Responding to criticism


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By and large, it’s something I avoid. Many of the criticisms levelled against either this blog or the main Bad Archaeology website are trivial, vapid or misinformed. I tend to give a short reply to the original comment and move on: there isn’t usually anything substantial in the criticism that warrants revision of the original post or page.

That is especially true of the blog. I view blogs pretty much as opinion pieces, like the editorial in a newspaper. If I want authoritative facts, I’ll go elsewhere. This guides my writing: opinion pieces get posted here, while more factually-based pieces go on the main site, which I hope is used more as a work of reference than the blog. Blogs are effectively entertainment.

A little while ago, I switched the main site over to a content management based system, using WordPress as the software to run it (it’s simple, it does what I need and it is hugely customisable. And did I mention that it’s free?). This allows users to comment on those pages where I permit them to do so (which, actually, is just about every page on the site), in addition to which there’s a contact form. Since doing this, there has been a slow but steady stream of comments.

I am now faced with a quandary, though: most comments are from people who have not registered as users and therefore need approval, as do pingbacks from external websites. By and large, I approve all comments, no matter how ill informed, and the last thing I want to do is to censor dissent, so I will allow through comments that just disagree with what I’ve written (or what James has written). So far, so good. But what happens when I get a pingback from the forum of an extremist organisation? I won’t mention them, as I haven’t approved the two pingbacks from them, but one of their regular users has tried to rubbish what I write on the ridiculous grounds that I’m gay. Because my sexuality doesn’t fall in line with their very narrow definition of what a citizen of their country should be (and it shouldn’t be non-white, Jewish, Moslem, Roman Catholic, gay, socialist… you get the picture), the user thinks that my opinions and my handling of data are worthless. But this ad hominem attack was brought up as a reply to another user of the forum who had linked approvingly to one of the pages on the main site. Do I approve the pingback or do I delete it? I certainly don’t want to send traffic to a hate-filled extremist website.

Then there is a commenter who regularly posts largely incomprehensible statements. I’ve approved all of their comments so far, but it’s getting tedious. Their comments add nothing to the page in question. Do I block the comments on those grounds? I have been hoping that the commenter will eventually get bored and give up, but it’s been going on for some weeks now; it’s not the usual internet troll, out to pick an argument, because the comments are so far off-the-wall that there’s nothing to respond to. I really don’t know the answer.

And finally, there’s a recent criticism of the page devoted to The Turin Shroud. Rather than comment, the person who disagrees with what I wrote, a blogger called Dan Porter, has written an entire blog post, Bad Archaeology at Bad Archaeology (how I wish I could have used that title!). In his comment on Bad Archaeology, he calls it a “comprehensive response”, but it’s far from comprehensive. It cherry picks elements of the page for specific criticisms, but I found that I had to delete only two errors of fact. What Dan Porter has done has been to use the very dubious claims of Ray Rogers that the linen samples used for radiocarbon dating were contaminated, to press on with the silly notion that the image on the Shroud encodes three-dimensional data (an inexplicable miracle!) and generally disagree with what I wrote.

Albert Einstein

A miracle of relativity (praise be!) or a trick of image manipulation?

What his criticism did allow me to do was to test the claims about the encoding of three-dimensional data in images. I took a well known facial image and processed it with results that look fairly similar to those obtained from the Shroud. It even rendered unevennesses in the photographic print as three-dimensional! Another miracle!

In the end, I want to be reasonable. I really don’t want to upset people, but if they have wrong, silly or downright objectionable beliefs, I can’t stand by passively and let them persist. If they have raised valid objections, I’ll happily change what I’ve written: that’s how real science works. If they are wittering on incomprehensibly, I’ll tolerate them. If, on the other hand, they want to push an ideology that is hate filled, I feel that I must ignore them and not give them the dubious benefit of a link from my site.

13 comments

  1. Just read your comments on comments. Sorry to hear you have to put up with the haters. Just wanted to say thanks for doing it for those of us who sincerely want to continue the quest for knowledge.

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  2. Agreed, absolutely. This is your website, it is down to you to decide what level of debate is acceptable; I believe most rational thinkers would accept the contention that not sending more traffic and linkbacks the way of fascist sects is a worthy justification.

    Also, on the notion that you somehow have a responsibility to engage every passing visitor with an axe to grind in debate — you simply don’t. It is your prerogative to ignore, remove or outright ban users, just as it would be socially accpetable to walk away if I started screaming nonsense at you in the street.

    Genuine commentary and questioning of an article is a good thing, driving better understanding amongst the audience. Reams of gibberish detract from the reading experience, and make it harder for casual users to follow the thread of an argument.

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  3. I’ve had my own website for more years than I care to remember and my position on commenting has shifted over time as I’m sure yours will. The general rule of thumb for me right now is it has to be related (as that features into search algorithms), original (likewise), and nice (because who likes nasty stuff?); no trolling, no rambling, no insulting. This applies to pingbacks and comments. I have enjoyed ripping apart abusive or idiotic comments in the past but more often than not these days I will simply trash it (or keep without approving as there can be some amazing beauty in the rambles of the deranged); the bottom line is the site is my own and I’m quite clear in my disclaimer that anyone who doesn’t like it can create their own site and bitch about it there. We all have a right to get grumpier and less tolerant as we age and I’m embracing that right with open arms. Don’t worry about pingbacks from anyone else; approving is simply a way of marking a two-way connection back to the source – useful for search purposes if the content is related and you don’t mind people visiting your site from leaving to see it – but you’ve no obligation to reciprocate and ignoring it doesn’t hurt you as it still leaves the one-way link from them to you (you’ve no control over that, after all, since that’s the point of the internet).

