… in fact, it is kind of an ethico-moral responsibility and a virtual obligation of PZ Myers and his vast readership.

There have been a number of cases recently where an internet (meaning, on a web page) poll regarding a politically charged topic usually linked to science education or creationism was mobbed like crows on a great horned owl by large numbers of pharyngulistas. What happens is this: PZ Myers finds out about the pole (how PZ finds out about things is a trade secret, but his tentacles are everywhere), and he posts a link to the poll on his widely read blog. This causes a very large number, usually a few tens of thousands, of readers to flock to that site and vote a certain way on the poll.

i-566534106c16352e19ec8fd3b4b8dda9-pz_polls.jpg

People have complained that this “messes up” the Internet, or that is is immature boring childish behavior. I want to explain to you why none of this is true, why PZ and the Pharyngulistas deserve accolades for this, and why they have to keep doing it.

If this topic interests you, then go to the Pharyngula pages where this is all happening and read through the comments where you will find both the belly-aching and the responses.

Crash this poll
When will they learn? Another internet poll
The Saturday poll

See also this.

First, I want to address the fallacy (that not everyone believes but that has been implied) that somehow a poll is “hacked” or “ruined” when PZ sends 89,000 people over there to vote “no” (or “yes”) or whatever. This is a fallacy at two levels. First, PZ never tells people how to vote. That is up to them. He simply informs them of the poll. But the core of this fallacy is about the idea that the poll is somehow invalid after the Pharyngulista’s have done their number.

I assure you that the poll was already ruined. It was already invalid. It was already a non-scientific method of collecting data embedded (usually) in a biased context and controlled (often) by an interested party. The poll was already of no value as a poll. Indeed, one could argue that the poll is more valid after it has been Pharyngulated than it was before.

Which brings us to the second major point I’d like to make. This is a phenomenon of import and meaning. We do not know how many people read Pharyngula. Or at least I don’t. These things are hard to know. But the responses to the poll crashing recommendations vary a great deal. This implies that this is not a case of mindless zombies merely doing the bidding of a cult leader. No. The Pharyngulistas take the suggestion to crash a poll and do what they want with it. The magnitude of the response is in a sense a reflection of the way a large number of individuals feel about the issue, in combination perhaps with the intensity of the poll (as a symbol) itself. I have observed that the pharyngulation effects on these on line polls ranges from a mere 7-8,000 up to nearly a half million. In cases that relate to major issues in the Creationism-Evolution ‘debate’ it seems that not only do nearly all of the Pharynulista’s participate, but a few (I assume) vote more than once, and some people pass the call to action around on other blogs, which recruits even more people.

How is an action of this magnituded fun, childish, or boring? How is it not significant? It is a show of strength, of commitment, of the ability to rise to the challenge, to field an army, to kick someone’s ass, of the strength and breadth of an alliance of many spread across the Intertubes that has formed in response to serious attacks on our society, our educational system, our children, science, truth, and honor.

Onward!

Comments

  1. #1 Pierce R. Butler
    May 11, 2008

    … one could argue that the poll is more valid after it has been Pharyngulated …

    Hmm, I dunno.

    Why don’t you get to the bottom of this by setting up an online poll?

  2. #2 Jennifer Ouellette
    May 11, 2008

    I agree that the original polls were already invalid before the crashing. But it IS silly and immature behavior to deliberately mess up a lame attempt at an online poll. That won’t keep me from participating — it takes 2 minutes to behave immaturely, and who can resist that guilty pleasure? — but I don’t have any delusions that it will have any lasting impact on science, truth and honor. Let’s not kid ourselves. Just have fun with it.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    May 11, 2008

    This is completely off-topic, but it seems to be up your alley: creationists in Maine attempt to remove evolution from high-school curriculum.

