Why don’t we have good arguments in the comments any more?

One thing I like about blogging is the chance to have good arguments. Getting pushback from smart, informed people who disagree with you is one of the best (and for me, most fun) ways to learn. Watching smart, informed people push back against each other is another good way to learn.

But that seems to be happening less often than it used to around here. Our comment threads aren’t getting shorter. But it does seem like they’ve gotten more agreeable over the last year or two, so that we’re having fewer arguments in the comments than we used to. And the ones that we do have aren’t always good.

I recognize that this is very much a “First World problem”. We’re blessed to have great commenters and comment threads. But still, it’d be even better if we could get back to having more good arguments. So here’s a navel-gazing post with some hypotheses about why we might be having fewer good arguments than we used to, and some ideas of what to do about it. Please comment, because I could use some feedback.

Hypotheses (most of which aren’t mutually exclusive):

  • We’re not actually having good arguments any less often. It only seems that way because I only remember past threads featuring good arguments, like this one and this one.
  • It’s a fluke, not a trend. The reaction of readers to any given post is always somewhat unpredictable. Who knows when a post will push someone’s buttons to the point where they feel moved to write a comment disagreeing with it? For instance, I’ll bet Meg never imagined that this post would prompt me to start an argument in the comments. And the sample sizes are pretty small; posts with good arguments in the comments have always been in the minority. So maybe the recent lack of good arguments in the comments is just a blip.
  • We’re writing less provocative posts. I’ve consciously dialed back my own snarkiness and rhetoric over the past couple of years. Possibly, I’ve gone too far and become a bit bland and unopinionated? But on the other hand, even our most provocative posts seem to have agreeable comment threads these days. Brian didn’t get much in the way of pushback against his valuing biodiversity post, and he was expecting fireworks. Greg Dwyer deliberately picked a provocative title for his recent guest post and went out of his way not to hedge his views in the post itself, and still only got a bit of good pushback.
  • We’re repeating ourselves more. An attraction to blogging as a form is that you can revisit topics and revise your views. But perhaps readers get bored when we return to topics we’ve covered previously? I’m sure that’s happened in a few cases, as when some folks understandably complained that this post was just rehashing old arguments about microcosms in ecology (in my own defense, I didn’t start this argument). But I doubt this is the biggest issue. For instance, Brian’s recent post on valuing biodiversity concerns a topic we haven’t discussed before. And a couple of times recently I’ve just reposted old posts without noting until the end that they were old posts. They drew as much traffic and as many comments as you’d expect a brand-new post to draw. Indeed, this repost is one of the few posts I’ve done lately that got a good argument going in the comments.
  • As our audience has grown, our readers have become more hesitant to disagree with us. This could be because our views are increasingly well-known because we’ve been blogging for so long. So that to an increasing extent, the only people who read us are those who agree with us. Or maybe it’s that, to an increasing extent, people who disagree with us don’t bother to comment, thinking that the resulting conversation will just be boring or pointless (“I know what Jeremy’s going to say, and he’s not going to change his mind, so why bother?”) And as our audience grows, maybe it gets increasingly scary to disagree with us, so that readers who disagree with us are afraid to comment. Against that, in reader surveys, there’s little or no evidence that readers hesitate to comment because of the size of our audience, the way we treat commenters, or because our views are well-known.
  • As our audience has grown, it’s become increasingly comprised of people who look to us for advice and instruction, not debate. Not sure about this. We know from reader surveys that the mix of grad students/postdocs/faculty in our readership hasn’t changed. Our readership is becoming less male-biased, which I guess might matter? Then again, I’d have thought that the amount of debate that goes on in the comments would depend more on the absolute number of readers who would want to debate any given topic. Even if the composition of our readership has changed, I doubt that the absolute number of readers who want to engage in debate (either on specific topics, or in general) has declined.
  • We’re increasingly right about everything, so there’s no longer scope for reasonable disagreement with us. Ok, I’m mostly kidding about this one. But not totally kidding. I increasingly see blogs as a source of reasonableness and nuance on the internet (qualities that Twitter infamously does not reward). But insofar as you want to have reasonable, nuanced discussions, you’re mostly not going to have arguments.
  • It’s not us that’s changing, it’s the internet. Perhaps good arguments on the internet are either moving off of blog comment threads, or else just vanishing entirely. I kind of doubt this–I don’t think broader trends online have much effect on us.
  • Jim Bouldin doesn’t comment here any more. Longtime readers will recall Jim Bouldin, who was the most active commenter back when I was at Oikos Blog, and in the early days of Dynamic Ecology. Jim liked a good argument, often disagreed with the posts, and often engaged in extended back-and-forth in the comments. Nowadays, our most active commenters are Stephen Heard, Jeff Ollerton, and Margaret Kosmala—all of whom agree with us for the most part (not always). So maybe we need to start trolling Stephen, Jeff, and Margaret.*🙂

