Posted by: Chris Maloney | November 21, 2014

Slaying the Skeptic Troll: A Primer

Maybe you’ve just started a blog. Or you are out on the web, answering questions about what works for you when you catch the common cold. Suddenly, there’s a comment about how nothing you say has any validity and, furthermore, you’re a bad person for saying it.

You’ve just encountered a skeptic troll. Under ordinary circumstances the troll would be a normal person. Maybe a little taciturn and prone to drinking beer in the corner while mumbling about politics. But online, this normal person becomes infected with the skeptic troll virus, and he exhibits all the signs of the illness: personal attacks, a free use of profanity, and a sense of godlike accuracy in all his statements about anything.

In this way, a skeptic troll is nothing like a true skeptic. A true skeptic questions assertions, but maintains an open mind. The skeptic troll does not question, he asserts in the most absolute and sweeping terms.

Like a skunk, the skeptic troll is best avoided. He sprays everything in his path with a sense of angry loathing, but will normally soon pass you by.

The most common wisdom is given by the slogan: do not feed the trolls.

The skeptic troll seeks new prey, and wishes to present his scent on as much of the web as possible. For the skeptic troll, any interaction is a “victory” and he is addicted to the battle that plays out only in his own mind. Like a gambler, he receives a dopamine hit for every time he strikes out. So his goal is the maximize those strikes.

But occasionally, like a skunk that has burrowed under your porch, the skeptic troll must be dealt with. He (and I do mean he, the ratio of male to female skeptic trolls is astronomically high) parks himself on your blog and refuses to leave. Having had my share, I offer these pointers to those who haven’t had the displeasure. Those questioning my expertise in this area are welcome to email me and I will be glad to talk about my battle scars.

Before engaging, realize the skeptic troll wins as soon as he has your attention. He gets really excited if he can get you mad. (The dopamine and adrenaline mix will give his limbic system an exciting bath almost as good as a street drug). A really, really, good day for a skeptic troll involves you getting mad enough that you reply to him in a way you will regret later on. If he does this once a day, his skeptic troll self feels like he’s done his part to save the world from whatever he’s going on about.

So, if you want to slay a skeptic troll, you have to commit to the whole journey. You have to make it more uncomfortable for him to stay than to leave.

The battle with typically take three parts. Sometimes the skeptic troll will jump right to the third part, in which case you’re close to winning and/or you need to block all his future comments because he’s just not right in the head.

Act I: NO DATA!

The skeptic troll will call you all sorts of names, and tell you that not only you, but nothing in your field has any validity. Usually this is enough to deter anyone not in the field, so often this wins the skeptic troll a victory. For the unschooled, the triumphant presentation of data signals the end of the battle. But the skeptic troll is just getting warmed up.

Act II: BAD DATA!

So you’ve ransacked medline and pubmed and come up with a randomized, controlled study that shows that, yes indeed, you were right about what you were saying about vitamin C being helpful for your nursing home friend’s cold. After all that effort, shouldn’t you get acknowledgement, maybe even an apology? Don’t hold your breath.

The skeptic troll, already salivating at the thought of your imminent defeat, will become enraged by your insolence. Your study was too small, too large, it failed to account for the albino pygmy population.

At this, you may feel the need to present more data. Be assured that if Jesus and William Osler came down and did a study together, the skeptic troll would scream it was invalid. My favorite skeptic encounter came from a skeptic who, while acknowledging he could not read German, still felt confident in his analysis of the inaccuracies and shortcomings of a research paper written in German. He failed to see the irony in his sudden psychic ability to know the qualities of a paper he could not read.

A variation of the Bad Data! argument will be for the skeptic troll to place on his comment extended tirades against the data you presented written by other skeptic trolls. These are invariably blog posts or poorly presented websites, sort of a display of the skeptic troll habitat online. These can be dealt with, but they are time consuming. Usually the skeptic troll just tires you out with these. If you persevere, you will thwart his aim and move on to the next level.

If the skeptic troll has connections, or even if he does not, he may entreat an Uber troll to come in and take up battle with you. These are fearsome beasts indeed, and come accompanied by hundreds of followers who will attack as a pack. I am perhaps the smallest target to ever engage one of these creatures, which led to an engaging of the entire range of Uber trolls. Be not afraid, for they are beatable. And your blog will gain greatly in the Google ranks.

Act III: YOU SUCKA!

When faced by an adversary armed with data and unwilling to relent, a skeptic troll will begin to attack personally. Nothing is off limits, and at this point profanity is more the norm than the exception. The troll is weakening. Continue to respond on the merits of your case, not on the attacks leveled against your person.

The Troll is dead. The death of a skeptic troll is not a large event. He simply “no longer has the time to deal with you.” As if his busy schedule of attacking other people has been impeded by his discussion. Perhaps it has. If it’s his blog you’ve been on (not recommended, as it extends the battle while he increases his traffic) he will block you without warning. Or he will stop commenting and start making comments about you on another post. You can follow him, but he will run from you. Don’t become the troll yourself. Let him go and go on about your online life.

 

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