls (such as Chapo Trap House trolls), who bad together pushing the same kind of inflammatory commentary; the community might ignore one or two, but if a band of users say the same thing that might give credence to their claims, and a good actor might be fooled into giving a response, thinking there might be some valid criticism there.

Then there’s concern trolls who act pretty much as good actors, except their advice to the group would cause harm rather than good. They use sockpuppet accounts to hide their true agenda; for example a Republican might create an account faking to be a Democrat, and then propose a witch hunt to identify the “true” Democrats, and thus in effect dividing and weaking the group. The usual advice to ignore the trolls doesn’t work because concern trolls are almost indistinguishable from good actors.

And finally there’s professional trolls; which as their name suggest, they are being paid by a corporation, a political entity, or special-interest group to achieve specific goals. There have been many studies that prove these kinds of trolls exist, the most famous group being Russia’s Internet Research Agency. The tactics and goals of these groups vary, sometimes from day to day, but in general their tactics include: flip the narrative, cancel, position, counter-offend, and oppress usually with the goal of polarizing a community. Therefore it wouldn’t be unusual to play both sides of the fence; have both alt-right and far-left sock puppets in order to get the real users to fight between themselves.

The community

Recently I became a moderator (mod) in an online community in reddit (called a “sub”) about the author and public intellectual Sam Harris. I wasn’t paying close attention to this sub, but yet I noticed a steady stream of irrelevant content, I complained about it, and thus I learned I was merely one of many to do so.

When I became a mod I started receiving a lot of feedback about the dire status of this online community. It turns out it was so bad that a group of users decided to create an alternate community in order to get away from toxic behavior and a sea of irrelevance. Also, there were sister and related communities that recognized the problem, and the need to solve it.

I had my work cut out for me, but what I didn’t know at the time was the amount of pushback I would receive by every little attempt to improve the community. Right away I received complaints merely by removing content about what I considered to be clearly irrelevant topics; topics Sam Harris barely had talked about, and in my opinion didn’t belong in the sub.

Virtually all the users that complained about the moderation decisions shared a similar style of arguing. At the time I couldn’t deal with the sheer amount of comments, but slowly and steadily I discussed the issues with each and every user, and while doing so I realized many of them were dishonest. I would say A, and they would claim I said B and run with it. For example I would say “In my opinion the detractors that are engaging in bad faith shouldn’t be welcome”, and they would say I wanted to ban all detractors (what I said, what they say I said).

A misunderstanding here and there is to be expected, but not so many misunderstandings from so many sources, constantly. More importantly; these users didn’t seem to be interested in the least in being corrected. It looked like they knew what they truth was, they were just not interested in accepting it.

So in order to keep my sanity and avoid wasting time I arrived to a rule of thumb; the moment a user makes it clear he/she isn’t interested in what I am actually saying; I end the conversation, and I avoid future ones. Generally I give people the benefit of the doubt, but when it is clear they are not interested in what I say, they are merely interested in what they can claim I said, there’s no point in discussing with that person. So I labeled these people as intellectually dishonest, and moved on.

This is of course the traditional approach—ignore the trolls—and it worked for me, but not for the community, because these trolls kept spreading lies, even if I didn’t engage with them, and they kept derailing conversations, and sowing discord.

Something had to be done about these trolls, I just didn’t know what. I didn’t even want to accept these were trolls.

The setup

I asked for advice in different communities—there’s even a community of moderators—and I received good advice, however, most if it couldn’t be applied to our particular community because we have a strong commitment to freedom of speech (in the spirit of Sam Harris and others in the Intellectual Dark Web).

So how could we both hold on to our strong commitment to freedom of speech, and at the same time stop the trolls from destroying the community? If a user is obviously acting in bad faith, the solution is easy; ban that user. But many of these trolls would do everything in their power to appear as good actors. So even if a moderator is pretty sure a user is engaging in bad faith, he/she can never be sure. The fact that a user appears to be a troll is not enough.

I roamed the Internet for inspiration, and I encountered tips to actively deal with trolls, mostly in the form of trolling the trolls. However, I didn’t want to reduce myself to their level. I tried different tactics, mostly engaging with the trolls, but not as if I was dealing with real people, and then I saw the light.

Trolls have a major disadvantage, that any good actor engaging in good faith doesn’t have; they don’t care. Their interest in any particular subject is manufactured, it isn’t real. So if you spend time writing a really good argument they would not be able to counter it; they don’t have the intellectual tools, nor the interest in doing so. What they will do is go to their troll toolkit, and pick any of their well-practiced tactics to deviate the conversation. The most common one is the smoke screen.

A good actor might inadvertently use a smoke screen, but a troll will use it over and over, to the point that the times he avoids an argument are more than the times he engages in it. This is not an accident, this is deliberate.

After engaging with trolls in this matter I realized how ridiculously often they do this. All you have to do is ignore all the red herrings they throw, all the ad hominems attacks, don’t drink from the poisoned well, ignore the smoke screen, and concentrate on the argument. Don’t say anything extra they might reply to, don’t ask any follow up questions, don’t answer their irrelevant questions; stay on point.

Any person acting in good faith will reply to your questions, even if it might mean losing the argument. A troll will not.

So when I realized this trend, I decided to engage with a suspected troll to see how far the rabbit hole could go, and I honestly didn’t expect a nonsensical discussion of such epic proportions.

The discussion

The context of the discussion is a little tricky. First, there was a discussion between Sam Harris and Eric Weinstein in Weinstein’s relatively new podcast: The Portal. In this discussion they touched on the lack of effort some people make to try to understand people they disagree with, and they mentioned examples such as Sam Seder, and David Pakman. Funnily enough, both Seder and Pakman replied about these comments in their respective podcasts, and their conclusions couldn’t be more different.