Ideas on what to do about it:

  • Nothing. Our readership and commentariat self-selects, and we already do as much as we can to encourage debate. So if our commenters don’t want to argue with us, we just have to live with it.
  • Write deliberately-provocative posts. I’m planning to let 2011 me off the leash a bit more. We’ll see if I can manage to upset an optimal fraction of readers.🙂
  • Write “devil’s advocate” posts. I might try arguing with myself more. Trying to imagine the strongest counter-arguments to one’s own views is very good mental exercise. I’ve done this once already in the comments, where I tried to imagine the strongest blanket objection to microcosm studies in ecology. I may turn that comment into a post, and try to do the same thing with other ideas of mine. “Why the IDH is neither a ghost nor a zombie” would be a fun post to try to write. Indeed, I wrote a version of it years ago, but it wasn’t a good version. It spent too much time on weak counterarguments to my own views, rather than focusing on the strongest ones.
  • Invite more guest posts disagreeing with our posts, or expressing provocative points of view. Well, we just did this with Greg Dwyer’s guest post and didn’t draw much pushback. Plus, we’ve found it hard to get people to agree to write guest posts on anything. People often agree to do it, but then don’t follow through. It’s easiest to get our friends to do guest posts–but of course, our friends mostly agree with us.
  • Have a “safe space” post. This is an off-the-wall idea I had, on which I’d welcome feedback. A while back, Crooked Timber (a very popular humanities/social science/lefty politics blog) did a “safe space” post in which they invited their mostly-feminist readers to voice unpopular opinions on “feminism and leftism” that they were afraid to air online. You’d think this would’ve been a disaster of a thread, but it turned out great. So I’m toying with the idea of doing something like that here. Maybe Meg, Brian, and I could get the ball rolling by voicing some of our own unpopular opinions. I suspect it wouldn’t work—I think we’d get basically no comments. Unless maybe we made the topic really broad, like “unpopular opinions on academia”. Thoughts?

Looking forward to your feedback as always. And if you totally disagree with anything I said, by all means say so!🙂

*Just kidding, Stephen, Jeff, and Margaret.**


61 thoughts on “Why don’t we have good arguments in the comments any more?

  1. I am partial to the idea that it is a mixture of factors, but that “scariness” and “time limitations” are the principal offenders. Since the readership is large, you want to put your best foot forward. Even if you post anonymously, people can figure out who you are. It’s like that old Lincoln saying, “Better not to speak and be thought a fool than open your mouth and prove it.” (paraphrased)

    Of course, putting your opinions out there is part of the scientific process, but usually when you do so it’s during a conference talk or in a paper where everyone can see your figures/methods/data and your argument can be laid out clearly (if not necessarily agreeably). However, you generally spend weeks writing papers or crafting talks (ok, some people are noticably faster than this), but who has the kind of time to craft that quality of argument for a comment?

    For example, Meghan had a post on the realized niche a few weeks ago that got me extremely riled up (anecdotal evidence that your posts are no less provocative), I kept thinking about it, and my counter arguments, for days… but between teaching and research I didn’t have the time to craft a lengthy response. It’s true that I could have just put out a brief comment hilighting my thoughts, but nobody would have gotten much out of such casual participation imo – and people are more likely to criticise or think poorly of you if your argument isn’t fully expressed, so it’s actually a bit dangrous to make a brief argument.

    Anyway… I want to develop this thought further, but I need to go tweak my lecture slife’s and today’s lab.

    • Thanks for taking the time to share this Andrew, much appreciated.

      All I can say is that we do the best we can to try to prevent this. One way in which I think and hope I’ve gotten better at responding to commenters over the years is asking people to elaborate or clarify when their comments seem unclear. So our hope is that people will take the time to comment briefly even if they don’t have time to write at length, and then stick around for a conversation. The hope is that such conversations are worth everyone’s time even if they’re not as carefully crafted as scientific talks or papers.

