Trolls, Safe Spaces and Disagreements

      40 Comments on Trolls, Safe Spaces and Disagreements

I decided to post this here instead of in the Fat Head group on Facebook. The subject of the post is in response to conversations in the group, but I think it’s relevant to the blog as well.

One of the many doctors whose lectures I’ve enjoyed (it may have been Dr. Eric Westman) told a story about his first day in medical school: a professor told the students, “Over the next twenty years or so, we’ll learn that half of what we’re teaching you today is wrong. Trouble is, we don’t know which half.”

Yup. Twenty years ago, I still thought saturated fats clog our arteries and Grape-Nuts with skim milk was a healthy breakfast. Heck, back in the 1980s, I was writing for a small magazine and telling people to avoid saturated fats and eat their grains.  Bad advice straight from the USDA, repeated under my byline.  Shudder.

I know better now because people disputed what I thought I knew. They asked questions. They posed challenges. They provided evidence that what I believed was wrong. Thank goodness I didn’t just close my ears and cling to my beliefs. If I’d insisted on maintaining my beliefs because changing them would remove me from my comfort zone, I wouldn’t be as healthy or happy today.

I’m pointing that out because of two equal-but-opposite forces that seem to pop up regularly in the Facebook group — and probably pop up in all kinds of online discussion venues:

1. Trolls who deserve to be banned.
2. A tendency by some to label anyone who debates a point as a troll who deserves to be banned.

I’ve said it in comments on the blog, I’ve said it in the Facebook group, and I’ll say it again now: debate and discussion are good.  Disagreements and challenges and counter-challenges aren’t always pretty, but they enable the Wisdom of Crowds effect to work its magic.

We’ve had a few people in the group announce that they’re leaving because they don’t like seeing comments or links to articles that dispute the benefits of low-carb or ketogenic diets. They want a supportive atmosphere, dangit, not never-ending debates.

Well, sorry. I’m not a fan of the “safe space” mentality. That’s the kind of nonsense that’s ruining American universities – our supposed centers of learning. The teachers and administrators who create “safe spaces” for students are doing them a huge disservice. They’re discouraging critical thinking. They’re encouraging group-think.

That doesn’t prepare students for the real world. In the real world, people are going to disagree with you. They’re going to challenge you. If you’re convinced your beliefs are legitimate, you’d best be prepared to defend them … and a namby-pamby “supportive” environment doesn’t prepare you for anything except being an intellectual lightweight.

Facebook groups and blogs aren’t universities, but if you visit them because you want to learn, then you’ll be doing yourself a favor by adopting the attitude that should exist in universities – i.e., the attitude expressed by that medical-school professor: much of what you think you know today will turn out to be wrong. If it’s wrong, you’re better off finding out that it’s wrong – and the sooner, the better. People who pose challenges to your beliefs are doing you a favor, because they might just lead you to discover something you believe is wrong.

But what about when people challenge our beliefs and we’re not wrong? Well, in that case, there are two likely outcomes, and they’re both good: 1) you develop a strong argument to support your belief, and 2) that strong argument supporting your belief is convincing to someone who wasn’t previously convinced.

Someone expressed concern about a hypothetical newbie who isn’t well informed and might be swayed by an article warning about the dangers of eating meat. Surely we must act to protect that newbie by banning such articles from the group.

Uh, no. As I replied to that comment, would you rather the newbie be exposed to a “meat kills!” article in the Fat Head group, or by receiving it in an email from a well-meaning relative or co-worker? I’d rather the newbie see it in the Fat Head group … because we have hundreds of intelligent, well-informed members who can (and will) explain why the article is nonsense – complete with links to evidence that it’s nonsense.

So as I wrote in the group, let’s avoid the temptation to simply dismiss or (worse) heap scorn on anyone who asks challenging questions or dares to debate a point. If you’re sure they’re wrong, explain why they’re wrong. Prove them wrong. We’re not going to ban people for engaging in debates. As one member aptly put it, this isn’t about defending the tribe.

Now … having said all that, I don’t have any problem with banning genuine trolls, so let me define genuine troll. A genuine troll is someone who obviously joined the group (or who shows up in comments here) for the sole purpose of trashing low-carb diets. Often they post and post and post and post and post, apparently believing whoever argues the most automatically wins.

