Is It Really So Difficult to be Civil?


By inspire*dream*create*, Rachel Souza’s Flickr Photostream

I realize that I am a new blogger for this site, and have enjoyed the challenge of sharing some of the latest scientific breakthroughs as they are happening. I have enjoyed reading some of my fellow bloggers, “Sciblings,” learning about new discoveries from their perspectives.

I have also noted a lack of civility in some articles on this site. To such bloggers, I would like to respectfully make a call to civility. I have noticed an unfortunate tendency for some of them to use terms such as “dumbass” and “stupid” in articles discussing opposing points of view. Sites such as ScienceBlogs are appropriate for discussion of a variety of opinions, but is it necessary to use such derogatory terms? The reason is transparent: it is an easy way to be provocative and to attract readers.

For those bloggers with a habit of using derogatory terms, please consider alternatives when tackling an opposing point of view. It may require more careful consideration of choice of expression and could result in a richer discussion, and there may be a risk that you might not attract readers who flock to material with provocative taglines. But would it not enhance our reputation as a “go to” site for intelligent discussion about scientific issues of the day?


  1. #1 JohnV
    December 27, 2010

    Dr. Toney I know you mean well, but this is going to go very poorly.

  2. #2 Janice in Toronto
    December 27, 2010

    I hope you own a flameproof suit.

  3. #3 george.w
    December 27, 2010

    I’ll second that, based on experience. When I first started visiting ScienceBlogs I said something similar to it. Your results may vary, of course, but it didn’t go well.

    No, the reason isn’t “apparent”; you are just assuming that you know it. Maybe it’s something you’ll just have to figure out for yourself. Interact with some trolls for a few months and then revisit this subject.

  4. #4 Joel
    December 27, 2010

    I wholeheartedly agree with you! But having been a lurker here on scienceblogs a while, I agree with JohnV as well that this will go over poorly. Not that I understand why.

    I get that sometimes the [for lack of a better word] “tone” of a speaker is used as an excuse to not address the argument itself. What I don’t get is, why make your point that way, then complain you’re not being listened to (assuming you haven’t tried civil/reasoned argument first). What can the f-word possibly contribute to your valid argument that you can’t say another way, one that might not immediately alienate your audience?

  5. #5 george.w
    December 27, 2010

    Joel: “What can the f-word possibly contribute to your valid argument that you can’t say another way, one that might not immediately alienate your audience?”

    It’s difficult to say, but possibly more than whinging about someone else’s use of a word you find distasteful. What can focusing on evidence of someone’s frustration possibly contribute to your understanding that you could not better gain by ignoring it if it bothers you, and focusing on whatever main point they are making?

  6. #6 Jeff
    December 27, 2010

    Such a “suit” is not only a requirement for my job, it’s part of my DNA. Still searching for the gene. Stay tuned.

  7. #7 DW
    December 27, 2010

    Someone just compared me to Haley Barbour on another thread. Civil? No. Correct? Hell no.

    The internet doesn’t exactly foster civility. Also, you can be as civil as you like on your own blog. Other’s blogs? Sorry, no. We can all click to other sites of we don’t like the language.

  8. #8 DW
    December 27, 2010

    *If* we don’t like the language. Proofread fail.

  9. #9 feralboy12
    December 27, 2010

    Wow, you ARE new here, aren’t you?
    So, you’re basically of the opinion that they aren’t helping?

  10. #10 Badger3k
    December 27, 2010

    Ready the fainting couch!

  11. #11 Katharine
    December 27, 2010

    Dr. Toney, part of the reason these kind of calls for moderation of tone are frowned upon is that they are usually used by people whose arguments have been poked holes through. So, unable to attack the substance of their opponent’s argument, they attack the tone.

    Look up the term ‘tone troll’.

  12. #12 AV Flox
    December 28, 2010

    Oh, the accusation of tone trolling! Surely then, there must be a thing as troll trolling, yes?

    I am in accord that discussions surrounding disagreements can and are better developed — whether an agreement is reached or not — with civil language. Saying so is not a way of avoiding a discussion.

    Clearly, Dr. Toney, anyone who doesn’t agree with that is a stupid asshole not worthy of your time.

    My sincerest apologies, I couldn’t resist.

  13. #13 DrugMonkey
    December 28, 2010

    Oh you are so right. If only we all could be civil and maintain a respectful tone we would so much more easily understand the depth and variety of others’ points of view. Oh, how it would help ourselves to step outside our comfort zones of carefully constructed self-congratulatory realities to see how others unlike ourselves feel. Alas, someone called someone else a dumbass on the Internet and screwed it all up. Sigh.

  14. #14 Isis the Scientist
    December 28, 2010

    I predict the warz over this post will be minimal.

  15. #15 Empiricus
    December 28, 2010

    Is It Really So Difficult to be Civil?

    Evidently, It Really Is.

    Why not take the empirical evidence seriously, instead of dismissing the obvious prima facie interpretation with a normative claim thinly disguised as a rhetorical question?

    Start the investigation with your own title. The rhetorical question, in form and in tone, is a highbrow insult. Imagine how your readers heard your voice and visualized your expression – the stress on “really”, the supercilious raised eyebrow.

    Perhaps you feel that genteel slight was an appropriate response to the misbehavior of your childish peers? A firm but kind schoolmaster’s call-out? Or maybe it was intended to shame them by demonstrating that it is possible to be uncivil without using icky lower-class words.

