Reflections on "Unruly Democracy" from Bioephemera (Jessica Palmer)

By Chris Mooney | May 2, 2010 9:11 am

2010_unrulydemocracyI think I can safely say that our event on Friday at the Harvard Kennedy School, entitled “Unruly Democracy: Science Blogs and the Public Sphere,” was a success, and perhaps even exceeded expectations. The room was full; the presentations were great; we had a historic first panel bringing together representatives of Seed, Discover, and The Boston Globe to talk about three different approaches to science blogging; we had a real debate about whether blogs are “good” or “bad” for science–and we had a move towards some constructive suggestions for finding better norms in the blogosphere.

If you want proof that the event has caused some very important thought and reflection, you need go no further than this lengthy post from Jessica Palmer of Bioephemera, who attended and gave a rockin’ talk on my panel. Jessica is, broadly speaking, in my camp–or what on Friday was called the “Sunsteinian” camp–when it comes to the negatives of blogging. Why? Some excerpts from her post:

My big concern? While individual blogs often have communities who are internally civil and share norms and history, when you move from blog to blog, those norms and history break down. There are no universal norms in the science blogosphere, much less the blogosphere as a whole – and that leads to a lot of misunderstandings, partisan assumptions, and conflict. Things can get “us vs. them” really fast. . . and once they do, you lost the potential to have calm conversations between communities. I think the types of misunderstandings that arise in interdisciplinary blogging are a microcosm of the communication challenges within the fragmented blogosphere, which is in turn mirroring an increasingly fragmented and partisan public discourse.

Palmer goes on to argue that in the blogosphere, it is exceedingly hard to be neutral or centrist:

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the blogosphere abhors a neutral and nonpartisan blog. For whatever reasons, cultural or historical, participants expect partisanship. They want to know if you’re with them or against them; the dedicated communities at various blogs can be pretty defensive of their space, and sometimes stream like lemmings through the aether to attack a blogger that they perceive as threatening. It’s human nature: when our friends get attacked, we get mad. The problem is, we’re not always so good at figuring out what’s a legitimate attack – and it makes it really hard to have a calm conversation with our adversaries.

And this leads to a stance of pessimism, or at least deep concern:

Frankly, I am worried – not about blogs, because they’re just blogs, after all. I’m worried because science (any academic field, actually) and democracy become utterly nonfunctional when they cease to tolerate reasoned discussion. Democracy is about involving groups with different bargaining positions and interests and generating a workable compromise. Science is also about debate: arguing for your interpretation of the evidence, getting to the best consensus explanation, and then going out to fetch new data and do it all over again. You can hate, resent, dislike, even distrust your rivals – scientific, professional or political – and still maintain a functional system. But if you can’t have a civil discourse on neutral ground without resorting to obscenities or ad hominem attacks, the system is broken. You simply can’t get anything done. This is especially true in Congress: when those moderate politicians who are willing to talk to the other side are labeled traitors by their parties and lose their seats, there’s no one left to broker a compromise.

I want to emphasize that there was a more optimistic perspective articulated at our event as well, notably by Tom Levenson and others. This is, broadly speaking, the view that our discourse has never been particularly rational or very civil, but that blogs offer many new opportunities for two way dialogue, rather than the one-wayism of the old media. Moreover, as was pointed out by Kimberly Isbell of the Citizens Media Law Project, it is possible to tend to one’s blog and set a tone to ensure more civility–and in fact, deleting abusive comments and banning abusive commenters is strongly protected under the law.

But Jessica Palmer has a riposte to this view as well:

…during the afternoon panels, several speakers seemed to reject our concerns about civility. They suggested that it was a blogger’s responsibility to maintain a productive community by aggressively moderating, disemvowelling, even editing (!), offensive comments – and that because legally we’re not prevented from doing so, there is no reason for us not to. Several panelists discussed the potential of commenting systems in which commenters have to earn the right to comment and to have their comments seen by others – perhaps something similar to Slashdot’s system, that encourages self-policing in the community.

Those aren’t bad ideas at all – except for one thing. They make it even harder for outsiders to enter the blog community and exchange ideas. If I want to engage people in interdisciplinary discourse, I don’t want to put obstacles in their way. I don’t think controlling (or, in the words of one panelist, “taming”) comments is the way to improve the conversation. I flatly refuse to edit anyone’s comments, because that would misrepresent what they actually said. And I have two big questions: first, where am I supposed to draw the line of acceptable commenting: mere profanity, or much higher, say at “useful contribution to the conversation”? Isn’t it a slippery slope? Second, how do I find the time to aggressively moderate comments or institute a complex screening system? Even if it were true that by doing so, I would ensure a happy, shiny forum for awesome discourse among all my wonderful readers, I don’t have the resources to mod the playground.

