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More on rudeness, civility, and the care and feeding of online conversations.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Late last month, I pondered the implications of a piece of research that was mentioned but not described in detail in a perspective piece in the January 4, 2013 issue of Science. [1] In its broad details, the research suggests that the comments that follow an online article about science — and particularly the perceived tone of the comments, whether civil or uncivil — can influence readers’ assessment of the science described in the article itself.

Today, an article by Paul Basken at The Chronicle of Higher Education shares some more details of the study:

The study, outlined on Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, involved a survey of 2,338 Americans asked to read an article that discussed the risks of nanotechnology, which involves engineering materials at the atomic scale.

Of participants who had already expressed wariness toward the technology, those who read the sample article—with politely written comments at the bottom—came out almost evenly split. Nearly 43 percent said they saw low risks in the technology, and 46 percent said they considered the risks high.

But with the same article and comments that expressed the same reactions in a rude manner, the split among readers widened, with 32 percent seeing a low risk and 52 percent a high risk.

“The only thing that made a difference was the tone of the comments that followed the story,” said a co-author of the study, Dominique Brossard, a professor of life-science communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The study found “a polarization effect of those rude comments,” Ms. Brossard said.

The study, conducted by researchers at Wisconsin and George Mason University, will be published in a coming issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. It was presented at the AAAS conference during a daylong examination of how scientists communicate their work, especially online.

If you click through to read the article, you’ll notice that I was asked for comment on the findings. As you may guess, I had more to say on the paper (which is still under embargo) and its implications than ended up in the article, so I’m sharing my extended thoughts here.

First, I think these results are useful in reassuring bloggers who have been moderating comments that what they are doing is not just permissible (moderating comments is not “censorship,” since bloggers don’t have the power of the state, and folks can find all sorts of places in the Internet to state their views if any given blog denies them a soapbox) but also reasonable. Blogging with comments enabled assumes more than transmission of information, it assumes a conversation, and what kind of conversation it ends up being depends on what kind of behavior is encouraged or forbidden, who feels welcome or alienated.

But, there are some interesting issues that the study doesn’t seem to address, issues that I think can matter quite a lot to bloggers.

In the study, readers (lurkers) were reacting to factual information in an online posting plus the discourse about that article in the comments. As the study is constructed, it looks like that discourse is being shaped by commenters, but not by the author of the article. It seems likely to me (and worth further empirical study!) that comment sections in which the author is engaging with commenters — not just responding to the questions they ask and the views they express, but also responding to the ways that they are interacting with other commenters and to their “tone” — have a different impact on readers than comment sections where the author of the piece that is being discussed is totally absent from the scene. To put it more succinctly, comment sections where the author is present and engaged, or absent and disengaged, communicate information to lurkers, too.

Here’s another issue I don’t think the study really addresses: While blogs usually aim to communicate with lurkers as well as readers who post comments (and every piece of evidence I’ve been shown suggests that commenters tend to be a small proportion of readers), most are aiming to reach a core audience that is narrower than “everyone in the world with an internet connection”.

Sometimes what this means is that bloggers are speaking to an audience that finds comment sections that look unruly and contentious to be welcoming, rather than alienating. This isn’t just the case for bloggers seeking an audience that likes to debate or to play rough.

Some blogs have communities that are intentionally uncivil towards casual expressions of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. Pharyngula is a blog that has taken this approrach, and just yesterday Chris Clarke posted a statement on “civility” there that leads with a commitment “not to fetishize civility over justice.” Setting the rules of engagement between bloggers and posters this way means that people in groups especially affected by sexism, racism, homophobia, etc., have a haven in the blogosphere where they don’t have to waste time politely defending the notion that they are fully human, too (or swallowing their anger and frustration at having their humanity treated as a topic of debate). Yes, some people find the environment there alienating — but the people who are alienated by unquestioned biases in most other quarters of the internet (and the physical world, for that matter) are the ones being consciously welcomed into the conversation at Pharyngula, and those who don’t like the environment can find another conversation. It’s a big blogosphere. That not every potential reader does not feel perfectly comfortable at a blog, in other words, is not proof that the blogger is doing it wrong.

So, where do we find ourselves?

We’re in a situation where lots of people are using online venues like blogs to communicate information and viewpoints in the context of a conversation (where readers can actively engage as commenters). We have a piece of research indicating that the tenor of the commenting (as perceived by lurkers, readers who are not commenting) can communicate as much to readers as the content of the post that is the subject of the comments. And we have lots of questions still unanswered about what kinds of engagement will have what kinds of effect on what kinds or readers (and how reliably). What does this mean for those of us who blog?

I think what it means is that we have to be really reflective about what we’re trying to communicate, who we’re trying to communicate it to, and how our level of visible engagement (or disengagement) in the conversation might make a difference. We have to acknowledge that we have information that’s gappy at best about what’s coming across to the lurkers, and attentive to ways to get more feedback about how successfully we’re communicating what we’re trying to communicate. We have to recognize that, given all we don’t know, we may want to shift our strategies for blogging and engaging commenters, especially if we come upon evidence that they’re not working the way we thought they were.

