I encourage everyone to read this thoughtful post by Janet, and contribute your thoughts.

Often, questions about online civility are dismissed with the comment “get a thicker skin” – as if it simply doesn’t matter whether people address each other with respect online. I think it does matter. In the offline world, the “us/them” mentality fosters prejudice and misunderstanding – just turn on FoxNews. If that mentality also dominates the online world, turning it into a bunch of bickering echo chambers, we lose one of our best opportunities for constructive dialogue with people of other experiences and backgrounds.

A recent Pew study shows that bloggers are more likely than non-bloggers to have friends and discussion partners of different ethnic backgrounds (which just goes to show how awesome bloggers are). I’d like to think that’s true for age, nationality, socioeconomic background, academic discipline and politics as well. Let’s keep the channels of communication open, and kick the “us/them” attitude to the curb.


  1. #1 Katharine
    January 3, 2010

    I don’t think it’s so much the ‘online’ as the fact that most of us talking are fairly jaded about the whole thing and are honestly not sure whether someone asking questions, perhaps, is genuinely asking questions or is being dishonest.

    My attitude in the other thread is that yes, it is necessary to be civil, but that does not preclude poking so many holes in your opponent’s argument that it resembles a spider web if that’s how bad your opponent’s argument is .

    For example, it irks the fuck out of me when Mooney and Nisbet do their stuff because we’ve EXPLAINED this to them, repeatedly, and we’re trying to figure out what they don’t know. I think they could both use some time observing how science is done. Stick them both in a lab for a while.

    Also, age and nationality factor little into this, I think. Age might be an issue because one’s maturity may be brought into doubt or one may be a stodgy old fart who wants the 50s to stay the 50s for a million years.

    But honestly, I don’t think it’s entirely possible to really measure the amount of this bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, Pollyanna attitude we can safely use. Humans ain’t that bright, you know.

    But color me a jaded, cynical asshole if you want to.

  2. #2 Jessica Palmer
    January 3, 2010

    Just to be clear, Katharine, since you bring up the thread at erv, this post is not a response to it, or to your comments to me over there. I’ve actually been having this conversation in various forms for the past several months, initially as part of a seminar about legal issues in online privacy, in which we focused on sexism on forums and in the blogosphere. One of the assigned readings was this essay by Joan Walsh, who talks about having recommended to other women bloggers that they “grow a thicker skin” in response to sexist mail, but reconsidered that attitude after the Kathy Sierra incident. So I’m actually thinking about these issues more in the context of gender issues than anything else.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    January 3, 2010

    Somebody studies bloggers???? How dare them!!!

    …kick the “us/them” attitude to the curb.

    Really? Kicking??? Violence!!

    But seriously, this will be an interesting discussion. You’re going to be there, right?

  4. #4 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 3, 2010

    Civility is for douchebags.

  5. #5 CTReader
    January 3, 2010

    Well, as one of the stodgy old farts (thank you, Katharine, for providing me with a hook to hang this on) let me go off-topic briefly: the guy that came up with the 55 MPH speed limit back in the 70’s has a lot to answer for. He taught an entire generation of Americans that it was OK to break the “little” laws. It’s just that the definition of “little” seems to grow slowly but surely. The same sort of thing has been happening in discourse. The basic honesty of arguing from what you consider a defensible position has been eroding at a faster and faster rate. And, while it is easier to do so anonymously, it has spilled into face to face discourse of late. Look no further than the Congressional Record for ample examples.

    But, to get back, speeding and on-line incivility are similar in some ways. They are both essentially anonymous: we are in a group that essentially doesn’t recognize us; can’t get to us. We see others in the group behave in a manner that we (used to?) regard as wrong and get away with it. It becomes so easy to slip into the stream and float with the others.

    Personally, the obvious lack of honesty in any discourse turns me off completely and immediately. I either don’t or stop commenting in any thread that deteriorates like this. It is simply impossible to have a civil discussion under circumstances like this.


