Comment on Comments

Over the last week or so I’ve heard privately from several very different parties with complaints about the comment section here. The general feeling is that it would be more useful and attract more serious contributions if the level of uncivil, disrespectful ad hominem attacks was much lower. One contributing factor mentioned is that anonymity allows people to behave in uncivil behavior that they would not engage in if their names were publicly attached to their words. On the other hand, the worst offender in this is someone who is not anonymous.

I’d be curious to hear thoughtful comments by others about this. My own feeling at the moment is that the criticism is accurate: the uncivil atmosphere here keeps many serious people who would have something interesting to contribute from doing so. The anonymity is probably part of this problem, although given the current unhealthy situation in particle theory, some people have very legitimate reasons for keeping their comments anonymous.

In many ways I think the comment section has been a success, but it could stand a lot of improvement. Unfortunately I don’t know of any really successful models out there to follow. Among the more active blogs by physicists, Cosmic Variance does a good job of keeping a civil discussion going, but it is rarely about physics these days. Jacques Distler’s Musings has high-level content in its postings, but no one has submitted a single comment about physics there in over a month and a half. The comments at Lubos Motl’s Reference Frame are as uneven as the blog’s proprietor.

I already delete quite a few comments on grounds of lack of civility, but tentatively plan on trying to raise that standard by deleting a larger fraction of uncivil comments, especially if they are posted anonymously. It would help if people could keep the following in mind when posting comments:

1. Please consider abandoning anonymity and posting under your real name, unless you have a good reason for not doing so.

2. Please take much greater care to keep comments civil and respectful. Ad hominem argument about the ignorance and lack of intelligence of people you disagree with has no place here.

3. Please ignore silly comments when they appear. Maybe I’ll also think they are silly and just adding to the noise and will get around to deleting them, maybe not. But in any case you’re not adding anything by submitting a comment criticizing the silliness, but instead are adding to the hostility level.

Constructive comments are welcomed. One thing to keep in mind is that I already am spending more time on this than I should, suggestions that involve a lot more work on my part are non-starters.

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35 Responses to Comment on Comments

  1. wolfgang says:

    > Jacques Distler’s Musings has high-level content in its postings, but no one has submitted a single comment about physics in over a month

    I think this is perhaps because the comment feature is broken.
    The last time (fairly recently) I tried to submit comments on Jacques’ blog it resulted in error messages …

  2. knotted string says:

    Can you politely email Jacques, to let him know?

  3. It would be nice if old-fashioned Boolean true/false logic would replace the more modern string theorists/crackpots logic in these discussions. Perhaps we could do well without the word “crackpot”? There have been occasionally very interesting attempts to initiate serious discussion about algebraic quantum field theory, Jones inclusions etc, but soon everything degenerates to the usual fighting which makes me sick.

  4. Who says:

    I will think about the problem you describe and will try to offer some suggestions which are constructive and not merely in my immediate self-interest.

    One thing is you could try an experiment involving segregation. At the end of certain postings you could say “Qualified comment only. No anonymous comment.”

    Be very brief, just indicate in a short phrase or two that anybody who is NOT academically qualified for that particular discussion will have their comment deleted out of hand at your discretion. IF YOU SPELL IT OUT IN TOO MUCH DETAIL it might sound snobbish or priggish. So dont spell the policy out too explicitly. Just give a short warning at the end of a selected post, and then be fast and ruthless about deleting anybody that you dont know professionally or that doesnt give their name and SAY they are a grad student or faculty somewhere or have some appropriate professional standing like that.

    In this case it is the commentor’s responsibility to make sure that either you already know him or else to say up front “I’m a physics grad student” or “I do this kind of research” whatever. It is up to commentor to give you enough clues up front about professional qualification, or out it goes.

    Or you could restrict comment on some particular thread to WEBSITE BLUE people plus ones you know personally. Like wolfgang who just commented gives his page. His blue signature is a link to his website that says he is a such and such kind of physicist.

