A Policy Question: Comments

By Sean Carroll | December 10, 2006 4:46 pm

As most of you know, we pride ourselves here on being a top-down blog. We’re not one of those touchy-feely people-powered sites that are all “What would you like me to post about?” and “Whatever can we do to serve you?” Our attitude is, we know what’s best for you, and we’re taking time from our busy schedules to provide it, and you’ll like it or learn to. At Cosmic Variance, that’s just how we roll.

There is, however, an obvious exception to the rule: the comment sections. (Or should that be “are, however, obvious exceptions”? Grammar is not how we roll.) That’s where the people, our beloved readers, can let their voices be heard. A Habermasian zone of free communication, where all are welcome to participate in reasoned and passionate dialogue concerning the nature of the universe and our place within it. Okay, I’ll stop there.

So the question is: how can the comment sections be better? To decode this for our more innocent readers: how can we increase the signal-to-noise ratio? Increasing the signal is one obvious way, but that’s hard. The real question that I’ve been wondering about (haven’t consulted my co-bloggers on this) is: should we take more dramatic steps to decrease the noise? In particular, should we have a much heavier hand in discouraging, deleting, or even banning people who are rude, disruptive, off-topic, or just plain crackpotty? And in most specific particular: if we did so, are there folks out there who would judge the comment sections to be more useful, and might even be more likely to join in themselves?

Personally, I rarely read the comment sections on other blogs, even my absolute favorites. But I enjoy our comment threads here, and we certainly have some insightful and articulate commenters. Sadly, there are also the crackpots. To be absolutely clear, I am not referring to folks who are not experts in science or whatever else we happen to be talking about, but would sincerely like to join in the conversation, add an outsider’s perspective or ask a question or two. We like those comments, in fact those are our absolute favorites! Indeed, those are the ones that I most worry are being squeezed out by the noise. Likewise, we’re very happy to see comments that represent strong but principled disagreement with what we are saying. (We’ve been accused, unsurprisingly, of taking delight in stifing dissent, but the briefest glance at any of our controversial threads makes that a difficult position to support.)

The crackpots to whom I refer are those who know little or nothing about the subject but are convinced that they do, and are likewise convinced that the world needs to know about their theories, yet have absolutely no interest in listening to what others have to say. You know of whom I speak: the guy who has read the first chapter of The Elegant Universe and come away convinced that he knows more about how spacetime really works than these groupthinking string theorists, or the gal who constructed a model from ordinary household appliances that predicts the masses of all the particles in the Standard Model. (Neither of these examples refers to actual people, at least not to my knowledge; but I wouldn’t be surprised.)

So, do people prefer to let a thousand flowers bloom, even if some are indistinguishable from weeds, or should we play a more active role in deleting the nonsense? We’ve always been willing to delete/ban people who are repeatedly obnoxious, but it’s never fun to do so. We recognize that the free-speech zone that everyone is in favor of is not each individual blog, but rather the blogosphere as a whole. If anyone wants to push their own crazy theories about the birth of the universe, they should feel free to start a free blog and explain away to their heart’s content; we’re very happy to accept trackbacks to nearly any blog.

But individual blog comment sections aren’t public squares; they are more analogous to private living rooms. The preeminent statement of this philosophy was offered by Eugene Volokh, when he explains that comment threads are like cocktail parties to which the blog owners have invited you. It’s not supposed to be a free-for-all fracas in which rudeness and craziness must stoically be tolerated; it’s supposed to be an interesting mix of viewpoints from a wide variety of backgrounds, but one that comes together in mutual respect to create a stimulating dialogue.

And yet… and yet we almost always err on the side of letting people ramble on, at least until they become so impolite and/or disruptive that we have little choice. So what do you think? Would this blog be a better place if the Heavy Hand of the State slapped down some of the noisier contributors, or is the chaos part of the charm? (Responses from people who don’t usually comment are especially welcome.)

  • Charon

    This is the only blog I usually read comments on. It would be nice to keep/get the S/N high enough for that to continue, so I tend to favor policing. It would be nice if an informal “what we don’t accept” policy was put forward, so people couldn’t claim to be surprised. (I wouldn’t expect it to be detailed, and would expect it to give latitude to the blog owners. You’ve provided a start of one in this post.)

  • invcit

    Maybe it would be helpful to have a little reminder somewhere close to where people type in the comments, where you state what kinds of comments you hope for (without being discouraging). Or a separate document, like many newsgroups have FAQs. It’s for example not always clear to which extent the bloggers want people to stay on topic or not. Conversations naturally evolve and one thing reminds someone about something else which reminds someone of yet another thing and so on, which in my opinion can be quite interesting and is very different from, say, someone suddenly jumping into a lecture of his or her favourite pet theory. Unfortunately, I think the problem is partly that the kinds of people who have these crack-potty theories tend to also not be so good at gauging the social signals that should tell them that others do not have much interest in what they are saying.

  • Matt B.

    Have you considered some form of moderation system?

    Also, I think threading would help to eliminate some of the noise that comes from viewing multiple conversations in a flat format.

  • http://www.leekottner.com Lee Kottner

    Rude flaming is one thing, crackpottery (cracked pottery?) another, it seems to me. Most of the time, it’s not hard to see how cracked the pots are, even if you’re a lay reader, like me. It’s my choice to ignore them or be amused by them. But I wouldn’t spend any time on them as a moderator, and I think it’s best to ignore them when they do comment. Rudeness in civilized exchanges doesn’t have a place anywhere though, and I’m all for booting off the inappropriate. They’ll never learn any manners anywhere otherwise. I also think a clearly stated policy is a good idea. The thing with policing is that once it starts, the line gets more and more blurry and then it’s eating your life, just moderating the comments.

  • loonunit

    I agree that you need to distinguish between crackpottery and rudeness here. Crackpottery certainly CAN be rude… but I do like being able to point to fresh examples of physics crazy in recent CV threads. It makes for a wonderful coffee-break discussion, at least on a once-every-other-month dosage regimen. Though I understand that more prevalent craziness does get to be tiresome. Maybe you could have a single-thread crackpottery policy? Each armchair physicist gets to air their special Theory of Laundry Lint in full once and only once… after that, they have to leave room for “mainstream” discussions and other crackpots. Or risk manual deletion, or even IP address banning.

    (But that allows for the possibility that at least a few of the crazies might be genuine geniuses with giant chips on their shoulders and home-made parabolic radio antennae in their mothers’ backyards.)

    But rude, tricky. What happens if you’re talking about women in science, and some well-known theoretical physicist stops by to assert that all female scientists inevitably obtain their jobs by quota, not merit? Not that I have anyone in particular in mind…

  • Elliot

    While I agree with the goal of reducing the noise, I think you are setting yourself up for a lot of work if you begin moderating the comments section. Every instance becomes a judgement call. For example (and I will use real examples here) do you allow Peter Woit to post here? How about Lubos Motl? What if Lubos confines his comments to scientific areas where he presumably has some expertise? Are you going to censure someone for articulating the view that abortion is a sin? What if they are extremely polite about it?

    I think you might want to rethink this issue by dividing posts into two catagories:

    1) Physics and Cosmology, where the four of you possess some clear expertise and justification in focusing the discussion.

    2) Everything else..Politics, Culture etc. where you fall into the classification of intelligent lay people.

    I can see adding some “structure” to the first catagory. Limiting crackpot speculation etc.. but for the second I think you need to realize that you have stepped off the podium and are mingling among the masses.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Rude is not tricky; rudeness gets deleted, simple as that. Consistent rudeness gets banned.

    But if people are more amused than turned off by the crackpottery, that’s interesting to know. Once-per-thread etc. rules are unworkable, as per the “eating your life” concern to which Lee refers. No way we’re going to spend too much time doing this; I just want to have a consistent policy and enforce it without hesitation or effort.

  • http://samthornton.blogspot.com/ Sam Thornton

    Usually a lurker, but I feel your pain, especially when you note:

    “The crackpots to whom I refer are those who know little or nothing about the subject but are convinced that they do…”

    You’re familiar, I’m sure with the 1999 APA paper regarding competence and the effects of the lack thereof (“Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”).

