Do you Fisk?

Fisking” is a blogging term which means “to rebut an argument line by line, especially on the Internet.” (wiktionary).

But “fisking” is actually loaded with connotations that this pared-down definition does not reveal. Remember, words don’t have fixed definitions, but instead, they have various ‘uses’. (see my post: “The Definition Myth“).

Definitions: So here are some more definitions to give you a feel for the different flavors of “fisking“:

  • “line-by-line nitpicking”
    Joel Spolsky – wiki
  • “a point-by-point debunking of lies and/or idiocies.”
    Urban dictionary
  • “a pedantic, exhaustive, point-by-point refutation of someone’s political position”
  • “reprinting of an article or blog post, interlarded with rebuttals and refutations, often intended to show the original is a sandpile of flawed facts, unfounded assertions, and logical fallacies.”
    on-line etymology dictionary
  • “A point-by-point refutation of a blog entry or (especially) news story. A really stylish fisking is witty, logical, sarcastic and ruthlessly factual;”
    Jargon Database


“Fisking” was named after Robert Fisk, a British news-correspondent. From what I can gather, Fisk wrote a 2001 article in “The Independent” justifing Pakistanis who had beat him.  Fisk’s leftist drenched report was criticized by Andrew Sullivan (a conservative journalist) using a point-by-point refutal (though not exhaustive) which then got the nickname, “Fisking”.  The term was initially derogatory when used by liberals to describe Andrew’s criticism style, and as praise-worthy when used by conservatives who felt Fisk’s nonsense deserved to be blasted out of the water point-by-point.  Oh yes, the name “Fisk” probably comes from the Scandinavian word for “fish” (see here and here).

Your feelings about the term “Fisking” may depend on if you are fisking or being fisked! On thing is for sure, it leads to long, tedious  comments.

Below I give my evaluation of some pros and cons of fisking.


  • Long ! : It can make comment thread very long due to repeated quoting of the other person’s exact material and thus  essentially duplicating the post or previous comment.  The person will do this with as many statements as possible instead of writing a much short statement addressing the main issue of the comment. It clogs up a comment thread and people tend to ignore that sort of comment.
  • Boring: Reading such comment threads can be very boring. Few people want to re-read word-for-word the comment they just read.
  • Hard on the Eye:  It is difficult to separate out the author and the person the author is nit-picking.  Fisking’s usual format is multiple “you said ….” following by some refutation or criticism.  Blockquotes work better but they aren’t allowed on some blogs and it is easy to make an HTML mistake and ruin the comment format.
  • Ignores main message: It can distract from the main point of a message by isolating individual sentences and focus on those tangents.
  • Nit-picking Derision: It tends to not seek common ground but is argumentative and critical without being productive.  Fisking is different from flaming, with which it is sometimes confused. Fisking is not verbal abuse, although it may contain a degree of derision and scorn. (wiki)


  • Analytical: On reading a post that appears to be “a sandpile of flawed facts, unfounded assertions, and logical fallacies”  ( – Fisking is felt necessary to untangle the rhetoric.
  • Persuasive Counter-Rhetoric: In a very legalistic, competitive, winning-is-all-that-matters method it can be effecting rhetoric
  • Precise and Sequential: In careful argument, when actual clear statements are a goal, it can be productive.

Questions to readers:

  • What do you think of fisking?
  • Any strengths
    or weaknesses to add?
  • Do you do it or run into it?



Filed under Blogging, Philosophy & Religion

23 responses to “Do you Fisk?

  1. TWF

    What do you think of fisking?
    Its value lies in its skilful execution. Just like a bad singer can ruin a good song, so too can a bad writer make a disaster of the technique.

    Any strengths or weaknesses to add?
    In debate-style fisking, a strength is that you show the original author that you have considered every point he or she has presented as opposed to just cherry-picking weaker points and considering that a complete rebuttal. (I know I sometimes get frustrated when commenters seem to ignore my larger points in favor of picking the nits they are comfortable with.)

    Do you do it or run into it?
    I both run into it and do it occasionally. Although, I do try to limit the detail level. So instead of trying to refute each sentence, I try to understand the essence of each point and refute them (or acknowledge possible validities, but show why they may not be the right answer/interpretation).

  2. Great points, TWF. I likewise have mixed feeling about it, but like you, do it myself at times. But in the end, my goal is less win-by-attrition, win-by-volume, nit-picking rhetoric but look for clear common points, points of disagreement and ways to clarify and test.

    “Cherry picking weak points” is a good thing to be careful off. Cherry picking strong points or being sure to show the author you understand their main point is important. But I don’t see that often.

  3. Generally, I love it and I’ve made use of it myself in once or twice before (e.g. I know a lot of people call foul, but to my mind no argument can be worthwhile if its subcomponents are all wrong.