    I wouldn’t advise a blanket policy because it could be a straightjacket on you as on well-meaning commentors. Trying it out with a few postings would be an EXPERIMENT. It might fail in the sense that you might not get a good informed civil discussion after all, even in that case.

    Personally I would be sorry to see a sign on one of your threads that says ” identified comment only” because I enjoy being Who (it’s a quirk I guess: I really like internet anonymity) so I couldnt post comment on such threads. But on the other hand it might every now and then make the thread more interesting reading to have only signed qualified comments.

    Some of the silly and/or witty comments here are quite funny and also even some invective is entertaining in small doses, but I get tired of it quickly and would be glad to see some threads ruthlessly cleared of it.

    I hear what you say about it soaking up time. I certainly wouldnt mind seeing a lot more rapid unexplained arbitrary behavior, if that means saving time.

    Good luck attracting some of that hold-out clientele.

  5. woit says:


    Thanks for the comments and the suggestion. I don’t think though that I have any interest in restricting comments based on professional qualifications. There are plenty of examples I’ve seen here of people I know to have no appropriate professional qualifications making excellent and interesting comments, and people with illustrious qualifications writing in things that are hostile and worthless.

    Maybe it’s sheer arrogance on my part, but when people write in with some comment that involves the kind of scientific issues I’m writing about here, I can in most cases immediately tell whether they are well-informed concerning what they are talking about, and that’s what’s relevant, not professional qualifications.

  6. asubedi says:

    I think you should allow the comments to be anonymous and accessible to all. However, if someone keeps posting a lot of junk, you may delete the postings and ban the ip address for a while.

  7. Chris Oakley says:


    I think that you can be proud of what you have created here. Obviously with the provocative title, it provokes and will continue to provoke strong reactions, but what is wrong that? The structures one builds in theoretical physics should be stronger than steel, and if they fall down as the result of a little criticism then they were probably not worth building in the first place.

    As for the comments policy, I think that you have got it about right. I am sorry if the whole thing is taking up too much of your time, but I for one appreciate the effort.

    Just curious: will your publisher be sending Lubos a review copy of your forthcoming book?

  8. woit says:


    That’s essentially what I’m already doing.

  9. woit says:


    Strong reactions are fine, and if certain structures topple, great. What I’m concerned about is that I am getting the impression that quite a few very good people, string theorists and non-string theorists, read this blog from time to time, but are put off by the tone of much of the comment section, making them less likely to take the whole thing seriously and consider participating. I’m interested in whether that is a more widely shared impression and what can be done about it.

    This weekend I’m supposed to be putting together a list to send to the publishers of who to send review copies to. Not sure about Lubos. I do thank him in the acknowledgements, but I know he’s not going to read and think about what I write…

  10. A Different Peter says:

    You can be sure Lubos will have something to say about the book, whether he actually gets hold of a copy or not.

    About the politeness question, the problem that you have is not just confined to your blog. It is everywhere on the blogosphere. This new form of human communication is showing its limitations because it is difficult to separate out the comments that one would like to read from the huge volume of worthless and hostile posts.

    The natural solution seems to involve heavy moderation. This means either the blogger devotes a lot more time to moderation, or he delegates some portion of the moderation task to blog visitors (look at how slashdot does it).

    A simple option which would stop short of mass deletions of posts, and would encourage people to write more relevant posts, would be the following. There can be a number of categories, say “High Physics Content, No Humor”, “No physics content; personal attacks” and so on. Visitors to the blog with unique IP addresses (or some other criterion that you prefer) could, upon reading a post, click one of a number of buttons beside it, indicating what category they think that post belongs in. Simple majority voting, or some other criterion of your choosing decides what category the post is given based on how many users have chosen each category for it. At the side, bottom, or top of the comment section, a little clickable box allows the user to choose a filter, so the user can choose to see only high physics content posts, or also humorous posts, or all posts, or only personal attacks (if that’s what they really want). They can also choose whether they would like to see posts which have not yet been classified by other visitors.

