A Note on Commenting

by Don Boudreaux on October 10, 2011

in Cafe Conversation

A faithful Cafe patron, whose name is here withheld, sends the following in an e-mail today to Russ and me:

“Muirgeo” has single-handedly reduced the effectiveness and value of your blog. He has certainly reduced my desire to visit the site as often, or participate in the comments. Which is his aim. And you have both cooperated with him. He has boundless energy to dissipate the goods of your productivity, and the space you have created, and you lend him unending currency to do so.

And you have sanctioned him doing so.

I understand the reason behind your principles, but is there no point where you say “enough?

Russ and I understand the frustration of trying to have a civilized conversation amongst thoughtful people – all of whom have a basic understanding of logic and ordinary rules of argumentation, and many of whom possess at least a rudimentary understanding of economics and history – only to find that conversation frequently disrupted by commenters who have utterly no grasp of such basic things; disrupted by people who mistake their passionate disagreement with the thrust of the conversation for knowledge and insight into the matter at hand, and who, in unreasoned response, fling madly into the conversation any factoid or anecdote or quotation or YouTube clip that they (almost always mistakenly) sense bears relevantly upon the point of the conversation and moves that conversation forward productively.

And we also share the normal human urge to pull our hair out upon encountering people so obviously incapable of clear and independent thought that we realize that nothing – literally no argument or set of facts, regardless of how clearly presented – can penetrate their brains.

But, still, Russ and I will not ban Muirgeo or anyone else from the Cafe for the mere offense of being aggressively and ceaselessly and hopelessly stupid.

Unlike in a physical cafe, Muirgeo cannot harm anyone at the Cafe.  He can, and does, annoy – but he can do so only insofar as any of the rest of us read his comments.  As I’ve said before, I completely ignore him (save for an occassional check to ensure that he’s writing nothing libelous or vulgar).  And so he affects me not one whit.

When I read the comments and see his moniker, I scroll right past.

It’s true that many of his comments trigger other responses.  And sometimes these responses are actually very useful: they are often from people more patient than I am in dealing for the millionth-and-first time with arguments that are either incoherent or that have been exposed as flawed countless times before.

Perhaps there’s something that I’m missing (and I don’t concede this possibility rhetorically), but unlike in a physical cafe where he and his ilk certainly would be banned for harassing the customers, here he can be ignored.

Does ignoring him not avoid at least the brunt of the problem?

Having said the above, Russ and I welcome comments about ways that we might pursue (should such be available and practical) to separate commenters interested in rational discussion from commenters not so interested.

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{ 294 comments }

SMV October 11, 2011 at 7:21 am

My concern about the comments is not Muirgeo, but the attacks on him. Anyone that has visited this sight regularly knows that M is our local poltergeist. Shows up when least wanted and makes rude noises. But I frequently recommend this blog & Econtalk when debating those on the left or right. The comments attacking M surly turn people off. They reduce the value of the comments. If we can not shun him than banishment might be the best option.

SMV

REPLY

Darren October 11, 2011 at 2:11 pm

My concern about the comments is not Muirgeo, but the attacks on him.

I’d have to agree with this.

Aaron October 11, 2011 at 5:08 pm

I would have to agree here, too.

I am an occasional reader of the blog, and I learn an incredible amount here, not all of which makes me comfortable. But that is why I come here, to have my assumptions challenged and my intellect sharpened.

But the responses to Muirego actually turn me off further participation – they seem disproportionate to the consequence of the original comment.

I don’t know if Daniel Kuehn is still posting here, but I also remember seeing him taken down in a way that was so gratuitous a while ago that it was not worth my continuing to read.

muirgeo October 11, 2011 at 8:25 am

“Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking.”

John Maynard Keynes

And yet I wonder if even the professors know the context of that quote.

Mikenshmirtz October 11, 2011 at 9:51 am

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Abraham Lincoln

Dan J October 11, 2011 at 10:18 pm

Hahaha….

Lionel from France October 11, 2011 at 11:31 am

Constant reference to Keynes today is proof that our education in economics has failed.

Don Boudreaux October 11, 2011 at 11:33 am

Keynes confirms nearly every prejudice that non-economists have about what drives the economy – which is why vulgar Keynesianism has never died, and why academic Keynesians find such ready applause and demand for their arguments.

