transportblog aims to foster debate on urban issues facing Auckland, most notably – but not limited to – transport.
Of course the need for transport results from people’s desire to access the city around them. The need for transport is thus intertwined with, and often determined by, the underlying urban form. So while we focuse primarily on transport issues, we often comment on Auckland issues more generally. Sometimes we might even comment on random things that are happening in Auckland, simply because we think they’re interesting.
All of us bloggers are genuinely heartened and humbled by the level of interest shown in our posts. And rarely has this interest been more evident than of late, when a number of (largely unrelated) posts have garnered a large number of comments. Indeed, in the 10 odd years I’ve been following transportblog I can’t re-call the comments section ever being as active as it has been of late. This is generally a good thing.
Now comes the “but”: We’ve also recently received some complaints. Most notably from long-time readers who feel like the comments section is becoming a bit of a bear pit. The most common complaint is that some commenters are dominating the thread with rather controversial views. As a consequence, people feel like the comments section is becoming increasingly difficult and/or boring to read, and that the atmosphere may dissuade people from commenting. This is not what we want.
For this reason we’ve pulled together this post. It has two purposes in mind: 1) to remind people, especially some of our newer readers, of our user guidelines and 2) to highlight some common logical fallacies that have arisen in recent threads. Ultimately I hope this material contributes to a more civil and logical comment thread, which in turn keeps people coming back and solicits greater participation from an even wider audience.
1. User Guidelines
Our user guidelines can be paraphrased as follows (NB: Ones in bold are the guidelines which I consider to be particularly important given recent events):
- Commenters are guests and are asked to treat other members of the community with civility.
- Members are encouraged to use their real (full) names, especially for those wishing to comment frequently.
- Ad hominem attacks are frowned upon. If you disagree with someone, refute their statements rather than insulting them.
- General moaning about the Blog is extremely boring. If you there are things you like and/or don’t like about the Blog then put it in an email to us, rather than a comment. Or find another space more to your liking.
- Try to use clear and logical reasoning, e.g. Observation 1 + Observation 2 = Conclusion.
- Opinions, while welcome, are not facts. When citing facts, commenters should provide supporting references and links, especially when asked.
- Do not copy and paste complete copyrighted articles without permission from the copyright holder. Acknowledge all sources.
- The editors decide what is acceptable. We reserve the right to delete comments and suspend accounts as we see fit. Grounds for suspension include (but are not limited to):
- Obsessive arguing in a thread or threads
- Repeated statements without supporting evidence
- Blatant promotion of products and/or services
- Use of multiple anonymous identities
- Sexist, racist or other offensive comments
- We are run by volunteers in our spare time, so we will make mistakes. If you disagree with something we have done, get in touch via email.
- Suggestions for improving the blog are welcome, as are guest posts. Please do this via email. Guest Posts cannot be anonymous and will be selected on a case by case basis.
I’ve bolded the first four rules because I think they deserve special mention.
Rule #1 simply implies that the blog is our “house”, and that we’d like it to be welcoming to any Aucklanders who want to participate. While we welcome differing views in comments, we ask that people are respectful of other commenters and our audience in general. Nasty comments about individuals or groups of people are strongly discouraged. After a hard day living the dream in Amsterdam it’s nice to simply come home, kick off your shoes, and relax with some smart people who are also passionate and positive about Auckland.
Like most of you.
That being said, we know that it can be tricky to discern between snark, sarcasm, and cruelty on the internet. As a result, we tend to interpret this guideline generously. If we pull you up on it, it’s generally because we’ve noticed a pattern of nastiness in your comments. Please take that as an opportunity to rethink how you want to come across. Don’t expect us to be consistent – it all depends on a whole range of subjective factors. C’est la vie!
Rule #2 is worth elaborating on a little, because many regular commenters do not use their real names and/or email addresses. Our motivation for adopting this guideline was simple: A growing body of research suggests anonymous comments have a negative impact on the health of online communities. More specifically, anonymity is associated with reduced quality, increased negativity, and possibly even reduced participation (perhaps because negativity scares away other commentators).
To quote from some recent research:
Through our qualitative analysis, we have many findings that support the claim that real identity comments are of higher quality. Through relevance analysis, we found that users who reveal more of their identity write comments that are more relevant to the focal news story (Table 1). Similarly, through analysis using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count tool, we see that more identity revealed yields less swearing, less anger, more affect words, more positive emotion words and less negative emotion words in comments (Table 4).
The results of this research are confirmed by our own (albeit anecdotal) experience. That is, over the last decade or so many of the most argumentative and/or offensive commenters have tended to not use real names or email addresses. Whether this is because anonymity brings out the worst in people, and/or the worst people seek anonymity, we simply don’t know. But the underlying conclusion is the same: When commenting on the blog, anonymity is a privilege rather than a right.
