Author Archive

The ‘you haven’t read everything I’ve ever written’ fallacy

17 February 2010

Several days ago, I came across a link to a web forum hosted by Dorothy M. Murdock, also known as D.M. Murdock, but far better known as Acharya S. For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Acharya S is an author and proponent of the Christ myth theory.

But while numerous historians share the position that Jesus was a myth, few go as far as Acharya S, who, from my understanding, believes Jesus was deliberately invented as part of a grand conspiracy. Acharya’s popularity particularly rose after she was prominently featured in the first part of the controversial Zeitgeist film, which became an instant hit among 9/11 deniers. To date, I can’t find any instances where Acharya has made any public statements regarding her own beliefs about who caused 9/11.

But all that is just background. Since I’m not a historian myself, I can’t comment with any authority on the validity of Acharya’s fringe historical claims one way or the other. That is best left up to the experts.

The real purpose of this piece is discuss an argument Acharya used on her forum in response to her critics:

“Acharya’s overreaches and doesn’t back up her work.”

This statement is absolutely fallacious and almost invariably comes from those who have not read my work at all or who have failed to understand that that voluminous material I freely present on the internet frequently represents EXCERPTS from my books, which contain thousands of footnotes and citations of pretty much each and every point I make. (Obviously, the online excerpts DO NOT contain all of the details – that is what the books are for.)

I’ve seen her use this argument on numerous occasions. Now on the surface, this may sound entirely reasonable. And of course she may be right. Again, I haven’t done the research myself and so won’t comment on the veracity of her claims or how much of it is backed by evidence.

And as the excellent atheist blogger Greta Christina points out, it’s unreasonable to expect to receive the totality of a person’s position on a broad topic from just one particular instance:

It doesn’t make much sense to assume that the atheist critique of religion you’re reading that moment is the only atheist critique of religion this writer has ever come up with.

However, it is possible for one to take this rationale too far and conclude that it’s reasonable to ignore or dismiss out of hand any critics who haven’t read everything one has written on a particular subject. Demanding that substantive criticisms and questions must come from those with a complete knowledge of everything you’ve ever written is most certainly not a reasonable expectation. And every author must learn to accept this and take it in stride. If they didn’t, book tours would become a lot more confrontational very fast.

An author or any person promoting ideas in the public sphere should have the capacity to briefly and concisely address reasonable and even some unreasonable criticisms and questions on the spot without having to immediately resort to excuses to invalidate their opposition’s right to ask a question. But too often, I see Acharya and others immediately jump to the “you haven’t read everything I’ve ever written’ gambit.

For instance, I was shocked last year when I saw this tactic so frequently used by Chris Mooney, a usually terrific science journalist and thinker as well as a newly appointed co-host of the Point of Inquiry podcast (Congrats Chris!) when defending controversial passages concerning the growing outspokenness of atheists  in his book, Unscientific America. This was especially troubling because the book had only just come out at the time and Mooney had on countless occasions already laid out his position regarding aggressive atheism on his blog, The Intersection, as well as numerous other news outlets. So demanding critics first read the book before commenting on a general position he’d already presented elsewhere seemed like somewhat of a cop-out. I mean, if he failed to adequately articulate his position in his piece in the LA Times, for instance, then it sounds like an unsuccessful piece. And if that’s the case, why should anyone even bother to read it?

The fact is that if a person states their opinion in the public sphere, that opinion is subject to scrutiny at any time regardless of a critic’s knowledge about the history of the individual making the initial claim. And the same certainly goes for those who make specific statements of fact in the public sphere. If someone thinks that that a statement is factually wrong, they have every right to question it regardless of who the claimant is, what their credentials are, or what they’ve written or said in the past.

Whether the “you haven’t read everything I’ve ever written” gambit is used to deliberately dodge substantive criticism or not, I can’t say. Maybe some people use it as a deliberate dodge while others don’t. But while nobody should reasonably expect an author or anyone arguing their point of view in the public sphere to condense their every thought on a particular subject to a few brief sentences, nor should the author get away with skirting legitimate criticism by dodging critics simply because they hadn’t read that author’s entire every word on the subject. And if you can’t find a way to briefly and politely address sincere questions or criticisms without treating it as a personally attack or without treating the inquirer like an idiot for not being an expert on your work, then maybe you should reconsider your position.

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Cults, religion, and the spectrum of social manipulation

21 August 2009

Photo by swthmal08 via Photobucket

Last Saturday, the New York City Skeptics hosted a lecture called, Cults and Coercion: How Ordinary People are Turned into Extraordinary Fanatics at the New York Public Library, Jefferson Market Branch. The lecturer was Paul Grosswald, a former Scientologist who left the infamous cult 20 years ago. (more…)