* * * * *
In the interests of spelling out the parameters of the conversation I’d like to have here, let me note that whether or not you like the way Pharyngula sets a tone for conversations is off topic here. You are, however, welcome to share in the comments here what you find makes you feel more or less welcome to engage with online postings, whether as a commenter or a lurker.
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[1] Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele, “Science, New Media, and the Public.” Science 4 January 2013:Vol. 339, pp. 40-41.
DOI: 10.1126/science.1160364

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. karenalcott 10:20 pm 02/15/2013

    I usually only comment on science and political forums. I find it very disconcerting in the middle of a conversation about a scientific topic or a public policy issue, to have someone just start spouting bigoted insults or ridiculing other people for not agreeing with them.

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  2. 2. watermelonpunch 11:08 pm 02/15/2013

    I’m usually only bothered by “trolling” type of comments where people use the comment box to simply put nothing but some kind of insult or crazy mostly unrelated statement.
    If there’s a “report” button, I use it for those, because I figure it’s already wasted my time, and I’m hoping that in other situations someone else has hit that button before I got there, saving me.

    I think there’s a place for forums where people vent about whatever, and even if it’s not always productive in the big picture, I do think it satisfies some basic human social needs at times.

    I don’t think, however, that the comments section of a scientific article is the appropriate place for that.

    Stupid questions should be allowed. Heaven knows a lot of questions I ask in earnest interest probably sound stupid to someone.
    But lamenting about things only tangentially related to the topic would probably be best addressed in another venue, leaving an article comments to allow for an efficient informative conversation both for those who comment and those who simply read the comments.

    For example, if I read an article about the effects of a particular frog population being subjected to pollution, I don’t necessarily think the comments need 20 200-word essays despairing about society’s disregard for nature, nor 20 1-line comments disparaging interest in frogs.

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  3. 3. RSchmidt 11:29 pm 02/15/2013

    The comment section of sciam has become a soapbox for climate deniers, creationists, conspiracy theorists, anti-science fanatics and spam. I would suggest that comments be limited to paid subscribers only. That would hopefully elevate the level of conversation. It will certainly eliminate the spam and a good percentage of the trolls. I enjoy having thoughtful conversations with other science enthusiasts but those experiences are rare and are generally lost in the din of political, religious and/or psychotic diatribes. Time to stop giving those that despise science a platform.

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  4. 4. ultimobo 7:39 am 02/16/2013

    when I have asked my 18-23yo students about trolling, I’ve typically had 1 or 2 who regard it proudly as a kind of enjoyable intellectual sport – to find the most effective way to press someone’s buttons and provoke a reaction. These are typically programmer-type geeks who may tend to lack a little on the empathy scale.

    actually these days it seems to me many public opinion websites tend to start off their comments section with a first post that is deliberately provocative – which I suspect is a trolling-type post planted by the article author or similar to kick start the discussion.

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  5. 5. mkelter 7:46 am 02/16/2013

    @Rschmidt; Not every person who subscribes to, or who picks up SCIAM at the airport news stand necessarily swallows the magazine’s editorial bias with respect to hot-button scientific debates such as Climate change, global-warming hoax, or whatever you prefer to call it.

    Good science often involves a good debate. We don’t need Michael Mann or Al Gore attempting to silence good scientific debate, anymore than the world needed a conclave of Catholic Cardinals working to silence Galileo or DaVinci. A good science blog attracts readers and writers on every side of a scientific debate.

    While I would agree that more people read a blog than post something in writing, it would be interesting to determine how many people skim the articles on-line and focus their reading efforts on those who are commenting. There are certain authors who write routinely in Scientific American about the same thing–I’ve heard the sales job before. What adds new value to the subject isn’t always the author’s article, but the thoughtful comments added by bloggers who might agree or disagree.

    Granted, there are also the comments that I would consider to be “thoughtless” rather than thoughtful. But who am I to say: One Man’s Trash is another Man’s Treasure.

    So it goes with scientific debate.

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  6. 6. jctyler 9:04 am 02/16/2013

    A correspondent who has tested a variant of this work on the pages of SciAm in the last two years said that properly understood and used this research is the most important single work on communications of the last five years if not more and its implications are hugely interesting.

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  7. 7. Archimedes 10:10 am 02/16/2013

    At the height of the British Empire in the British House of Commons, arguments and speeches in Parliament would be carried on with great politeness and courtesy despite the fact that there would be extremely vehement disagreements over specific topics.
    That politeness and courtesy ,while tolerating significant political differences, are to be greatly admired and are exemplary of the respect for human dignity and self control which are requisite for political greatness.
    The “political correctness” that has swept the USA and other nations is NOT exemplary of the same and demonstrates a profound disrespect for human dignity and self control and is indicative of political decline.

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  8. 8. Chryses 10:44 am 02/16/2013

    I prefer a broader to a narrower selection of opinions. While this implies more frequent, and greater differences of opinion, I agree with the author that what is important is how this delta is expressed, not the magnitude of the difference of opinion. I think it an unnecessarily narrow and untimely damaging policy to predefine those who do not currently share certain opinions as warranting exclusion from my conversations.