  4. I see that no one commented on your post. That shows one of my posts — such fisking is tedious and few people have time for it. I would skip over a post like that – I am not interested in the back and forth between people — even if it may serve the two people themselves. Do you have an example where it has been productive or inviting?

  5. I absolutely hate it. In addition to the cons you list, I think it belies an aire of arrogance to the comment. There is only one acceptable use in my opinion: When a list of reported facts are in the post which the commenter disputes. Not opinions or interpretations of fact, but lists of stats, or “Soandso said blahblah”. In these cases it is acceptable to correct errors in facts with cited corrections.

    I had one commenter who insisted I was in poor form for not fisking and actually opposing thr practice. Then because I wouldn’t “discuss the issue properly” (referring to my post, yes, he was telling me how I was suppose to conduct the discussion of my topic). Hence the above reference to arrogance.

  6. @ John Barron,
    I agree that fisking can be unproductive. But of course when someone’s argument is peppered with mistakes, then it is tempting to fisk. Tough choice.

  7. I think this word just shows we’ve come to take ourselves too seriously. When I hang out with friends, we might get into a debate or correct each other. We just call it chatting or debating.

    Someone who has no manners or insults will get to be known as “a jerk”. I think the word troll is valid but other terms like “tone trolling” or “fisking” can be used carelessy then others start to debate the term instead of the topic. Yawn.

    We learned most of this stuff in grade school: be polite, be fair and on the other side of the coin, don’t whine and don’t take everything so personally.

  8. Sabio on a side note, I often chime in on a cooking blog that addresses “green” issues. Some readers take stuff too personally so I often point out beforehand that I’m not trying to demean someone, I am simply sharing information that all of us have the right to, for the sake of our health and our planet. That goes a long way towards a very nice and civil conversation.

  9. @Sabio: I can only speak for myself, but I cetainly have seen fiskings that I thought were useful. On one occasion a fellow was thoroughly fisked and I went to check up on the criticisms offered and found them quite astute (that is, the original argument was based upon false/out-of-date information). So in the future I knew to keep an eye out when reading his stuff – his arguments might have been unreliable (well served by that).

    As to whether fisking is productive or not, fallacious or not will depend greatly on the context. If an argument is based upon false/unsound premises, then fisking absolutely is within bounds since it invalidates the conclusion (not that there might not be other ways to get there, but good reasons are the only ways one should get there). If fisking is used as a rhetorical means of pointing out irrelevant errors in order to ‘disprove’ the main argument, then it’s fallacious. As for productive, that’s also highly context dependent. I was fisking the article in the piece I linked to because I don’t want those arguments made because they’re bad and make my side of the debate look bad.

    As for inviting… I just like debate, so I find that sort of thing appealing in any case. Once again, at bottom we’re talking about preferences and so the difference between myself and (e.g.) Mr. Barron on this subject can never be resolved through discussion. He’d likely find me hopelessly arrogant (which I will admit to) :), though I wouldn’t tell him how to argue on his site (no skin off my nose).

  10. @ amelie,
    Just checking in: not sure I understand who you are directing the comment at.

    Are you saying:

    (a) I used the word carelessly and not being polite,fair, nice or civil?

    (b) “fisking” should not be used

    Not really sure who you are accusing of what.


  11. LOL (Sabio – speaking of being too sensitive….)

    No, if I were directing the comment at you I would have said something like, “Sabio, I think you used the word carelessly”. What I meant was that commenters (on all sorts of blogs) will accuse others of being trolls or tone trolling, etc with no real basis for it. It’s just another random term to throw around that has loosey goosey defenitions that render it nearly meaningless.

    I would never say that a word shouldn’t be used. People can use whatever words they like. I just meant that at some point, it can distract from the conversation at hand and if you look at real life casual conversations, we don’t invent new words for the way people talk or communicate.

  12. (For example) if someone were to say something ignorant, like that global warming was a scam, we might in real life conversation consider them uninformed. Instead of labelling them we could just politely correct them, but we wouldn’t invent a new term for someone who did that correcting frequently to deniers. Scientific accuracies are either on target or they’re not.

    If someone made it a habit to corrrect every little mistake people made (say, small grammatical errors) we might call them a boor. That term is just as good as any, I think.

  13. CRL

    I personally like it, because it makes a discussion easier to follow by putting responses in context. Often, a post will go in many directions. I find it easier to concoct a response when I take it paragraph by paragraph (usually pulling out a line or two from each paragraph), and easier to quickly understand a response written this way. Of course, I tend to point out places of agreement as well.

    The main downside: length. Also, I think it can fragment a discussion into many sub-discussions, some of which may veer off topic. I enjoy these sub-discussions, but they add length as well.