Dan H October 11, 2011 at 11:44 am

Hazlitt wrote the timeless classic “Economics In One Lesson”.

Keynes wrote “Economics for the Ruling Class”

Chris Grande October 11, 2011 at 11:44 am

THAT should be a quote of the day – you have encompassed the entire neo-Keynesian disaster in one sentence!

RM October 11, 2011 at 1:44 pm

You really are astounding. You attack them, after they patiently explained why they allow you to post despite your responses, which clearly show not a bit of ability to absorb knowledge?

If anything, were somebody to write something about my comments and say what I read above, I’d reconsider how I said what I was saying. Then I’d reconsider my viewpoints. If I was willing to stick to my views and back them up with facts (something you are incapable of doing), then I’d just make sure I wasn’t insulting. But you insult everyone! Even the authors of this site.

What’s intriguing is that I am certain you took this from Krugman’s article in 2008. Which puts you in pretty poor company. Krugman is shrill, and simply wrong, about virtually everything he does. He constructs very good strawman arguments, engages red herrings with consistency, and when he’s wrong he never admits it.

Caught in a discussion on how Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, his comment admitting this point was brought up. Rather than admit he was a hypocrite, he claimed the fact he never said Social Security would collapse was ‘proof’ he didn’t believe it really was a Ponzi scheme. Interesting. First he admits it has Ponzi qualities and is based on Ponzi thinking, then he claims this fact alone doesn’t mean it will fail? I’m sorry, the man is delusional and I can see now that you likely view him as a guide to thought.

Which does not bode well for you.

Steve Ducharme October 11, 2011 at 9:10 am

There may be a technological solution to your problem. I don’t know if the option is available in your software but I have been on sites where once a persons comment is flagged offensive or annoying or “thumbs down” a certain number of times by the readers then their posts contract down and it takes a deliberate click on the part of the reader to open the comment and read it. This might satisfy your needs for group moderation as opposed to banning someone outright.

Chris J October 11, 2011 at 9:20 am

In fairness, I don’t read the comments, I typically just read the daily email. However, you might check out the commenting system used at avc.com (I believe it is discus). They have a very healthy community over there, and the commenting system ranks commenters based on the frequency of their comments, and how much other readers ‘like’ the comments. If ‘likes’ equal ‘comments worth reading’, then that might cause the best comments to bubble to the top.

Per Kurowski October 11, 2011 at 9:26 am

“separate commenters interested in rational discussion from commenters not so interested”

Any really rational thinker has to be aware that one of the most important inputs of any rational discussions, is precisely what might seem irrational… otherwise there might be no movement forward… only degenerative intellectual incest.

In “The forger’s spell”, by Edward Dolnick, about the falsification of Vermeer paintings, Dolnick makes a reference to having heard Francis Fukuyama in a TV program saying that Daniel Moynihan opined “There are some mistakes it takes a Ph.D. to make”. And he also speculates, in the footnotes, that perhaps Fukuyama had in mind George Orwell’s comment, in “Notes on Nationalism”, that “one has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

Just as an example, the above is about the most important explanation so as to understand how we have landed with the most stupid bank regulations ever… those that discriminate against ex-ante perceived risk of default, even though there has never ever been a bank crisis that has resulted from excessive exposure to what ex-ante was perceived as “risky”

The Other Eric October 11, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Per, in the Library of Congress classification you’ll find “degenerative intellectual incest” labelled as “Post-modern Studies.”

Doc Merlin October 11, 2011 at 10:00 am

I applaud you not censoring this blog.

I was banned from econtalk for making a disparaging (but true) comment about DeLong’s honesty in a certain debate. I claimed he wasn’t trying to answer the issues but was trying to score points. For this I was banned. Here on the other hand, I’ve been able to have some lively debate without having to censor myself for fear of offending the moderators’ sensibilities. I really appreciate the forum you two have provided.

Lauren Landsburg October 11, 2011 at 10:15 am

Working with a specific commenter is best handled by emailing and talking directly to that specific commenter.

Trying to come up with a general policy rule or trying to implement or tailor software that is designed to address a specific individual is not usually the best approach.

Have you emailed Muirgeo privately and asked him to change any behaviors that are specifically problematic on CafeHayek?

