The Right Room for a Dialogue: New Policy on Anonymous Comments


I've long questioned the value of anonymous blogging or commenting. Much of the incivility online can be attributed to anonymity. And with a rare few exceptions, if you can't participate in a dialogue about issues without using your full name and true identity, then what you have to say is probably not that valuable.

These long standing thoughts were called to mind again after reading a post by Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth. Quoting as the subject to his post a line from Monty Python "is this the right room for an argument?," Revkin writes:

Michael Palin asked that question nearly 40 years ago on Monty Python's Flying Circus, and it's as germane as ever in considering the merits and drawbacks to blogging, and particularly the comment strings following posts. Often, the commentary here and elsewhere threatens to devolve into extended volleys of retorts, particularly when anonymous contributors are involved, some of whom are so relentless that their ideological foes sometimes allege they must be getting paid to do what they're doing.


Revkin goes on to link to a column by Columbus Dispatch editor Benjamin Marrison who discusses the negative impact of anonymous commenters on the newspaper's Web site. As Marrison observes of people who email the Dispatch or leave comments at stories: "Is it a coincidence that all of those civil people are reachable (and somewhat accountable) through a return e-mail?"

There are technological ways to enforce commenting using full names and true identities, such as logging into the comment section of a blog via a Facebook account. I don't currently have that technological function available via ScienceBlogs. So I have added in the side bar to the editorial policy on commenting. I strongly encourage all readers to share their thoughts, but when you do, please include your full name and true identity.

Over the next year, I have plans to invest in various content features at Framing Science, and one of the improvements I am looking forward to is an end to anonymous commenting.

UPDATE: In reply to several comments to this post, my expectation about the correlation between anonymous comments and incivility is based on theories and past research in the fields of social psychology and communication. What this research suggests is that anonymity online creates the conditions where people are more willing and likely to be uncivil in their expressed opinions because they have less worry over possible social sanctions from others. See the research on spiral of silence, online deliberation, social conformity, and willingness to self censor.

UPDATE: This week Virginia Tech University (article) and the University of Wisconsin (Dean of students statement) struggled with controversies over how to handle anonymous comments at their respective student newspapers.

Also, over at Discover's The Intersection, bloggers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum were forced to delete a post because of the incivility of commenters.

UPDATE: In a program originally airing July 25, 2008, public radio's On the Media explored the problems associated with anonymous commenting. Here are the three segments from the show with embedded audio included.

Comments on Comments
There's been a bit of a backlash recently against the angry commenter on newspaper websites. Some are calling for newspapers to stop allowing comments sections all together. But what about democracy on the web? Bob, with the help of "This American Life"'s Ira Glass, ruminates on the dark side of the comments section.




Hellhounds On My Trail
If all commenters are ticking time bombs waiting to go off, then rule one is: don't light the fuse by responding directly. But as a professional writer and critic, Lee Siegel had had enough. So he used a pseudonym to respond. He explains the hard-won lessons from his trip to the trenches.




Aren't We There Yet?
Roanoke Times editor Carole Tarrant says newspapers can't be online without reader comments. The comments section at her paper hosts an invaluable discussion. Anyway, she says, it's the paper's job to make sure the conversation stays civilized.




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  • The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
  • Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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