  14. @ CRL,
    Yeah, because it can get lengthy and tangential, I try to get focused on important points and center in on agreement or clear disagreement. Always hoping there is a way to test the disagreed issue. If someone never agrees and is constantly nit-picking, I realize the discussion is not fruitful and usually let it go. I don’t find that happens face-to-face but can happen on-line.

  15. Jessica

    This is a lot more broad and judgemental than my usual answers, however, if one cannot simply reply to someone’s idea, as if in conversation, and one must to resort to giving a line-by-line response, one is not intelligent enough to participate in the conversation. It’s called listen (or read), absorb, comprehend, analyze, reflect. Let’s use that brain power and stop depending on copy/paste. Back to the elements of the great, impromptu debate, I say!

  16. @ Jessica
    Well written — nice support for the “I Dislike” camp. I often feel that way too. But it really depends on the subject and the nature of the debate — so sometimes quoting can be useful.

    But we all blog for different purposes. And with on-line stuff, where you can’t read each other’s emotions, it is hard to tell when your style is not working.

    Thanks for your addition.

  17. Earnest

    I voted “like”, but confess that it’s much easier to be a line-by-line nit picker than to craft a creative, erudite paragraph that can stand up to criticism. Fisking, to me, feels a bit more like engaging in combat than engaging in conversation.

  18. Good points, Earnest!
    And only 1/3 of pollers so far disagree with you. How does it feel to be in the majority for once? 🙂 [ps, readers, Earnest is a f2f friend]

  19. Sabio -This discussion reminds me of similar conversations about the explication of literary texts. Sometimes people object to explication (or “close reading”) because it takes the text apart, and “we murder to dissect.” But when it is done well, as by such old-style critics as Cleanth Brooks or, more recently, Helen Vendler, explication illuminates the text and heightens the reader’s appreciation.

    The close examination of an argument may be much the same. Done crudely, it may amount to little more than politics by other means, but done with knowledge of the subject, generosity of spirit, and sensitivity to the nuances of words, it can contribute to an understanding of the original argument and a broader understanding of its context. John Paul Stevens’ dissenting opinion on Citizens United comes to mind.

  20. Nicely penned, “Practice of Zen”. The politics of the word Fisking itself ironically captures some of what you say here.
    I had to look up Citizens United and the New Criticism of Cleanth Brooks. Unfortunately I don’t know what piece of fisking of these authors you are referring to, but I imagine they are done well but of course with their own bias about the First Amendment (in Steven’s case) and the place of context in Poetry in Brooks’. All to say, we can’t let classy style trick us concerning bias — for my wife continually is tricked by NPR’s supposed objective, even-handed generosity whereas it blares loud bias to me. Bias is unavoidable.

    Thank you so much for the cool comment.

  21. Never knew it was called fisking, but yeah I have done it on occasion, but more in a fun way just to the point and then stopped, didn’t drag it on and on.

  22. I suspect it arose because internet communications are so prone to misunderstanding, misquoting and misrepresentation. When you have little or no idea of people at a personal level and cannot utilise the ‘senses’ in the way that one would in a conversation in the material world, the maxim ‘divided by a common language’ comes to the fore.
    Beyond such ‘limitations’ of online conversation is the other complication of cultural differences. Those who have not lived in other English speaking countries may assume that all English is equal when patently it is not.
    Online conversations may involve English spoken by, English, Scottish, Irish, Australian, Canadian, South African, New Zealander, Indian (English is still the main language of education in India) or American.
    While one does not have to make a path through ‘accent’ when ‘talking’ online there is no doubt that there are cultural differences which impact the use of language if not radically different interpretations of the same word. I have lived in five of the above English speaking countries and spent long periods in the rest – the only exception is New Zealand but given that most New Zealanders live in Australia and I have NZ relatives I could probably claim some understanding of NZ English.
    So, the ‘habit’ of copying and pasting what someone else said in complete form and then replying to it, and ‘fisking’ is probably as good a name as any although it has faintly negative connotations, serves the purpose of informing the receiver that you have read his or her ‘words’ and you are replying to them and not to your memory or interpretation of them. Given that we all interpret subjectively anyway, the other purpose such practice serves is that if anyone else is interested in the conversation they can see quite clearly what was said and the response which follows.
    Clearly this is not the way one would discuss something with someone that you knew in any real sense but discussions with strangers demands at times, some sort of clarity and ‘paper trail.’
    In other words, I find it useful and don’t mind reading more ‘copy’ when it means I will have a better understanding of the: ‘he said, she said, you said.’

  23. I didn’t know that practice had a name! Done correctly, it can be very useful keeping the conversation on task. I think you do a masterful job at that Sabio to clarify points and to offer counters.

    On the other hand, it can be used to cherry pick the weak point or pull things out of context, just as the commenters have echoed. Great conversation, an educational post. Thanks! Hope you are well!

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