Every blog deletes or precludes some comments. When you say “As a matter of our chosen policy, Russ and I do not delete comments here at the Cafe”, I know that can’t be 100% accurate. For example, there are no sex or poker spam comments on CafeHayek. There is surely an automated spam filter in place, maybe with some human oversight in case it deletes a few legitimate comments or in case an inappropriate comment gets through the spam filter. Some comments are surely either deleted or never see the light of day. You can perhaps say that you never delete comments if you automate the deletions in advance of their ever appearing, but that’s disingenuous.

The key for each blog is where to draw the line after spam removal.

Automation and crowd-sourced ratings, such as ratings of comments, nicely suggested by several commenters above, may be a reasonable answer for the portion of your readership who are already familiar with it. However, crowd-sourced comment ratings are not a magic bullet answer to your original question about how to handle a specific commenter. Comment-rating options often give those who comment an additional second or third vote, depending on how many IP addresses or nicks they have.

CafeHayek has a very successful rough-and-tumble and wide-open comment section. I’m actually pretty stunned that you have named a commenter–Muirgeo–by name; and you have asked people to comment on him as an individual. That’s pretty unusual on most blogs. You didn’t say that you had his permission to highlight him by name, say via email.

Several of the commenters in this CafeHayek thread who have argued on the side of continued openness of commenting on CafeHayek are individuals who have received private and public warnings on other blogs for bad behavior such as engaging in badmouthing other commenters. To be specific, on EconLog and EconTalk, where making personal remarks about other commenters is precluded, where muirgeo comments regularly and succinctly along with many other commenters who comment on CafeHayek, all without flames. EconLog and EconTalk have more subdued comment sections. Perhaps it is the case that disallowing personal or ad hominem comments is the difference. If that’s the difference though, I doubt that you can automate it.

Disclaimers: I’ve read this comment thread with interest because I am the moderator at EconLog and EconTalk. Muirgeo comments there regularly, as do many other CafeHayek commenters. We have not had anywhere near the fireworks you’ve experienced on CafeHayek. I’m part relieved and part envious.

John Dewey October 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Don and Russ,

I pray to God that Cafe Hayek never becomes as restrictive as Econlog. While I dislike the insults made by many at this blog, I certainly hope that you never take what I consider to be a heavy-handed approach in discouraging them.

As you gentlemen are aware, I try very hard not to insult my fellow commentors at Cafe Hayek. But sometimes my comments do get personal, and I have criticized others for being inconsistent. At other blogs – including one at which I no longer comment by my choice – I am really not sure what will be considered “badmouthing” and what will be considered acceptable. At Cafe Hayek, I take the lead from the two of you.

Randy October 11, 2011 at 3:52 pm

I second this. Compliments to Lauren for the work at Econlog (and yes I have been scolded a couple of times there). I like the atmosphere there, but I like the atmosphere here too. I do doubt that I would visit here as often were it not for the fireworks.

Methinks1776 October 11, 2011 at 9:09 pm

I agree with you and John Dewey. I’m pretty sure there’s only a handful of commenter that haven’t offended Lauren’s delicate sensibilities with either the use of a word she doesn’t like or a conversation she doesn’t approve of. I’ve never received a serious scolding, but a perfectly reasonable conversation was cut off and all participants were threatened with banning because Lauren didn’t approve of what someone said in response to one of my posts. I can’t be bothered to weigh every word on the Lauren sensitivity scale when posting. Now, I’m certain I’ll be banned from Econlog forever for offending the moderator.

Lauren Landsburg October 12, 2011 at 5:22 am

Methinks,

You assuredly won’t be banned on EconLog for a comment you make on CafeHayek! I appreciate your frank comment above.

And for the record, you have never offended me personally in any way.

Methinks1776 October 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Thanks, Lauren.

John Dewey October 12, 2011 at 6:34 am

” yes I have been scolded a couple of times there”

And why does a moderator need to scold a commentor? Censoring comments? I can understand that. Providing an explanation for such censoring? I can understand that. Scolding? Why?

I suppose, as Methinks says below, Lauren’s delicate sensibilities have been offended – perhaps so many times that she feels she must scold rather than merely explain.