The ironic part is that Pakman was mentioned as an example of a person who does make an effort to understand what his opponent is saying, and he did understood what was being said by Weinstein and Harris. On the other hand Seder was brought up as an example of a person that does not make an effort, and lo and behold in his podcast he did indeed misrepresent what Weinstein and Harris said.

This was the topic of the post I made to reddit’s Sam Harris community: Good and bad faith actors behaved in predictable ways that Sam Harris & Eric Weinstein accurately described.

In my post I made it crystal clear what was in my opinion the argument Weinstein made:

Let’s get the premise right; the premise is that some people would rather mock a straw man, than get correctly the actual gist of what is being said. That’s it.

This is the argument. This is what Harris and Weinstein are talking about, this is what Pakman replies to, and this is what Seder is attempting to address. This argument for brevity and analysis purposes I’m going to call argument W.

Right off the bat user BloodsVsCrips starts with this attack:

If you rank Tim Pool as a 4 out of 5 your definition of “good faith” becomes useless.

This is in reference to another discussion in which users were supposed to rank political commentators, and I did rank Tim Pool with an overall grade of 4/5. This of course has absolutely nothing to do with the argument at hand; neither what Weinstein said, nor what Seder said about what Weinstein said. So this is a smokescreen, an ad hominem, a genetic fallacy, and poisoning the well. The thing he didn’t do is address argument W.

I mocked his obvious attempt at not addressing the argument, mrsamsa accused me of not addressing the argument, I asked what was BloodsVsCrips supposed argument, and mrsamsa replies:

That people with a demonstrably bad barometer for determining good and bad faith might be inaccurately judging the people described in the OP.

Now, this is not an accurate representation of BloodsVsCrips’s argument, and yet it commits the same fallacies. I chose to concentrate on the genetic fallacy, which has this form:

  • X said Y is true
  • X is a bad source
  • ∴ Y is false

Of course X is me, but Y is a little bit tricky, because mrsamsa’s argument is also a smoke screen, so he wants to change Y from the original topic (argument W) to “Sam Seder acts in bad faith”. To be clear, I did say Sam Seder acted in bad faith, but I did so with an argument:

Sam Seder didn’t show any signs of understanding Eric Weinstein’s argument, therefore he misrepresented Eric Weinstein’s argument.

We can call this argument F, which depends on argument W.

In fairness to mrsamsa if Y is in fact “Sam Seder acts in bad faith”, then his argument wouldn’t be a genetic fallacy, but we know I did provide an argument (argument F) for my claim, to ignore that would be falling into his smoke screen.

So the syllogism would be:

  • felipec did put forward argument F
  • felipec is a bad source
  • Argument F is false

That is an obvious genetic fallacy.

It should not matter what did or didn’t say about Tim Pool, it shouldn’t matter how good I am at representing anybody’s good faith, it doesn’t matter who I am at all. The only thing that matters is; what was Weinstein’s argument? (argument W), and did Sam Seder represent Weinstein’s argument correctly or not? (argument F).

Is mrsamsa going to focus on the argument, like any good actor would do? Or is he going to do something else?

Dancing around the genetic fallacy

So the first thing I tried to do is nail down the definition of a genetic fallacy; I asked mrsamsa two direct questions, and he evaded them both:

Answer these questions.

(1) Is this a genetic fallacy?
> P1: X said Y is true
> P2: X is a bad source
> C: Y is false

(2) Is this a genetic fallacy?
> P1: felipec said Sam Seder is a bad faith actor
> P2: felipec doesn’t have good judgement
> C: Sam Seder is not a bad faith actor

mrsamsa:

If you’re just asking hypothetically then yes, presenting it as a proof can be fallacious but that’s obviously not what happened…

Notice he is responding in terms of yes, argument X can be fallacious, but he doesn’t want to say it is. I insisted I am not interested in him saying if it can be, but if it actually is:

mrsamsa:

…I did answer, yes it can be fallacious…

This continues:

mrsamsa:

I’ve already answered above. Now stop with this bad faith nonsense and continue with the discussion.

Then he tries to throw smoke screen:

mrsamsa:

Because you don’t understand the topic very well (as evidenced by thinking the genetic fallacy wasn’t an informal fallacy) your response is to misconstrue my answer, rather than to realise “that makes sense”.

Unfortunately I made a mistake of categorizing the genetic fallacy as a formal fallacy, and we’ll see later he will use this as a smoke screen, and an ad hominem.

In addition, he continues taunting the “can be”.

mrsamsa:

Again, someone who believes that the genetic fallacy isn’t an in informal fallacy is unlikely to teach me anything about logic.

It can be, certainly.

More of the same:

mrsamsa:

Do one easy thing right now: admit you made an error by claiming that the genetic fallacy isn’t an informal fallacy.

I can’t change my answer though, I can’t forget everything I know about fallacies and logic and pretend the answer is “yes” even though such a response is nonsensical…

It should be a very easy (1) yes, (2) yes. Why on Earth would any good actor avoid such obvious questions? Maybe mrsamsa does indeed possess a superior knowledge of logic, and the textbook example of a genetic fallacy doesn’t indeed contain a genetic fallacy, but if that is the case why isn’t he enlightening us? Why isn’t he explaining in which cases argument (1) can’t be a genetic fallacy?

The answer is simple; he doesn’t care. In the best case scenario, just like a hostile witness he is simply not answering the question, nor venturing any useful information; he is wasting our time. In the worst case scenario, he is a troll who doesn’t have a good answer for our questions, and is also wasting our time.

And that of course doesn’t translate to argument (2), because that is a specific argument; it either has a genetic fallacy, or it doesn’t. No can, if, then, or buts.

Now, this is just a taste, because the amount of times he applies the same tactic over and over, not just to me, but anyone trying to have a rational discussion is just mind blowing.

