FAIL Better

Recently AT reminded us of FLICC, a taxonomy of contrarian tactics introduced in 2007 by MarkH. His bro’s Deck still shines. As a first post of a science blog, it does the job. As a permanent classifier, it deserves some love. I propose my own model – FAIL. First, some light criticism. Mark lists these items: conspiracy, selectivity (cherry-picking), fake experts, impossible expectations (also known as moving goalposts), and general fallacies of logic. Conspiracy does not resemble a tactic. Moving the goalposts doesn’t imply an unrealistic demand, it only switches criteria in a line of argument {1}. Finally, the last rubric could comprise others. Thus it needs specificity and homogeneity.

That can be accomplished by organizing the tactics along strategies, or as Mark himself observes, as means to frustrate legitimate discussion. How to break exchanges? A classic answer stipulates that communication relies on cooperation. Accordingly, four principles guide our contributions: we try to make them informative, truthful, relevant, and perspicuous. Generalizing or rebranding, we get FAIL:

How to FAIL at Climateball
(Click on the image to zoom in)

In this model, an exchange FAILs when factuality, authenticity, importance or lucidity breaks down. All well and good, now comes the fun part – sorting tactics. To that end I cataloged tricks and determined how they succeed in FAILing. See the tree diagram above. Three characteristics underlie each principle. Connected to them, leaves (the white bubbles) exemplify frustrating tricks {2}. Most terms are commonplace. Before explaining the others, let’s put the model into words:

A contribution is factual with true support, a reality-based conclusion, and under reliable judgment. It is authentic if its author is truthful, committed to the position advanced, and habilitated to propound it. It has import if it addresses the question being discussed, implies a functional call to action, and abides by social conventions. It is lucid if the position is correctly specified (think WYSIWYG), to the point, and not self-defeating. This interprets the cooperative part, shown in colored bubbles. The leaves illustrate obstructive tactics. I offer pairs not for completeness but for contrast. Let’s explain the first row.

Mind probes are as easy to presume as hard to verify; the target of tilting at windmills fails to exist or apply; two sorts of unsoundness. Card stacking is one-sided, the BS Artist says stuff: two clashing ways to lack authenticity. The Peddler exploits cues to hook a recurrent pet topic whatever the exchange, whereas squirreling is the art of deflecting in any direction other than the actual topic. Parsomatics refers to overanalysing words so much that nothing of what is said makes sense anymore; the Soapboxer epilogues and sloganeers with vague platitudes. Two conflicting tactics that drown the exchange in gibberish.

You surely know about armwaving, punting, backpedaling, astroturf, charlatanism, double binds, playing the ref, galloping, soapboxing, racehorsing, and moving the goalposts. Incredibilism has been covered years ago at MT’s, peddling here at AT’s, and Eli introduced parsomatics in his aptly named Law Blogging. Four neologisms beg for a short description. Super Leap denotes any inferential overextension (H/T AlbertC). Void Operation does the exact opposite: nil, with self-sealing, circular or question-begging arguments. Infinite Replays echoes endless quests for Climateball perfection, seldom worth it. Fist Pumping represents excessive celebration, like in SpeedoScience.

Labels and examples ought to help develop a feel for the game. They do not caution to play Fallacy Man: it often bends acceptability {3}. They rather show how to spot what breaks. An unsound argument fails because it lacks support. Astroturfing fails because it fakes support. A double bind fails because nothing can satisfy the support requested. A double standard fails to support anything consistently.

Climateball players do not need any model to understand this. You already know the drill: say what you mean, mean what you say, keep on topic, and try not to hog the mic. Cool kids express their critical skills by meming the eternal questions: (1) u sure, (2) who dis, (3) y tho, and (4) wut. So you got no excuse. Nevertheless, the exercise allowed me to get a better grasp of the tactics for my Manual.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. FAIL again. FAIL better.


{1} An expectation can be unreasonable without being impossible to meet it. There are many other dimensions to consider: cost, time, overkill, etc. A point-refuted-a-thousand-times comes to mind.

{2} There is an infinity of rhetorical tricks and more ways to classify them. To capture each one in an exhaustive list would be a fool’s errand. I contend that each breaks at least one of the four axes of FAIL.

