The war on (scientific) terror…

I’ve been otherwise occupied of late so the blog has had to take a back seat. I’m therefore coming to this particular story rather late in the day. Nonetheless, it’s on an exceptionally important theme that is at the core of how scientific publishing, scientific critique, and, therefore, science itself should evolve. That type of question doesn’t have a sell-by date so I hope my tardiness can be excused.

The story involves a colleague and friend who has courageously put his head above the parapet (on a number of occasions over the years) to highlight just where peer review goes wrong. And time and again he’s gotten viciously castigated by (some) senior scientists for doing nothing more than critiquing published data in as open and transparent a fashion as possible. In other words, he’s been pilloried (by pillars of the scientific community) for daring to suggest that we do science the way it should be done.

This time, he’s been called a…wait for it…scientific terrorist. And by none other than the most cited chemist in the world over the last decade (well, from 2000 – 2010): Chad A Mirkin. According to his Wiki page, Mirkin “was the first chemist to be elected into all three branches of the National Academies. He has published over 700 manuscripts (Google Scholar H-index = 163) and has over 1100 patents and patent applications (over 300 issued, over 80% licensed as of April 1, 2018). These discoveries and innovations have led to over 2000 commercial products that are being used worldwide.”

With that pedigree, this guy must really have done something truly appalling for Mirkin to call him a scientific terrorist (oh, and a zealot, and a narcissist), right? Well, let’s see…

raphaportrait2The colleague in question is Raphael Levy. Raphael (pictured to the right) is a Senior Lecturer — or Associate Professor to use the term increasingly preferred by UK universities and traditionally used by our academic cousins across the pond — in Biochemistry at the University of Liverpool. He has a deep and laudable commitment to open science and the evolution of the peer review system towards a more transparent and accountable ethos.

Along with Julian Stirling, who was a PhD student here at Nottingham at the time, and a number of other colleagues, I collaborated closely with Raphael and his team (from about 2012 – 2014) in critiquing and contesting a body of work that claimed that stripes (with ostensibly fascinating physicochemical and biological properties) formed on the surface of suitably functionalised nanoparticles. I’m not going to revisit the “stripy” nanoparticle debate here. If you’re interested, see Refs [1-5] below. Raphael’s blog , which I thoroughly recommend, also has detailed bibliographies for the stripy nanoparticle controversy.

More recently, Raphael and his co-workers at Liverpool have found significant and worrying deficiencies in claims regarding the efficacy of what are known as SmartFlares. (Let me translate that academically-nuanced wording: Apparently, they don’t work.) Chad Mirkin played a major role in the development of SmartFlares, which are claimed to detect RNA in living cells and were sold by SigmaMilliPore from 2013 until recently, when they were taken off the market.

The SmartFlare concept is relatively straight-forward to understand (even for this particular squalid state physicist, who tends to get overwhelmed by molecules much larger than CO): each ‘flare’  probe comprises a gold nanoparticle attached to an oligonucleotide (that encodes a target sequence) and a fluorophore, which does not emit fluorescence as long as it’s near to the gold particle. When the probe meets the target RNA, however, this displaces the fluorophore (thus reducing the coupling to, and quenching by, the gold nanoparticle) and causes it to glow (or ‘flare’). Or so it’s claimed.

As described in a recent article in The Scientist, however, there is compelling evidence from a growing number of sources, including, in particular, Raphael’s own group, that SmartFlares simply aren’t up to the job. Raphael’s argument, for which he has strong supporting data (from electron-, fluorescence- and photothermal microscopy), is that the probes are trapped in endocytic compartments and get nowhere near the RNA they’re meant to target.

Mirkin, as one might expect, vigorously claims otherwise. That’s, of course, entirely his prerogative. What’s most definitely not his prerogative, however, is to launch hyperbolic personal attacks at a critic of his work. As Raphael describes over at his blog, he asked the following question at the end of a talk Mirkin gave at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston a month ago:

In science, we need to share the bad news as well as the good news. In your introduction you mentioned four clinical trials. One of them has reported. It showed no efficacy and Purdue Pharma which was supposed to develop the drug decided not to pursue further. You also said that 1600 forms of NanoFlares were commercially available. This is not true anymore as the distributor has pulled the product because it does not work. Finally, I have a question: what is the percentage of nanoparticles that escape the endosome?

According to Raphael’s description (which is supported by others at the conference — see below), Mirkin’s response was ad hominem in the extreme:

[Mirkin said that]…no one is reading my blog (who cares),  no one agrees with me; he called me a “scientific zealot” and a “scientific terrorist”.

Raphael and I have been in a similar situation before with regard to scientific critique not exactly being handled with good grace. We and our colleagues have faced accusations of being cyber-bullies — and, worse, fake blogs and identity theft were used –to attempt to discredit our (purely scientific) criticism.

Science is in a very bad place indeed if detailed criticism of a scientist’s work is dismissed aggressively as scientific terrorism/zealotry. We are, of course, all emotional beings to a greater or lesser extent. Therefore, and despite protestations to the contrary from those who have an exceptionally naive view of The Scientific Method, science is not some wholly objective monolith that arrives at The Truth by somehow bypassing all the messy business of being human. As Neuroskeptic described so well in a blog post about the stripy nanoparticle furore, often professional criticism is taken very personally by scientists (whose self-image and self-confidence can be intimately connected to the success of the science we do). Criticism of our work can therefore often feel like criticism of us.

But as scientists we have to recognise, and then always strive to rise above, those very human responses; to take on board, rather than aggressively dismiss out of hand, valid criticisms of our work. This is not at all easy, as PhD Comics among others has pointed out:

One would hope, however, that a scientist of Mirkin’s calibre would set an example, especially at a conference with the high profile of the annual ACS meeting. As a scientist who witnessed the exchange between Raphael and Mirkin put it,

I witnessed an interaction between two scientists. One asks his questions gracefully and one responding in a manner unbecoming of a Linus Pauling Medalist. It took courage to stand in front of a packed room of scientists and peers to ask those questions that deserved an answer in a non-aggressive manner. It took even more courage to not become reactive when the respondent is aggressive and belittling. I certainly commended Raphael Levy for how he handled the aggressive response from Chad Mirkin.

Or, as James Wilking put it somewhat more pithily:

An apology from Mirkin doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. This is a shame, to put it mildly. What I found rather more disturbing than Mirkin’s overwrought accusation of scientific terrorism, however, was the reaction of an anonymous scientist in that article in The Scientist:

“I think what everyone has to understand is that unhealthy discussion leads to unsuccessful funding applications, with referees pointing out that there is a controversy in the matter. Referee statements like these . . . in a highly competitive environment for funding, simply drain the funding away of this topic,” he writes in an email to The Scientist. He believes a recent grant application of his related to the topic was rejected for this reason, he adds.