  2. Impossible not to comment here🙂. What I have read (only occasionally, so don’t trust me too much on this), you are impressively nuanced in your opinions. What I mean: most of the arguments you post here, you look at them from all possible sides yourself, showing both comments pro and con. As you – probably – spend more time on searching for all arguments in both directions then an average reader will, you do the work for those readers that would not agree if you would put in less effort to write nuanced opinions.
    In short: you might be too good to spark much discussion ;)?

  3. I don’t know if this is true for anyone else, but, at least for me, “it’s not you, it’s someone else”🙂

    I find I’ve far less patience for blog discussions today, compared to a few years ago, largely because in some academic blog circles it has become fashionable to use being deliberately offended, “triggered”, or otherwise unhappy with a posting, as a cudgel and mechanism of censorship.

    It has simply become too exhausting to try to participate in discussions in many venues, and while you’re not engaging in that behavior here, the reflexive self-censorship that says “I don’t have time to try to massage this so that there’s no possible way for it to be misinterpreted” kicks in at most opportunities to comment.

    Of course, maybe that’s just me.

    • Cheers for this. Chalk up one vote for “it’s larger trends on the internet”.

      Our hope is that we’re good enough at what we do that folks make an exception to their personal don’t-write-anything-on-the-internet policies for us. For instance, Margaret Kosmala has said that she “lurked” for years before she felt that this was a “safe space” in which she could comment.

  4. I almost commented on Greg Dwyer’s post but didn’t because I wasn’t sure I could be civil about what seemed to me to be an unnecessarily crassly framed argument. I think that post would have received more comments if it had been posed as a question: “Is trying to understand ecological data without mechanistic models a waste of time?” rather than “Trying to understand ecological data without mechanistic models is a waste of time”.

    Because the answer is (a) depends what you mean by “ecological” data; and (b) depends what you mean by a “mechanistic model”. Only the latter question was really discussed as I recall. In any case, the post by Judy Myers on Ecological Rants did a much better job of demolishing the argument than I could have written.

    That snarky enough for you?😉

    • Yes, this gets to a point I’ve mused about before and continue to struggle with. If you write a post (or even just a post title) in a deliberately provocative way, you might just turn off many readers and so not get the argument you hoped for. On the other hand, as another commenter said above, if you write a balanced, nuanced post, people won’t comment because they think you’ve already covered all points of view. Which suggests that there’s a very narrow line to walk if you want to spark a productive argument. You need to take a stand, but do it in such a way that you still come off as reasonable and open to argument. Which I do think is possible–Brian’s good at it.

      As you say, one technique is to pose provocative questions rather than make provocative statements. That’s of course what you and Angela did on your guest post for us. Although that technique isn’t infallible (no technique is). Even deliberately provocative questions can cause some readers to roll their eyes and not bother commenting. For instance, because they think the question has an obvious answer, or because they think it’s obvious that the question is poorly framed.

      All of which I think leads to a conclusion: as an author, you can’t do all THAT much to alter the composition or behavior of your readership and so spark debates that wouldn’t otherwise occur. And insofar as you can do anything, it’s hard to do.

      Of course, no post exists in a vacuum. The hope is that, over time, you build up a good reputation that encourages readers to comment, independent of how any particular post is written. I’m sure that’s why we have the good arguments we do sometimes have. But as your comment illustrates, reputation only goes so far, even with your most avid readers and commenters.

      But of course, all this has always been true. It’s always been the case that deliberately-provocative posts turn off some readers, that posing questions rather than making statements may encourage debate, etc. So I still am not sure what, if anything, has changed about the blog recently. The comments we’ve gotten so far stump for various possibilities.

      Re: the debate between Judy and Charley vs. Greg, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  5. Out of curiosity, how many blogs, or even facebook pages (if you have one), do you all read/follow that you don’t agree with?

    I follow/read several (largely on facebook) pages that I mostly don’t agree with. I started doing this after reading a book that declared that people only read books, papers, magazines, etc. that largely shared their views. When I examined my own reading habits, I discovered the author was right (about me, anyway). So, I set out to become a more diverse reader and it has been very rewarding. I’ve come to see flaws in my own ways of thinking, expanded my world view, and have become a slightly better communicator (in writing at least). I don’t always comment as it can be a little hostile on some pages, especially non-scientific pages, but I’ve found that I don’t need to in order to get something from it.

    Long story short here: perhaps there’s a general trend towards people mostly reading stuff they agree with, so the comments section is naturally sparse on arguments. It may also be that people who disagree read some posts, but don’t comment for any number of reasons (ex: scariness that Andrew mentioned).