Argument within an argument

I wasn’t the only one engaging with him; DwightVSJim unfortunately also got caught in his web of nonsense. He also avoided to answer any of DwightVSJim’s criticisms, but the amount of nonsense is too much to summarize, so I’ll just make a list of comments:

  • mrsamsa: A liar is more likely to lie than someone who doesn’t lie.
  • mrsamsa: You can’t be serious..
  • mrsamsa: Come on, just think a little bit about this.
  • mrsamsa: Yes, if I said something different then it would be different.
  • mrsamsa: I don’t know what this is supposed to mean.
  • mrsamsa: Keep up.
  • mrsamsa: It can be, definitely.
  • mrsamsa: Perfectly valid argument, no fallacy.
  • mrsamsa: Remember that arguments are about judging the persuasiveness of the support for a conclusion…
  • mrsamsa: You’ve just proved yourself wrong there.
  • mrsamsa: You’ve just said that my argument based on the origin of the claim isn’t fallacious.
  • mrsamsa: I’m showing that an argument based on the origin of the claim can reject the conclusion while not being fallacious.
  • mrsamsa: The origin of the claim is Ham, not me.
  • mrsamsa: I am, using Ken Ham as the origin.
  • mrsamsa: The fact that I’m making the argument is obviously irrelevant to whether something is or isn’t a fallacy.
  • mrsamsa: No, the origin in my argument is Ken Ham.
  • mrsamsa: I’m arguing that.
  • mrsamsa: Please just take two seconds to realise how stupid this argument is.
  • mrsamsa: C Felipec is probably wrong about Seder acting in bad faith.

Of course, while avoiding anything presented to him, he didn’t stop making snarky remarks. And at no point in time does mrsamsa addresses the actual arguments: argument F and argument W. He just goes on an on inventing new irrelevant arguments such as a fake argument from Ken Ham.

Finally, I arrive to save DwightVSJim from mrsamsa’s black hole. I point out if in “felipec says Y”, Y is an argument itself, there’s no need to even check if there’s a genetic fallacy:

felipec:

We also have logical argument X which can be evaluated on it’s own. So if logical argument X is:

  • All men are mortal
  • All Greeks are men
  • ∴ All Greeks are mortal

We know logical argument X is valid, so it’s irrelevant if “felipec is probably wrong about logical argument X”, because we can look at logical argument X and see that it is valid. It’s like getting two 6 dices and somebody else is saying; “I don’t need to look at the dices, because I know getting two 6s is very unlikely”.

This destroys mrsamsa’s red herrings, because it forces us to look into the actual argument X (argument F), and not run around irrelevant probabilities of “me” being right.

Miraculously, mrsamsa agrees:

mrsamsa:

All you’ve argued is that there is another way to challenge the conclusion of X. Okay sure, yeah there are. That doesn’t make it fallacious.

So he finally accepted one thing, but in doing so I got him, because there’s an easy way to demonstrate the smoke screen fallacy:

felipec:

Which one would be better to tackle if we want to discern the truth of the conclusion of X? [Argument X, or argument Y?]

All he has to do is say “X”, and he would be admitting that in this whole thread we should be looking at argument F, not my bona fides. You can guess what happened.

mrsamsa:

As for which is better, it depends on the specific claim and the strength of the evidence for each argument.

What a surprise. He is backed into a corner, he has two specific options, and instead of choosing X or Y, he throws another smoke screen and say “it depends”. I didn’t let him go that easily, and I insist he gives an answer:

felipec:

X, or Y?

He goes back his usual cop out:

mrsamsa:

And I said we can say your proposal.

This is the point where I decided to end the discussion, because I thought I had gathered more than enough evidence. Note however that I’m not going through the threads in the order they happened.

After dozens of comments on this particular subject, mrsamsa hasn’t answered a single important question directly. He always avoided the topic, specially when he was backed into a corner. Any good actor would have to answer my question honestly, and say “X”, but that’s not what he did.

Can’t own mistakes

We also got completely derailed when mrsamsa failed to convert one of his fake “arguments” to a syllogism, and then failed to accept his mistakes.

First, mrsamsa provided this example of a supposedly valid argument:

“I doubt Ken Ham is accurately describing that principle of evolution because he has history of misrepresenting and misunderstanding them”

It was pointed out to him the many reasons why this “argument” is essentially useless, but mrsamsa kept defending it, and provided a supposed syllogism for it:

mrsamsa:

P1 Ken Ham thinks X about evolution

P2 Ken Ham has a history of misrepresenting and misunderstanding claims about evolution

P3 we should doubt claims made by people with a history of misrepresenting and misunderstanding claims

C we should doubt Ken Ham’s claim X about evolution.

This was in fact not a “perfect” argument nor an accurate mapping from his original argument. I pointed out the many issues this argument has:

  1. He used different verbs in the premises: thinks vs. claims
  2. A similar “valid” argument can be made with the premise “we should doubt claims made by people with a mustache”
  3. Changed “I doubt X” to “we should doubt X”
  4. It’s a red herring trying to distract us away from argument W

So I destroyed the notion that this was in any way a “perfect”, along with getting us out of the black hole of ignoring argument F. I made an analogy of an embedded argument and his Ken Ham “argument” to arrive to the following syllogism that puts a nail in his coffin:

felipec:

And since we obviously can’t trust you to put a correct syllogism, it would be like:

  • P1: Ken Ham made argument A about evolution
  • P2: Ken Ham has a history of misrepresenting and misunderstanding claims about evolution
  • C: Argument A about evolution is unsound

This “argument” has a genetic fallacy.

What mrsamsa does do is everything, but acknowledge the fact that he made two different arguments, and that an argument can be embedded in another argument, and we should talk about the original embedded argument, not the outer one:

mrsamsa:

Holy shit, pedantry through the charts.
Yes, let’s act like normal human beings, se how that works out for you.
How is that a “correct” syllogism? It’s an invalid argument.
You’re the embodiment of dunning-Kruger.