{3} Fallacy Man fails to realize that his stance falls to the fallacy fallacy. In fairness, the fallacy fallacy succumbs to the fallacy fallacy fallacy, in turn countered by the fallacy fallacy fallacy fallacy. In short: don’t be the Fallacy Guy.

{4} Here is a simple recipe to recognize a trick. Ask yourself: how does it hinder the ball from moving forward? In a way, armchair contrarians know how to run out the clock.


About Willard
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12 Responses to FAIL Better

  1. russellseitz says:

    Imprimis: you should get a Bigger Typeface to avoid teh attainder of Victory By Illegibility.

    FAIL is problematic in failing address two modalities of rhetoric of growing impudence and importance on YouTube and Fox :

    Feigning Idiocy and Playing To The Madness Of Crowds

    Tucker Carlson’s rising SNL fame as a Network impersonator exemplifies the former,
    and Viscount Monckton’s full-throated imitation of Screaming Lord Sutch’s parliamentary career the latter.

  2. Willard says:

    Thanks, Russell. Forgot that WP shrinks images. Will put up a new graphic tonight. Meanwhile, click on the one that is there. It will open in a new window.

  3. Willard says:


    An new image has been uploaded, with bigger fonts. This should be more gentle to your eyes. Tell me if that works for you. Beware that I’m no graphic designer. As for your counterexamples:

    I would see Tucker as a true soapboxer. His populist talking points are not meant to be clearheaded arguments, but to throw red meat at the feet of his audience. One could also argue that he’s a BS artist, however it’s unclear how low his truthiness can go. Also, his overall rhetoric might not be acceptable in other countries or in other eras.

    I considered playing dumb when building the model, but rejected it as as an example. The reason is is that appeals to ignorance are complex beasts. They can contain a super jump, e.g. that because we do not know everything we can’t know nothing. They can be used to feign ignorance, like when a contrarian is Just Asking Questions. Under that light, it amounts to punting. It shifts the epistemic duty to do one’s homework.

    All in all, I’m fairly confident that all the tricks you have witnessed in your Climateball career can be classified along those lines. The point of the exercise is not to produce a code of conduct, but to have another tool to understand the nature of the gamesmanship you face.

  4. russellseitz says:

    I’ve never accused Tuck of originality, and he turns off his Fox persona offstage. Homage is due Paddy Chayevsky for inventing half the character he emulates, Rushbo being the compliment.

  5. Nice post, w, many good links to read. The penultimate graf inspired me to choose my personal Climateball anthem. Enjoy.

  6. russellseitz says:

    Thanks, Brandon , but the lyrics have been culturally appropriated from Sun Tzu: 兵 者 詭 道 也

  7. abides by social conventions

  8. angech says:

    “How to break exchanges? A classic answer stipulates that communication relies on cooperation.”

    Not sure.
    Communication may request or demand cooperation.
    I do not think communication requires cooperation, or relies on it.
    Certainly it is improved by cooperation

  9. Willard says:

    Thanks, BG.

    Yes, Everett?

  10. Susan Anderson says:

    Great links, sorry to see I’m less articulate 10 years later (2012, P3). I can’t escape the idea that we are now fighting a rearguard action, with a ratchet from the fake skeptic powers that be that makes progress difficult and backsliding easy.

    But the real reason I’m here is in hopes that the video imbedded in this YCC post (Bob Henson who works with Jeff Masters) will cross the pond, and that it’s pithy straightforward communication in the imbedded video will come across.

  11. Willard says:

    Thanks for that video, Susan:

    There’s more juice, it rains harder.

    *Chef’s kiss*.

  12. Willard says:

    > Communication may request or demand cooperation.

    In that context, cooperation refers to how we interact to make ourselves mutually understood. As principle it does not apply as some kind of universal that makes communication possible, but what we usually take for granted in our ordinary affairs. Take implicatures:

    It would be really hard to say everything that we mean in a way that our meaning is truly and absolutely explicit. This is what parsomatics flout. Meaning is clarified through interaction, not through oracle.

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