I don’t feel any obligation to indulge or tolerate those people, because frankly, they’re just jackasses who can’t stand it when other people don’t agree with their beliefs. They remind me of two quotes from Eric Hoffer’s terrific book The True Believer:

A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.

The uncompromising attitude is more indicative of an inner uncertainty than a deep conviction.  The implacable stand is directed more against the doubt within than the assailant without.

If you’re happy with yourself and confident in your own beliefs, you don’t feel driven to go find everyone who doesn’t agree with you and convert or belittle them.

I’m a fallen-away Catholic, but I would never join a Catholic discussion group for the sole purpose of trashing the church. I think many vegans have kooky beliefs about meat, but I would never join a vegan discussion group for the sole purpose of trashing vegans. I’m a libertarian, but I would never join a Democrats For A Bigger And More Activist Government discussion group for the sole purpose of trashing Democrats.

Why not? Because that’s jackass behavior. People who engage in that kind of nonsense aren’t interested in an actual discussion, because they don’t believe they have anything to learn from the group’s members … but by gosh, they believe they have plenty to teach the group’s members. So they feel compelled to join groups where the inferior or misguided minds have gathered and try to enlighten them – for their own good, of course.

As I mentioned in a post on Facebook, I don’t have time to read most of what’s posted in the group.  I could spend entire days just trying to catch up.  So I’m not always aware of when a genuine troll is polluting the group.

I do remember one, however.  In response to charges that he was trolling, the guy replied something like, Gosh no, I’m just curious and here to learn!  I ask all these challenging questions and post all these articles about the dangers of low-carb diets so people can tell me why those articles are wrong.  It’s all part of my learning process.

So I went searching for him online.  Turned out he runs some group promoting a low-fat diet, and he makes plenty of comments in that group about how low-carb diets will kill you and low-carb dieters are crazy.  Okay, now that’s a genuine troll.  I banned him.

(Next two paragraphs added Tuesday based on comments and emails from readers.)  Unfortunately, some people who don’t fit my definition of genuine troll also need to be given the boot because they’re incapable of engaging in debates and discussions without hurling insults and perhaps even threats.  It’s not about creating a “safe space” where ideas aren’t challenged; it’s about maintaining a tone that invites participation.  If I visited, say, a Facebook group on raising chickens out of curiosity, and the first thing I saw was members hurling insults and threats and four-letter words at each other, I’d leave.

I’ve only banned a few people personally, but one of them got the boot because when Chareva asked him politely to stop calling people c%@ts  and f#$@tards in our group, he came back at her with a nasty and aggressive reply.  (He likes to tell people he was banned for arguing in favor of eating potatoes, because that story makes him the Free-Thinkin’ Hero instead of the jackass who insisted on maintaining his “right” to yell F@#$TARDS! at other people in a group he doesn’t own.)

If you’re aware of genuine trolls in the Facebook group, let us know. If you’re aware of people who can’t discuss or debate an issue without engaging in personal attacks, let us know.  We’ll deal with them. But let’s not label anyone who expresses a doubt or a disagreement as a troll. We don’t learn with our eyes, ears, or minds closed. And we all still have plenty to learn.


40 thoughts on “Trolls, Safe Spaces and Disagreements


    Good post. BTW, one of those trolls that has recently been in the “discussion” (and apparently has been banned from the group) has sent me three message requests. First two were rude. Third one is threatening. (I ignored all three requests, but I copied them, just in case I need evidence.)

    It’s a strange world we live in, this Facebook world. 🙂

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Some celebrity (which one, I don’t recall) said in an interview many years ago that based on his experiences dealing with the public, he estimates about 1-2% of the people who appear to be normal and functional are actually insane. I’d say the online world, despite all the good it does, has proved him right.

  2. Kathy in OK

    Not many kids get to grow up in a rural environment learning about living things and also have parents that can prepare their developing minds for life in the real world. Your daughters are two of the luckiest people on the planet.

  3. Linda

    Such a relief this morning to have hot coffee and be able to sit down and read this blog! Living in Florida with good ole hurricane Irma has given me an appreciation of a number of things! I certainly appreciate the guys from the power company who worked all night restoring electricity! I got mine on at 5 AM after a loooong time- a lot of my city still doesn’t have it yet! And I’ve learned to appreciate the value of being able to read on the internet. Didn’t know how much I enjoyed that every morning with coffee!! Thus, I have a new appreciation of you Tom and all the work you do!

