On Avicenna, plagiarism, and thanking those who regularly cry wolf while flailing us raw

Today, on the heels of a very bad overnight shift that had already despoiled my mental resources and spoiled my mood, I woke up to learn that one of our bloggers, Avicenna, had committed a cardinal sin and was kicked out of the network as a result. He’d plagiarised large sections of text from a wide variety of sources and incorporated those appropriated words into his post without attribution, and he’d done it serially, on a number of occasions.

In comments, much is being made of his quality of output, that it is unpolished, rambling, unstructured; these are absolutely forgivable in my eyes because what he was passionate about, what he decried or wrote in support of, I largely felt the same way. My main problem with his writing now, knowing that he’s plagiarized with such aplomb, is that I’m now inclined to wonder if every moment of lucidity he had actually came from someone else.

Worse though is how I now feel about him as a person. As a result of this breach, my trust has likewise been breached, and I now call into question everything he’s written about his own deeds unsupported by direct evidence as they generally are. It’s still possible he’s done many or most of these things, perhaps with less rhetorical flourish; but the fact that he played fast and loose with attribution, and then in my estimation lied so casually in his apology and his excuses for what he’s done, I’m afraid my trust has been violated thoroughly. Without direct evidence, I’m inclined to believe he’s been more or less self-aggrandizingly fabulist. I have no doubts that he’s a medical student in India, but I have serious doubts about other aspects of his life, as a result of what he’s done.

What is absolutely clear, though, is that he was liked despite his perambulating prose, and had an audience, and he was generally on the side of angels in his passions.

I must note that how the accusations came to our attention is rather problematic, however. See, there’s this group called the slime pit. They have existed for quite some time, coalescing around the idea that feminists are ruining atheism, and they’ve bolstered their ranks with men’s rights activists, *channers, antifeminists, and other reactionary mindsets. Many among their numbers have declared veritable jihad on Freethought Blogs for the grand treason of certain individual bloggers having banned them for behaving as assholes. They themselves have a tendency of mythologizing to the end of slandering people, and Avicenna was one of the people they mythologized about. From whole cloth, in order to undercut the seriousness of sexual assault accusations, they (more specifically, slime pit lion Richard Sanderson, plus pilers-on) invented a rape that they claimed Avicenna had perpetrated at a con that occurred while he was on another continent. This accusation came amidst dozens of such incredible claims about his heritage, his identity, his geolocation and his race, and had every appearance of being shit-slung-at-wall, and it turns out that in amongst these claims some of the shit — specifically, the plagiarism — was absolutely true and demonstrable.

Hemant Mehta did us a solid by vetting these plagiarism claims and posting the evidence he’d drudged up that Avicenna had been copying others’ work without attribution. For that, I am appreciative. I am also appreciative that a group fixated on taking down a blog network, who have spent literal years of their lives attacking bloggers here for no other reason than that they were bloggers here, have served an actual utility function. For that, I’m grateful that their malice has motivated them to provide the free work necessary to vet Avicenna’s works and document his transgressions. I am further glad that when the exec committee discussed, there was anger, sadness, and regret, but no apologetics for his actions, and that we took the only option available.

I know for certain though that that utility function, served once so far in amongst maybe hundreds of such scattershot accusations and contextless pullquotes aimed at all our bloggers, is honestly not worth years of the sort of bullshit women like Stephanie have had to put up with (NSFW). We do not have a watchdog or general editor vetting the content of our pages. We generally vet contributors quite thoroughly on their works up until we accept them into the fold, but then there’s honestly very little oversight thereafter — no censorship, no calibration against the hivemind’s will. It is possible — we are humans and a volunteer army, after all — that he had been plagiarizing even before moving in, and we didn’t catch him. We have failed in not catching his transgressions ourselves. But it is a hell of a leap to thank the slime pit for their service here, given how prolific they’ve been in their mudslinging. They are as the boy who cried wolf — or rather more appositely, ethics. We must be forgiven that we do not trust them initially, and for that, I’m glad that Hemant took the time to vet out one of their claims before posting about it.

