The Skeptical Zone is Broken

The Skeptical Zone is not fit for its intended purpose.

Elizabeth created The Skeptical Zone with admirable and lofty goals:

My name is Elizabeth Liddle, and I started this site to be a place where people could discuss controversial positions about life, the universe and everything with minimal tribal rancour (pay no attention to the penguins….)

My motivation for starting the site has been the experience of trying to discuss religion, politics, evolution, the Mind/Brain problem, creationism, ethics, exit polls, probability, intelligent design, and many other topics in venues where positions are strongly held and feelings run high. In most venues, one view dominates, and there is a kind of “resident prior” about the integrity, intelligence and motivation of those who differ from the majority view.

That is why the strapline says: “Park your priors by the door”. They may be adjusted by the time you leave!

She provides more details on the Rules page:

So I’m going to start a bit vague, then get more specific as need arises.The principle is in the strapline: Park your priors by the door. Everyone has priors, they are crucial to way we make sense of the world. But the impetus behind this site is to be a place where they can be loosened and adjusted while you wait. So leave them by the door, and pick them up again as you leave!

There are plenty of blogs and forums where people with like priors can hang out and scoff at those who do not share them. There’s nothing wrong with those sites, and I’ve learned a lot from them. But the idea here is to provide a venue where people with very different priors can come to discover what common ground we share; what misunderstandings of other views we hold; and, having cleared away the straw men, find out where our real differences lie. In my experience, when you reach that point, who is right becomes obvious to both parties 🙂

It is painfully obvious that Elizabeth’s final sentence is not supported by the empirical evidence. Measured by its ability to achieve Elizabeth’s stated goals, The Skeptical Zone is broken. The reason for that is obvious: Elizabeth’s goals can only be achieved if all participants are genuinely supportive of them and willing to not just assume good faith but actually act in good faith. That is not the case here. It is clear that several members of the TSZ community are not at all interested in “find[ing] out where our real differences lie”, parking their priors at the door, or risking disconfirmation of their positions. These people add nothing to the discussion but disruption through the repetition of baseless, nonsensical claims even after multiple refutations.

The root cause of why TSZ cannot meet Elizabeth’s goals is the nature of one of the primary topics here, intelligent design creationism. IDC is a religiously-based political movement, not a scientific endeavor. There is no scientific hypothesis of IDC, there are no testable entailments, no one supports it because of evidence or reason. IDC is creationism dressed up in a costume lab coat. It is a fundamentally, inherently dishonest attempt to make an end run around the separation of church and state after the Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard.

IDC supporters are not interested in challenging their own religious beliefs. There is no evidence or logic that will sway them because their identities are too tightly tied to those beliefs. They are incapable of aligning with Elizabeth’s goals because they are waging Culture War. Evidence, reason, science, and truth are not what they value.

While there are interesting discussions on a wide variety of scientific and philosophical topics here, they are being increasingly crowded out by the high volume of comments containing little more than PRATT (Previously Refuted A Thousand Times) creationist tropes. We have a couple of participants suffering from aggressive, weaponized ignorance and a willingness to display it in a prodigious stream of comments. We have someone who aspires to be the clown prince of intelligent design creationism but only manages to be an attention whoring, dishonest, humorless troll. We have a presuppositionalist who can’t see out of the hole he was placed in as a child and pulled in after himself. We have a young earth creationist who uses the valuable input of working scientists solely to hone his ability to indoctrinate others with his anti-science beliefs. We have a number of seagull commenters who just fly in, crap all over everything, and leave. And we have a lot of people, myself included, who eventually respond to such prolonged stupidity with frustration.

So what, if anything, is a possible way to achieve Elizabeth’s goals for the site? How do we get to the point where we can “find out where our real differences lie” so that “who is right becomes obvious to both parties”?

One option is better tools. “Technical solutions to social problems rarely work.” is an engineering maxim, for good reason. In this case, though, it may be that better technology that reduces the noise generated by the anti-science participants could have a significant benefit, while respecting everyone’s freedom of expression.