    This post was great and I was glad to see it. I can think of several people who definitely need to see this! I call them evangelists. If they were on the internet, they would definitely be trolls. I have one living next door, who is firmly set in those “heart healthy whole grains” doncha know?? I’m periodically questioned about my way of eating and I know it’s just a ruse to attack again. I’m going to refer this post to her, even though I know it won’t do any good. Just something I have to do.

    Thanks again for all you do! And thank you today, especially- so nice to be able to read this again!


  4. Firebird7478

    I actually left the Facebook Group a number of years ago because one person called me a liar when I told him what my strength was like on a LCHF diet (he believes it makes you weaker, not true).

    I also left because one dedicated group member chastised me for eating Wendy’s chili when I was in a pinch. “I would NEVER put that stuff in my mouth”. Well, my cat never ate a slice of bread until he got out of the house and had little to eat for 2 weeks. We coaxed him out of the place he sought refuge with a slice of whole bread and he downed the thing in no time.

    It wasn’t the trolls. It was some members of the group who are too rigid in their thinking that did it.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Two sides of the same coin, I guess. In both cases, we’re talking about people who can’t stand it when others don’t share their beliefs.

      1. Firebird7478

        I agree, but I also admit there were a few trolls there that were there for no other purpose than to annoy. There use to be a kid on there who would ask a question about something then respond to everyone’s answers by trying to prove they were wrong.

  5. Barbara K

    Thank you for a well written argument on internet protocol. I really liked the Eric Hoffer quotes. Will put that book on my “read when you find time” list. I should memorize the quotes so that I can use them when needed when discussing… (fill in the blank).

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      The True Believer is a terrific book. It was written in 1951 but is (sadly) just as relevant today. It’s also short enough (175 pages or so) to read in a day, although I’d wager most people read it twice.

  6. Stephen T

    It’s astonishing that what we should eat is so contentious. Nina teicholz describes nutrition as ” a blood sport”. There’s bad Government advice, vested interests and ‘moral’ views that are more important than honesty. It’s a mess.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Someone (don’t remember who) said if you want to start a fight at a dinner party, talk about religion. If that doesn’t work, talk about politics. And if that doesn’t work, talk about diet.

  7. Malaena Medford

    I’m part of that group and got into a few arguments with anti-fat and anti-cholesterol people. Made a few friends, actually, after I posted some really long essays with scientific links and explanations of what the studies said. Got a couple people removed because of their antics being anti-meat trolls. They cannot push a true argument, either. They kept linking me off to pro-vegan blogs and YouTube videos as proof of their beliefs instead of providing anything remotely scientific.

    Sorry, cupcake, that doesn’t fly.

    I am an adamant believer in what I know but if I don’t know something for sure, I up and say I don’t because there’s no point in believing something if it’s not been proven (in the nutrition and health world, that is). I have my own theories of some things in that and have proven some by taking personal experience into account. A lot of studies are lacking in just about every credible facet, so it’s hard when one has to wade through trash to get to the good stuff.

    If you can prove me wrong, do it. I welcome it. After being vegetarian and nearly dying on it, I welcome anything that can tear away falsities that harm me. However, if it involves a study where coconut oil is shoved into a muffin and the coconut oil blamed for atherosclerotic progression, I will shut that person down so fast it’s not even funny.

    1. Walter Bushell

      RE: Coconut oil blamed for the muffin’s result:

      I saw a video with the same point about pizza.

      And a puff piece about canola oil where it was stated that butter has more trans fats so why avoid canola oil? Turns out that the transfat in butter is a different form even though the simplistic chemical formula is the same.

      Shape of the molecule is all important. It seems that, for example, their are molecules from the beginning of life, that are different in chemical formula, but have the same shape in all the currently extant life forms.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Haven’t read it and won’t bother.

      One of the keys to my happiness and success is to avoid putting other people’s garbage in my head. So when he started attacking me because I refused to obey his relentless commands to stop being friends with Jimmy Moore and declare the ketogenic diet harmful for everyone (which I don’t believe), I decided to ignore him completely — which takes some effort, because he can’t seem to let go of the idea that I must believe what he believes and doesn’t want to be ignored. (I’m hearing the bunny-boiler from “Fatal Attraction” in my mind right now: “I’m not going to be IGNORED, Dan!”)

