Civility and/or Politeness at ScienceOnline2010


If you have been following sciency blogosphere, or my blog, or tweets about #scio10, or checked out the Program of the conference, you may have noticed that I have predicted that the "overarching theme" of the meeting will shift from last-year's focus on Power to this year's, hopefully, emphasis on Trust. Several sessions will, directly or indirectly, address the question of trust - who trusts whom, how and why.

With no non-verbal clues available online (apart from an occasional smiley-face), one has to convey not just meaning, but also intent and mood, using only language. And intent and mood are important in determining trustworthiness of a person.

What, if any, is the difference between civility and politeness? I am not sure, but the way I think about it is that politeness is about language, while civility is about behavior, especially behavior that reflects respect for others.

Thus, one can be involved in quite a fiery discussion, using a lot of foul language, yet remain civil in the sense of intellectual respect for one's opponent.

On the other hand, one can use perfectly nice and polished language, yet be entirely disrespectful of other people with the intent of completely destroying their reputations (the "kabuki" of the scientific discourse I explored in this post). One can stab another with a knife and slowly twist it while keeping complete composure and a smile.

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

Being known for being generally mellow and tolerant and using nice language, when I do fly off the handle people take notice - if even I got so irritated by someone, that means that that particular someone probably more than deserved it. It is a power I use very rarely and carefully. But when I do, it is devastating.

There are also differences in what is deemed civil on different platforms. Comments on my blog that use strong language and I find perfectly reasonable here I would quickly delete if they were posted on a PLoS ONE article. Comments on my blog will be of a higher level of both civility and politeness than a blog where foul language is the norm, or on YouTube, or in the comments on MSM articles (because they stupidly misunderstood a court case so they never moderated comments or nurtured a community by showing up in the comments themselves).

There are also cultural differences. In a session at last year's ScienceOnline2009, it appeared that (generally speaking, on average - the caveats all in place) Americans were more tolerant of much harsher and fouler language, and still deemed it polite, than the Brits in the room.

Anyway, those are just my two cents. There will be an entire session devoted to this topic. This will be the only session at the meeting that will NOT be recorded (audio or video) or livestreamed. But I am sure a lot of people in the room will livetweet it and later blog about it so you will get to know what was said there. That session is:

Online Civility and Its (Muppethugging) Discontents

Sunday, January 17th, 2010 at 11:30am - 12:35pm:

Moderated by Janet Stemwedel, Sheril Kirshenbaum and Dr.Isis

Description: Janet, Sheril, and Isis regularly write about the role of civility in dialog with the public and other scientists. In this session, we will discuss the definition of civility, its importance in the communication of science, and how the call to civility can be used to derail discourse. Additionally, we will discuss the importance of finding the appropriate balance of civility and tolerance for what gets labeled as incivility in reaching and engaging each other. We reserve the right to use the words "balls," "muppethugger," and "wackaloon," to FWDAOTI liberally, and cannot guarantee that at least one of the moderators will not lose her junk.


Janet says: We're going to be putting up links to some posts we think bear on the questions we'll be discussing (or on issues in the same ballpark). Feel free to add suggestions of your own (and if you don't mind, please identify yourself before your suggestions so this page can itself work like a conversation).

Here are my initial offerings:

from my blog:

#scio10 preparation: Is there a special problem of online civility?: A brand-new post in which I blatantly crowdsource some questions I think we might discuss in our session.

How did we do at dialogue? There's a chart in this post (adapted from material from the Public Conversations Project) comparing the features of arguments and dialogues. I don't think it quite captures the civility/incivility divide (at least, the one I suspect a lot of people have in mind, which includes exhortations to argue civilly), but I think this kind of comparison could still be useful for our conversation. (For one thing, it suggests different kinds of aims we might have in our interactions with others.)

Unscientific America: Are scientists all on the same team? The quick answer: they are not, at least not for every issue or goal. But dealing successfully with these differences is probably connected to the question of civility in interesting (which is to say, complicated) ways.

Getting along vs. fixing the problem. In which, while trying to make sense of a fight about civility and tone, I see both sides ... and deal with an unbidden memory of an incident that squicks me out.

