Online civility: between 10,000 cliques and 2 cultures, where's the neutral ground?


As I mentioned last week, I spent yesterday on a panel/in a workshop at Harvard's Kennedy School, "Unruly Democracy: Science Blogs and the Public Sphere." It was an excellent day - I met many interesting people and had some great conversations. Plus, I got to meet Dr. Isis in the flesh! Woohoo! Thanks to the Intersection's Chris Mooney and everyone at the Kennedy School's Science and Technology Studies program for putting on such a great event.

Obviously, I can't speak for all science bloggers, and I didn't even try. But what I did endeavor to convey in my brief talk was the difficulty of blogging on interdisciplinary borders, where science meets art and the humanities. My big concern? While individual blogs often have communities who are internally civil and share norms and history, when you move from blog to blog, those norms and history break down. There are no universal norms in the science blogosphere, much less the blogosphere as a whole - and that leads to a lot of misunderstandings, partisan assumptions, and conflict. Things can get "us vs. them" really fast. . . and once they do, you lost the potential to have calm conversations between communities. I think the types of misunderstandings that arise in interdisciplinary blogging are a microcosm of the communication challenges within the fragmented blogosphere, which is in turn mirroring an increasingly fragmented and partisan public discourse.

Here's the deal. I think the scientific community is increasingly appreciating the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in advancing science. Perhaps you don't quite see its utility in basic research the way I do, but we can probably all agree that innovative forms of collaboration between science and other disciplines - design, art, writing, web publishing, etc. - make the fruits of scientific research accessible, understandable, and useful to society. There are many valuable forms of science blogging: mentorship and institutional knowledge shared by experienced faculty are valuable to young scientists (thank you, Drugmonkey & CPP), plain-language posts explaining peer reviewed medical research are useful to patients, and posts debunking vaccine denialism are important to ensure science is heard during the shaping of public policy.

Here at BioE, interdisciplinary conversations are the point. I'd like to see both discussions about interdisciplinary subject matter, like sciart, and discussions between representatives of different fields: physicists and biologists, scientists and non-scientists, artists and pragmatists, academics and non-academics - the list goes on. The general idea is to take ideas that don't normally socialize and introduce them to each other, and see what happens. (Consider it an idea blind date.) But I've come to the counterintuitive and somewhat depressing conclusion that, while the democratic, silo-less, welcoming, accessible-from-everywhere-in-American blogosphere should (in concept at least) be a good venue for interdisciplinary conversations, the reality is a little bit different.

There are several reasons why this might be so. First, it's difficult and time-consuming to write for a "general public" (you have no idea what your readers' background interests, knowledge, age and location are, which means no short cuts, and lots of explanation and linking to background). Many people have only moments to spend reading blog posts, not the minutes it takes to plow through a long one (like this - sorry). And sometimes it's discouraging that most popular posts are the most trivial (remember Skeleton Sex?) Ah well. :) But the big challenge, I think, is something I'll call the Neutral State Problem: the blogosphere is not tolerant of neutral states.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the blogosphere abhors a neutral and nonpartisan blog. For whatever reasons, cultural or historical, participants expect partisanship. They want to know if you're with them or against them; the dedicated communities at various blogs can be pretty defensive of their space, and sometimes stream like lemmings through the aether to attack a blogger that they perceive as threatening. It's human nature: when our friends get attacked, we get mad. The problem is, we're not always so good at figuring out what's a legitimate attack - and it makes it really hard to have a calm conversation with our adversaries.

To be fair, ascribing bias and partisanship to a blogger or commenter, even on shaky evidence like a quick read of a single post, is probably an efficient cognitive heuristic for navigating the thousands of blogs out there. But it's not an accurate way to assess bias. My presence at Scienceblogs, for example, generates certain presumptions about my political and religious leanings. There's at least one wackaloon who sends me threatening spam emails about how New Atheists must die. This wackaloon has obviously never read my blog, because I don't blog about New Atheism; that would be Scibling PZ Myers, among others. Do I look like PZ? (Apparently yes, perhaps because we have similar URLs, and our blogs both have strange, single-word names.) At least one conference attendee yesterday seemed to make the same assumption, since he sought me out to speak to me about God. That's cool - I enjoy discussions about spirituality in art and science. But I do get tired of rebutting the assumption that I have certain views just because I'm a scientist, or a science blogger, or a Scienceblogger.

Unsurprisingly, people make similar political assumptions. Last year, I blogged about an old social science textbook co-authored by Presidential science advisor John Holdren, which was being misrepresented to support some extreme assertions about his politics. Merely calling attention to the lack of logical connection between the textbook and the political accusations snagged me various hateful comments, many of which suggested various political agendas and pecuniary motivations behind my post. The reason for writing the post - that the text of the book was misrepresented by being taken out of a scientific and pedogogical context - is completely baffling to such ideologues. Why would I care to make an argument about how to read and analyze a text? What's the point of that? (smacks head.)

In a final, somewhat different example, I blogged last year about a neuroscientist friend who works for the Department of Defense. He's been working hard to build a program of public education about scientific research. Some of his podcasts are about building better body armor, yes, but other topics include how research is being used to prevent collateral environmental damage, to help injured veterans recover from traumatic brain injury, and to help servicemembers' families deal with drug abuse. I mentioned how interested I was that the Department of Defense was trying to promote public understanding of science - not an attitude I normally associate with them, but an attitude that I personally would like to encourage; I suggested checking the podcasts out, especially one on alternative post-PhD careers. Shortly thereafter, another science blogger commented on my post, "since this is the DoD, let's not forget the exciting scientific careers available in warmongering and death." Hmmm. What's the point of a comment like that? It's certainly not to start a productive conversation. It's not to change the DoD's policies, since they don't read my blog. Is it to just to vent frustration and anger about the Iraq war at me, because I'm a convenient target? I can sympathize with the frustration - I attended protests against the current war before it started, years ago. But the comment? Not useful.

In the blogosphere, a post relating your interest in/perspective on/attention to an issue is not read so much as run through a very coarse filter, and used to lump you in a political or ideological group. Generally, readers find it easier to believe that, if you disagree with them, it's for ideological and irrational reasons (the alternative, of course, is that you may actually have a point, and they may be wrong). Never mind that the previous week you came to a different conclusion, or offered the exact opposite perspective, in a different post: you've been labeled a partisan apologist for one group or another. To such people, the blogosphere is a hyperpartisan, polarized realm of friends and enemies, and a blogger who tries to skate down the middle - to be friendly to spiritualists and atheists, to Democrats and Republicans, to the sciences and the humanities - can't succeed in achieving an air of neutrality. She's simply going to be labeled an enemy by both sides, depending on the day of the week.

The thing that makes me angriest about all of this is not random emails from wackaloons, or people calling me a stupid bitch. It's that, when a comments thread becomes a series of hateful ad hominem attacks, its utility as a platform for meaningful conversation is gone. And that not only makes blogging seem pretty pointless, it also depresses me about American society as a whole. Being a "devil's advocate" (putting an unpopular argument out there so thinking people can turn it over, take it apart, and see if it has any merit) under such hostile conditions is a risky strategy. You'd be a fool to say anything even slightly provocative, knowing that people will just misread what you say and label you for it, unless your goal is to generate conflict-based traffic and long, angry comment threads. Being as incendiary as possible is an excellent strategy for spiking your traffic, mobilizing the masses (on both sides), fundraising, or monetizing a blog. It's a great way to do advocacy or even (as Chris Mooney mentioned in his talk yesterday) to shame egregious purveyors of bad science into correcting their inaccurate stories. But if you're just trying to have a conversation, you may be better served by keeping your readership as small, as niche, as possible, so it's the kind of environment where people will actually want to hazard an unpopular position or two without fear of hostile attack.

So what to do? Well, sometimes, as on the Holdren post, I try to engage with commenters. I try to assume they're arguing in good faith, and address the substance of their positions, not the ad hominem attacks. But it's not something I enjoy, particularly when so many people who leave an insult are clearly never coming back, and didn't read the entire post, much less the comment thread. That doesn't exactly make for a teachable moment. Plus, quite frankly, it's not my job. I used to teach college; when I did, it was my duty to teach students to read carefully and construct logical arguments, and to work through their questions, no matter how small. But that's not my job anymore, and even if I felt like patrolling the internet to correct people who are wrong, I couldn't do it. I don't have time. It's also not the job of BioE regulars, or Scienceblogs regulars, to police the comment threads and argue with random wackaloons. That's not a good use of your time, either. If you enjoy it, go for it - but if you don't, isn't life too short to argue with someone who isn't listening?

Frankly, I am worried - not about blogs, because they're just blogs, after all. I'm worried because science (any academic field, actually) and democracy become utterly nonfunctional when they cease to tolerate reasoned discussion. Democracy is about involving groups with different bargaining positions and interests and generating a workable compromise. Science is also about debate: arguing for your interpretation of the evidence, getting to the best consensus explanation, and then going out to fetch new data and do it all over again. You can hate, resent, dislike, even distrust your rivals - scientific, professional or political - and still maintain a functional system. But if you can't have a civil discourse on neutral ground without resorting to obscenities or ad hominem attacks, the system is broken. You simply can't get anything done. This is especially true in Congress: when those moderate politicians who are willing to talk to the other side are labeled traitors by their parties and lose their seats, there's no one left to broker a compromise.