  4. #4 Orac
    May 11, 2008

    Lots of straw men here, I’m afraid. For one thing, no one criticizing the crashing of polls has said that they were valid before crashing or that sending thousands over to mess up the poll is in any way akin to “hacking” the poll. Really, that’s a pretty piss-poor characteriazation. For another thing, it’s just not accurate to say that PZ doesn’t tell anyone “how to vote.” In the post where he sent people over to crash the Expelled! poll, he said this:

    “”Yes” is currently leading by about 3:1. If everyone goes over there and votes “no”, it will raise Mark Mathis’s blood pressure a few points.”

    Regarding the Frankenmuth poll:

    “They don’t expect a horde of ravening godless atheists to descend on them and vote ‘YES!’ they never do. Mount up, internet warriors, and assault their poll with fire and sword and level it until they reel back crying for mercy.”

    Regarding the Pledge of Allegiance poll, he all but tells people how to vote too. Really, if you’re going to use this as a point in your argument, at least get your facts straight. It’s disingenuous to say that people are free to vote however they want when PZ tells them how he wants them to vote and knows that the vast majority of them will vote that way.

    Your claim that “it is a show of strength, of commitment, of the ability to rise to the challenge, to field an army, to kick someone’s ass, of the strength and breadth of an alliance of many spread across the Intertubes that has formed in response to serious attacks on our society, our educational system, our children, science, truth, and honor” actually made me laugh because of it’s hilarious self-importance. Do you really think that fun but childish vandalism of little Internet polls has any effect whatsoever except the occasional annoyance of someone you disagree with? Do you have any evidence to support that contention if you do?

  5. #5 decrepitoldfool
    May 11, 2008

    I fail to see how the poll is “crashed” when a group of like-minded people visit it and vote. Isn’t that what the poll is for, to find out what a lot of people think? What’s keeping the AFA from encouraging their readers to visit the poll?

    A poll could be said to be “crashed” if it were restricted somehow (say you had to give your AFA member login), and then someone figured out how to get in without that and published the method in an opposing forum.

    Otherwise it’s totally fair game, and could be enlightening for policy makers to realize there really are a lot of people out there who take the nonreligious view.

  6. #6 Joe Shelby
    May 11, 2008

    I don’t have any delusions that it will have any lasting impact on science, truth and honor.

    Ah, but it IS a matter of truth. It’s one thing if its a poll on a theoretically objective site like CNN or MSNBC.

    But these polls that PZ invites the crashes to are not. They are on sites that are otherwise self-reinforcing in their beliefs – like WingNutDaily, they simply filter out all differences of opinion to the point that their audience simply doesn’t even realize a different opinion exists, much less that the different opinion is actually the majority view of the rest of the country.

    By crashing these polls, we, however briefly, wake them up to that fact.

    Yeah, the very next day they’ll take down the poll, ignore that it ever happened, and keep feeding themselves their own bullshit as always. But for one brief moment, we shook them out of that self-fulfilling complacency. THAT is why I would crash such polls.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    May 11, 2008

    Orac: I’m so glad I made you laugh!

  8. #8 Chris
    May 11, 2008

    “First, PZ never tells people how to vote. That is up to them. He simply informs them of the poll.”

    This seems obviously false from a reading of the first two links you provide.

  9. #9 Todd
    May 11, 2008

    I believe the originators of poll crashing are the knuckle dragging denizens of Free Republic. It’s childish when they do it, and it’s childish when Pharyngulates do it. The difference being that the Freepers think they are accomplishing something, whereas Pharyngulates just think it’s funny.

  10. #10 Idlethought
    May 11, 2008

    I think in some senses it’s akin to spiking cannons – a poll broken in such a way means nothing, but then we all know it never did. However it can no longer be used as a weapon. Better a broken and unusable poll than a broken poll that can still be used by the forces of daftness.