    People who are going to post something will know that, if they post mindless personal attacks, they will be categorized as such and then most people will not bother to read them. People write posts because they want attention, so the only way to give them an incentive to write well is to make the attention conditional on their writing something worthwhile.

    Of course, implementing this option involves some programming.

  11. fishfry says:

    The comments at Lubos Motl’s Reference Frame are as uneven as the blog’s proprietor.

    Incivility is as incivility does.

  12. Ron Avitzur says:

    One technique you might consider is disemvoweling posts. It gives you an additional level of discrimination short of deletion to indicate offending material in a way that readers can easily skip over or choose to puzzle out with effort.

  13. Dick Thompson says:

    I hope you will continue to have your comments as they are. I can’t agree with Who’s recommendations to limit it to “qualified” respondants. After all, Peter, some people are not shy about calling you unqualified to comment on string theory! If you restrict your comments they have already won ;).

    This is my real name:

    Dick Thompson

  14. Arun says:

    One could moderate comments, e.g., by finding a blog collaborator who will impartially weed out uncivil comments,

    or one could institute a comment rating system (presumably a lot of work) where readers can rate the comments, and poorly rated comments become invisible,

    or one could follow the (difficult) policy of not replying to any such uncivil comment.

    Polite but content-poor comments are a much harder proposition to manage, IMO.

  15. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear Peter,

    I must be cryptic in this sentence but I don’t believe that you believe that my relation to a certain piece of work of yours is in the status that you described, and most likely you know very well what I mean.

    Wolfgang: the buggy comment gadget at a certain blog under consideration is deliberately buggy.


  16. Peter,

    your blog is a valuable resource for anyone who loves theoretical physics. Every day I go to, your blog and sci.physics.research (pretty much in this order) to look for some nuggets of information. Please don’t change anything, I like your blog the way it is.

    Anonymous comments are fine. It is better to let people speak up their mind anonymously rather than make them silent out of fear … whatever they afraid of. Uncivil comments are not a big deal either. For one thing, they give an interesting insight in who is who and how “healthy” the field is.
    Second, most of your readers are intelligent enough to filter out the garbage. Third, you can always weed out excesses, as you already do.

    Keep up excellent work!
    And thank you for not posting about flowers in your garden, your favorite music, and climatology.


  17. woit says:


    Given Lubos’s behavior and the way he chooses to characterize me and others who disagree with him, I think referring to him as “uneven” is being exceedingly civil…

  18. woit says:


    Oh, OK, I’ll make sure you get a copy….

  19. Don’t change it too much, Discover Magazine readers might be disappointed if they came here and didn’t find a lively forum for bickering scientists. I can’t believe any regulars, particularly ones with sci.physics.whatever experience would have any problems here. Physicists new to internet forums in general could have problems most anywhere due to tone and widely varying subjects that don’t even always stay on topic. Having lots of participation is more fun and more educational but it can make forums harder to follow if you haven’t developed skimming skills to suit your available time. Maybe you could ask these physicists if they’d like to do guest articles (I think Lubos did this at least once) or have you do an article on them and then we could be extra civil at those times.

  20. anonymous says:

    Anonymous comments on your blog seem a good form of communication.

    One negative consequence of counting citations is that too many physicists, especially in the US and especially in speculative fields, are more worried of good relations than of discussing physics. I prefer getting a “you are an idiot” from Lubos to the other extremum: a long discussion, where things are said so politely that the content is obscure.

    Sometimes the comments section contains too much “background”: maybe you could install a software that allows readers to rate comments (“Was it worth reading? Y/N”) and to see only comments above a chosen threshold.