While hyperpartisan polarization in politics is nothing new (I remember the Contract With America!) it does seem to me to be getting worse (I also remember when everyone watched the 6 o'clock news, and the anchors were not only calm, they were - dare I say it - pretty fair and balanced). Now we have cable "news" networks that feed their partisans exactly what they want to hear. Are blogs really so different? I don't think so. People stumble across blogs in various ways, but they return to blogs because those blogs resonate with them. When it comes to television news, like Goldilocks, we must find satisfaction among Fox (so right!), MSNBC (so left!) and CNN (WTF?). But there are thousands of blogs, so in the blogosphere you can find a near-perfect fit, where you can read and talk with people who think like you do. Cass Sunstein (current head of OIRA) has discussed this "echo chamber" effect in Infotopia and his other writings. (Chris Mooney talked quite a bit about Sunstein's perspective yesterday, juxtaposing it with Al Gore's more optimistic approach to media). A recent study by researchers at the Berkman Center comparing conservative and liberal blogs finds that, along with different political views, they also have significant differences in organization, hierarchy, and the level of user engagement: apparently, people self-sort not only according to the content of their beliefs, but also according to the type of community they find welcoming.

With everyone self-sorting into fragmented, specialized blog communities (or "clubs", or to put a negative spin on it, "cliques") that reflect their views back at them, I wonder how effective we can be at harnessing the web for interdisciplinary, cross-community conversations. I originally hoped that an interest group of "people who like interdisciplinary stuff" would coalesce at my blog, and I do think that's an accurate way of describing most of my ongoing readers, don't you? But the comment threads aren't usually interdisciplinary discussions. My recent reader poll (backed up by traffic stats) suggests that majority of my readers don't comment or only do so rarely, and many don't read comments - although they all feel strongly they should be able to comment if they wish. A significant number of the people who do comment are angry non-regulars who are annoyed at me for saying something liberal, or annoyed at scientists/Scienceblogs in general. All of this means that blogging is very much like throwing your lovingly crafted ideas into the sea in glass bottles, hoping someone finds and enjoys them - while periodically your neighbor's guests stand out on his dock and heckle you. Eh.

Admittedly, it may be unusually difficult to do what I'd like to do: to engage interdisciplinary dialogue between members of different academic (or non academic) communities. But my gut feeling is, it's not really all that different from trying to have any cross-community conversations online. They're all pretty hard to do, because different communities have different norms of what's acceptable in comments, different background levels of knowledge, different histories and different investments in individuals' credibility with one another. There are differences in behavioral norms between blogs - what's "normal" at Pharyngula is not what's "normal" in Dr. Isis' house, or what's "normal" here. The same type of comment will be read differently at each blog, even though they're all science blogs (and Scienceblogs)! I don't think fragmentation and miscommunication is a problem specific to science blogs at all - it's a general problem.

Mark Slouka had an erudite, emotional rant in the September 2009 Harper's in which he bewailed the fact that the focus of public education has shifted from the humanities to math and science. I was particularly struck by this quote:

It troubles me because there are many things "math and science" do well, and some they don't. And one of the things they don't do well is democracy. They have no aptitude for it, no connection to it, really. Which hasn't prevented some in the sciences from arguing precisely the opposite, from assuming even this last, most ill-fitting mantle, by suggesting that science's spirit of questioning will automatically infect the rest of society.

In fact, it's not so. Science, by and large, keeps to its reservation, which explains why scientists tend to get in trouble only when they step outside the lab. That no one has ever been sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant is precisely to the point. The work of democracy involves espousing those values that in a less democratic society would get one sent to prison. To maintain its "sustainable edge," a democracy requires its citizens to actually risk something, to test the limits of the acceptable; the "trajectory of capability-building" they must devote themselves to, above all others, is the one that advances the capability for making trouble. If the value you're espousing is one that could never get anyone, anywhere, sent to prison, then strictly democratically speaking you're useless.

Mr. Slouka, with all due respect, seems unaware just how much scientists engaged in public debate can risk. Anyone following Simon Singh's story in Britain knows that science journalists and bloggers are vulnerable to accusations of libel merely for giving their reasoned scientific opinion. Some researchers blog pseudonymously because they've been threatened. A schoolteacher in Connecticut recently resigned in protest because he was forbidden to teach evolution; apparently the school district didn't have the stomach to stand up to (hypothetical!) angry parents. What, specifically, did the district fear about teaching evolution? That kids wouldn't be able to handle the big questions - like, say, the meaning of life - that would inevitably arise from talking about science?

Still think scientists don't know anything about the kind of risky, controversial discourse that takes place in a democracy?

I sympathize with Mr. Slouka about the loss of valuable humanities programs. But with all due respect, I don't think it's science that doesn't do democracy well. It's society. There are lots of science bloggers out there trying to have the kind of important conversations that Slouka ascribes to the humanities; many people mixing science with humanities by talking and writing about the history of science, science in art, and science in culture. By dichotomizing "science" and "humanities" and suggesting the two cultures (or magisteria, or whatever) don't cohabitate well, Slouka is playing a very old and well-used violin. But he's also reinforcing the new echo chamber process: the us-them self-selection by which people make knee-jerk decisions about what voices they will or will not listen to.

My personal experience as a blogger tells me that in the long run, the "10,000 clubs/cliques/communities" problem is a much more pressing problem than CP Snow's "2 cultures" divide. I'd really like to know if there is any way to establish platforms online for productive interdisciplinary discourse, but avoid the burdens of incivility, knee-jerk hostility, etc. Unfortunately, I'm not sure there is. Chris Mooney has expressed similar concerns many times over, and yesterday he did a lot of the heavy lifting on this subject because he spoke right before me (thanks, Chris!). And little later, Dr. Isis outlined the parameters of civility and made her recommendations for responsible blogging and maintaining a positive community. But during the afternoon panels, several speakers seemed to reject our concerns about civility. They suggested that it was a blogger's responsibility to maintain a productive community by aggressively moderating, disemvowelling, even editing (!), offensive comments - and that because legally we're not prevented from doing so, there is no reason for us not to. Several panelists discussed the potential of commenting systems in which commenters have to earn the right to comment and to have their comments seen by others - perhaps something similar to Slashdot's system, that encourages self-policing in the community.

Those aren't bad ideas at all - except for one thing. They make it even harder for outsiders to enter the blog community and exchange ideas. If I want to engage people in interdisciplinary discourse, I don't want to put obstacles in their way. I don't think controlling (or, in the words of one panelist, "taming") comments is the way to improve the conversation. I flatly refuse to edit anyone's comments, because that would misrepresent what they actually said. And I have two big questions: first, where am I supposed to draw the line of acceptable commenting: mere profanity, or much higher, say at "useful contribution to the conversation"? Isn't it a slippery slope? Second, how do I find the time to aggressively moderate comments or institute a complex screening system? Even if it were true that by doing so, I would ensure a happy, shiny forum for awesome discourse among all my wonderful readers, I don't have the resources to mod the playground.

So where did the workshop end up? With, of all things, a classic old-fashioned in-person argument between our own Dr. Isis, speaking on behalf of active academic researchers, and the head of MIT's Knight Journalism Fellowships, Phil Hilts. Phil Hilts was complaining that many scientists won't serve as sources for journalists. Isis quite reasonably asked how a scientist who wants to combat a misperception about her science is supposed to do so, if the media don't call her. It was like a timewarp back to graduate school, pre-blogosphere, when our concerns about graduate students' ability to articulate their science and be comfortable with journalists led some colleagues and I to start the Berkeley Science Review! I really appreciated the response by Francesca Grifo of UCS: she recognized that science journalists face challenges (especially in such a tough economy) but also noted that scientists aren't generally rewarded for engaging the public, and often don't have the toolkit or time to advocate for themselves. There are so many different challenges in science communications; blogging is only one of them.

I don't have any idea what specific incident Hilts was referring to (I think it had to do with climate change) but he was steamed about something. Perhaps Isis will clarify later, but I'm not sure Isis knew what incident he was talking about, either. Anyway, it really made me appreciate how little has changed, despite blogs and Stumbleupon and Twitter and Google. . . it's still all about having conversations, and how one's community, professional culture, history, sensitivities and biases make it really hard to have neutral, balanced conversations with people outside your community. That's never been easy. There's always been incivility, and mistrust, and difficulty bridging the divide between groups. I don't know anyone who thinks these issues are brand-new. But maybe we can find some new solutions.

And finally, thanks for reading - this post, BioE and other blogs. It's readers like you who define the shape of the blogosphere and the type of conversations that take place there; you bridge communities and keep the lines of communication open. Don't underestimate your importance in all of this - or your power.


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"So what to do? Well, sometimes, as on the Holdren post, I try to engage with commenters. I try to assume they're arguing in good faith, and address the substance of their positions, not the ad hominem attacks."

It never works. They are *not* arguing in good faith. Some wish to, and will respond if you demand they be civil before engaging them. Most of the rude trolls will get you to bite into the argument, then abuse you some more.

Feeding people's dickishness by responding to their arguments only results in more dickishness. In my experience.

