Proposed change to DI comment policy re: scientific method and evolution

December 23, 2008 | By | 17 Replies More

Topic:  Proposed change to comment policy concerning ill-informed comments regarding A) the scientific method and B) evolution by natural selection.

At DI, we’ve had a wide-open comment policy.  Until recently, I have rarely rejected comments.  The ones I have rejected consisted mostly of preaching (see the current comment policy).  I’ve also rejected a few ad hominem attacks.   We have published more than 12,000 comments over the past 2 ½ years.  I’ve rejected only about two dozen comments.  I’ve clipped the preaching out of another 3 dozen.

I am hesitant to reject comments because disagreement with these DI’s writers makes them better thinkers and writers.  Further, most of DI’s writers consider themselves (informally) to be educators who must work hard to engage with people who think differently than we do.  We try to disagree without being disagreeable.  Not that we always succeed.

Here’s the problem.  We are now seeing (in my opinion) an excessive number of comments that purport to attack A) evolution by natural selection and B) the scientific method, where the writer shows that he/she lacks basic familiarity with the subject matter.  In other words, the people offering many recent comments mischaracterize the subject matter they purport to attack.  They are attacking straw men, which does not serve any meaningful long-range purpose.  Further, attacking straw men is a form of a comment already disallowed: off topic comments; such comments amount to attacking something other than the think actually being discussed.

The types of comments I’m concerned about fall into these categories:

– Natural selection is “random.”
– Evolution by natural selection is a religion.
– There is no evidence for an old earth.
– The theory of evolution is a failed attempt to explain the first appearance of life on earth.
– The scientific method is a “religion.”
– Scientists have conspired, on the whole, to fake evidence and defraud the public.
– Scientists (and the writers at this site) are not familiar with the writings of the Bible.
– Darwin himself was racist or a social Darwinist.
– Fairness demands evolution and creation be given equal time as a scientific exchange.
– Inherit the Wind is false propaganda.
– Evolution is only a theory.
– Evolution cannot be replicated or tested.
– “Survival of the fittest” is a tautology.
– Bacterial flagella are irreducibly complex.
– That those who promote evolution cannot possibly be living moral lives and that they will go to hell.

These claims have each been addressed in detail by well-respected science sites (e.g., see here and here) and, in many cases, by the writers at this site.

What I would propose is that those who choose to raise these attacks will be henceforth treated like grown-ups; in short, in order to have comments published on the above topics at DI, the people offering these types of comments will first be given  the opportunity to show us that they are reasonably familiar with the subject matter.  They must first show us that they are able to put Science’s best foot forward before attacking it (not that they must agree with mainstream science, but that they need to understand it enough to put its best foot forward before attacking it).

Here’s the quandary:  Every time another one of these comments comes in, one or more of the writers at this site feels compelled to take time away from other projects to step up to explain that the thing being attacked is not understood well enough to attack it.   Allowing ill-informed comments is making for some onerous and repetitive writing by our writers and for some tedious reading by most of our readers.  I also suspect that many such comments are less than sincere, amounting to “sport,” rather than legitimate attempts to discuss and understand the topic matter raised by the post.

To the extent that I would reject these comments, I might be accused of censorship.   On the other hand, to continue to allow these comments gives the green light to trolling. What is a troll?

An Internet troll, or simply troll in Internet slang, is someone who posts controversial, inflammatory, irrelevant or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum or chat room, with the intention of provoking other users into an emotional response or to generally disrupt normal on-topic discussion.

I am thus floating my proposal to tweak to DI’s comment policy.  What I’m proposing is that all comments that raise the above-described topics can be, at my discretion (or at the discretion of the individual authors), rejected as “off-topic.”  If a new visitor comes to this site and “innocently” mischaracterizes well-established evidence or theories, I will be highly-inclined to allow the comment, despite the mischaracterization.

To those of you who feel that DI’s writers are literally hell-bound and that you thus need to constantly return to your long-discredited points no matter how often they have been previously addressed, you will be placed on a very short leash.  To the extent that you might not be allowed to repeated raise the same discredited points at this site, you are free to start your own websites where you can preach your religious faith, where you can claim that dinosaurs roamed the earth 6,000 years ago, where you can argue that well-established natural laws are sometimes miraculously suspended and where you can claim that the Bible is absolutely coherent, completely based in historical fact and utterly lacking in contradictions.