And here are some posts from other people that I think are very relevant to discussions of civility online:

The Angry Black Woman: The Privilege of Politeness

Thus Spake Zuska: This is The Patriarchy: When Talking to the Master, Speak in a Civil Tone

Starts With A Bang: Weekend Diversion: How to Argue

On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess: How to Argue ... [UPDATED]

DrugMonkey: Weekend Diversion: How to argue ... and actually accomplish something

DrugMonkey: How to Argue Part II: On name-calling and ad hominem attacks

DrugMonkey: How to Argue Part III: Sometimes, it's just time for a good fight


To this list of links, I would add a few more:

A Blog Around The Clock: The Shock Value of Science Blogs - I tend to write long mother-of-all-posts-on-the-topic posts. This is one of those....and it provoked quite a lot of responses on other blogs at the time.

A Blog Around The Clock: What does it mean that a nation is 'Unscientific'? - this one is even longer, and only one part really deals with Civility, but most of it deals with Trust.

A Blog Around The Clock: ScienceOnline'09 - Saturday 4:30pm and beyond: the Question of Power - where we left off last year. Have we moved forward in the span of a year?

Transcription and Translation: Trust & Influence - The Real Human Currency

Greta Christina's Blog: Atheists and Anger - a 2-part internet Classic.

Greta Christina's Blog: Atheists and Anger: A Reply to the Hurricane

Almost Diamonds: Community Index is a good collection of useful links on the topic.

Almost Diamonds: Today's Question - a case-study.

Digidave's Quickies: The Culture of Internet Comments - quick funny videos that will make you laugh first, and then will make you think.

Digiphile: George Washington's Rules for Social Media - some advice is ageless.

Bioephemera: Online civility: what does it mean to be 'on the same team'? - call for discussion at the session.

On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess: The Foreplay Before ScienceOnline, Part 1 - call for discussion at the session.

Adventures in Ethics and Science: #scio10 preparation: Things I like about having conversations online

Greg Laden: Coturnix on Civility and Politeness

The Intersection: Online Civility and Its (Muppethugging) Discontents

Cosmic Variance: Being Polite and Being Right

Adventures in Ethics and Science: #scio10 preparation: What people might have in mind when they say they want online civility.

The Island of Doubt: Silencing the climate deniers: A cautionary tale from LinkedIn


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Bora, trust is an excellent theme for a discussion among bloggers, and science bloggers at that. There was a time when we all pretty much trusted most of what we consumed via mass media, be it print, TV or radio. But the blogosphere has always been perceived as less trustworthy, or at least less reliable than conventional media. Why? The barrier to entry is so much lower. It's a lot easier to set up a blog and post whatever you want than it is to get published in the mainstream media.

But even well-known bloggers suffer from credibility issues. And not necessarily without reason. A recent blog post on the respected blog Commetrics called out social media superstars Guy Kawasaki and Chris Brogan among others for endorsing a book that seemed not have deserved unqualified accolades.

So who can we trust? Maybe uncertainty is the nature of the beast now. Is it the social media uncertainty principle? The more famous someone becomes, the fewer people that can trust them?

Thus the concept and exercise of trust is becoming democratized. We can no longer rely on institutional filters but instead must depend on our own smarts and judgment to decide what is real, what is worthy of our attention. Caveat emptor, indeed!

Re your comment on being mellow and only occasionally flying off the handle. We had a department chair who became angry (often with justification)with regularity. I observed that people figured out how to deal with him. When I became chair, I decided I would never become angry with a student, my faculty or my staff. I became angry only once during my tenure. An administrator publicly attacked me on something where I thought we had an agreement. I very calmly, without raising my voice or being impolite, cut the person to ribbons and left them shaking. My Dean, who witnessed the event, shook my hand and congratulated me. It was strange, like an out-of-body experience. I felt like a spectator cheering myself on.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

Darn, CPP, what took you so long?! I was waiting for your comment ;-)

Ooo ooo ooo ... imma gonna let you finish, Bora, but I just remembered this..

An episode of Skeptically Speaking addressed this issue a while back:

There is an interesting irony in this episode which requires that you listen to the end. Or at least, I thought it was an irony.

Desiree will be at Scionliten of course.

What does FWDAOTI stand for?
The best I can come to is something like Forward Association of Occupational Therapists of Ireland. I think it's not close to any actual meaning intended... (but I may have looked for into the wrong online acronym dictionnaries).

In the same line (both literally and figuratively), use the words "balls," "muppethugger," and "wackaloon,"... It's amazing that, having absolutely no idea what these words mean*, I can't possibly interpret it as uncivility. So much for cultural differences! :)

*Actually, I have learned to understand all of this was involved in serious issues, and even when correct translations are possible, it does not necessarily reflect appropriate levels of ire...