  11. #11 Jefrir
    May 11, 2008

    For the claim of “PZ tells people how to vote”, well, yes he indicates which way he expects us to vote, but you’ve got the causation the wrong way round. We don’t vote a certain way because PZ tells us to, we read Pharyngula because we already share his way of thinking on these things. There aren’t many people inclined to vote “yes” when asked if creationism should be taught in school and also enjoy reading Pharyngula, and those that do aren’t going to vote “no” just because PZ tells them to.

  12. #12 Preston
    May 11, 2008

    I’m all about a little chimpanzee warfare. It is absolutely okay to occasionally remind insular mutual agreement clubs that they exist in a bigger world.

    And btw, I believe that cuts both ways. PZ’s victims should be welcome to put down their Chick tracts and jump into the fray over on Pharyngula.

  13. #13 Christie
    May 11, 2008

    Orac said:

    >>Do you really think that fun but childish vandalism of little Internet polls has any effect whatsoever except the occasional annoyance of someone you disagree with?< <

    The one effect that I project it may have is the inability for anyone on the creationist side to point to the poll's results as 'evidence' of their position's popularity. Of course it wouldn't have been actual evidence anyway, but that doesn't seem to generally stop them. It's one less false but impressive-sounding number for them to use, ('According to a poll conducted by the Coalition for Putting Family Values Back In Your Breakfast, an overwhelming 87% of respondents want prayer in public schools.')

    >> Do you have any evidence to support that contention if you do?<<

    Nope. Pure conjecture.

  14. #14 Katharine
    May 11, 2008

    FWIW, I think the poll-crashing is great, and highly indicative of the fact that the Internet is a massive conglomerate of human absurdity.

  15. #15 Katharine
    May 11, 2008

    By which I mean anything as silly as that poll on the Interweb deserves to be hijacked.

  16. #16 Stephanie Z
    May 11, 2008

    Hurrah for the childish! If I get too grown up to shout, “The emperor is wearing no clothes,” whenever and wherever I think it needs saying, even in the “unimportant” places, bury me on the spot. I’m dead.

  17. #17 MH
    May 11, 2008

    Internet polls may be unscientific, but they can still have value as propaganda. By Pharyngulating a poll, you prevent it from being used for that purpose. You may even get some right-wing authoritarians to re-think their position. Sheeple don’t like to think they have wondered away from the flock.

  18. #18 Art
    May 11, 2008

    Crashed, more appropriately termed: Reoriented to reflect reality and provide a surprise outcome, polls have very useful purposes.

    It reminds the ‘in’, assumed dominate group, that they are not alone and that while they may be many and powerful they are not without rivals who are watching, taking notes, and given half a chance, will unseat them for dominance.

    This tends to knock off a lot of the rough edges and rhetorical excesses. I sometimes go to some of the true-believer forums of various sorts. It is interesting to see the changes over time. I lurk for a while and note the usual structure of five or ten percent of the people posting 90% of the posts. This select group get into rhetorical pissing matches where they seek to top each other in hyperbole and excess. This drags the whole forum into extremism and it starts to read like a fanatical religious orgy with snake handling, people wandering the isles ‘speaking in tongues’ and writhing on the floor acting out their fears about being possessed.

    Then just a few rational people show up. You are threatened, abused, ignored as the ring leader attempt to protect their power base by scaring you off. You hold your ground and speak sense. If something is ridiculous you say so and provide supporting evidence. This causes an uproar.

    Assuming you don’t get banned, and often even if you do, in many ways the closed atmosphere of the cult and the unselfconscious spell it casts is broken. The close group of true believers have had their fantasy world invaded and exposed to the light of day.

    The middling majority on the forum come to themselves and contemplate how they must be seen by the outsiders and, now in a rational state of mind, themselves. The small group of ring leaders try to whip the crowd into a froth but reality is not conducive to throbbing veins and frothed mouths. The powers that be on the forum often embarrass themselves trying to attain the former level of irrational hyperbole.