    To refresh your memory see, http://www.apa.org/journals/features/psp7761121.pdf

    My own inclination: be fair, be ruthless, take no prisoners.

    Best wishes.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Elliot, please don’t use real examples, as that’s not the point. And those are all easy questions. Not being a fan of string theory (or inflation, or dark energy, or whatever) doesn’t make someone a crackpot, so there’s no issue there. And being excessively rude is not permitted, no matter how much of an expert you may be.

    And there isn’t any expert/masses dichotomy. I can be wrong about cosmology, just as I can be right about cooking or politics. It’s the argument that matters, not who is making it.

  • Douglas

    I second the earlier comment about suggesting worthwhile discussion topics in the comments. In an ideal world, we could have a Cosmic Variance that sprouts into its own Slashdot derivative, with a forum system that allows readers to begin their own sub-threads. But that would be a lot of work as you mentioned.

    Maybe you could provide an attached forum. When you see the comments are going in one particular way (say, very esoteric science that I, a reasonably well-educated student can’t understand a word of it), you can create a thread in said forum and provide a link to that thread. Then individuals who stand to gain/contribute to that off-topic have a place to do it that doesn’t alienate your other readers. That, I think would be the most bang for your buck, as you could create those forum topics ad hoc whenever necessary (and it’s pretty easy to do, too!) and accommodate weirdos and prophets alike.

  • Mike Molloy

    I enjoy the comments sections very much. I rarely read or even try to read the whole comments thread (unless it’s just a few posts), but instead will try to find the one or two main discussion threads and follow them–it seems to me that usually there’s just one or two such threads. Since those posters usually mention each other (and often post number) by name, I find it is pretty easy to find and ignore the people that are just being disruptive or are digressing.

    So I don’t personally find the current system to be that painful.

    It’s possible the effect of the disruptive stuff is worse than it seems. As Sean mentioned in the post, it is possible that some valuable voices are discouraged by the noise from posting. If there’s some way to know that this is the case, then yeah, anything that encourages more of the on-topic, non-crakpot contributions would be great.

    (I rarely post myself, though that has nothing to do with anybody being disruptive.)

  • Matt

    I’m a recent CV convert, rarely post, but this is absolutely my favorite “serious” blog. To be honest with you, as a non-scientist (or “near-scientist” – I was within reach of a Physics major before I switched to literature), I really enjoy the challenge of trying to sort out the signal from the noise myself. It’s almost like a proving ground for the real world (e.g., reading the vast bulk of mainstream science journalism as they cover people who claim to have invented free energy by “harnessing the power of magnets” and such).

    Anyway, most of the time, I can tell who the cranks are on my own – the times when I can’t, it quickly becomes obvious by way the rest of you respond or don’t respond. And frankly, I think that’s a much better kind of censorship. As well as censure, of a kind – if you were a crank, which would be more legitimizing- being banned, or being ignored?

  • loonunit

    Rude is not tricky; rude gets deleted, simple as that.

    It’s tricky in the sense of, who determines whether or not someone is being rude? “Common sense” usually — but what if someone follows the example I gave? They could argue that they are not being rude, merely stating the truth as they (and many others) perceive it. And if it’s a women in science discussion, I actually think it’s unwise to shut them down with anything other than verbal retorts and (ideally) better evidence to the contrary.

    re: crackpottery, I don’t mean once per thread — I mean once, period. I suppose it’s only fair to let someone blather on at length long enough to determine that, yes, they are in fact a crackpot. But, golly, I don’t know what’s an effective way of telling them to knock it off after that… amusing as they are (and sometimes it’s a worthwhile exercise just trying to untangle their arguments), they don’t in my experience take kindly to being told they’ve had their say, please shut up.

    I do like threaded discussions. Though you lose some of the value of having everyone talk to everyone.

  • http://infralever.blogspot.com/ Peter Fred

    Sean just wrote

    Not being a fan of string theory (or inflation, or dark energy, or whatever) doesn’t make someone a crackpot, so there’s no issue there.

    I hope you really mean this. I know I have point of view that runs counter to the beliefs of most physicists and cosmologist. I appreciate your willingness, so far, to let me express my take of what I think is wrong with the gravity theories of Newton and Einstein. It has taken me years to come to this stance and if you continue to let me express this different point of view of mine, I feel a useful contribution can be made on both our parts.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/ PZ Myers

    I must disagree: rude is tricky. Sometimes rudeness is a byproduct of passion, and I absolutely do not want to squash that.

    I’m struggling with where that line between the bad post and the passionate post should be drawn right now…if you get it figured out, let me know.

  • http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com Jennifer Ouellette

    I’ll echo several of the previous commenters: I’m another person who rarely reads blog comments, and yet regularly checks in with CV’s comments on posts, because it’s invariably an interesting discussion. The fact that recent comments to posts are listed in the sidebar makes for great ease of navigation, too.

    Personally, I think CV does a great job in this respect, although I can’t speak for those who mght be discouraged from commenting by an “unacceptable” signal to noise ratio. I don’t find the ratio unacceptable, and like Matt, even as a layperson, I can generally sift out the crackpottery on my own.

    In general, I’d err on the side of less heavy-handed moderation. You don’t want to stifle the natural conversational “flow,” plus, it’s a hell of a lot of work. Which brings me to my ground-breaking new insights into the space-time continuum (I read ALL of “The Elegant Universe”… almost)….

  • Moshe

    My two cents: I find that I can only merge into a conversation when I discover it early enough. After a few days the comment thread tends to be taken over by small subset of commenters, with their specific and repetetive concerns. I am then reluctant to comment, assuming it will just not be noticed by anyone I’d like to converse with. In the few times I did, that assumption proved valid.

    In other words I think that while rudeness is usually not much of a problem here, maybe more pruning would be useful for me personally. On the other hand it does sound like work…

  • Douglas

    On the topic of off-topic topics….

    Has anyone ever contemplated the philosophical connection between the idea of a “universe on a brane” and Plato’s Cave?

  • apthorp

    Smack’em down. Whoever ’em are. Use whatever rules you like, or none. Whatever strikes your fancy. Management of comments is as much a part of the editorial content of a site as the articles, and can be as informative (of the attitudes of the proprietors). For my taste loads of “me too’s” or “Microsoft sucks” (Not to pick on /.) make a pretty thin broth. Perhaps a less linear form where repetitions of the same idea became progressively smaller fonts? Perhaps just a concordance graph? Ideally, someone would boil the content into a summary of what was said and put that up top after a few days. But than that would be another article and require more comments.

    Since the idea of a cocktail party sounds better than a soup kitchen, if populated with interesting people, keep what you like and smack the rest.

  • Logizmo

    Perhaps, simply asking those that comment to indicate a level of area expertise, then adding some kind of icon before their user name would help. That way, those who are only looking to read the comments of individuals with degrees in physics or cosmology could more easily sort what is “signal,” from what is “noise.” This would allow the comments of others (no matter how crackpot), to be sorted through without being removed from the general comment area.
    Obviously, there are well educated lay individuals that also contribute greatly to this blog, and to disregard their thoughts would not be the purpose of the icons.
    Given enough variety, each commenter could adequately describe their position in the discussion (i.e. Ph.D. in Physics, to Physics Enthusiast, to Questioner).
    This might also help others to respond to their comments in an appropriate manner. If an individual with a Ph.D. realizes that someone who has no physics background is asking a question, they would likely respond in terms that the person could understand better.
    Just a thought :)

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit


    I’ve certainly never felt that my comments were unwelcome here, and have commented when I’ve thought I had something to contribute. I can’t remember if there ever was a comment of mine that was deleted, if so it most likely it was part of some exchange with Lubos involving far too much rudeness.


    I’ve struggled with the problem you’re describing here, and have ended up adopting a more heavy-handed approach than what you are doing. In my case the choice is a bit easier, since the goal of communicating with the general public about science is not as important a one to me as it is to you. But I think you should take Moshe’s comment seriously. I fear that far too many knowledgeable people like him are discouraged from contributing comments here (and also at my blog…) because the noise level is too high. If most comments are nonsensical or ill-informed, a sensible, well-informed person is not likely to take the time to try and participate.