    Some people prefer to acknowledge their reality and serve it up straight. Or roll in it. Not that it helps.

    At any rate – you’ll fit right in, Dean.

  16. #16 John Morales
    December 28, 2010

    Interesting technique, this posting of flame-bait as an opinion piece.

    Particularly amusing is the equation of incivility with the employment of derogatory terms, as if the sentiments being expressed mattered not.


    Welcome to the internet! 🙂

  17. #17 drivebyposter
    December 28, 2010

    Sometimes a dummbass just needs to be called a dumbass. Over at Respectful insolence a few weeks ago there was a guy that denied that cigarettes caused cancer and suggested that they may even prevent cancer.

    His evidence was weak or nonexistent. He ignored that when it was pointed out and kept at it. What is there to say to that other than calling them a dumbass and moving on?

    It is very rare (that I’ve noticed at least) that such incivility is directed at people for having different opinions, but it quickly and often goes to those who are clearly factual and unwavering in their wrongness in the face of evidence, trolling, those who refuse to back up claims and assertions, and other such activity.

    Why not call a lying sack of s*** a lying sack of s***?

  18. #18 becca
    December 28, 2010

    First, I highly recommend you spend some time in the bowels of the internets- even youtube comment threads would work, but if you’re brave, venture over to 4chan. This place *is* civil, for the net.

    Also, imagine you just got a new deanship at a new institution. They want you specifically because you will bring a fresh perspective and are not wound up in existing territory disputes. Now imagine that Old Tenured Distinguished Professor Misogynist recently said to New TT-Lady Scientist “mind your tone! honestly, in my day ladies knew how to conduct themselves”. Let’s say NTLS has looked into filing for sexual harassment. Let’s say that Old Dean (who you are replacing) accidentally said something that would be funny if coming from a tenured prof, but was Not Appropriate as he was Officially Representing the University about this matter, he got embroiled in drama and altercations… and this is where you step in. Would you call one of your first staff meetings to discuss things and lead with what you just wrote?
    Know the history of where you are. Isn’t that like, the third rule of deanship (after ‘own a flameproof suit’ and ‘you are no longer speaking for yourself’)? (keeping in mind, I’m only a grad student. I really have no idea what it’s like to be a dean)

    Furthermore, I would argue that, at this point, the attempt to establish civility is itself so foully regarded that bringing it up at all constitutes a transparent attempt to up pageviews, all the while accusing the unspecified ‘others’ of doing the same through being uncivil. Very clever, Jeff. Very clever.

  19. #19 tideliar
    December 28, 2010

    I can haz pissing on carpets re-hash again!

    I assume our BlogHost has spent time on ScienceBlogs before he agreed to write here. The internet lets us/them say things we wouldn’t normally say in person. Usually, anyway, most people might think you’re an asshole, but won’t say it to your face (not you, the general ‘you’). However, there are many people, myself most included, who tend to the vernacular. I’ll avoid it in the office or the lab, but outside of that (as we are here), I kind of swear like a sailor. It doesn’t *mean* anything, it’s just langauge used for emphasis or aggression to emphasize a point.

    On top of this there are trolls 🙂

    Check out 4chan and the /b/tards and see what flaming and trolling is (I actually don’t remommend you do that). Otherwise, consider this space a relaxed barroom brawl hang out where tempers might fray, language might loosen, and sometimes the best thing to do is call an asshole and asshole.

  20. #20 tideliar
    December 28, 2010


    “brawl” is meant to be struck out or have mark up to illustrate as such.

  21. #21 Isis the Scientist
    December 28, 2010

    No one is going to piss on anyone’s carpet, Tiddleywinks.

  22. #22 Always Curious
    December 29, 2010

    I think it’s hard for some people to be civil when they have the weight of evidence on their side, have carefully explained it and along comes an ignorant doff who flippantly denies it or twists it into something else altogether. Dealing with people who mistake opinions for facts frays the limits of civility on most any blog, conversation, or interaction.

  23. #23 darwinsdog
    January 2, 2011

    The nastier you are the more hits your blog receives. The more hits your blog receives the more exposure Seed’s advertisers get. The more exposure Seed’s advertisers get the more $$ they make & the more they pay Seed for ad space. So forget civility, chump, if you want to survive in the cut-throat environment of for-profit internet capitalism.

  24. #24 Jeff
    January 3, 2011

    I disagree. There are exemplary blogs such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc. that focus on educating, not provoking, the public. Such media outlets have proven that they can be profitable as long as they adapt to changing needs of readers – transitioning from print to online. Being “nasty” and uncivil is a common route for those whose message is lacking substance and an intelligent analysis of issues of the day.

  25. #25 darwinsdog
    January 3, 2011

    I was referring specifically to ScienceBlogs & Seed Media. Compare numbers of comments on the “nice” blogs to those on the “nasty” ones. The “nasty” blogs have orders of magnitude more participation. (Darren Naish’s Tet Zoo blog seems to be the one exemplary exception.) I’ve witnessed bloggers for Seed start out nice & become progressively more nasty, in emulation of their more popular peers. “Being ‘nasty’ and uncivil is a common route for those whose message is lacking substance and an intelligent analysis of issues of the day.” I agree completely. Unfortunately, most readers apparently prefer controversy & nastiness over substance & intelligent analysis.

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