    The whole forum changes. Sometimes just for a short time but sometimes much longer. In some cases whole the small group of extremist is taken aback people who have previously been intimidated by their rhetoric emerge from the shadows. With the rationalists taking the heat they are much more free to express dissent.

    You know you have made progress when the formerly powerful few stop posting so much. The moderates start taking up the slack. They start thinking and selectively agreeing with the rationalist and the radicals, as the case, and the perceived merits of the posts, may move them.

    In a few cases I have seen forums moderate and become lively little communities that host real discussion with people really thinking and forming factions with a large percentage of moderates who tend to self-police the forum. In at least one case the official moderators were able to step aside. Anyone who went over the top in rhetoric or abuse was greeted with a string of disapproving posts.

    Trolls attempting to cause flame wars, for the most part, just couldn’t get the fire to burn hot enough or long enough to do anything but provide a warm glow. Frustrated they tended to wander off or moderate and become a member of the community.

    It is interesting how people, and group dynamics, can change when they realize that they are not surrounded by only compliant people who will go along and true believers. Crashing polls gives the true believers a hint that they are not alone. That people are watching. That if they cross a line there is a chance they will be called on it. That their little cloistered conceptual world is no longer a permissive environment.

    A healthy change.

  19. #19 Blake Stacey
    May 11, 2008

    We don’t vote a certain way because PZ tells us to, we read Pharyngula because we already share his way of thinking on these things.

    Bingo.

  20. #20 sailor
    May 11, 2008

    “It’s disingenuous to say that people are free to vote however they want when PZ tells them how he wants them to vote and knows that the vast majority of them will vote that way.”

    No its not Orac, he can tell them all he likes, but as you follow the readers on his blog you know full well they have their own ideas and will only tag along if they agree.

    Neither is it stupid. What he is doing is pointing out the existance of the poll that most of his readers would not otherwise know about.

  21. #21 J. J. Ramsey
    May 11, 2008

    Orac: “Do you really think that fun but childish vandalism of little Internet polls has any effect whatsoever except the occasional annoyance of someone you disagree with?”

    I’m not sure it makes sense to call poll-crashing “vandalism.” Silly, yes, and perhaps a bit stupid, but harmless and not nearly as idiotic as, say, referring melodramatically to Christianity as a “death cult for sheep.” (What the heck is a “death cult,” anyway? Seems like a phrase that carries the scary connotations of the word “death” without actually meaning anything in particular.)

  22. #22 Pierce R. Butler
    May 11, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey: What the heck is a “death cult,” anyway?

    A cult which worships an instrument of torture and execution, and insists its followers will be rewarded post-mortem?

  23. #23 melior
    May 11, 2008

    J.J,

    a “death cult” sounds in plain words like a sort of group who celebrates the anniversary of someone’s torture and execution.

    Perhaps they even attach mystic significance to the death itself by insisting it has profound consequences centuries afterward, encouraging its elaborate re-enactment, pretending to symbolically drink the blood and eat the flesh of the victim, or wearing jewelry and building statues of the torture device used.

    Barbaric-sounding, sure, but it’s not like anyone would actually do such things in the 21st century, right?

  24. #24 PZ Myers
    May 11, 2008

    It’s disingenuous to say that people are free to vote however they want when PZ tells them how he wants them to vote and knows that the vast majority of them will vote that way.

    Uh-oh. I better not tell them all to jump off a cliff, then, because Orac thinks they aren’t free to oppose my will.

    Why am I suddenly picturing Thulsa Doom in the Conan the Barbarian movie? I don’t sound a thing like James Earl Jones!

  25. #25 Blake Stacey
    May 11, 2008

    Fucking blogo-navel-gazing. Shouldn’t the propriety of this issue be decided by an Internet poll, anyway?

    (I actually killed five minutes trying to make a WordPress polling plugin actually work, in the hope that I could shamelessly cop a Pharyngulan traffic boost.)