The rest of the responses keep evading the issue:

  • mrsamsa: Of course I didn’t address the argument that has a conclusion that’s irrelevant to my argument.
  • mrsamsa: What are you talking about?
  • mrsamsa: Semantics aren’t the damning blow that you seem to think they are.
  • mrsamsa: I mean, you keep pretending you can’t see my argument so why should I engage with your strawman of my argument?

Until finally:

mrsamsa:

I’ll take that as a “I’m going to continue to troll rather than engage in any kind of meaningful discussion”.

Very classy.


I take the conclusion reached in this subthread that is pretty hidden by now, and repeat it on the main thread:

felipec:

Hmm. “We should doubt X” versus “I doubt X”. Somebody isn’t reading his own arguments.

Of course he handled it very graciously:

mrsamsa:

Don’t get hung up on semantics and try to address the argument itself.

Another user, SailOfIgnorance, came to mrsamsa’s rescue and made the argument that there’s no distinction between “I doubt X” and “we should doubt X”, but if course there is, and I answered the challenge:

felipec:

You want me to state the distinction between (1) “we should doubt X” and (2) “I doubt X”? Easy, (1) requires reasoning, (2) doesn’t.

This explanation was addressed in perfect faith by mrsamsa:

mrsamsa:

Easy, /u/sailofignorance. I assume that clears up any confusion you may have had!

mrsamsa:

Oh. Maybe meditate more?

I event went to the trouble of providing different syllogisms to show the pointlessness of “I doubt X”. Essentially conclusions like “I believe X”, or “I doubt X” are pointless, because they don’t require reasoning, so you don’t need any argument, or any other premises.

When SailOfIgnorance challenged this notion, I explained it to him:

felipec:

> Give me an example where “I doubt X” doesn’t require reasoning

Easy: “I doubt I’ll have eggs on my breakfast”.

SailOfIgnorance did eventually acknowledge this difference, but did mrsamsa? No.

Why can’t he just accept that he made a mistake? (multiple ones actually) Why doesn’t he want to acknowledge any of the main arguments? (argument F, or argument W). This tendency should be clear by now, and we are only just getting started.

Nonsense of origin

In another thread with DwightVSJim, mrsamsa to spin and spin around the same issue:

  • mrsamsa: That honestly makes no sense and is a bizarre interpretation of the genetic fallacy…
  • mrsamsa: The genetic fallacy is a fallacy of irrelevance…
  • mrsamsa: Both attack the origin, but only one is fallacious.
  • mrsamsa: Shooting the paper boy for the contents of the paper would be an error, shooting the editor/ journalist would not.
  • mrsamsa: No they don’t need to bring it as well.
  • mrsamsa: Obviously the only relevant person to the genetic fallacy would be the person making the original claim…
  • mrsamsa: You understand that your understanding means that unless someone makes an argument that they themselves are a biased source to reject the conclusion they’re arguing for, a genetic fallacy is impossible, right?
  • mrsamsa: That’s literally what you’re arguing.
  • mrsamsa: So you’re not saying that I is the “origin” that’s relevant to the genetic fallacy?
  • mrsamsa: But if you’re not saying that I is the “origin” that’s relevant to the genetic fallacy then what was your argument?
  • mrsamsa: When I make an argument that dismisses a claim made by Bob because it came from Bob, I’m pointing out that you seem to believe that I is the “origin” relevant to the genetic fallacy rather than Bob.
  • mrsamsa: I just summarized it there and we’ve gone over it in detail above, address whichever is easier for you.
  • mrsamsa: Just highlight what is the origin that would be relevant when assessing if it commits the genetic fallacy.
  • mrsamsa: So you’re now agreeing with my characterization of your position that you think the arguer is the origin that the genetic fallacy refers to?
  • mrsamsa: Jesus, this is such an insane view.
  • mrsamsa: Except remember that the genetic fallacy is a fallacy of irrelevance so this is only true when we’re rejecting it because it’s coming from Bob for irrelevant reasons.

This is what happens when a good actor tries to engage honestly as if the troll is a real person. If nobody challenges his bullshit, the troll can go on and on about irrelevant stuff.

When I show up to this thread I end by showing to mrsamsa exactly in which kind of arguments the source of a claim matters, and where it doesn’t, by providing different unquestionable examples:

felipec:

No, you don’t understand. The genetic fallacy occurs when we accept or reject a claim. Normally I would ask you for syllogism explaining when the truthfulness of claim is relevant, and when it’s irrelevant, but we all know you are going to botch it, and it will take us 50 comments for you to not accept that you did, so let me do that for you:

  • Bob says X
  • People that say X are racist
  • ∴ Bob is a racist

Here’s another example:

  • Bob says X
  • If anybody say X we drink
  • ∴ We drink

In both these cases the conclusion has nothing to do with the X being true or false, and the other premise relies on Bob’s claim (regardless if it’s true).

Now let’s make it a fallacy:

  • Bob says X
  • Bob usually lies
  • If anybody says a lie we drink
  • ∴ We drink

Why is this a fallacy? Because we assuming the truthfulness of a claim based on its source, if we reject X because Bob said it we are committing the genetic fallacy. It’s irrelevant who said X; we need to find out if X is true or not.

Tell me /u/mrsamsa, how is this not the case? Do we or do we not need to know if X is true before accepting that conclusion?

This destroys all the irrelevant nonsense about who is the origin of what that mrsamsa kept going on and on about. He replied dozens of times to DwightVSJim when it was easy to avoid the actual issue, but when I make it difficult for him to ignore what actually is a genetic fallacy, what does he do?

He didn’t bother to reply.