    The analogy with a cocktail party is a good one. If the conversation becomes dominated by loud people who don’t have anything of interest to say, people with good sense move on to another group. I’ve found the most common problems are exactly the same as in a social gathering: boorish people who want to turn every conversation to themselves and their pet concerns, and clueless people who have no idea what a conversation is about, but feel it necessary to join in anyway.

  • apthorp

    To PZM’s point above: People with strong viewpoints in the midst of a discussion are often rude by the standards of water cooler chit chat. A blunt “No”, even a “No, your wrong”. even a “what the *&^* *^%#!%^ would think that” followed by a “because” pertinent to the topic can be distinguished from the pure ad hominem. A polite ad hominem is even more offensive and reprehensible in my view, but for reasons that are purely ad hominem, so they must be treated in the same way. It may be that this opens up all sorts of fallacies as fair targets. Fallacies are part of the game however, which generally ends when some one is reduced to insult.

    Another sort of rude/passionate distinction may be the subjective report. “That article turned my life around” and “That really upset me”. Allowing life stories is an editorial decision, but distinguishing between that part of a post and the argument part seems possible.

  • http://theeternaluniverse.blogspot.com/ Joseph Smidt

    I am like Charon: “This is the only blog I usually read comments on.” The comments on this blog are great! If it were up to me I would allow a light amount of crackpottery just because sometimes it can be hilarious and sometimes I learn allot seeing people point out their errors.

    However, I believe any crackpot argument that doesn’t go away after a couple posts should be put to an end so that readers don’t feel the comments are leading nowhere productive. I think crackpots should be allowed to make a post, but when they try to take over the comments section with their ideas they should be stopped.

    I do not think flaming or being rude should be tolerated.

    Thanks again to everyone who comments. I read the comments on this blog because I really learn a lot. :)

  • RBH

    Sean wrote

    I just want to have a consistent policy and enforce it without hesitation or effort.

    Writing as a long-time moderator and now an Administrator of Internet Infidels Discussion Board, I can say with confidence that there ain’t no such animal. PZ (formerly a mod at Infidels) says it well:

    I must disagree: rude is tricky. Sometimes rudeness is a byproduct of passion, and I absolutely do not want to squash that.

    I’m struggling with where that line between the bad post and the passionate post should be drawn right now…if you get it figured out, let me know.

    It really does require time and effort, Sean. There’s no magic bullet or shortcut. Volokh’s cocktail party metaphor is a good one — I tell new mods at Infidels that they are in effect hosts for their forums. But there are also bouncers in the house: the Administrators.

  • http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com Jennifer Ouellette

    Moshe does have a valid point about especially long comment threads. Once the number of comments moves past 35 or so, I generally stop reading the thread because it’s just too overwhelming, and in general, by that stage, most of the salient points of the discussion have been made. Not sure what the solution is, however… I’m still not a fan of heavy-handed moderation.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Interesting, and I think I am learning something here. It seems as if non-experts are less bothered by crackpots than the professional scientists are; probably a matter of how much exposure one has to deal with. It’s like when a friend of yours has an irksome family member whose slightest comment can drive them completely crazy — to you it’s just a minor irritation, but they’re reacting to the accumulated effects of a thousand such annoyances.

    There’s no chance of setting up threaded comments, a moderation system, or an extra forum — that sounds like work. And I don’t really perceive any problem in dealing with rudeness — I know it when I see it, I delete it, and my judgment is infallible. I get PZ’s point about passion, but I think we can be passionate and polite at the same time; that’s why different blogs have different personalities, which is a feature rather than a bug.

    My real worry is that sensible commenters are turned off by the noise. Even if one doesn’t personally mind the nonsense, we all might be missing out on richer conversations by driving away some potentially good contributors. But from the comments so far, I’m not hearing a strong “get rid of them” vibe, so maybe no dramatic shift in policy is necessary.

  • Eugene

    I vote for a 1984-style smack-down on all crackpots!

  • Tim


    I’m a long time lurker and a scientist from another field, and I think the comments section is doing very well now. The crackpots every once in a while keep things interesting, and definitely don’t discourage me from reading. I wouldn’t worry about changing the policy unless it becomes a serious problem.

  • Asher

    It’s unfortunate that you can’t do threaded comments—I find that makes the signal easier to find.

    That’s the only change I’d make to the comments section. I find that by reading enough comments, I know who the crackpots are and can scroll right by them.

  • Hildaur

    I certainly would have no objection to rudeness getting deleted.

    Responses to crackpot ideas I have seen can be very instructive, and not just in the subject material under discussion; they help demonstrate good critical thinking. (They could also demonstrate how to say that someone has no idea what they are talking about without being rude…) Sadly, constructing these sorts of responses is hard work.

    One can also just ignore the crackpot posts. It’s certainly easier, and I doubt most readers will be fooled; see the earlier comment by Matt.

  • Tammy

    I am totally in support of filtering the noise. I don’t usually read the comments myself just because I have been put off by some of the agressive, violent comments made by readers on some sights. This behavior wouldn’t be accepted in most social situations, and I think a blog shouldn’t be any different. Please pretect your reasonable readers from the hateful ramblings of the few extereme characters.

  • tom fish

    Hey Sean. This might be a lot of work to set up, but you know what would be a neat system? Comments threads that were sort of self-policing, a-la Digg. The idea is readers would be able to flag comments they found particularly insightful or useful, and also comments they found to be disruptive in some way; of course, they could choose not to flag a comment at all. Real good/bad comments would have a lot of flags, and you guys (the CV proprieters) would get a real sense of what people found helpful or distracting.

  • AstroCook

    I think censoring crackpots is not the best idea, especially because your responses to them probably help laymen (i.e. me?) more clearly understand what is false. Honestly, it is much easier to remember what is wrong than what is right. I recall the reasons a crackpot is wrong, more than I recall the reasons a genius is right.

    I think it might be the entertainment value that does this. “Some dope said such-and-such on CV, and Sean totally set him straight.” It’s reality blogging.

  • Elliot

    As a non-expert, I have to say I am bothered by crackpots but have to believe some of it just goes with the territory. I think its a fine line. For example (No names this time) consider the difference in volume, tone, and content between the old (formerly usenet) newgroups sci.physics (unmoderated) and sci.physics.research (moderated)

    And Sean, if the post is regarding cooking you probably need to watch out for crockpots instead of crackpots 😉

  • Harold

    I jumped straight to the comments section without reading much of the others. Maybe I’m repeating someone here, but perhaps, like wikipedia, an additional comment next to the person who is being offensive/rude/crackpottery could have a stub next to it saying something like “this person is a crackpot,” or something. It’s quite blatant and might be taken personally, but it might be a way to discourage it. Anyway, I do tend to find the flowers from the weeds so I wouldn’t mind if nothing happened. I find it helpful though when Sean or the other authors pop in with their views on the comments so far, just to affirm that someone is being quite rude/crackpottery.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/12/universal-library.html Plato

    I have some comments that were “incubated” partly by this topic thread and can be linked on my name.

    Maybe the internet is like a library? Some “good books” as well as bad?

    I would just like to say to the commentor Doug on Plato’s cave, that the “holographical experience” had some how been created by Gerardus t’ Hooft brane(brain) thinking, so there are some good things about that cave and it’s shadows?

    Lest I forget Heisenberg’s foray there as well?

  • Analyzer

    Lest I forget Heisenberg’s foray there as well?

    Just so you know, you’re one of the crackpots.

  • rgb

    Comments on CV naturally fall into two categories: those on the subject of the blogpost itself, and those which are in reply to comments in the section.
    If commentators can agree to use a subject line (perhaps using a tag like name etc line) to indicate if the comment is directly related to the post, or the most recent comments (they are are numbered, and people often use this) they are replying to, it could improve readability. I am hoping that this could be a quick way to get around the threading issue. On the other hand, given the varied backgrounds of CV visitors, someone will know exactly what to do to get threading to work?

