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Fallacies, Trolls and the Wonderfully Smug Jeff Pearlman

There is not a sports writer working today that will generate as visceral a reaction as Jeff Pearlman. His work for Sports Illustrated and in his books is often polarizing and built to cause controversy. So, when he came out a few weeks back to say he'd never vote for Jeff Bagwell because he had "evidence" that Bags took steroids, everyone on the internets jumped all over Pearlman. They called him names. They refuted his post with thousands and thousands of words. They badgered him on Twitter. It was an all-out assault on someone who was just expressing his opinion.

What did our Mr. Pearlman do? He tracked down some of the most egregious commenters for this editorial over at In it, he confronts two of his tormenters, calling them on the phone to...well, I'm not sure what he wanted to do with this call. What he got were apologies and what he railed against in the article was the anonymity of the internet.

What frustrates me the most about this is that it violates three things I can't stand: needless self-righteousness, faulty logic and the smug self-assurance of someone who is never wrong.

Anyone who has frequented internet sites with comments knows about trolls. These are the people who lurk on Justice's blog and other places on the internet, picking fights with whoever they can. There is usually name calling involved and you can't ever win an argument with a troll. Their whole purpose is to elicit a reaction. They don't care about anything besides starting a flame war.

Lots of people involved with media (both print and internet) get bogged down with trolls. They won't read comments or think they are counter-productive/useless because of a couple bad eggs. Some of the working writers I know won't even look at comments on their stories, because they think there's nothing to gain from seeing all the yelling and name-calling.

What they miss, of course, is all the great discussion and criticism brought about in a fair way. By focusing on the extreme negativity of the trolls, you miss the pointed critiques of your work. With his article on, that's exactly what Pearlman is trying to do.

He's created a logical fallacy. Well, he's actually created two of them to prove his point that he never explicitly makes. He sets up a Strawman argument with these commenters, saying that they're really the problem. Then, he uses selection bias to state his case, pulling two random commenters from his Twitter feed and tracking them down. In pointing out that these venomous attacks were taken back as soon as anonymity was stripped away, Pearlman is implying that people wouldn't criticize his work if they had to sign their name to said criticism (John Royal excepted).

Basically, Pearlman ducks the obvious questions about his journalistic integrity with another kind of fallacy, the red herring. By leading readers down this way, arguing against internet anonymity and comments, Pearlman avoids the serious questions he raises about his baseless accusations against Bagwell. However you feel about Bagwell's guilt or innocence, there is no proof he did anything that was against the rules or laws.

Pearlman crosses over that line when he claims to have "inside knowledge" that the Astros were the most steroided team in baseball back in the 1990's. He offers no proof other than to claim he uncovered this when he was doing background research for his book on Roger Clemens. When did it become okay for a working journalist to throw out unfounded, character-defaming rumors?

Well, Pearlman is careful not to do that. He just suggests the Astros clubhouse was rife with steroids without ever making the statement. He claims he'll never vote for Bagwell because of what he found out, but never elaborates on what that was. In essence, he's creating a story based on his opinions instead of facts. Now, Pearlman is entitled to his opinions. If he has evidence, I wonder why it's not good enough to print. Is he waiting on something? Or is the evidence not strong enough to support outing his sources?

Pearlman has a long history of pissing people off. He doesn't mind doing it, likes sitting on his high horse and moralizing about other people. He's not even above taking on his fellow sports writers, whom he shares access and a press box with. If you read his stuff for very long, though, you'll pick up a thread of smugness to his takedowns of others too. Just look at that article. He artfully puts down one of his would-be attackers in one fell swoop, calling him out for living at home (when his mom answered the phone) and the slight put-down of naming him as an "aspiring writer."

I could be reading this all wrong, but it seemed like Pearlman was at once saying this guy embodied the old joke about internet writers/bloggers and would never really be a writer if he kept his up. So, he's obviously vindicated in his scorn for them and any argument against his position.

I realized a long time ago that there were many, many people out there who were smarter than me. Just the same, there were many people who were better read, who had more common sense, etc. Basically, I had to continually strive and learn to get better, but it had no end. It was a constant process of self-improvement, because you'll never get to the top of the mountain. What bothers me about Pearlman is that he doesn't seem to get that. There's nothing to learn from other people. There's nothing he can glean from arguments against his stance. He knows what he knows and that's all.

Obviously, he's a well-respected journalist who has been successufl enough to write multiple books. He also works for one of the few national sports publications left. He's got about as wide an audience as you could hope for, but he's still left to deal with these undesirables. He knows more than anyone who would attack him on Twitter or on his blog, so why should he change his mind? He has inside sources, after all.

You know what that makes him? That's right, I'm going to call Jeff Pearlman a name and possibly refute this whole argument. Jeff Pearlman is simply sophomoric, the wise fool.

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.