    • Good question. I mostly read people whom I mostly agree with, with a few exceptions. But thinking about how the mix of stuff I read has changed over time, I wouldn’t say that I’m in more (or less) of a self-created filter bubble than I was, say, 5 years ago.

      No idea if there’s a general trend for people to only read stuff they agree with. And if so, if it operates on the right timescale to explain changes in our comment threads over the past 2-3 years.

      The other thing I’d say is that I think I only live in a “filter bubble” when it comes to non-scientific topics. I don’t choose, say, what journals to read based on whether they’re publishing papers I tend to agree with. I’d actually like to read more science blogs aimed at professionals that address broad ecological topics I care about but take stances on those topics with which I disagree (so, not popular science blogs). But I haven’t really found any. Ecological Rants is the only one, really.

    • p.s. Many of the best arguments I’ve had on this and other blogs over the years have been with people I mostly agree with. Brian, for instance, both before and after he started blogging here. Margaret, Terry, and Jeff too, on those rare occasions when we’ve disagreed. I think that’s for a couple of reasons. People you mostly agree with share enough of your point of view that you’re not likely to talk past each other. And I know all those people, at least through many online interactions. It’s easier to argue with people you know and trust.

    • Comments on my blog are still building (which is great), but I think that’s inevitable because my blog is still new compared to DE and SPS. But Terry illustrates a point that puzzles me: people often comment on Twitter instead of on the blog itself. Which means readers of the post don’t see the comment (and vice versa), and it loses much of its value. I often reply to a tweet asking the tweeter (?) to leave the same thought as a comment on the blog. Often they do; but sometimes they say they can’t see the point, and I don’t understand that at all!

      And please, please troll me. That sounds like fun.

      • FWIW, our posts are widely tweeted–but they aren’t actually discussed in any meaningful sense on Twitter, and never have been (well, with the rare exception of this post!). People just retweet, or maybe rephrase the title or add “I agree!” and then retweet. It’s rare for anyone to actually discuss our posts on Twitter. And I highly doubt that anyone who’s retweeting our posts but not commenting would comment instead if Twitter didn’t exist. So I don’t think Twitter is cannibalizing or replacing our blog comments.

  6. HI Jeremy, I have to say that I too have been a little disappointed with the lack of comments on my blog, even my A World Without Pandas – would it make a difference https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/a-world-without-pandas-would-it-make-a-difference-or-conservation-versus-eradication-do-some-species-deserve-to-die/and my explanation for boycotting BES 2015 AGM https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/meeating-issues-with-the-british-ecological-society-why-i-boycotted-the-2015-annual-meeting/ only got 5 and 8 comments respectively, despite the fact that I posted them with some trepidation expecting to be flamed terribly but those comments were favourable and supportive – the BES didn’t even bother to respond, despite me pointing them at the blog post. It is possible that people find it hard to find the time to develop a good argument – although I read your blog faithfully, I mostly leave you and the others a Like, rather than take the time to comment, and of course tweet the link. I should add that I am out of the office for a week buying a house in France (for our retirement) and our plans for eating out didn’t materialise so I am not as busy as I usually am🙂 But do keep up the good work and if you Brian or Meg say something derogatory about insects and/o entomologists I am bound to enter into an argument🙂

    • Just to be clear, it sounds like my concerns might differ a bit from yours. I’m not concerned with our overall volume of comments, which isn’t declining.

      And thanks for the permission to troll you.🙂

    • p.s. Thanks for sharing that post on your boycott of the BES, I had missed that and will give it a belated shout-out in the next linkfest.

      That post touches on a broad issue I find interesting but difficult to think about. Morals change over time; many things that were once widely (if not always universally) considered morally acceptable or even obligatory are now widely (if not always universally) considered morally repugnant. And many people, though not all, would consider this a sign of progress, would say that we’re not just morally different than those who lived in the past, but better. Which raises the interesting question of what widely-acceptable current behaviors will be seen as morally repugnant in future. And if we can anticipate those shifts, perhaps we should just skip straight to disapproving of those behaviors so as to get on “the right side of history” as fast as possible. I raise all this because your post mentions multiple behaviors that might be candidates for currently-acceptable behaviors that will widely be seen as abhorrent in future: eating meat, air travel.

