Incivility on the web

A recent post on the blog, Watching the Deniers, raises an important issue that I think is worth passing on. In February 2013, a paper was published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication which examines the effect of uncivil discussions in the comments on blogs and the impact of those discussions on the people who read them. The topic under discussion was nanotechnology and they found that incivility in comments had a polarising effect.

Most importantly, this study found that uncivil blog comments contribute to polarization of risk perception of an issue depending on an individual’s level of religiosity and support of that entity. Specifically, among individuals who do not support nanotechnology, those who are exposed to uncivil deliberation in blog comments are more likely to perceive the technology as risky than those who are exposed to civil comments. Similarly, highly religious individuals are more likely to perceive nanotechnology as risky when exposed to uncivil comments compared to less religious individuals exposed to uncivil comments.

More at The “Nasty Effect:” Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies.

I think the main message here is that if you want to convince someone of something, then do it in a civil manner. A nasty discussion will foil any hope you have of changing someone’s mind.

This weekend I watched Stephen Schneider talking to 52 climate skeptics on Australian television. He does so respectfully and calmly and I think this is a great example of how to get your message across. I am not sure how many of the skeptics he managed to convince but I am certain he would have had less success had he approached it with anger and nastiness. Sadly Stephen Schneider died not long after this discussion was filmed. He was 65. The discussion is viewable on Youtube in four parts.

31 thoughts on “Incivility on the web

  1. I think that referring to civility from a blog called “Watching the Deniers” is just hilarious

    (1) Referring to someone as a “denier” immediately implies that you have zero tolerance for their view.

    (2) “Watching” them implies that you are some kind of creepy person that, for example, writes to the University of Auckland complaining about academics who do not subscribe to your view

      1. How amusing Bronwyn

        I have been “debating” climate change with the warmist creed for about 4 years now. In that time I have been referred to as a moron, a troll, a denier, a rent-boy, a rapist, a paedophile and had my full name and contact details published on the web

        I’ve listened to braying, sneering, pompous, semi-literates prattling on about their moral superiority, their low carbon lifestyles, how I am thick and they are smart. I have had endless links to “Skeptical Science” pushed in my face, explanations of the cold weather on Europe caused by “global warming” and how we are wrong that there has been no warming for 17 years because we are in the pay of big oil

        Now that the science ain’t working out that well for you, you want a “civil discussion”

        Sorry, I don’t negotiate with terrorists.

        Have a nice, sanctimonious, middle class life and find another eco-religion to follow

      2. Andy, this is precisely why civility is so important. I am sure it must have felt awful to be called all of those things and I don’t believe there is any excuse for it. Stephen Schneider actually mentions this in one of the videos above. I can’t remember which one (part 3 or 4 I think). Climate scientists get the same thing and sometimes even worse – death threats against themselves or their families. It’s just awful.

        I appreciate your taking the time to comment on my blog and you are most welcome to do so but if you’d rather not have these discussions with people who you call “terrorists” then you don’t have to come here.

  2. This has been an increasingly troubling issue over the last few years. Political, religious, and environmental blogs and chat sites have fostered the “nasty” factor albeit passively which is an oxymoron . The unsettling notion is that there is little respect for and between people and without compunction, the door is open to abuse, denigration, vilification and humiliation of those with a different idea or position on most issues. Surprisingly, the attacks barely relate to the substance of the particular issue, but rather the personality of the messenger. Social media facilitates this because of the “anonymous” nature of these sites. It seems that where it was acceptable to have difference of opinion and in fair and equal respects gives respect to that difference, it now has become common for opposition opinion to be expressed with liberal lashings of profanity and filth. Put up a “flag” which may be favourable comment about a particular policy, scientific, social or political position, and opposition comes out with “nasty” guns blazing… no consequence, no accountability. Creepy.

    1. Yes, it is a problem and one that I think stifles the free exchange of ideas. I like to think that it’s a good thing that we have so many differences of opinion. But how to keep the discussion focussed on the ideas rather than the people who have them can be tricky. Perhaps if when writing a comment we notice steam rising from our ears, then it’s time to step away from the keyboard and take a few deep breaths.