    Also, perhaps a broader layout on the comments page will make it easier to read. (I have no idea if that is a lot of work or trivial)

    Finally, my 2c about crackpot comments: I do hope that some people who come with crackpot ideas will see light, and actually learn the real science. But if the classic symptoms described in the post above prove to be persistent and incurable, I find the repetitions irritating. About rudeness (obviously as defined by blogspot owners …hosts? what is the correct term), I suppose there is nothing to add: rude statements are fit only for the trash.

  • Jordan

    Another lurker putting his two cents in-

    I’m a physics undergrad (so essentially a lay reader, I guess), and I sometimes worry that I won’t be able to differentiate between the nutcases and the physicists saying something very non-intuitive and exciting. It does help, though, that you are all very active in your own comments section and tend to respond to the posts that you find interesting.

    This might be another suggestion that would end up being too much work- but perhaps some sort of “crackpot” label you could assign to a post without deleting it? Alternatively, if that’s a bit too rude to your guests, a label you could assign to interesting posts by people who know what they are talking about, but might sound crazy to a layman?

  • Katey

    I’m a grad student, and have to say that reading the comments on “Women in Science” posts anger and frustrate me. I know that we can’t make the discussion one-sided, but there have definitely been times where reading what was said made me sick. It’s hard to believe you are fighting a winning fight when so many people so strongly assert that you will never win. It would definitely help my CV experience not to have to read the bigoted comments by the same people over and over in those posts.

  • http://named.wordpress.com niku

    Usually its obvious whether a comment is interesting / useful. The downside is that when there are many comments I never reach to the bottom of the page. A slashdot type moderation system could be useful.

  • greg

    I’m going to repeat what others have said. Threaded comments are the best thing at this point.

  • http://www.chrononaut.org/~dm/ David Moles

    There are a couple of WordPress plugins that let you mark troll comments with a duncecap, or similar: AntiTroll is one.

    Personally, I think you folks do an amazing job of dealing politely with the physics crackpots. I agree with Katey that other kinds of crackpots can get damn depressing, but I’m not really sure what to do about it except active, subjective moderation. Frankly, though, I trust y’all’s judgment. Following the coctail party analogy, sometimes you have to throw somebody out. If you think something should be deleted, delete it. If it makes you feel better, talk amongst yourselves first.

    Following what Loonunit says about the entertainment value of physics crackpottery — I think it was the literary journal Black Warrior Review that had, or has, a policy that anything you submit to it might end up in a special “Most Amusingly Bad Work Submitted To Us This Term” section. Maybe you could delete the crackpots on sight, but provide us with an occasional round-up? “D. was back this week pushing his steady-state universe through galactic magnetic field nucleosynthesis theory….”

  • http://www.chrononaut.org/~dm/ David Moles

    P.S. Threaded comments are of the Devil. :)

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    The comments section is doing a fine job for my taste. There is hardly any rudeness, and the occasional crackpot puts a smile on my face. If the comments thread gets technical, a crackpot “contribution” can become annoying, but those are easily spotted and deleted.

    There are a few characters that are tolerated, and but I have learned to skip their ramblings. And there are not enough to hurt the blog.

  • invcit


    About the crackpottery: since it is more of a concern to experts, who rather than being amused just see it as a waste of time to read or respond to such comments, would it perhaps solve something by somehow separating the pure physics threads (which I presume are the most affected) into two comment sections, where for one of the sections it is assumed you are conversant at the level of experts (however exclusive or inclusive you want to define that). If something was found to be inappropriate for that comment section, it would be politely moved to the other one, rather than deleted. Maybe too much work to carry out…

  • http://www.cathodixx.com Prince

    How do you decide who is a crackpot? In 1905 there was a “crackpot” who advanced the idea that waves can “collide like particles”. Should he have been slapped down?

    At present we have people who advance the idea that “particles are strings”. Should they be slammed down?

    Crackpot ideas could be tomorrow’s reality?

  • Richard

    Why do you delete Louise Riofrio’s comments? So much for free and open.

  • Annie

    Katey — this is funny, I’m also a female grad student, and I really *appreciate* the comments on the ‘Women in Physics’ posts. I completely understand what you’re saying; I just take a different approach. If I’m going to run into these people in real life, I want to have fortified myself against their arguments.

    The crazies help me to see what I’m really up against, and also help me to sort through and clarify my own arguments (since it’s not happening in person, I have time to think), and everybody else helps me to see how much support there really is out there, and how big a difference the concept of mentoring really makes. Yes, there’s been some really awful stuff in those threads, but then sometimes someone will step in with a stunning defense, and some of those replies have stuck with me for a very long time.

    So my vote would be to let at least the non-physics crackpots speak; I find those threads to be really, really useful.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/principles/ Chad Orzel

    I’m pretty much an absolutist on this issue: I’m opposed to deleting anything but spam, and willonly disemvowel comments that are way over the line. I don’t get the same volume of comment traffic you do here, but I think I’ve only applied lossy compression to one comment since moving to ScienceBlogs, and that was a bit of eliminationist rhetoric from “Uncle Al” on a thread about Middle East politics.

    I don’t read the comments here (or anywhere else) all that regularly, but my impression has been that no crackpot comments go very long without somebody pointing out that they are, in fact, crackpottery. It seems to me that your problem is self-correcting, and there’s no need to resort to moderation.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Interesting comments here about blog habits. Apart from Atrios’s Eschaton where I never read the comments, I don’t read any blog if the comments aren’t also worth reading.

    The only useful rules that I can suggest are for blog commenters. One is that if one finds one is repeating oneself, stop. Another is, learn whom to stop responding to. Another is, the world would be a much duller place without irreconcilable differences.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I think it is absolutely right that we should arrive at a policy that satisfies the most readers, while not creating any more work for ourselves, and I expect that’s what will come out of this.

    From my personal perspective, I don’t feel that we have a problem with rudeness. While there is obvious subjectivity in identifying it, I am pretty comfortable with our thresholds as they stand. However, I do feel that the crackpots derail the discussions somehow, and from discussions with some physicists who lurk on the site but don’t comment, I do think crackpots play some role in deterring them from commenting.

    Some commenters above have mentioned that physicists’ responses to the crackpots can be useful, either in merely setting the record straight, or by providing a record of such a response that can be referred to elsewhere. I can see this point, but I know that I, and most other physicists here, basically ignore true crackpots, and don’t respond at all, and I don’t think that will change. Given that, I do think they basically raise the noise and contribute little else, and would favor us exerting a little more editorial control. Again though, that’s just me, and I do think we should be guided by the consensus of the (non-crackpot) comments.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/12/universal-library.html Plato

    Who shall protect “my character” if the moderators can’t, or won’t? :)

    “I’m a Platonist — a follower of Plato — who believes that one didn’t invent these sorts of things, that one discovers them. In a sense, all these mathematical facts are right there waiting to be discovered.”Harold Scott Macdonald (H. S. M.) Coxeter

    Heisenberg and Hooft?

    It was a “simple lesson” for most of those who started off in science?

    Yet have we seen where this thinking took us? To think, anyone who would have provided the evidence for how “such thinking” was developed in science, might have been assigned to that “extra dimensional” thinking? Computer images of Banchoff?

    Labeled and branded a crackpot? Oh well:)

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/12/universal-library.html Plato

    Correction to Geradus t’Hooft link

    Library of Alexandria

    the temple of the Muses — the Musaion (from which is derived the modern English word museum).

    Thank goodness for what the “free internet” gives us, and those committed to getting it right.

  • http://www.cmi.ac.in/~anshul Anshul

    Hi Sean!

    Another lurker here. I think the most effective way to handle spam is to be very active on the comment thread at which I think you are already doing a great job. Ummm… so, I think my vote is status quo.

  • Gavin Polhemus

    I would like to see crackpot posts axed. They are easy to identify and they squash the discussion of interesting science. Define crackpot posts as “posts arguing from positions far outside the mainstream of scientific investigation,” and hack away. I’d be a lot more likely to read these threads to the end.

  • Ben L

    At the risk of chiming in with a “me too”, let me say that I’m a physicist who would prefer a higher signal-to-noise ratio. There have been some fantastic discussions here, and I think they point to the fact that CV can be an amazing resource, but I often feel like the interesting parts need to be dug out. That said, CV is the only place where I regularly will at least skim through all 100 comments on a post, so the S/N is already pretty high.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/12/universal-library.html Plato

    How would one have known you talked of string theory as a group? Watched, as you asked about rainbows? A stay at home with access to the internet?

