Bad Manners

My apologies for the absence of posts in recent days. I have been a bit swamped, not so much with work as with domestic stuff – finding a house, buying a car, passing my California driving test, getting phone and internet arranged, and about a million other things, including arranging medical insurance, and then getting vaccinations for my kids so they can go to school here. Of course, you can’t just sign up, you have to choose from about sixteen different confusing options. Do you want an HMO or a PPO ? Is it better to pick a plan with a large deductible and small co-pay, or the other way round ? Do you want that on rye, wheat, or sourdough ? Extra cheese ? I DON”T CARE JUST GIVE ME A SANDWICH !!! Brits find this aspect of US culture very stressful. Give me the Nanny State any day.

I found a website that had customer reviews of the local medical facilities. But as usual, these were close to useless because they were bi-modal. Half of them gave four or five stars and said “these people were so much better than my last hospital ! I am so glad I changed ! They were professional and courteous.”. The other half gave no stars or one star and said “Do NOT use this hospital ! They are rude and overpriced !”. Of course, there is an obvious selection effect here. If you feel the correct statement is “well, they were pretty much run of the mill” then you don’t go to the bother of typing up your comments. But its more than that. Somehow the sight of those empty boxes waiting for your thoughts brings on the red mist. Its even worse than email. On the web people are just so aggressive.

The great unwashed were certainly kinda rude about the whole Pluto thing, as I noted in this post from July last year. And many of you will recall that there was a rather sticky episode on this blog when some posts went rather beyond rude and I had to issue a disclaimer.

It seems that neuroscientists too get rude on the web. Today I got my free copy of Nature, having published in it last week. (And of course my half price subscription offer .. but I don’t think I will take that up.. sorry Phil). A short printed article referred to this discussion by the Nature neuroscience blog editor Noah Gray, following an outburst of mudslinging. The worry is that web based technologies for science won’t work if they become dominated by exclusive, agressive types. The article suggests that anonymity of comments is a bad idea, and that the intolerance of online communities will put off others contributing, and will discourage online scientific collaboration.

This blog has not been about fostering scientific collaboration, but about comment on science politics. (That isn’t how it started, but its how it ended up.) Its pretty clear that the anonymous comments are much more aggressive than the non-anonymous ones. Is this good or is this bad ?

Over to you.

31 Responses to Bad Manners

  1. David says:

    What’s it to you, dickwad?

  2. David says:

    More seriously, now.

    You are right in that anonymity does seem to grant people the courage to play the man rather than the ball more than perhaps they would otherwise, and this can discourage more measured contribution to web fora. However, every community has its norms and etiquette, and to a greater or lesser degree someone not playing by those rules will be sidelined.

    I would imagine that the webspaces which end up having the most useful discussions will be moderated to filter out the ad hominem elements, yet will not try to proscribe people’s reasoned arguments.

  3. Tony says:

    If available, I usually mandate that people have to be logged in to whatever system before they can post comments – I agree that people are less inclined to be rude if they can be identified with their comments. It doesn’t stop people who deliberately try to provoke with their comments but you can at least filter them out.

    But that would limit your respondents to those with WordPress accounts. In the end it is your own choice – you’ve been pretty lucky with reasonable visitors.

  4. onlooker says:

    In the US, people do not need anonymity, they can be quite openly aggressive.

    A fine example is in the upcoming “The Great Planet Debate conference. (This is an American effort to ignore the international community and reclaim the American-discovered Pluto as a planet.)

    The abstract by the chair of the IAU committee which produced the recommendation which was voted down (and who showed his respect for the IAU by leaving before the vote was taken) contains the comment that the resolution that was finally adopted was “hasty and clumsily worded”.

  5. andyxl says:

    (a) what IS a dickwad ?? lots of dicks rammed down a musket ??

    (b) I am loathe to filter comments, because in principle I strongly prefer the open debate. Its just that I simultaneously hope that people will be constructive.

    (c) I am also loathe to filter comments for legal reasons. If I filter comments, I am effectively publishing them, in which case I am responsible for published content, like a newspaper. But if comments are unfiltered, the authors of the comments remain responsible for their own statements.

    (d) As well as allowing community members to vent their spleen during the STFC brouhaha, anonymity has also allowed STFC officials to respond and defend .. and I don’t just mean the Watcher. Was that useful ?

  6. Omar says:

    I think this T-shirt sums up the recent discussion:

  7. Watcher says:

    As you know, I started posting comments to this site in order to add some information to the discussion on STFC. As you also know, I stopped commenting for exactly the reasons that Noah refers to. The problem you face is that far more people read your blog than leave comments on it. If moderate commentators are driven away by the more extreme then the bulk of your readers get a distorted picture. I don’t advocate censorship or editing but if you were moderating a meeting in real life you would occasionally ask people to calm down or stop yelling.

  8. Kav says:

    A blog I frequent had a particularly nasty troll for a while. Instead of the blog-owner having to worry about banning them, or moderating comments one of the regulars made a greasemonkey script so that Firefox users could effectively ‘edit’ the troll out of the blog when they read it. The troll eventually went away.