      Your post and the comments also illustrate the tension between those who consider something a matter of private personal conscience, and those who consider that same thing a public matter. You see this tension in many areas within as well as outside science. Think of how some people argue that open access publishing isn’t merely a desirable option individuals should seriously consider, but that publishing in any other way is unethical, so that people who do it deserve public moral criticism. I tried to get at this a bit in this old post, with only limited success at best:


  7. I might be part of the problem, because I think I’m more likely to comment on a post I agree with than one I disagree with. I’m going to claim this is consistent with my belief that we need more praise, not more criticism, in science (http://wp.me/s5x2kS-praise), but it’s also possible that it’s a character flaw on my part. I have to admit to some trepidation about leaving disagreement, with a (irrational) fear of having harsher disagreement come back. I love a good argument in person but rarely enjoy one on the internet as much as I know I should😦 But none of that explains your temporal shift (if it’s real).

    • Weirdly, I think I’m more likely to comment if I disagree with something in a post. (Haven’t time to go back and provide data, though…)

      One unexpected (to me) result of starting my new blog is that I have less energy for engaging on other people’s blogs. I find myself starting to comment and then deleting my comment because I don’t have the time and energy for a sustained dialog.

      • “Weirdly, I think I’m more likely to comment if I disagree with something in a post. ”

        Ok, that’s one vote for “Troll Margaret so as to get more arguments going in the comments.”😉

        “One unexpected (to me) result of starting my new blog is that I have less energy for engaging on other people’s blogs. ”

        If I find myself typing a lengthy comment on someone else’s blog (which isn’t that often), I’ll sometimes stop myself and turn it into a Friday linkfest blurb, or (more rarely) a standalone post.

        I probably comment on other people’s blogs less than I did a couple of years ago. Not sure though, haven’t tracked it.

  8. So here’s a question: are good-quality online scientific arguments, including arguments about our posts, increasingly moving on to Facebook? Because that way you aren’t arguing with strangers or in front of a big audience (well, unless somebody screencaps something you wrote and then tweets it…).

    Meg might be able to comment on this, since she’s on Facebook. Brian and I aren’t.

    FWIW, Facebook shares of our posts are either flat or increasing. But it’s always been our advice/instructional posts that get shared on Facebook the most (there are exceptions, obviously, but that’s the trend). Which I suppose could mean that there’s lots of arguing about those posts on Facebook. But I suspect it’s mostly that grad students and other trainees just use Facebook to share useful advice they’ve found.

    • My take is the same as ATM’s (below): I don’t think there’s much discussion of blog posts on Facebook, for the most part.

  9. I’ll add my thoughts as someone who has complained about the argumentative side of the blog back in the wilds of time, who reads a lot of blogs, and who comments here and elsewhere infrequently.

    I agree with jeffollerton above. I don’t argue with statements. I’ll discuss questions asked in good faith (not deliberately provocative or devil’s advocate ones) but I don’t have the time or interest to try to convince someone of something when they haven’t indicated they have the slightest interest in changing their mind.

    A lot of posts here are from a point of view that I don’t share and therefore I find some of the assumptions or generalities questionable, but that sort of thing is hard to argue about. The most recent examples of this are the ‘evolutionary envy’ and the biodiversity posts – both good posts that suffered from being presented as arguments rather than statements of experience or philosophy. I guess I could have popped in and said ‘What? Who are these crazy folks you’re talking about? This is not my experience!’ but that’s super boring.

    I don’t think there is more discussion on Facebook; at least the group I follow doesn’t discuss anything. I think blogs generally are falling off. Even Crooked Timber is not being commented on the way it used to be. It’s full of the same people derailing the discussion in the same directions. I used to read the comments there but not any more.

    • Thanks ATM, I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts.

      I suggest you might be underrating how interesting it is for someone to say “that’s not been my experience”. That’s often the sort of comment I learn the most from–the one that opens my eyes and makes me realize that my own experience is more atypical than I had realized. I’ve changed my mind on various matters over the years thanks to just those sorts of comments.

      I’m a little surprised that Mark Vellend’s evolution envy post came off as an argument to you. I’m obviously not going to try to talk you out of your view of that post; that’d be silly. But I hope you won’t see it as an attempt to pick a fight if I explain the reasons for my surprise, so that you know where I’m coming from. First, the post title is a question, explicitly asked of only “some” ecologists. Second, the post itself suggests that ecologists *shouldn’t* have evolution envy. Which I’d have thought would resonate with–or at least not put off–any ecologist who happens not to know anyone who has evolution envy (which I take it you don’t). Third, Mark Vellend is one of the most open-minded, self-critical people I know, so one of the best people to argue with if you want to argue with people willing to change their minds. (But of course, that’s not something that people who don’t know Mark personally could be expected to know.)