  26. #27 J. J. Ramsey
    May 11, 2008

    melior: “a ‘death cult’ sounds in plain words like a sort of group who celebrates the anniversary of someone’s torture and execution.”

    Yes, but what does such a group have to do with mainstream Christianity? :p Maundy Thursday is a pretty solemn event, and “celebration” isn’t exactly the best word to describe it. There are so many sects of Christianity that one of them makes the crucifixion into some tasteless hardy party, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head. I know what you are trying to get at, but you’ve just proved my point. By using the phrase “death cult,” Myers has suggested a bloodthirsty group that gets turned on by death, and that suggestion has led to a distortion on your part, where the remembrance of something grim and tragic gets described with a word (“celebrate”) more commonly used for upbeat occasions. Of course, you could argue that any religion could be described as a “cult,” which for a certain technical use of “cult” is correct, and that any religion where death is treated as significant can be regarded in a sense as a death cult, but that makes the phrase “death cult” too overbroad to be much use, except as a cheap way of sounding provocative without saying much.

    But this is getting off-topic.

  27. #28 Pierce R. Butler
    May 11, 2008

    … There are so many sects of Christianity that one of them makes the crucifixion into some tasteless hardy party, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head.

    Howzabout “Catholicism”?

    “[T]asteless hardy party” is a good thumbnail of St. Mel’s Passion (and I don’t care whether he’s a “true Catholic”).

  28. #30 Skemono
    May 12, 2008

    I’m not sure it makes sense to call poll-crashing “vandalism.”

    Well, of course it does. If voting in an internet poll isn’t vandalism, next you’ll be trying to tell me that checking a book out of the library isn’t theft!

  29. #31 grinch
    May 12, 2008

    God its a poll on a frickin web page just asking to be clicked by anyone. Get over it.

  30. #32 Tulse
    May 12, 2008

    Are the votes of some people less valid than the votes of other people? I don’t recall PZ ever suggesting that automated systems should be used to flood a poll with fake votes, or that some other hacking be used to actually “crash” the poll software. All PZ has done is let his readers know of an opportunity to express an opinion, and I don’t see how that is at all inappropriate in a poll that asks people to express an opinion. If PZ suggested that people should vote for a pro-evolution candidate in the US presidential election, would he be “crashing” the election? Just because PZ has a large audience doesn’t mean that the opinions of that audience are any less worthy of expression and tallying. Isn’t that what polls are all about?

  31. #33 AndyD
    May 12, 2008

    On the surface it seems, possibly, childish and it could be perceived that the final result, after “crashing” (and I assume that term is used in the sense of “gate crashing” a party rather than “crashing Windows 98″) is a poor reflection of reality but seriously, when the poll relates to creationism (or other hot-bed topics) does anyone believe the supporters of the poll aren’t going into blogland drumming up support for their side?

    The fact the MySpace creationism poll was so soundly defeated before being taken down suggests worldwide opposition to creationism in the classroom far, far, far outweighs support for it. Why should opponents avoid the poll once they’re made aware of it?

    I would also argue, after reading many of the pro-science blogs, that the woo, anti-vacc and ID supporters so regularly prove themselves willing and capable of deceptive practice that they too will be doing what they can to cheat the results.

  32. #34 XYZ
    May 12, 2008

    If PZ suggested that people should vote for a pro-evolution candidate in the US presidential election, would he be “crashing” the election?

    But what if a bunch of Canadians started casting votes in the US presidential election? I think polls like the Frankenmuth poll are intended for a regional audience. Sure there are no restrictions on who can actually vote but they probably aren’t expecting PZ’s hordes (otherwise where would be the fun in ‘crashing’?) and as an unscientific internet poll, trying to limit who can actually vote (Michigan only, that county only, etc.) is more trouble than it’s worth. Besides, do you really think if they put a note saying ‘Please only vote if you’re from county x’ or whereever’ that PZ and his gang will respect that?

    As for rendering them useless, sure the numbers become useless, but each one becomes a datapoint in an ‘atheist conspiracy’ scenario.