    What is more important than differences of opinion is how those differences of opinion are expressed. Are the posts and replies to those posts, and the content and the criticism of those posts formed in a fashion that may be judged civil or uncivil? I’m pleased to read (perhaps because it reinforces my existing prejudice) that manners, tone, and civility of a conversation are now being reported to have a measurable impact on the perceived value of the conversation.

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  9. 9. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 11:07 am 02/16/2013

    Archimedes, I daresay “self-control” is easier to achieve in circumstances where you are already being treated fairly rather than constantly poked in the eye,

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  10. 10. G. Karst 11:12 am 02/16/2013

    RSchmidt 11:29 pm 02/15/2013 is a very timely example of a comment screaming for rebuttal. It is clearly biased and prejudicial towards his own limited understanding of science. No mention of the scientific method whats-so-ever, as usual.

    It’s sole purpose is to invoke an emotional response from those who have a wider understanding than himself.

    What purpose is served, by making all soapboxes… alarmist! Intelligent people, would like to know? GK

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  11. 11. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 11:13 am 02/16/2013

    @ ultimobo, the comments sections that kick off with a clear provocation (or, the comments-enabled posts that themselves seemed designed to provoke) are interesting to me. I’m often unsure whether the first commenter (or the provocative-post-author) is actually looking for a fight rather than a conversation with give and take (and listening and reflecting). Does it reflect a judgment that any active engagement from the readers is good engagement? (Or, more cynically, is it about staging an online brawl that will draw more traffic?)

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  12. 12. helenavargas 12:02 pm 02/16/2013

    “…limited to paid subscribers only.”
    Fine. So for anyone in dire financial straits who maintains some of her cognitive ability after a major stroke could by that measure have nothing useful to say.
    Once again the meritocracy of wealth vs. articulate intelligence raises its ugly head.
    As a rare commenter and lurker who scrupulously avoids ad hominem allusions, I’ll just say I resemble that remark.

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  13. 13. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 12:52 pm 02/16/2013

    @ helenavargas, I agree. I don’t think one’s financial situation ought to be the basis for whether one is part of the conversation or not — or, if it is, I’d be inclined to amplify the voices of people in dire financial straits, since the folks with lots of money have plenty of people listening to them (and seeking out their opinions) already.

    That said, I’m sympathetic to RScmidt’s worry that it’s hard to have a satisfying discussing in comment threads that are teeming with people who are mostly interested in asserting their views and demanding that others accept them, too, when those views seem to be at odds with the available pool of evidence. It’s a real problem (and, I recently learned, there are corporations paying people to post comments asserting their views in blog comments, triggered into action by Google Alerts). A real dialogue, I think, seems to require some commitment to finding facts in the world about which we can agree (rather than demanding our own facts), working within this common ground to listen to other people’s questions, concerns, and individual experiences, and seeing if we can at least understand each other better, even if we don’t end up in agreement.

    Some commenters one encounters online aren’t after that kind of understanding. They just want to win. And, they can rather wreck the discussion for the other participants who aren’t playing the same game.

    I take it RSchmidt was trying to offer a reasonably easy-to-implement way to cut down on the drive-by commenters and people who aren’t really looking for a dialogue. My guess, based on my eight years of active blogging, is that there’s not really a good automatic screen you can put in place to separate the discussants from the trolls. Ultimately, a human being needs to do the curation and make the call (and, human being humans, sometimes that means that she’ll make the wrong call on the hard cases, but so might an automatic filter).

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  14. 14. David Marjanović 12:57 pm 02/16/2013

    The comment section of sciam has become a soapbox for climate deniers, creationists, conspiracy theorists, anti-science fanatics and spam.

    Tetrapod Zoology is a notable exception.

    I would suggest that comments be limited to paid subscribers only.

    Fuck you, asshole. </Pharyngula>

    Seriously – I’m not a subscriber to Scientific American, I’m annoyed by the way that SciAm tries more and more to use the blogs gathered here for advertizing itself, and I’m a regular commenter on Tet Zoo. I don’t think most bloggers here are subscribers to SciAm, let alone most commenters.

    And that’s before we even get to the reasons why not everyone subscribes.

    …Oh, and… the spam? That’s supposed to be eliminated by the requirement to register, never mind that signing in regularly malfunctions for several days in a row (even for the bloggers themselves). I’d like to suggest to the SciAm overlords to eliminate registration and instead install Captcha or reCaptcha.

    We don’t need Michael Mann or Al Gore attempting to silence good scientific debate

    Debate? What debate is there on whether all the extra CO2 (…oh, BTW, overlords, why can’t we have super- and subscript on blogs associated with Scientific American, and why can’t we have blockquote?!?) causes the observed warming?

    That politeness and courtesy ,while tolerating significant political differences, are to be greatly admired

    I disagree. We’re here to discuss science – to discuss what is said, not how it’s said. If you can’t distinguish those, let alone if you value rhetoric over substance, you are the one who has a problem when you fall among scientists.