  • Haludza

    Oh sit down!

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/12/universal-library.html Plato

    While this thread instigated a incubation to write another post on name, as I said, it was only part of it. The other part is linked below.

    Really a lot of us would lke to just be left alone to use the software, but if you discover “the freedom of the internet” should it be in such a strangle hold of what is allowed in China servers and what is not?

    Imagine only “circumventing cultures” while we could take it further and isolate the stay at home Gavin:)

    There has not been to much support and maybe the analysis of “laypersons to actual scientists” is a good comparison.

  • Haludza


  • Ambitwistor

    I don’t think the comments here have gotten too crackpotty yet to warrant more draconian measures. But you have to be careful. The crank content is what eventually killed off the Usenet sci.physics.* groups. Although it was long composed of mostly laymen, there was always a vibrant expert community. But circa 2000 or so (+/- 3 years), the signal-to-noise ratio started getting so bad that most of them left; it was sad to see such mainstays as John Baez finally give up. Today there are hardly any threads going on that don’t consist of crackpot posts or the responses to them. So keep your eye on it… I don’t think a forum can tolerate a S/N ratio of lower than 3 or so.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/12/universal-library.html Plato

    A more direct link here.

    So now I take #58’s advice. Thanks for allowing me to present my case.

  • http://www.philipdowney.com/weblog/ Philip Downey

    I think you should give the crackpots one chance to air their views in the comments section. Seeing the same (likely wrong) idea in every thread gets tiresome.

    For statistical purposes, I will note I read the comments only in the science-related posts, or if a post looks likely to provoke a bloodbath.

  • NoJoy

    I have no problems with the comments as they are. I even made it to the end of the comments on this post.

  • Belizean


    If you’re concerned that outright deletion of crackpot posts is too draconian, why not just move them to a dedicated crackpot thread. It would be like an online version of “Coast to Coast AM”.

  • graviton383

    I generally agree with Ben L & usually do 😉 However, the only problem is how do you keep the wonderful discussions we’ve had here over the last year+ going and remove the `background’ without killing the `signal’ ? I think we should just leave it alone & weed through the crazy comments `by eye’. This is what I do. As a general reader of the comments, I think we’ve done well by this method so far.

  • Jeff

    fairly long-time reader, and a fan of the comments section. As a working scientist and engineer, I can pretty easily gloss over the crackpots, and that doesn’t bother me too much. I don’t feel I generally have to defend myself from them, just ignore them. Anything that requires more work from you (moderation) will mean decreased activity probably, and a drop in quality (since, in blogs cases, activity and quality are often (though not always) proportional).

    So — I’m for status quo on this topic.

  • citrine

    I agree with many posters here who have commented that the threads considered unwelcome (by general consensus) are currently few and far between and that readers could just skip those posts. However, that’s the situation right now.

    As posters are required to provide our e-mail address, I presume that one or more of the bloggers has access to this information. If someone persists in posting obviously disruptive/ digressive comments, could you just warn him/her and then block their future posts? I agree that they can come back in another guise, but at least this will hopefully help maintain a high S/N ratio at CV.

  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog/ Allyson

    heh. I think I wrote a book about this. Or at least a chapter.

    I know not the difference between crackpottery and brilliance, for I am mostly science ignorant. I have no idea why I’m here except to read about Joanne’s battles with the local squirrel population…and the pretty pictures are also nice. I do learn things and enjoy the posts, but yes, the crackpottery and asshattery does sort of make my head explode and feel a little bit embarassed for the CV writers who put a lot of thought into the blog…only to have things derailed by people with no inner dialogue.

    One solution is registration and implementing a bozo filter. People can mark certain posters “invisible” and never have to read them again.

    That tends to be a message board/community solution, though. I don’t know if you would want to extend that to the blog.

    You could just have a general mod policy where instead of deleting without comment, you have a set of comments like:

    “This is insane troll logic. Please rethink and try again.”

    “This post deleted due to asshattery. Please remove your asshat at our dinner table and try again.”

    Because A) funny, and B) gives the person the benefit of the doubt that maybe they just forgot their meds and can make a coherent argument once the lithium kicks in.

    Know what? How about if I moderate? That would be AWESOME!

    This was useless, right? Sorry.

  • Allen

    I read the “Comments” and somtimes found good info in them. Recently I read that someone else thinks that there may have been more than one Big Bang. If I didn’t read the “Comments” I would have missed that. Sometimes we can fine tune too much when it is best to leave alone. Enjoy this blog.

  • http://mrigmaiden.blogspot.com Mahndisa

    12 11 06

    Well I have never commented here, I don’t think but have visited many times. I think that the crackpottery comments make the threads more interesting. And even if the crackpots aren’t listening, you can bet that some other person is. I have learned countless things by browsing comment threads and looking at refutations of so called crackpots. The refutations show critical thinking and can aid in synthesizing these complex ideas.
    And from time to time, the crackpot may be onto something. Ultimately physics isn’t a democracy when it comes to ideas, however, physics is better when a lot of people are thinking from quite different perspectives.
    On the other hand, if someone is insulting that needn’t be tolerated.

    Allyson’s suggestions for dealing with troll comments make some sense. Joking about the lack in logic of some posts can alleviate tension. Then you could always ignore the trolls;)

  • http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com Jennifer Ouellette

    For the record, I hate sites that require me to register before commenting. I understand why they do it, and I’m sympathetic to their plight, but 9 times out of 10 I’ll just sigh, “Oh, forget it then,” and jump to a different URL without commenting.

    Now you know how to get rid of me… :)

  • spyder

    As someone who spends too much time in the blogsphere, i offer my suggestion based solely on personal preference. There are very few blogs where the host allows unfettered and free access to all commentors; horsesass.org being one. Those that do so are understandably political and derive the mix of opinions, rude crude and otherwise, that stimulate the debate. Most of the rest of the blogsphere, from cultural zones through edumacation, from science to philosophy, are moderated, for purposes much as Sean and Mark have described above. Crackpots are everywhere, and it seems that we all have our own versions of them and our own travails with them. Be that as it may, they serve a purpose up to a point, and limiting their posts based on their persistent unwillingness to learn might be a valid, but time consuming, methodology. Plus, i love reading CV each day, and learn so much from so many. Just keep up the good done well and the rest will fall in line as it most often appears to do.

  • http://www.PacificT.com/ron/ Ron Avitzur

    The most interesting comment threads are the ones where experts interact. (Often folks who have their own blogs using the comments to discuss difficult questions.) The crackpottery and off-topic rambling both discourages knowledgable folks from contributing, and discourages everyone from reading lenghty comment threads.

    I’m all for encouraging you to be as heavy-handed as you feel comfortable being. Moderation is a thankless and time-devouring job, so we can’t expect you to put effort into it, but anything you want to do to increase the signal/noise will certainly be appreciated.

    As you say, this space is akin to your living room and we are all guests in your home. You set the community standards here. Any judgement calls are yours to make.

    Thanks for inviting us in.

  • http://AgnosticOracle.LiveJournal.com AgnosticOracle

    An occasional thrashing of a crackpot can be amusing but rarely enlightening. While I admit I find it entertaining, I wouldn’t describe it as one of the better parts of my nature. So keeping comments relatively on topic shouldn’t be sacrificed in the name of either letting crackpots speak or letting them be trashed.

    You seem to grasp the distinction between asking stupid questions and asserting crazy things. It is your blog so I would trust you to use your judgment. Announce a general policy and then use your judgment. Sometimes you maybe wrong but so what. The fate of civilization won’t be altered if you let one crack pot through or if you delete one serious if naïve question. But if you let crack pots over run your comments real discussion and questions will stop.

  • http://www.brannenworks.com/dmaa.pdf Carl Brannen

    From reading the previous commentary, it appears that I am the only crackpot who knows and admits that he is one, and therefore my input might be useful.