  33. #35 Stephanie Z
    May 12, 2008

    Hey, I’ve never been part of a gang. PZ, do we get colors, or would that make it harder to hide the conspiracy? You know, like posting directions to the polls in the open on your blog?

    XYZ, are atheists really so scary?

  34. #36 J. J. Ramsey
    May 12, 2008

    Pierce R. Butler: “‘[T]asteless hardy party’ is a good thumbnail of St. Mel’s Passion”

    I don’t know if you actually saw the movie, but I did, and with a church group at that. No one was particularly in a party mood after seeing it.

  35. #37 Pierce R. Butler
    May 12, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey: I don’t know if you actually saw the movie, but I did, and with a church group at that. No one was particularly in a party mood after seeing it.

    I’ll admit having skipped that one too. Torture porn just isn’t my thing – part of my aversion to death cults, I s’poze (especially those marketing themselves as the “culture of life”).

    I hope nobody in your group brought children to see that bloodfest.

  36. #38 Hank Roberts
    May 12, 2008

    I suppose it would be fruitless to suggest the answer is to set up an online poll on this question?

    Well, what if you publish all the IP numbers that vote, for analytical purposes, to show how many are fake, how many are repeaters, how many vote for both sides, and so on?

  37. #39 rommy
    May 12, 2008

    The original polls may well be a waste of space and time, but crashing them is still childish. To be honest as far as I am concerned any credibility PZ had has gone if he feels he has to stoop to this kind of gimmick. It seems to be all about his ego and juvenile pranks.

    By all means point out why YECs are wrong. But crashing a poll suggests it had some kind of credibility or you wouldn’t have bothered. When vandals write graffiti on someone’s wall who do most people feel sympathy for, the vandal or the owner of the wall. Apart from your band of supporters, who will no doubt all be congratulating each other on what great fun they had and how much difference they made, most people will feel more sympathetic to the victims. Don’t you get it? – it backfires.

    Greg – your arguments about why the polls are no good may well be correct – but it doesn’t matter – what PZ organised was still pathetic, childish and does him no credit.

    Sorry PZ – I have long thought that your blog was one of the weaker science ones – too much ranting not enough science – go take some lessons off Darren at Tetrapod Zoology on how to write a science blog.

  38. #40 Fernando Magyar
    May 12, 2008

    rommy, lighten up already, PZ has a blog and it doesn’t cater to effete science snobs, so what? Go have a few beers or something.

  39. #41 Brownian
    May 13, 2008

    Sorry PZ – I have long thought that your blog was one of the weaker science ones – too much ranting not enough science – go take some lessons off Darren at Tetrapod Zoology on how to write a science blog.

    Yeah, enough with the anti-creationism stuff. I’m sure if we all just left the creationists and anti-science loons alone they’ll soon tire of trying to create a theocracy based on ignorance. They don’t need us getting all up in their faces and disagreeing with them (How tacky!). Let’s go back to the pre-Sagan years when scientists stuck to equations and petri dishes and didn’t sully their latex gloves with issues like science advocacy or other social activities. Insulated from the boorish laity, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to discuss platypus genetics–at least until they pull scientific funding completely.

    Anybody know if these ivory tower doors lock from the inside?

  40. #42 Greg Laden
    May 13, 2008

    This is testable. We can count. PZ writes a lot of science politics, non-science politics/commentary, and science-not-in-these two categories. Count the number in each category per month, compare with the equivalent count at Tetrapod zoology (which is a great blog) and report back.

    Might as well count this for four or five blogs. Feel free to include mine. Anyone who wishes to gather the data can be a co-author of or contributor to (no promises until I see the product!) a post we’ll put up here, perhaps even with a fancy graph or two.

  41. #43 MichaelSilvia
    April 20, 2012

    This is perfect that people are able to take the personal loans and this opens up completely new chances.

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