This is a shockingly disturbing mindset. Here we have a scientist bemoaning that (s)he did not get public funding because of what is described as “unhealthy” public discussion and controversy about an area of science. Better that we all keep schtum about any possible problems and milk the public purse for as much grant funding as possible, right?

That attitude stinks to high heaven. If it takes some scientific terrorism to shoot it down in flames then sign me up.


[1] Stripy Nanoparticle Controversy Blows Up

[2] Peer Review In Public: Rise Of The Cyber-Bullies? 

[3] Looking At Nothing, Seeing A Lot

[4] Critical Assessment of the Evidence for Striped Nanoparticles, Julian Stirling et al, PLOS ONE 9 e108482 (2014)

[5] How can we trust scientific publishers with our work if they won’t play fair?

 

 

 

Social Media and Academics: Beyond the Brand

I enjoyed Sara Custer’s thought-provoking Times Higher Education article on the perils of social media for academics  and was prompted to add my tuppence-worth. Here’s the post in question for those outside the paywall…


Sara Custer’s timely and thought-provoking feature article on the ups and downs of social media in academia struck a loud, resonant chord with me. A few years back I deleted my Twitter account, subsequently blitzed my personal YouTube channel, and put my blog on an extended hiatus. This act of social media suicide – as my soon-to-be-teenage daughter likes to refer to it – was prompted by a number of the factors described, or alluded to, in Custer’s article: the toxicity, the time-wasting, and the sheer, utter stupidity of indulging in pointless playground spats online.

My personal Twitter nadir came in a 1:00 am exchange with Louise Mensch where her riposte to a carefully crafted tweet was “LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL!!!”. Followed by a tweenage meme. Sigh. What was I doing with my life? (On the plus side, I was blocked by the legend-in-his-own-lunchtime that is Milo Yiannopoulos after just two tweets. With Deepak Chopra, one tweet was enough… (Add smiley emoji to taste.))

I’m not going to rehearse the reasons behind my disconnection and distancing from social media. (For those masochistic enough to be interested in all the tedious detail, it’s available at the now resurrected blog.) Nor am I going to trot out some trite, patronising, vacuous, TED-esque “Twelve Reasons You Too Should Shut Down Your Social Media Accounts” self-help guff. (Not this time at least. I’m not entirely blameless when it comes to the listicle thing, however.) Social media are just tools for communication. And, as Custer highlighted, not only do (most) academics like to communicate, communication is our core ‘business’; our raison d’etre. We also tend to be a fairly argumentative species. From that perspective, the social media ecosystem is our natural habitat in many ways.

But one aspect of social media engagement that is still not sufficiently well-recognised by universities in their headlong rush to encourage as many of their academics, and, increasingly, students, to connect online (so as to maximise that all-important impact factor) is just how viciously toxic it can get. And, make no mistake, that toxicity can bleed offline into real life. While Custer’s article highlights how universities consider the potential effects of social media posts and profiles on their brand (both positive and negative), many of those august institutions seem rather less concerned about highlighting the downsides of a social media profile to their staff and, even more worryingly, are not always as supportive as they could be when things go wrong. (That’s not a veiled criticism of the University of Nottingham (where I’m based), by the way. The School here is very supportive and our HoS is active on a variety of social media platforms and well aware of the risks).

What used to be the preserve of cesspits like 4chan is increasingly overground online, polluting mainstream sites such as YouTube and Twitter. Whitney Phillips, Angela Nagle, and Mike Wendling have each very convincingly argued this point in “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right”, and “Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House”, respectively. And yet when I speak at academic meetings and workshops whose focus is the application and exploitation of social media, I find that there is often a worrying lack of appreciation of just how bad it can get. Mention of GamerGate and Anita Sarkeesian, for example, draws blank stares and a lack of raised hands when I ask those in attendance if they’re familiar with the torrents of abuse and threats that Sarkeesian and others have received. Here’s just one week of Sarkeesian’s Twitter feed from a few years back. I also strongly recommend this video to any student or academic thinking about posting their research online.

I’m a middle-aged physicist whose research focuses on pushing, poking, and prodding single atoms. And I’m a bloke. As compared to a female PhD student in, oh, let’s say, gender studies, I have it ridiculously easy indeed when it comes to communicating my research online. But it’s not just gender studies that’s in the firing line. Certain online gurus, including the lobster- and dragon-fixated Jordan B Peterson, would have it that entire schools of education, sociology, English, and swathes of the humanities are all deeply suspect at best (and fundamentally corrupt at worst), and, as befits those champions of free speech, should be shut down forthwith. And Peterson, for one, has a substantial flock hanging on his every word.

University management and funding bodies need to inform themselves about just how viciously toxic it can get on social media. Too often, their perception seems to be that there’s an adoring public “out there” waiting with bated breath to hear about the latest research findings. This is breathtakingly naïve. For many, academics and experts are part of the problem, not the solution. Universities need to start thinking beyond the brand.

 

 

 

 

Growing up in public

Cop on /kɒp ɒn/. Verb. (Irish, idiomatic). Exhortation to stop behaving immaturely. “Would yeh ever cop yourself on, yeh gobshite?”

Cop on (alt. cop-on ). Noun.  Common sense. “You could say that people need to have a bit of cop-on about their own safety.”


It’s not an idiom that I hear very often in England, but phrases like “Cop on, for feck’s sake” [1]  are riven into the fabric of Irish conversation. The closest direct ‘translation’ to British English is something like “Grow up, would you?”, but that doesn’t capture the tone of scorn and pillory in quite the same way.

When it comes to certain aspects of my blogging and YouTube activity, I’ve got to confess that I should have copped on much, much sooner.

Those of you who were previously subscribed to this blog and/or my YouTube channel will know that about eighteen months ago I took them both offline. I’ve been regularly contributing online elsewhere in the intervening period – for example, this, this, this, and this [2] — but since the end of 2016 have chosen not to write posts nor create videos for a personal blog or YT channel. Before I outline just why I curtailed my blogging and ‘vlogging’ (and there have been some bizarre and bonkers theories circulating in certain quarters online as to why I did this), I guess I should explain my reasons for restoring the Symptoms… blog at this point in time.

On average, once or twice a week over the last eighteen months I’d get an e-mail from someone who had followed a link to a blog post I’d written and been greeted by this. In parallel, I’d receive messages from friends and colleagues asking about the demise of the blog. The number of e-mail enquiries also spiked recently as a result of this very kind comment under a Sixty Symbols video I did with Brady Haran last month:

Comment

I’ve, of course, also received very many rather less complimentary comments and e-mails, including long expletive- and vitriol-ridden screeds repeating long-debunked ‘science’ on gender/race (repeatedly), as a result of my online contributions. More on the reasons for this below. (I tend to preface my response to that type of e-mail with some variant of this trigger warning, which I’ve used on more than one occasion in previous posts.)