John Dewey October 11, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Russ and Don,

Please note the quantity of responses at Cafe Hayek and at EconLog as you consider Lauren Landsburg’s suggestions:

Comments at EconLog on posts made October 9th:

Robert Solow on Sylvia Nasar – 3 comments
David Graeber Interview – 5 comments

Comments at Cafe Hayek on posts made October 9th:

Poor Sales – 181 comments
Some Links – 60 comments
Quotation of the day – 95 comments

I realize that there are reasons other than EconLog’s moderation practices which cause interest at Cafe Hayek to be greater than interest at EconLog. But those moderation practices are precisely why I no longer read and comment at EconLog.

Perhaps Arnold and Alex are happy to see only 3 or 5 persons commenting on their blogs. I hope that the two of you will never desire rigid censorship over rigorous debate.

John Dewey October 11, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Pardon me, I meant to type:

“Perhaps Arnold and Bryan”

above.

Economiser October 11, 2011 at 9:44 pm

And this is why I don’t even bother to comment at EconLog and EconTalk. As a result, the Cafe is on my daily reading list but EconLog and EconTalk are only occasional stops.

Gerald October 11, 2011 at 11:24 am

I’ve seen his comments. I sometimes read them. I hoped that he can present a cogent antithesis to my point of view. After time, I realized that, in general, he offers nothing I’ve seen or read before. I still read him sometimes, as I’m always trying to challenge my assumptions and push the boundaries of my thoughts. Every once in a while, I see him bait someone new into an argument, and I see someone who is familiar with him offer advice to the extent that “reasonable discourse” is impossible with him. That seems the solution. Spontaneous order at its best. To ban him is to martyr him, and that will concede to him a victory. Continue to guide those who unfamiliar with these type of personalities, but allow them to discover for themselves who and what he is for it is through experience we learn best.

khodge October 11, 2011 at 11:49 am

I find that cafehayek supports my biases but if it lost dissenting voices it would suffer serious tunnel vision.

Darren October 11, 2011 at 2:15 pm

+1

Price B October 11, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Agreed- Murigeo is rarely coherent, but it’d be hypocritical to ban him.

Doc Merlin October 12, 2011 at 12:49 am

+1

AnotherRuss October 11, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Just keep an eye on Wordpress plugins and updates that will allow some sort of 2-tiered comments. Everyone can comment, but some comments are “Starred” or “Priority.” All of the Gawker network websites use this system. System explained here: http://gawker.com/5311027/gawker-comments-are-made-of-stars

Rudy October 11, 2011 at 12:49 pm

I have always thought Murdigo was a child playing with the parents computer. So this is an actual individual with such a thought process?? You have to be kidding!!

Ken October 11, 2011 at 4:00 pm

I’m an FNG around here, comparatively speaking, but in my experience elsewhere there’s a tension between ignoring the trolls (to the extent they are trolls) and not letting arrant nonsense go unanswered, lest a fence-sitter wander by, see the unanswered comment, and conclude “silence gives assent.”

Don Kenner October 11, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Mmm. I think it is fine that you are not banning Murigeo, but I think it should be said that it is perfectly within your rights to do so. Your blog is not a bathroom wall, and (frankly) about two-thirds of Murigeo’s comments are no better than insults on a bathroom wall. Snarky comments, pretentious quotes, and hyperbolic nonsense make up much of what he pollutes this site with. It does make slogging through some of the discussion a little onerous.

Besides, he’s a revolutionary man of the people and we are all fascist insects (some of us unwittingly, he might say on a rare, charitable day). So ANYTHING he does to “cause friction in the machine” is by its very nature good, and therefore is its own justification.

And notice I didn’t say ANYTHING about losers who spend their days (and perhaps their employer’s time) trolling blogs they fundamentally disagree with. I’m just too nice to even bring that up.

Robert Fellner October 11, 2011 at 5:56 pm

I agree with the person whom wrote the email. I also note this is not limited to Cafe Hayek and occurs on other economic blogs, most notably for me is Free Advice by Bob Murphy.

I think the quality of conversation suffers, as there is a lack of understanding of what is occurring. The troll commenter is not interested in debate or an exchange of ideas. He is interested in being argumentative, combative, and generally looking to disagree/mock the authors comments simply for the sake of doing so. The Internet and chat forums, online message boards, and other internet communities has fostered this behavior in a manner I think the older generation has a hard time imagining.