    First, it is not my intention to thrust my opinions on people who do not want to hear them. Most of my posts here are on other topics completely separate from my own hereies. (I doubt the existence of the quantum vacuum) but you don’t hear about it here. For instance, I commented extensively on the pyramid concrete theory. I would hope that I can comment usefully on this as I may have been the only person here who read the original literature on that (crackpot) idea.

    Second, there is no way that I can be responsible for others linking in my ideas to this thread. I’ve seen that at least one of them got her post(s) removed for this, and, well, I’m not really very sympathetic. I think that you should keep mainstream ideas on a mainstream physics thread. There are plenty of crackpot threads available for crackpots to exchange ideas and I find these very useful.

    As far as I am concerned, any crackpot ideas I have that no one is willing to listen to is simply an opportunity for me to make further progress without competition, if they are correct, and rightfully suppressed, if they are wrong.

    If a crackpot idea is any good, it will very likely be understood by only a tiny fraction of the physics or mathematics community. As such, they need to be directed to the people whose work they extend (see hep-ph/0605074 ). A general thread that discusses things like rodents and tomatoes is not the place to teach it.

  • http://deferentialgeometry.org/ Garrett

    Collaborative rating, and filtering, a la /.

    This would put you on the bleeding edge of wordpress. Googling… here’s a plugin at the bottom of this page you could try out:


    This way you could redirect the cries of “fascist censor!” back on themselves. It’s win-win. Well, except for whomever manages your blog code.

    Oh, and as long as your fielding requests: please make the bloody column size wider.

  • smm

    i know you said threading was out of the question, but…will you reconsider? maybe get some advice from jacques on how to do it. it works well on his site. maybe it wouldn’t be so painful afterall and would give a major signal boost.

  • http://deferentialgeometry.org/ Garrett

    Ah, it just occurred to me that instead of figuring out how to modify wordpress to do slashdot style comments, you could just use slashcode:


    and spruce it up with CV’s graphics. That’s probably a more drastic step than you wanted to take. And, before you knew it, you might start accepting random post submissions… and become cosmicslashvariancedot.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Hi Sean,

    to add my some words: I’d appreciate if the comments were strongly moderated, since you surely have a lot of traffic here. I’d appreciate that not so much because crackpotism bothers me (I think I can figure out what is nonsensical), but because I usually don’t have the time to check of order 200 comments whether something might be interesting. If there were only the 30 comments that actually contribute something, it would be helpful. This applies to scientific posts only. As someone said before, it would be good to have a stricter policy for these. You might also consider updating the original post, and pointing towards the more interesting comments (this might also motivate people to contribute something with content). I also think it would help if you put a disclaimer somewhere that says something like: we’re not a platform for promoting your own personal theory-of-something or so. Best,


  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    Sean said: “And there isn’t any expert/masses dichotomy. I can be wrong about cosmology, just as I can be right about cooking or politics. It’s the argument that matters, not who is making it.”

    But of course there then still exists or remains a preference for some arguments or theories over others – whether in physics, cosmology, climate or ‘politics’
    Debate requires more than one point of view
    Debate requires A Universe (at least one) to debate over

  • http://Abittasty.wordpress.com Spatulated

    This site used to be the only site i ever read the comments on. now i read the articles and keep on moving. the comment sections get so waited down and it so hard to keep up with whos talking to who, who knows what and all that jazz. i am also really busy and if i do ask a question i can never rember to come back and look for the answer. if i do come back sometimes its jsut to hard to find. i guess, my choice would be moderation of the comments, or maybe just a “highlight comments section”

    i dont know if any CV editor can edit and post, but if they could it would be simple for any one of them that is keeping up with the comments on a paticular post to ad a peralink to the most interesting and thoughtful (and being opinionated is a-ok) comments at the end of the already written post.

    maybe to much work. but yeah, some comment sections get so out of hand or off topic, i personally as a casual reader no longer even try to keep up.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Apparently nobody actually reads these comments, even the ones by me. So, let me point out again that there is no realistic possibility of threaded comments, extra forums, large scarlet C’s stuck to posts by crackpots, or any such gizmo-oriented strategy that makes work for us. The only question is, would the conversations be more useful if we deleted/banned more people who were all noise and no signal?

    There doesn’t seem to be much of a groundswell of support for a crackdown, although perhaps we should try to run a tighter ship in the science-oriented threads. (Rudeness, rather than crackpottery, is the primary danger in the other threads, and I think that’s easier to deal with.) Again, not to discourage non-experts who actually want to learn something and ask questions, but to create a more useful set of comments for everybody. Maybe.

  • http://jenniferhead.cfa.harvard.edu Jennifer West

    I read the comments section on 2 blogs regularly, CV and Michael Berube’s blog. I think you should ask him his policy on commenters, because his S/N ratio is extremely high. I don’t mind crackpots too much, but sometimes a comment can stop an interesting thread in its tracks. I’ve seen it happen on CV – a great discussion will hit a wall with one rambly disconnected comment. I don’t like that and I do think that it discourages interested and interesting people from commenting. I’ve noticed that many of the ranty derailing people post comments on other blogs as well, perhaps they enjoy ruining a good thing even if not consciously. I’d say delete their comments. They have other avenues to express themselves, and I think a bit of therapy would help more than unlimited access to great blogs where they are ignored or tolerated.

    It’s possible it just takes a while of ignoring the crackpots before they weed themselves out, and maybe that is what Michael B. has done (although I think his great commenters do a bit of policing as well).

  • http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/ John Baez

    I enjoy reading this blog, and I enjoy reading the comments – except for those by Plato, who should be given a job moderating a special section “For Crackpots Only”.

  • http://jenniferhead.cfa.harvard.edu Jennifer West

    I’d like to see CV deleting more comments from crackpots!!! Do the exclamation points count for groundswell?

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  • Chris W.

    Plato is not so much a crackpot as a source of mostly incoherent rambling, as in comment 60: While this thread instigated a incubation to write another post on name, as I said, it was only part of it.

    “instigated a incubation”? At least the two 4-syllable words were spelled correctly.

    That said, predictably worthless comments from a few familiar names are easy to ignore. Random garbage from unpredictable sources is considerably more distracting and frustrating. CV seems largely free of the latter.

  • http://snews.bnl.gov/popsci/contents.html Blake Stacey

    Jennifer West wrote:

    I’d like to see CV deleting more comments from crackpots!!! Do the exclamation points count for groundswell?

    Only if each exclamation point denotes the factorial of the one before.

  • agoodspellr

    if you’ll permit me to question your question… perhaps you shouldn’t be asking current commenters what they want (in a referendum). you might rather want to ask yourself what kind of audience you wish to attract to the comments section, and hence what culture you should create to facilitate the experience for that audience.

    what is your primary target market – professional physicists (with laypeople watching) or laypeople (with professional physicists replying)? if the former, you need to banish crackpots whenever possible, because professionals are very impatient with their time. if the latter, you probably need to be lenient with the ignorant, so that nobody feels like they will be punished for trying to participate (or at least not let it be widely known that you’re dismissing certain types of ignorance). standard business marketing would suggest that you’ll have difficulty attracting both types of people to the comments in the long run.

    i’m focusing solely here on the comments section, not the question of who will read or subscribe to your posts. (sorry to hit you all upside the head with marketing speak – i’m an economist/mathemetician/computer geek with a lifelong interest in physics.)

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/11/three-ring-circus-dark-energy.html Plato

    “My character” is sure taking a beating today. :) I acknowledge I am a non expert and have a lot to learn. Being lead by the physics is important and I acknowledge that too.

    I am sorry John on commenting on the “Megalithic carved stone balls from Scotland,” even though I understood they were being held at the Ashmolean Museum in the UK. And for not including you with Hooft, Coxeter and Heisenberg. Or talking about the sites in Arizona that you walked through.

    Ip addresses are a good thing in the context of moderation, especially if one can change their name as readily as they can create a new email address. I don’t do that. Or use software to hide the IP. Any blogger understands that the IP addresses can be found.

    I would of course have to be respectful of the thoughts about one’s living room.

    No I do not like to be called crazy, but knew it would be a hard one if I put myself out front.

    instigated= because of the post a certain motivation
    incubation =seriously thinking about what Sean was posting?

    Sorry Chris W. Four’s a good number. :)

    Of course you know what comes next.