Often I’d find myself cutting and pasting particular blog posts from the archive and sending them to those who’d contacted me by e-mail. This is time-consuming and just a little silly when I could just have made the posts available online. (And I’ll take this opportunity to say a massive thank you to all who contacted me over the months to offer their best wishes and support. I owe you all a pint or two, or whatever your preferred tipple might be. [3]).

So that’s one reason for resurrecting the blog. Another is that I just enjoy writing. A lot. I find it immensely cathartic and I’ve missed regularly putting virtual pen to virtual paper to organise my thoughts and, of course, to vent my spleen. On occasion.

And, yes, I’ll come clean — another reason is this:

Uncertainty-to-11

I plan to write a number of posts expanding on themes in this book after it’s published in August. For now, this preview covers some of the motivations behind writing the book:

Notwithstanding that embedded preview above, what I haven’t missed one little bit is video making. I hate, hate, hate video editing. For one thing, I have to watch and listen to myself drone on and on. This is about the least edifying experience I can imagine. I exist in a permanently caffeinated state so cannot sit still (or for that matter stand in one spot — I cover miles of floor during an hour-long lecture); this leads to lots of annoying presentational ‘tics’. Coupled with the many software crashes I experience when editing, video creation becomes an intensely irksome chore.

So, I’ll not be going back to a personal YT channel for debates and discussion (although I’ll continue to work with Brady Haran and Sean Riley, if they’ll have me, for Sixty Symbols and Computerphile. No editing in that case! I just hand over, to Brady and Sean, the unenviable task of cutting my long rambling explanations down to size.)

In any case, and leaving aside the irritations of the editing process, there are other very good reasons for eschewing YouTube ‘engagement’. Over to the wonderful xkcd

(This article highlights some of the reasons why, more generally, YouTube is “home to the most toxic comment section on the web“.)

But YouTube, of course, does not hold a monopoly on uninformed, knee-jerk, and semi-literate comments sections. As Philip Ball points out, the Guardian’s below-the-line commentary is far from the most erudite at times…

Yet despite the vacuity and vitriol of online commenting, for many years I ‘engaged’ energetically and frequently. As anyone who was subscribed to my YouTube channel knew, I spent  wasted an inordinate amount of my time addressing a significant number of the many hundreds of comments under the videos I uploaded. As I saw it, I was a publicly-funded academic and therefore I had an obligation to engage. (And, more importantly, it’s often a heck of a lot of fun to chat with those who are interested in and enthused by science).

Friends and colleagues told me time and time again not to get involved “below the line”; not to get drawn in; not to attempt to counter the many semi-literate and misinformed comments that are the mainstay of the lower half of the web. But I argued in return that, no, some exchanges were indeed helpful and could lead to productive discussion or, indeed, could produce crowd-sourced research data and ideas.

But therein lies the rub: some exchanges. Some. And that “some” turns out to be a vanishingly small fraction of the total.

For both my YT channel and the earlier incarnation of this blog, my approach to commenting policy was breathtakingly naive. I didn’t block in any way. I didn’t moderate in any way. Everything, other than pure unadulterated spam, was allowed through. Even this piece of vicious libel:

Anon1

and this more typical bile:

Anon2

If you’re questioning my sanity at this stage, I don’t blame you: Why didn’t I block, filter, delete, and/or incinerate those types of comment? As described in a post I wrote for the LSE Impact Blog last year, I had my reasons. Vacuous and vapid those reasons may well have been, but I convinced myself that there was a method to the madness.

There wasn’t.

Peter Coles, whose In The Dark I enthusiastically and regularly recommend, helpfully puts the numerical meat on the bones of my statement above re. the “vanishingly small” fraction of constructive comments in the context of his own blog:

If you’re interested, as of today, 28,781 comments have been published on this blog. The number rejected as SPAM or abuse is 1,802,214. That means that fewer than 1 in 60 are accepted.

1.8 M comments rejected. 1.8 million!

Moreover, when criticism, abuse, and even toothless threats (like that in the screenshot above) are directed at me I’m willing to take them on the nose. (And did. Regularly.) Abuse and threats directed at those close to me I was rather less willing to tolerate. (Hence the extended absence of this blog and the now-defunct YT channel).

Fortunately, I’ve copped on now. At long last. For all of the reasons discussed in that LSE Impact Blog post, there’ll be a much less laissez-faire approach to comment moderation at Symptoms… from now on. I’m adopting Peter’s strategy:

Since WordPress notifies me every time a  comment is posted, it is quite easy to remove this junk but I found it very tiresome (when there were several per day) and eventually decided to change my policy and automatically block comments from all anonymous sources. Since this requires a manual check into whether the identity information given with the comment is bona fide, comments from people who haven’t commented on this blog before may take a little while to get approved.

There are still comments on here which may appear to a reader anonymous (or with a pseudonym) on here, but these are from people who have identified themselves to me with a proper email address or who the software has identified through their IP address or information revealed by their web browser (which is probably more than you think…). I’m happy for people to comment without requiring they release their name to the world, and will do my best to ensure their confidentiality, but I’m not happy to publish comments from people whose identity I don’t know.

Just for those who’ll clutch their pearls tight and whine about freedom of speech (while entirely misunderstanding the concept) let me repeat a paragraph from Chuck Wendig’s great post, “Don’t read the comments: Comments sections are our own fault“. (I’ve cited this regularly before).

“And here you might say, ‘Buh-buh-wuh!’ And you’ll stammer out something about democracy and freedom of speech and censorship. But I’d ask you shift your POV a little bit. Look at a comments section like it’s the letter section of a newspaper… The letter section was not a free-for-all. They did not print the rantings of every froth-mouthed cuckootrousers who wanted to air his conspiratorial, hate-fuelled grievances with the world. They moderated those letter sections.”

Where Two Tribes Go To Roar: Reprise

OK, let’s now turn to address the pachyderm in the playpen. At least some of you reading this will likely be aware of a couple of rather-less-than-flattering videos about me that were made, very soon after I took my blog and YT channel offline, by a YouTuber who goes by the name of thunderf00t . As that linked Wiki article describes, ‘thunderf00t’ is a PhD chemist and researcher whose real name is Phil Mason.

