Civility And The Death Of Good Ideas

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

This month marks the end of an experiment for the online edition of Popular Science; the editors there have decided after a lot of agonizing internal debate to end their reader comments feature. Why? Because several online studies have determined that the tone of debate could negatively affect a reader's opinion about an issue, more than the debate itself.

Their reasoning is sad, but sound:

Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they'd previously thought. […]

Another, similarly designed study found that even just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers' perception of science.

If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded […]

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

Lately, that has been the tone on this website, too – from all sides. It seems there's little discussion – or even heated debate – about whatever topic a blog post might have originally been meant to explore. Instead too many of us – and I'm not immune – devolve into insults and name-calling and only tangentially or at best secondarily address the topic at hand.

Not only does that diminish the content that the diarist posted, but if these studies hold for controversial facts in general, it diminishes what other people see as the usefulness of this blog and the accuracy of the reports posted.

So maybe in our own interests we should de-escalate the war of insults – unilaterally if need be – and focus on the topic at hand, whatever that might be. At most perhaps a short "ad hominem attack – no further reply" response would be appropriate – to tell future readers that we the regular posters don't support such attacks nor will we waste time responding to a post containing such an attack.

36 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. mamajama55 says:

    Well said, Phoenix.

  2. The realist says:

    With you, PR. Sometimes I think we have a whole generation of people who believe this kind of dialogue is normal.

  3. BlueCat says:

    Apologizing for those occasions on which I have been part of the problem, I'd like to join you in a new determination to be part of the solution. Not that I think we should always confine ourselves to the humorless sobriety of the overly earnest but there are lines the crossing of which does a lot of harm, such as that described in the Popular Science decision.  Like your suggestion of a short response such as "ad hominem attack – no further reply". If the offender persists I'd prefer simply not responding again, having once made the reason clear.

    • I promise that if we descend into the humorless sobriety of the overly earnest I'll write a second diary reminding everyone that we're not scoring a funeral dirge.

      • BlueCat says:

        Probably little danger of that. I mean what with so many of us being such "fatuous" (somebody's favorite new word) wiseguys who thnk we're so funny and clever and all.wink

        • roccoprahn says:

          He doesn't know what it means.


          • C'mon folks, let's try not to perpetuate things…

            • BlueCat says:

              C'mon yourself, PR.  My reply to your promise to avoid humorlessness could hardly have been milder. Most of us are willing to dial it back a bit but don't expect the usual suspects to swear off even the mildest degree of snark entirely.  I think you should expect something a taste short of that.  Otherwise we may as well quit the blog and confine ourselves to writing formal, decorous letters to the editor.  

              • Diogenesdemar says:

                . . . you have my kindest regards, gentlelady.

              • But there's no need to belittle someone's intelligence by writing "he doesn't know what it means". rocco doesn't know that – it's an assumption at best or an insult at worst.

                There is in fact a difference between snark and that. Simple hint: if you can attack the message, go for it. If you're attacking the messenger, think at least twice, let your post rest of a bit before pressing the 'Post Comment' button – whatever it is that you do to ensure that you're writing good stuff. A gentle jab like your previous response is much more good-natured to me than a simple insult on someone's intelligence.

  4. fishingblues says:

    Mr or Mz Rising:  I will give you credit for being perhaps the only voice of reason and common sense in these pages.  This is not the first time you have made sense.  Speaking for myself, I love to be hated by liberals.  I love to expose the duplicity and hypocrisy of the typical liberal and they hate, hate, hate for it.

    I will fully admit to starting a little strong.  I was simply  testing the limits.  I care little (read none) for how liberal's delicate sensibilities were offened.  I will eventually tire of the nonsense and move on.  Afterall, I came here only for comic relief.  I find conservative sites to be depressing.  They talk about real world problems and the US and the world is in an increasingly broken state.  We may well be past the point of salvage.     

    Liberals, on the other hand, talk of typically fatuous subjects which they pretend are important.  What's worse, they pretend they are important in talking about them.  It is no wonder one finds them hysterical.  Very soon I will leave you to them.  


    • I guess I'm not like you in that respect. If a conservative blog were to allow me on with my views, I'd be a respectful debater; I've played Devil's Advocate here on this blog occasionally, and there's nothing better for expanding your understanding of the world than being able to understand multiple points of view in a debate.

