do you even fisk, bro?

Posted by on July 12th, 2014

There has been a lot of debate recently around self-publishing and traditional-publishing, Amazon vs Hachette, and so on. Certain people in the debate seem hell-bent on ‘fisking’ as the be-all, end-all of discussion, and I thought it was worth throwing out my thoughts on that particular issue here. This will be long. It will be dry. Run away now, while you have the chance.

1. What is fisking?

Fisking is named for the journalist Robert Fisk, after various conservative bloggers began dissecting Fisk’s posts in the early 2000s paragraph-by-paragraph, rebutting each and every single point. It’s a technique that basically quotes the entirety of a piece, interspersed with passages that refute each paragraph, or even sentence, with the aim of utterly obliterating the argument in the original.

2. What is an argument?

Yes, let’s backtrack a little. Bear with me. At heart, an argument is an attempt to persuade someone that a particular conclusion is true. Arguments take various forms, which we won’t explore here, but at heart every argument is a variation of the following: here are some points, and here is what they mean. The connecting tissue, in formal arguments, is a kind of logical glue that is recognised in various familiar argument forms.

For example, one kind of argument form is known as modus ponens. It’s a very clear (and to my mind – forgive my inner logic geek here – rather beautiful, and don’t get me started on its skewed relationship to modus tonens) one, and it takes the form:

(1) If X then Y

(2) X

(3) (Therefore) Y

Here’s an example of modus ponens in action:

(1) If self-publishing makes you more money then you should self-publish.

(2) Self-publishing makes you more money.

(3) You should self-publish. (MPP, 1, 2)

The bit in brackets at the end is just a courteous note to the reader that the conclusion – premise (3) – isn’t being stated outright like premises (1) and (2) are, but deduced via modus ponens from them. We call an argument like this valid, because if the first two premises are true then the conclusion must be true as well; there is no other option. If those first two premises happen to be true as well, then we call an argument like this sound. If a premise is false then a valid argument can have a conclusion that’s bollocks. A sound argument is valid, but because its premises are true, it has a conclusion that is necessarily true as well.

So is that example above valid? Yes, the logic is solid, so it is valid. Is it sound? Well, that depends on the truth of premises (1) and (2). I suspect we could all question the truth of those: (1) because there might be considerations other than money; and (2) because we might wonder whether that’s necessarily the case. Nobody, as far as I’m aware, is making as simplistic an argument as this. The point is, there will be room for debate even about the premises of the most basic and straightforward of arguments.

Here are two more examples of MPP in action:

(4) If self-publishing many books makes you more money than self-publishing one then you should self-publish many books.

(5) Self-publishing many books makes you more money than self-publishing one.

(6) You should self-publish many books. (MPP, 4, 5)


(7) If self-publishing books as quickly as possible makes you more money, then you should self-publish books as quickly as possible.

(8) Self-publishing books as quickly as possible makes you more money.

(9) You should self-publish books as quickly as possible. (MPP, 7, 8)

Again, these are both valid, but not necessarily sound. Again, the only thing to attack is the truth of the first two premises in each case. Again, there is obviously room for debate on each one.

Let’s complicate this with one final premise:

(10) You should self-publish many books as quickly as possible (Conjunction, 3, 6, 9)

Sticking all the premises together, the whole argument (1)-(10) is completely valid. But is it sound? Is the conclusion (10) true? That depends on the truth of premises (3), (6) and (9), which themselves depend on two different premises each. We can’t attack the logic; the logic is valid. But if any of the underlying premises aren’t true – even a single one – then conclusion (10) falls. It is built on perilous foundations.

I’m not – again – suggesting anybody is explicitly making this particular argument; I’m just picking examples vaguely relevant to the subject at hand.

Now, obviously, arguments are rarely stated as formally as this. Blogs, petitions and letters – even when presented with apparent conclusions, given with extreme conviction – are often rambling things, without polite notations given in brackets for people to follow the thread. People don’t think; people don’t express themselves well. From such a morass, it can be difficult to extract the premises the conclusion is resting upon so as to challenge their truth or the logic that connects them. But however informal the argument, however messy the piece, all those premises and logic are in there somewhere, and I’m afraid extracting them is what you have to do.