  • http://www.kea-monad.blogspot.com Kea

    I like Plato.

  • http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/ Tony Smith

    Sean, you said in comment 84:
    “Apparently nobody actually reads these comments, even the ones by me.
    So, let me point out again that there is no realistic possibility of
    threaded comments,
    extra forums,
    large scarlet C’s stuck to posts by crackpots, or
    any such gizmo-oriented strategy that makes work for us.

    The only question is, would the conversations be more useful if we deleted/banned more people who were all noise and no signal?

    … Again, not to discourage non-experts who actually want to learn something and ask questions, but to create a more useful set of comments for everybody. …”.

    Of course, it is your blog and I think that you should do whatever you want to do,
    but anyway here is a comment:

    If your objectives are
    to get more expert comments in order to educate relative newbies,
    to get more expert-to-expert comment discussions,
    maybe you should poll the experts in the relevant fields and ask them what it would take for them to participate in comment discussion.
    If THEY, the experts (and you know who they are because you are active in the relevant fields of research) say that they are unhappy with certain types of comments, then (if you can identify those types of comment with reasonable effort) you can move toward your objectives by deleting those types of comment (and that includes barring individuals who for whatever reason alienate the experts whose commentary you want).

    For example,
    Joe Polchinski was a recent guest blogger here,
    of the 76 comments on his blog entry the last time I checked it,
    only number 43 was from Joe Polchinski himself,
    it only referred to numbers 20, 22, 24, 26, 29, 35, and 36.

    Apparently he felt that only 7 / 42 = 1/6 of the 42 comments preceding his number 43 were worth his time to discuss,
    that none of the 33 comments after his number 43 were worth his time to discuss.

    Maybe he could tell you privately (maybe he already has?) to what extent your deletion of some (or all) of the 5/6 of the first 42 comments and the last 33 comments would have encouraged him to do more discussion in the comments to his guest blog entry.

    Any such advice from him (or from other similar experts) would probably be more helpful to you than advice from others (including but not limited to me).

    Tony Smith

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~eal48 Eugene

    I remember the old sci.phys.* usenet groups, and how it was eventually overwhelmed by noise…

    Anyway, I am very daunted by the sheer amount of comments for each post, and I do wish there is a more heavy handed approach to deletion. Fair enough, the usual suspects are easily filtered out, but like Jennifer West said, a good conversation can easily be swamped out by the noise, even by the usual suspects. 100+ comments is a lot to scroll through and it’s easy to miss an insightful reply. To stretch the analogy, the cocktail party is noisy and we have to shout to be heard…

    Most of the time, I ended up doing (guiltily) what I do when I read the arxiv : I fall back to reading only comments by the “known experts”. (Ok, I saunter over to the big shots and eavesdrop :D)

    I think a stricter moderation will do two things : (a) It will reduce the noise (b) it will increase the confidence levels of lay readers who read the comments for insights. And I count myself, in general, as a lay reader because most of the stuff posted on this blog is over my head.

  • kapakapa

    As a new visitor to this wonderful site with interesting topics and stimulating comments, I would love to see the highest quality discussion. As a layperson some topics may be way over my head, but hope your sensible handling will keep enticing the experts to contribute freely.

    Please do away with obvious noises, particularly in science topics. The fact that you feel the noise ratio is up is a good indication it is time to act. I am certain the majority of the readers have trust in your judgement. Hope it will not be an additional burden for you.

    Let me also thank you for the interesting and informative links. They are great additional learning sources for me.

    Please feel free to prune or fine tune the comments section to reflect the quality you would like to see.

  • http://www.chrononaut.org/~dm/ David Moles

    Ditto Ms. Ouellette on registration-only commenting.

    Besides, the crackpots will just register.

    (N.B. to Prince, #47: If someone gets a paper published in Annalen der Physik, that usually counts as prima facie evidence of the paper’s non-crackpottery.)

  • Marty Tysanner

    A key question in an informal poll like this is whether the opinions of the people who are responding are representative of the opinions of the readership in general. (For example, I almost didn’t comment, although since I finally did I guess I can’t use myself as an example…) It seems to me that the people who don’t read the comment sections are less likely to respond to the informal poll, so you may not be hearing from the less satisfied customers. Additionally, many people find it a lot easier to voice a positive comment about how things are fine the way they are than to express dissatisfaction with some aspect of a popular blog that they generally enjoy. Counting votes for “more moderation” vs. “no change” may give a filtered picture of what the current readership generally wants.

    I thought that “agoodspellr” brought up an excellent point about setting a policy designed to attract the readership you want. It is questionable, however, whether the typical lay reader enjoys noise more than those who are more intimately involved in physics or cosmology. I doubt any reasonable expert would begrudge a lay reader from asking a sincere question about an elementary point or presenting a well-thought argument, nor do I get the impression that Sean or others are viewing those kinds of comments as “noise.” Many lay readers when it comes to science are probably quite knowledgeable about some non-science issues that get raised in this blog, and they generally seem tolerant of expert scientists expressing opinions without great expertise. 😉

    As noted by “kapakapa” (after I had written this! I was scooped!), it seems apparent that one or more blog owners feel that the signal to noise ratio has dropped to unsatisfactory levels often enough to be a concern; otherwise Sean wouldn’t have raised the issue. That in itself seems like a strong indication that there really is a noise problem. I expect that the blog owners are in a good position to set a reasonable moderation policy unilaterally. I vote for going with what seems to produce a healthy environment that encourages desirable kinds of comments, with an eye to what will best engage your target audience(s).

    P.S. to “Plato”: I have found myself rapidly scrolling past most of your comments because you seem to delight in making them cryptic, or else you compose your comments so rapidly that you don’t pay attention to how comprehensible they may seem to others. I really don’t think that you add any additional depth or provoke more thought in your comments by being cryptic, or quoting others to bring up a point of your immediate interest that has little to do with the topic at hand, or ending at least half of your sentences with an annoying question mark. I think this style more than the actual content is what may cause some people to associate your comments with crackpot-ism. It takes extra time and effort to express thoughts in a clear manner, but I think a lot more people will be receptive to your observations and questions if you make the effort to phrase them clearly and save them for posts where they are on-topic. As a refreshing contrast, I thought your comment #92 was clear overall, and mostly free of superfluous question marks…

  • Paul Valletta

    The policy of “comments” ?

    To those deemed a little cracked, it may come as no suprise to see this thread, it’s a reccurance of keeping one’s house in order, we all have to do this in a while!

    Even so Gone but not for ever : http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2006/05/29/gone/

    the site original’s policy makes good reading :


    The whole site of cosmic variance, trys to maintain a creditable balance, but I for one only try to learn, I may learn slow, but I know my limitations, and do try to restrain my inabilities, but at the same time I do shoot off in obscur directions. This is not fair for the site owners, so rather than see no cosmic variance at all, I will strive a little harder to retrict my often qwurky comments.

    Having someone put up the most interesting threads online, is the most important factor…

  • Till

    I have to agree with many of the posters before me, CV is rather unique in that I manage to read most of the comments, most of the time. As for the noise, I don’t think the crackpots are a real problem. Instead, after a certain number of posts, noise is generated mainly by people who simply express agreement with previous posts, or worse, repeat previous arguments. As a result, the perceived S/N often decreases when the number of posts goes up.

    Threading is a technical solution to this problem, but I understand that will not be implemented. So, please do remove posts from obvious crackpots (to someone who can identify them, the well-meaning replies can count as noise, too), but I would also encourage people to only post when they have something new to add to the discussion. Perhaps in this particular thread, and to gauge opinions, numbers count. However, that is not the case on most other topics.

  • http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/ Tony Smith

    Sean referred to “… the Heavy Hand of the State …”.
    that may be in fact invoked. Earlier today, a Slashdot entry at
    “… Senator John McCain has proposed a bill to extend federal obscenity reporting guidelines to all forms of internet communications …[including]… any Web site with a message board …[i.e., blogs]… Those who fail to report according to guidelines could face fines of up to $300,000 for unreported posts to a blog or mailing list. …”.

