Thursday, 25 February 2010

Reciprocity: When You Fight Yourself

The last few days have seen some interesting activity in the world online 'rationalist' community. Much has been said, and much vitriol unleashed. I wanted to begin to put the record straight and, if possible, to find a way forward.

What follows is, to the very best of my knowledge, a true and accurate account of the events of the last few days.

I found my way to the Richard Dawkins forum in October 2008, having been engaged in the usual reality-denial discussions on Youtube for some time. What I found there was a vibrant, energetic community, extremely diverse, but largely galvanised under a common goal, namely the battle for rationality and the defence of valid science against some of the more pernicious assaults by those whose goal was to reach some kind of hegemony for superstitious nonsense. I was immediately hooked. Since that time, and largely because of the forum, I have gone from interested layperson, in scientific terms, to dedicated didact. It has been a steep learning curve for me, and the curve continues. I am constantly challenged in my understanding of the universe and the principles upon which it operates. The regulars at the forum have given me the kind of education that would normally cost huge amounts of money, all at no cost, and with an energy and love for the truth that few professional educators manage. I am not going to mention the names of those users whose input I have found so valuable, simply because the list is far too long and I am almost guaranteed to overlook some of them. I am deeply grateful to them all, in ways I can probably never express.

The forum provided a safe haven for those struggling to escape from their inculcated belief systems, and a guide to real critical thinking that is second to none. It represented, for me, a way that I could really make a difference in the fight against unreason.

There were some problems with the forum, mostly due to the sheer amount of traffic. The search function was disabled to reduce the strain on the servers, and posts were reduced to 10 per page, to reduce the large number of general errors experienced by users on the board. It was difficult, and the moderators had an even harder time. Even the simplest of moderation tasks, such as moving posts, splitting and merging threads, etc, took an age. Nonetheless, we persevered. We were assured that improvements were just around the corner. Not long ago, it was suggested that the forum was to be moved to a new, more suitable platform. This was met with optimism. Some users raised concerns about existing content being available for the new platform, and assurances were given that no content would be lost, and that it would be searchable. This last was deemed of critical importance, simply due to the vast amounts of peer-reviewed scientific material posted on the forum, and the ability to access it when required to provide solid evidence to debunk the claims of reality deniers. For about 8 months, the board has gone through periods of being close to unusable, and with no search facility. Nonetheless, we persevered, with one eye on the improvements that were 'coming'. The moderators released notices to the effect that the new platform would be available for the moderation team to test in plenty of time before it went live, in order to address any concerns and so that they were familiar with the platform and the demands that it would make of them in order to carry out their roles.

Two days ago, everything changed. First, an announcement was made:

Dear forum members,

We wanted you all to know at the earliest opportunity about our new website currently in development. will have a new look and feel, improved security, and much more. Visits to the site have really grown over the past 3 1/2 years, and this update gives us an opportunity to address several issues. Over the years we've become one of the world's leading resources for breaking rational and scientific news and original content. We are focusing on quality content distribution, and will be bringing more original articles, video and other content as we grow.

The new will have a fully-integrated discussion section. This will be a new feature for the site, similar to the current forum, but not identical. We feel the new system will be much cleaner and easier to use, and hopefully this will encourage participation from a wider variety of users.

We will leave the current forum up for 30 days, giving regular users an opportunity to locally archive any content they value. When the new website goes live, you are welcome to submit these posts as new discussions. The forum will then be taken down from the web. You will not loose your username on the new system.

The new discussion area will not be a new forum. It will be different. We will be using a system of tags to categorize items, instead of sub-forums. Discussions can have multiple tags, such as "Education", "Children", and "Critical Thinking". Starting a new discussion will require approval, so we ask that you only submit new discussions that are truly relevant to reason and science. Subsequent responses on the thread will not need approval—however anything off topic or violating the new terms of service will be removed. The approval process will be there to ensure the quality of posts on the site. This is purely an editorial exercise to help new visitors find quality content quickly. We hope this discussion area will reflect the foundation's goals and values.