TSZ does provide the ability to ignore specified participants. That reduces some of the volume from those who are not aligned with Elizabeth’s goals, but the sometimes large number of replies to those being ignored are not blocked. Usenet solved this problem decades ago through newsreaders that support threading of discussions and personalized killfiles to remove specific people or topics from the user’s feed.

Another alternative is a karma system like Reddit or Hacker News. Giving individuals the ability to configure their viewing preferences so that only comments above some threshold are displayed would reduce the ability of those not acting in good faith to disrupt discussion. This would also eliminate the need for admins to move rule-violating comments to Guano. One size does not fit all, so a karma system would have to take into account individual relationships. For example, the system might know that I generally agree with one person’s comment ratings and give their votes more weight in my personal view of the site. This could result in multiple disjoint sets of participants. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Unfortunately, no software with these capabilities is currently available for WordPress. We should adopt them if and when they are, but it’s not a near term solution.

Another option is increased censorship. (We could use nice euphemisms like “moderation” or “curating” but let’s be brutally honest.) Censorship can take many forms. We could make failure to act in accordance with the site goals a bannable offense. We could follow the After the Bar Closes approach of giving particularly disruptive participants their own thread and banning them from any others. One admin, if I understand him correctly, supports treating PRATTs as spam and moving comments containing them to Guano.

That last suggestion is one step on the path to curating every post and comment for quality. This is journal-style moderation where nothing gets posted without approval. While it might achieve Elizabeth’s goals, it is a very labor intensive approach.

We could maintain a list of PRATTs (the Talk Origins archive is a good start) and move all comments that repeat them without supporting evidence to a Guano-like thread. We could go further and heavily moderate comments that don’t contribute to the discussion.

All of these possibilities violate the principle of freedom of expression. They do not encourage the free and open exchange of ideas, they are vey likely to lead to significantly reduced participation, and they’ll definitely lead to more arguments and meta-discussion in Moderation Issues. I’m certainly not interested in playing the role of censor and I wouldn’t trust anyone who volunteered for it.

The only currently viable option I see is to let the TSZ community be what it wants to be. There are a large number of valuable posts and comments here by experienced scientists and philosophers that are worth preserving. Even with the noise from the anti-science crowd that signal isn’t completely drowned out. There is also value in honing arguments against those incapable of changing their minds, even when that doesn’t meet Elizabeth’s goals and distracts from discussions that are aligned with them. It seems that the community wants both.

If there are enough of us here who are aligned with Elizabeth’s goals, we can achieve them voluntarily. Elizabeth touched on this approach herself:

This post by Reciprocating Bill sums up the ethos of the site brilliantly so I’m quoting it here:

Participation at this site entails obligations similar to those that attend playing a game. While there is no objective moral obligation to answer questions, the site has aims, rules and informal stakeholders, just as football has same. When violations of those aims and rules are perceived and/or the enforcement of same is seen as arbitrary or inconsistent, differences and conflicts arise. No resort to objective morality, yet perfectly comprehensible and appropriate opprobrium.

The current rules don’t support this ethos. In the interests of taking off the gloves and giving opprobrium the chance to work, I suggest two rule modifications. First, the rule about assuming good faith should not require active stupidity in the face of bad faith. Calling out flagrant dishonesty and repeated, willful ignorance should not be against the rules. Second, I suggest eliminating the overhead of endless Moderation Issue discussions by no longer allowing admins to move comments to Guano. The bannable offenses should still be enforced since they provide legal protection to Elizabeth and the site.

My final suggestion is being the change we want to see. Rules and tools are not going to achieve Elizabeth’s goals. People acting individually and cooperating voluntarily can. That means having the discipline to stop feeding the trolls (or at least moving the slop bucket to Noyau). It means encouraging the quality posts and comments and ignoring the noise. I think a good percentage of the TSZ participants agree with what Elizabeth is trying to achieve. Let’s turn the free speech dial up to 11 and take responsibility for it.

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274 thoughts on “The Skeptical Zone is Broken

  1. Mung: I think we are all pretty much aware of the cause of many of our differences, they stem from our worldview.

    I’m a theist. I believe God exists. Critics of theism here don’t spend much effort trying to demonstrate that God does not exist. So why should I change my mind about it? Do people who mock theists for for their belief in God think their mocking is an argument against the existence of God?

