Whose homework is it?

So, I’ve been reading a bit more on “Butterflies and Wheels” because of a good discussion on civility there:  http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2011/tell-all-the-truth-but-tell-it-slant/

Today I poked around in the comments of other posts, and particularly the one about Chris Mooney and Playboy, just to see what people were saying, and came across this comment:


In the last part of it, Russell Blackford says this:


“And I’m totally with Abbie (ERV). Kirshenbaum has always struck me more as anti-sex, or at least squeamish about human sexuality, than as concerned in a serious way about sexism. Same with Mooney, actually. Look at the way they freaked out when some people made the innocent mistake of assuming they were a couple. Anyone else would just have laughed it off, but they got all earnest and hurt. (Those who don’t recall this incident can look it up for themselves, though. I spent enough time last night doing another commenter’s homework.)”


Now, this comment would be enough for me to start making my point, but wouldn’t explain why this actually bothered me enough to make a whole blog post out if it.  But the other commenter he’s referring to is almost certainly me, from the thread referenced above.   And a short history of the issue is that I made an out-of-hand comment that Richard Dawkins says that teaching children religion is child abuse.  Blackford took exception to that — perhaps not just from me though, since there were others saying that too, or at least supporting me on it — and said that there were a lot of examples in interviews where Dawkins clarifies it and that I had it wrong.  I don’t want to go through that again, but suffice it to say at the end of all of that I agreed that at the very least the statement should be that Dawkins things that some of the accepted ways of teaching children religion are child abuse, but not all of them.  But the subtext is what I’m after here.

In my first reply to Blackford, I went through — quickly — my copy of “The God Delusion” to try to support my case.  I then said this:



“(BTW, if Dawkins has clarified this in more detail elsewhere, I would appreciate seeing it; I haven’t read that much of him outside of the book.)”


Now, if I was going to go on about tone, I’d have an issue here because someone else also asked for links and Blackford might have been replying to him and not me.  Fortunately, I’m after the content, as we’ll soon see.  And Blackford replied:



“He’s clarified it repeatedly in interviews and speeches, many of which are available on YouTube or on his site. He’s also said things in articles and on his TV programs. It would take me days of work to track it down for you. But you see, you have to do some of your own research before you make wild allegations, as you did in this thread.”


Well, see, the thing is … I had done my own research.  I read “The God Delusion”.  More than once, in fact.  Now, in hindsight I can’t remember if I formed my opinion of that statement from the book itself or from hearing what other people say about the book (so I might have fallen into the misconceptions and just never had it shake loose),  but then it seemed to me to be not inconsistent with that stance.  What reason would I have to do that extra research?  Why was it my responsibility?  This might be debatable, but the rest isn’t.

So I, rather annoyed at this point, replied more strongly on that point:



“Russell Blackford: If it would take you days to find one good example — which is all I asked — then it’s a bit much to say that I’m in any way dishonest or lacking in research for not having seen it.”


Actually, on reflection, I was actually nicer on that that I thought I was; I basically just said “stop calling me dishonest for not having seen it”.  And Blackford replied:


“Verbose Stoic It would take me days partly because there is so much of it, not because there is so little of it, as I made clear. Yes, I could go and rewatch television shows and look at YouTube to find you examples, but why should I? ”


“Why should I?”.

See, I’ve heard this sort of thing before in informal discussions on other groups a few times.  Someone will be trying to defend someone or some claim or idea on policy or whatever, and will say that there’s lots of evidence to support it.  I’ll say “Where?  I’d like to see it.”  And the person will reply “Search for it/do a Google search/whatever” and will invariably, when pressed, reply exactly as Blackford did in the first comment above, with some sort of variation on “Why should I do your homework for you?”.  And this has usually been met with silence from everyone, even those most insistent on the burden of proof.

Which is what surprises me, because to me the chain of events always seems to be: I say something.  You say I’m wrong, and that you have proof.  I ask for the proof, and you say that you don’t have to provide it since I can “search for it”.  But if you have the proof, why am I obligated to go out and look and search for it?  Why is that my job?  If you claim that the truth is out there, shouldn’t you be the one obligated to find it?  Heck, even if I did look there’s no guarantee that I’d find the same thing you did, and so my doing so is quite likely to lead to this:

“I found this and it doesn’t prove your point!”

“Oh, that’s not the one I meant.”

“Oh, so which one did you mean?”

“Go search again”.

This could lead to a lovely recursive argument that never ends, an infinite loop of my looking for something that I can’t find.  If it isn’t actually there — not just because the person is lying, but because it’s the result of a particular impression they had but not fully stated — then it’s a wonderful waste of time for me.  If it is there, then it may take a long time for us to settle on the right one and for you to, then, finally convince me.

Now, sometimes this can happen.  Someone vaguely remembers something and realizes that they’ll have a hard time finding it, and they don’t have time to look for it.  But in that case, you shouldn’t say “It’s not my job to find it”.  You should accept that it is your job — since you made the claim — and then say “But unfortunately I don’t have time to look for it right now.  You might be able to find it if you search for X in Y”.  At least give where you’d start and start specifically, and then leave it up to them.  If they decide to do the search, great.  If not, and even if they maintain the view that you claim to be able to prove wrong, that’s not a strike on them.  It’s not their job to provide the evidence you’re claiming supports your contention.