      You see, this wasn't originally a "liberal" blog, and we don't really want it to be one – at least most of us don't. But it developed a liberal tilt, then a liberal slant, then a predominance of liberal thought. Mostly it was because the thoughtful conservative posters all left. Partly it's because "liberal" became a broader and broader category as Republicans left their more moderate members behind (like Craig, R-36, myself and others who post here – all of us former Republicans…)

      We want conservatives on this blog who are willing to discuss things without immediately descending to cut-n-paste and ad hominem attacks. We want a spirited debate. I'm sorry to hear you don't want to be that voice. At least you're honest enough to post what you're here for.

      • MADCO says:

        We should creat a diary about about why the thoughtful conservative posters (mostly) all left.


        Most of the ones I recall ottomh, were one election types. (two of whom still owe me money.)  There some bizarrely ridiculous incidents, though, thankfully, I am aware of only two posters who quit that way.

        I would love a level presenttaion of differing opinions.  Your call for civility is laudable, no less so that it's likely also near impossible in a political site such as this.  

        • Yeah, well… There was the original conservative Dead Guv who either stopped posting or became a liberal. There was of course that bizarre thing with LB.

          I do miss some of the really old-time posters, and I do think that for a long time the level of discussion was pretty damned decent with them around. Even Eliot was decent most all of the time – and I think some of us overdid it when responding to him.

          I believe it's hard to keep to the high road over time; frustration set in, what is or can be perceived as stubborn refusal to look at facts and studies causes us to become more harsh and denigrating… We are partially our own worst enemies when it comes to attracting quality opposition voices. The lack of diverse guest diarists is also a problem – partially because with our current readership it's hard to find a solid conservative writer…

          I don't want this blog to become SquareState; I'd rather it return to its bipartisan origins.

          • Davie says:

            While we'd love to get a George Will or William F. Buckley-level discussion going, I don't see the incentive would be for them given the level of discourse in our legislature (state and federal).

            We used to get the standard party line updates from ArapaGOP, but other than that, it's just the usual driveby rocks and bottle tossers from the temps with little value to add.  LB was pretty good, but I guess his priorities have changed, so I wish him well.

            Seriously, PR, as with real debate, we should be able to examine both sides of the issue.  Maybe you should get a new handle and become a regular conservative voice here.  With a little practice and leading by example, maybe it would entice actual conservatives to show up and join the debate.

            • BlueCat says:

              I agree, The reason so many of us run out of patience with the righties who participate here is that so many of them absolutely refuse to engage in anything like true discussion. They put their points out there with no factual back up and refuse to address their opponents' points.  They demand opponents answer their questions but refuse to answer their opponents' questions.

              We used to have conservative voices with whom we could have back and forth discussions based on the points each party to the discussion made but sadly that's no longer the case. And the newest additions just spout insults backed by nothing at all. 

              What's the point of bending over backwards to be accommodating to an FB?  What's added to a discussion by the response that you're fat and on the dole as the universal answer to everything?

              I think the problem is that righties are now so accustomed to the world of rightie spin where only one point of view is expressed and isn't allowed to be refuted. You see this on talk radio. You can't even get past the screeners on rightie radio if you don't present the approved point of view.

              The last few years have seen the right pretty effectively purged of those who are open to anything approaching an informed exchange of views. Don't know what the solution to that would be.

              • MichaelBowman says:

                Does anyone remember that crazy loon named 'Ruthie' from the 2006, Ritter campaign era?  There was also a second personality [forgotten the name] but I'm pretty sure they were both the same person blogging as two. I recall t[she]y were a special strain of West Slope "kkkrazy". 

              • mamajama55 says:

                The Blue Cat is right, as usual. I was trying to respond only to policy proposals and discussion from FB, but that was only maybe 10%, with the rest, insults, not-read links to other dubious sites, and insults to other posters.

                With the other conservatives on here, they do actually put proposals out there once in awhile, although EF seems to prefer to put up straw men to knock down in lieu of argument. (Want to buy an expensive, non-working car? No? Then why do you like Obamacare?)

                There isn't the kind of give and take you wrote of.  So my answer to the problem, at least on this forum, is to only debate people who are brave enough to articulate a position, provide some kind of link or backup evidence for that position, and maintain adult civility while doing it.  If we all did that, we could have…..

                "mutual mass debating!!" wink

  5. ClubTwitty says:

    Its all my fault.

    • Notsomuch, but hey if you want to take some blame, I think there's enough to spread around devil

      I found the Popular Science article disturbing; if all it takes is a couple of rhetorical bomb-throwers to throw even a 95% confidence study into dispute, how does that translate into the future of this country?