As an important aside, I should stress that this information about Mason is available readily online — it’s been in the public domain for a long, long time. (Google “thunderf00t”, for example). I have been wrongly accused by some of supporting “doxing” — the release of private information — but this is something that I have never condoned and would never condone under any circumstances. I have only ever used information that is already in the public domain (with the individuals’ knowledge) in my interactions and arguments with Mason and others.

Of course, no amount of evidence supporting my point here (or on any other topic for that matter) will ever convince those who are viscerally opposed to my left-leaning stances on social justice, diversity, and equality. As Tom Nichols describes in “The Death of Expertise“, and I cannot recommend his book highly enough, evidence is all too readily dismissed or distorted when it doesn’t align with our ideological biases. (And we are all guilty of this to a greater or lesser extent. Yes, even you.)

Similarly, what I have always found striking throughout my time online is that those who claim vociferously to be solely driven by reason, logic, science, rational debate, and/or individualism — aka the Fuck Your Feelings (FYF) brigade — are often among the most hypersensitive, overwrought, tribal, and emotionally driven out there. The type of over-emotional response that the FYF tribe attribute to the big, bad bogeyman of “The Left” is equally, and often more, prevalent within their own ranks. (There are key parallels here with the deeply intolerant patriotic correctness of the right.)

As a telling example of this type of knee-jerk visceral reaction, I was amused that very soon after Phil Mason uploaded his videos about me, a video of a TEDx Derby talk I gave back in 2014 received a massive upsurge in downvotes (and abusive comments) over the space of a few days. That particular video had attracted a grand total of five dislikes over the course of the preceding two and a half years.

Does that TEDxDerby video mention social justice? No.

Gender balance in physics? No.

Anything vaguely sociopolitical? You guessed it. No.

It’s instead a video about the problems with YouTube edutainment and the associated culture of ‘soundbite’ education. Nowhere in that video do I even touch on any of the themes over which Mason and I have bickered; the downvoting had nothing to do with the content. It arose because of a highly charged and emotional reaction to me, not the themes discussed in the video. “He’s a damned dirty SJW.” (Those who would argue that YouTube, of all things, is a great example of the “Marketplace of Ideas” in action should pay attention here. Or, more simply, they could just pin that xkcd cartoon up on their wall for future, and frequent, reference.)

Similar reactions have ensued when Sixty Symbols or Computerphile videos to which I contributed have been uploaded over the last eighteen months. Videos with entirely scientific content — discussions of, for example, X-ray standing wave experiments, error bars, interatomic and intermolecular forces, the physical limits of computing etc. — often attract comments about me and my politics, not the science. That particular type of commenter is so invested in their dislike of me that they simply can’t get past their deep emotional reaction. They also want everyone watching the video to know about it — to signal to their tribe — so they post a comment, instead of simply ignoring the video. And yet these self-same individuals whine incessantly about “snowflakes” placing emotion over reason, echo chambers, and ‘group think’. As a certain right-of-centre British journalist is very fond of saying, you couldn’t make it up.

Were my dealings with Mason my finest hour? Most certainly not. I have much to be embarrassed about. The key exchange is here. Make up your own mind as to who was ‘trolling’ whom. I should have walked away much earlier because it was absolutely clear that it was going nowhere and was a pointless waste of time and effort. It was also petty and childish of me to continually pressure Mason into agreeing to publish the email trail. I revealed some fairly unattractive character flaws in that exchange.

The tribal nature of the online “SJW vs anti-SJW” wars [4] also underpinned my spat with Mason. For one thing, I deeply and bitterly regret my connection to this exceptionally childish video. Mason was absolutely right to pillory this. What he perhaps didn’t know was that I was not given the courtesy of seeing that video before it went online. I had absolutely no idea that the MP3 (of a reading of the e-mail trail) I naively provided would be used in quite that way. I was also entirely unaware at the time of the exchange that the death of Mason’s father had previously been shamefully used against him in other online spats. To clarify these points, and months before I took my channel and blog online, I had included this in a video response to Mason (but it’s of course entirely possible that he did not see that video.)

As noted in my earlier posts, Mason has gained a reputation online for cherry-picking, for quote-mining, and for ripping statements entirely out of context in order to cast others in the worst possible light. We can argue, as many incessantly do, about the extent to which these accusations are valid. (I would certainly argue that my views and character were misrepresented in his videos about me. But then I would, wouldn’t I?! See the blog posts linked above, particularly this, for a somewhat more nuanced and contextualised discussion of my views).

Character assassination, however, is not limited to one side of the ideological divide. Mason may have some character flaws (who doesn’t?), but is he a Nazi? No. Is he a sociopath? No. While I disagree fundamentally with his stance on sexual dimorphism (and his associated attitude to feminism) [5], demonising Mason to that extent — and, more broadly, demonising all those whose ideology and politics don’t align with the tribe, be it left- or right-leaning — is hardly in line with the empathy and consideration that those of us who espouse social justice would like to see in society.

For one thing, the accusation of sociopathy does not sit at all well with Mason’s admirable denouncement of the odious behaviour of a group of YouTubers who gleefully gloated about the murder of Heather Anable hours after her death:

I should note that although I never met Heather, I had exchanged a number of direct messages (DMs) with her via Twitter and Facebook. Heather was a kind, perceptive, smart, and empathetic person who was the very first to call out the type of tribalism that underpins so much online behaviour; she always tried to see the best in everyone.

It is to Mason’s immense credit that he took a stand and made the video above. Whatever ideological differences he and I might have (and, as should be abundantly clear by now, there are very many), that was a fundamentally decent thing to do. Mason demonstrated a great deal of integrity in uploading that video as he must have been aware of just how much opprobrium he would attract from the so-called “skeptic” community [6]. (I also strongly recommend Noel Plum’s careful and considered analysis of the subsequent fallout.)

As noted above, I am suitably shame-faced about descending into the mire online. This post by Robert Lea accurately, forcefully, and eloquently points out that it is far from a “good look” for academic researchers (at any career level) to conflate the professional with the personal and indulge in pathetic playground squabbles online…

Academia, ladies and gentlemen: challenging each other to pathetic toothless debates on a video sharing site for the benefit of their already partisan subscribers.

Ouch. Harsh but entirely fair. I, for one, have nonetheless learnt a number of memorable and sobering lessons from the spats outlined above. I’m fifty next month so at this point I’m long overdue to have finished growing up in public. I’m keeping out of the playground from now on. If, however, you see me pointlessly embroiled in some juvenile war of words in a comments section down the line, please don’t hesitate to tap me on the shoulder (virtually or otherwise) and tell me to cop on to myself…


[1] And, of course, the version with the other f-word. The bad f-word.