    Took the onus off the blog owner and for a while all we heard from the troll was ‘I like cake’.

    Juvenile? Perhaps, but effective.

  9. Beentheredonethat says:

    Choices, choices… at least it helps if you understand what the options are… While shopping shortly after starting my stint in the US, I was asked by the person at the till, sorry, cash register, “Paper or Plastic”?

    I replied by stating that I was going to pay with cash, rather than with a credit card.

  10. andyxl says:

    Watcher – hopefully you agree the original posts are a little more balanced than some of the comments. Its fairly clear I guess that the most strident comments are from pseudonyms, so maybe all those other readers can easily calibrate. Nonetheless, as you say, sometimes perhaps the answer is to ask for a calming down. I have done this twice I think – not just the infamous “removed comments” episode, but another time, when indeed Kombat17 complained of being “yellow carded”, but accepted it.

  11. Michael Merrifield says:

    Apart from the tendency to indulge in the luxury of being unpleasant without the usual associated social opprobrium (as one sometimes encounters with referees), the real problem with anonymous contributors is that one has absolutely no way to judge the actual authority of their arrogantly “authoritative” pronouncements.

  12. “The great unwashed were certainly kinda rude about the whole Pluto thing…”

    Are you saying people started arguments with you about Pluto once you came to the US? If so, that must mean they’re reading your blog and know how you voted at the IAU General Assembly. Personally, I don’t remember being rude in last year’s debate, as I too have problems with the nature of some of the comments you quoted, most of which were anonymous. As you well know, I always post under my own name and never hide behind anonymity, at least on most blogs (with a few exceptions on some political sites).

    To Onlooker: The Great Planet Debate is NOT an American attempt to ignore the international community. These ad hominem attacks on supporters of Pluto’s planethood for no reason other than their being American is ridiculous. The IAU vote did not represent the “international community” or even the IAU itself, as only four percent of the membership took part. That means 96 percent had no say, and neither did the many planetary scientists who do not belong to the IAU. Among those who voted, most were not planetary scientists. It doesn’t matter where the scientists are from or what their nationality is; a process that excludes most of those whose expertise is in planetary science is highly problematic, as is a process that doensn’t allow electronic voting. Had electronic voting been utilized, there would be no issue of people leaving early (though for many with family and job obligations, staying for the full two weeks of a conference can be very difficult if not impossible).

    In contrast to the IAU General Assembly, the Great Planet Debate is open to all who wish to participate, and all views on planet definition will be heard. Why don’t you attend and see for yourself? The conference is also open to the public, and I plan to be there and am scheduled to give a five-minute presentation on why planet definition is important. This conference is about allowing more voices to be heard, as opposed to the closed process utilized by the IAU.

    And Andy, I agree with you about the superiority of the Nanny State. The state of health care in this country is abominable, with 47 million Americans having no coverage at all. The health insurance companies have no purpose but profit and should be abolished. The US is the only industrialized democracy in the world without universal health coverage for all its citizens. It’ s time for us to follow the UK’s example and enact single payer health care coverage for all.

  13. andyxl says:

    Laurel, howdy. I didn’t mean that proper Pluto campaigners were rude, only the anonymous petitioners. You’re not rude. Just a tad persistent. I’m not. I give in. You are completely right. No flaws in your argument at any point. If a bunch of people want to gather for a week, chat a lot in a jolly open manner, and then declare in a press release that Pluto is a planet as far as they are concerned, thats fine by me. My personal viewpoint is that the answer to the question “Is Pluto a Planet ?” is Mu.

  14. KOMbat17 says:

    I recall being yellow on numerous occasions, but not being yellow carded. My sincere apologies. I must have been dozing.

  15. Andy, thank you for your response. I was born persistent; it’s not just about Pluto. That’s the way I am about everything. It comes in handy in my life as a political activist, as New Jersey is the most corrupt state in the US, and a great deal of persistence is needed in fighting the entrenched political machines.

    This conference may produce more than a press release. There is talk of formation of a new professional astronomical society, one that would presumably act as a rival to the IAU. A “Great Schism” might be coming to the field of astronomy.

  16. Martin E. says:

    leaving Pluto aside for a moment… I was trying to improve the Wikipedia entry “Quasar”, and managed to add quite a bit. I was quite amazed to find that within days there had been a whole host (well 4 or 5) edits, some malicious (“Redshifts? Redshits is more like it”), some ill-informed. But within a couple of weeks it had stabilized mroe or less where I left it. So I was quite happy with the process. But just now I read the ‘discussion’ section which went on-and-on about non-cosmological redshifts and the biased minds of professional astronomers – getting pretty mean at times – despite the intervention of 2 or 3 real experts. Read it and weep, In fact Sebastian Jester, after a long attempt to get some sense into the discussion, posted a section on how the whole Wikipedia idea was a failure. It isn’t though. How much is this due to the filtering by the Wikipedia elite? How much to the wisdom of crowds?

    ps I love Mu. Must use it.