There’s one rhetorical sleight of hand for which I can’t forgive Hemant though, in his post.

PZ had initially responded to the claim that Avicenna had plagiarized a piece of hate mail, a claim originated by those same trolls whose word we cannot take at face value. Hemant framed their email discussion as one about all the evidence at hand, by posting PZ’s response after all the evidence; PZ’s post about the initial claim is absolutely correct insofar as what Avicenna plagiarized was attributed to someone else. As someone with an email address displayed in public, I know damn well that you get some lazy-ass trolls who cannot be bothered to write a unique screed for their every recipient and that, divorced from knowledge a priori that he is prone to plagiarism, it is far more likely that someone copied a rant off the internet and emailed Avicenna, in which case he was innocent. The way Hemant organized the post and the way he admonished PZ in the outro, he made it seem — and judging by his comments, he successfully convinced an already anti-PZ crowd — that PZ had backed Avicenna against these more evidenced claims, when that is clearly not the case.

It is unclear whether Hemant wished to cast PZ in such a damning light in his post. The only tell that I have is that his link to PZ’s words is of a web.archive.org archival copy of PZ’s post in Avicenna’s defense, and that that sort of thing is done very frequently by people at the ‘pit in order to deprive us of hits or to make the claim that we regularly expurgate content when it catches us out (and not, say, when it causes splash damage or we are facing legal repercussions if we don’t). For the record, PZ’s post still exists.

And PZ is absolutely dead on in his post, though perhaps too regretful of the action of dropping Avicenna, that the people so fixated on taking us down have cried ethics enough without cause that we cannot take them at face value.

Perhaps we should, one might argue — perhaps we should give in to the ethical urge of vetting out every of thousands of claims of ethics violations against our bloggers. Perhaps we should allow ourselves to be DDoS’d out of existence by having all our bloggers tied up constantly in investigating whether or not Cuttlefish is really a great white whale, or Ashley Miller donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Ron Paul campaign on the sly, or whether or not Jason Thibeault is actually two children in a trenchcoat. And then we’ll none of us ever blog again, chasing every foolish unevidenced accusation.. Yes, that seems the appropriate course of action. Please read that last sentence as though HTML were capable of applying sarcasm tags, because I’d have added some.

No, we have done the right thing here — when a credible accusation came up of an ethical breach, with evidence, leveled by someone we know not to generally play fast and loose with the truth on the regular, we have reacted swiftly and applied the only sanctions we have the ability to apply. We’ve done it before, despite our pre-existing friendships and whether or not that was effectively signing those friendships’ death warrants. I’m sure we’ll do it again.

And perhaps, hopefully, Avicenna will learn that what he’s done is wrong, and he’ll start up a blog where he can practice doing it right.

On Avicenna, plagiarism, and thanking those who regularly cry wolf while flailing us raw
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16 thoughts on “On Avicenna, plagiarism, and thanking those who regularly cry wolf while flailing us raw

  1. 4

    Thank you for stating it all so clearly. As big a deal as this is, it does almost nothing to dig the ‘pitters out of the depths they have put themselves.

  2. 5

    Well said.
    One would almost have to reach the conclusion that the previous assumptions made regarding this individual have been made in error. If a goodly part of the person’s writing has not been original then who is this person, really. I understand that no one wants to come across as a jerk in condemning this behavior, but when the community has been used this ill, I believe some obvious irritation (along with banishment) is warranted.
    So much time goes into crafting our thoughts in a written format; stealing this work and taking credit for or ownership of someone else’s consciousness is not something that can be overlooked or forgiven.

  3. sbh

    I am really disappointed. Of course I’m taking it on trust that the examples Hemant Mehta gives are real; I don’t consider him particularly reliable, based on past experience, and I consider the way he presented the PZ Myers entry in this article thoroughly dishonest. But assuming the charges hold up–and I’m guessing that’s the case from Avicenna’s lameass “apology” and from FtB’s reaction–then I am damn disappointed. I really enjoyed his writing and the view he brought from a part of the world not well represented in this area, and I appreciated what he had to say. But as he’s blogging under a pseudonym (not criticizing that; I do myself) I have to take it on trust that what he tells me about his activities and observations are valid; I can’t check up on them independently. By plagiarizing he has violated that trust. If he’s appropriated someone else’s words, how can I know he hasn’t appropriated someone else’s experiences?