To summarize the proposal I am hereby floating:  Visitors to this site who attack well-established scientific principles, especially where those attacks are based on religious convictions, are subject to rejection unless the comment demonstrates that the writer first has a basic understanding of the subject matter that he or she is attacking.

This is a principle of fairness.   Rudimentary knowledge and an open mind must proceed the right to promulgate an opinion.   At Bible conferences, I’m would assume that the microphone is not freely handed over to those who demonstrate that they’ve never read the bible or those who want to convince the crowd that the Koran is the way to go and that the Bible is hogwash.

Would the proposed new policy mean that comments can’t attack science?  Absolutely not. For such comments to be allowed, though, ignorance regarding the subject of these attacks must be “innocent” (to be determined in our discretion) or the attacks must be reasonably and demonstrably well-informed.

I invite comments regarding the fairness of this proposed amendment to the DI comment policy.

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Category: Communication, Evolution, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (17)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    Evolution is a theory, much as E=mc (squared) is "Einstein's theory of relativity." While I accept evolution as fitting the established facts of the scientific community, it is still a theory.

    I don't buy the creationists' "theories", however proffered, because they may not be demonstrated or tested by objectively verifiable facts, nor replicated nor peer reviewed (except by fellow advocates in the faith community).

    It appears you are preaching that Darwin's theory of evolution is not a theory. I don't believe that's scientifically rigorous. Please consider dropping that limitation.

  2. TJ says:

    Wow, Erich, that is an amazing attempt at fairness and openness in the face of trollishness. Ultimately, it's your site, so you can do whatever you want with it. (I'm sure you get frustrated by claims of censorship or infringement of First Amendment rights. Of course, neither applies since all you are doing is failing to pay for someone else to publish their thoughts on this site. as you said, you support their right to publish on their own sites.)

    I don't think your core audience will be at all turned off by this change, and many (including me) would welcome it. I come to DI for interesting, new ideas and discussions, not a tired retread of a conversation going nowhere.

    @Tim Hogan: I think there's a difference between "Evolution is a theory" (using "theory" in the scientific sense of a hypothesis supported by lots of research and good data) and "Evolution is *only* a theory" or "just a theory" (using "theory" in the general sense of "untested hypothesis" and thus easily discarded).

    I think Erich is tired of the latter, not the former.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Erich's "- Evolution is only a theory." refers to both the vernacular deprecation of the word "theory", and to the point that evolution has been and is directly observed (a "fact") as well as the robust body of proven mechanisms to explain those observations (a "theory").

    Thus evolution is not just a theory. But the point might be better emphasized.

  4. Vicki Baker says:

    Couldn't you just have Dan write a script that would generate an auto-response to these time worn gambits? I'm serious: how hard could it be? 🙂 There are a bunch of language bots out there, wouldn't it be fun to reprogram one for evolution discussions and see how long the commenter would go on before realizing s/he was talking to a machine?

  5. Karl says:

    Sounds like Erich is only attempting to do what is necessary to keep the 40% of respectable Univerisity Professors in line with what's expected of them.

    Erich and crew have every right to limit what is proclaimed from the DI Webstie if that is what he so desires. I don't see that in the initial guidelines, but if that is what is required to prevent serious consideration of all points of view of the human animals than so be it.

    If you only want human animals with a bent towards evolution and against theistic approaches to be heard from the DI Website, than I think you will eventually have to make a decision in this regard.

  6. Tim,

    Loosely, now, within scientific debate, the word Theory stands for an understanding of an established principle. The Theory is merely the description of a set of phenomena that are well understood and are considered Fact.

    In popular parlance, "theory" is a much misused term for anything that hasn't yet been proven. The word for that in science is Hypothesis. Once a hypothesis graduates to Theory, the core facts are no longer at issue.

    Relativity will always be A Theory in the sense that scientists use the term. It's not their sloppiness at issue, but the corruption of definitions through colloquial usage that has made it possible for people like Karl and Erik B. to dismiss something because "it's only a theory."

  7. hUH? says:

    may i comment about the comment policy if i do not believe in science?

  8. hUH? says:

    PLEASE CLARIFY:

    May I comment about the comment policy without first ascribing to the scientific method?

    THANK YOU.