    I’ve seen robust disagreements among my colleagues. The most spectacular incident was when I was a PhD student and seriously thought that any second now I’d have to physically jump between my supervisor and another colleague and push them apart. I didn’t need to; the situation completely defused immediately when my supervisor mentioned evidence for his interpretation.

    It’s sole purpose is to invoke an emotional response from those who have a wider understanding than himself.

    I don’t think any such thing is intended. I don’t think any response is intended by that comment. I think RSchmidt has simply failed to think things through.

    Or, more cynically, is it about staging an online brawl that will draw more traffic?

    Well, there are people out there who think traffic numbers are the only good that can ever come out of a comment thread! I guess they’ve spent too much time on YouTube.

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  15. 15. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 1:09 pm 02/16/2013

    @ David Marjanović, I feel your pain about the login issues here. (I’m still waiting for the email from the webmasterbot about how to retrieve/reset my password so I can post comments on other blogs in the SciAm network.) Maybe Captcha would help (but I’ve heard there are accessibility concerns). Our tech folks strike me as good people who are working hard to make things better on this front, but they have to please a bunch of overlords and do it within budgetary constraints while also doing other Very Important Tech Projects, so the pace of progress is slow. Especially compared to the turnaround time blog commenters have come to expect.

    I’ve seen robust disagreements among my colleagues.

    Heh, yes, me too, in chemistry and philosophy both. Honestly, some of the sharpest daggers in these have been the ones in language that would be welcome at nana’s tea party — and, the blunt language of open disagreement has frequently moved the conversation to a productive place faster. But a lot comes down to people’s preferred modes of engagement, and I’m prepared to believe that those are diverse. What works for me, or what I prefer, might not work at all for someone else.

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  16. 16. abolitionist 1:53 pm 02/16/2013

    David Marjanović (14),

    “… We’re here to discuss science – to discuss what is said, not how it’s said … ”

    As many of these threads are not about Science, how one says what one says IS pertinent.

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  17. 17. WRQ9 2:39 pm 02/16/2013

    If you are going to sample and disseminate, how much harder could it be to perhaps color code a selection of controlling functions so that those “offended” by dissenting sentiments needn’t brave the backwaters of human interaction, or for that matter, scientific opinion. Sometimes opinions come with strong feelings, and sometimes the cruelest offense can be delivered with the gentlest of verbiage. Why should any be left out, it is science, after all.
    It may not be legally actionable censorship, but it is most certainly censorship to allow only agreeable or dispassionate response. It is in fact unethical to do so without clearly stating your intention to do so in the context in question. To my mind this is an irresponsible dodge of potentially relevant ideas.
    There are, though, certain responsibilities that would necessarily go along with such altruism. Credit for ideas being one possibly unpopular sort, along with the possibility of inclusion with ongoing research significantly altered in reflection.

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  18. 18. WRQ9 2:46 pm 02/16/2013

    I might add that interesting perspective (and data) could be garnered by categorical separation, even in the broadest of terms.

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  19. 19. RSchmidt 4:22 pm 02/16/2013

    @G. Karst, my comments where definitely referencing trolls such as yourself, pathological deniers who are fundamentally incapable of rational thought and who believe the scientific truth is determined by ideological biases. Filtering out your inane comments could only be a good thing.

    David Marjanović, “Fuck you, asshole.”, thanks for showing us the extent of your intellectual abilities.

    “I’m not a subscriber to Scientific American” so you were trying to support my position by providing a clear example of the kind of person who has nothing to contribute and could be easily silenced by limiting comments to members. Thanks I guess.

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  20. 20. RSchmidt 4:40 pm 02/16/2013

    @Janet D. Stemwedel, thank you Janet. I was certainly offering a pragmatic rather than ideal solution. Ideally the people that frequent a science site would be rational but that is certainly not the case. I come to sciam to see what the greatest minds are producing and instead see the vitriol of the worst. Limiting comments to paid subscribers also gives you the ability to have a three-strikes-you’re-out rule to remove people who consistently use inflammatory language. It is significantly more difficult to change a paid subscription than to create a new free account. It does not serve sciam’s paid subscribers well to allow fanatics who pay nothing to attack them or drown them out. Preventing non-subscribers will not prevent disagreements but hopefully it will increase the quality of the discussions.

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  21. 21. RSchmidt 4:57 pm 02/16/2013

    @helenavargas, “So for anyone in dire financial straits who maintains some of her cognitive ability after a major stroke could by that measure have nothing useful to say.” I don’t follow how limiting comments to paid subscribers is a personal judgement on you. If there are no ramifications for rude and disruptive behavior then that behavior will continue. By restricting comments to paid members we both remove those who have no real interest in science, only in advancing their ideology or their products and we have the ability to impose restrictions on those who only want to cause trouble. Does it mean non-members won’t have a voice. Sure. There are a rather large number of clubs of which I am not a member. Not surprisingly none of them are happy to give me a soapbox to preach to their paid members. Sciam is not the government. They have no obligation to allow everyone to voice their opinion.