  21. Bert Schroer says:

    There is a form of communication which keeps it lively and which I have been trying to use: irony and scientific (not personal) polemics.
    It is often answered by dull personal confrontations (strangly enough, I did not make this experience with Lubos, but I have seen that others did) and it depends on one´s emotional constitution how much one wants to take.
    But I think that Peters argument that some interested onlookers may be repulsed by the vulgar manner should be taken serious. To lift the anonymity may lead to timidness. Perhaps the introduction of a disapproving back-reaction of the participants (by clicking a button) may alliviate the situation because the protection by anonymity is probably not 100% (after finding out the machine, there may be some feeling of discomfort which could lead to a more restraint behavior).

  22. Chris Oakley says:

    Let me see if I can guess what Lubos will say in his review:

    “People can be categorised as follows: stupid, average, smart, very smart and Superstring Theorists. The latter category comprises the very smartest, and these people are way smarter than even the very smart. In fact, very smart people are just morons compared to even an average Superstring theorist.

    “Most non-superstring theorists have the good sense to acknowledge their inferiority, and although they provide the money for us Gods of the Human Intellect to do amazing things in amazing multi-dimensional worlds (not enough, by the way), they generally do not have the effrontery to question the validity of our researches.

    “Not so Peter Woit. Anyone reading more than ten words of anything he writes would realize that he is an embittered half wit, who, failing to be admitted to the Superstring club 20 years ago, has unfortunately chosen to vent his rage against those who thwarted his career rather that just getting a job in a McDonalds restaurant, as would more suit his talents.

    “To those of us who seriously explore the higher-dimensional, supersymmetric realms, Peter Woit is no more annoying than a fly that buzzes into your kitchen when you are trying to eat lunch. However, since everyone in the world is less clever than us, it is possible that some may be deceived into thinking that there is some substance to his ravings, so let me make it clear here and now that there is nothing in what he says. Peter knows nothing about physics or mathematics, and nothing he says should be taken seriously.”

  23. Nigel B. Cook says:

    That was a very silly comment. Now Lubos can borrow your review. He will say you used Josephson’s string theory ESP to read his mind, as described in the arXiv paper by Josephson:

  24. wolfgang says:


    > the buggy comment gadget at a certain blog under consideration is deliberately buggy

    it seems to work again. Thanks in large part to Peter’s post … 😎

  25. woit says:

    Chris and Nigel,

    I realize that Lubos is endlessly entertaining, but try and resist the temptation to make fun of him, it’s too easy and we need a higher quality of humor here.

  26. knotted string says:

    Wolfgang: thank you for this update. It is heartwarming that string experts are humble enough accept a helping hand with trivial problems in hosting discussions.

    ‘May 20, 2006

    ‘Technical Difficulties

    ‘It’s been brought to my attention that some people have recently been encountering an INTERNAL SERVER ERROR when attempting to comment here (or at the String Coffee Table).

    ‘The cause, alas, is my determination to be overly clever.’

  27. ksh95 says:

    Requiring “real names” would definitely stop me from posting. The last thing I need is some one Googling me and finding hundreds of ksh95 blog postings.
    Secondly, I’m confused as to why you think anonymity and uncivility are related. That’s not obvious to me at all, in fact, it seems somewhat odd as I doubt most “uncivilized posters” consider their postings uncivilized.
    Thirdly, my personal opinion is that the comments section is no where close to uncivil (I think some potential contributers may be overly sensitive and fragile).
    Finally, if it ain’t broke…..

  28. Yuri says:

    I like your blog the way it is.

  29. Fred Diether says:


    The solution seems like it could be simple to me. You should just post a warning about ad hominem attacks not being allowed in the “Leave a Reply” section and enlist the help of one or two competent volunteers to help you delete them. When I showed this blog to my particle physics tutor, he asked “What is the difference between this blog and Usenet?” So I do think you have a moderation problem. If it is already taking too much of your time then you should try to get help from someone you trust.

    I do enjoy reading much of the content of your blog but I don’t really enjoy wading through the personal attacks. They really serve no purpose to the discussion of physics.