      • BlueCat says:

        I also read, I believe in the paper, an explanation of what 95% probability means in the scientific community as opposed to what various anti-science deniers want to claim it means. 

        Because of the nature of ongoing scientific inquiry almost nothing rates 100% because that would mean absolute certainty,  a nearly impossible standard outside the realm of absolute religious faith and even there the firmest believers have been known to suffer the occasional doubt. 

        95% in the scientific community isn't like asking people to get on a plane you are only 95% sure is safe. It's pretty much the gold standard.  Even the question of whether the sun will rise tomorrow, according to the writer, wouldn't get the full 100% because not all the factors affecting that just shy of 100% certainty can be known. In practical terms anything between 95% and 99% is firmly established accepted science. 

      • MADCO says:

        A lot more like the past than most would have you believe.

        The Indiana legislature attempted to legislate te value of pi.  That was not recent.

  6. dmindgo says:

    I've been off this site for months for the reasons cited in the article. I will follow this site more closely for awhile and see if there is a difference. I do enjoy engaging in political debate but have found that the commenters often do not maintain a civil debate and then, what's the point? Might as well jump in a mosh pit or watch mud wrestling. Blessings to you for the suggestion.

  7. Duke Cox says:

    I guess it will be left to me to put in a good word for the ghosts of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.

    One of the things that separates a blog from other forms of communication is the same principle that separates cable from network TV. Adulthood.

    Some of the most humorous of situations and stories are often quite profane…and sometimes a little unkind, just like life. There is, however, a not subtle difference between a snappy rejoinder, cleverly wrought, and a stream of mindless, childish, name-calling. We all know that difference.

    I will certainly make an effort to refrain from unnecessarily distributing a darker rhetoric. 

    But please don't let this become "the News Hour" on PBS….





    • McNeill – Lehrer News Hour: the most boring newscast you'll ever hear. Ranks up there with listening to WF Buckley speaking for an hour.

    • I think your reply (and BC's) get to the heart of it. There's a difference between name-calling and insults, and spirited – even sometimes rude – discourse.

      • Duke Cox says:


        Unfortunately, you, Craig, R36, Michael, Miguel and so many others, find yourselves in the uncomfortable position of discovering that you are closer to Dems in philosophy that those Maroons who took over your party. Thanks for sticking with us.

        I am all for elevating the discussion, but with some of the trolls we get nowadays, that kinda equates to picking up something out of a gutter.  If we all pitch in…we will get better…..or not…wink

        • MichaelBowman says:

          It's like my previous [and only] marriage:  I want to believe it was better than it was.  It's still difficult to watch the train wreck, in particular because it is taking members of my family with it.  I still find myself trying to occasionally make excuses for them; there are times when I wonder if I shouldn't have stayed and duked it out.  Those moments usually last until I see the most recent Tweet from Brophy or statement from Tancredo.

          We need a good two-party system.  We need a competition of ideas.  Karl Rove's chickens have come home to roost, and they've morphed in to Whack-O Birds….

  8. MADCO says:

    Here's a thing that bears mentioning.

    When I started contributing here, my belief was that the general tone would self define. Meaning if more posters were the harsh, mud slinging name calling type, they would attract more of the same.  If, instead, posts were less of personal affront  and more political, even if ideological, oppositive, then that would also atract more of the same.

    And thus it has been. Not counting those who got themselves banned, those who "left" chose not to engage in the predominant tone.  Either they were unable or just unwilling.  I stopped writing diaries because a) it's hard b) and time consuming and c) there is no current election.  Not that I only ever diaried about hte elections – but mostly.  (On the shelf: If It never Happened in COlorado, it Never Happened; Why the "Free Market" Isn't; and others.)

    I like informed discussion about the world around us and of necessity this must include politics.  FWIW, I often get as much out of the political coverage discussion here as I get from the main Denver news service and while both have utterly bizarre "contributors" in the for of commenters, that they get absive and abused is just the way it goes.

    Btw, shunning is a misunderstood art form of social organizaing and is as often under utilzed as misutilized or deglected.  My memory is there was only ever one diary written here on the subject, back in what are implied to be the good old CoPols days when the discourse was more…civil. It wasn't – we just block out the  worst and mostly recall the best.



  9. dwyer says:

    Robert Reich had an excellent column in tne NYTimes on Sunday, exploring this same theme.  Here is the link:

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