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  22. 22. RSchmidt 5:34 pm 02/16/2013

    @mkelter, “Not every person who subscribes to, or who picks up SCIAM at the airport news stand necessarily swallows the magazine’s editorial bias with respect to hot-button scientific debates such as Climate change, global-warming hoax, or whatever you prefer to call it.” that’s fine. My intent is not to suppress decent but to elevate the level of conversation. I want to remove those who only come here to troll. Trolls do no pay for subscriptions. Also, once you have paid for your subscription you are less likely to risk being banned for bad behaviour because one is not likely to pay for a new subscription just to comment. I’ve read articles here that have been very well presented and very interesting, only to find every comment to be a personal attack on the author, or on science, or on liberals, etc. by the same bad actors. That is now a regular part of the sciam experience. And it doesn’t need to be that way.

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  23. 23. sjfone 3:30 am 02/17/2013

    Negative waves man, all I wanted to do was change lead into gold and then go read Jane Austen.

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  24. 24. Fanandala 3:54 am 02/17/2013

    @ karenalcot,
    I most certainly agree with you. There is a distinct border between robust debate and personal attacks. I think if a comment breaches that border it should be censored. “Go for the ball, not the person”!

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  25. 25. Carlyle 7:11 am 02/17/2013

    There is a very good reason for Freedom of Speech. It is a protection against censorship & encourages the free flow of ideas & information. Those who prefer to restrict this freedom are not prepared to trust the strength of their arguments & ‘Evidence’ to open & robust debate. Personally, I am more offended by having a post by an opponent deleted than by anything that person might direct at me. All too often, comments are deleted because they show weaknesses in the assumptions in the article, by the author. There have been mass deletions recently. It seems the idea that deleting posts that disagree with the author is acceptable & is becoming the new norm. If that is the attitude of an author, they should not be posting their article to an open forum in the first place.

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  26. 26. RSchmidt 10:36 am 02/17/2013

    @Carlyle, post made by you and your denier cohorts are filled with conspiracy theories, personal attacks on the authors of articles, lies and misinformation. You make no attempt to contribute to a healthy debate instead you you employ the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) principal. You don’t use evidence, you use distortion and heresay. You are one of the bad actors who seems intent on dragging every article on climate through the mud based on nothing more than your ideology, not science. Now you are whining about deleted comments; “All too often, comments are deleted because they show weaknesses in the assumptions in the article, by the author.” I have never seen that. The comments I’ve seen deleted, generally start with something like, the liberal media once again supporting the religion of climate change. Those articles should be deleted, and the author banned. They offer nothing more than unfounded accusations. Getting rid of those that see every article as an opportunity to advance their political ideology will go a long way towards ensuring that those who are actually interested in the science can participate in open, robust and honest debates.

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  27. 27. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 10:49 am 02/17/2013

    Some points I think are worth highlighting in this discussion:

    It’s hard to have a productive discussion without some agreement about what the facts are — or about how to determine what the facts are.

    Separating our rational discussion of the facts and what we might conclude from them from the emotions connected to the may be a worthy goal in the ideal, but it’s nearly impossible when the folks having the discussion are humans (rather than Vulcans or robots). As we’re thinking hard and trying to get to the truth and to solve problems, we feel stuff. Pretending otherwise isn’t necessarily helpful.

    Among other things, this means it can be hard for people to grapple with criticism of points they have made — of their substance, of the sources they trust to support these points, or of the emotional inflection in their delivery.

    This is not an exhaustive list of points-worth-highlighting, nor do I have a grand “Therefore, [here's how always to have productive discussions with humans]” to offer. Just imagine me in the background writing stuff on the whiteboard.

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  28. 28. Fanandala 11:13 am 02/17/2013

    @Carlyle
    While I agree with you on the freedom of speech, I think it should exclude freedom to insult and abuse your opponent personally.
    I have also noted that some bloggers are only too eager to delete comments that disagree with the opinion expressed in their article. Which, as you imply, indicates that they might have little faith in their own opinion therefore they should not expose it to a critical public.

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  29. 29. RSchmidt 12:17 pm 02/17/2013

    @Janet D. Stemwedel, I agree that it is often difficult to have a purely rational discussion especially in a comments section. The format doesn’t lend itself to presenting all the evidence to support ones arguments so, as you indicated, people can become frustrated when others don’t accept their “summation” as though it were fact. Noam Chomsky suggested that one of the problems with the sound-bite driven media is that it is much easier to express ideas that confirm people’s biases than to present new ideas that challenge the status-quo. To change someone’s mind takes a great deal of evidence and reasoning (or at least should) which is difficult to accomplish in an online discussion.

    But I think there is a difference between heated discussions and what you referred to as drive-by commenters. There are those who are only interested in preaching. There are others that only want to create an emotional response. So how do you go about pruning out the bad apples in order to provide a less caustic environment for people to express their ideas? I think that is the role of membership.

    It would be interesting to perform an analysis of comments made by sciam’s members and non-members to see if there is a clear distinction in the tone of the two groups. I noticed that there are a few different “systems” used to post comments on sciam. Some of them have “report abuse” others don’t. I am interested to know why sciam removed this option from blogs. I am also curious to know what sciam is trying to accomplish with allowing comments on articles. Are the risks associated with an open format worth the rewards of having a variety of opinions or does it just invite chaos?