    I guess all I’m really saying is that I had about the same reaction you did, except from a much greater distance. I really liked A Million Gods; I enjoyed his take on things; of all the FtB bloggers I discovered here (that is not including you or Ed Brayton or PZMyers or Stephanie Svan or Ophelia Benson whom I followed to FtB) he was probably my favorite.

    So yeah, I’m really disappointed.

  4. 8

    The whole thing is making me feel really really sad. BUT as the plagiarism was proved there was absolutely no other option. Like the other posters I am now seriously wondering if not the words but some of the actions were either plagiarised or made up whole cloth.

    Sad, sad, sad.

  5. 9

    I assume the reactionary trolls will now cry foul about how Avicenna was silenced by “FTBullies”, and cordially invite him into their ranks.


  6. 10

    I’m also inclined to wonder what’s up with Hemant. I’ve spoken with him a few times (we interviewed him on the Winnipeg Skeptics podcast a few years ago) and he always seemed fair—maybe even overly fair, too ready to give the benefit of the doubt. But he certainly never struck me as… I don’t know.

  7. 11

    I think it’s very possible Hemant is not intentionally impugning PZ’s character, but given the tenor of certain campaigns lately amongst Hemant’s peers, it’s possible he was. I don’t know. I’d prefer to not speculate outright, and simply point out the problematic nature of what he did.

  8. 12

    he always seemed fair—maybe even overly fair, too ready to give the benefit of the doubt

    I think you hit the nail on the head.

    By striving to be “friendly” and “fair,” treating the oppressed and oppressors with equal regard, you wind up giving credence to the oppressors…whether they’re serial harassers, forced-birthers, or theocrats. We saw that with his site’s Kincaid and “pro-life” kerfuffles, and we’re seeing it here.

  9. 13

    or whether or not Jason Thibeault is actually two children in a trenchcoat

    KNEW IT!!! No Canadian is that not-Canadian! I’ll bet the top child doesn’t even pronounce “about” in a way that’s odd to my ear.

    Seriously, though, I’m rather sad that Avicenna was plagiarizing a lot. In retrospect, I’m not all that surprised, since there were plenty of undifferentiated passages in his posts that were suddenly written in normative English grammar unlike most of his writing, which always struck me as weird. The lack of surprise doesn’t make it any less shitty, in terms of both the plagiarism qua plagiarism and the loss of someone whose voice I appreciated (even discounting the copied passages).

    @sbh #5: Ditto.

    @theonandonlymike #6: Ditto. I once again find myself wondering whether I just didn’t see the problematic stuff before, or whether it’s new(ly visible).

  10. 14

    I liked Avicenna’s blog – but I understand why it is gone. The situation here just sucks all round.

    I do wonder why and who chose to erase the entire blog rather than keeping it archived somewhere – maybe with some warning notes on it (ever considered that option? Not practical maybe? ) – because there was some still good info and comments there that some folks (yeah, alright me) would’ve maybe liked to look back to and find again later? There’s just something kinda Stalinist (for want of a better word) about seemingly vanishing whole blogs from history completely. No criticism really meant, well , not that much, just,how I feel about it and I do agree Avicenna should’ve been banned from writing here again and removed from the listings etc .. and I do understand why people feel betrayed by him and angry at him and why they think he can’t now be trusted. Its just wiping the whole thing .. Ugh. Sad, horrible, unpleasant, possibly necessary, I do not really know.

  11. 15

    I always kind of suspected that you were two children in a trenchcoat, Jason, and now we have YOU on record!

    I’ll just sit here and await the arrival of the Scooby Doo gang to rip the rubber mask off your face and reveal you to actually be Old Man Jenkins.

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