    I don’t know about other people hereon, but as one of the folk who does not believe “God” (Capital G and as described in the bible) exists, I can’t imagine why you think I want to convince you of that. Really Mung, I could care less what you believe. I personally think that a belief in “God” (again, Cap G guy) is rather naive and illogical, but for the most part I find it pretty harmless and benign. In some cases, those who espouse such beliefs are even nice people. So, really, I could care less that someone believes in “God” and I see no point in convincing someone otherwise.

    Now, that such a belief, particularly when coupled with dubious, disingenuous, and completely fallacious arguments against practical and valid methods of acquiring knowledge and/or coupled with inane arguments for why said “God” concept should be included in classes on science, is ripe for mockery is just kind of a bonus in my opinion. I have no qualms about noting just how asinine said “God” belief is for developing economies, building cars, developing computer software, determining ballistics, and…oh yes…understanding anything about biology. That some numbskulls want to double down on such simply means they are opening themselves up to mockery. Commence noting the stupidity and dishonesty of said “belief in “God””.

    I’m also a Christian. I believe Jesus existed. I see mocking of Christianity, what I don’t see are arguments that Christianity is false. I see mocking of the belief that Jesus existed, what I don’t see are arguments that he didn’t exist. So why should I change my mind?

    See above. What does one gain by arguing that Christianity is false? The vast majority of people who think Christianity is false are pretty secure in the notion that there’s no obligation to accept Christianity and at this point, those who call themselves “Christian” don’t have the social, political, or economic advantages they once did. So really, why should I care that you want some label to define some aspect of your life. Have at it.

    That pattern repeats itself over and over. The site is not a site of skeptics, it’s a site for mockers. And mockers will mock. It’s what they do. So I mock the mockers. Guilty as charged.

    This strikes me as an odd claim. Why can’t a skeptic also be a mocker? And more to the point, why would skeptics necessarily care about engaging in any other behavior besides mockery in the face of dubious claims?

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  2. I’m sometimes willing to openly mock creationism and intelligent design, but those are in a completely different camp than religion. I don’t mock religion. What someone chooses to believe about the world is his or her own business. I only engage when their beliefs impact other people who don’t share them.

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  3. William J. Murray: soooo …. still not really sure how I’m “flagrantly dishonest.”

    Do you think that really matters, lol? What we have here is a mindset that a certain class of people who post here are fundamentally dishonest, that an entire class of members doesn’t belong here, and no interest in actually trying to get along with them.

    Now of course that very mindset violates the rules, but it’s not a change of mind that’s needed, it’s a change of the rules that is needed.

    Maybe that’s why the site is “broken.”

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  4. Frankie: As I have said, …

    Yeah and that’s all you’ve done. You’ve “said”; you’ve made statements and claims repeatedly and constantly. Inane, disingenuous, and boring statements over and over and over. No work, no results, no practical applications from this “ID” of any kind. Just claims. And then you get cranky and ronry when nobody in the actual science industry or education buys into your BS…

    That is how science works when it comes to determining design or not, Robin.

    LOL! You keep telling yourself that. Happily no one in the world of science accepts your opinion on that.

    BTW nice equivocation with the “mutation and selection” and “speciation” bit. I bet it doesn’t even bother you.

    LOL! It’s a hoot watching you demonstrate that you don’t understand the meaning of certain words and concepts Joe!

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  5. Kantian Naturalist:
    I’m sometimes willing to openly mock creationism and intelligent design, but those are in a completely different camp than religion. I don’t mock religion. What someone chooses to believe about the world is his or her own business. I only engage when their beliefs impact other people who don’t share them.

    A good point KN.

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  6. Robin: You keep telling yourself that. Happily no one in the world of science accepts your opinion on that.

    It is the way science works, Robin. And you cannot demonstrate otherwise. So I am more than OK with that.

    It’s a hoot watching you demonstrate that you don’t understand the meaning of certain words and concepts Joe!