True enough. We’ve deleted our share of comments here at “The Intersection,” banned a few commenters, and have tightened our filters–but it is indeed a massive amount of work to play this role, with uncertain rewards.

Moreover, I’m even more concerned, in many ways, about the propagation of misinformation than I am about civility. And here, I truly don’t see any “fix” for the blogosphere. There was talk at the K School of some sort of system for labeling or certifying which blogs are trustworthy and which are not, but it would be a truly massive undertaking–and whoever tried it would surely get attacked mercilessly by anyone receiving a less than stellar rating.

None of this, of course, means we should either stop blogging, or stop trying to improve the blogosphere. It’s just that it seems like it is going to be quite a lot of work. But I’m certain of one thing: The discussion that began at “Unruly Democracy” and the Harvard Kennedy School begins to point a way forward.

To close, then, I want to thank all the participants–including fellow bloggers Jessica Palmer, Dr. Isis, Amanda Gefter, Tom Levenson, and Joe Romm. We started something. We couldn’t have done it without you.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media and Science

Comments (9)

  1. Fantastic work, Chris. It was a very intriguing experience and I enjoyed participating.

  2. SLC

    Speaking of civility, would Mr. Mooney or MS. Kirshenbaum advise Michael Mann to be civil to Virginia Attorney General Ken the kook Cuccinelli?

    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2010/05/the_republican_war_on_science.php

  3. Gaythia

    Chris, I would be interested in an expansion of what you mean by being in the “Sunsteinian” camp. (Or do you accept this label?) Some of what is described in “Nudge” is simply a recognition of how pre-existing frameworks and defaults affect decision-making and how those conditions can be changed to encourage more favorable outcomes. In many cases, these are outcomes that the participants themselves would have agree to, had they made the effort to think about it. But a nudge can become a push. I think that we need to acknowledge “Choice Architecture” or “Framing” as something that is always present and be aware of it as something that is subject to abuse.

    Ideally, I’d like to include Darlene Cavalier and Richard Sclove in this hypothetical discussion. Initially, my concern was that the Participatory Technology Assessment Network (as described in a previous post) would be over-run by special interest groups. This was satisfied by a description the process of participant selection criteria and facilitation. But then, my thoughts turned to my frustration with the times I have served on advisory groups where the facilitators seemed to be driving towards some predetermined point of “consensus”. Participants whose time to devote to the topic,whose background in the field, and whose access to the necessary data, may be more limited can be cut out of the real process or left to believe that the process itself was a farce.

    How do we work to find the balance between facilitation, establishing norms of civility, combating misinformation, and too much control?

    As you indicate above, attempting to optimize these communication processes will be quite a bit of work, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

  4. GM

    Democracy is about involving groups with different bargaining positions and interests and generating a workable compromise. Science is also about debate: arguing for your interpretation of the evidence, getting to the best consensus explanation, and then going out to fetch new data and do it all over again.

    This and the whole tone of the interview (and reading about the topic many times before) leaves me with the impression that for you “civility” and not getting into a too heated debate are more important than actually finding out the truth.

    If democracy is about “bargaining positions and interests and generating a workable compromise” then democracy will almost never work, as it is not certain that the truth is “in the middle ” or even that the “middle” it is in is the “middle” where the “workable compromise” is found. Which is indeed the case as we can see almost every day in the news.

  5. Guy

    Looks like you’ve made some forward progress on the issue.

    Would it be better just have moderated forums for discussing science rather than just commenting on blogs? Forums can have their own team of moderators. That would free-up your time for other things. One of the things I like with forums is being able to go back and fix things like typos and grammar errors. You typically can’t do that in blog comments.

    The unfortunate thing would having to check two websites instead of one; the blog and the forum postings, unless they could be integrated somehow.

  6. Gaythia

    @2 Both Michael Mann and the University of Virginia are likely to have to respond to this situation from behind the shields of their attorneys. I believe that this is the reason for the very terse statements from the University of Virginia so far.

    I think that this is a test for the rest of us. In my opinion, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is making a very politically calculated move, one which he is likely to believe will be quite popular with his constituency. Science Blogs such as Deltoid are providing a very useful service in raising the alarm among those of us active in this region of the blogosphere.

    But can we succeed in doing outreach? Can information provided by Science bloggers be relayed outward and transformed into support?

    Name calling, in my opinion, only strengthens the Virginia Attorney General’s hand with the public.

  7. Chris Mooney

    Folks, let’s do the Virginia AG thing on another thread, as I will blog on it soon. please keep this one on topic.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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