We know that this is a big decision. We know some of you will be against this change. We ask that you respect our decision and help make this transition as smooth as possible.

We're confident that these changes will improve the site experience and we look forward to seeing what you do with the new system.

Many thanks again.

Josh Timonen,
Andrew Chalkley
The Richard Dawkins Foundation

Clearly, this is not what had been discussed in the preceding months. Indeed, from this, it is not at all clear just what form these changes will take, being rather nebulous as it is. A thread was started in the tech support area of the forum, in which users began to express some concerns. Some dissent was aimed at the moderating staff.

I should say at this point that I have been an active member on several fora, and moderator on three of them. The moderating staff at RDF have been far and away the best moderation team this commentator has ever experienced anywhere. They approached a very diverse membership with equanimity and tolerance, often in contentious and thankless circumstances. Doubtless they were like the proverbial ducks on occasion, paddling furiously beneath the surface, but projecting an air of calm and reason. I feel absolutely privileged to number most of them among my personal friends, and only regret that I hadn't occasion to get to know all of the team better. This was not an oversight on the part of either myself or the moderators I had little contact with, only that they oversaw areas of the forum that I rarely ventured into. As I say, it was an extremely diverse forum, covering many areas of thought and science.

As the questions began to come out, put mostly to the moderating staff, it became clear that they were as in the dark as the rest of us, and shortly afterwards the message that had been passed to the moderating staff was published in the thread. It read largely the same as the announcement made to the general forum, but with the inclusion of the following:

We know that this is a big decision. We know some of you moderators will be against this change. We ask that you respect our decision and help make this transition as smooth as possible. These decisions have all been approved by our organization, and we ask that you don't add to our work by causing trouble.

We will not be migrating moderator roles to the new discussion site. Again, we're sure this might come as a shock, and we hope you don't take it personally. We can't thank you enough for your contributions to the old forum. The new system will not require a large team of moderators, as the discussion area will be more focused. We encourage you to contribute to the new discussions area, and are welcome to flag inappropriate activity for review.

Please understand that this transition is going to be a lot of work for us. I'm sure as you read this, you will have a lot of questions and concerns. We also know that this is a change from what we had been discussing previously. This announcement does not require a response, but we wanted you to be aware. Please do not email Richard with complaints, we have discussed this transition thoroughly with him, and he is currently on tour in Australia and New Zealand. Please do not attempt to inflame the users, start any petitions, or "relocate" groups of users to a separate forum. Do not use any of the data held by the foundation (such as email addresses) through the control panel to cause any trouble. Any behavior of this kind will not be tolerated. We don't expect you to do these things, but we say all of this only to discourage any well-intentioned moves that would only frustrate the situation.

I have seen some condescending messages in my time, but this is right up there, and this directed at the moderating staff that had kept the forum going, in increasingly adverse circumstances, for some time. Not only the mere suggestion of the causing of trouble, but also the sheer coldness with which this dedicated team of individuals had been dismissed.

There is more history to this that I was not privy to, and I won't go over it here, as it is admirably and concisely addressed in the blog of Peter Harrison, former admin of the forum

Some dissenting voices were raised at this treatment of the team, and the members and moderators were clearly unhappy. I advocated calm from the off, but all dissenting posts were well within the rules of the forum. One of the moderators expressed his discontent at the rudeness of the dismissal, at which point the site admin, Josh Timonen, deleted his entire account, including all of his posting history. This consisted of some 12,000 posts, most of it high-quality dissemination of hard science, debunking reality-denial, and the presentation of important breakthroughs in science. 5 more prolific posters quickly followed into oblivion, representing an estimated 40,000+ posts, and including another 2 of the moderating staff. There was some talk about the moderators only carrying out the bare duties of deleting spam and so on. I am confident that this was just venting on the part of the staff, but of course I can't speak for them. A few posters began posting comments that were not exactly what you'd call nice, but still nothing that was not within the rules of the forum.

The thread containing the dissenting posts was also consigned to the aether, and the forum was then closed.

