Scientists have a hard enough time getting people to understand what they’re talking about.
Their thoughts can be complicated. Their sentences can be laden with jargon. And their conclusions can offend political or religious sensibilities.
And now, to make things worse, readers have an immediate forum to talk back. And when some readers post uncivil comments at the bottom of online articles, that alone can raise doubts about the underlying science, a new study has found. Or at least reinforce those doubts.What follows is a summary report of a study showing that readers were less swayed by an argument about the risks of nanotechnology when it was followed by rude comments than when it was followed by polite ones. The article's author described the experiment as having taken care to ensure that the substance of the comments was the same, and all that was varied was their tone. Hard to say, since the paper was presented at a conference and hasn't been published yet. It's due to be published soon in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication ("CMC," for those in the know). I found something similar, perhaps, in the current issue, "The Impact of Language Variety and Expertise on Perceptions of Online Political Discussions," which contained this delightful early subsection heading: "Status Cues and Heuristic Processing in CMC." So right away we get some clues about the balderdash quotient (BD). (I'm sorry; I'm afraid that was rude. But I'm working on a peer-reviewed paper establishing universal units for the Cognitively Heuristic BD (CHBD), and the grant money is just pouring in.)
Is this a new thing, all the concern over whether the public is getting heuristically out of hand and needs better cognitive processing so we technocrats can maintain our authoritah? Or have I just not been paying enough attention to the hilarious stuff that gets published? (A classic early example is "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.")
Rudeness is a problem, certainly. Among its other drawbacks, it heightens emotions, not usually a helpful means of facilitating the exchange of complex ideas. It also often wrenches the focus of discussion from the relevant to the irrelevant, especially to the personal characteristics and politics of the authors.
But if the motive for censoring rude remarks is to prevent a loss of the readers' confidence in the authority of the beleaguered scientists, then count me unconvinced. That's just asking for moderators to censor remarks according to their ostensible ability to undercut the argument in the main post. Even if the moderator is concerned about the unfair tactic of "rudeness," who among us wouldn't be corrupted by that standard? It will lead to a censorship standard that's weighted by the content of the argument instead of by its style. As commenter JD Eveland wrote:
Consider, for example, the following range of possible comments:
(a) "Fantastic! Amazing! I'm putting your name into Nobel consideration right away!"
(b) "Interesting paper. However, I do have some concerns with how the statistical analysis was conducted."
(c) "The results are rendered largely uninterpretable due to the investigators' choice of a repeated measures analysis of variance rather than a regression model, as is currently taught in all reasonably respectable doctoral programs."
(d) "Obviously, the results in this article were scraped off the bottom of a birdcage after the data had been statistically processed by the bird."
(e) "You're a poopypants, and your data analyst is a stupid f**k! You obviously learned all you know about statistics off the back of a bag of birdseed! I'm coming after you, and your little dog too!"
We'd all probably agree that result (e) would be considered rude, and most of us would also apply that to (d). On the other hand, (c) could easily be considered rude by some scientists, although it might not have been intended as such by the respondent, since that's just the way he talks to everyone including his students and his wife. (b) would probably not be considered rude by anyone offering it, although some scientists are sensitive enough to see it as such; indeed, there are even those insecure enough as to see anything short of (a) to be rude.What I'm describing here is rampant PC culture. The last thing scientists need is a less hostile working environment for their tender arguments. Sound ideas can stand some rough and tumble.