[2] My next blog post, “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but..?“, will expand on the themes outlined in that video, which ruffled a few feathers. There’s nothing quite like being told precisely how science works by someone who has never carried out research, published a paper, peer-reviewed a manuscript, sat on a review panel, written a grant application, attended a scientific conference etc… That special blend of arrogance and ignorance to which Tom Nichols refers is indeed ubiquitous.

[3] Thanks, in particular, to my friend Claudia Brown for taking the time to make this video.

[4] If you’re unfamiliar with the SJW pejorative, count yourself very lucky indeed. To get deep insights into the origin of that “SJW” term and, more broadly, the social justice wars online (and how those battles bleed offline), I recommend all of the following: Kill All Normies, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, and Alt-Right: From 4chan To The Whitehouse. (And, contrary to loud protestations from certain quarters, there are just as many “SJWs” on the right of the political spectrum as there are on the left. It’s just that a different type of “justice” is being espoused in each case…)

[5] On that sexual dimorphism issue, I recommend you stop reading this overlong post right now and beg, borrow, or steal — or better, shell out your hard-earned cash for — Angela Saini’s wonderful InferiorJess Wade wrote a great review of Saini’s book for Physics World last year. Here’s the closing paragraph:

“Inferior is an engaging and harrowing study that easily moves between eras, continents and disciplines. Saini is a meticulous researcher whose attention to detail is evident in her interviews with scientists behind some of the biggest results in neuroscience and psychology. Instead of writing around the issue of representation of women in science, Saini identifies what science has got wrong about women.”

(By the way, if you find yourself incensed by the closing sentence in that extract from Wade’s review please bear the trigger warning in mind before diving into the comments section.)

I refer to Saini’s book not infrequently in this lengthy chat with Claudia last year, which was uploaded shortly after the James Damore fiasco:

[6] As oxymorons go, it doesn’t get better than “the skeptic YouTube community”. See also #7 in these seven rules of engagement.

How to sociably debate social justice

or Why We Should Feed The Trolls.

The following is a fascinating guest post by Hugh Dingwall. Hugh, aka “Objective Reality”, has posted a number of intelligent, perceptive, and compellingly-argued comments under previous posts at “Symptoms…”. I was very impressed by the quality of his writing, and by the careful manner in which he laid out his arguments, so I invited him to write a guest post. That post is below. I have never been happier to be told I’m wrong.  

[Note that (i) the title (and sub-title) above are due to me, not Hugh, so any criticism about the titling of the piece should be directed to me; (ii) Hugh’s points about safe spaces and no platforming are particularly timely in the context of this recent debate in academia: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/chicago-academics-hit-back-safe-spaces %5D


First off, thanks to Phil for inviting me to do this guest post, which I intend to begin by disagreeing with him about a couple of things.

Phil’s made it clear in a couple of different places, that he doesn’t agree with the idea of no-platforming (or blocking people), or with safe spaces. I get his reasons (and I think they come from a good place) but I think he’s wrong.

To deal with safe spaces first, this concept is usually portrayed by “SJW-slayers” as a way for a person to avoid concepts that challenge them, and this is, I think, what Phil (rightly) disagrees with. The problem is that that’s not what they are, at least in the forms that I’ve encountered them. The “safe spaces” I’ve come across have been areas, particularly on a university campus, where a marginalised group can go and (quite literally) be safe. The best example of this is the Women’s Room at my old university, which was established because there were a number of behaviours that male students engaged in that made female students feel quite (justifiably) unsafe. Since it was one room, with some paper resources if you needed them and a free phone (I know because my girlfriend of the time called me from there on a number of occasions) you could hardly use it to shelter your precious worldview. You could however, use it to call your boyfriend to come and pick you up when you’d had a distressing encounter with an arsehole at the student pub. This kind of safe space is, in my opinion, quite hard to argue against unless you’re the aforementioned pub arsehole – and is more commonly what defenders of safe spaces have in mind.

As regards no-platforming (the practice of preventing people from speaking on campuses because of their views), and relatedly blocking people you can’t be bothered with on social media, I again see Phil’s point. On the other hand, I remember how angry I was when my university played host to an Intelligent Design proponent. The issue wasn’t that my ideas were being challenged, or even that I thought this guy would convince anyone. I was angry that money (MY money – we have to pay for university in New Zealand (which this guy hadn’t when he attended but that’s another angry story)) had been spent paying him to lecture, when it could have been given to someone, even someone just as controversial, whose views weren’t provably false. It was an hour of my life I wasn’t going to get back, and the man had been paid for wasting it. He wasn’t going to convince anyone who wasn’t a closet-Creationist, and most infuriatingly, he didn’t even understand the theory of evolution that he claimed to debunk. (I should mention at this point that I dropped out of university, and while I was attending I was a Classics major – and I still had a clearer understanding of the theory than this guy who purported to be able to prove it wrong.)

To extend this logic to blocking people on social media, I think it’s important to know when a conversation has reached its useful end. I understand the principle that it’s good to be exposed to views you disagree with, but firstly, there’s no amount of David Icke I can read that will convince me that giant reptilians are a real non-metaphorical problem in the world. There’s a point past which a conversation with an Icke-believer stops being useful as a result. (The reader is invited to extend the logic to situations where political or philosophical disagreement devolves into mere fountains of bile). Moreover, I think that people whose goal is to harass or bully their intellectual opponents often use this idea (that you should always be open to defending your ideas from opposing views) as a way to try and argue that you owe them a continued conversation (even once they’ve begun abusing you or bringing in their followers to try for a dogpile) and that refusing them that conversation is a sign of cowardice. Which is bullshit – especially if you’re someone whose fame and/or status as a member of a despised group makes you a target for nastier-than-usual or literally-dangerous attacks, or if your opponent is a well-established internet presence who can call on a literal horde of faceless howling zealots to shout you down.

Finally, I’m not that keen on Rush. Though I acknowledge their technical skill, I’ve always been more of a psychedelia guy, and I have a special place in my heart for the British folk-rock explosion of the 70s (go look up Joe Boyd, and listen to basically everyone he produced, then work sideways from there, also the Grateful Dead, and Tom Waits).

[Editor’s note: Hugh’s criticism of Rush here is clearly an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement. He redeems himself by mentioning Tom Waits (whose, um, unique music I got to know via the fantastic Primus), so, much as it pains me, I’m willing to overlook the lack of enthusiasm for Rush. I’m sure Hugh will come round to their unique charms in the end.]

As you can see from the above, it’s entirely possible to disagree with people while remaining entirely civil. More importantly, it’s possible to disagree with people while acknowledging that they make good points, or have good reasons for the views they hold. (Reasons can be good even if you think they’re incorrect.) In philosophy, this is called “the principle of charity”. The idea is that to avoid strawmanning, you should ensure that you’re engaging with the strongest possible form of your opponent’s argument, given the things they’ve actually said. I find that it also helps to ask what people mean if you’re not sure, so you don’t end up talking at cross purposes.