      Ok, Marks’ post aside, you’re absolutely right that everyone who blogs here has a point of view, and writes with the purpose of expressing it. We don’t often write posts in which we say “I know little about this topic and have no opinion on it but want to learn more, please enlighten me”. And FWIW the few times when I’ve written such posts, I’ve usually gotten few useful comments back (e.g.: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/questions-about-extinction-cascades/). And yes, you’re right that a point of view isn’t the sort of thing people often change their mind on. Commenters here have changed my mind about specific topics, but not my general world view. I still find it very valuable to discuss different points of view even if no one’s likely to totally change theirs, but obviously your mileage may vary on this.

      We do sometimes do posts saying “this has been my personal experience, take it or leave it for what it’s worth”, as with Meg’s post and mine on how we almost quit the academic science career path. Is that the sort of post you’d like to see more of and would be more inclined to comment on?

      Bottom line: yes, insofar as posts expressing a point of view aren’t the sort of thing you want to read or comment on (at least not unless you agree with it), then yes, you’re not going to want to read this blog or comment on it (again, at least not unless you agree with it).

      Of course, as you noted, the issues you raise are longstanding ones, here and perhaps at other blogs too. It sounds like you see blogs in general as a failed experiment, at least as a means of serious discussion and disagreement? So that blog comment threads are slowly becoming more agreeable (or else dying altogether) as more and more people come to feel as you do about them? You could well be right, I’m not sure. There aren’t many blogs besides this one on which I’ve read the comments for long enough to have an opinion. I haven’t noticed much change in the quality of threads at Crooked Timber, but I’ve only been reading them for a few years and perhaps the change has been too slow for me to notice. Or had already happened before I started reading them.

      • I would like to reply equally as thoughtfully but I don’t have time until later tonight or tomorrow🙂

  10. Andrew really captured the essence of the problem for me. Often I’ll feel that gut reaction to a post and think about crafting a comment but then realizing what kind of effort would be needed to craft something clearly and cogently including, gasp, having to check the literature to make sure I’m not misremebering or misinterpreting something. Then comes the sneaking suspicion that I’m engaging in procrastination, followed by being called away to a meeting or a class and then, with a renewed interest later in the afternoon, finding oneself having lost the thread of the original response. All this to say that being able to organize one’s thoughts quickly and clearly and said with conviction – really writing off the cuff – is probably a skill shared by few people. It would seem the same characteristics would be shared by those who publish frequently or ask questions at talks, though, not everyone might excel in all three.

    • “It would seem the same characteristics would be shared by those who publish frequently or ask questions at talks”

      That’s an interesting hypothesis: is there any tendency for bloggers to be the sorts of people who ask questions at talks? I ask questions at talks, so there’s a data point consistent with the hypothesis. But then again, many more people ask questions at talks than write blogs.

      More broadly, I agree that the skill you describe is fairly rare, though I doubt it’s getting rarer. Or maybe it’s not so much a skill per se as a combination of skill, motivation, and lowered standards. I too often feel like I’m procrastinating by blogging or commenting–but I don’t worry about it, because I’m sure that if I wasn’t blogging or commenting I’d be procrastinating in some less useful way. And when I comment, I don’t often find myself hesitating because I feel I need to check the literature, which perhaps means I just hold my comments to low standards. (Posts are different–I sometimes struggle with a post or end up not publishing it because I decide I don’t have the time or motivation to do the required background research.)

      • I rarely ask questions at talks. So, add a data point that is not consistent with the hypothesis.🙂

      • I’m not a great questioner right after a talk either. I always formulate my questions 5 minutes after the question session is over. For me blogging pace is just perfect!

      • @Brian:

        Ok, clearly we’ve falsified the “bloggers ask questions after talks” hypothesis (N=3).🙂

        Also, your question formulation routine would be perfect for a philosophy dept., or at least Calgary’s. Here at Calgary, the philosophy dept. takes a 10 minute break after the seminar, and then everyone returns with well-formulated questions.

  11. Great post. I agree with a lot of commenters above…the main reasons I will comment on a blog are time, how well I know/care about the topic, and how comfortable I feel crashing the party.

    I would suggest a couple of other hypotheses:

    1) People are accepting academic blogs more as ‘primary literature’ than opinion. I hope this isn’t true, but I have wondered… Academic blogs are being linked to increasingly in popular media (both reputable and tabloid), and more ‘reputable’ science blogs are becoming popular (e.g. Plos blogs, Sci blogs, LSE Impact blog etc.)…some are even appearing in Google Scholar searches!

