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.