Which brings me to the various discussions I had in the comments of Phil’s blog post “The Faith And Fables of Thunderfoot”.

The style of discussion I’ve indulged in above (and attempted to explain thereafter) is the way I talk on the internet if I’m interested in getting to the bottom of what people think, or making a genuine point. I’ll talk about the points that got discussed in that comments section in a bit, but first I want to talk about this style of discourse as opposed to trolling. See, I agree with Phil that trolling, while inherently somewhat mean-spirited, can be an art in and of itself (and some examples can be truly transcendent). However, the purpose of trolling is to keep your victim(s) expending energy for your amusement (and that of any onlookers). It’s not a form of argumentation, and if you put more energy into it than your victims do, you are a very ineffective troll. This is why I call bullshit on the likes of Thunderfoot and Sargon of Akkad when they claim to be “just trolling” as a way to avoid defending their arguments and/or actions. If they are trolls, then firstly we have no reason to accept their arguments as anything other than deliberately vexatious nonsense, and secondly (given the average length of their videos) they are very bad trolls indeed.

Pleasingly, there wasn’t much of that kind of conversation in the comments at Phil’s blog. Instead, two major points seemed to come up:

  1. People wanted to know how we could be sure that sexual dimorphism wasn’t to blame for the lack of women in STEM fields (this was the initial disagreement between Phil and Thunderfoot which led to the email exchange reproduced in the blogpost – I recommend going and reading it if you haven’t (otherwise some of this post may be quite confusing).
  2. People seemed nervous of adopting what might be seen as “feminist” positions, for fear that this might somehow be seen as implicating all men in a mass act of malice against all women, or that it might lead to them inadvertently endorsing some position that they deeply disagreed with.

To deal with the first point first (a novel idea, I know), the short answer is that we can’t. We can know very little for sure. On the other hand, it seems very unlikely that sexual dimorphism is to blame for women’s career and study choices. Phil goes into this in detail in this post here, but I’m not an academic (I’m a sound technician) and I want to talk about some other stuff as well, so I’ll just summarise the main points.

First off, I need to acknowledge that it’s not an inherently silly idea that sexual dimorphism might be to blame, as humans are a moderately sexually dimorphic species. Men* tend to be bigger, stronger, and hairier than women, who tend in turn to outlive them. It’s not totally outlandish to suggest that there may be brain differences as well. However, the evidence doesn’t bear this out, and as Phil points out in both the blogposts I’ve linked to, it’s very very difficult to decouple social factors from purely biological ones in humans. The evidence for social factors influencing women’s choices, on the other hand, seems to be pretty strong. It’s easily provable that society used to be much more sexist than it is right now. Most antifeminists would even agree with this proposition. I think it’s quite reasonable to argue that the recent (as in, last 50 years or so) influx of women into traditionally male fields is more likely to stem from an increased acceptance of women doing these kinds of jobs and studying in these fields than it is to be a result of evolution.

Which brings me to another point – there were a good number of appeals in the pro-sexual-dimorphism camp to what we might call “naturalistic” explanations, including a good deal of recourse to evolutionary psychology. Now, my good friend Daniel Copeland is convinced that there’s some merit in evopsych, and he is a very intelligent guy and makes a good case for the bits he supports. However, evopsych is probably one of the most abused theories I’ve ever seen. If you’re not familiar with it, the idea is that you can find explanations for bits of human behaviour in our evolutionary past, and sometimes you can discover those bits of evolutionary past by, for example, observing other primates. There are two problems with this – the first is that people who don’t fully understand it tend to just point to an aspect of human behaviour they wish to claim is immutable, and then invent an “evolutionary-sounding” reason for it. The more fundamental problem is that we’re not other primates, and even if we were, the world of animal sexual dynamics is hugely diverse.

There was a tendency in the early days of biology to assume that most animals would follow the family/relationship structure that those early biologists considered “natural” – dominant males, submissive females, and so on. The actual picture is much more complicated, and as I noted, we’re not other primates – we’re humans. Our whole thing is using technologies (including social technologies) to overcome our natural limits. That’s how come my wife can see, and my mother can hear. That’s how come we developed hugely complex social structures that let us live stacked on top of each other in cities without all killing each other (most of the time). There’s no reason to assume that even if there were a natural predisposition that led women to shun certain fields, we would allow ourselves to be bound by that. It’s not how we work. (Daniel Copeland wrote a nice blog post that goes into this in more detail.) We can also look at evidence (detailed in Phil’s post that I already linked) that shows that the steady decline of sexism globally correlates with a steady increase in women going into traditionally male fields both in science and the arts (there are far more female-fronted rock bands than their used to be, for one thing.) Obviously correlation is not causation, but it’s telling that these changes are far quicker than the sort of effect we’d expect from evolution, giventhe length of human generations.

And now to point number two. Again, I have some sympathy for this position. It’s completely wrong, but I get it. The issue is that while feminism is becoming quite broadly discussed (online at least), it’s not as broadly understood. This means that many people think that they are (or need to be) anti-feminist or non-feminist, when their views actually align with the majority of feminist theory. This is certainly the position I was in to begin with**. Then a very patient feminist lady on Facebook took the time to actually unpack what we were talking about, and I realised precisely how badly I had the wrong end of the stick.

The first issue I want to talk about here is terminology. Feminists use a number of words in ways which differ from a naive dictionary definition. This is (contrary to to what anti-SJWs would have you believe) not actually uncommon. In my own field as a sound engineer for a radio station, I use a number of terms which would be incomprehensible to someone who isn’t versed in sound tech, and a number of common words (for example “wet/dry”, “trim”, “bright/dark” and “dead/alive”) have quite specific meanings within that field. I’m sure Philip talks differently about physics to advanced students than he does to laypeople for the same reason. The advantage Phil and I have over feminists is that no-one misunderstands or willfully misuses our terminology against us. The terms that suffer the most abuse in discussions about feminism are, I think, “patriarchy” and “privilege”.

Again, since I’m not an academic, and I have already used a significant amount of virtual ink in this post, I’m going to summarise here. If you want really detailed discussions of exactly how these terms function, I suggest you go and check out people like Garrett, Chrisiousity, or Kristi Winters on Youtube. Patriarchy, as I understand it, refers to a social order which assumes that a specific sort of masculinity is the “default” gender identity, and judges all other in comparison (usually negatively). Privilege refers to the advantages (often small, at least when taken individually) that individuals accrue by being close to that default. In the Anglosphere*** the patriarchal ideal is rich, white, physically and emotionally dominant, heterosexual, and male – the more like that you are, the more privilege you have. The tendency is for one’s own privilege to be invisible (ie it just feels “normal”) so you tend to assume everyone can freely do what you can, unless you stop and think about it.