What I love about the various forums is that in all the free for all, people are learning what works. I have been in a number of communities lately where most people now understand "don't feed the trolls." It works quite well over time with people who know the meme. And newbys catch on fairly fast. :-)

Very nice post. I agree with some stuff and disagree with others, but will need to think more and hopefully put down a longer comment... if I have the time.

If someone makes a purely trollish comment, you're right, it's definitely not worth engaging. But there are also people who really don't understand. If I give up and assume they're all trolls too, I'd be even more cynical than I am now - which seems hardly possible! :) But yes, you're right - trolls are another reason blog conversations derail - because trolls make other participants so cynical they simply give up on everyone.

Did you expect that if I came that there wouldn't be a fight?

In all seriousness, I am honored for the invitation and these panels left me with a lot to think about. To be honest, I am still not sure what our goals are and I am afraid that, until we outline those goals, the conversation will never be productive.

I enjoy your posts because they are so thought provoking and neutrally based. I agree about moderating, were I a blogger I would disable comments before I committed to heavy moderating.

To be honest, I am still not sure what our goals are and I am afraid that, until we outline those goals, the conversation will never be productive.

I think this summarized part of what I disagree with. The conversation IS productive. There are people who read your blogs who learn things they didn't know before. That is productive. You both of goals (i.e. help people learn more about X, better understand Y, or raise money for Z), even if you never sat down and precisely defined X,Y,&Z.

Better definitions of your goals, might help you get better, but a lack of sitting down to define them doesn't mean you're not being productive.

I could spend a lot of time here writing how things I've read on blogs have forced me to think about new things, educated me, and even changed my point of view on certain topics.

Perhaps I'm an outlier in this case, but I'm far from the only one and what you both right reaches people. Perhaps the school teacher model of the pleasure a teacher feels from making a connection with a challenging student, is a good analogy. The question is how to make sure, as a blogger you get that type of feedback. I'm not trying to ignore the many negatives you discuss, but don't ignore the positives.

Thank you. You just gave me a new alias for my comments. (I used to be 10,000li, a name for the Great Wall of China)

Without a doubt, learning how to encourage those who DO wish to engage in civil conversation is one of those important life skills all of humanity needs to focus attention on.

David Brin once made a comment about developing a system of thinking that "kills bad ideas dead," but I haven't found any eviednce that such a system exists, or even COULD be developed.

I think that most people would like to have civil conversations, if they knew how, but I also believe that most people don't realize that they don't even know the basics of logical argument and giving the others the benefit of the doubt long enough to understand what they really mean.

Thanks again.

By 10,000cliques (not verified) on 01 May 2010 #permalink

Well thought out, Jessica.

The 10,000 cliques problem has drawbacks, but as a guy who paints wings on trilobites, it's also wonderful. There's a niche for everybody, not just in bloggy subject matter, but also in tone.

I suspect a lot of tone-based compromises are made (attempts to mimic the prevailing style of comments), but are less noticeable with the flashy conflicts in the foreground.

Hey bsci, I think you are absolutely right - I think Isis was saying more that she wasn't sure what the goal of the workshop (the civility/blogging conversation) was. Isis actually has pretty great goals for her blog - as you put it, she's helping people learn about X and raising money for Z. I try to emulate her as much as possible. But in general I'm a little concerned that over the long run we need a plan for how to improve the conversation in general.

And how awesome is it that mabus showed up right on cue with an incoherent rant? So perfect! I shall obviously have to rejigger my spam filter again, but in the meantime, I can't think of a better place for an obsessive rant about atheism and BOOBIES than right on this thread.

PP, I'm sitting on my virtual dock mocking you for not having a virtual dock. HA!

Dear dock mockers & mock dockers,

the neutral ground

is located in between the v and the s in "vs"

tuck yourself in that tiny space (bring a lunch).

per Dr. Wahabi Wasabi Wallabi Wannabe, pH 7


Thank you so much for this amazing post, and for participating on Friday--your presentation was a highlight.

You already know I agree with your concerns, and I'm so happy that with the conference we not only managed to raise these issues but also to debate them (since, as you note, we got some pushback from the later panels).

I get the feeling this is the beginning of a new debate on the meaning of science in the blogosphere. I'm going to go blog and tweet this post because it is an amazing start to that discussion.

Long read. Touching on many things I've observed over the past year I've been actively reading skeptic/science blogs.

Getting more and more disillusioned by the capability of people to learn, frankly. As children, we're sponges, but as soon as puberty sets in, we seem to know it all.

"To be fair, ascribing bias and partisanship to a blogger or commenter, even on shaky evidence like a quick read of a single post, is probably an efficient cognitive heuristic for navigating the thousands of blogs out there. But it's not an accurate way to assess bias."

Thank you for including commenters in your above quote.

Simply for having more complex or nuanced ideas than many blogging cliques on religion and prayer, feminism, and the hatin'-on-whitey approach to the issue of racism, I have been called all sorts of names (like loon, vile racist, troublemaker etc) and especially troll by a number of science bloggers and their favorite, in-group commenters themselves. The first time I was attacked and ridiculed was not on PZ's blog, but on that of one of the commenters here, and for simply commenting that I thought prayer was more complex than "asking the man in the sky to fix something in my life or get me an object I desire".

I agree, it is very unpleasant to be the recipients of such attacks and a complete waste of time. It seems most participants ascribe the attitude you describe to everyone else, never seeing it in themselves. Hence my main complaint: hypocrisy. For example, a common response to people who may argue a point with a clique is "go get your own fucking blog" yet the exact people making this response harshly critique other bloggers on THEIR own blogs, and so on. For example they may disapprove of how that blogger interprets feminism and all attack him on his blog, and their own (spreading the word) even though the original comment was rather minor and was actually an attempt to be supportive.

I am not including you in that description, I do sense a genuine mature viewpoint and attempt to be fair in the posts and comment threads here, which I appreciate! And being an artist/scientist myself, I love this blog. So please don't go emulating other science bloggers!

"Mr. Slouka, with all due respect, seems unaware just how much scientists engaged in public debate can risk."

I don't read Mr. Slouka's comments as having anything to do with scientists engaged in public debate. Most scientists don't get involved, and most institutions of science don't encourage this involvement. What is it about science that would encourage scientists to get involved in public debate? To get away from science and into politics? I can't think of anything, but I have no idea if I'm right.

David, when we talk about science blogs, we are talking about scientists who are already involved in public debate. I'm not trying to "encourage scientists to get involved in public debate" - that is a very old goal that people have been pushing for many years, and a different discussion, plus I know lots of scientists who are already doing it. Instead, I'm trying to discuss the problems that arise during the debate, particularly on blogs, as see how we can make online discourse better.

My post is about how productive discourse is important both to science and to democracy, but how it is also quite difficult and contentious. Slouka's comment is interesting in that context because he suggests that science/scientists do not contribute to important democratic discourse in the way the humanities do:

"That no one has ever been sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant is precisely to the point. . . If the value you're espousing is one that could never get anyone, anywhere, sent to prison, then strictly democratically speaking you're useless."

Slouka casually suggests that the humanities offer more meaningful, "riskier", and important topics to engage with, as opposed to boring old science which addresses things like the value of the Hubble constant. I don't like this characterization for several reasons. First, many highly controversial issues involve science AND something else - policy, politics, philosophy, etc. Plus, science itself is value-laden. So there is no clear divide or scientific "reservation" where all the dry, uncontroversial scientific issues stay put. This is why I think interdisciplinary conversations are important. Second, I pointed out that there are very controversial issues in science provoking both questions of free speech, and reprisals against the speakers. So to suggest that only non-scientists have the guts to place themselves at risk by engaging in controversial discourse, or to suggest that scientific topics are inherently less important or risky or controversial, mischaracterizes the nature of discourse on scientific issues today. It certainly fails to map onto the type of contentious discourse we were talking about on Friday. Finally, Slouka frames the problem as the same old 2 cultures problem - "science doesn't do communications/discourse/democracy well". But I don't think ANYBODY is doing these things well right now, particularly online. I'd seen fights at fashion blogs that closely mirror fights I've seen at science blogs. I really think the problem is fragmentation and self-selection, and that's bigger than a 2 cultures issue.

It annoys the heck out of me when someone says to a fellow scientist, who spends a great deal of her personal time blogging and reaching out to the public, "YOU are the problem: why aren't scientists more involved?" (This actually happened yesterday). People really have to get over this whole hangup on how not enough scientists are involved, particularly when they are talking to scientists who ARE involved enough to blog, and to take a day to go to a conference on improving blogging. My personal perspective is that the incivility of blog discourse deters scientists and others from engaging, and if we can improve that, we may get more people on all sides involved. Institutions also can and should change to value communications more. But Friday's workshop was about the kinds of conversations taking place already, and how to make them better.

I'd personally take Phil Hilts to taks for this: Phil Hilts was complaining that many scientists won't serve as sources for journalists.

Yeah, well. Especially when it comes to issues like climate change, there have been a number of unwary scientists who spoke to journalists in good faith, only to be quote-mined, misquoted, distorted and misrepresented in order to convey completely the wrong message, and it ends up making them look like chumps, too. for example, what Michael Asher of Daily Tech did to William Chapman of Cryosphere; that morphed into the "Arctic ice reached 1979 levels" completely false "meme" that was making its way around the denialist press and blogosphere for at least a year, and Chapman's/Cryosphere's statement on the matter didn't really do squat to stop the flow of misinformation. Or, on a completely different topic, there's the very bad science reporting that you've blogged on, the "blame the victim" rape story in the Telegraph -- which resulted in a complete not-correction and notpology.