  3. This is a very interesting issue and it’s certainly my view that it is best to engage politely with others when discussing topics like climate change. It’s certainly my intention to do so, but maybe don’t always quite achieve it. There is, however, an issue with simply remaining civil. What happens if one side of a debate starts to use aggressive and insulting rhetoric? It can be quite effective and can often appear to make those who are remaining civil seem weak and uncertain and often gives those who are choosing to be uncivil more impact with the media and general public.

    Ideally one could try and get both sides to return to a more civil discussion but once it has turned uncivil it does seem as though this becomes more unlikely and if one side remains civil they will appear to be in a weakened state. I don’t know the solution to this and maybe it really just indicates a state in which agreement will not be reached through discussion and that we will just have to wait until it is obvious which side is “correct”.

    1. “What happens if one side of a debate starts to use aggressive and insulting rhetoric?”

      I don’t know! If you figure this one out let me know.

  4. Stephen Schneider is notable for another thing: the meme about Global Cooling. I don’t know whether Andy is one of those who cite Schneider’s very first (July 1971) paper (with S I Rasool), “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Aerosols: Effects of Large Increases on Global Climate” as evidence that climate scientists have no idea what they are talking about.

    The paper predicted a possible drastic global cooling, with the effect of aerosol particles from increasing global industrialisation outweighing the effect of increasing CO2 concentration, This followed a period roughly from 1940 to 1950 when, according to then measurements, the Earth’s climate temperature was actually declining. The prediction made headlines in The New York Times.

    Schneider subsequently found arithmetic errors in the paper and issued a correction, which received practically no publicity, so some people still demonise him as the scientist who predicted global cooling.

    Schneider’s subsequent work illustrates well the scientific process. People develop theories. Mistakes get made. Analysis or subsequent research reveals the mistakes. Everyone takes the corrections on board and moves on. Schneider, before he died, was deeply concerned about increasing global temperature.

    Andy writes, “I have been ‘debating’ climate change with the warmist creed for about 4 years now”. Regrettably, many have forgotten that, while debate is important in science, the ultimate determinant is what the data say, not who has the smartest arguments.

    The data say that increasing greenhouse gas concentrations are warming the planet and that no sufficient off-setting cooling mechanisms have so far been found. The bulk of the increasing heat energy in recent years is being absorbed by the oceans, but the ocean-atmosphere mechanisms that have mediated this (and that are still poorly understood) could change at any time.

    Even so, if Andy asks me for some actual data, I’d refer him to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology site,, which notes:

    “The last seven months have been exceptional in terms of heat records.

    “During this period, Australia registered the warmest September–March on record, the hottest summer on record, the hottest month on record and the hottest day on record.

    “A record was also set for the longest national scale heatwave.

    “It was also the hottest summer on record for Australian sea-surface temperatures. Sea surface temperatures in February were the hottest ever recorded in the region.”

    One example of the “ocean-atmosphere mechanisms” that I mentioned is the ENSO, which has a season-long effect on nations on both sides of the Pacific. It is discussed here:

    I am not debating Andy’s statements (I’d like to see his data), although his claim that “‘Watching’ them implies that you are some kind of creepy person” might sound weird to anyone who has small children. But I’ll let that go through to the keeper.

  5. Rachel,
    It is clear that any thoughtful person abhors incivility in the climate debate ,whether it be directed at Stephen Schneider or at Andy.
    I have watched the entirety of the “Insight”program with the 52 climate sceptics questioning the late Stephen Schneider.It appears he converted 2 of the audience ,but like Dr. Ian Rivlin,the GP who tried unsuccessfully to get a credible answer to the issue of CO2 as a trace gas driving the climate ,there was nothing that Schneider said that was likely to alter my genuine scepticism.
    I was delighted to have Schneider direct the last questioner to the IPCC Reports ,particularly AR4 , rather than to biased blogs like Real Climate,SkepticalScience,or (horror) Desmogblog.
    In turn, in the interest of civil discourse and reading other than ” the prosecution case”, may I suggest your readers also read “Climate Change Reconsidered : The Report of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (2009)”, and 2011 Interim Report of the Nongovernmental Panel on Climate Change”.
    On June 15 ,the Chinese Academy of Science translated and published these two volumes containing more than 1200 pages of peer reviewed literature originally published by the Heartland Institute in 2009 and 2011.
    The two books are available at little cost on Amazon’s Kindle,and present a sweeping rebuttal of the UN IPCC ‘s findings which are widely circulated as the basis of taking action to stop or slow the advance of Climate Change.
    The fact that the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences took this step and held a ceremony to launch the publications speaks volumes.