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  4. It is your blog – so your choice but I think letting the … (lets say lest thought out resonses) in really highlights the best parts of your posts. I know when I visit blogs and then see some trolling going on it usually only reinforces my view that what the author said is well thought out and that I should pay attention to him not the other side. I might be in the minority on this.

    That being said, if the one person’s comments are so off the wall that they look like spam, treat it like spam.

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  5. The unpleasant comments you receive (hoping for publicity for a way-out view) are the reason so many public sites, like the BBC, which invite comment moderate what they publish. As everybody says, it IS your site. All strength to your elbow – I may not always agree with what you write but while it remains within the law and common sense, I shall defend your right to say it. May you be granted patience and a handy delete key !

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  6. Large companies moderate their websites and don’t approve every Tom, DIck and Harry’s comments, as they are either insane (or should that be inane?) or from people who have a axe to grind and bring nothing to the discussion. For every ill-informed idiot who leaves a hate filled or rambling comment, you will find a thousand more wouldn’t do such a thing, as they are reasonable people.

    Please keep up the work on the wonderful website and don’t take on the malicious trolls, (I think that’s the term people use?) just delete their postings pronto. You are never obliged to respond, as you are not their personal information centre. (or in some cases, therapist)

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  7. I could put my signature under every single sentence in this post. Comments that are “are so far off-the-wall that there’s nothing to respond to” and filled with “largely incomprehensible statements” is basically a summary of what I myself find regularly in comment section (my blog is about the same topic as this one, just in another language).

    It’s hardly surprising and it would be naive to expect something else. I consider them more an illustration of point I’m making. I’m pointing out that one or another pseudoscientific text deranges facts beyond recognition or simply makes them up, the narrative itself is lacking any consistency etc. And if you think, that I’m just picking up some quites and taking them out of the context, just scroll down the page…
    So, such commenter’s actually serves to the point you are making.

    Also, arguing with them helps to understand they logic a bit. O.K. world “logic” does not really fits well here, but I always was interested how they brains is working. Proponents of pseudoscience is not just some random guy’s who stumbled upon picture of Stonehenge and said “Whow, thats couldn’t be build be Stone age peoples”: They actually spend many years studying an collecting information about object of they interest. And still coming up with conclusion absolutely unrelated with what facts says or implies. Having a discussion with them helps to understand how processes are happening in the heads of whose guys.
    It’s interesting. Annoying as hell, but interesting.

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  8. I just would like to clarify that your 3-d encoding Einstein image is not like the Turin Shroud. Forgive me if I’m wrong but I’m presuming that you created it from the famous Einstein photo by the emboss tool or similar in a graphics program. If so, then it is not really a 3d image, more pseudo 3d. The algorithm for emboss does something similar to how school kids used to create a 3d like image of text, take the image, shift it along normally diagonally a small distance, negate the image and recombining with the original image. This gives the impression of 3d from a 2d starting image. This can give an apparent ridge effect where say a flat line will end up having a bright side and a dark side, giving an impression of 3d. You can see that happening in your Einstein image. This is very different from the height information encoded in the Shroud where you can extract from the image enough information to reconstruct the face.

    I’m still not sure what to make of the Shroud myself but I do think you unfairly characterize the reason why a lot of intelligent people (and not religiously inclined) are still puzzled by it. As a physicist I’m inclined to believe the carbon dating date (say roughly 1300), but then am genuinely mystified by how come there is a closely matching drawing of the Shroud in the Hungarian Pray Manuscript almost 120 years earlier, and another illustration of the long piece of material with a disembodied head on it which certainly seems to be the Shroud (by John of Skylitzes who died 200 years before the C14 date) being handed over to Emperor Romanus. Archaelogy isnt my area but I’d like a proper explanation for this discrepancy – perhaps you can help clear the fog for me as I’m puzzled and I know I’m not alone in this area. Prof Ramsey who helped carry out the original C14 dating at Oxford, certainly admitted that there were a number of other bits of evidence that indicated that the C14 dates might need re-examination. This is what I like about science ….it is quite dispassionate at getting to the truth.

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  9. 1st AND FOREMOST: Keep doing the awesome job you do with your post about “all that is not really science”

    2nd: As it’s being pointed, you also have a responsability both to ethics and your country laws (say, against discrimination, racism, etc) so dont be shy to cut what’s necessary.

    3th: I found that implementing and advertising a “theorically” draconian moderation (even if you dont really implement afterwards) works wonders. Most people dont take the effort to write their shit if they think for sure that it wont be published.

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  10. With regard to the main site, I trust that you, an expert of archaeology, exercise discretion when approving comments and ping backs that are conducive to the discussion. I am an ignorant reader and I would like to be shielded from disguised pseudo-scientific claims (I have been a victim of the History channel in the past).

    I think that dissenting comments are appropriate granted they provide the reader with valuable insight into the social, cultural, and religious perspectives of the subject matter. However, I trust that you will critique these comments, protecting the unsuspecting user from misinformation and ignorance (like me!).

    The main site should be treated as almost secondary to scholarly works. In a sense, it IS secondary. You are an expert interpreting the literature for the rest of us.

    Maybe a comment policy would be helpful. It helps the user know what you expect and it certainly makes it easier for you to decide.

    As for WordPress (this blog), I agree with you. It is opinion and entertainment and it shouldn’t be seen as authoritative.

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