    It’s more of a hoot watching you spew false accusations and bullshit.

    And BTW, unlike you I have supported my claims. You talk about work and results and yet there aren’t any that support blind and mindless processes producing living organisms.

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  7. Kantian Naturalist: I’m sometimes willing to openly mock creationism and intelligent design,

    And we openly mock you and yours. Unlike your position at least ID makes testable claims

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  8. As I have said, Robin, we have the methodology to determine if life was designed or not. And it involves eliminating blind and mindless processes, which we can easily do as no one in earth’s history knows how to test such a claim. And now having eliminated blind and mindless processes we see if living organisms meet the criteria laid out by Behe and others. And it does.

    That is how science works when it comes to determining design or not, Robin.

    See Newton’s four rules of scientific investigation:

    1-admit no more causes of natural things than are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances,

    2-to the same natural effect, assign the same causes,

    3-qualities of bodies, which are found to belong to all bodies within experiments, are to be esteemed universal, and

    4-propositions collected from observation of phenomena should be viewed as accurate or very nearly true until contradicted by other phenomena.

    The first rule is also called parsimony / Occam’s razor. It means if a purely natural origin can be had then we go with it. If erosion can account for the shape of a rock then we do not say the rock is an artifact. We only add an intelligent agency when absolutely necessary.

    BTW nice equivocation with the “mutation and selection” and “speciation” bit. I bet it doesn’t even bother you

    AGAIN- both YEC and ID are OK with speciation, which is ambiguous at best, and also OK with mutation and natural selection (NS includes mutation). That means Robin was equivocating. It doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the words.

    It is strange that Robin’s mode of “argument” is to spew false accusations and bald assertions. But again I have supported my claims.

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  9. Mung: Do you think that really matters, lol? What we have here is a mindset that a certain class of people who post here are fundamentally dishonest, that an entire class of members doesn’t belong here, and no interest in actually trying to get along with them.

    Now of course that very mindset violates the rules, but it’s not a change of mind that’s needed, it’s a change of the rules that is needed.

    Maybe that’s why the site is “broken.”

    Being unable to fulfill an unrealistic expectation is not the same thing as being “broken”. If one has realistic expectations about human behavior, the site is functioning just fine.

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  10. William J. Murray: If one has realistic expectations about human behavior, the site is functioning just fine.

    Neat summary, William. I couldn’t agree more. And all the better for not allowing anyone to edit over comments to censor them!

    And the yogurt is working out great, too. So that’s two things we agree on.

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  11. We now have objective empirical evidence that keiths doesn’t post in good faith.

    And there’s already reams of objective empirical evidence that Patrick doesn’t post in good faith.

    I have an idea. Let’s blame the Creationists!

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  12. Mung: We now have objective empirical evidence that keiths doesn’t post in good faith.

    And there’s already reams of objective empirical evidence that Patrick doesn’t post in good faith.

    Doesn’t matter, you have to assume it by the rules. You still have to try to be better than them.

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  13. Alan Fox: Neat summary, William. I couldn’t agree more. And all the better for not allowing anyone to edit over comments to censor them!

    Exactly.

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  14. newton: You still have to try to be better than them.

    You make it sound like that would require some effort on my part. 🙂

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  15. Frankie: As I have said, Robin, we have the methodology to determine if life was designed or not. And it involves eliminating blind and mindless processes, which we can easily do as no one in earth’s history knows how to test such a claim. And now having eliminated blind and mindless processes we see if living organisms meet the criteria laid out by Behe and others. And it does.

    If it logically impossible to falsify something ,it is unfalsifiable. You cannot eliminate the unfalsifiable.You can never prove it is false.

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  16. Mung:

    We now have objective empirical evidence that keiths doesn’t post in good faith.

    No, you don’t. However, you’ve shown yet again that you don’t post in good faith.

    Mung:

    The site is not a site of skeptics, it’s a site for mockers.

    Robin:

    Why can’t a skeptic also be a mocker?

    No reason, but Mung needs the false dichotomy.