After a few of these episodes -- and sadly, they afflict just about every field of science reporting to a degree, but even more so in the "hot" issues where accurate science information is even more vital in the public sphere -- any sensible scientist is going to view requests for statements with a real distrust. And that is not their fault. It is absolutely NOT right to blame people for not doing something when they have good reason to think they'll get burned for it.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink

Luna, you touched on what I was thinking. There's a difference between honest discussion and complete bullshit, and the one that makes good fertilizer is what's been coming out of most journalists' pens. Stop fucking asking a politician with a (haha) communications degree to answer a science question, and don't be afraid to expose how little said politician understands. We'll find it more amusing to read if you catch him being a dumbass rather than giving the ol' false equivalency thing another try. Hint: when George Will's talking, he's lying. Just catch him on it once in a while!

Isabel, I'm with you on the "get your own fucking blog" thing, but sometimes you just have the willfully ignorant clogging up a good comment thread, and there's no other way to deal with it. But I know that's not what you're talking about, you're referring to when you make an honest argument or contribution and are slammed for it. On the flipside (and this basically goes against what Jessica's said), I think there's a need for like-minded communities to strengthen ideas. I mean really, unless you're prepared to bring a spirited defense to why "prayer was more complex than 'asking the man in the sky to fix something in my life or get me an object I desire'," yeah, you'll get slammed at PZ's place. Same with if you went to A Few Things Ill Considered and started talking about how CO2 is plant food and therefore not to be worried about. You will (and deserve to) get your ass handed to you and told to STFU until you actually learn something about the subject. I love the huge open communities here and the lively discussions, but I also don't pretend that everyone who comes to participate is actually intelligent, interested in learning, or not a 13-year-old boy who gets his kicks from making people angry (they all do I'm pretty sure). And for all the negative comments you may have gotten at PZ's, I'm sure there were a few people saying they understood what you meant, that prayer is meditation or whatever and not the adult version of a Santa list.

Oh, and if any of you ever lose faith in Sb commenters, just pop over to YouTube and read some comments. Those people have gone so far past the line of civility it's not even on the horizon anymore. You'll feel like a PZ thread on creationists is like a high tea party (English tea party, not our ludicrous American one).

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink

"I think there's a need for like-minded communities to strengthen ideas."

I actually agree - with regard to certain ideas and groups, definitely. But like-minded communities have both an upside (strengthening ideas and confidence) and a downside (group polarization and exclusion). Generally, within the community everything is hunky dory - it's fun and supportive to be surrounded by people who support you and share your beliefs. The problem is that some people (not all) forget amidst all the agreement that it's okay/inevitable for other people to have other beliefs.

As for YouTube or any mainstream media sites that allow comments, I just don't let my eyes drift down the screen anymore! Terrifying.

"And for all the negative comments you may have gotten at PZ's"

Rob Monkey, please reread my comment, this was not at PZ's! My point was specifically that it was NOT at PZ's. And I was slammed before I had a chance to bring a spirited defense to the discussion. And when I did attempt to do that in the anti-racism discussions, the result was no different.

And worse, I recently had someone pop up on a thread over at I Blame the Patriarchy saying don't listen to Isabel, she's a racist, I've read her comments over on SB (and she even provided a link to an 8-month-old, definitely non-racist attempt to expand the discussion).*

Scary. Not democratic behavior! Neither is the practice of piling on the mockery and attacks when someone is expressing unpopular opinions, as happened to me in the religion discussions, with the result that expressing unpopular opinions is rarely done except in the case of the "CO2 is plant food" types you describe. Even I rarely bother anymore -who needs it? I think this is a problem on the anti-woo blogs also. There are many good reasons to avoid the medical establishment when possible but don't mention them around science blogs or you will be equated with Jenny McCarthy.

* She also said I had been "racist" a few days prior and referred to an "I Am a Racist" post on SB. A commenter claimed that Canadian immigrants are treated better than Latinos and that that was proof that concerns about immigrants are based on racism in our society, and had I simply pointed out that poor "white" French Canadians were treated just as badly as current Latinos when they came over in large numbers early in the 20th century, and suggested it was not always about skin color; large numbers of poor immigrants are rarely welcomed anywhere in a struggling economy, and current white Canadian immigrants do not fall into that category.

I've wondered about the relative group polarization/strengthening ideas thing for a while. I don't know if there'd be a good way to assess whether people's ideas become more intelligent or nuanced when participating in blog discussions or not. I know I've learned a lot about politics, philosophy, skepticism, etc., from blogs, but I'm also one that definitely enjoys skewering the contrarians.

It's interesting that the mainstream sites have a majority of comments that aren't worth the electrons they're printed on, while the more partisan sites seem to explore the more intricate facets of their ideas (not that you don't see a lot of wags on those sites as well). For example, if you wanted to actually learn facts about the climate debate, some surfing of A Few Things Ill Considered would educate you well. Now if you were to go to some of the more crankish climate sites after that, you find you can readily answer most of the "doubts" on those sites, leading you to understand not only the issue, but the sides involved as well. One thing I've noticed, however, is that of the contrarians who actually comment on sites they disagree with, very few of them seem interested in furthering their thinking on the subject. What about the lurkers though? If I wanted to learn about climate change, we could assume I didn't know much about it. If I don't know much about the subject, I'm a lot more likely to either lurk or only ask clarifying questions in the comments.

The problem is that some people (not all) forget amidst all the agreement that it's okay/inevitable for other people to have other beliefs.

And here's where my knowledge gets limited, I'm such a Scienceblogs addict that I don't often read a lot of stuff that's not at least fact-based in nature. As an atheist, the closest I usually get to discussions of "beliefs" is whether or not you believe The Jonas Brothers and that Bieber kid are even more evil incarnations of the boy band genre than Backstreet Boys and N*Sync.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink

Thank you for the wonderful post about the event. Overall I feel it was a valuable exercise. The most obvious thing to me was that there are a lot of different things posted on the internet that are all called "blogs". They do different things and serve different purposes. Some of them even vary from post to post in being unifying and divisive. Shockingly, that definition serves just as well for "magazines" and "newspapers". ;)

I'm not a big fan of the modding comments other than removing pure noise (and find EDITING comments abhorrent) though I do realize that is a function of volume (ref: youtube..gah). I like /. for a higher traffic model.

The interaction between the scientists and "old media" folks further illustrates why they 'betrayed their responsibilities' over the years(too very loosely paraphrase Joe Romm's comments).

As for Isis and Phil Hilts and scientists talking to the media, it is 100% unreasonable for reporters to expect scientists to 'cultivate a relationship' (in the, e.g., politician sense) with media members; the timescale of our work does not warrant either side devoting *that much* effort to it (nor should the public give a crap about the weekly incremental progress results). I would LOVE to speak with media about what I do. I'd love to give them a wonderful story about the talented people that do it, the results we get, and what they mean. The timescale is just different and I don't have the expertise to give a [b]worthwhile[/b] quote on stuff outside my field. I do not believe that 'one misquote can cost you tenure' but a bunch of ones outside your area would raise some Q's whether the person had tenure or not and a corporate scientist would get a visit from the IP and HR lawyers.

As for IN my field, I would **love** to have a lab that produces a steady stream of newspaper-worthy science at a rate similar to city hall....but maybe a more realistic approach is a once-or-twice-a-year conversation rather than a weekly one. (one can dream...'hey sue and bob, see my science article this week?' 'nah, I'll catch next though!' erm....)

That interaction seemed to be sparked about some climate article?? Science is not ALL about climate change, and I even work in energy-related research! I understand that it is a hot-button area and that reporters have a job to do but they need to be more creative about it. e.g. an "angle" for reporters could be a series of stories about science which contributes to parts of the problem (including conservation). "traditional media" still has the ability to make a difference due to their readership volumes and I hope they step up as policy decisions get even more entangled in science issues (NOT JUST IN, net neutrality, etc. etc. etc).

Furthermore, I wish that "traditional media" would challenge their readers a bit more with the reading levels, even if that component is the blog part of a story ([self-redacted] shocked me; I didn't realize they were aiming at that level). Incorporate the information at a high school or even undergraduate level on the blog complete with more pictures and links. Work WITH THE SCIENTIST to get it right (*gasp*!) and pay the reporter extra for the work (or at least count it towards their story load). How many (e.g.) /., fark etc etc comments get clogged up discussing the scientific details which could have been addressed by the PI? I know this applies more to in-depth rather than newspaper articles on science but I do believe there is a place for it.

I do hope that scientists continue to reach out through blogs and traditional media. I certainly intend to despite the tricky landscape. The need for clear explanation of science will only get bigger.

/me gets off soapbox

By cookingwithsolvents (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink

Apologies Isabel! Lazy reading on my part. I can sympathize, there needs to be a corollary to Godwin's Law about racism, i.e., not every discussion about race is racist. To be fair though, I do think a lot of people expect blogs to be more democratic then they actually are. They are a private space, and while I certainly don't condone banning all who embrace different ideas, I also understand not inviting everyone to the point of spoiling a discussion with trolls.