3. Is ‘fisking’ some kind of gold-standard for debate?

No, it isn’t. Fisking works reasonably well when you’re critiquing a short argument, or one that contains (and relies upon) lots of facts that can be shown to be bogus. It’s a ‘shock-and-awe’ debating technique, but there are various problems with it. Here are some.

a) Length

If you truly want to engage with an issue then it is an act of intellectual generosity to state your argument as succinctly and simply as possible. (And it is almost always possible to do this). Fisking makes this very difficult. A 1000 word essay, when fisked, can run to 3 or 4000 words. That makes it very difficult to address (never mind fisk in return). Eventually, if everybody responds in kind, the heat death of the entire universe occurs around the fifth fisking.

b) Concision

A fisking of the above argument (premises (1)-(10)) would address every premise, obliterating each in turn. We could do that, but it’s not necessary. If you understand the argument, then carefully demolishing one premise (and explaining why) is enough. Doing them all is overkill, and probably ensures that your opponent (if we must see it in such terms) will begin defending the strongest link as though that will secure the whole.

c) Missing the Point

Arguing paragraph by paragraph is generally pointless because, as stated above, the argument will not usually be laid out paragraph by paragraph. The premises and logical connections will often not go one-two, one-two: they will be dispersed and scattered throughout the piece. As such, by addressing single paragraphs you might refute points individually, but miss the overall point they’re building towards. You might take down some of the scaffolding, yet there are still ladders and walkways to the top.

d) Distraction/soapbox

You might miss the overall point, either deliberately or accidentally, and make an argument in response that – while valid in itself – takes the discussion off on a tangent that favours your position rather than honestly engaging. Issues can be addressed in ways that have different repercussions, which don’t necessarily engage with the substance of the point being made.

e) Aggression

Fisking encourages people to disagree with everything someone says, no matter how sensible or banal. It’s overly-aggressive. People enter into it with the idea that “I must crush him! Every single point he makes!” – and so they attempt to do so. It’s not reasoned discussion; it’s not an attempt to see both sides of a debate, understand nuance, talk like adults. It’s debate as scorched-earth warfare, and consequently it often becomes about an individual’s ego rather than the issues. All-too-often, in fact.

f) Boring

It’s often fucking boring. It’s often very fucking boring.

4. Of course…

There’s an easy way around this. Well – maybe not easy, but certainly simple. When you want to argue with someone, you look at their argument and decide the best way to address it. In a small number of cases, fisking will be the way forward. In most cases, it would be better to attempt to extract the skeleton of the person’s argument and deal with that. It’s hard work, and it won’t win you easy points with your crowd, but it’s the intellectually honest thing to do. Assuming – and, I admit, this is a big assumption – that something as banal as intellectual honesty is what matters to you. 

This entry was posted on Saturday, July 12th, 2014 at 9:56 pm and is filed under General, Rant. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


6 Responses to “do you even fisk, bro?”

  1. peter winship Says:

    Is this a response to something, Steve? Not sure what you’re posting this for. Though it’s nice to hear all these lovely logical things again, straight out of first arts logic class, thirty years ago. What I wonder about that publisher/self-publishing ‘debate’ thing is why anybody ever posts about it – why do you bother replying to silly rants and rubbish? Wouldn’t it just go away if nobody bothered?

  2. stevemosby Says:

    There’s at least one very vocal individual in the Amazon/Hachette debate (amongst other debates) who seems to spend his entire life fisking people’s articles, often at considerable length, then complaining that nobody ever fisks him in return. It’s just been on my mind, is all, and I figured I’d write down what I thought. A bit incongruous, I know, but I was bored.

  3. Phil Mordue Says:

    I’m probably the only person reading this with a glint in his eye. As an ex-competitive debater I usually try to keep any arguments I have with someone as simple as possible. The reason for this is that the average person can’t argue for shit. (Not a surprise really, because most people can’t do something to a high level if they haven’t learnt or practiced.) Most people will either miss the point, go off on an irrelevant tangent, or fail to understand the assumptions they’re making. (Whatever assumption they make, is just self evidently true in their eyes… and people can make a lot.) – Despite all this, I’ll step out of the darkness for a moment and address one minor issue which I’m hoping you’ll enjoy/appreciate as a bit of a logic geek.

    I’m not going to add anything on fisking… there is more to add but you’ve done a good enough job of destroying it. And point f is your strongest in my humble opinion. The way you put that the logic used in modus ponens can’t be challenged… didn’t sit well with me. From the old debating days, we used to split the thought process for offensive (refuting an opposing argument) and defensive (building your own argument) arguments. The part that’s relevant is how you attack an argument made by the other side. We’d train people to look for the assumptions the other side have made and look at the causal links. (You can also find a counter-example but that’s a discussion for another day.) In the case of modus ponens… the logic can only stand if the causal link established between the points is solid. (Without that, it becomes fallacious logic.) I thought it was just a case of examples you were doing to quickly demonstrate things… but the causal links in the examples don’t exist, and even if they did they’d be based upon assumptions which couldn’t be generalised anyway. (That’s because of different individual circumstances for authors.) That’s just my geeky little nit-pick.