Words don’t matter

In yet another thread mrsamsa argued that the names of fallacies don’t matter, instead, we should point out the errors in reasoning themselves, and he did so in his usual classy manner:

  • mrsamsa: Trust me, don’t try to explain to dwight how fallacies work and what they mean.
  • mrsamsa: Yeah that’s exactly how I see it now.
  • mrsamsa: Bringing up the names of fallacies is indeed a troll talking point.
  • mrsamsa: Non trolls realise that the names of fallacies are pointless in themselves because it doesn’t help describe your position or highlight the supposed problem in the argument you’re replying to.
  • mrsamsa: Fallacies have nothing to do with the conclusions…
  • mrsamsa: Of course it does, fallacies aren’t about whether a conclusion is true or not…
  • mrsamsa: Tell me what you think a fallacy is.
  • mrsamsa: Very good.
  • mrsamsa: Fallacies are only related to the structure of the reasoning, they don’t determine the truth or falsity of the conclusion.
  • mrsamsa: You can’t be serious?
  • mrsamsa: Why are you dodging your false claim that I corrected in my post above?

I can’t help but notice the sweet irony of mrsamsa lecturing us in how non-trolls argue, but unfortunately he managed to one again derail the discussion away from the arguments (argument F and argument W) into purse nonsense.

When I jump into the discussion his tone changes:

felipec:

The guy who says the names of fallacies are irrelevant is claiming the categories of fallacies matter. Makes sense.

mrsamsa:

I assume you’re trolling rather than intentionally being so blatantly dishonest here, but if you’re genuinely confused, the names of fallacies are less important in a debate than actually explaining what you think the flawed reasoning is.

This whole argument that the names of fallacies don’t matter is obviously self-defeating, since words are basically the only thing we have to communicate, there is a reason we don’t explain what a napkin is every time we want one. So obviously there’s a reason why common fallacies have names.

felipec:

> I assume you’re trolling rather than intentionally being so blatantly dishonest here, but if you’re genuinely confused, the names of fallacies are less important in a debate than actually explaining what you think the flawed reasoning is.

And what is the quickest way to explain that there’s a flaw in reasoning?

> If someone says “it’s spelt “ab hominid” not “ad hominem” loser!” then while the names of fallacies still aren’t useful in a debate, it’s still worthwhile pointing out that the person isn’t right.

If I say “to say that a person didn’t finish high-school therefore his argument is invalid; it’s an X fallacy”.

1. ab hominid
2. hasty generalization fallacy

What do you think is closer to the truth? Which one do you think is more worth correcting?

I ask mrsamsa two questions. Care to venture how many he will answer?

mrsamsa:

> And what is the quickest way to explain that there’s a flaw in reasoning?

Not by using the name of a fallacy as that doesn’t explain the flaw in reasoning in the person’s argument.

> What do you think is closer to the truth? Which one do you think is more worth correcting?

I don’t really understand how this is relevant, both need to be corrected. Fortunately we can do two things and aren’t limited to one.

This is nonsense. Obviously saying “argument X has flaw Y” is explaining the flaw in reasoning, even if Y is misspelled. But if he answers my questions he would have to concede, so he just doesn’t.

The rest of the discussion is more of the same; mrsamsa evading questions, derailing, and smoke screening:

  • mrsamsa: Hey, you answer a single question I’ve posed to you in this thread and then I’ll take your tantrums more seriously. Otherwise it just looks like bad faith trolling.
  • mrsamsa: You’re the definition of bad faith troll.
  • mrsamsa: How does this relate to anything I’ve said?
  • mrsamsa: And how does that relate to my argument?
  • mrsamsa: I explained why naming a fallacy doesn’t help you identify the specific flaw in an argument. And you replied that naming the fallacy is identifying the flaw.

I didn’t let him get away with such obvious smoke screening. I tried to force him to address the argument, but of course he didn’t.

felipec:

Your argument was that the name of a fallacy doesn’t help you find out the flaw in an argument, I just showed you it does.

If you can’t see that there’s no more reason to discuss. Good bye.

Why are we even discussing this? Of course we can say “argument X has a genetic fallacy”, and the words “genetic fallacy” are useful to identify the flaw in reasoning. If mrsamsa’s wasn’t intentionally derailing the conversation why does he keep bringing red herrings, and always avoiding not only the main arguments (argument F, and argument W), but he avoids any arguments he himself brings up.

This is meta-arguing; mrsamsa is arguing about arguing, and he is derailing the very same tangent he has put us on.

The actual argument

There’s only one point in the whole discussion where mrsamsa actually tried to engage with the actual argument:

mrsamsa:

Seder is responding to Weinstein’s metaphor of the IDW doing maths and how people like Seder are ignorant of alternative forms of maths so jump to ridicule and thinking people are crazy.

Seder is criticizing the idea that when people mock others who seriously propose race realism etc that really what’s happening is that the race realist is privy to some kind of information that Seder is unaware of, and what appears to be crazy is in fact just an evidence based position that could be uncovered by a serious investigation rather than dismissal.

His criticism is essentially of the idea: a) that it’s appropriate to compare things like race realism to the factual nature of maths, and b) that Seder thinks it’s crazy because he’s unaware of the logic behind race realism, rather than the fact that they’re wrong.

This is obviously a misrepresentation of Weinstein’s argument (argument W), in fact, he didn’t say what was the argument, he just mentioned a “metaphor”, so I ask him to at least make an attempt:

felipec:

> Seder is responding to Weinstein’s metaphor of the IDW doing maths

That’s not what Eric Weinstein did. Can you do at least a poor man’s job of a steel man?

Will mrsamsa finally answer a direct question? You already know the answer, don’t you?

mrsamsa:

Use your words buddy, if you disagree with something then explain it.