      Ignoring him thus required not only refusing to read anything he writes, but blocking him on Twitter, blocking his email from my email accounts, etc.

      Here’s the funny thing: he used to declare his admiration for me. But being who he is, he only admires people as long as they agree with him completely … which means he’s not admiring them; he’s admiring his own reflection in a mirror. It’s egomania in disguise, not true admiration.

      1. S

        There’s actually nothing against you specifically. He’s just “analysing” the comments about him from your(?) Facebook page. Clearly in withdrawal from being banned.

  8. Oliver Constantine

    Hey Tom ! It took me 2 freaking years to get rid of the vegan dogma, although I wasn’t a real vegan. In my intimacy I ate a lot of eggs and dairy, but outside of my home I was vegan, just because I believed it was healthier. I was a hypocrite. I wrote a few posts here, not to troll, but those were questions I really needed an answer for. Looking back, I was very naïve. But now that I lost many kgs and feel much much better with this low-carb/paleo approach, I can say Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I wish you and your family all the best in the world ! Greetings from transylvania

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I can usually tell the difference between a vegetrollian and someone who’s asking sincere questions. I wish you and yours the best as well.

  9. Emily

    I would rather hang out with people with whom I disagree but who can handle disagreement than with people with whom I agree but who throw colossal temper tantrums when someone says a wrong word, whatever that is this week. Because being able to handle disagreement and talk about it in a civil way is the bedrock of freedom. I might disagree with you about how to have a better world, but the fastest way to the worst possible outcome is to start exiling people for thoughtcrime.

  10. Deb

    Brilliant post! (Much applause!) I used to be a vegetarian, but always was excoriated by others for not being vegan, for not being “pure” enough. The funny thing is, I thought vegetarianism was healthier, based on what I was reading at the time, but I also couldn’t stand the “group think”, so my personal research was always done on the sly. When true revolutionaries appeared on the scene (you are one of them: I think I bought a copy of “Fathead” for everyone of my friends who was open-minded enough to listen!), I felt liberated in a way that I cannot possibly describe. I cried when I read Gary Taubes’ “Good Calories, Bad Calories” (and watched Peter Attia’s Ted talk); I had been handed the keys to escape from prison. The journey isn’t always easy, but it sure is worth it. So, please keep fighting the fight: you have helped more people than you can possibly imagine.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I remember that same feeling of liberation when I realized (after some research) that foods like butter and eggs are good for us. Of course, the next feeling was one of intense anger towards the so-called “experts” who had convinced me those foods would kill me.

  11. JIllOz

    Hey Tom, being disagreed with on scientific grounds is one thing, but being subjected to personal criticism/abuse or having the person disagreeing with you refusing to look at the source material or thinking that Wikipedia is scientifically legitimate (even if it’s a good site for summaries and footnotes) – well, that’s not an argument.

    feel free to challenge me on this, I’ll be interested in your take on it.

    BTW, I told a doctor who appears in the media a lot that I don’t eat grains. He’s one of those who deplores the public’s sceptical attitude to “science” – as interpreted by the pro-grain type of medico etc. So he posted me an article – not based on science or analysis – but on why dietitians and such people say going gluten-free is not “cool”.
    Apparently I’m an eleven year old who needs to be patronised into following peer pressure.

    Another doctor deploring the “unscientific”, “emotive” (as he put it) stance of anti vaxxers did not refute them on scientific grounds. He just asked us to imagine how awful it would be to watch our “gorgeous baby die” due to not being vaxxed.
    Not “emotive” at all, eh? 😉

  12. Nick S

    I don’t see any point in allowing blatantly rude/aggressive/profane people to participate in online groups. A few bad words here and there aren’t necessarily such a big deal, but when they’re directed at other participants, it’s time for that person to get the boot. Nothing good can come of letting them keep bringing everyone else down.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Agreed. The internet has enabled wide-open discussions with no geographical limits, which is good … but it also makes some people feel free to hurl abusive language they’d never (we hope) use in a meeting hall where the participants were actually present.


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