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  17. Mung: You make it sound like that would require some effort on my part. 🙂

    If you are underestimating them

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  18. keiths:
    To the contrary, they serve an important purpose, which is to make you feel very uncomfortable when you lie.To ignore your dishonesty would only encourage more of it, to the detriment of TSZ.

    It clearly gets under your skin when someone points out your dishonesty, and that’s a good thing.

    Mung, it’s fairly obvious that you crave respect and approval from your fellow commenters.If you want those things, then earn them.

    Your current approach — trying to lie and bluff your way to respect — is backfiring.

    This is a good example of why I think the rules should be changed to permit calling out particularly egregious dishonest behaviors. While it can result in simple name calling, when done with clear evidence in support it can also result in people changing their behavior.

    Rules that prohibit recognizing dishonest behavior just encourage more of it.

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  19. Mung:
    So I have a condensed version of the OP that I have created.

    Here’s a list of options that won’t work because the technology doesn’t exist.

    Here’s a list of options that are undesirable because they involve censorship.

    The only currently viable option is to let the TSZ community be what it wants to be. … If there are enough of us here who are aligned with Elizabeth’s goals, we can achieve them voluntarily.But … The current rules don’t support this ethos.

    So Patrick proposes two rule modifications. They turn out to be redundant by the way. So we’re left with one:

    …eliminating the overhead of endless Moderation Issue discussions by no longer allowing admins to move comments to Guano.

    That’s it. But it turns out that even that is unnecessary, because the mods can just decide amongst themselves to not move posts to Guano.

    oh, and:

    My final suggestion is being the change we want to see. Rules and tools are not going to achieve Elizabeth’s goals. People acting individually and cooperating voluntarily can.

    To summarize:

    Mods will agree to stop moving post to Guano. this is something they can do without any rule change.

    And everyone else will try to do better. Or not.

    peace out

    That’s not a horrible summary of my recommendations. It misses two important points, though. First, even after removing the ability of admins to move comments to Guano I think that Lizzie’s rules should serve as guidelines that we all accept as members of the community. I would change the existing rule of:

    “Assume all other posters are posting in good faith.
    For example, do not accuse other posters of being deliberately misleading.”

    to:

    “Assume all other posters are posting in good faith unless and until they clearly demonstrate otherwise. Call out dishonest behavior but be generous and willing to re-extend the assumption of good faith.”

    Second, it’s important to note that parking one’s priors at the door doesn’t mean parking one’s intellect and memories along with them. Intelligent design creationism is intellectually vacuous. There is no scientific hypothesis for it, no testable entailments, and no reason to consider it anything other than the dishonest religiously motivated political movement it has been proven to be. It should not be against the guidelines to note this.

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  20. Patrick: Rules that prohibit recognizing dishonest behavior just encourage more of it.

    Which rule currently prohibits anyone from recognizing dishonest behavior?

    ETA: If you answer this one correctly I promise to address your following post.

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  21. keiths: However, you’ve shown yet again that you don’t post in good faith.

    Nice projection as it has been shown that the mods here do not post in good faith. heck you claimed that you were raised a christian and yet you don’t understand the fall from Grace.

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  22. Patrick: Intelligent design creationism is intellectually vacuous. There is no scientific hypothesis for it, no testable entailments

    LoL! Coming from a proponent of evolutionism that is totally meaningless and it is also wrong. Scientific hypotheses for ID have been presented along with ID’s testable entailments. OTOH no one has produced scientific hypotheses or testable entailments for evolution by means of blind and mindless processes.

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  23. Mung: Which rule currently prohibits anyone from recognizing dishonest behavior?

    From the Rules page:

    Assume all other posters are posting in good faith.
    For example, do not accuse other posters of being deliberately misleading
    . . .
    Address the content of the post, not the perceived failings of the poster.

    By those rules it is acceptable to point out that another participant is factually incorrect, but not to call out what are clearly deliberately dishonest behaviors such as quote mining, plagiarism, or continuous repetition of PRATTs.

    ETA: If you answer this one correctly I promise to address your following post.

    You appear to have an inflated sense of the value I place on your responses.

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