There has been a long-standing issue in the Skeptics community that has been recently re-raised and re-branded by Phil Plait's TAM8 talk.

It concerns traditionally hostile and/or mocking responses to untenable claims. (I am trying to use emotionally neutral terms. Did I succeed?)

There has been plenty of discussion about whether that is a natural and honest response, a legitimate tactic of persuasion, or whether it is self-defeating.

I feel the appropriate answer may well be different on the blogosphere, in a town hall meeting, at a dinner party, on a date or here on this Q&A site.

So my question is, do we, as a community, have an official position on:

  1. mocking and/or hostile answers to the original poster?

  2. mocking and/or hostile comments about real world people?

  3. mocking and/or hostile comments about real world ideas?

If someone wants to mock creationists, flat-earthers or vaccine-denialists he/she should just get a blog. This site should be objective and polite, as Robert explained in his excellent answer. – Mad Scientist Feb 25 '11 at 7:40
True, but in some sense aren't you 'a dick' when you try to falsify ones life work with an unfounded hypothesis? – Ivo Flipse Mar 28 '11 at 11:48
Ivo, I don't think anyone is arguing that we should protect someone's sunk cost investing time in a false idea. It is about the attitude we take when we do so. – Oddthinking Mar 28 '11 at 22:36
@Oddthinking Do you have any particular 'dickish' examples in mind that you can link to? – Glen Wheeler Apr 12 '11 at 15:38
I didn't have any in particular in mind, and I am a little loathe to pick anyone out, but I think the Internet is not short of examples of name-calling. A typical example would be skeptics who call believers idiots. – Oddthinking Apr 12 '11 at 16:36
I felt that some of the comments on my question… were a little peevish. But then I said to myself "If the site's called 'skeptics,' you can't really get ticked off at someone for being pedantic." – Larry OBrien May 14 '11 at 19:07
It should also be noted that Phil has drawn heavy criticism for this “wishy-washy” statement from the skeptics community because it’s allegedly attacking a straw-man (namely, the criticism was that Phil didn’t name specific, verifiable cases of bad behaviour, instead delivering an overly broad accusation that makes it impossible to defend against). – Konrad Rudolph Jul 18 '11 at 12:14
How about "When the question is exceedingly poorly formed, or thinly veiled flamebait." I agree that 'unnecessary roughness' is ineffective persuasion, but the QA format in general (and this SE in particular) seem to attract a lot of people who want to ask questions that are either 'settled' (but with conscientious dissenters - eg, some religious questions) or settled (if you read a textbook or spend 10 min on Wiki/Goog/etc – hunter2 Jul 8 '13 at 11:36
When someone thinks my answer is offensive, I'd tell him It's not a dick, don't take it too hard!! – George Chalhoub Apr 1 at 3:38

4 Answers 4

up vote 101 down vote accepted

"Bunch of dicks" equals a failed site. It's really as simple as that.

Be nice.

Treat others with the same respect you’d want them to treat you. We’re all here to learn together. Be tolerant of others who may not know everything you know.

It's not optional or reserved for people you agree with; it is a basic tenet of the site. Any hostile behavior or ad hominem attacks should not be tolerated.

I would seriously consider applying that tenet EQUALLY to #2 and #3: The community should reject and down-vote disproportionate, mocking behavior towards any opposing ideas or people in the guise of making a VALID argument.

If you want this site to be successful, it has to be about objective, factual information. There's a "Back It Up! Principle" on these sites which has to apply ten-fold to a site like this … and it has to apply to BOTH sides of the issues.

If you want to make unsubstantiated claims, expect to be called on it. But just as equally, if you want to rant and rave and do a bunch of hand-waving as the skeptic, expect to be EQUALLY be called out about it as well. Otherwise, this site will fail.

Trust me on this one: Users will leave this site in droves if its primary purpose is for members to pat each other on the back and tell each other how smart they are. That type of clique-ish behavior starts when "the best quip" or "best put-down" curries favor and popularity from the community. Don't encourage those activities with your support. The best way to respond is with a polite "We don't do that here."

Let's keep the questions (and answers) canonical and authoritative. If you can resist the urge to browbeat those who hold opposing ideas (whether they're on this site or not), this site will thrive.

Well said. It's never reasonable to be a dick. – Russell Steen Feb 25 '11 at 5:35
"If you want to make unsubstantiated claims, expect to be called on it." "Trust me on this one: Users will leave this site in droves if..." Care to back that up with supporting evidence? (I kid I kid) :P – DampeS8N Mar 31 '11 at 1:07
It's always required to be a dick, otherwise the people who know stuff are replaced by politicians. Polite is political. – Ron Maimon Oct 13 '12 at 14:18

The most dickish thing you should do is, vote-down or edit.

If some one posts a question that claims something unreasonable or blatantly false, by all means vote it down or edit it into a more reasonable question. But above all be nice, we provide evidence here. You never know they might see the light.


I can only echo the other answers that being a dick on Stack Exchange is never appropriate.

However, bear in mind that bad science and gross misrepresentation actually threatens lives. For this reason, you shouldn’t give quarter in public discussions.

To quote John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government:

We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality … We are not […] grossly intolerant of pseudo-science.

I’d urge you [to] be much more intolerant.

(Emphasis mine)

Beddington contradicts Phil Plait in this point, and I think Beddington is right.

Once again, this does not apply to the q’n’a format of Stack Exchange. But in public discussions, if being grossly intolerant of bad science is seen as a dick move (and it often is), then so be it.

I think it applies just fine here. The problem is that too often society considers confrontation of misinformation to be inherently dickish. This is the stance we reject. But we can be polite about combatting bullshit, and we should be, here and everywhere else. – Luke Maurer Apr 12 '11 at 23:03

One point that hasn't been raised in this discussion yet:

When people ask a question or provide an answer with statistics to back it up, this doesn't necessarily mean it is their personal belief.

When someone asks a question like: "Can a cow jump over the moon".

If that is a common belief held by other people, some people insist on being a dick in the comments with suggestions like:

"What the hell are you talking about, you are a moron, cows can't jump, you fool!"

Just because you are asking about it, or just because you are quoting someone else doesn't mean you believe it yourself. Even if I want to find out the truth behind some claim doesn't mean I initially believe that claim.

Don't make the assumption or feel justified in attacking someone just because they asked about a claim that is made by others.


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