The reply is always an attempt to reason with someone as if by doing so, or presenting facts or evidence to show the troll why they are wrong, somehow that will make a difference. They fail to grasp that being right or wrong is of zero importance to the troll, their only objective is to antagonize and to a lesser degree garner attention. I visit the blogs of both Cafe Hayek and Free Advice less frequently that I would otherwise, and I post comments or contribute to the dialogue that occurs in the comments section virtually never as a result of this.

It is shocking and dispiriting to see the focus and attention the trolls get from the owners of the aforementioned blogs, in my view. I think there is an overemphasis on the notion of being “open to all” and an under-appreciation of the destructive unseen effects that occur as a result of declined readership and interest from new and emerging students of economics. The tradeoff between the unseen loss of a curious layman whom rightfully acquires a very sour taste for engaging in discussions after seeing how much energy and time is wasted on trolls, compared to the gain benefited from permitting trolls seems massively one sided on the loss side.

Randy October 11, 2011 at 6:54 pm

It occurs to me that Cafe Hayek is a battle royal because this is the front lines. There is a reason the trolls come here.

So, shall we surrender? I think not. Its ban or battle, but we hold the ground.

John Dewey October 12, 2011 at 6:56 am

One can effectively battle with logical arguments. There is no need whatsoever to use terms such as “idiot”, “dipshit:, “muirduck”, “muirhuahua”, or “fat and stupid”.

Randy October 12, 2011 at 9:36 am

Agreed.

Dan J October 11, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Muirgeo has often gone off on a gratuitous vulgar rant with pejoratives, but it is reflective of his character. The arrogance is irritating, as it would be for anyone. To be fair, others have fallen to frustration and let themselves go too far with their own vulgarities. I may have. Don’t recall.
It’s good to have an antagonist, but troubling t know that there are many like him. It’s an anger they have. Angry about the dismal lack of ethics from govt…. Angry at own shortcomings and wish to blame others…… Angry at their own allegiances corruption and opponents in politics pointing out the immoralities of his favored politicians and then hearing about the very same immoralities of his opponents.
The troubling part about muirgeo is the consistent insistence that govt should indeed be able to micromanage everyone’s lives as deemed ‘necessary’ by govt elites. If progressives were to ban tobacco, he would support it. If progressives were to mandate a national curfew, he would support it. If progressives set up a national panel to emulate Britains NICE, he would support it. Sad! Discouraging to know there are foolish people like that, but……

John David Galt October 17, 2011 at 8:45 pm

The best way I’ve seen to handle disruptive commenters is to use blog software that implements “karma scores”, where everyone can give every comment a “thumb up or down” and comments that get too many “downs” disappear from view.

Fred October 17, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Even that can go bad. A homebrewing blog I frequent uses such an feature. It only took one guy taking offense at a comment of mine and I went from double digit positive to double digit negative Karma in one day.

(Personally I compare all-grain brewing to extract brewing by comparing making coffee from fresh freshly ground beans to hydrating a powder. Someone who likes extract brews took this personally, and must have searched the blog for comments to ‘smite’ since you can’t smite the same comment more than once. One day I had Karma in the positive 20s, the next day it was in the negative teens.)

foxmarks October 19, 2011 at 11:46 pm

I am not a better person than muirduck. All the backpatting above about how goldenly awesome it is to have him crap on so many conversations here leaves me cold. For all the value y’all think this virtuous policy adds, you forget (and cannot measure) the unseen.

I quit reading the comments here because the same arguments from him and with him are tiresome and my time is more precious. Since I gave up on the comments, I find I also read the original material far less regularly. I am here now only because of a link by Coyote.

If you’re going to have troll, at least have an intelligent troll. Statists and leftoids can make decent points. Recruit “joe” from Hit and Run.

I do prefer a policy of not banning idiots or dissenting idiots. But I also endorse all forms of verbal abuse against those idiots. If Dr. Duck wants to stink up the joint, then why shouldn’t everyone who cares to be free to humiliate him or kick him in the metaphoric nuts? Picking on the stupid is not why I used to come here, but the entertainment of it might restore enough value so I find it the balance at the Café worth my time again.

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