My first concern was making sure that people were informed about what was happening. I posted on several rationalist fora that I frequent occasionally, and two of them, league of reason, and rationalia, very kindly offered to accept members from RDF so that they would have somewhere to gather to discuss the issues arising from this chain of events. Most gathered at rationalia, as it was a forum run by current and ex-members at RDF, and were therefore known to many members, and I made a quick Youtube video to spread the word:

When the forum re-opened, it was as read only, and the following update had been added to the announcement:

Update: 2010-02-22 We had intended to leave the forum fully-funtioning for 30 days, but due to the inappropriate posts by some users and moderators, we have decided to leave the forum in a read-only state. You can still download and archive your posts and private messages, but the ability to enter new posts has been disabled. It's unfortunate that it had to come to this. We know that change can be difficult and sometimes frightening, but we are all very excited about the direction of the website and the future.

Now, I don't know what inappropriate posts are being referred to here, because I saw none, and I saw all of the posts in the thread in question. All were within the forum rules. I also note the tone of condescension aimed at the forum users. We are not afraid of change. Further, with the search facility having been disabled months before, a sacrifice to enable less error-prone service, the chances of actually being able to archive personal posts were between slim and none, especially for those of us whose post-counts were significant. My own post-count runs to just over 11,000 posts. Some of this is, of course, fairly trivial, but includes such things as an idiot's guide to general relativity, several elucidations of principles of evolution, and two submissions for the newly instituted monthly science writing competition. Those of us with such posting histories had no hope of possibly saving that content in 30 days, especially with no search function.

In an effort to save as much content as possible, a few people, myself included, tried some freeware website archiving software, in my case, wget. I left it running overnight, only to find in the morning when I came back to it that the forum had had several rickrolls embedded, as I understand (though I'm just a two-bit music producer, and webtech is well beyond my remit), to foil such software. The personal message floodgate had also been set very high, so that members could only send personal messages to other forum members every few hours.

In the 24 hours that followed, a lot of people said some regrettable things. Some insults were levelled at Josh, away from the forum. Richard the posted the following message:

A Message from Richard Dawkins about the website updates

Imagine that you, as a greatly liked and respected person, found yourself overnight subjected to personal vilification on an unprecedented scale, from anonymous commenters on a website. Suppose you found yourself described as an “utter twat” a “suppurating rectum. A suppurating rat’s rectum. A suppurating rat’s rectum inside a dead skunk that’s been shoved up a week-old dead rhino’s twat.” Or suppose that somebody on the same website expressed a “sudden urge to ram a fistful of nails” down your throat. Also to “trip you up and kick you in the guts.” And imagine seeing your face described, again by an anonymous poster, as “a slack jawed turd in the mouth mug if ever I saw one.”

What do you have to do to earn vitriol like that? Eat a baby? Gas a trainload of harmless and defenceless people? Rape an altar boy? Tip an old lady out of her wheel chair and kick her in the teeth before running off with her handbag?

None of the above. What you have to do is write a letter like this:


You will notice that the forum has in fact been closed to comments (not taken down) sooner than the 30 days alluded to in the letter. This is purely and simply because of the over-the-top hostility of the comments that were immediately sent in. Note that there is no suggestion of abolishing the principle of a forum in which commenters can start their own threads. Just an editorial re-organization, which will include a change such that the choice of new threads will be subject to editorial control. Editorial control, mark you, by the person who, more than any other individual, has earned the right to the editor’s chair by founding the site in the first place, then maintaining its high standard by hard work and sheer talent. The aim of the letter is to describe an exciting new revamping of our site, one in which quality will take precedence over quantity, where original articles on reason and science, on atheism and scepticism, will be commissioned, where frivolous gossip will be reduced. The new plan may succeed or it may fail, but I think it is worth trying. And even if it fails, it most certainly will not deserve the splenetic hysteria that the mere suggestion of it has received.

Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, over-reacting so spectacularly to something so trivial. Even some of those with more temperate language are responding to the proposed changes in a way that is little short of hysterical. Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people? How can anybody feel that strongly about something so small? Have we stumbled on some dark, territorial atavism? Have private fiefdoms been unwittingly trampled?

