Science journalist Chris Mooney recently wrote about " The Science of Why Comment Trolls Suck " in Mother Jones magazine. His article covers a study by researchers at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, who asked over a thousand study participants to read the same blog article about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology. The comment section that subjects experienced varied from civil discussion to name-calling flame war. The researchers found that witnessing flame wars caused readers' perceptions of nanotechnology risks to become more extreme.

Mooney argues that these findings don't bode well for the public understanding of climate science. He also argues that this
....is not your father's media environment any longer. In the golden oldie days of media, newspaper articles were consumed in the context of…other newspaper articles. But now, adds Scheufele, it's like "reading the news article in the middle of the town square, with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it."
Finally, based on his interpretation of the evidence, Mooney advocates that we ignore the comments section.

I agree with Mooney that flame wars are detrimental to rational discourse, and that the George Mason study highlights the pitfalls of what Daniel Kahneman calls "System 1" thinking. Yet I counter that a purely civil discussion about climate change may also be counter-productive. Furthermore, the comments section doesn't mark a huge departure from "your father's media environment". Finally, the George Mason University study demonstrates that there is good reason to pay very close attention to the comments section, even if it is littered with bridges beneath which trolls dwell.

How can civil discourse be counter-productive? Agreeable people tend to groupthink , which is when people make poor decisions for the sake of harmony and conformity. Another possible consequence of over-civility is the middle ground fallacy , which is the false assumption that the middle point between two extremes must be the truth ( medio tutissimus ibis , anyone?). A flame war presses emotional buttons that polarize a discussion and inhibit rationality. But an overly civil discourse massages the human tendency to conform, which may also lead us astray. The key is to balance investment in our beliefs with the willingness to abandon invalid arguments and discard false premises.

As for whether or not it is still your father's media environment, of course it isn't. Still, flame wars are anything but new. Trust me. I just spent eleven months in a rural village where people have limited access to electronic media, much less the Internet. People don't have to hide behind anonymous screen names to behave immaturely during a heated debate, quickly drowning out the radio program that prompted the discussion.

Finally, why shouldn't we ignore the comments section? It's not because we're likely to find high quality debate there. We should steel ourselves against the polarizing effects of flame wars, becoming part of the mob to better understand how people form and defend their beliefs. We shouldn't limit ourselves to observing the effects of flame wars from afar, as did the George Mason research team. There's something to be said for allowing yourself to get bated by trolls a few times to experience for yourself how easy it is to be led astray. If you look at my user history at Reddit or the Daily Kos, you'll see I speak from experience. I've learned valuable lessons about the limits of my rationality on those sites. We anthropologists would call this method of inquiry participant observation .

Apart from these three criticisms, I read Mooney's article and the research it covers in light of one of Malarkometer's missions, which is to quantify and correct for the bias and uncertainty inherent in measures of political figures' factuality. Another of my goals is to eventually host a site where both professional fact checkers and non-professionals engage in fact checking and discourse about fact checking while regularly answering questionnaires about political philosophy. The idea is to compare the influence of political philosophy on fact checking performance of professionals versus non-professionals. Based on the George Mason group's findings, I might also want to experiment with varying the levels of comment moderation across the site, and then examine the influence of forum comment vituperativeness on aggregate fact checking performance. And, yes, I might also want to suggest to my future fact checking staff to kindly avoid the comment section while they write their reports!

    about

    Malark- O -blog published news and commentary about the statistical analysis of the comparative truthfulness of the 2012 presidential and vice presidential candidates. It has since closed down while its author makes bigger plans.

    author

    Brash Equilibrium is an evolutionary anthropologist and writer. His real name is Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell . His wife calls him Babe. His daughter calls him Papa.

    what is malarkey?

    It's a polite word for bullshit. Here, it's a measure of falsehood. 0 means you're truthful on average. 100 means you're 100% full of malarkey. Details .

    what is simulated malarkey?

    Fact checkers only rate a small sample of the statements that politicians make. How uncertain are we about the real truthfulness of politicians? To find out, treat fact checker report cards like an experiment, and use random number generators to repeat that experiment a lot of times to see all the possible outcomes. Details .

    malark- O -glimpse

    Can you tell the difference between the 2012 presidential election tickets from just a glimpse at their simulated malarkey score distributions?