  30. Michael Schmitt says:


    I want to echo Eugene’s comments: this is an *excellent* blog with content of exceptional quality, and I am glad that you stick to physics and leave out your personal hobbies, politics, and weekend experiences. If you want to spend more time editing and purging the comments, that’s fine, but please do not let it reduce your primary posts.


  31. Bruce Keener says:

    I love this site because it helps me see that we really don’t know as much as a typical layman might think. It’s been more than thirty years since I got an MSEE with minors in physics, and more than 25 years since I’ve had to apply ANY of it, so the math of string theory and QFT is beyond me and always will be – I’m too old to try to learn it, and it’s pointless at this stage in my life anyway – I am now and will remain a layman. But I care about how our world operates. I’d like to understand it better and I’d hate to see us postpone understanding of it while we whack away with theories are not “not even wrong.” I don’t really want to go through the rest of my life with wrong beliefs (an impossible desire, probably), and really work to put as much balanced (pro and con) input into my mind as I can find. This site helps me, at least in the area of physics-related beliefs.

    I do learn (slowly) from the comments here, and have no real advice on how to do them differently. I guess the only thing I would offer is that it would be nice to see more variety in topics: potshots at the unproductivity of string theory and at the metaphysical nature of “the landscape” are getting to be a bit old. There’s plenty of other topics that would seem fruitful for appropriate critique, such as Alexander Mayer’s “revamp” of GR; whether dark matter exists or whether it’s just a contrivance that helps make big bang models work; various conflciting ideas of how quantum mechanics ties to consciousness (such as Stapp’s and Penrose’s philosophies, much of which is over my head but interesting); and so on. However, having said that, it is at least nice that there are voices crying out about string theory and the landscape and making us question whether we really are wise regarding the amount of brain power we are dedicating to these topics.

  32. If possible, one suggestion would be to split the comments section into two: technical comments and non-technical comments. So the reader would have to choose to which section he/she would like to write his/her comment. Perhaps things would get more organized. Of course, you would still have to go into moderating the comments. This seems to be unavoidable. I also think that the anonymous contribution is an interesting feature, I would not remove it.

    Best wishes

  33. Kyle says:

    I’ve been reading this site for over a year now, and every so often I post a comment. I’ve never found the comment section here the least bit intimidating, and compared to most forums I read everyone including Lubos is really quite tame.

    I understand not everyone is as comfortable with conflict as I am, but I can’t imagine what the problem with the tone of the comments could be. Surely people aren’t avoiding commenting because they worry about the reaction. Surely the good responses aren’t lost to the reader because of a few uncivil words above them. Removing uncivil comments will reduce the amount of comments, which could be a good thing – but I don’t see how it is going to improve any of the other comments. Definitely let people post anonymously – though it might be nice to force them to choose a handle, just so we can tell them apart.

    I don’t think there is an easy solution to the problem as you see it. I do not believe a rating system will help, as it is so easily abusable. This is your blog. Hack, slash, and delete comments as you see fit. You are the one who takes the time to make the posts, so make sure the blog has the tone you prefer. Make the rules you follow easy to implement, and then do so mercilessly.

    I’ve found the comments section here to be a gold mine, and I link to the blog all the time. Goodluck finding the right solution for you,


  34. secret milkshake says:

    An alternative to Christine’s proposal would be to categorise the entire blog into sub-sections (methink ” Technical Topics and Links, Politics and Academia, Book Business, Latest from Landscape, Media & Propaganda, Applied Lumology”) and enforce a more civil discussion tone (by means of bloodcurdling moderation) just in the technical sub-section.

  35. I am not expert on the subjects usually discussed here, but I do find your blog a valuable resource, uncivilities and all. I personally hope you don’t change it much. I prefer to be anonymous and try to be civil, but like the opportunity to occassionally ask questions of experts. Annoying as Mr Incivility can be, I think he often offers something interesting or at least entertaining.

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