Be that as it may, what this remarkable bile suggests to me is that there is something rotten in the Internet culture that can vent it. If I ever had any doubts that needs to change, and rid itself of this particular aspect of Internet culture, they are dispelled by this episode.

If you are one of those who have dealt out such ludicrously hyperbolic animosity, you know who should receive your private apology. And if you are one of those who are as disgusted by it as I am, you know where to send your warm letter of support.


Now, there is much to say about the above. Firstly, the comments aimed at Josh in the above were taken from rationalia, and were posted in the heat of the moment. There is much regret concerning these comments. It also needs to be said that the comments highlighted by Richard do not reflect the attitudes of the majority of those who came to rationalia to gather. Most of us, through all of this, are working hard to retain the rationality that we have won so hard in the cause.

I must also say clearly that the core membership of rationalia were in no way involved in any of those comments. All they did was to offer a place for the members of RDF to pitch their tents while they gathered their thoughts. They were very kind to do this, and our gratitude cannot be adequately expressed. No blame can or should be directed at them for any of the things said by the members of RDF that posted on their forum in, I might add, an area that they set up sepcifically for us to gather. They have been extremely hospitable, and I and they want it known that their respect for Richard, and for other commentors on his behalf, remains. Those members who made such comments must take responsibility for them, as we must all do for our actions.

It saddens me greatly that such a community that, only two days ago, were all pulling in the same direction against the common enemy that is unreason, can so suddenly be pulling against each other. Have our aims changed so much that we are willing to sacrifice that? It has been an extremely tesing and difficult time for us all, not least due to the severing of all lines of communication. This can never be a good thing, because only through discourse can reason reign. I am not, in any way, attempting to apportion blame, or deflect responsiblity. My part in this has been one only of attempting to ensure that the community does not go out with a whimper, which would make a lie of the strength that we have buit together.

So, what have we learned from this?

We have learned that communication is not always easy, but that it must continue come what may. I'm sure that all would agree with that. Sometimes, that comunication may not be entirely pleasant, but only through dialogue can understanding ever be reached.

We have learned that we are stronger together than we are apart, especially since we still share common goals, regardless of whether our visions of how to achieve those goals concur.

We have learned, above all else, that nobody is immune to irrationality.

And who is the winner in all of this?

The reality-deniers, of course! The cretinists, when they get wind of this, will be laughing their heads off at us.

I remain hopeful that lines of communication can once again be opened, and that we can move forward and once again take up arms together in the fight for reason and reality. This charge is bigger than all of us, and outweighs whatever differences and injustices we may feel lie between us.

I propose the following:

One of the senior moderating staff, or some other person who has earned some trust from both parties, should be elected to speak with Richard, if he is willing. Discussions should be entered into with regard to the future aims of the foundation. It would also be helpful if some clearer idea were given of precisely what the new discussion board will involve, and how the members who are still willing might be involved in delivering it. Apologies are warranted from both sides, but they must be given freely. I do not wish to dictate to anybody what they should do, but ultimately, if reason doesn't re-assert itself, all of our efforts have been for naught.

Let's see if we can't do that thing that we're all supposed to be good at, namely discourse in the pursuit of a common goal.

The future of the foundation, and the vision for achieving it, ultimately lies with Richard, and he must do what he sees as best meeting the aims of the foundation. However, given the effort that has been expended by so many people in the furtherance of the foundation's aims, it would seem wise to find some way to work together. Again, the goal is bigger than all of us and our personal feelings.

I would finally like to extend my gratitude to the following:

Richard Dawkins, for bringing us together.
PZ Myers, for his input and clear head.
Josh and Andrew, for their work.
The moderating staff, for theirs.
The members of RDF, for their allegiance and loyalty.
The members and staff of rationalia, for their hospitality and understanding.
The members and staff of the league of reason, for their hospitality.
And all of the above, for educating me.

Peace, brothers and sisters. My love and respect to you all.

And with that, I am finally going to go to bed, as I haven't slept properly since all this began. Let me know what you decide.

Tony Murphy (hackenslash)