It is obnoxious when the dogpiles start on undeserving people, but I always end up ambivalent on the issue. I mean really, if you're a homeschooler, you probably shouldn't bother commenting on a Greg Laden post about it, as he's going to be pointing out a really shitty example of it. Same with PZ, you can tell them that prayer isn't quite as silly as they make it out to be, but when it's in response to a post about Fred Phelps praying for soldiers to die because he thinks it'll stop TEH GAY, you're kind of already losing.

Oh, and I'm not sure exactly what you mean by "avoiding the medical establishment," but I'd be curious what the reasons are. Unless you're talking about insurance agencies, that sounds an awful lot like Jenny McCarthy or Kevin Trudeau, something you won't find much acceptance for at Sb.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink


First, I'm not a scientist, so you may not have me in mind at all for this discussion. Feel free to ignore as appropriate.

"Slouka's comment is interesting in that context because he suggests that science/scientists do not contribute to important democratic discourse in the way the humanities do"

You seem to me to object to his characterization of scientists as not contributing to democratic discourse, but I was trying to make the point that the practice of science, and the institutions of science, with rare exception, are not set up to contribute to democratic discourse. They are set up to contribute expert knowledge to governmental practice. Not the same thing.


"the practice of science, and the institutions of science, with rare exception, are not set up to contribute to democratic discourse. They are set up to contribute expert knowledge to governmental practice."

Are you talking about science policy institutions? Because I would seriously dipute the assertion that scientific institutions in general are "set up to contribute to governmental practice."

Of course you don't have to be a scientist to get involved in this discussion - that's kind of my point here - but I'm afraid I just don't know what you're trying to say. Neither my post nor Slouka's article are about science policy institutions at all. I'm talking about individual scientists participating in interdisciplinary discourse, which may be about policy, or education, or sciart, or ethics, you name it. Slouka is talking about education and academic disciplines in general. And we're both talking about democracy in its most fundamental, basic sense: public debate and dialogue between individuals, not anything localized to Washington, and certainly not expert/research agencies. Most science bloggers I know blog on our own time, not on behalf of any organization, and insofar as advocacy goes, we're advocating for things we feel strongly about, just like any other citizen.

"Unless you're talking about insurance agencies, that sounds an awful lot like Jenny McCarthy or Kevin Trudeau, something you won't find much acceptance for at Sb."

Hahaha...thanks for illustrating my point so beautifully.

Also in the way that in your view, everyone who disagrees with a blogger must be a troll! This is an over-wide definition of troll, but one that is unfortunately common. The conversations inspired by blog posts would be more interesting if there was more disagreement allowed. I am worried more about the narrowness of the viewpoints expressed on SB than about civility.

Real trolls should be dealt with with clear rules, and moderation where needed (if the rules are not followed), it is not what is being discussed here.

ahh, Isabel. The problem is that you are totally impervious to the observation that your constant raising of poor, white, appalachian, scotch-irish immigrants (and now, apparently the much maligned "French", i.e., quebecois) puts you right in lockstep with genuine, unapologetic died-in-the-wool racist neonazis.

Whether you yourself in your heart of hearts are a racist is totally beside the point.

By BikeMonkey (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink

**Brief pause to ping BikeMonkey:**

I had an *extremely* progressive professor who emphasized the issue of discrimination against French-Canadians for an entire semester. He used French-Canadians as a less hotbutton framework to get some distance from current racial tensions, while demonstrating how there are many reasons people cite to justify/legitimate discrimination against an outgroup - skin color, language, genetics, etc.

I bring this up because you're clearly commenting against a backdrop of exchanges about race involving Isabel and/or yourself elsewhere. But in isolation, based on Isabel's comments in this thread alone, it seems unjustified. (Was my progressive professor in lockstep with racist neonazis for constantly raising the issue of discrimination against French Canadians? Inconcievable; he is one of the most doggedly liberal people I've ever met. Yet your comment, taken in isolation, implies he was.)

Anyway, this is yet another problem with blog dialogues I didn't discuss in the post: there are always off-blog backstories, reputations and patterns of behavior that many people will be unfamiliar with, and many of the exchanges in the comments seem incoherent or incomplete or even trollish without that context. Just sayin'.

**Apologies for the interruption; as you were.**

I enjoyed meeting and listening to you at the Harvard event. I think your blog and interdisciplinary approach is really refreshing and very in keeping with the world right now. As a non-scientist, I find it exciting to see where the disciplines are started to meld. I'm constantly intrigued by new & odd intersections of science & other disciplines, like neurolit theory. I appreciate that you approach these intersections.

I just hope the negative comments do not lead to a chilling effect. It would be a shame if you were tempted not to say something because of a few negative comments.


There's at least three different things I'd like to comment on, but I think it most important to deal with what I think is both you and me talking past each other and you and you and Slouka are talking past each other.

Do individual scientists participate in democratic discourse (which I think is distinct from interdisciplinary discourse, but that's either a side conversation or the crux of our incommensurability)? Sure.

But nothing about them being scientists prepares them for it or encourages them to do it. I see Slouka's point as that scientists have to get away from doing the work of their disciplines to engage in such discourse, where other disciplines don't have to go that far. He goes far enough to call science anti-democratic; I'd switch that anti- to a non-. It doesn't need democracy to thrive, but can do well within it (unless the polis isn't a fan of science). It doesn't do democracy well because it doesn't have to.

I think Slouka would deal with the examples you cite of researchers going underground as folks not well prepared by their discipline for the potential risks of their work - that they ignored aspects of the human condition because the disciplines of science they studied didn't value them. (He would probably assume that Singh would have been prepared for the possibility of prison because of his training in journalism.)

Ultimately the Slouka piece (to me, at least) is much more concerned about the lack of preparation for participating in democracy than the specifics of practicing that participation. More about what is being done than who is doing it.

Yes, BioE, but the trouble is that this professor's progressive credentials would not be on display if his only appearance in a conversation was to continually interject how the Quebecois had it really bad too, every time someone raised discrimination issues that did not involve the Quebecois. After awhile it creates a certain impression. The false-equality strategy is not an accidental one.

If one is angst ridden about continually being accused of trolling (in the sense of having a position one wishes to interject over and over with no give and take of input from others) then one should engage in some self-reflection about why this might be the case.

Now perhaps you are right that I'm starting up with Isabel here unjustifiably. But notice her complaints, which have nothing directly to do with this thread either. Nevertheless, she clearly feels it relevant to the point at hand. This gets back to the notion of a blogger "controlling" the discussion. People make what connections they will from a given text- some think this is a strength and welcome it. Others fear where other voices may take a discussion.

The journalist perspective, as I am gleaning it from various comments about the workshop, is basically a fearful crouch. I don't believe I appreciate that...

By BikeMonkey (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink

Bikemonkey - *this* blogger is not even going to try to control the discussion, in part because cases where comments growing out of a pattern of off-blog behavior leave me without the context to participate, much less regulate, the exchange. It's not so much a "fearful crouch" as a "WTF? Well, I don't have time to go search Sb for comments by Isabel and see what BM is referring to." Someone mentioned at the workshop that being able to see a commenter's entire corpus of comments on blogs (something more feasible among the Sb blogs than across to other platforms) would be an excellent tool for understanding exchanges like this, and I agree. But that would require registration and a technical solution, and some people would not like it (although I think everyone involved in this convo would be fine with it.)


1. Sure, democratic discourse is different than interdisciplinary discourse, but they're both cross-community discourse, and therefore share many of the challenges I talk about in this post. I believe that issues with interdisciplinary discourse serve to highlight many issues with holding meaningful democratic discourse. Also, informed democratic discourse presumes a working familiarity with multiple content areas. (If Sarah Palin knew what fruit flies were for, she would have been able to make an argument against big science that actually made sense.)

2. "Ultimately the Slouka piece (to me, at least) is much more concerned about the lack of preparation for participating in democracy than the specifics of practicing that participation."

Yes. I agree with that summary. But here is my perspective. Slouka is not making a critique of graduate science education programs lacking public communication components or failing to prepare new PhDs to talk to journalists or science advocacy groups failing to help their members involve themselves in public policy (which might be valid criticisms). Slouka is concerned primarily about K-12 education. He's suggesting that by focusing on science, the curriculum loses something fundamental - democratic, humanist, whatever - because science and science education are somehow not relevant to democracy. I think that last part is an unwarranted and inaccurate use of the 2 cultures trope to make the legitimate point that losing arts and humanities in schools is bad.

English classes and politics classes don't have a monopoly on ethics, rights, and policy. In the example I gave of the Connecticut school, it appears that the teacher was forbidden to teach evolution precisely because it would raise too many "big-picture" concerns. The school district appears to sympathize with Slouka that science classes are be a "reservation" in which such issues can/should not be introduced. I've personally taught science courses (first year college, but they could easily have been high school courses) in which several weeks were spent debating policy issues contingent on understanding scientific issues (are fingerprints sufficiently reliable to be used as evidence in court, or should we only use DNA? should we spend money on manned moon missions or kill the program and use the money for other things? how much police power should the government use in case of a bioterror attack - how do you balance security with rights?). No, I didn't have a unit on the skills of rhetoric or debate, but you learn by doing it, don't you?

