Online Debate And Criticism

August 24, 2009 at 6:40 pm (Miscellaneous)

There aren’t really any formal rules regarding online debate or the ethics of blogging, although there are websites that advise on “netiquette” and a survey of bloggers found that: “Key issues in the blogosphere are telling the truth, accountability, minimizing harm and attribution, although the extent to which bloggers follow their own ethical ideals can depend on the context and intended audience. “

Some of the issues listed here are linked to the principles of netiquette: minimizing harm [e.g. respecting privacy or considering others’ feelings] is referred to in the news report of the survey, and the list of ‘rules’ for online interaction include an exhortation to “remember the person” (in which the question is asked “would you say it to the person’s face?”). Although there are no formal codes, regulations, or sanctions for bloggers there are unofficial “sanctions”. The news report of the survey of bloggers concludes:

bloggers profess that they value the principles and adhere to the practices explored in this study. Less ethical bloggers can also expect payback: the blogosphere is more interactive than traditional media, allowing instant and often vigorous feedback to bloggers that violate readers’ standards. This ‘sanction’ on unethical behaviour may replace the need for a formal blogging ethics code.

Regarding minimizing harm and considering the feelings of others: I’ve written before about anger in debating of health issues and I would hate to think that those arguing in favour of public health interventions or against alternative medicine would use similar tactics to – or be as aggressive as – those in the examples I used in my previous post. Unfortunately, there probably are examples of such overly-aggressive “sceptics”. Often, however, vitriol is apparently perceived when it is not present. Sceptics are frequently characterised as being unkind and I provided several examples of what I considered to be inappropriate use of the word “vitriol” in a previous blog post.

I noted that comments on blogs often cannot be deleted or edited by the author and decided not to provide named examples of blog commenters misusing the word (or to link to them). I felt it fairer to use the example of Patrick Holford, who claimed in a newsletter that a journalist had been “inaccurate and vitriolic”. While blog comments can be written in haste or in anger, one would perhaps expect a newsletter to better reflect the views of the author. Then again, one might expect a newsletter to be calmer and more polite than blog comments.

I hope that my position is clear. I dislike and disapprove of bullying, abuse or unnecessary unkindness, but I also feel that inappropriate claims of the use of vitriol are unfair and an unhelpful distraction. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with robust criticism, but I accept that there can perhaps be a fine line between robust comment and aggression. Polite and reasonable criticism is not just acceptable, it is (in my opinion) necessary and it may be the case that this criticism can sometimes be more effective if it is robust. Unfortunately, where it is perceived that criticism is aggressive rather than robust the criticism may have as adverse an effect on the critic as it does on the person whose views are subject to comment (if not more so). A concise comment on this is here: this page on Google Books has a heading “Caustic comment may cause Boomerang Effect”. Any criticism perceived as being overly negative, aggressive or unkind may have the opposite effect to that intended by the critic. Being abusive or attempting to cause offence goes beyond this, in my opinion, and is often rightly condemned.

When it comes to criticism, I would argue that no-one is exempt. It could be argued that individuals should be given more leeway than organisations, but I think that this would apply particularly to individuals who might be considered to be private rather than public figures (and, it could be argued, to individuals who are simply stating a point of view rather than attempting to gain some personal advantage). Those who vigorously promote themselves and/or their products could be considered to be a more legitimate target than those who are writing a blog that could be categorised as either a personal or non-personal blog – but the question of where one draws the line between “personal” and “non-personal” is not one I will attempt to answer here.

I would argue, though (and have before) that “It is easy to criticise the views of those we dislike or have little respect for. While criticising the dislikable or unrespectable may be fair, it could be argued that failing to criticise those we do like and respect may render our criticism of the former unfair as well as discriminatory.” I should add here that one thing I feel that this blog lacks is sufficient critical comment – I get relatively little feedback and the comments I do receive tend (if memory serves) either to be positive comment from fellow sceptics or abuse from those who disagree with my views (some examples of which are given in the side-bar on this website). While I do receive some constructive criticism, sometimes framed positively and sometimes framed negatively, I would welcome more of it. I should perhaps also attempt to be critical more often of those with whom I generally agree.

EDIT: I’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic and there are issues around online discussion (and abuse) that I haven’t even touched on. For example, misogyny. The Guardian have just published online an article by Melissa McEwan in which she relates that most of her threatening hate mail comes from men. There is also a comment from an admin in this metafilter.com thread that includes the following: “when I don’t get respect from people, it’s usually in the form of email or throwaway comments and those comments are often oddly gender-directed”.

Something else I have failed to refer to is ‘groupthink’, which can lead to a lack of independent thinking – and perhaps also to an intolerance of the views of newcomers and those perceived as outsiders. People tend, whether on the internet or in ‘real life’, to seek out others who share their views (Homophily) and social psychologists have found that the views of people in groups can become more extreme. This page on Google Books has a reference to group polarisation as a shift of individual views to more extreme positions and Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality also makes reference to this phenomenon:

The individual conforms to the group, but something considerably surprising happens to the group as a whole. […] In practice, if the members’ attitudes are biased in one direction, simply by interacting together their attitudes become even more biased in the same direction.

Apparently, a study at Bennington College found that students there became more liberal the longer they stayed (the college is described as having a liberal ethos).