  9. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Erich, I see one problem in this policy. It can lead to the propagation of politically endorsed junk science. It boils down to deciding which source to trust, and on the internet, most of the flood of information, misinformation and disinformation is seldom vetted for veracity. For most people, the test for truth on the net is whether or not it matches what they want to believe. I've seen many intelligent, professional people misplace their trust in false scientific experts who actually have little or no direct direct knowledge of the subjects, but simply repeat items they read on some web site.

    Often, a meme gains star power in cyberspace, and having done so, it is oft repeated and distorted in a manner reminescent of the old "Gossip" party game.

    This is how junk science gains prominence. When it becomes the popular meme, those who question it are marked as being against science, when they may be the greatest of those that champion the scientific method. Remember that it was through the junk science of Eugenics that Hitler rose to power.

    I believe that well standing scientic theories should always be scrutinized from a critical P.O.V. because if those theories can stand up to the critiques, it strengthens the validity of those theories and principles. It is important to the progress of science and the aquisition of knowledge to do so.

    Isaac Asimov, famous as a writer of science fiction, was also a biochemist, editoror of several magazines and wrote many editorial essays on the progression of science. Many of the essays demonstrated through historic accounts, how accepted theory and principles can fail and how the theories and principle are amended to better describe the physical universe. One essay discusses how 19th and early 20th centruy astronomers searched for a planet that according to the theories and known principles of physics at the time should have been between Mercury and the Sun, but was never found. It was a new discovery ythat amended the know theories of mass and gravity came alone that explained why the planet was never found.
    http://geobeck.tripod.com/frontier/planet.htm
    One of the things I like most about this blog is that it encourages different viewpoints and can often result in people taking a different look at what they thought they knew. it encourage everyone to do their own thinking, rather that take someone else's word at face value. That is the most important value of all.

    However, what comprises "Well established" in the internet age may not be the pinnacle of reality. I suggest that the "beating the dead horse" criteria could work, but it must apply universally and not unilaterally.

    In general, I would entertain opinions from anyone who will do the same for me, but when it comes down to the "You're wrong because you disagree with me and I'm right" type statements, I don't understand why they even bother commenting.

    About off topic: I freely admit that my mind tends to wander, and I have to sometimes go and catch it before it cets lost.

  10. You face a difficult situation Erich. What is best for the health of the blog? Total freedom or some form of editorial control? I, for one, have tired of the repetitive rants of the faithful. Limiting their input would be refreshing to me.

    I don't think it unreasonable to institute a set of rules or FAQ-style set of guidelines. They could be called the "Assumptions of the Blog" and would be exempt from debate. Such as,

    – DI accepts the possibility that there is a god as well as the possibility that there isn't.

    – DI recognizes that all religions are man-made.

    – DI knows that books can't prove themselves true.

    …and so on.

    I'm sure the writers here could help come up with a definitive set of guidelines that all those who post here must accept as a baseline for discussion or risk being edited or deleted. Those who don't like the strictures you set can go elsewhere.

    What do you think?

  11. Ben says:

    Is science is a belief? It seems to depend on the person. I've argued the point to exhaustion, though not so much with the recent visitors. If I understand correctly what they are saying, it reminds me of the Truman Show. After all, this could all be one big tv show…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Truman_Show#Plot

    In terms of the comment policy, I think you have done well, and especially like that you allow us to have input. If I remember correctly one of the creationists had become repetitive to the point of being bratty and boring. I don't think that you should ever have to dissect each comment to determine if it is preaching. Your time is too valuable. I think he was given ample warnings, and should have been banned some months ago, for the greater good.

    (anti-spam word: dan)

  12. God knows (sorry, I couldn't resist :D) I don't care for Karl & Co., but if he is getting on your nerves why don't you just ignore him instead of answering with lengthy posts or trying to create new rules? I don't mind engaging in a discussion with someone who opposes my opinion, but it should happen with genuine interest and sincerity on both sides. If someone repeatedly leads attacks against straw men, call him out on it – everything is written down and you can not get away with claiming that you didn't say this or that – and then stop the conversation.

  13. Dan Klarmann says:

    This policy is probably not about Karl. He flies as close to the line as he can, but is willing to play on our field by our rules. As Proj points out, we are responsible for continuing off topic discussions.

    I have assumed that it is up to us "Authors" to provide an appropriate post if we wish to continue discussing subjects that commentators have led off topic. I've done this a couple of times with Karl.