  17. Paul Crowther says:

    I’m in the midst of acting as a consultant for a kids Solar System book, motivated no doubt by the Pluto “demotion”. Still, had the Pluto issue not been addressed by the IAU, someone would have been faced with annual updates for all such books to the number of planets in the Solar System – we’re already up to four dwarf planets, thanks to the addition of Makemake
    last month (pronounced MAH-keh MAH-keh, better than its previous unofficial title of Easterbunny).

  18. David says:

    Paul, are you saying that STFC have been doing the right thing in grinding down the science in their bailywick to a minimum? You know, no science means science books never go out of date….

  19. Paul Crowther says:

    Quite the reverse – STFC’s focus is certainly very much on space exploration. Indeed they’re planning to invest the best part of 100 million to throw darts at the Moon, and that’s not even a dwarf planet.

  20. David says:

    Well as a pro tem loyal employee of STFC I shall practise by throwing darts at pictures of the STFC senior ma-… nahh, that’s a cheap shot.

  21. andyxl says:

    Pro Tem ? Surely STFC is your Life’s Calling, just as PPARC was before then, and SERC before that, and SRC before that, and ah, there seems to be a pattern here. Hermann Bruck used to report direct to the Scottish Office. When the Government, the City, and the University did a deal on ROE in 1894, the owner of the site was the Commissioner for Public Works.

  22. David says:

    Nope. I have quit and am working out my notice period. A significant part of the reason for this is the behaviour of the STFC chief executive – I do not want to work for an organisation led by someone who is prepared to lie and spin to his employees, to parliament and to the world in the way that he has.

  23. andyxl says:

    David – a bit personal. Keith can’t really defend himself in this arena.

  24. Michael Merrifield says:

    Maybe personal, but I am not sure that Keith being unable to defend himself here is really the pertinent issue, Andy: irrespective of whether there is any truth to the allegations, it is rather disturbing that STFC employees should have this perception of their boss.

    Of course, it is in the anecdotal nature of this kind of forum that one has no way of knowing whether David is simply a disaffected individual, or whether the view is widely held amongst STFC employees who have better things to do with their time than posting here, or who are unwilling to put their heads above the parapet even anonymously.

    If the latter, STFC really is corporately very ill.

  25. David says:

    I looked up “disaffected” just to be sure, and by the dictionary (disaffect, v. to cause to lose loyalty or affection) I am disaffected. I have lost loyalty. I am not sure I ever had much affection for STFC (or indeed PPARC before that) to lose, but I’m not really an affection-for-my-employer kind of guy.

    I frequently hear views similar to mine expressed at the water cooler and in the pub, but I also know that people are not speaking up. The recent staff consultation exercise required people to log in. STFC stressed several times that the responses would be anonymised (not sure that one is in the dictionary…), but despite this I know that many people did not feel happy filling in the form. Of the people I have talked to where this came up, the most common reason cited was for not filling in the form was the anonymity issue.

    I do think that STFC is sick inside. Perhaps not in the whole corporate body, but certainly in some significant organs. I fear that the high heid yins don’t see it, indeed are not told it by enough people. Until they get this message, the prognosis for the (dis)affected areas is poor indeed.

    ps: Andy, apologies for getting a bit carried away – frustration boils over sometimes.

  26. Paul Crowther says:


    Until a more contemporary internal view of senior management by STFC staff becomes publicly available, all that the wider world has to go on is a `Investors in People: Retaining Recognition Report’ from December 2007. It was only ever published internally, but for a taster some of the more damning (unattributed) quotes were noted in a March 2008 Education Guardian article.

    I have had a copy since early February, but decided against making it generally available. The report includes two pages of quotes highly critical of senior staff, in addition to a page of quotes highly complementary of line-managers. Of course, the morale of STFC staff may have improved over the course of 2008, following the management restructure, but David’s comments suggest otherwise.

  27. Kav says:

    Has STFC retained its IIP recognition?

    I see no sign of it on the website and I think the deadline for them to demonstrate improvement from the last report has long passed. It’s hard to find lists of companies that have IIP recognition but there is a list of case studies here; NERC is lsited but I am not sure this is a comprehensive list anyway.

    Anyone know?

  28. Kav says:

    Hmm, seems I can answer my own question.

    Found a list of the IIP recognised organisations on the South West Qualitysite. Last updated 6 August 2008.

    No sign of STFC, or EPSRC in fact, but NERC is on there.

    Would STFC and EPSRC be under a different area for some reason?

  29. Richard Wade says:

    The quotes from staff were part of the evidence that led to a report with a number of specific areas where improvemnt would be required for STFC to retain its IIP status. There is an action plan in place and STCF are committed to acting on this plan to ensure that we retain IIP recognition when we are re-assessed at the end of this year.

  30. andyxl says:

    Richard – welcome, and many thanks for that clarification.

  31. KOMbat17 says:

    That would be a “no”, then?

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