    The bigger point, which I think should be more widely appreciated, is that most people argue… but they fail to understand why formal debates or argumentation exist in the first place. The whole point is to try and get us closer to the truth, or find the best middle ground if there is no universal truth [because of the variables involved.] Since the majority of people arguing aren’t trying to achieve this… it’s a bit pointless getting involved. Perhaps if someone started to tell everybody to be a bit more positive in their engagement with others over the topic, then we might get somewhere pretty damned useful for writers everywhere. It could do with more people like you adding this sort of “take a step back” view. Who knows what we could accomplish if people didn’t get so worked up when they argue. (Bonus points for spotting the irony.)

  4. stevemosby Says:

    Hi Phil

    Thanks very much for your comment – and I completely agree with the nit-pick! Which makes me think that I didn’t explain myself well enough, so I’ll try to explain myself better now to see if it makes more sense.

    To take one of the examples (and I was being ironic in the post, because I have seen variations of this argument, both overt and implied):

    (1) If self-publishing makes you more money then you should self-publish.
    (2) Self-publishing makes you more money.
    (3) You should self-publish. (MPP, 1, 2)

    When I say I can’t attack the logic of this, I mean the logic of the whole argument form. It’s modus ponens, it’s valid, and that means if (1) and (2) are true then the conclusion (3) simply has to be true as well. So I can’t say anything like “your premises don’t establish your conclusion”, because if they’re true then they do. Instead, I have to attack the truth of the first two premises.

    In this case, for (2) I could question whether it’s even close to being universally true (it isn’t, of course). In the case of (1), there are obviously other factors to take into consideration. Not everyone cares simply about maximising their own income; I might prefer to take a guaranteed advance and a lesser cut so as to not have to deal with the upfront costs and hassles of arranging my own editing, cover design, etc. (And there are loads of other arguments).

    Now, I see that more as attacking the truth of that statement rather than the logic, which I was reserving for the connections between the premises. Perhaps slightly simplistic on my part, but I don’t think(?) we massively disagree.

    I agree with your last paragraph, by the way. I try to remain calm and collected, but frequently fail. Human nature, ego, etc. Sometimes it’s better not to get involved…

  5. peter winship Says:

    Well, Karl Marx said the point of an argument is to crush and smite the opponent, not establish the truth. Even to do that you need to share an assumption (a transcendental assumption even) of objective truth (that there is such a thing) with your opponent (if only to then ignore it), and given that and given the fact that the linguistic process (at the very least) ensures that we also share certain transcendental assumptions about logic (MPP, MTT and others are candidates, but there can be other much more complicated candidates too), without which we couldn’t even begin to communicate, it is, I think, often quite easy to work any discussion back to various agreed premises and develop a counter-argument from them (especially if you’ve been trained to do this), provided your ‘opponent’ is willing to go there. But I’ve found that most people are rarely interested in proving the truth (or disputing it) by any such methods. Most argument is rhetoric (with people all too obviously trying to crush and smite the opponent for reasons extraneous to those stated and admitted) and mostly people have an agenda in advance that is more or less based on ‘prejudice’ (unargued, as all of our beliefs are, at some fundamental level) and usually self-serving. That rhetoric rides on the back of logic (even if twisting and perverting it) is neither here nor there to most people. It’s rarely any use trying to argue logically with a born and bred (or even just bred) racist, for example. But I’ve found that it’s rarely any use trying logic with anyone at all, if your aim is to convince them of something. Rhetoric – and all its clever devices – can be much more effective. But I think you do a generally excellent job of crushing and smiting the opponent, Steve, and using the rhetorical argument ‘you’re too stupid to even understand formal logic’ is one nice way of doing this. 🙂

  6. Phil Mordue Says:

    Don’t worry Steve, as you say, we don’t really disagree. I’m just breaking things down even further. You’re just sort of encasing my point within two. It’s one of those little communications breakdowns where you’ve said modus ponens is valid… as a theory yes… unfortunately I then stumbled in like a boob to shout “hey it’s not always valid.” I should have realised it the second I used the term logical fallacy in connection with this. Damned Socrates saw this mix up coming from the damned written word. I will now go and consume some hemlock to punish myself.

    I’ve just looked back on my own point and should apologise for being horrendously unclear in an attempt to avoid appearing aggressive about it. (That’s the other thing when you’ve learnt to argue and practiced it… everyone assumes they’re good at making arguments and… it’s tough to not look like a complete asshole when you question them. I have no idea why, but it just always seems to come across as aggressive unless the other person knows how to argue a point correctly. In which case they’ll *usually* just take it in their stride. But you never know for certain since they might be emotionally invested.)

    Essentially all I was pointing out was an addition… that because the logic is put together on pretty assumptive points… you can usually attack both the assumptions and the causal links within. Plus I’ve always been on the side that modus ponens is assumptive by nature because it requires a tautology as the first statement without providing any causal link. (i.e. If X then Y. Immediate first question: how do we know if X then Y? What is the causal link? But you could also call that questioning an assumption. It’s both really. I hope that’s clear or I’m going to look incredibly stupid haha.)

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