Slouka reaches ahead into the way adult scientists behave to support his assertion that science education fails to prepare people for democratic discourse. But what he doesn't take into account is that we ALL get science education in K-12 (some homeschoolers aside), and that a good teacher can make any class, even a science class, relevant to many aspects of life, even if you don't pursue science later. And yes, you can do that while teaching the objective processes of the scientific disciplines, although in upper-level classes it's very difficult to find time or space. Slouka's reification of the 2 cultures division is a problem for me insofar as it is a common argument for why scientists aren't/shouldn't be involved in public discourse, but also more significantly, because it suggests that there is not only a professional practice barrier, but an insurmountable content barrier between science and the humanities (and the way scientists think and nonscientists think). Which is, you know, against the entire premise of my blog.

Anyway, feel free (everyone) to have the last word on this, but I have already spent more time on the workshop and ensuing dialogue than I had to spare during finals period, and I have to bow out of the thread. Science? Blogging? Hysteria? Chocolate? -- talk amongst yourselves.

Jessica, you're talking classes and Slouka's talking subjects. Put a different way, you discuss what can be and he discusses what is. With a great teacher, most things are possible in a class. But most classes won't have great teachers, and what's left is to fall back on what the general expectations for the subject are. English and politics classes don't have to have a monopoly on ethics, rights, and policy, but science has been set up to ignore or avoid those issues.

To quote from Star Trek (TNG, "Samaritan Snare")

William James sure won't be on my Starfleet exams.

The important things never will be. Anyone can be trained to deal with technology, and the mechanics of piloting a starship.

But Starfleet Academy--

It takes more than just that. Open your mind to the past... to history, art, philosophy. And then...
(re: the stars)
... this will mean something.

BM, I am hardly angst-ridden:) I said it was unpleasant, okay? And I rarely coment on the subject these days. I've made my point - class issues are taboo in the liberal blogosphere, unless they are attached to race issues, or getting some kind of brief lip service. Honkies are just plain evil, and they're all alike okay? Got it. Really, you think the experience of FC immigrants should be erased, and the comment about Canadians having no problem so it's obviously all about skin color and racism, should have been left to stand, and I should have kept quiet with my pesky knowledge, lest I be associated with nazis?

Jessica, the above example, which so offended the IBTP/SB commenter and apparently BM as well, is typical. Someone says "white people have it great, they don't understand what people of color experience" in some way and I point out that for example earlier waves of "white" immigrants were treated similarly. Black & white thinking that its all about skin color and always has been is the kind of thinking that sticks in my craw, partially because it erases my own family's history. As when people say things like 'brown people built this country white people benefited.' Or only associate racism and slavery with the American south and rednecks. My point is generally that "white people" do not comprise a homogeneous group;some are more equal than others. All whites are not lording it over all PoC. This is NOT to erase racism, it is as if people can only hold one thought at a time!

Adding a level of complexity would bringing us closer to discovering truths, one would think, yet it really freaks people out. It's almost amusing how they will say "Isabel ONLY posts on this subject, and she does it EVERY time someone mentions discrimination, and she says it's MUCH WORSE than racism, in fact she thinks racism doesn't even exist, etc etc etc." You could search all day and will never find an example of me saying any of the above, but you will find plenty of examples of me posting on other subjects, as I do here, and of course many examples of discussions of discrimination I do not comment on.

Sorry for all the derailing; I think I did have a relevant point originally. I guess I will have to change my name if I am to have any peace around here!

Thank you for such a wonderful and thought-provoking post. You've given me a lot to think about, regarding how I might or might not do things over at my own bit o' bloggy real estate.

"I mean really, if you're a homeschooler, you probably shouldn't bother commenting on a Greg Laden post about it, as he's going to be pointing out a really shitty example of it."
If you're a homeschooler, you probably shouldn't bother commenting on a Greg Laden post about ANYthing.
And therein lies the cliquey problem.

Jessica- I think you've hit upon a good attitude about moding comments for you, but I'm not convinced that it's totally generalizable. Obviously, moderating can play a useful role in providing a 'safe space' for certain emotionally-loaded topics. But, more subtly, I think there are times you can actually *encourage* more different voices by quieting some of the very loud typical ones.
So while it's totally ok to decide it's not an effort you want to exert, or a responsibility you want to take on, it's worth remembering that some people are probably effective in moderating comments in such a fashion that they encourage more debate (counterintuitive though that may be).

"But that would require registration and a technical solution, and some people would not like it (although I think everyone involved in this convo would be fine with it.) Side note: Optional registration with being able to search for that person's comments would be a welcome feature.

"Slouka is concerned primarily about K-12 education. He's suggesting that by focusing on science, the curriculum loses something fundamental - democratic, humanist, whatever - because science and science education are somehow not relevant to democracy. I think that last part is an unwarranted and inaccurate use of the 2 cultures trope to make the legitimate point that losing arts and humanities in schools is bad."
I saw it as a stand against defining success solely by the economic/financial, that happened to inappropriately target science simply because it's more *effectively* coopted by market values. If he's really interested in education that culminates in the "reasoned search for truth"- science works every bit as well as the arts and humanities- and he's rather blind to not see that.

That said, the basic problem is that we don't have a system for evaluating "truth" OR "democracy" OR for that matter "freedom" or "happiness"... we just try to approximate them with $. He seems to forget that $ are just a consensus approximation of desirability (which naturally encompasses truth, democracy, freedom, happiness and other Good Things). His problem, then, really comes down to people valuing some things (perhaps "stability") more than he thinks they should, relative to other things (perhaps "freedom").
I was very sympathetic to him on some issues, until he got to the "science tax" idea- which is simply deranged. Also, someone who can in one sentence condemn humanities jargon, and the next use the words "verily" and "ironic" without any seeming awareness of the juxtaposition is just plain HILARIOUS. His heart is in the right place, and I'd be thrilled to see more attempts to teach "the ability to understand and empathize with others, to challenge oneâs beliefs, to strive for reason and clarity."- but it's obvious to me this can occur within humanities, arts, as well as mathematical/scientific endeavors.

Isabel, one thing i've learned from blogging is that if you mention anything as controversial and emotional as racism, you must be prepared for 50% of people to misunderstand you, and 50% of people to attack you - and those two divisions don't align. I don't usually mention controversial, highly salient topics like racism unless that is the ENTIRE focus of a discussion, because it will overwhelm everything else. And honestly, I feel those discussions are really better had in person, where any misunderstandings can be identified and immediately resolved, before they become hurtful.

Becca: Thanks for weighing in. I'm sure you're right about modding comments - some people are very successful at it and comfortable with it. I can only express my own experience, which is it takes more time than I have to do it right.

David, like I said, you can have the last word on that exchange. Sounds like you've got your mind made up on what science is good for, and when scientists should be seen and [not] heard, so I'm not really sure what there is to discuss anyway. I will continue to disagree with out about the broad implications of Slouka's essay. Cheers.

I've been talking about what is, not what ought to be. If science really encouraged interdisciplinary discourse, would you be going to law school, or still at the bench?

@David Bruggeman #37 --

I call bull on that.

The argument from Slouka, as far as I can tell, is the argument that science has nothing to do with democracy, and that further, it's not about espousing the study of science to the exclusion of the humanities, it's about making sure that the humanities are valued MORE than science when it comes to participating in democracy. And there are just all kinds of problems with that. Nobody is arguing (I don't think) that there should be no studies of humanities or history or literature or what-have-you and ONLY studies of math and physics and chemistry, etc. ...BUT, the glorification of the humanities over the critical thinking skills on how to evaluate physical evidence, plus the devaluation of knowledge about the physical world, not only impacts democracy hugely, also bears a lot of the responsibility for how difficult it is for scientists to communicate effectively. When people are not taught that physical facts have value, why will they suddenly, miraculously, value accuracy of facts?

To elaborate:

It should be pointed out, once again, that highly emotive and extremely important political and policy considerations ought, in many cases, to be informed by scientific knowledge. Climate change is the obvious one, and anyone who claims (like Slouka does) that scientists "never face jail for espousing the wrong [whatever]" is being deliberately ignorant and obtuse, especially in the face of the deliberate harassment of researchers by certain politicians. There are other issues where scientists come under fire for making statements of knowledge -- conservation of endangered species. Water policy. Whether or not fetal pain could possibly be a consideration in the abortion debate. The list goes on. Slouka's argument that scientists have to "go outside their remit" to participate in democracy, and hence are bad at it, is bullshit, pure and simple; democracy is intimately tied to perception of the world, and so is science.

Further -- when scientists DO try to communicate information to the public for the purposes of democracy, the press bear an undeniable responsibility for distortion, misreporting and much of the subsequent miscommunication. As I said before, to make it all the scientists' fault is once again completely ridiculous, considering that not just ignorance but often deliberate effort have gone into destroying scientists' good faith efforts to reach out. And here, a humanities education which teaches people to think of physical reality as if it were, say, lit crit -- where merely persuading people to believe a certain thing made that a valid point of view -- has much to do with the underlying culture of this miscommunication. Teaching people that there IS a physical reality which is unaffected by belief, and how to think about it, would immensely improve democratic discourse and decision-making; claiming that such training has no real place or value in democracy is once again purest stinkiest bullshit.

