Starts With A Bang

Weekend Diversion: You are responsible for what you say

“In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

I’ve always been a big fan of personal freedom, which includes the freedom to speak your mind, say what you think, ask questions, be wrong, and learn. This is, after all, how we’ve all improved ourselves over our lives, as none of us were born knowing all that we’ve managed to acquire over our lifetimes.

And I’ve never had to have an official comment policy for all the years I’ve been blogging; the most I’ve ever had to give was some gentle guidance many years ago. But as much as I both hate moderating comments and arguing on the internet, the time has come to address a growing problem that many of you have noticed: a few bad apples spoiling the comments section for the  bunch. So let’s lay down what is and isn’t okay here, and empower all of you to make this the forum and community you want it to be. For this page, therefore, the song can be nothing other than The Prodigy‘s

Smack My Bitch Up.

First off, I’m going to continue to disallow all the things I’ve disallowed in the past. The following things are completely off-limits on my blog, and will get you permanently banned:

All of that is obvious to me, and that will continue to be enforced. But there’s more to it than that: there’s how we treat each other. On this blog, that means with our words to one another. Consider this image for a moment, if you will.

Image credit: Paul Graham of Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement.

We all say things — sometimes quite confidently — that turn out to be wrong. It’s not surprising: we are limited in how much information we have, in our experiences, and in how we’ve put it all together. This is simultaneously one of the best things about science, because it’s always learning and always self-correcting, and also one of the hardest things about being a scientifically-minded and kind human, because we both are sometimes wrong and need to change our worldview in order to be consistent, and also because when others need to be corrected, we want to set them on the right course.

I will always encourage everyone, when faced with the last of those tasks, to work from as high up on the pyramid as is possible. And believe me, I know it’s hard, particularly when you feel like the following is in order:

...because sometimes people *deserve* this.

Which — I’m not going to lie — sometimes is in order.

Because sometimes, arguments are not genuine.

Sometimes, people leave comments and state opinions for reasons other than to honestly attempt to learn, educate, or otherwise exchange information.

And when that happens here, it can hijack a very good community that is committed to sharing what we know about the Universe and how we know it, and turn the comments section into an indecipherable mess.

King of the Hill once covered this very well, IMO.

I’ve been very, very patient with giving people the benefit of the doubt. Some people do come here curious about the Universe, but with some very deep misconceptions about how things work. People with this mindset are often willing to change their minds if the right evidence comes along. I (sometimes naïvely) initially think that everyone who comes here is like this, particularly when a comment or question appears on a relevant post.

For example, when talking about how we know that the Earth moves.

Image credit: Richard Helmich.

There are plenty of hints that show us the Earth is rotating, but — from the perspective of an observer on Earth — it is completely indistinguishable whether it is the Earth that rotates on its axis every 24 hours or whether the entire Universe and everything in it rotates ones every 24 hours around the Earth. That much is true.

However, these two perspectives are not equivalent for everything else in the Universe. Every naked-eye star in the night sky — including Polaris, by the way — would be breaking the speed of light if they were moving around the Earth. The slowing of the Earth’s rotation — due to the frictional torque of the Sun-Moon-Earth system — would not exist, and thus there would be no explanation for the gradual but measurable changes in the length of the day. And, on cosmological scales, a rotating Universe (which is an interesting toy model) is constrained to be less than one rotation of the Universe about any axis over the entire history of the Universe.

And that is what I’d consider a fair explanation. At this point, the reasonable person may have follow-up questions, but would presumably have been confronted with evidence they didn’t consider, and the discussion would evolve. But the unreasonable person would shift the goalposts, bring up a new argument, point to some misinterpreted piece of evidence, etc., in some never-ending game of cat-and-mouse.

I feel like that’s what’s been going on in the comments of this blog, and that ends now.

Image credit: found at

Because from here on out, you are no longer free to promote your own, personal, anti-scientific screed here. Not on this blog, not on any old posts, not on any new posts. It’s wrong, it’s distracting, it’s deleterious to the community and it’s damaging to the good people who come here for the same purposes I do: to share the story of what we know about the Universe and how we know it with one another.

From here on out — and I’d encourage the honest attempt before doing this — you can send the offending commenter here, to this page. This page is — I hereby declare — the only place on Starts With A Bang where scientifically disingenuous comments are not going to be deleted immediately. If you said your piece of mind and were properly informed, and you continue to plow ahead and promote your anti-scientific nonsense, you get one warning to take it to this page.

That is what I need you, my readers, to do: if you catch someone doing this, warn them to either cut it out or take it here, and if you warn them, and they violate this policy, I will contact them personally, and — if necessary — ban them.

And I’m telling everyone right now, because I want to be very, very clear:

I don’t want to have to ban anybody!

You are free to speak however you like, but you are responsible for what you say. Your speech is your privilege here, so respect the blog, respect your community, and respect yourself with how you use it.

If you want to know the answer to a science question, we’ve got a great community here that can help you. If you want to know why the large-scale structure simulation, above, isn’t expanding, ask that. You’ll likely be told the correct answer: the simulation is done in an expanding Universe, but the expansion is scaled out of the visual end-product, because it’s not very interesting to watch a simulation containing 1 billion particles to only have 80 particles by the end of it, because the volume of the Universe has expanded by a factor of 12 million over the course of the simulation.

All structure formation simulations (including the beautiful cluster-formation one, below) do this when they’re presented visually; this is well-known and taken into account. I should know, it’s my area of expertise!

So let’s treat each other, ourselves, and our community with respect. If you can’t let go of your idea even after it’s been explained to you, you will be told to take it here, where you may or may not get a response, but you will not clutter up the rest of the blog with it, or you will no longer be allowed to comment here. This is a free and open forum with very few rules, so don’t abuse them and we’ll all have a better place to spend time together.

Also be aware that we now have a static comments policy page that permanently states this as our official comments policy. I hope this helps create a better community for everyone, and elevates the universal level of discourse. Thanks to everyone (you know who you are) who’s been fighting to keep the nonsense out; although I hate to have to get involved, I’ve got your back. It’s your backyard, too; let’s help keep it clean and beautiful for all.