      1. Oh really, how about all the papers in retraction watch that keep getting recycled?
        Or the bunk Skeptical Science consensus project paper?
        Or the Lewandowsky moon landing denier paper?

        There is so much garbage in the so called peer reviewed literature I’d probably have more luck sifting through bins

    1. I think maybe you should recheck the claim that the Chinese Academy of Sciences has translated these volume and held a ceremony to celebrate their launch. This statement from the Chinese Academy of Sciences appears to clarify the situation and seems to indicate a slightly different set of circumstances to that presented in your comment.

    2. Doug,

      The Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) has not endorsed the NIPCC report. If you visit the link Wotts has provided you will see that the CAS is not all that happy about reports that it did. I quote from the CAS,

      “If the Heartland Institute does not withdraw its false news or refuse to apologize, all the consequences and liabilities should be borne by the Heartland Institute.”

    3. Doug said,
      “…but like Dr. Ian Rivlin,the GP who tried unsuccessfully to get a credible answer to the issue of CO2 as a trace gas driving the climate…”

      I want to comment on this directly. I thought Stephen Schneider gave a very throrough explanation to Dr. Ian Rivkin but you seem to still doubt so I will try a different explanation for you.

      Just because something exists in trace amounts it does not mean it cannot have a huge impact. I think you would agree that if I put trace amounts of arsenic in your drink it could have a huge impact. In fact, levels as low as 0.00017mg/L in drinking water can, over a period of time, lead to arsenicosis.

  6. Rachel,
    in the interests of accuracy in this ongoing debate,you and wottsupwiththatblog are correct.The Heartland Institute has issued a clarification of its news release and an apology to the Chinese Academy of Sciences.To quote the press release,
    “Earlier this week,The information Centre for Global Exchange Studies ,an Information Group of the Chinese Academy of Sciences published a Chinese edition of Climate Change Reconsidered translating and combining the contents of two volumes in a series with the same title previously published by the Heart
    And Institute.
    Some people interpreted our press release and a blog post describing the event as implying that the CAS endorses the views contained in the original books. This is not the case,and we apologise to those who may have been confused by these news reports.
    To be clear,the release of this new publication does not imply that the CAS or any of its affiliates endorse the skeptical views contained in the report.
    Rather as stated in the translator’s preface to the book,”The work of these translators ,organisations and funders, has been in the translation and promotion of scientific dialogue,does not reflect that they agree with the views of the NIPCC.”
    Having said that ,may I point out that the 5 climate scientists who are Authors of Fang et al 2011 appear to prefer the views of the NIPCC, stating that the views of the IPCC “have been largely questioned”, noting that the NIPCC established in 2007 has introduced a number of controversial and divisive debates, citing Singer et al 2008 and Idso et al 2009.They also write that the Climategate and Glaciergate scandals have especially questioned the public credibility of the report (AR4),citing Heffernan 2009 and Schiemeir 2010.And as a result,they state that ” the IPCC Report is no longer the most authorative document on climate change,as it is restricted by its political tendencies,and some errors and flaws.”
    As to arsenic and CO2 ,Rachel,the analogy is a false one.The Australian Government maintains a National Inventory of Pollutants at are 93 substances listed including arsenic and compounds.Carbon dioxide is not listed as a pollutant ,although carbon monoxide and carbon disulfide are.When the list was drawn up in 1996, the Commitee deferred for consideration the issue of the “greenhouse effect”, so the non-listing of CO2 remains controversial.
    I thought Steven Schneider’s explanation convinced neither Dr. Rivlin or the audience.