    2) More active bloggers means that if a reader wants to add to what you’ve written, they will write a counter-post on their own blog instead of arguing in the comments. I have done this myself a few times! And I realise this detracts from the engagement part of blogging, so I am making more of an effort to comment first and then blog (can’t promise I won’t counter-post to this!)🙂

    • “More active bloggers means that if a reader wants to add to what you’ve written, they will write a counter-post on their own blog instead of arguing in the comments.”

      Hmm…that happens, but not often, at least not to us (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/why-theres-no-ecology-blogosphere/). Indeed, our most active commenters are mostly people who could, if they chose, write their own posts in response to ours instead of commenting here.

      “People are accepting academic blogs more as ‘primary literature’ than opinion. I hope this isn’t true, but I have wondered”

      Hmm…I agree that there’s been a weeding out and and that the science blogosphere is increasingly dominated by a smaller number of established blogs that are taken increasingly seriously. But outside of economics (the one field with a blogosphere worthy of the name), I don’t know that blogs are really seen as part of the primary literature. I’d like this blog to be taken seriously, so I’d be happy if people came to take it as seriously as (though not equivalent to) a scientific journal. But I’d be sad if that came at the cost of people not wanting to comment any more.

  12. So here’s a question. Multiple commenters have said that they don’t comment to disagree with posts because it would be too much time and effort to craft a clear, cogent counter-argument. Which suggests that part of the problem might be that our posts are too long and well-crafted? Perhaps we’re unwittingly creating the impression that if you want to comment here you’d better come up with something highly polished? Perhaps if we did more short post just tossing ideas out there, without much elaboration or background research, we’d get more debates going in comments?

  13. Is this part of a larger trend? I understand that people are selecting internet sources with which they agree, and leave ones with which they disagree–after all, who among us has too few sources of internet information. I’m not an ecologist, but it seems to me this is sort of like niche separation.

    Maybe the question you are really interested in is “How would one present a blog post if the goal was to initiate a discussion?”

    • Yes, you’ve neatly summarized two of the big themes of this thread. Are our comment threads victims of a larger trend for people to select sources with which they agree? And can we fight this writing posts differently than we do?

      Both good questions to which I don’t have answers. Though I suspect the answer to the second question is “Not really.”

  14. To offer something more substantial, I wonder how strongly ‘scale’ affects the likelihood of producing (hopefully productive!) arguments.

    The two threads you listed as good examples, and some of the others I’ve seen here (discussion on IDH, AIC, etc.), all involve ideas that are used by and taught to numerous ecologists through all career stages. Using the posts that stand out more strongly in my mind, I see a few common patterns:

    1. Provocative titles. People are more likely to read a post, and are more likely to argue over the post’s contents, if the title immediately puts them in a mindset ready for debate.

    2. Broadly topically relevant: detection probabilities, AIC, etc. are absolutely everywhere in ecology, and so posts criticizing their use are going to provoke a much stronger reaction than a critique on something more archaic or niche.

    3. Sufficiently firmly opinionated. As stated above, if a post uses too many qualifiers or alternative points of view, it loses some of it controversy potential.

    4. Originality. Posts will provoke argument in part because brains are more likely to react to provocation towards novel stimuli than to elaborations on arguments they’ve already seen.

    • #2 is a good point. Though even broadly relevant topics are far from guaranteed to start good arguments, as the recent examples of Brian’s pizza diversity post and Greg Dwyer’s guest post illustrate.

      Re: detection probabilities and AIC, statistical topics seem particularly good for starting arguments. Even if they’re not that original–anything anyone writes about p-values is likely to draw a fair bit of traffic and start an argument!

      • Definitely!

        There’s decent evidence that human brains respond very strongly to being told that what they believe is wrong. Given that statistics are the tools we as scientists use to do our best to sort out ‘truth’, I can see how posts critiquing those tools would create a reaction much more readily.

      • In my experience people in the math/computer/physics end of things are much more willing to argue than the average person!

      • @Brian:

        Yes, definitely. If you’re ever asked to give a talk to mathematicians, you need to prep *much* less material than you would if talking to biologists, because you’ll never get through it otherwise. Mathematicians constantly interrupt your talk to ask questions. It’s not that they’re rude or arrogant, they’re not out to humiliate you or rip your work. They just want to *really* understand *exactly* what you’re saying.

