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So it’s that time of the month where I am having to talk about commenting again. We have got to a situation where Bert is getting a little bit frustrated (and that is probably understating it a good deal), and I am even receiving a couple of unsolicited messages about it from randoms. Although I can take the latter with a pinch of salt knowing broadly where they have come from. The comment threads here are active. And that is great. But they could be more productive and civil.

I would like polite and civil discourse. But I would also like high-level discourse. And this is where the tension arises. We have two problems:

1) That which is said in the first place.

2) That which is said in reply.

Imagine the situation whereby a theist or right-winger says something and then they are attacked by a number of commenters who have antithetically worldviews or positions. What is the problem with what these people often say? It can be one of the following that inspires ire and frustration:

  • Something that seasoned skeptics (who have been doing this for 5, 10, 15 years) feel is a really naive claim that even the most rudimentary of Google searches will show has been thoroughly debunked already. This might concern God and theology, or politics, science and basic knowledge about the world, including Covid.
  • Building on this first one is the refusal to accept or entertain or even read clear debunkings or reasoned arguments against the positions held in (1). This will also include invocations of Danth’s Law and the Dunning Krueger effect.
  • Something that is politically egregious, which can range from unfaltering support of Donald Trump without the slightest hint of empathy, or something even to the right of that, either bordering on or being xenophobic or racist.

Most other positions don’t rile people up like these three. They cover the bases.

Theists generally get annoyed with people like me for stating the following:

1) Reality

Of course, there is an absolute ton of psychology involved here, not least Terror Management Theory. When skeptics offer really good arguments against, say, Young Earth creationism or any other area of theism, we are not just attacking or threatening that individual idea, we are threatening their eternal life in heaven. Proving their position wrong on the age of the Earth is to disabuse them of the “reality” of living eternally in paradise.

And this, unsurprisingly, causes a huge amount of kickback, or for the person to bury their heads in further into the sands of irrationality.

So, what am I asking? Please please simply deal with the ideas and do no attack the person. I am as guilty as the next person in this regard. Fellow skeptics – we should be convincing people to our frame of mind. If they are not ready, attacking their personality forcefully and without civility will not work in our favour.

There should be two courses of action:

  1. Robust and well-formed and evidenced argument.
  2. Ignore them.

If people are exhibiting trollish behaviour, think about what they are seeking – attention. Don’t give it to them.

On the other hand, if you are a theist who believes in some pretty improbable and dubious things, you’ve got to do better. You have to bring to the table a high level of good quality evidence and argumentation to be taken seriously. Think, “How could my claims be wrong?” and then see if they are.

I have been asked to ban people simply because they are wrong, or simply because we disagree with them. I can’t do that. But I do also get the frustrations. If I banned everyone I am asked to, this would be an echo chamber. Perhaps there would be a higher level of conversation and discussion. I get that. It’s difficult. I may institute temporary bans more than permanent ones, if anything.

Anyway, over the next few months, I will be developing a new comments policy. I am going to think long and hard about how best to approach this. As with every moral scenario, it is all about the goal. What do I want? What do I want my gaff to be? What do I expect of my commenters and why?

In the meantime, let’s ALL think about the way we interact, who we are appealing to, who we think our audience is, and why we say what we say in the way we say it.

As the old Chinese proverb goes, if there is a solution, there’s no point getting angry; if there is no solution, there is no point getting angry.

Easier said than done, right? But still…

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...