The problem, too, is that when scientists DO try to participate in democracy, to point out fact and consequence and implications for policy, they are actually told by any number of people that it isn't their place or their remit to do so, and they should confine their efforts away from such "important" things. That downright f***ing offends me.

And, finally -- sorry, but taking ST:NG as a good example of thought or culture is possibly one of the worse talking points I've ever seen. "Captain, they're shooting at us!" ..."Let us retire to my ready room. There we will discuss this while they miraculously stop shooting in order to let us do so uninterrupted." o_O

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 06 May 2010 #permalink

... I attended protests against the current war before it started, years ago.

If you haven't continued, you do have a non-trivial ration of rudeness coming. The point of the protests is to stop the butchery, not to make personal statements.

Please note that we (USAnians) have more than one war ongoing, not counting those waged by proxy or (semi-)metaphorically. Which one(s) are you blanking out?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 06 May 2010 #permalink

Pierce, since you request clarification, I was referring to the current Iraq war. I said "current" to avoid confusion with the first Gulf War; I was hardly old enough to be protesting anything at that point. (For the semantically-minded among you, let's not get into a debate about whether other international conflicts, such as Afghanistan or the "War on Terror" are legally "wars" or not, nor whether at this stage the Iraq situation is properly termed "war", "occupation", etc.; it's interesting but totally off-topic, and best left to Language Log.)

Before we invaded Iraq, I fervently hoped the Administration would let the UN continue investigating the allegations of WMDs without resorting to force. Sadly, that did not happen. I think we all agree that the ensuing events have been tragic for the people of Iraq and our servicemembers and their families. But at this point, I don't pretend to know how best to rebuild a ruined nation, so I would never ignorantly advocate one roadmap or solution or another on the blog. The reason I felt the anti-military comment I described in the post above, from the other scienceblogger, was out of place and gratuitous, is that I don't discuss the merits of invading Iraq, or any other military engagements, on this blog. In the post above, I only mentioned my opposition to getting into Iraq not to get into a debate about it here for the very first time (sorry to disappoint you), but to illustrate that A) making uninformed assumptions about people's politics often leads you into oversimplification and error, and B) being rude to people when you don't know if they're on your side or not is unproductive, and likely to lose you potential allies.

Speaking of rudeness, if you seriously consider dishing out "a nontrivial ration of rudeness" to a science blogger a righteous protest that might "stop the butchery," Pierce, go ahead. Unfortunately, I think it takes more effort than that to create change. Ranting at me may make you, today, feel morally superior. But since your comment shows that you're chomping at the bit to judge me and be rude to me, regardless of what I say, I've already stopped respecting your opinion. That's the sad outcome of seizing any excuse to attack people: they stop listening. And when people stop listening, you've lost the credibility necessary to influence them or get them to see things your way.

Jessica - If your last paragraph in # 45 doesn't twitch the needle on your irony meter, please take it into the shop for recalibration. And please try to show up for the next local demonstration against US wars/occupations/etc.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 09 May 2010 #permalink

Pierce, my last paragraph in #45 is reiterating the messages from both my talk and my post. What do I find "ironic"? That you drop in on a thread about the difficulty of having civil, nonpartisan conversations in order to threaten rudeness--and that your ego's so big that you believe you, someone I don't know at all, have a right to judge me and tell me how to live my life. Although "ironic" isn't really the word for that, is it? You remind me of a few religious fundamentalists I've met: bossy, condescending, and judgmental. Next you'll be telling me which church to go to - for my own good of course.

If you think you're not a troll, your troll-meter needs calibration. FYI.

Wow! Threatening rudeness!!! How terrible. All those Iraqis and Afghans whingeing about merely having bombs dropped on them, when Jessica is threatened with the threat of people threatening rudeness!

I think the irony Pierce R. Butler was alluding to was that you were far ruder to him than he had been to you.

By Knockgoats (not verified) on 09 May 2010 #permalink

Knockgoats: you're doing the same thing Pierce is doing - baiting me in an effort to derail this thread. As I've explained upthread, the post is about online civility: you're the only ones talking about war. Analogizing an argument on a blog to being victimized by war, as you just did, is really very offensive to the victims of violence, as well as indicating a complete lack of perspective.

Your really top-class at missing the point Jessica! It's a very useful debating skill - do you do a correspondence course I can take?

p.s. You were the one who mentioned the war, in order to display your liberal credentials. But of course, that's not offensive to the victims of violence.

By Knockgoats (not verified) on 09 May 2010 #permalink

Knockgoats: As I already noted to Pierce, I was not "displaying my liberal credentials" - I'd write a completely different post if I wanted to do that. Instead, I was illustrating a specific problem with blogging: how making uninformed assumptions about people's politics, and posting accusatory comments on blogs, especially on posts that are only tangentially related to your accusation, leads you into unnecessary conflict with people you may actually agree with.

You and Pierce have now very nicely illustrated the exact same problem again here, in the comments. It's like deja vu. The surprising thing to me is that I have to point that out to you, and I still don't think you see it.

CPP: I'm so sorry, I just didn't have anything to say about Jameson today. I apologize.


Your original comment was:
I mentioned how interested I was that the Department of Defense was trying to promote public understanding of science - not an attitude I normally associate with them, but an attitude that I personally would like to encourage; I suggested checking the podcasts out, especially one on alternative post-PhD careers. Shortly thereafter, another science blogger commented on my post, "since this is the DoD, let's not forget the exciting scientific careers available in warmongering and death." Hmmm. What's the point of a comment like that?

The point of it is, that there are areas where an attitude of "neutrality" is ludicrously naive, and is, in effect, support of the status quo. The American DoD is the most dangerous terrorist organisation on the planet. One can be sure their concern with "public understanding of science" is with getting the public to understand things their way - and it clearly worked like a charm on you. If you'd commented on the interesting research the Mafia are doing on money-laundering techniques, or that of Al Qaeda on suitable targets for the next 767 they manage to hijack, you'd probably have got some similar snarky responses.

By Knockgoats (not verified) on 09 May 2010 #permalink

Aha. Finally. While I disagree with you about the value of neutral discussion, Knockgoats, that's an on-topic objection - and more reasonably and clearly expressed than the original comment about "warmongering and death." I have no objection to such comments, whether or not I agree with them.


I was hoping for a considered answer, rather than a condescending pat on the head. But maybe it's on its way.

By Knockgoats (not verified) on 09 May 2010 #permalink

Knockgoats, I've answered the direct questions you and Pierce posed with as much patience and honesty as I have, and I've acknowledged that your most recent comment is reasonable (with no condescension intended). But I'm under no obligation to now debate with you how the US military is or is not like the Mafia or Al-Qaeda. First, it's completely off-topic. Second, I already stated in my post, at great length, why I think neutral discussion is useful, so as far as your comment relates to that, I made my case already. Third, I don't have time to do this right now. Fourth, I don't enjoy arguing back and forth with you in the slightest. So I'm done.

Shorter Jessica,
I'm taking my ball home. You're a meany!

By Knockgoats (not verified) on 09 May 2010 #permalink

Knockgoats, I've noticed that often people throwing up their hands and leaving you to it doesn't mean you've won, it just means people have gotten sick of trying to engage with you. Just sayin'.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 09 May 2010 #permalink

My, my, how my little snowball grew, rolling down the slope.

What lessons are there to be learned from the debris at the bottom of the hill?

The rudeness that I had in mind was just that of the committed peace activist to the apparent dilettante who claims to have "attended protests... years ago". That doesn't come across as either knowing or caring very much, and I might not have reacted as I did if there had been any sign of awareness of the atrocities still being committed by our nation with our taxes IOUs. Was the problem there that this might necessitate uncivil language about those bloodsoaked bastards in the White House, or at least point to situations in which civility fails?

And the irony I mentioned had to do with "chomping at the bit to judge" and people who "stop listening". But since you've "already stopped respecting" my insufficiently civil opinion, there isn't much point to examining any of that, is there?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 09 May 2010 #permalink

It can be so. But in this case, I had given an answer to a question Jessica specifically asked, viz, "What's the point of a comment like that?" - and she responded by saying I was "off-topic". I think for Jessica, "on-topic" means "agreeing with Jessica".

By Knockgoats (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

Shorter Jessica,
I'm taking my ball home. You're a meany!

This delusional fuckbag blog commenter outrage shit never fails to crack me the fuck up. Where the fuck do these douchealoons get the cockamamie idea that bloggers are responsible for "responding" to their gibberish, and that if they don't then the douchealoon has "won"?

Luna and CPP, don't worry about it. As far as I can tell, the only thing that would satisfy Knockgoats and Pierce would be for me to provide an itemized list of my activist efforts and campaign donations over the past ten years, so I can prove I'm a good liberal by their standards. I'm inferring from Pierce's comments that if I can't prove I'm a good liberal to their satisfaction, I had no right to object to the "warmongering and death" comment I was mentioning in the original post.