In light of this evidence you may wonder why we continue to allow anonymous comments?
The primary reason is because New Zealand is a small and insular place where people who work in transport and urban industries can’t always speak freely on certain issues. So we appreciate why certain people would want to comment using a pseudonym. However, pseudonyms should be used sparingly and sensitively; you should not be using a pseudonym if you intend to comment regularly. Front up and own your comments.
Next up we have rule #3, which simply amounts to “play the ball, not the person”. Easy to say, hard to do, and as a result we try to interpret this rule generously. What’s not OK is ad hominem attacks on people’s motivations and/or character. Just don’t do it. Disagree with them. Call their views stupid, if that’s how you feel. But don’t judge their motivations. Apart from being rude, it’s irrelevant and unable to be falsified. Hell, many people don’t even understand their own motivations, so it’s beyond me exactly how one determines someone else’s motivations when they are sitting somewhere else behind a computer screen.
Rule #4 is something that I have increasingly little tolerance for. Don’t moan about the blog in the comment thread. We’re are not getting paid to write this rubbish – instead we’re simply volunteers who are interested in fostering a conversation about transport and urban issues. All care and no responsibility etc. And we think that it’s a bit rude to complain about what volunteers are doing for free in their limited spare time. Even if a topic doesn’t interest you it may still be interesting to other readers. Filling the comments section with complaints about the topic distracts from the conversation for those who are interested.
If you’re not interested in a particular topic, you don’t have to read posts about it. Definitely don’t moan about it. What you can do instead is read something else that does interest you. For example, you could wait for the next Transportblog post instead – we write two to three posts a day, usually on very different topics.
2. Logical Fallacies
The aforementioned user guidelines are necessary but not sufficient to ensure a quality comment thread. Another important ingredient is logic (and evidence of course). Now, logic is a tricky thing and many people, including myself, are pretty bloody illogical from time-to-time. That’s OK: in the words of Nietzsche, who was wonderfully logical and illogical, we’re “all too human”. What’s less OK is failing to acknowledge or learn from logical errors when they are pointed out.
So what exactly is a “logical fallacy”? Well, people who are a lot smarter than me have spent time thinking about logic, especially in the context of online debate. In doing so, they have identified some common fallacies which crop up rather frequently. Five of the most common fallacies, for example, are discussed in this video.
A more complete list and discussion of common logical fallacies is available here. Aside from the ones discussed in the video, I have noticed one logical fallacy cropping up relatively regularly in the Transportblog comment thread: The so-called “slippery slope” fallacy. This is an:
… argument that a position is not consistent or tenable because accepting the position means that the extreme of the position must also be accepted. But moderate positions do not necessarily lead down the slippery slope to the extreme.
For example, if someone argues Auckland Council should invest more in A and less in B, this is not equivalent to them arguing for zero investment in B. Instead the person is simply commenting on relative priorities, and in particular increasing the priority attached to A. If you are interested in knowing their views on how how much Council should invest in B, please consider asking them.
Be careful not to slip on the slippery slope fallacy; we’re all too human and it’s all too common. Indeed, as the video notes logical fallacies can sometimes arise simply because we don’t fully understand someone else’s view – this is not necessarily anyone’s fault, but simply something that should be clarified to ensure both parties are discussing the same issue.
So in between engaging in passionate debate, I’d like to request that all of us try to observe these user guidelines and avoid certain logical fallacies. If issues do arise which we think are detracting from the quality of the debate, then we will try and point them out. We will try and do so kindly, but expect you to respond respectfully.
And when you are commenting, please keep in the back of your mind that while we aspire to be rational, we all suffer from cognitive biases – even if only very basic biases which arise from differences in intelligence. Psychological research, for example, suggests that people of differing levels of intelligence are prone to different cognitive biases. Such biases are termed the “Dunning-Kruger” effect, which Wikipedia describes as follows (source):
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate. Dunning and Kruger attributed the bias to the metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately. Their research also suggests that conversely, highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks that are easy for them also are easy for others. The bias was first experimentally observed by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University in 1999. Dunning and Kruger have postulated that the effect is the result of internal illusion in the unskilled, and external misperception in the skilled: “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”
Basically, less-smart people tend to over-estimate their own intelligence, while more-smart people tend to over-estimate other people’s intelligence. This is not an excuse for either arrogance or ignorance, but it is a plea to not worry too much if someone doesn’t agree with you and/or you can’t get your point across. I think this video from Frozen sums it up nicely, i.e. “let it go”. I always find that eating another croissant helps in this respect.
To finish: If you’ve got this far then you’ve obviously got some spare time. So please use some of that time to make suggestions on possible ideas for future posts. What would you like us to post about in the coming months? Shout it out here and we’ll see what we can do. In between eating croissants of course.