[linux-elitists] Request for Comments: How to Deal with Internet Trolls - the Cognitive Therapy approach

Shlomi Fish shlomif at iglu.org.il
Sun Mar 6 01:50:45 PST 2011

Hi Jason,

On Sunday 06 Mar 2011 10:22:36 Jason White wrote:
> Shlomi Fish  <shlomif at iglu.org.il> wrote:
> >Well, one possible solution to this is to make sure you're not a bigot of
> >anything. In the chapter about anger in "Feeling Good" Dr. Burns mentions
> >the fact that what we may consider as bad (e.g: someone blasting music),
> >may be fine for other people (who like to hear that music). So it is a
> >good idea to avoid thinking things like "Perl is the worst language
> >possible." or "Python is the perfect language." or "The GPL is a criminal
> >[= "unethical"] licence." or "BSD-style licences help proprietary
> >software vendors." or whatever, because things are more complicated than
> >that, and there are always some matters of taste, and flexibility.
> This is true in many cases: one ought to avoid over-generalized claims, and
> such statements as "x is the worst operating system ever written" clearly
> fall into that category, unless you have a lot of comparative evidence to
> support it.
> One type of trolling behaviour that I've sometimes encountered
> (occasionally in response to posts of mine) occurs when, in the midst of a
> hitherto rational discussion involving disagreement, someone intervenes by
> attacking one or more of the other participants, explicitly or by
> implication. As David Sternlight observed in a Usenet posting, there's
> "nothing like a good ad hominem when logic fails".
> There are various ways of responding to such conduct, for example by
> invoking the acceptable usage policies of the discussion group, by
> ignoring the offending remarks, or by politely requesting that the
> participant concentrate on the facts and the logic of the discussion.
> These are only a handful of the possibilities, of course.

Yes, ad-hominems can always be provocative, but I believe you can handle them 
using the Cognitive Therapy technique I described.

For example, in the latest sub-thread about tmux's licensing, where someone 
said that the "GPL has won" and I posted a longish message about why that may 
not be the case, someone else replied that: "Nick knows a great deal more 
about licensing than you do.". While not being flammatory, it was still an ad-
hominem attack, and I responded like that (although in a split forward):

Perhaps. Doesn't mean his brief observation was right and what I said was 
wrong. Even the greatest expert can be wrong sometimes, and even the greatest 
idiot can sometimes make an insightful comment that will either be proven 
right or lead the observer to an interesting insight. 

I initially considered saying it was an "ad-hominem" and then giving the quote 
"A wiseman can learn from a fool, much more than a fool can ever learn from a 
wiseman." (by Cato the Elder, IIRC), but I then decided it against this course 
of action, because I realised that saying something in one's own words is more 

Naturally, saying that's an "ad-hominem" is a useful pattern of applied logic 
(following the recent software management craze of finding patterns and anti-
patterns in everything) between one or more intellectuals or pseudo-
intellectuals who know what this means and can identify it. 

I recall a Slashdot comment that said something that after reading a few 
opinion pieces or reports by a certain IT personality, he concluded that she 
was always false and misleading, and that he doesn't trust her. But then said 
something like "I know it's an ad-hominem, but I've grown tired of her.". Now, 
in that case, it is no longer an ad-hominem - it's just inductive 
generalisation ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inductive_reasoning ), and we 
need to make them sometimes because we lack the time read or learn everything.

As an example, my impression of a certain open-source software "guru" (whom I 
won't mention by name, but you can probably guess who he is.) is that he is a 
compulsive doom sayer, complete bigot of a certain Linux distribution, and has 
a militant online persona, so I avoid reading what he says (though I respect 
him as a software developer and engineer and for doing some advocacy work.). 
So I try to avoid reading what he says when I do.

For similar reasons, I also avoid reading ESR's "Armed and Dangerous" blog, 
because it contains a lot of stuff that usually disturbs my peace, even though 
I have a lot of respect for him for writing the "Cathedral and the Bazaar", 
the "How to become a hacker Howto" and other good and insightful documents 
(and naturally, he has contributed a lot of functional code to many important 
projects, as elegant or inelegant as it may be[1].).

Well, Philosophy can be fun. Have fun, and hack on and sorry for the long 


	Shlomi Fish

[1] - See my thoughts about it here: 

Shlomi Fish       http://www.shlomifish.org/
Freecell Solver - http://fc-solve.berlios.de/

The prefix "God Said" has the extraordinary logical property of converting any
statement that follows it into a true one.

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