The first quote about Kirshenbaum’s position on sex (hey!  Stop sniggering!) is a prime example of this.  Blackford says that he considers her more anti-sex than anti-sexism, and uses the example of their reaction to being called a couple.  Which he doesn’t provide.  But how can he claim that that is one of his main examples if he isn’t prepared to back it up by providing it?  How is providing that evidence doing someone else’s homework for them?  Ultimately, someone would be quite within their rights to demand that he show his work, and every teacher knows that showing your work is part of your homework, not anyone else’s

Asking someone to show their work, especially in philosophy, is not calling them a liar or expressing disbelief, as Blackford suggests.  It’s simply a matter of “I want to make sure I agree with your interpretation”.  Maybe I’ll see it differently.  Maybe my view is different than you think it is and the clarifications might support my position (but eventually lead us to figuring out what our positions actually are).  It’s something that all critical thinkers should have as an automatic reaction.  It’s not in any way bad or to be taken as an insult.

Now, to give Blackford credit, the rest of the comment was the result of an hour+ examination of the relevant chapter in “The God Delusion” to support his interpretation, which would on its own have been enough to get me to accept that I my statement was an oversimplification of his position (although we still disagree on particulars).  So it’s not that he was completely unwilling to show his work, just not by digging up interviews.  Which makes it more puzzling, actually, but that seems to be more a matter of tone than anything else.

But, to sum up, if you claim evidence exists you have to provide it.  If you can’t do it readily, cop to it.  But don’t ask those who disagree with you to do it for you.

Personally, I don’t usually have issues with that; my first reaction is to take the time to try to find it.  My problem would be that sometimes even when I don’t find it I don’t let up on the idea as easily and quickly as I should.  I’d make that a New Year’s Resolution if I did that sort of thing …

5 Responses to “Whose homework is it?”

  1. OP Says:

    Mr(s)/Ms Stoic

    I’m a big fan of Russell Blackford generally. I enjoy reading Coyne, Benson and Myers (and others), but find them usually more caustic, and the comments sections can get *very* messy. Blackford is my go-to example for how to be critical without getting all unnecessary about it.

    However, in this case I think he overreacted, and you were hard done by.

    I think his primary mistake was to see you as arguing in bad faith. I do think you were wrong in your initial statements, possibly more wrong than you even now think yourself. But I don’t think you were arguing in bad faith, and as such did not deserve being treated as if you were.

    There is some mitigation. It’s my opinion that Dawkins is practically the most misrepresented person on the planet. So many times I’ve seen assertions made as to his opinion, or things he’s reported to have said that have no basis in reality, on many occasions being entirely contrary to the truth. I’m at a loss to understand it, but it looks for all the world as if there are two Richard Dawkins out there, and I’ve only seen the calm, rational, mostly-polite-if-sometimes-a-bit-cranky one. This happens even with those who I’d normally consider on Dawkins’ “side”.

    The child abuse comment is a particular favourite, often wheeled out to show how outrageous and over-the-top he is. But as Blackford showed in his reply to you, Dawkins’ position is much more nuanced and sensible than it is often made out to be.

    Were you one of those making such comments with scant regard for the truth of the matter, I’d be cheering Blackford on, and I’d consider you suitably pwned. But I think you are not one of those, and as such deserved a better response.

    In further defence of Blackford, I would point you at your own post: https://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/now-i-know-how-they-feel, in which you say:

    “Over the years, I think I’ve finally ended up in the same position as some of them, and now I understand why, with the recent realization that _I_ get that frustrated now, too … because they keep tossing out arguments that I’ve heard before, dealt with, and still have to deal with. So, then, you get frustrated at having to say the same things over and over again, and that bleeds into your replies.”

    I submit that this is one of those frustrating cases for him (or at least, that’s how he saw it).


  2. verbosestoic Says:


    Thanks for your comment; it’s good to know that it’s not just me. And my impression of Russell Blackford was pretty much the same as yours, which in a way makes this even more irritating.

    I also do concede that this was one of his main pet peeves, and so the reaction is understandable. So I was more after two main points, one that I said there and one that I said here.

    The one I said there was that he reacted, well, exactly as I describe in the post of mine you cited. But my natural reaction to that was to react more defensively. From there, the chain built and when the dust settled and it turned out that the big difference between my view and his was that I consider Dawkins to consider at least some of what he’d call indoctrination child abuse as well, and so that’s a fairly mild and reasonable disagreement … we still end up with hard feelings towards each other, just due to basic human psychology. And that’s why striving to be civil is a good thing.

    The point I’m making here is about, well, one of MY pet peeves, which is about people saying that there’s lots of evidence for their position but then claiming that the other person should go and find it (search for it themselves, whatever). I wouldn’t have made the post on it except that Blackford pretty much did that in another comment where the “pet peeve” mitigation doesn’t apply, and it’s happened to me before (from other people). It’s one thing to say “Um, I don’t actually have the time right now, but you can look for it by looking …” but not by giving the impression that it isn’t your responsibility. Burden of proof makes it your responsibility.

    For Blackford specifically, he does get credit for doing OTHER work to prove his case, so it’s more that underlying statement/attitude that’s bugging me.

  3. OP Says:

    “which is about people saying that there’s lots of evidence for their position but then claiming that the other person should go and find it”

    Oh, gods, yes. That winds me up something rotten.

  4. Fear of Theocracy and Secularism … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] had issues with Blackford when he gets angry, because he seems — to me, at least — to say some rather odd things when angry. But I take that more as proof that anger is not a good thing, and not necessarily as a strike […]

  5. So, it looks like Stephanie Zvan has blocked me from her site … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] as happened before with Russell Blackford, I’m always puzzled by suggestions that _I_ do research to prove their point. And all that […]

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