    An automatic spam-and-p0rn-filter might not save the blog owner from prosecution. As a Slashdot commenter said:
    “… some prosecutor will argue that you are responsible for the content that is moderated down by your spam filters. For those that don’t know, in WordPress, Movable Type and probably others, spam is not by default automatically deleted. It’s stored in the database with a flag on it that keeps it from being published when a page is sent. …”.

    Tony Smith

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Let’s take the 101 comments posted so far. Were the crackpots a problem here? I don’t think so. The only thing that will make it difficult to read and/or reply to comments is the high number of postings.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/10/history-of-star-shine-to-now.html Plato

    From “top down,” I had assumed Sean was talking of cosmology down to the quantum perspective?

    While I recognize the experts as well, it is the experts that decide where they will comment. Some how I controlled what they were going to say? Look at John no problem. Look at how good scientists speak to each other? Lee Smolin and Joe Polchinski. Who has not heard of them?

    If you had stuck to learning then you would know of the respect I have had for them and how they have been leaders in my continued research.

    Maybe asking them in regards to their respective areas of expertise if they felt that they were derailed.They can pick where they choose to respond and they did.

    Joe may talk about string theory(an abstract world), and I liked JoAnne’s impute in regards to high energy because of the methods being developed to look at the physics. Like the group assembled here was the right blend? Your varied topics? Those of interest I respond a little too and those I thought each has their own idea of value of what life is to them. That the blended groups thoughts about other things which were of no interest so I skim over them.

    It was more the idea sparked in my mind to continue my own search, the substance blog entries would send anyone looking into those general areas. Do more work in understanding topology, what the universe was actually doing.

    Who of these experts could speak so clear that even the layperson could actually understand what they were saying? And you thought myself cryptic?:) It meant more homework. To see the basis of their thoughts. I tried my best. Shall I spell out for you the good scientists who have reach across the abyss of the most profound and abstract?

    Not only are the craftsman reading and commenting on their expertise areas, but the seers are reading too pushing the boundaries. If you do not understand this statement here then you have not read Lee Smolin’s work. Maybe you can read more on that and background dependence/independence at a later time.

    Lastly, notice the numbers besides the comments on the right? Now match them up, as you read the entires. They are already being deleted if not thought appropriate.

    I too look at the expert explanations as well and truthfully read to see what tidbits will be of value. Help to lead me in new directions of science.

    No I am not crazy and a crackpot, even if if the ground swell saids I am. I am truly thankful for my character name now. :)

  • Tom Renbarger

    Back in the day at P.U., from time to time I took a certain perverse delight in engaging someone, let’s call him Mr. Q., when he would pipe in with some bit of nonsense. Not something I would do regularly, but it was fun to do every so often. So I guess I have some predisposition towards letting the cranks post. It hasn’t gotten that bad yet, so I say go with the status quo unless the problem worsens.

    On Plato (the commenter) in particular, I’ve never viewed him as a crank, but I do get the distinct impression that English isn’t his first language. Combine that with a flair for an elliptical turn of phrase, and his comments can present tough sledding, but I don’t think they are of the crackpot variety.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com Stefan

    I usually skim through the comments in a thread, sometimes they are really interesting, often entertaining. Moderation is probably a very tough and time-consuming job. I thought I could suggest that you may update the original post with links to “recommended” comments. But then, I saw that this idea has been mentioned before (#81) – guess by whom :-)

  • http://rawdc.blogspot.com z.king

    That’s where the people, our beloved readers, can let their voices be heard.

    Power to the people, Sean, power to the people. And that’s why we love you too, man.

    Would this blog be a better place if the Heavy Hand of the State slapped down some of the noisier contributors,…

    Slap those crackpot punks down, Sean, slap ’em down like Dembski.

    …or is the chaos part of the charm?

    Or take a lesson from Demski’s commenter rules on how to convey to people that commenters are there for your own personal amusement.

    Interpolate this: art is the means by which philosophy can be made palatable to the average person.

    If people weren’t interested in being entertained a little, they would just buy your book.

  • http://capitalistimperialistpig.blogspot.com/ CapitalistImperialistPig

    Clearly this post is an exception, since Sean specifically asked for comments, but what I find more tedious than crackpots is endless repetition of an idea already stated.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    I think noise can be a turn-off but I’ve not seen enough of it here to stop someone who wants to say something.

  • Aaron

    Hey! I don’t read this blog too frequently since Clifford left, but I might as well toss a few cents in. On one hand, I enjoy reading a few crackpots every now and then; they can be thought-provoking, and I get good mental exercise figuring out why they’re wrong. On the other hand, people who have legitimate questions and comments could easily be intimidated by a large number of crackpotty posts — especially very long ones. At worst, barely-lucid screeds can kill the flow of conversation.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/10/history-of-star-shine-to-now.html Plato

    IN the interest of “not degrading” this or any other comment section.

    People throw the term “crackpot” around quite loosely, as if it is “an idea.”

    Do you realize how insulting this is to another human being? I really don’t care if your a “top notch scientist.” Is this the kind of thing supposed to be the standard?

    #37. 50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.

    I am sorry to say, by this index, all string theorists have 50 points against/for them?

    So by using “this index” we see where stereotyping has taken place. An attitude about those who have spent a large part of their life learning. Maybe not to smart, about cosmology, or string theory, with just has a “little flavour” of them all. Certainly more, then just reading one book?

    People attacked Peter Woit because he was relating “intelligent design” as the string theorists motto? But this has changed through dialogue? By example, those who are “far apart” in what they think, terming others, as a crackpot?

    Shall I call the person who created the crackpot index a crackpot? It’s just not right.

    So people had been “band” for such things?

    Shall one make an exception for somebody who is a good craftsman? Or shall we leave them alone, and just exterminate those who are the seers?

    Now you got to remember this definition is not mine, and by a consensus would you categorize the person who wrote it? Would you “categorize someone” who can do good calculations and is very smart about these abilities. “Possibly” the next Einstein? :) No, it’s not me:) #30 Whew! :)

  • Xerxes

    Ban. Ban-ban-ban. And then go to their houses and take their keyboards away. When I was an admin for a physics discussion site, we had a strong crackpot-banning policy. One strike, we delete your post and send you a warning. Two strikes and you’re banned forever. It was the only way to keep things sane. Don’t be swayed by their cries and complaints. It serves the interests of the silent majority to not have to slog through all the dreck to get to useful material.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    Clarification of #108: I think noise can be a turn-off but I’ve not seen enough of it here to stop someone with a signal.

  • schustenberg

    it is really funny to see crackpots and out-of-contests comments (this one included) in a post which deals with this problem…it’s a kind of self-consistent stuff. Very appropriate.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    schustenberg, yes very funny, but what was your opinion about the post if you had one?

  • http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/ PZ Myers

    Here’s another helpful solution: a killfile for blogs! My readers also got fed up with some of the more annoying commenters, so one wrote a Firefox add-on that stripped out user-selectable commenters.

    It would need to be tweaked to work with CV, but it’s always nice to move some of the editing off into the hands of the readers.

  • http://www.chrononaut.org/~dm/ David Moles

    Plato, 50 isn’t actually very high on the Crackpot Index. The Time Cube gets 530 points before even considering items 2, 3, and 4 (statements widely agreed upon to be false [1 point], clearly vacuous statements [2 points], logically inconsistent statements [3 points]).

    And don’t forget the -5 point starting credit.

  • http://web.mit.edu/sahughes/www/ Scott H.

    Hi Sean —

    Late arrival here, though that’s not uncorrelated with my point … I’ve pretty much stopped reading cosmicvariance (at least regularly; just noticed this thread since I haven’t checked in for a while), and it’s essentially because the noise level is too high for my taste. Comments are my favorite part of the handful of blogs I read, and I haven’t really enjoyed comments here for a long time.

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  • http://catownersregrets.blogspot.com serial catowner

    I must have version 1.0 of this software, because life isn’t long enough to type such long comments. Anyone who has the patience to type in this box deserves to be posted. It may be a valuable therapy keeping them from anti-social acts.

    Blog commenting is how we reach for the conversation of the 21st century. When people learn not to respond to trolls, that’s one small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind.

    But, hey!- it’s your blog, you can do what you want with it.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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