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  30. 30. Carlyle 3:31 pm 02/17/2013

    The elitist or ‘In crowd’ approach is a disastrous approach. Even scientific greats like Newton were eventually proven to have been seriously in error.
    Just tody there has been a very significant breakthrough announced in the genetics of the grain crop barley. A junior researcher ignored the advice of senior researchers who essentially said; do not bother looking at that group of genes. Everyone knows they do not have anything to do with what we are looking for. She ignored their advice & discovered that indeed that was precisely where the gene that controlled digestibility lay. Trial crops have now been grown with the improved genetic line & the benefits to world nutrition are going to be incalcable. All wisdom does NOT reside with the self appointed elite. People who wish to force their views on others by imposing restrictions on free speech are dangerous, as is believing that parameters can be imposed by ‘agreeing’ on what is a baseline ‘accepted’ science.

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  31. 31. Carlyle 4:13 pm 02/17/2013

    26. RSchmidt
    10:36 am 02/17/2013
    Would you like to explain why all the posts were removed from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=dynegy-power-plant-blown-up&posted=1#comments
    More than half deleted from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=new-simulations-question-gulf-stream-role-tempering-europes-winters
    Any posts linked to WUWT are deleted by BoraZ
    Entire articles are also removed quite frequently. Two link rule prevents me listing more. Frequently, when wishing to check on earlier articles that I have saved to ‘Favourites’ covering the same topic, I find the article has been deleted.

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  32. 32. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 4:25 pm 02/17/2013

    @Carlyle, this is not going to be a discussion about other bloggers’ or moderators’ decisions about what comments were off-topic or otherwise undermined the conversations they were trying to host.

    Thanks for respecting the bounds I’m setting for what this conversation is about.

    Link to this
  33. 33. Damir Ibrisimovic 4:49 pm 02/17/2013

    Dear Janet,

    If you really wish more civility and responsibility, the recipe is simple. Ask commentators to sign their comments with their real names. In addition, give to the silent majority an opportunity to vote on trustworthiness of commentators.

    The only downside would be elevation of commentators who might be simply manifesting mainstream mindsets. But this could be mitigated in a concluding post that summarises and contrasts the conflicting views.

    I would also give a special treatment to comments that are pointing outside of the box of original view that started the discussion.

    In my opinion, such approach could foster a stable, debatable community attracting more readers willing to add their thoughts too.

    I am also against censorship. If a comment is not well articulated (and that is often the case), others could help with questions, guessed assumptions etc. Such, good natured approach could often yield surprisingly good insights.

    I cannot guarantee ideal, civilised and fact based discussions. But discussions between real (real names), rather than fictional, people do make people think twice about what they say.

    Have a nice day,
    Damir Ibrisimovic
    http://home.pacific.net.au/~damir-dsl/

    Link to this
  34. 34. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 5:02 pm 02/17/2013

    There are a number of reasons commenters (and bloggers, for that matter) might need to post anonymously or pseudonymously. These include, but are not limited to, legitimate fears of reprisal from employers or governments and legitimate fears of being stalked or targeted for harassment. I’ve written about these issues before elsewhere, as have others. And, for the record, I am aware of plenty of instances of people being disrespectful, insulting, and even making clear threats of violence, while signing their real names.

    So, this outpost of the blogosphere is not going to be one where we pretend that real-names-only solves the problem, nor where we exclude people who prefer not yo use their real names but who want to contribute to the discussion.

    Link to this
  35. 35. Cramer 5:05 pm 02/17/2013

    Janet D. Stemwedel,

    Did you know that when a SciAm blog comment is deleted by the moderator (I believe this is always the author of the blog), it still appears to the person who posted the comment (unless they sign out and clear their browser cache). I doubt this is a technical glitch. I also believe this was done with good intent to stop some commenters from repeatedly posting the same comment once it is deleted. However, different bloggers/authors have different moderating styles; and this has led to a lot of confusion in discussions. And I am sure most of the moderators are even unaware of this.

    Have you considered this tactic in your research regarding the shaping of the comment section discourse by moderators/publisher? And the ethical aspects of it as well?

    [Note: I don't believe this happens in the comments of SciAm news articles, just the SciAm blogs.]

    Link to this
  36. 36. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 5:13 pm 02/17/2013

    @ Cramer, I know little about the behavior of the commenting system here for commenters-who-are-not-bloggers. (As I noted above, I’ve lost my sign-in information to be able to post comments on other SciAm blogs.) And, while the tech folks hear from the bloggers regularly about what features we’d like (and the rationales for them), they’re also trying to implement systems that work for the entire blog network, the magazine side of the online operations, and likely a bunch of other interests (and constraints) of which we bloggers are blissfully ignorant.

    Also, for the record, the post above is someone else’s research that I was asked to comment upon, not my own, though I have an interest in it for obvious reasons.