    Continuing on a new post may not lead to complete intellectual fruition, but at least the discussion will be on topic.

    A new Page called "Resovled" or "Principles" with a list of guiding principles and resolutions is a good idea.

    Perhaps yet another Page ("Favorites") with links to some of our favorite posts, back to which we keep referring.

  14. Erich Vieth says:

    The question in my mind is whether any of the writers at this site should feel compelled to interrupt ongoing discussion to entertain the merits of arguments that have been factually and completely discredited.

    For example, consider what should be done if someone a reader were to post comments dealing with any of the following:

    Epicycles – Ptolemy’s theory that the path of motion of stars was generally circular except it contained small loops that explained their retrograde motion.

    Phlogiston, first stated in 1667 by Johann Joachim Becher, is an obsolete scientific theory that posited the existence of, in addition to the classical four elements of the Greeks, an additional fire-like element called “phlogiston” that was contained within combustible bodies, and released during combustion.

    "Luminiferous aether" (or "ether"), once signified the substance which was thought in ancient times to fill the upper regions of space, beyond the clouds.

    A claim that the Earth is flat.

    If ever someone would try to convince me to accept the truth any of these positions, I would assume that that person was joking. I have no interest in debating any of these as legitimate ways to understand the world. Each of these approaches has been thoroughly disproved. No serious scientist believes in any of these. Though most of the writers at this site are not scientists, this is a science-oriented site.

    For the past few months at DI, we have been faced with people (some of them sincere and respectful) who want to assert arguments that are equally devoid of evidentiary support. Consider the many young earth arguments we've been seeing at this site (claims that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old despite no evidence in support of this proposition and an unending stream of evidence disproving it). Based on respectable science, young earth arguments are not any more worthy of our time than are flat earth arguments.

    Here in the year 2008, the arguments mentioned in this post (attacking evolution by natural selection) are equally lacking in evidence. These arguments have all been answered many times by highly educated experts who base their findings on facts and experiments which are then published in peer reviewed publications

    I see these religious-based attacks on evolution as meritless, because they are not based on facts. Also, it is difficult to ignore that the alternative being offered by those who attack evolution: a vengeful Earth-obsessed supernatural being came down, wagged His finger, and then everything appeared. This is an approach that doesn’t allow any scientific testing. It precludes any further discussion other than chaotic discussions based entirely upon hopes, dreams and fantasies.

    I don’t want to cut off all debate regarding evolution and religion; there will be posts that specifically invite discussion of creationism. I'm inclined to raise the bar for those want express uninformed opinions, especially those who should know better, those who aren’t willing to keep an open mind to inconvenient evidence and those who are attempting to use every post as an opportunity to express the same uninformed and discredited opinions.

    I’m leaning toward a policy that raises the bar rather than shuts the door, and I’m still considering the details. My instinct is that the writers have full right to make assumptions based on well-established science without feeling it necessary to backtrack to examine the many arguments commonly pushed by creationists. Unless such arguments are specifically raised by the author of a post, I am inclined to disallow the creationist arguments raised in this post as "off topic." To allow such comments detracts from the post and essentially makes every science-related post about religion.

    It is, indeed, important to me that creationists do have full opportunity to raise each of these issues to their hearts' content at their own sites. I am also well aware that most other science-oriented sites pride themselves on focusing on the science rather than on peripheral completely-discredited arguments. Consider, for instance, that the Wikipedia article on "evolution" is almost completely about evolution, with a only peripheral mention of creationism.

    I appreciate everyone who has weighed in on this extremely important topic concerning the best way to have a meaningful conversation.

  15. this is a science-oriented site

    The subtitle of this blog is "Human Animals at the Crossroads of Culture, Science, Religion and Media.

    I think the religious people would not feel encouraged to present their theories here and defend it against science if the word "religion" was not contained in the description of this blog. I'm sure other websites with only scientific content have less problems with. Consider "the earth is flat" to be part of the religious discussion of this blog instead of shunning it for being unscientific and not belonging here.

  16. Erich Vieth says:

    Proj: Yes, this is a site that concerns itself with religion. Your comment raises a concern that gets to the heart of the controversy for me. Should we study religion through the lens of science (my original intention) or should we study science through the lens of religion? The latter would, in my opinion lead to endless cacophony and silliness.

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