    1. The explanation was clear–I, like Schneider, couldn’t understand how he couldn’t understand it. Perhaps the analogy of an accrual savings account is better? Or a positive feedback system? But simply asserting that you couldn’t believe that a 3% year-on-year increase would be significant, isn’t a very meaningful statement. I would have liked Schneider to ask Dr Rivlin what he WOULD consider a significant number?

    2. Doug,

      Where does it say that Fang et al prefers the views of the NIPCC? The paper you refer to – – does not say that. I am concerned about incorrect information being spread on my blog. I am happy to be shown that this is indeed true, but you would need to provide a source. I have a copy of his paper and he does not say that he prefers the views of the NIPCC in it.

      As regards my arsenic analogy, I was not trying to demonstrate that CO2 is a pollutant. I thought that both you and the GP in the video were having trouble understanding how something in such minuscule quantities could still have a large impact. I am happy to be mistaken in this regard and that you already understand that just because something constitutes a small amount of something else, that doesn’t mean that its effect is not significant.

    3. Douglas, unfortunately this seems like a classic example of why this debate can become uncivil (not your response but that from the Heartland Institute). It seems – to me at least – that their first press release was clear and unambiguous. Now they claim that it was simply mis-interpreted. They do apologise, but not for making a claim that was unfounded, but for writing a press release that was mis-interpreted by those who read it.

      As far as the arsenic, CO2 analogy is concerned, the point that Rachel was trying to make (I believe) is not that they are somehow the same type of substance, but simply that there are examples of substances that can have a significant effect even if their concentration is very low. Hence, concluding that CO2 cannot be causing global warming simply because the concentration is low is – in itself – a largely unfounded argument.

  7. Rachel ,
    I have previously run off a photocopy of Fang et al 2011 and I will have to find it and re-read the entire paper to isolate the quotes I have given you. The comment that Fang et al “appear to prefer the views of the IPCC ” is my comment on their paper , not their direct statement .But read the abstract and then the paper and my comment is supportable. I am not trying to mislead anyone and your readers can read both Abstract and Paper and draw their own conclusions.

  8. Can trace quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have a material effect of climate? It is now 152 years since scientist John Tyndall demonstrated that they can, since the gas is opaque to certain wavelengths of radiant energy, resulting in the so-called greenhouse effect..

    Tyndall published his findings in a paper, “On the Absorption and Radiation of Heat by Gases and Vapours, and on the Physical Connection of Radiation, Absorption, and Conduction ” in 1851, The paper, a copy of which is available at, described in detail the apparatus and method that Tyndall used to obtain his results. Nobody in the ensuing period has found fault with with either the method or the conclusions. (He determined that water vapour, carbon monoxide and olefin gases – such as methane – also had a significant greenhouse effect.) It is surprising that Tyndall’s results, which have stood for so long, should still be doubted.

    It is sometimes argued that, since water vapour concentration in the atmosphere is so high, it should dwarf the effect of CO2. In fact the effects of the two gases are largely independent of one another and are additive. Discussion around fig.4 at explains the simple physics behind this.

  9. Rachel,
    See for the quotes I supplied in my post at 10:06 am on June 17.
    I have located the photocopy of Fang et al 2011. Each of the quotes at the SPPI blog is accurate and I repeat my comment that the authors appear to favour the sceptical view of NIPCC in preference to that of the IPCC.
    Go to page 1459 ,first column ,paragraph commencing at line 17.The NIPCC foundation in 2007 is reported, as I quoted,and its introduction of a number of “controversial and divisive debates ” is stated.Then,Climategate and Glaciergate scandals are referred to,which have ” especially questioned the public credibility of the report (AR4)”.
    Then “,The IPCC report is no longer the most authorative document on climate changes , as it is restricted by its political tendencies and some errors and flaws.”
    How is a comment by me that they appear to favour the NIPCC “misinformation” given this statement?
    I invite your readers to read the entire paper.where the NIPCC positions on each issue are listed beside the views of the IPCC throughout.There is a balanced consideration of both viewpoints.
    If you consider my comment too extreme,would you concede the conclusion of the SPPIblog as follows,
    “This is but one view of the subject,albeit an important one because it comes from China.the world’s most populous country. Many different groups have many different ideas about the topic ; and that is the nature of the long running controversy: there is no agreement on these and other core issues.Consequently and contrary to what the IPCC crowd continually contends ,the science of global warming is definitely not” settled” ”
    On the Schneider example it is objectionable because ,although a year on year accumulation of monies in a bank account of say 3% is significant ,the simple example treats CO2 as the only “player” when it remains a minor trace gas.In the real world .Using Schneider’ example,the bank account may accrue 3% annually but that is negated if the bank charges $5 a month, account keeping fees. What of the major greenhouse gas ,water vapour and clouds , or any one of the other 20 plus factors affecting the climate?