    Link to this
  37. 37. RSchmidt 5:25 pm 02/17/2013

    @Carlyle, “The elitist or ‘In crowd’ approach is a disastrous approach.” that is a classic strawman argument. First off, membership to sciam is open to everyone. There is no privileged few who determine who is allowed to subscribe. There is no “elite”. Limiting comments to members does not prevent disagreement. You can buy a subscription regardless of your views on climate change, evolution, social welfare or space aliens. As I have said, it will eliminate spammers and trolls not because of directly denying them subscriptions but because those people will not purchase subscriptions. Their choice. It will also have the effect of improving the quality of discourse by censuring those who use abusive language or try to hijack threads. If people have meaningful things to say about sciam’s content then I am sure they will be glad to purchase a subscription and join the community. Furthermore, even though sciam is a great source for science headlines, it is not the only source for science news. Limiting comments will not have the effect of silencing meaningful contributions to science from the general population. In fact I suspect that it will make participating in discussions more enjoyable by removing those who consistently drag the discussions through the mud.

    And once again, the problem with the trolls that camp out at sciam is not that they don’t “agree on what is a baseline ‘accepted’ science”, it is that they lie, make baseless accusations against sciam, the authors and other commenters and persist in posting the same acerbic comments over and over on every article. They aren’t the people who provide interesting new insights into science. They are the ones who hate science and fear the political and religious implications of scientific discoveries. They make the environment here toxic and contribute nothing to the community. Those are the people that ruin it for everyone.

    Link to this
  38. 38. Robert Eidelheit 6:26 pm 02/17/2013

    Damir Ibrisimovic #33

    If you really wish more civility and responsibility, the recipe is simple. Ask commentators to sign their comments with their real names.

    My sign-in name looks like a real name. However it is not my real name. I prefer for reasons that are none of your business not to use my real name on the internet.

    Link to this
  39. 39. Carlyle 8:59 pm 02/17/2013

    32. Janet D. Stemwedel @Carlyle, this is not going to be a discussion about other bloggers’ or moderators’ decisions about what comments were off-topic or otherwise undermined the conversations they were trying to host.

    I do understand but my earlier post #25 was challnged when I spoke in general terms, by post #26 which is couched in confrontational language by the way.
    I appreciate what you are trying to argue. Unfortunately it too often restricts a right of reply.
    I agree with you re screen names. Communist China & other authoritarian regimes insist on real names on blogs. I wonder why? I might also ask those who propose that option, do we dispense with the secret ballot also?
    It is very important to ensure that the cure is not worse than the disease.

    Link to this
  40. 40. RSchmidt 10:00 pm 02/17/2013

    @Carlyle, “Communist China & other authoritarian regimes insist on real names on blogs” please see Reductio ad Hitlerum. This is the same level of discourse we see from the far right when it comes to gun regulation and social policy; Hitler regulated guns, universal health care is communism! “I might also ask those who propose that option, do we dispense with the secret ballot also?” please see slippery slope fallacy. Are you really that incapable of having a rational conversation? What was I saying about the FUD tactic? Sciam is not the government. Sciam has the right to moderate its forums. The general population does not have the right to leave anonymous comments on sciam. Sciam allows people to do so at it’s discretion. If you wish to rant about the global climate conspiracy, how you were abducted by aliens or how the universe was created in 6 days there are a rather large number of forums for that. You have to have some extraordinary entitlement complex to believe that everyone else is required to provide you with a forum to preach your personal ideology. Hey, why not create your own blog? That way I can return the favour and troll you.

    Link to this
  41. 41. Damir Ibrisimovic 2:10 am 02/18/2013

    Dear Janet,

    I appreciate your defence of anonymity. Sometimes people do not have courage to stand up for their opinion. In such cases, moderators could decide to let through quality comments stating the reason for anonymous as author. The trouble is when an anonymous starts to abuse his privilege.

    I also understand that there are abusive people who are willing to sign their abuses with real name. This is where debating community members could and should warn them and tick them as abusive. In contrast, constructive members should also be awarded by community members.

    Of course, none of these guidelines can guarantee a perfectly civil and fact based debate. In many ways such debates would be simply boring. We do need passion behind our views. We also need different perspectives about same “facts”. However, we also need an ethics. And the most basic ethical principle should be a respect for views of others. Calling each other “idiot” simply because they do not think as we do never yielded an agreement.

    There are many other ways to make individuals aware of their responsibility for what they are saying. Often, people are simply not aware of unintended consequences of their words and a polite warning about that is often enough.

    In general, I am in favour of fostering responsibility. Real identity would be a huge step in the right direction. Anonymity could be acceptable exception with stated reasons.

    Without some level of understanding and respect for each other, we will never build a community interesting to others to join and contribute.

    Have a nice day,
    Damir Ibrisimovic
    http://home.pacific.net.au/~damir-dsl/

    Link to this
  42. 42. Carlyle 2:16 am 02/18/2013

    40. RSchmidt
    10:00 pm 02/17/2013.
    I was a subscriber to Scientific American probably before you were born. I paid my first annual subscription in 1961. So what does that prove? Nothing. I chose not to subscribe anymore. What does that prove? Nothing. What difference would your suggestion make? None.