For example, I live in New Zealand. It is a small and fairly egalitarian country (we were among the first to give votes to women, and signed a treaty with our indigenous people rather than just murdering them all and taking their stuff, for example****) and seems reasonably enlightened on the surface. However, when I got married to a Samoan woman, I found that I was now conducting a field test into latent community racism. My wife and I can go into the same store within minutes of each other and get hugely different reactions from staff, because she is brown. When I am out alone with our daughters, I get approving noises from mums about how good it is that I as a Dad spend time with my girls, my wife gets asked if those little blonde girls are really hers. This was entirely invisible to me until that relationship opened a window for me into her world – in other words, a portion of my own privilege became visible to me in a way it hadn’t been. Here’s another example, in New Zealand, the majority of voters want decriminalisation or outright legalisation of cannabis. Our (Tory) prime minister has ruled this out, relying instead on “police discretion” to institute a sort of “de-facto decriminalisation”. The problem is that because people tend to use their discretion in slightly racist ways, this has led to disproportionately terrible outcomes for our Pacific Island and Maori minorities.

This is the result of an organic accretion of values over time – not a conspiracy. (White, straight) men have not conspired to create this system, though some men do work to preserve it because (presumably) they’re afraid of losing what power they have. This system also negatively affects some men – we are expected to be physically dominant and prepared to fight for family or country, and failure to do so can lead to terrible personal consequences. We are not generally assumed to have as deep an emotional life as women (because this is not patriarchally desirable) and this leads to terrible outcomes in mental health. We are expected to be hale and hearty and this leads to horrible outcomes in physical health. This is not a state of affairs that benefits us overall.

I use a pseudonym in lots of places on the internet because when I started out online (in the total wild west of pre-internet dial-up bulletin boards) that was just what people did, and I never thought deeply enough about the habit to change it. I don’t do it because I am afraid that people may harm me or my family because of my opinions. Anecdotally, my female friends are. Moreover, because I exist in a fairly privileged position (I am after all, a straight white dude from the wider Anglosphere) I don’t have to constantly justify my presence online, and my right to an opinion. Anecdotally, my female friends do. This means that I can get into arguments about feminism or other social justice causes on the internet without bringing the fatigue that results from a life of fighting sealions along with me, and I can be polite if the situation seems to merit it. (Also I am a pedantic and argumentative bugger.) While I think that it can be counterproductive to snap at people, I can totally understand why many women, POC, transpeople and so on do not have my level of patience with dudes***** who barge into conversations and restate very basic arguments very incoherently. This is because I have a privilege in terms of online discussion, which they do not.

Since you’re granted privilege by society on the basis of factors you can’t control, you can’t really get rid of it. All you can do is attempt to use it responsibly. One of the ways I try to do this, is by patiently and politely asking questions of antifeminists on the internet until they either make themselves look silly, or become more reasonable. That is, after all, what worked for me.

_____

*I’m going to stick with the terms “men” and “women” here because a) I don’t think trans people are a big enough population to seriously throw out the averages as far as size and weight distributions, and b) the exact configurations of people’s genitals are largely none of my business. I’ll worry about my own genitals, and my wife’s, and that’ll do me.

**I had a deeply tiresome “pendulum” theory about how power moved from group to group in society, and it tied into the death of prog and the rise of punk and it was awful. I had a bit of an embarrassment-shudder just typing that.

***It strikes me as a better shorthand for “mostly-white, mostly-English-speaking countries” than “The West”.

****If any of my readers are Maori and about to get cross with me for oversimplifying and making it seem like NZ’s racial history is just peachy-keen – stop. I know it’s more complicated than that and that the government did plenty of murdering and nicking of stuff (sometimes by stealthy law-making) and that the situation is far from resolved. It’s also a better deal than many colonised indigenous peoples got (which is totally shameful, I know).

*****Let’s face it dudes, it’s usually us. Like, 95% of the time, at least.

Beware The Troll

I very much enjoy reading Kyle Baldwin‘s “Apples and Bongo Drums” blog and thought I’d reblog one of his posts here. I was a little spoiled for choice, however. (I recommend you visit Kyle’s blog and read his other posts). After some umming and ahhing, I decided to go with his “Beware The Troll” post from July. Let’s just say it resonated.

Over to Kyle…


Beware the Troll

Kyle Baldwin, July 25 2016

troll.png

Once, Trolls were purely mythical creatures that lived under bridges and ate unsuspecting would-be bridge crossers. Or, if you prefer Tolkien mythos, Trolls were great big dim-witted creatures that can only be defeated by a combination of Hobbit stall tactics and sunlight petrification. Either way, it’s safe to assume that when these myths were being written, the total sum of actual death certificates that read “Cause of death: Troll” was nil.

That’s not quite true anymore.

If you’ve ever wasted a few hours scrolling through the YouTube comments section, and been left wondering where it all went wrong for the human race, there’s a good chance you encountered an internet troll or two. If you haven’t, then here’s a brief outline of what an internet troll is: an awful human being. More specifically though, it is someone who constantly posts in online forums with no purpose other than to disrupt conversations, provoke arguments, or just plain bully. They may hardly sound like the world’s biggest problem right now, and may even sound mostly harmless, but sometimes they’re a more insidious pest than my description does justice.

For example, Jessica Laney, a 16 year old Floridian girl, took her own life after being on the receiving end of online bullying, which included messages telling her to go kill herself. There’s also Charlotte Dawson, 47 year old New Zealander and TV presenter who committed suicide after years of online harassment – harassment carried out under the Twitter banner #diecharlotte. These are just a couple of highly publicised examples, but cyberbullying related deaths are becoming increasingly common, to the point where they no longer make headlines. One study shows that suicide ideation is strongly linked with cyberbullying, and we’ve not even touched on how many cases of clinical anxiety or depression can be linked back to online abuse. The exact numbers for cyberbullying related long-term mental health issues is unclear (unsurprisingly), but it is very well documented that bullying leaves permanent scars, and according to one study, as many as 43% of students will get to enjoy being cyberbullied during their lifetime.

If you thought lone trolls were a nuisance, you clearly don’t know much about 4chan. This is a little dark corner of the internet where trolls like to meet up, hang out, pick a target, and make casual rape threats (amongst other things). It’s a misogynist’s paradise, it’s a mob, and it has a way of achieving its goals through “hacktivism”. Wonderful.