    Picture
    dark = pres, light = vp
    (Click for larger image.)

    fuzzy portraits of malarkey

    Simulated distributions of malarkey for each 2012 presidential candidate with 95% confidence interval on either side of the simulated average malarkey score. White line at half truthful. (Rounded to nearest whole number.)

    Picture
    (Click for larger image.)
    • 87% certain Obama is less than half full of malarkey.
    • 100% certain Romney is more than half full of malarkey.
    • 66% certain Biden is more than half full of malarkey.
    • 70% certain Ryan is more than half full of malarkey.
    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    fuzzy portraits of ticket malarkey

    Simulated distributions of collated and average malarkey for each 2012 presidential election ticket, with 95% confidence interval labeled on either side of the simulated malarkey score. White line at half truthful. (Rounded to nearest whole number.)

    malarkometer fuzzy ticket portraits 2012-10-16 2012 election
    (Click for larger image.)
    • 81% certain Obama/Biden's collective statements are less than half full of malarkey.
    • 100% certain Romney/Ryan's collective statements are more than half full of malarkey.
    • 51% certain the Democratic candidates are less than half full of malarkey.
    • 97% certain the Republican candidates are on average more than half full of malarkey.
    • 95% certain the candidates' statements are on average more than half full of malarkey.
    • 93% certain the candidates themselves are on average more than half full of malarkey.
    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    Comparisons

    Simulated probability distributions of the difference the malarkey scores of one 2012 presidential candidate or party and another, with 95% confidence interval labeled on either side of simulated mean malarkey. Blue bars are when Democrats spew more malarkey, red when Republicans do. White line and purple bar at equal malarkey. (Rounded to nearest hundredth.)

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    (Click for larger image.)
    • 100% certain Romney spews more malarkey than Obama.
    • 55% certain Ryan spews more malarkey than Biden.
    • 100% certain Romney/Ryan collectively spew more malarkey than Obama/Biden.
    • 94% certain the Republican candidates spew more malarkey on average than the Democratic candidates.
    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    2012 prez debates

    presidential debates

    Simulated probability distribution of the malarkey spewed by individual 2012 presidential candidates during debates, with 95% confidence interval labeled on either side of simulated mean malarkey. White line at half truthful. (Rounded to nearest whole number.)

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    (Click for larger image.)
    • 66% certain Obama was more than half full of malarkey during the 1st debate.
    • 81% certain Obama was less than half full of malarkey during the 2nd debate.
    • 60% certain Obama was less than half full of malarkey during the 3rd debate.
    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    Picture
    (Click for larger image.)
    • 78% certain Romney was more than half full of malarkey during the 1st debate.
    • 80% certain Romney was less than half full of malarkey during the 2nd debate.
    • 66% certain Romney was more than half full of malarkey during the 3rd debate.
    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    aggregate 2012 prez debate

    Distributions of malarkey for collated 2012 presidential debate report cards and the average presidential debate malarkey score.
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    (Click for larger image.)
    • 68% certain Obama's collective debate statements were less than half full of malarkey.
    • 68% certain Obama was less than half full of malarkey during the average debate.
    • 67% certain Romney's collective debate statements were more than half full of malarkey.
    • 57% certain Romney was more than half full of malarkey during the average debate.
    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    2012 vice presidential debate

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    (Click for larger image.)
    • 60% certain Biden was less than half full of malarkey during the vice presidential debate.
    • 89% certain Ryan was more than half full of malarkey during the vice presidential debate.
    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    overall 2012 debate performance

    Malarkey score from collated report card comprising all debates, and malarkey score averaged over candidates on each party's ticket.
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    (Click for larger image.)
    • 72% certain Obama/Biden's collective statements during the debates were less than half full of malarkey.
    • 67% certain the average Democratic ticket member was less than half full of malarkey during the debates.
    • 87% certain Romney/Ryan's collective statements during the debates were more than half full of malarkey.
    • 88% certain the average Republican ticket member was more than half full of malarkey during the debates.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    2012 debate self comparisons

    Simulated probability distributions of the difference in malarkey that a 2012 presidential candidate spews normally compared to how much they spewed during a debate (or aggregate debate), with 95% confidence interval labeled on either side of the simulated mean difference. Light bars mean less malarkey was spewed during the debate than usual. Dark bars less. White bar at equal malarkey. (Rounded to nearest hundredth.)