    Link to this
  43. 43. RSchmidt 10:15 am 02/18/2013

    @Carlyle, What does that prove? Nothing.

    Link to this
  44. 44. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 10:23 am 02/18/2013

    @Carlyle and @RSchmidt, as far as I know the management of SciAm’s online operations have no intention of restricting comments to paid subscribers, and in fact management seems to be moving in the direction of opening commenting to more people by making registration easier, etc.

    And, on this particular blog in the network, there will be no such restriction on commenters. Were it imposed, I’d pack up my blogging bags and move the blog elsewhere.

    If you have other issues to discuss on the topic of fostering productive discussions in comments, it’s time to move on to them. At the moment, your fight over this particular detail is not looking especially productive.

    Link to this
  45. 45. G. Karst 11:06 am 02/18/2013

    Although I am retired, I still have offices and companies under my executive supervision. All of my magazine subscriptions are corporate or business expenses. I daresay, my cancellations of office (reception) subscription alone would have a bigger impact than RSchmidt’s piddly subscription.

    Does that mean my opinion is more valid than RSchmidt? Should my comments, therefore be more durable than RSchmidt?

    If so, then I must insist that he be banned, from spreading disinformation and promoting fear and panic among readers. Does anyone believe this tactic (besides RSchmidt) … is really valid?!

    It is only those who present unsupported and fallacious arguments, that are constantly calling, for blog censorship, of which RSchmidt is king. He will only be happy, when all “allowed” comments have his name, on them.GK

    Link to this
  46. 46. RSchmidt 11:32 am 02/18/2013

    @Janet D. Stemwedel, just arguing my case for my recommendation. Had no idea that the issue had already been settled.

    Link to this
  47. 47. jctyler 8:01 am 02/20/2013

    m.kelter nr 5:

    “Not every person… swallows the magazine’s editorial bias with respect to hot-button scientific debates such as Climate change, global-warming hoax, or whatever you prefer to call it.”

    Editorial bias in global-warming climate change hoax? VERY funny.

    “Good science often involves a good debate. We don’t need Michael Mann or Al Gore attempting to silence good scientific debate”

    What we need is more keltering to weed out those guys, right? And a good scientific debate starts of course with someone declaring the scientific climate facts quoted in SciAm to be biased, then dismissing every climatologist’s work as part of a global hoax, yes? Whereas a good scientific debate should always be based on m.kelter’s opinion to be valid, right?

    (I start slipping off my chair)

    “What adds new value to the subject isn’t always the author’s article, but the thoughtful comments added by bloggers who might agree or disagree.”

    Comments by people like m.kelter who know a hoax when they see one, who are academically qualified to diss climatologists, who are perfect judges of what is a credible opinion (theirs) and what is a waste of time (people disagreeing with them).

    (I’m starting to spin on the floor)

    “Granted, there are also the comments that I would consider to be “thoughtless” rather than thoughtful. But who am I to say: One Man’s Trash is another Man’s Treasure.”

    (YEAAAAH, spinning like a turbocharger!)

    “So it goes with scientific debate.”

    Yep, so it goes with scientific debate.

    (vroom vroom – spinning so bad I just lost part of my backside).

    m.kelter, science judge, debating coach, guardian of truth and objectivity, THANK YOU FROM THE B… ah, shucks, that bit fell off.

    And you having a go at Carlyle too? BROUHARHARHAR…

    You wouldn’t happen to be a famous comedian and where can I get tickets?

    Link to this
  48. 48. dubay.denis 11:16 pm 03/5/2013

    It’s telling that I can read down through the list of comments and know by the nickname what the tone and bias of the comment will be before I read the comment. Skepticism is a good thing, but when it comes to a very small set of topics (climate change and evolution), there is a group of people in the country today who relish in belittling anything that someone says that can be construed as favoring the existence of those two concepts. I am not suggesting a conspiracy (!), just the fact that on these two topics, it is difficult to generate reasonable discussion due to the generally nasty nature of the critical comments quickly poured on. It does seem as if there is some unity of purpose, make it appear that climate change is an unpopular, widely ridiculed concept. Given the general scientific consensus about climate change, which does in reality exist (even though one would be hard pressed to judge it from the comments to most SciAm stories), that is a problem. How to deal with it yet maintain a dialogue is tricky to be sure.

    Janet, you mentioned briefly you were apprised of some “evidence” that certain interests were specifically promoting “attacks” on climate change stories, but nothing else was said. That surely sounds provocative, and disturbing, though not surprising based on what I’ve read.

    Link to this
  49. 49. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 11:21 pm 03/5/2013

    @ dubay.denis, I heard about the paid trolls from David Shiffman at Southern Fried Science. In the commenting field where one can enter an URL (for one’s blog or whatever), one of the (presumably new) hired-gun-commenters entered the URL of the corporation or organization paying him to comment. Oops!

    Link to this
  50. 50. syzygyygyzys 5:19 am 03/24/2013

    A quote from Man of La Mancha (1972)
    “Cervantes, I think Don Quixote is brother to Cervantes.”
    It would appear that Don Quixite has a sister as well.

    Link to this

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