    1. Hi Doug,

      I think it’s fine for you to have an opinion about the paper. I thought you were implying that they had ditched the IPCC in favour of the NIPCC and I don’t reach that conclusion at all from their paper. They only mention the NIPCC once and only to say that the NIPCC has introduced a number of “controversial and divisive debates” which I think is true. I actually think the main purpose of their paper is to strengthen the IPCC.

  10. “What of the major greenhouse gas ,water vapour” Already addressed. See above.

    In fact as global temperature increases, water vapour concentration in the atmosphere also increases, providing an additive effect to increasing CO2. In Doug’s example, the effect is like a bank account that pays 3% annual interest and where the bank tosses in a further $5 a month bonus for the lucky account-holder.

    As to the point that Fang “…is but one view of the subject,albeit an important one because it comes from China.the world’s most populous country”, there is no indication that Fang represents an official Chinese position. Indeed, since the paper appeared in 2011, it has only received five citations, two of which are in Chinese and a third from someone who thinks climate change is caused by volcanoes and the Earth wobbling on its axis. (It is true that both affect climate but cannot account for the changes occurring over the last half century.)

    China’s official position on climate change can be best understood by following the money trail,

    China has the world’s largest installed renewable energy electricity generation capacity. Plans for further development of low-emissions energy sources under China’s 12th Five Year Plan include a four-fold increase in nuclear power, expanded hydroelectric and solar capacity, more than doubling of wind capacity, and increased gas-fired generation.

    Over the period of the 11th Five Year Plan, the Central Government invested around AUD 30 billion in energy-saving and emissions reduction projects, generating investment worth an estimated AUD 300 billion. Public and private investment in low-emissions energy is expected to total around USD 760 billion by 2020.

    China’s regulation of energy efficiency, proposed under the 12th Five Year Plan, will include requiring 10,000 companies to meet energy consumption standards. This is an expansion of a regulatory program targeting China’s 1000 highest energy-consuming enterprises under the 11th Five Year Plan. In particular, Chinese industries, including aluminium, face penalties in the form of more expensive electricity surcharges if they do not meet specified energy performance standards.

    In the five years to 2010, China decommissioned over 70 gigawatts of smaller, inefficient power plants. This is greater than the entire registered generation capacity in the National Electricity Market in Australia which was just under 50 gigawatts in the 2009-10 financial year.

    The closure of inefficient coal-fired power stations will continue-closure of plants with total capacity of 86 gigawatts is expected in 2011. Decommissioned plants have been replaced by larger plants that are economically and environmentally much more efficient.

    In addition China will introduce emission trading pilot schemes by 2015 with a view to extending them nation-wide by 2020.

  11. Your interpretation of Schneider’s explanation is still wrong because the $5 is returned to your account later in the year. There is no change because the $5 appears in the credit then later the debit column (or vice versa), to beat this dead horse of an analogy. Zero sum! Equilibrium would be upset though by a 3% increase in the fee without a commensurate compensation.

  12. China is proceeding faster to a national emissions trading regime than the report I previously referred to indicated.

    Australian Financial Review Shanghai correspondent Lisa Murray reports today that the first trading scheme, in Shenzhen and covering the 635 companies producing 38% of the city’s emissions will go live on Tuesday. It will be followed by initiation of markets in six other districts. The target to launch the scheme nationwide is now 2015.

    We should take due account of The Chinese government’s view, an important one since it comes from the world’s most populous country.

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