Comment threads: Where everyone rants and no one listens

Whenever I should be doing better things with my time, I inevitably procrastinate and read whatever it is that’s not what I am supposed to be doing.

I usually wind up absorbed into a Facebook rant or semi-intellectual blog post somewhere on the internet.  The blogs are sometimes worthwhile, sometimes not.  But often the best part of the blog piece are the comments made at the end of it.

I like to think I am open minded, although there are some subjects which have become pet peeves where I have found myself increasingly unable to budge from a certain viewpoint.  And at times I have unleashed a stream of pseudo-intellectual ranting into cyberspace.

But I am finding more and more that the comments on every post I read are nothing but  fetid, vexatious bickering.  Freed from the normal constraints of social cohesion and manners, respondents engage in some of the worst forms of intellectual snobbery or laziness.  And the arrogance of some of these people is astounding.

An example from a blog I read tonight called, ironically, “The Conversation”.  The article itself, critical of those who would dare to disagree with the climate change “consensus”, was terminally jaundiced.  But what followed typified for me the languid pretentiousness displayed in so many comments.

David, there is a good case for removing denialist posts that repeatedly bring up the same repeatedly debunked points on every climate change thread you ever read. The case is this – it is a waste of everybody’s time. You have most certainly read the answer to your “last sixteen years” argument many times by now. If you haven’t taken it in by now, you never will. Why should people who actually care about this subject waste their time saying it to you again?

Further, the discussion about the best way to deal with climate change has been blighted for many years now by the delaying and diversionary tactics of denialists. Not you, real pros (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/14/funding-climate-change-denial-thinktanks-network?intcmp=122). It almost feels as if there is an ethical obligation now just to block their opinion. They’ve done enough damage as it is.

The sheer arrogance is amazing.  “I’m right, you’re wrong. You should know I’m right. That you don’t know I’m right means I’m smart and you’re dumb.  You’re obviously so dumb that you don’t deserve to be even heard.”  The last sentence, “It almost feels as if there is an ethical obligation now just to block their opinion”, is blatantly illiberal, borderline totalitarian.

When I was in high-school I was given a book which detailed the history of surgery.  The practice of modern surgery – stern people covered head to toe in gowns and masks in the cold sterility of present day operating theatres – is many times removed from the torturous barbary of the olden days.  The book contained a chapter on the unfortunate story of Ignaz Semmelweis.

Semmelweis was an obstetrician who noted than women who gave birth in the clinic run by doctors were several times more likely to die of post-partum sepsis (“child-birth fever”) than the women who delivered in the midwife clinic or even outside the hospital (“street-births”).  He eventually realised that the doctors, in an attempt to find an answer to why the women died, would autopsy the women but then go straight back to the labour ward to deliver more babies.  The midwives did not perform autopsies.  Semmelweis thought there must have been a contagion that was spread from the dead women to the living by the doctors.  He instituted hand-washing, which almost eradicated child-birth fever from his clinic.

Hand-washing.  Sounds simple to us.  But in the 1800’s, the germ theory of disease was not known.  Disease was thought to arise from distortions in “the four humors”, or that all diseases arose from “bad air”.  To the medical community in the mid 19th century, the idea that cleanliness had anything to do with disease was preposterous.  It was also offensive, since doctors thought that they were gentlemen of the highest order, such that no disease could ever be carried on their hands!

From Wikipedia: “In 1856, Semmelweis’s assistant Josef Fleischer reported the successful results of handwashings at St. Rochus and Pest maternity institutions in the Viennese Medical Weekly (Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift).  The editor remarked sarcastically that it was time people stopped being misled about the theory of chlorine washings.”

Sound familiar?  There was an established consensus.  The most pre-eminent doctors and scientists all published papers in peer-reviewed journals and publications all contradicting Semmelweis.  He was not allowed an opinion.

Women died unnecessarily.

Today, the blogosphere is full of people all-to-willing to repeat the same mistakes.  That everyone else believes the same means that the theory is popular.  Doesn’t mean it’s true. There is no ethical obligation to block opinion.  On the contrary, there is an ethical obligations to reasonably and rationally discuss all opinions.

Reasonable rationality is what is missing from most posts and comments.  There is no discussion – only ranting.  Slanderous dismissal harms intellectual expression, which in the end, helps no one.

I realise that in making this call I am probably opening myself to get trapped by my own words.  So if you ever see me publish a purposeless ranting blog then draw my attention back here.

But for the love of all things sacred, please from now on, lets have a discussion.   Engage in critical argument.  Consider both sides.

Because ignorance and arrogance is inevitably fatal.

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