        Which raises the possibility that the secret to having a blog with lots of good arguments in the comments is to have a math/computer/physics blog. Or economics, though in economics there are other drivers of blog argumentation besides mathiness. Philosophy too, which attracts similar sorts of people even though many bits of it aren’t quantitative.

        I’m kind of an anecdote in favor of this hypothesis. I read a lot of econ blogs, and it influences my approach to blogging. And while I’m no theoretician, I’m probably more into mathematical modeling than the median ecologist, and less into natural history. Of course, you’re at least a partial counterexample, since you have a computer background but yet don’t often ask questions after talks.

      • I often wonder what factors cause different fields to internalize argument as part of their culture.

        Prior to becoming an ecologist (switched fields ~halfway through my undergraduate), I was a paleontologist. While ecology and paleontology are similar fields, my experience is that aggressive intellectual interactions are much more common in paleontology. Partly, I think that egos are just generally bigger in the paleo field. When Alvarez suggested that the dinosaurs were killed by the K-Pg impactor, the ensuing arguments became fiercely polarized for years. In one instance, two paleontologists on opposite sides of the impactor issue famously brawled in a conference hallway.

        That aggressive culture goes all the way back to the ‘Bone Wars’ between Cope and Marsh.

        Definitely would be interesting to see sociological research on this.

      • @Tor Bertin:

        Interesting. That confirms my outsider’s impression of paleontology. Vertebrate paleo also is unusual in having lots of keen amateurs and semi-professionals who consider themselves part of the field and who don’t hesitate to criticize the pros. In all these ways veretebrate paleo seems kind of like macroeconomics, which is kind of weird. I too would be interested to see sociological research on this.

      • @Tor Bertin:

        There’s variation in the culture of argumentativeness within ecology. Some ecology departments have a reputation for being very tough on visiting seminar speakers, for instance. UBC is one. Duke is another (or used to be back in the 70s and 80s). Presumably that’s because a few individuals or lab groups “set the tone”, maybe even to the point where the tone persists after they leave or retire. Not sure if the same mechanism can work at the level of an entire field, though.

        Worth noting that the cultural variables we’re discussing covary with other things, like the proportion of women in the field. I’d like to see ecology as a whole become a bit more comfortable with argument and debate, as is the case in some departments. But not at the cost of driving women out of the field.

  15. I’ve been arguing online for 20 years. As sad as that is, the experience does perhaps provide some insight.

    1) Blogging software is not conducive to ongoing conversations. Blogging software is well designed for giving speeches. If engagement with readers were a primary goal here or elsewhere, forum software is the way to go.

    2) Most of the folks we might enjoy a good debate with have given up on the Internet. Most blogs and forums use the “almost anybody can say almost anything” publishing model. While that model excels at democratic inclusiveness, it’s not a very inviting environment for the more interesting writers due to the low signal to noise ratio.

    3) As for science debates, personally I’m not too interested in the technical details within narrow reductionist stovepipes, and am content to leave that to the experts. What interests me is discussing where knowledge development as a whole is taking our civilization, and this seems too broad and holistic a focus to interest those who are specialists by nature.

    There, with #3 I’ve given you a chance to prove me so very wrong, Wrong, WRONG!!! 🙂

    • Thanks for the interesting comments Phil.

      Re: 1, that seems to me to be an argument that online conversations mostly aren’t possible. Because while there is technology available for live chats and forums, that means everybody has to be awake and available at the same time. Which is pretty hard because everybody’s busy, and the people interested in any given topic are scattered over many time zones. Which maybe is basically right–that open online conversation and debate is an experiment that has mostly failed. Maybe good conversation and debate simply doesn’t “scale” very well, for reasons that cannot be overcome by any technology.

      Re: 2, our hope at DE has always been that we could build enough of a reputation to buck that general trend. And also that we’d be sufficiently specialized as to buck that trend–we’re not a politics or pop culture blog, we’re a science/academia blog. I think we’ve been partially successful at bucking that trend. We do have commenters, they’re generally very thoughtful and informed, and we’ve literally only ever had to block 1 in 1000 comments for being offensive or otherwise out of line. But it’s possible that, even if our comment threads host many more and much better debates than the average comment thread, that we’ll still be subject to a general downward trend in the frequency and quality of the debates we host.

  16. Pingback: Why I ‘liked’ your blog post: on sharing content for science communication – Ecology is not a dirty word

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s