Can We All Stop Trying to Teach Science to Trolls?


This week Popular Science made the decision to shut down their comment section due to, in large part, spammers and trolls.
"As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former,diminishing our ability to do the latter."

The decision to shut down comments has met with a good deal of sympathetic criticism, the reality though is that it is partially our fault. I don't mean trolls, I mean everyone else. One of the oldest rules of the internet is "never feed the trolls" but people still do. I think that most of us do, at least occasionally and as long as we keep feeding them, they will keep coming back.

Traditionally, an internet troll is described like this:
"Although originally a non-offensive reference to fishing by trolling for input/feedback on ideas, the term in Internetspeak has evolved and now refers to an entity that involves itself in discussions purely for the purpose of provoking and/or disturbing other users and making itself feel important. Because trolls take away from productive work, the standard response is to starve the troll of attention by ignoring it and going about your usual business."

But I think we need to expand that definition a bit, especially when it comes to scientific discussions. There are people who simply do not understand science or willfully choose not to accept it. There may actually be people trolling by pretending they don't understand, but whether they are pretending or not is irrelevant. They should all be considered trolls.

When you are having a discussion or debate, acceptable contributions include logical and reasonable arguments which should, when at all possible, be backed up by facts. Those facts might include statistics, scientific data, historical information etc. They should not include thin conspiracy theories, paranoia, insults or untestable 'beliefs'. People who attempt to use such arguments should cut off / blocked / banned / removed or at the very least ignored. Whether they actually believe what they are saying is irrelevant.

At this point anyone who really believes that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that evolution is 'just a theory', that global warming isn't real or isn't man made and/or that the world is flat should simply be excluded from the discussion. The same holds true for new age pseudo science (if our ancient ancestors knew so much about health and medicine, they would have lived longer lives.) Michael Shermer has a great post at Scientific American on choosing science over beliefs.

Even if these people are sincere in their beliefs and even if you genuinely want to educate them, you cannot teach someone chemistry, biology, physics, geology, anthropology, archeology, paleontology, anthropology and/or history in a blog comment, Facebook comment or on Twitter.  It is their job to educate themselves and until they do, they should not be encouraged to participate in rational conversations about important issues. Once again, do not feed, accommodate or appease the trolls and do not let them win the internet.
Next Post »