Know When to Walk Away, and Know When to Run

Every now and then there’s a kerfuffle about people treating other people badly. These things need to be talked about, but I wish we could do a better job of it. You might guess that this is prompted by the recent Feynman posts and responses/comments, and you’d be right. Before that it was “not all men”, and before that, Bora. But I’m not going to go into specifics about any of those, I’m going to tell you why such discussion is off the table for me. Even (perhaps especially) in the light of declarations that others must speak up — that silence is assent, and similar assertions.

I used to be active on various discussion boards other than the one that hosts this blog, and I’d go and visit when physics discussions at SFN were slow. I was reading a thread where someone (a crackpot, if I may) was proposing an alternative to relativity, which was almost certainly wrong, and there were posters making note of that in no uncertain terms. I noticed a problem, though — one of the equations the crackpot was using was actually correct — I think it was the gravitational time dilation formula gh/c^2, which is the approximation you get when you can assume g is constant — and I made a post pointing this out: I said that there were a lot of questionable claims being made, but this equation was not one of them. Adjust criticism accordingly. No problem, right?

Not so much. At that point, a number of other posters set upon me, accusing me of defending the crackpot, and concluding that I must therefore be a crackpot. There was one who went so far as to say that no real physicist would ever use an approximate formula (!), because we had computers and could run code using an exact formula. Actual examples, including physics papers using similar approximations were not enough to dissuade these folks from their positions. I had been branded a crackpot and once that had happened, no facts mattered. At that point I was was wrong by fiat so anything I had to say was dismissed, and my support for the entirety of the crackpot’s position was assumed. After that, the only dialog directed at me was sarcastic. I was a leper.

It was not a pleasant experience, and this in a relatively mild atmosphere. It gave me some perspective in moderating discussions involving those who are not enamored of the scientific mainstream — look at the facts, and do not assume more is there than is written, and don’t attack the person. Snark is a signal that any serious consideration is over, so one has to be sure all reasonable discourse has been exhausted. It can happen, and I’m guilty of that from time to time, but it’s after going over the same ground three or four times and making no progress. (Sometimes a claim is so outlandish that ridicule is the only response — but those are exceptions, not the norm.)

I’ll use, as an example, the use of the term I’m not particularly fond of: “fanboy” (or worse, fanboi). I usually see these in discussions about Apple products (as an observer — I rarely participate), aimed at someone who likes Apple products. A: I like X about my iPhone. B: Fanboi! To me, it’s a signal that the party isn’t willing to discuss any merits of the argument. It’s dismissive and no better or more productive than an eight-year-old engaging in name-calling. In the Feynman discussions, I have not checked to see if it was deserved or not (probably yes, but I don’t know), but to my mind any useful conversation is over once someone has dropped the fanboy flag or other blatant sarcasm on the pitch. It’s a big Do Not Enter sign.

Another danger about snark is it’s an invitation for others to jump in. It’s a sort of mob mentality, I think. Scientists having discussions generally keep to the issues and don’t typically degenerate into mockery, but something happens once that first window gets broken. People in the mob probably don’t recognize they are in one, at least at the time.

Pointing out an error in an evolution paper does not make you a creationist, pointing out a mistake in a global warming paper does not make you a denialist, just as pointing out an error in a critique of crackpottery did not make me a crackpot. Correcting the facts is what we should be expecting in discussions, so the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality absolutely does not fit. We, as scientists, recognize the dangers of that in formal science, and go to great lengths to point out to science detractors that we are not promoting dogma. That attitude needs to be more pervasive in discussions about the culture that surrounds science.

I have opinions on matters, and perhaps something to add to a discussion. But the entirely predictable response that gets played out gives me pause about participating. Perhaps that’s an unfixable part of the internet. But it may also be true that some of what many agree are social issues in STEM that don’t seem to be getting better very quickly are being hampered because some people feel shut out of the discussions as they become polarized so quickly. Think about that: people you want to reach are possibly being shut out of the conversation because of the fear that they will be verbally pummeled and shunned at the slightest inkling that they don’t agree with you, because they see how others are treated. You will not hear their voice, and if they feel that they are being attacked, they will not listen to yours.

I want the broader social situation to improve. These conversations need to happen, so we must do a better job of encouraging the conversations. I can disagree with details of something you say without disagreeing with your conclusion. Finding fault with some fact you’ve quoted does not automatically mean I agree with your opponent — I want you argument to be stronger, unassailable, and I’ve found a chink in it. I’m trying to help you. But having been burned by this before, under milder circumstances, I have no wish to jump in to a much hotter fire.

These conversations need to happen. We must do a better job of encouraging the conversations.

2 thoughts on “Know When to Walk Away, and Know When to Run

  1. Meh, you’re just another “reasonable discussion fanboi”.

    But yea, trying to discuss things that are even a little controversial on the internet is frustratingly difficult. And the range of topics that will turn into trainwrecks is pretty surprising. That stuff like abortion or Israel attract a lot more passion then reason isn’t really startling, but some people will go nuts in threads on stuff I can’t even imagine getting worked up about, making conversation difficult about even some obscure technical topics.

    My current course is to just say my piece in one post and then move on. Which is sad, since I’m sure lots of people have plenty of interesting feedback and criticism on my posts that I’d profit from engaging with. But getting sucked into the rabbit hole of invective and dishonest argument isn’t really worth the effort.

    Still, I really like the “message board” or “comment thread” model of conversation. Being able to link to your sources, having a record of the whole conversation in front of you, being able to easily quote others arguments, etc. really are a good way to converse with other people. I suspect the ultimate answer will be more curated message boards, where people can only post by invitation, and thus have more investment in the quality of conversation taking place.

  2. I suppose it boils down to how the moderators approach these situations.

    If moderators jump on bad behavior regardless they can make a real difference and allow the conversations to proceed to their natural conclusions.

    On the other hand if moderators only take one side and do not punish the transgressors on their own side then they may as well be the mobs leaders.

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