Why do you think Weinstein wasn’t using a maths analogy?

felipec:

I’m not going to fall for that. Can you make a steel man argument for Eric Weinstein or not?

mrsamsa:

You’re not going to fall for engaging in a productive good faith discussion?

So there it is. When it was time to actually address the argument that mattered, he didn’t even make an attempt to explain it with his own words.

My bad

I don’t want to be a locus of attention; I want to focus on what mrsamsa did, but I’ve had to rely on my comments, since they are directly related to many of mrsamsa’s comments.

And even if I made argument F, and I brought up argument W; I want the focus of the discussion to be on those arguments, not me.

Unfortunately I made a mistake in saying that the genetic fallacy was a formal fallacy. In my defense I probably had more than a few beers when I made that comment, I did a quick Google search and found no evidence that the genetic fallacy was informal.

But if it’s true that I made such mistake, it doesn’t matter in the discussion if the genetic fallacy is formal or informal; it’s still a fallacy. In retrospect I shouldn’t have fell in such an obvious bait, but I did; I did respond to a red herring.

Now, a good actor would simply say: “you made a mistake” and move on. In fact mrsamsa made many of such mistakes, and I didn’t punish him eternally for them. But that’s not what a troll does.

What a troll does is hold on to this trivial mistakes as evidence that a person is “bad at logic”. This troll tactic is another fallacy called poisoning the well. Since I made one mistake, that means that forever and ever any argument I make is flawed. Indeed, after I accepted the mistake mrsamsa and other possible trolls have weaponized this mistake and brought it up in other threads.

Even after I ended the conversation, mrsamsa piled on with other users on the formal fallacy mistake:

mrsamsa:

But to him, I think he views it all as some grand conspiracy to derail the sub, so he seems to view it as a moral duty to not give an inch on anything…

mrsamsa:

These people are so unaware of how little they know about a topic that they’re practically incapable of even understanding how little they know about the topic. It becomes a black hole where trying to explain it to them fails because they lack any foundation to even make sense of the possibility that other people might know more than them, and worse still, those people might think they’re wrong.

mrsamsa:

But the genetic fallacy not being an informal fallacy claim is just a really easy thing to put your hand up over, especially as it doesn’t affect his argument or position at all. It’s just a “whoops, yeah, don’t know why I said that, of course it isn’t. Let’s move on now” moment that doesn’t need to be a big deal.

mrsamsa:

If it wasn’t abundantly clear, he’s barely read the wiki page on the topic nevermind an actual textbook.

mrsamsa:

And coming from the guy whose ego is too big to even accept that they didn’t know the genetic fallacy was an informal fallacy, that insult falls flat.

And of course, I did accept I made a mistake later on:

felipec:

> Will you admit you were mistaken?

Yes, I made a mistake. Not that it matters, because the category of this fallacy is completely irrelevant, and focusing on this is a red herring.

As expected other users used this as ammunition:

zemir0n:

But it is relevant. Your knowledge or lack thereof of logical fallacies is definitely relevant when it comes to talking about logical fallacies.

Did mrsamsa praise what he supposedly wanted me to do in good faith? You know the answer:

mrsamsa:

Replying to comments is a fallacy.

Beating on a dead horse

As I said, once I thought I gathered enough evidence to convince any rational person that mrsamsa was in fact a troll, I ended the conversation. This was taken by mrsamsa and his allies a “victory”.

It doesn’t have to be said that they took this “victory” graciously:

mrsamsa:

So I mean… a win? Even if for the most bizarre reason.

mrsamsa:

That was probably one of the most cringey things I’ve ever seen on the internet. It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if, as you point out, the entire essay long argument didn’t boil down to this bizarre point based entirely on semantics.

Once again bringing up the informal fallacy red herring:

mrsamsa:

It definitely makes sense in light of him being unaware that the genetic fallacy is an informal fallacy, which is fine if it’s a slip of the tongue but egregious as a genuine error.

And he goes on and on:

mrsamsa:

He doesn’t seem to know about a lot of things.

But instead of just listening to the other person he seems to scan posts for any little thing that he can pinpoint and say “Ah ha! You said “doubt” instead of “reject”, therefore you’re making two completely different arguments and I can’t take you seriously any more!”.

We already explored why “I doubt X” is different than “we should doubt X”, he exploiting the fact that a casual observer might have missed the difference and then claiming I just did a “gotcha!” “just semantics” comment. No, there was a difference, the difference has been explained, and he is framing the narrative to make it seem otherwise.

This is dishonest behavior.

mrsamsa:

Being on the receiving end, it’s definitely [extremely boring and frustrating].

mrsamsa:

I feel like he’s got this caricature of what it means to be a “rational person”, and he’s confused being pedantic with being rational. It’s like someone who’s idea of how to be a lawyer comes from TV and so they just yell “objection!” at everything.

mrsamsa:

Destroyed!

mic drop

Is this the way a good actor treats a “win”?

Other conversations

Not content with derailing this conversation with his genetic fallacy nonsense, he sprang up a discussion about the same nonsense in a completely unrelated post. In order to protect the sanity of the reader, I’m not going to go in detail through those, but there have been several dozens of such comments.