However, what they seem to be missing is that the legitimacy of my opinion that the "warmongering and death" comment was not constructive doesn't depend on how strenuously I, personally, opposed the war. The comment was rude to my friend at DoD, and to everyone I know in the military irrespective of any sympathy I had or didn't have to the commenter's personal feelings and political convictions. The fact that I sympathized to some extent just made the comment even more ironically counterproductive, since it pissed off a potential ally. It didn't change whether it was civil or not. It wasn't civil, whether I'm a Green-socialist or a John Bircher. Maybe the commenter felt so strongly about the military being evil that they have to post "warmongering and death" on every thread anywhere dealing with the DoD - but that just vents personal anger. It doesn't do anything constructive for anybody else, and it's certainly not having a civil conversation. Ditto for Pierce telling me I deserve a dose of rudeness for not being "liberal" enough for him.

Anyway, to drag this once again back to the topic of the original post and try to get something useful out of it, I guess one might argue that demanding everyone adopt a political "identity" (liberal, conservative, etc.) online would be one way to avoid the specific problem I was originally illustrating in the post - taking adversarial positions in conversation with people when you don't have any information on their actual beliefs. But then you're heading toward a McCarthy-esque world where people have to prove their in-group credentials in order to be respected or trusted. I don't like that world one bit.

I was amused, not angry, when making the "Taking my ball home" comment. Since you completely lack a sense of humour, and routinely froth at the mouth on all the blogs where I've seen your contributions, I guess it's hard for you to tell the difference.

I tend to assume that when a question is asked, an answer is desired. My bad. Incidentally, I'm not a liberal.

By Knockgoats (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

I guess one might argue that demanding everyone adopt a political "identity" (liberal, conservative, etc.) online would be one way to avoid the specific problem I was originally illustrating in the post - taking adversarial positions in conversation with people when you don't have any information on their actual beliefs. - Jessica Palmer

You do come out with some truly amazing hooey - no-one has even hinted at such a ridiculous idea. Your attitude to the American DoD itself reveals a great deal about your actual beliefs.

By Knockgoats (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

Ahh, but how do you feel about drug criminalization policy Jessica? YOU MUST ANSWER!!!!!!!!

(to our satisfaction)

(and not disagree)

(or our heads will...something)

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

Knockgoats, since your only basis for knowing my attitude on anything is this blog, and this blog is not about my personal beliefs, you don't know my attitude on *anything,* including the DoD. AND THAT IS THE WHOLE POINT. Blogs aren't a reliable basis for judging people.

I really should have stopped trying to get through a long time ago. My mistake, clearly.

PS. I never said you were a liberal - only that you and Pierce are insisting on knowing whether I am. I don't honestly care what your motives are, other than creepy.

I was amused, not angry, when making the "Taking my ball home" comment.

It is difficult for me to imagine anything in the universe I could possibly give less of a shit about than the internal mental state of some random blog commenter bag of fuck such as yourself.

I think Jessica Palmer wins.

With an assist by Comrade PhysioProf and some others.

By Stevo Darkly (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

I note that you, the protagonist for civility, are the one throwing personal insults around. Do you have a mirror, by any chance?

you don't know my attitude on *anything,* including the DoD

Yes, I do: the very fact that you could not see what the point was of the comment you were originally whingeing about makes it quite clear.

I'll leave you to your pointless wittering.

By Knockgoats (not verified) on 11 May 2010 #permalink

Actually, you reveal a lot of yourself through your writing, and definitely more than you realize.


Excellent, excellent post. As an interdisciplinary researcher myself (comp sci/anthropology), I want to thank you for working to build an interdisciplinary community. Unfortunately, you are right when you say that these problems come from our society rather than from science itself. In fact, I see it as an issue of respect and logic--they go hand in hand. A true argument (or, as I prefer to call it due to the negative connotation of that word, a debate) requires some understanding of the principles of logic. However, before logic can be applied, one must have enough respect to listen to the arguments of the other side. Neither of these qualities is taught to our young people any more. In my opinion, the reason science education is so important is because of the inherent logical qualities gained by an understanding of scientific principles. This is certainly not to say that other areas such as the humanities don't use logic, but it is not emphasized as much as it is in the sciences. Take philosophy, for instance. Essentially, philosophy is just logic, and the sciences were built off of it. Yet it is not taught at all until the college level (and some few high schools) and isn't very popular. Until we convince the general public that logic and respect are important in general discourse, we will always end up breaking into ever smaller cliques of only those who agree completely with us.

> "since this is the DoD, let's not forget the exciting scientific careers available in warmongering and death." Hmmm. What's the point of a comment like that? It's certainly not to start a productive conversation.

Just to play devil's advocate, are you sure you're not being overly sensitive and/or insecure? Arguably, the comment invites a conversation, and doesn't either taint or amount to the last word on your post if you choose not engage with it. For all the reason and rigor, academic and professional scientific discourse is shallow. You're blogging your real face and real name from a URL you'd like to keep, but whether everybody ought to be so circumspect as I suppose that motivates you to be is another matter. Why can't this be the dinner table, or the smokey bar? How do we know what needs discussing if nobody shows they're angry? How do we assess sincerity and good faith if all we have to read is reasoned argument? Anyway, back to the case at hand, arguably the commenter was (backhandedly) making explicit a natural concern that I suppose you thought you could ignore without leaving many readers annoyed, dissatisfied or disappointed (is it moral to work for the DOD, or how do you feel about it exactly and why?). Maybe true. How much annoyance,dissatisfaction and/or disappointment are you happy to engender and in which readers? Maybe the commenter is a useful data point with regard to achieving that rate? Anyway, maybe you could write a little tag-line explaining your philosophy of blog discourse and asking people to be nice in just few words, which you might place right above the box where people enter their comments.

Thanks, Lindsay! Sounds like we agree on a lot.

Oliver, you raise excellent points and a lot of good things to discuss. Here's what I see as the heart of the issue:

"Arguably, the comment invites a conversation, and doesn't either taint or amount to the last word on your post if you choose not engage with it."

Indeed. Every time someone posts a comment, I have to decide whether to engage with it. If I don't engage with anyone, there's no conversation, unless there's a critical mass of commenters to get the ball rolling (which there sometimes is). Also, I have to ask if remaining silent in the face of statements I think are wrong (someone's wrong on the internetz!!!! oh noes!) will be read as tacit acceptance or approval, since this is "my" space on the internet. If so, which is debatable, then I am obligated to try in good faith to straighten out any misunderstandings or express my concern - unless the person is clearly a troll to all readers.

This isn't just about me: every blogger has those concerns, which is why the ongoing civility discussion is happening right now. We have to ask ourselves pretty much every day why we blog, and how to deal with comments. Some bloggers choose to blog because they enjoy a good scrap, and like to fight the good fight. Some bloggers like to pump up the faithful troops and engage with the ideological foe. Some blog about their personal lives. Some blog to find support, or to give support and mentorship to others. Personally, I blog because I like sharing cool ideas with interesting people, and lots of people share ideas with me, so why not pay it forward? But every time I share an idea, I also anticipate the blowback; I'm ready if I link to a DoD post to hear from people angry about the DoD, just as if I mention climate change, I always get hostile comments. So I blog less than I otherwise would, because a certain level of blowback makes a post simply not worth it.

Imagine that, on the original DoD podcast post, a comment had been made like Knockgoats' at #54 about neutrality being untenable (which I acknowledged as fine when he made it), or a comment phrased like yours ("is it moral to work for the DOD, or how do you feel about it exactly and why?") I wouldn't have found those comments uncivil, I just would have ignored them and not engaged. You call it being "circumspect"; but there are many reasons why bloggers may not want to get into every possible argument on their blogs, including jobs, family, friends (concerns which, writ large, drive some bloggers into pseudonymity) and finally, but most importantly to me, wanting to enjoy blogging. I blog "for fun," although lately, it's not fun; I've been continuing to do it anyway out of a keen interest to figure out why, and what might make it better again. But having an argument with Knockgoats about whether the DoD is a terrorist organization analogous to the Mafia is not enjoyable to me. I would rather spend my time on something else. And based on what I've seen on this thread, I would not enjoy that argument with him in real life either, at the "dinner table or the smokey bar." I would walk away. Should I really have to do here what I wouldn't want to do IRL?

I mentioned going to war protests in San Francisco in the original post as a reminder that bloggers have lives behind the blogs, and a blog post rarely paints a complete picture of who we are. When you make assumptions about people, they're likely to be wrong. I have no doubt that Aquaria's right that I reveal a lot in my writing - I reveal, for example, how hard it is for me to be patient and not respond argumentatively; I also reveal the issues that are important to me at a given time - like civility. But there is a heck of a lot I don't talk about, so the picture is never complete, any more than my picture of any of you is complete.

But that doesn't mean we need to run background checks on each other to have a conversation, either. Oliver, you ask, "How do we assess sincerity and good faith if all we have to read is reasoned argument?" I think that's a very interesting question. Online, we could easily claim to be people we're not, and to have done things we haven't; liars are rarely caught. So I assess sincerity, credibility and good faith online by an integration process - watching what people say and how they say it over a very long time, under real names or blog handles. I respect them based on their words, not their IRL achievements; I don't even need to know who they are or what they do IRL. Without that kind of long-term ongoing relationship, asking for a resume, or proof of liberal credentials, or glancing at a few blog posts simply isn't an adequate shortcut to ensure good faith or sincerity - it's pretty much meaningless, actually. And maybe that's a fatal problem with the very foundation of online discourse. I don't know.