Why I moderate comments lightly

One aspect of the civility issue, which I said quite a bit about last week, is the issue of how to moderate comments. A lot of people have had things to say about this, generally on the side of moderating comments more (even PZ’s in on that). I had previously ignored this facet of the debate, and now I want to address it.

First of all, let me say that having a blog doesn’t create any kind of obligation for you to publish other people’s comments at all. Some bloggers, like Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan (the latter being the guy who first got me interested in blogging) don’t allow comments, and I think there’s nothing wrong with that.

And if that’s OK, it’s hard to see what could be wrong with publishing only comments that follow some strict rules. The people who cry “free speech” here are confusing government and private action (see Russell Blackford and Daniel Fincke for more on that).

What comment policy is appropriate for a blog also depends heavily in the purpose of the blog. For example, at a previous discussion of civility at this blog, Kylie Sturgess wrote:

I like to think ahead of time of who my audience is, who they should be – and aim to have that as my goal. Maybe that’s preaching to the choir…

…but seriously, within the last 48 hours, I have posted: a montage of gymnastic achievements over time, a concert of songs by a wonderfully geeky performer, a documentary on UK creationism and urged people to vote for some great Australian scientists to go to TED… so, if people want debates, they really should look elsewhere!

I see nothing wrong with Kylie’s approach.

On the other hand, I think it’s equally confused to complain about what comments a blogger allows. Let me give an example: One of my main targets on this blog is William Lane Craig. A man who, habitually misrepresents his opponents’ views and defends genocide.

You might think it would be better to ignore someone so odious, but unfortunately I think that would be a mistake. Craig has legions of fans in the evangelical community. He’s also fine-tuned his sales pitch for evangelical Christianity to appeal to even relatively smart and well-educated people, to the point even many atheists think he deserves respectful treatment.

Craig needs to be exposed. And when I blog about him, I welcome anyone to post comments disagreeing with me. For example, I don’t know that any commenter has actually posted a defense of Craig’s views on the Old Testament genocides here, but if someone did I’d allow it.

Why? There are a number of reasons. I’ve been told you should write on the assumption that the person reading what you write will be ignorant, stupid, and mean (in part because of the illusion of transparency), so it isn’t such a bad thing to have people who are those things attacking one of my posts.

But more importantly, I want people to see that I can give the other side a chance to freely make their arguments, and they will still lose. I feel that if I dish it out, and let people post comments supporting me, I’d better be able to take it–and show through my arguments that I’m right and my critics are wrong. This applies to many issues beyond just Craig’s defense of genocide. It would, for example, apply to someone repeating Craig’s misrepresentations of atheists’ views and arguments.

So I think it’s badly confused when Sam Harris claims PZ Myers is “responsible for publishing” unfair attacks on Harris, and that “I hold him responsible for circulating and amplifying some of the worst distortions of my views found on the Internet.” If someone ever posted a defense of Craig’s odious views here, it would make just as much sense to say that I’m “responsible for publishing a defense of genocide,” which would totally misunderstand my reasons for allowing such comments.

I do place a few restrictions on commenters, but I keep it minimal because I think many popular policies would mean a de facto ban on disagreements. For example, it’s tempting to ban “misrepresenting other people’s views” or “require commenters to be fair to other people” or somesuch.

Sounds sensible enough, right? The problem is that meta-disagreements, including disagreements over what someone meant, are an unavoidable part of arguing on the internet. Insisting people not get such things wrong would, in practice, mean banning a lot of people for disagreeing with me. I don’t want to do that.

As for banning words like “asshole” and “jerk,” as Daniel does, I’m sorry: given that I’ve explicitly decided to let people say reprehensible things here, I’m not going to stop other people from responding with “you’re an asshole.” Nope, not gonna do it. I may even say things like that myself!

Most of the time (emphasis on most), I don’t think my comment section is such a scary place. But if the result of this policy is that my comments aren’t for everybody, I’m okay with that. The number of blog comment threads read is a fraction of the blog posts I read. People also have the option of skimming comments, and skipping ones that look likely to be obnoxious or just a waste of time. And they have one other option…

A PSA on killfiles

If you’ve found a particular commenter to be frequently obnoxious or just a waste of your time, you have the option of using killfiles. Heck, you can use killfiles for any reason or no reason at all; I won’t hold it against you.

I previously posted a discussion of killfiles here. To the best of my knowledge, the following should work for Firefox:

  1. Install the Greasemonkey user script extension.
  2. Restart Firefox
  3. Install the killfile script by clicking on the large black Install this script button at the top of the page.

Now, when you load a page on ScienceBlogs (and any of several other blogs) each post will have two new bits of hot text in the Posted by: line: [kill], which hides all comments by this poster in every thread; and [hide comment], which hides only the single comment.

In place of a hidden comment, a one-line notice appears saying “Comment by User Foo blocked [unkill] [show comment]”. Clicking on [unkill] reveals all of the posts by that user; clicking on [show comment] reveals just the single comment.

For Chrome users–again if I understand correctly–do the exact same thing, but replace “Greasemonkey” with “Tampermonkey.”

That is all.

ETA: The killfile script appears not to be working for everyone. To those more technically knowledgeable than I, I would be grateful if you could help other commenters out in the comment section of this post.

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