In a post titled: Full Subscription Model and Amount of Hatred Sam Receives on this Site:

  • mrsamsa: I followed it fine, you were simply wrong for all the reasons I explained to you.
  • mrsamsa: I’m happy if you agree now but you explicitly argued before that BvC was the origin of the claim subject to the genetic fallacy.
  • mrsamsa: You called me dishonest for saying that, and then repeated what I just said…
  • mrsamsa: What’s not a genetic fallacy?
  • mrsamsa: Take a step back and read what I’m writing.
  • mrsamsa: Why do you think I “take pride in pissing people off”?
  • mrsamsa: The arguer is irrelevant to assessing whether a genetic fallacy occurred.
  • mrsamsa: But if you mean the origin of the argument then you accept that who is arguing that “Bob is a liar” is irrelevant, right?
  • mrsamsa: We’re trying to figure out what you mean by “origin”, that’s all.
  • mrsamsa: I don’t have a problem with the concept of the genetic fallacy, we’re debating your interpretation of it that isn’t consistent with how it’s actually understood.
  • mrsamsa: So when is the person making the argument ever the issue?
  • mrsamsa: Do you need me to dig up our past conversation where you explicitly told me the opposite?
  • mrsamsa: When you argued that BvC was relevant to assessing if his argument was a genetic fallacy.
  • mrsamsa: So, in your view, the arguer is the source that the genetic fallacy refers to.
  • mrsamsa: Of the issue yes, not the arguer.
  • mrsamsa: I don’t know how I can make it any simpler.
  • mrsamsa: Where did I claim that you believed it was always the case?
  • mrsamsa: The arguer isn’t relevant to the genetic fallacy. That’s what you’re struggling to understand.
  • mrsamsa: I’ve told you a million times that you’re wrong but I don’t imagine that you’d agree that it’s bad faith for you to not accept that.
  • mrsamsa: The person making the argument (eg BvC in this case) is irrelevant and is never the origin of the issue that matters.
  • mrsamsa: Stop being evasive and wasting time.
  • mrsamsa: The issue is the claim being debated, ie felipecs ability to judge bad faith.
  • mrsamsa: Present your evidence, no more evasion and smokescreens.
  • mrsamsa: Yes great, link me to a source that supports your interpretation.
  • mrsamsa: The idea in BvCs argument is felipecs barometer.
  • mrsamsa: What part of his argument would we analyze to determine whether it’s based on dismissing a source or not?
  • mrsamsa: He’s dismissing an argument of felipecs.
  • mrsamsa: His argument about judging bad faith. That’s why he appealed to his barometer, as that was a criticism of the argument.
  • mrsamsa: He’s trying to convince us of his methods for judging bad faith, that’s the argument.
  • mrsamsa: Read his OP, it spells it all out in detail.
  • mrsamsa: What part are you pretending not to understand?What part are you pretending not to understand?
  • mrsamsa: What part of his OP did you not understand?
  • mrsamsa: Stop fucking evading, make your argument and stop throwing up smokescreens.
  • mrsamsa: Read the OP and tell me specifically what you don’t understand.
  • mrsamsa: Instead of constantly demanding people to answer your questions, show some good faith and do so in return.
  • mrsamsa: Answer the question or stop responding. That’s the end of the conversation.
  • mrsamsa: You’ve just proven yourself wrong with your own timeline.
  • mrsamsa: Holy shit this is getting ridiculous.
  • mrsamsa: Jesus christ. If you’d stop with the mental gymnastics these conversations would go so much easier.
  • mrsamsa: It’s not, because it’s only fallacious when the appeal to the origin is irrelevant.

In yet another post: Why is Felipec even a mod? Who made him a mod?

  • mrsamsa: Semantics won’t save you or felipec here.
  • mrsamsa: So for it to be a genetic fallacy, BvC would need to reject his own argument based on his own history.
  • mrsamsa: Careful, felipec bans people for not saying yes or no to that question.
  • mrsamsa: Why are you trying to turn it into a deductive proof?
  • mrsamsa: Why not just answer my question?
  • mrsamsa: I am rather cynically assuming that the reason you keep pretending not to be able to read my position every time I spell it out for you though is because you realise that you can’t actually refute it, and you don’t want to admit that after all this fucking bullshit I was actually right.
  • mrsamsa: If we’re in agreement that reaching a conclusion that felipec is probably wrong about a claim because he has a history of being wrong on that topic isn’t fallacious then good, I’m happy with that outcome.
  • mrsamsa: No, saying felipec is probably wrong because of his history is coming from him, he’s the origin referred to in the argument.
  • mrsamsa: As I say in my other comment, using the word “doubt” here confuses the comparison a little bit.
  • mrsamsa: It doesn’t change the origin. The origin is “felipec’s history of judging bad faith”.
  • mrsamsa: It’s a fine argument, there’s nothing fallacious about it and it wouldn’t require evidence to avoid being a fallacy.
  • mrsamsa: It’s a little confusing to use the first one as a general argument and then to use a specific example in the second.
  • mrsamsa: Now do you agree that the “origin” that would be relevant to the genetic fallacy is premise 2 in both those arguments?
  • mrsamsa: And just to be clear, this is a hypothetical, right?
  • mrsamsa: The point wasn’t about Tim Pool, the point was about Felipec’s ability to judge bad faith actors in this sub.
  • mrsamsa: I’m probably jumping ahead, continue.
  • mrsamsa: I’ll have to see why he thinks changing the conclusion from “probably wrong” to “definitely wrong” changes the origin.
  • mrsamsa: That’s not particularly relevant for the genetic fallacy.
  • mrsamsa: Remember that to dismiss a claim we don’t need to state it in absolute terms.
  • mrsamsa: If I say that creationism is probably false, I am claiming that it’s untrue.
  • mrsamsa: If I say felipec’s argument is 99.9999% likely to be false, are you saying “Well… that’s not a dismissal of his argument, he’s saying he could be right!”?
  • mrsamsa: How can someone argue that something is probably untrue without arguing it’s untrue?
  • mrsamsa: If argued as definitely then yes, if probably then no. Agreed.
  • mrsamsa: Both are arguing it’s untrue. One says it’s probably untrue, the other definitely untrue.
  • mrsamsa: Saying something is probably untrue is a dismissal of a claim.
  • mrsamsa: We’re talking about the concept of untrue, not definitely untrue. You’re conflating the two.
  • mrsamsa: It means that something is probably true or false, since truth isn’t binary.
  • mrsamsa: Wait… are you saying arguments with the conclusion of “probably” aren’t even arguments?…
  • mrsamsa: I think you’re going to have to support some of these claims, I can’t see what you’re possibly basing them on.
  • mrsamsa: Can you give me an example of an argument that bases its conclusion on a probability?
  • mrsamsa: So when scientists say that creationists are probably wrong, they aren’t dismissing their claims as true or false?
  • mrsamsa: I’m not sure how this relates to my question.
  • mrsamsa: Since truth is binary in your view, if they aren’t fully dismissing of creationism, and they aren’t fully accepting of evolution, then surely they’re both in the same position of being “neither true or false”?
  • mrsamsa: You’ve just said that if an argument concludes that something is “probably wrong/false/untrue/etc” then they aren’t dismissing that claim.
  • mrsamsa: You explicitly said that people can’t dismiss claims as true or false if they’re talking in a probabilistic way.
  • mrsamsa: I don’t see how any of this addresses my question.
  • mrsamsa: And yet clearly I ended up being correct.
  • mrsamsa: I think you’ve misspoken there – a sound conclusion can’t be false.