13 Comments

  1. Cathy said,

    Seeing as you are inviting more comments, I thought I would respond with my excuses for not usually commenting! My main excuse is an inability to commit enough time to make a meaningful debate and as I feel that drive-by comments can be frustrating I tend not to make any. I like the idea of a large world-wide community that has the potential to debate things and contribute many points of view, and would certainly like to be more active in such a community if I could.
    Regarding netiquette, I have a preference for politeness but think that the forum of generally short comments tends to favour a brusqueness which can be seen as being impolite. And it is quicker and easier to be rude than to compose a more considered argument! This is also why it can be harder to criticise a colleague or friend, because in such a situation, many people will feel the need to make an effort to be more measured.
    On the whole, I think that criticism is a good thing for both parties as it can help sharpen the arguments but that the expected short response time on the internet can hinder such a process.
    Anyway, do keep up the Stuff and Nonsense as I enjoy reading it even though I’m not particularly active in participating.

  2. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for commenting Cathy.

    “I have a preference for politeness but think that the forum of generally short comments tends to favour a brusqueness which can be seen as being impolite.”
    I must admit that if I’m on a forum with little time to read and respond to posts I tend to want to say what I have to as quickly as possible. I sometimes wonder if I’m being a bit terse and there have been times when I’ve dashed off a quick response and the deleted it because it felt a bit brusque. And then there are the times I just can’t be bothered to write a carefully thought-out response – it’s definitely easier to be rude (which might explain a fair amount of rudeness on internet forums now that I think about it).

  3. Naomi Mc said,

    I think that the groupthink and misogyny are important points and often, I have found, go together. Some forums and message boards can be dominated by regulars who are then upset by a newcomer particularly one who doesn’t conform to the ‘culture’ of the board. If that culture is aggressively critical then there are those that will find it exclusionary or offensive but the regulars will defend it as the nature of debate.

    I agree that there are people that can use accusations of vitriol as a diversionary tactic. But there are those that genuinely feel victimised even if that was not the intention. As any of you who have had to go through bullying/harassment/diversity training in the workspace will know, offense is often ‘in the eye of the beholder’. That doesn’t make it clear-cut or easily definable, but that’s human interaction for you!

  4. Andysnat said,

    I’ve been thinking about all these issues in the last couple of days, and now you’ve added Homophily to the list.

    I need to think some more.

  5. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for the comments.

    @NaomiMc: “Some forums and message boards can be dominated by regulars who are then upset by a newcomer particularly one who doesn’t conform to the ‘culture’ of the board.” I think the example I see most often is the accusation of people who don’t conform being trolls.
    “I agree that there are people that can use accusations of vitriol as a diversionary tactic. But there are those that genuinely feel victimised even if that was not the intention.” I think there are cases where it can be hard to decide whether someone intends to offend and an accusation of vitriol is understandable whether one agrees with it or not – but also some cases where the accusation is simply baffling (thinking of several polite, calm bloggers here whose reasonable criticism of ideas is met with accusations of vitriol). Also, there are some who will intentionally post obviously vitriolic comments.

  6. Neuroskeptic said,

    I think accusations of being “vitriolic” are generally a sign that the accuser is either naive or being deliberately disingenuous.

    When you’ve spent time debating anything (online or in real life) you learn that there are people out there who feel strongly about literally anything, and who will be vitriolic and worse at the slightest provocation.

    So to say “Oh my God, sceptics are vitriolic!” as if that were news is naive. Of course some are, and they’re the ones you remember.

    On the other hand, some people know this perfectly well and use accusations of vitriol etc as a strategy for avoiding serious discussions of the issues. Patrick Holford I’m sure falls into this category, he is many things but naive is not one of them.

  7. Neuroskeptic said,

    “that there are people out there who feel strongly about literally anything” – by this I meant that for literally anything, you could find someone who feels strongly about it.

    Not that there are people who feel strongly about everything. That would be too exhausting. People seem to have one thing they really care about and relate everything else to that one thing.

  8. jdc325 said,

    @Cathy: “My main excuse is an inability to commit enough time to make a meaningful debate and as I feel that drive-by comments can be frustrating I tend not to make any.”
    Forgot to say earlier – I think one-off comments are generally fine, as it is possible for most people to make their point in a single comment (and others can always add their thoughts on the comment if they wish to do so). I would probably classify most “drive-by” comments as those that contain contentious statements and are made by commenters who have no intention of backing up these statements.

    Thinking about it, it seems to me that these comments are quite often irrelevant to the post the person is nominally commenting on. I had a commenter called Dr Nancy who kept leaving pithy pro-homeopathy comments on my blog posts and she never attempted to deal with the substance of my post – the purpose was simply to leave a pro-homeopathy comment (any pro-homeopathy comment) on posts that were critical of homeopathy or homeopaths.

  9. jdc325 said,

    @Neuroskeptic: thanks for commenting. I think that you are right and that people crying vitriol often are naive or disingenuous. I do think though that it’s OK to point out genuinely vitriolic comments as such comments are not conducive to debate.

  10. jdc325 said,

    Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment on this – it would have been pretty unfortunate to write a blog post about online debate and have zero comments. And perhaps a little ironic.

  11. colmcq said,

    “groupthink and misogyny are important points and often, I have found, go together”

    True to a point, but as Coltrane observed during his formative years at Berkely College of Higher Conceptualist Thinking “one man never knows when to stop”. Taken to literal conclusions, one can reach a wider understanding of the temporal duality of male-female interaction in contexts not dissimilar to the works of Hirozawa during the 1930’s.

    Alternatively, you could compare these two blog posts from people from opposite ends of the intelligentsia and have a jolly good laugh:

    http://www.drbriffa.com/blog/2009/08/12/does-exercise-promote-weight-loss-no/

    http://www.badscience.net/2009/08/health-warning-exercise-makes-you-fat/#more-1334

  12. The Trouble With Skeptics « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] I’ve written before of online debate and criticism: “Unfortunately, where it is perceived that criticism is aggressive rather than robust the […]

  13. Freedom Of Speech, Not Freedom From Criticism « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] The well-meaning defence, the vitriol defence, online debate and criticism. […]

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