LutherTo be fair, for the most part trolls are just people who get a kick out of causing a bit of mischief by derailing a conversation, or by mildly irritating people with political bait. But there are also those who take it many steps further, and the internet is the perfect platform for all their trolling desires. Further, comments sections seem to bring out the utter worst in people in ways that would never happen in the non-virtual world. Why does this happen, and is there any way to prevent it? … Other than the brand of anti-troll vigilante justice Luther endorsed, of course.

What feeds the Trolls?

In 2004, John Suler coined the term the “online disinhibition effect”, which, in a nutshell, states that people are willing to behave differently online than they would in reality. This isn’t really a single effect, but rather a collection of different factors and psychological effects that add up to make trolling inevitable. List time!

  1. I am no one. Probably the most obvious factor is that commenting is often completely anonymous, and anonymity gives a sense of security against any reprisals. You might be able to find a mister B. Kaldwin and give him a piece of your mind, but Prince_RobotIV? Who even is that guy?
  2. I am invisible. This is similar to the above, but also adds the fact that the form of communication – text – does not deliver tone, facial expressions or emotion. They are just words on a screen that could be interpreted a hundred ways, and concern over appearance is lost entirely. Further, a troll can pretend to be any age, sex, race or species he/she/it wants if it serves their purpose better. Not only do you not know who or where I am, but you don’t know what I am. And that gives me power.
  3. LOL BYE. The fact that conversations online are asynchronous – one can leave and come back to a conversation at any time – lowers inhibitions by allowing a person to go away and take all the time they need to think of the perfect cutting words. It also gives the troll the opportunity to blurt out something and not worry about a reply until they’re ready to log back in. Very unlike real life. This also means you can throw in an inflammatory remark on a popular YouTube video, grab a box of popcorn, and watch the ensuing mayhem.
  4. You’re who I say you are! This is a slightly abstract aspect, and is the most subconsciously active of the list yet. When you read a comment, although you don’t see, hear or smell the person on the other end, your brain automatically assigns characteristics to them. Usually, for some reason, people imagine that the commenter is male, white, and less intelligent than you. This is particularly the case in political arguments, where as soon as a disagreement begins, you imagine the other person as the pure stereotype of your political nemesis, and slowly, but surely, you begin to feel vindicated in displaying your ire.
  5. Want to play a game? Suler observed (alongside criminal lawyer Emily Finch studying online identity theft) that many people see the online realm as a form of escapism, and interacting with other commenters is nothing more than a game. Games have no real consequences, so what’s the worst that could happen? That girl won’t really think I want her to kill herself! That would be mental!
  6. You’re in my world now. This is kind of obvious when you think about it, but surprising to the uninitiated – the hierarchy of the online world follows its own rules. Even if you know the status of a person in the real world, it has little bearing on their perceived status in online communities. Instead, in the online realm, their online following is what gives them authority in chat rooms. To put it simply, a vocal twitter user who has many online followers but no power in reality, has more “cyber power”, and is feared as an authority figure in cyberspace over a prominent politician who only occasionally tweets (and especially if the tweets are of his own name – I’m looking at you Ed Balls).

Add all these effects together, and you get a worrying reduction in social inhibitions online. Politicians are still debating how to grapple with this surprising consequence of giving everyone a cyber-voice, and we’re left with the question:

Do we just accept them?

troll2.png

The good news is that research suggests that trolls are in the vast minority. The bad news is that YouTube comment algorithms create the perfect troll feeding grounds. When you leave a comment, there are two ways in which it will find its way to the top of the pile – lots of thumbs up, and lots of replies. It is far more heavily weighted in favour of number of replies, though, and this is the crucial factor that makes trolls so visible – people can’t help but to reply to a comment they strongly disagree with.

The simplest solution would be to just learn when people are trying to get a rise out of you, and ignore … but that’s really difficult. Replying is reactive (as opposed to the far more passive ‘thumbs up’ option), and trolls, almost by definition, exist purely to illicit reactions in others. They’ve found their craft, honed their skills, and have become very adept at it. No matter how many times I hear the phrase “don’t feed the trolls”, when I read something outrageous, I just can’t help but want to send a snarky “Oh YEAH? Well let me tell you, sir/madam, that I think your specific politics are WRONG!”.

Trolls get the most replies, their comments find their way to the top, and suddenly they seem like they are the majority – we’ll call this troll-bias. Recently, a few YouTubers have begun requesting that their viewers leave a “+” reply to all comments that they agree with, to offset this troll-bias. It’s a clever response, and it does indeed seem to already be making comment sections far more pleasant places.

With regards to other forms of cyber-bullying, there aren’t easy answers, sadly. Forum moderators can take comments down, but usually they act after the harm has been done, and as Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed highlights, no number of moderators could hold back the tide of hateful comments that come with the Twitter mob.

Stricter laws should be implemented, I think. It’s not okay to tell someone to “go kill yourself” – no amount of free speech rights should leave the door open for that kind of behaviour. The online world though is multi-national, so how do we ensure safe spaces when laws aren’t always universal? It’s also, as I pointed out above, almost entirely anonymous! The ever-watchful, and infinitely creepy NSA might be able to automatically respond to a person openly asking Facebook how to build a dirty bomb (not that they ever do!), but a local police force is not going to be able to do much about a string of hateful comments coming from 4chan/b/.

School bullies have existed for as long as there have been schools, and, so far, no one has figured out how to stop them from growing like weeds. Now, our school bullies have the internet at their fingertips, and the online disinhibition effect in their heads, and it’s a bit scary. So what do we do when a troll doesn’t even recognise his victim is a person? Teach them.

Lindy West, an online activist and vocal feminist, was accustomed to online abuse – anyone who writes about feminism is an easy target for the more misogynistic trolls out there. But then one day, a specific troll took a different tactic than the usual rape/death threats, and decided to impersonate her dead father. Sickening, right? Usually, she would follow her peers’ advice and ignore the trolls, but this time and she decided to write a piece about it. The troll read the piece, realised there was real person on the other end of his abuse, apologised to her directly, and changed his ways. The troll decided he’d had enough and came out from under the bridge.

The answer, then, has to be in education. First educate police forces to take online abuse seriously (because they are often woefully inadequate at this so far), and educate youths to understand that not only is bullying a crime, but the people on the other end of comments are just that – people. They’re not tropes of your political nemeses, this isn’t a game, and you are not absolved of all responsibility by your anonymity.

And if that doesn’t work … Well, there’s always the Luther approach.

Note: the author of this blog in no way endorses vigilante justice.

Trollface image attribution: By Azzy10 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Trollface.png.

Luther (Idris Elba) image attribution: By DFID – UK Department for International Development – https://www.flickr.com/photos/dfid/15418120205/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35853981