Can you imagine trying to argue with him? Such a joy.

Notice that this is just the genetic fallacy argument he is using to derail other conversations. He does a similar style of arguing with other arguments, but I’m not going to bother going into more trouble trying to understand what can’t be understood.

The ban

In my opinion, there’s more than enough evidence than mrsamsa is most likely a troll, as so I decided to temporarily ban him for a month. There are some considerations that must be pondered before banning somebody, depending on the sub, it might be perfectly fine to ban somebody that we can’t be 100% sure is a troll.

Part of this analysis was sent to the mod team for a second opinion, but since no strong opinions against the ban were voiced I decided to go ahead with it.

Unfortunately due to some internal issues, his ban got reverted. I would attribute this as a mistake, and miscommunication, but it is quite telling what has been mrsamsa’s behavior after the ban.

He has been consistently lying about the reason why he was banned, and why he was subsequently unbanned:

mrsamsa:

Yeah because felipec banned me for disagreeing with him, and the other mods overturned it because that’s not against the rules.

This is a lie. He knows what was the rationale behind the ban, since part of this analysis was sent to him, so to attribute the rationale to a “disagreement” is disingenuous at best. He was banned because he engaged in bad faith, and that’s against the rules.

It is also a lie that the other mods decred he didn’t violate the rules. For starters only one mod did engage with the situation.

mrsamsa:

It’s pretty crazy that being wrong (in the eyes of the mod) is now an instant bannable offence. I assume the other mods must have thought there were others reason that justify the ban, otherwise hopefully it’s hashed out between them and the user.

He is lying about the reason why he was banned; it wasn’t because he was “wrong”, and he knows that.

mrsamsa:

What do you think of him banning me for “not answering questions” to his satisfaction (where he wanted a yes or no answer to a question I explained didn’t have a yes or no response? Or for “snarky” remarks like “keep up”, “think about it” and “this is a stupid argument”?

As you can see in this analysis, he wasn’t banned because of that; it was because he didn’t answer virtually any question directly. It is his behavior in aggregate that shows this.

mrsamsa:

Yeah he said the same thing about my ban which turned out to be him asking another mod and then banning me before they replied. So I don’t know, but the mods seemed fair in dealing with me so I assume they’ll look at both sides of the issue there.

That’s yet another lie. Some back and forth happened before the ban was applied.

mrsamsa:

Felipec banned me for disagreeing with him, I appealed it and the other mods agreed that there didn’t seem to be any basis to it and overruled him.

Another lie, and knows it. He saw the discussion that lead to him been unbanned, and no point did anyone say there wasn’t any basis.

Suspect

If his behavior in conversations wasn’t enough evidence, there’s also reason to believe that he has more than one user, who also engage in these discussions. In addition his comments constantly get more than five upvotes, which is extremely rare in deep discussions. This suggests that he is tricking the system. But not only that, but he gets upvotes on comments on old threads that are supposed to be invisible for other users. This means there’s practically zero doubt he is gaming the system.

I am also in contact with at least three users that have noticed the same behavior; each time they discuss with mrsamsa their comments are always voted down, and the ones of mrsamsa up. Not to mention the endless discussions in which mrsamsa never addresses an actual point.

The weird thing to find would be a productive discussion with him.

Conclusion

Let’s summarize what user mrsamsa did:

  • Didn’t talk about Eric Weinstein’s argument (argument W)
  • Didn’t address my argument about Sam Seder (argument F)
  • Didn’t accept a textbook definition of a genetic fallacy
  • Didn’t accept that focusing on the argument X, is better than Y
  • Didn’t accept that he provided two different arguments “I doubt X” vs “We should doubt X”
  • Didn’t accept that “I doubt X” arguments are useless
  • Wasted everyone’s time
  • Rehashed the same discussion in other conversations
  • Lied about the reasons of his ban

Regardless of what the actual motives of mrsamsa are, it’s fair to say this is not the kind of behavior anyone should accept in their online community.

This kind of behavior is not easy to see unless one is engaging in the actual discussion, and not simply avoiding it following the traditional advice “don’t feed the troll”.

Moderators most likely would never see the obvious tricks being used over and over, because they don’t typical engage with the trolls, and looking at any individual comment there’s always the possibility to be taken in good faith. But in aggregate there shouldn’t be any doubt.

Modern trolls rely on these man-power limitations, exploit the good faith of moderators and users, specially in communities that value freedom of speech. They hide in plain sight, and constantly derail conversations claiming to be good actors.

What they don’t expect is somebody keeping track of the amount of times they engage in troll tactics, such a smoke screens, ad hominems, and poisoning the well. So that’s precisely what we should do; actively deal with them.