    individual 2012 presidential debates

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    (Click for larger image.)
    • 80% certain Obama spewed more malarkey during the 1st debate than he usually does.
    • 84% certain Obama spewed less malarkey during the 2nd debate than he usually does.
    • 52% certain Obama spewed more malarkey during the 3rd debate than he usually does.
    Picture
    (Click for larger image.)
    • 51% certain Romney spewed more malarkey during the 1st debate than he usually does.
    • 98% certain Romney spewed less malarkey during the 2nd debate than he usually does.
    • 68% certain Romney spewed less malarkey during the 3rd debate than he usually does.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    aggregate 2012 presidential debate

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    (Click for larger image.)
    • 58% certain Obama's statements during the debates were more full of malarkey than they usually are.
    • 56% certain Obama spewed more malarkey than he usually does during the average debate.
    • 73% certain Romney's statements during the debates were less full of malarkey than they usually are.
    • 86% certain Romney spewed less malarkey than he usually does during the average debate.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    vice presidential debate

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    (Click for larger image.)
    • 70% certain Biden spewed less malarkey during the vice presidential debate than he usually does.
    • 86% certain Ryan spewed more malarkey during the vice presdiential debate than he usually does.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    2012 opponent comparisons

    Simulated probability distributions of the difference in malarkey between the Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate during a debate, with 95% confidence interval labeled on either side of simulated mean comparison. Blue bars are when Democrats spew more malarkey, red when Republicans do. White bar at equal malarkey. (Rounded to nearest hundredth.)

    individual 2012 presidential debates

    Picture
    (Click for larger image.)
    • 60% certain Romney spewed more malarkey during the 1st debate than Obama.
    • 49% certain Romney spewed more malarkey during the 2nd debate than Obama.
    • 72% certain Romney spewed more malarkey during the 3rd debate than Obama.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    aggregate 2012 presidential debate

    Picture
    (Click for larger image.)
    • 74% certain Romney's statements during the debates were more full of malarkey than Obama's.
    • 67% certain Romney was more full of malarkey than Obama during the average debate.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    vice presidential debate

    • 92% certain Ryan spewed more malarkey than Biden during the vice presidential debate.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    overall 2012 debate comparison

    Party comparison of 2012 presidential ticket members' collective and individual average malarkey scores during debates.
    • 88% certain that Republican ticket members' collective statements were more full of malarkey than Democratic ticket members'.
    • 86% certain that the average Republican candidate spewed more malarkey during the average debate than the average Democratic candidate.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    observe & report

    Below are the observed malarkey scores and comparisons form the malarkey scores of the 2012 presidential candidates.

    2012 prez candidates

    Truth-O-Meter only (observed)

    candidate malarkey
    Obama 44
    Biden 48
    Romney 55
    Ryan 58

    The Fact Checker only (observed)

    candidate malarkey
    Obama 53
    Biden 58
    Romney 60
    Ryan 47

    Averaged over fact checkers

    candidate malarkey
    Obama 48
    Biden 53
    Romney 58
    Ryan 52

    2012 Red prez vs. Blue prez

    Collated bullpucky

    ticket malarkey
    Obama/Biden 46
    Romney/Ryan 56

    Average bullpucky

    ticket malarkey
    Obama/Biden 48
    Romney/Ryan 58

    2012 prez debates

    1st presidential debate

    opponent malarkey
    Romney 61
    Obama 56

    2nd presidential debate (town hall)

    opponent malarkey
    Romney 31
    Obama 33

    3rd presidential debate

    opponent malarkey
    Romney 57
    Obama 46

    collated presidential debates

    opponent malarkey
    Romney 54
    Obama 46

    average presidential debate

    opponent malarkey
    Romney 61
    Obama 56

    vice presidential debate

    opponent malarkey
    Ryan 68
    Biden 44

    collated debates overall

    ticket malarkey
    Romney/Ryan 57
    Obama/Biden 46

    average debate overall

    ticket malarkey
    Romney/Ryan 61
    Obama/Biden 56

    the raw deal

    You've come this far. Why not just check out the Maslark-O-Meter is using? I promise you: it is as riveting as a phone book.

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