  6. #6 Jessica Palmer
    January 3, 2010

    @Greg: At SciOnline? Sadly no, I can’t get away. I’m sure everyone will have a blast though with the kicking of curbs and the douchebags and whatnot.

  7. #7 Mike Olson
    January 3, 2010

    Like alot of folks I comment on a number of forums. However, On many issues I’m just getting tired of the obvious dismissive nature folks use on those forums. I am guilty of the same thing. I just left forums of two different local newspapers. On one thread a commenter posted 100 individual “points/notes” as to why global warming isn’t happening, or if it is it is normal, and if it is it couldn’t possibly be as a result of human activity, and if it is happening it will turn out to be a good thing we shouldn’t worry about, but should look forward to. On the other forum two commenters are declaring that environmentalism is a religion, DDT is a good chemical that stopped the spread of malaria and it’s use should be continued. The whole cancer causing bit was over stated and it had nothing to do with thinning the egg shells of eagles. My point is, these folks are convinced they are being rational and not simply cherry picking research to fit their point of view. They reflect the “echo chamber” phenomenon you point out. Anyone who questions their opinion simply isn’t looking at the research or doesn’t see the facts. The same thing of course happens with young earth creationists. Don’t get me wrong…I support science fully, but am smart enough to understand that supporting science doesn’t mean the latest and greatest chemicals are always the best…I keep expecting one of these yahoos to argue that thalidimide was a good thing and that a lack of arms teaches kids how to better use their legs…Sadly, I came to these forums looking for good discussions, but it seems that the most frequent posters on the local papers are massively misinformed folks who are the first to label their own genius while dismissing the points of others.

  8. #8 Isis the Scientist
    January 4, 2010

    There will be no douchebags at our session. I demand it.

  9. #9 delphi4c
    January 4, 2010

    Yrs. ago I thought civility on the Web still important — I’ve given up (people like the ‘wild west’ nature of the ‘Net too much). ‘Civility’ as my generation would’ve defined it is gone; the latest generation coming up will grow up with an entirely different definition and indeed with a thicker skin.

  10. #10 Katharine
    January 4, 2010

    One nitpick –

    Thalidomide was actually great, it was just the fact that one enantiomer was pharmacologically active while another enantiomer was a teratogen.

    Nowadays, we have the technology to reduce the amount of the teratogen.

  11. #11 Jessica Palmer
    January 4, 2010

    Incidentally, Bora has posted a great post which describes the supposedly polite, but really obstructionist and trollish behaviors of some commenters to a T. I encourage you to read his post as well as Janet’s.

    Example of the latter: some trolls. We get them around here a lot. They are GW denialists or anti-vaccination loons, or rabid Animal Rightists. They sometimes post comments that are written in a perfectly polite language – our spam filters don’t detect a single ‘iffy’ word in there. The comment is polite and seems civil on the surface. It may be posed as a question, or a statement preceded by a very “sorry I am interrupting” introduction designed to soften the ire. But it is uncivil for a variety of reasons: the post may have nothing to do with that topic at all; the commenter obviously did not read the post; the commenter obviously did not read the other comments on the thread; the commenter comes unprepared and uninformed; the comment is essentially a copy+paste or regurgitation of talking points, errors of which the commenter is unaware of; the commenter asks to be spoon-fed readily available information (including that included in the body of the post already, or a link within it); if spoon-fed the commenter does not read (or even try to understand) and asks for it again; if not spoon-fed the commenter keeps whining for it; if told off the commenter gets all gruffy and puffy and complains about the “impolite bloggers”. All polite, nothing civil about it. Then, the blogger who loses patience and tells such a commenter to go to hell is impolite, but civil – the commenter got just as much respect as earned/deserved.

  12. #12 Mike Olson
    January 5, 2010

    ThalidOmide. I should have spell checked that and in regards to the chemistry info…I had organic eight years ago and don’t use it on a regular basis….all to point out that I appreciate the “nitpick” and was glad to actually learn something. Thank you very much, Katherine, I am grateful to be corrected in such a fashion! : )

New comments have been disabled.