How to evaluate a comment seriously. How to know when to take them seriously.

Summary:  How can one determine the reliability of a correspondent whom one does not know?  Here are some guidelines, drawing on my experience replying to the majority of the 19 thousand comments on the FM website, plus many hundreds of long email discussions about its contents.  Please post in the comments your thoughts about this important topic.

Nobody knows anyone in comments on the Internet.  Names mean nothing, as they might mask someone quite different.  Claims of authority — degrees, rank, titles — are equally easy to fake.  So what indicators of competence and authority can you rely on?

I’ve learned a great deal from comments on the FM website, and they are littered with my acknowledgements of error.  One in particular on an important subject:  A sad picture of America, but important for us to understand.   These are the lessons I’ve learned about who deserves close attention.

The four kinds of comments

This method categorizes comments primarily by the sources of information they cite, secondarily by their understanding of those on the other side of the debate.

(1)  Comments by experts, professional and amateur

They tend to support their assertions with citations of specific books and articles — often citing those on both sides of the debate, or at least acknowledging their valid work when you cite them.  Such people are fruitful partners in debate, and  much can be learned from them.  Such people usually make cautious assertions, expressing opinions that are narrow in scope and hedged (eg, “based on current knowledge”).  We must seek to learn from such people, but expect no change in their views.

(2)  Comments by people well-read in the literature about a subject but governed by a partisan belief

They often cite one or two experts as definitive authorities, on only one side of the debate.  Experts disagreeing with them tend to remain invisible to such people, even when mentioned in rebuttal.  Only those agreeing with their belief are right.  This backwards logic rules their thinking.  We can learn from such people, but expect not the slightest change in their views.

(3)  The average comment

The general media provides the information most people rely upon when writing comments.  Citing authoritative sources in reply to them — primary data and analysis by experts in the professional literature — can spark interesting discussions.  Sometimes a change or modification of view will result.

(4)  The largest group: comments by fanatics

Unfortunately, comments by fanatics comprise the largest fraction of comments.  They tend to get information from websites written by and for partisans, usually all laypeople, driven by misinformation and exaggerations.  Debate with such people only for entertainment; only divine intervention can change their views.  They react to facts as vampires do to holy water.  Each successful rebuttal of their assertions will result in one of two responses.

  • A fast exit, scalded by hard data, returning to websites that welcome true-believers.
  • Another bold assertion — usually equally exaggerated or wrong.  After a long series of such exchanges they often reply with the original assertion that began the discussion (no matter how thoroughly it was debunked) — a fine demonstration of the futility of debate with an idée fixe.

For more information

For more about this see the FM Reference Page Information & disinformation, the new media & the old.

Other posts about this topic:

5 thoughts on “How to evaluate a comment seriously. How to know when to take them seriously.”

  1. Incredibly important note. Thank you. However, I want to propose that you left off a whole category: comments by people who are actually thinking, and about which you should stop and think alongside them. For me the critical skill to which you are pointing in your note is what I call ‘making assessments about other people’s assessments.’

    My interpretation is that for the great majority of important moments in life we do not have either sufficient skill or sufficient information to be absolutely confident of our interpretations about what is going on and/or what should be done. That being the case, the capacity to make good assessments about other people’s assessments is pivotal. That is what you are stopping here to comment on. 19 thousand comments is a lot.

    But you left out, or missed, or forgot, or somehow are hiding your attention to the category of comment that can open another perspective on a situation, point to a cognitive blindness in the speaker’s field of vision, or the like.

    While I am composing a note to you folks, let me add that I find myself deeply grateful to all of you and to the networks to which you belong that you have committed yourselves to invent the kinds of commentary and opinion and orchestration that you have been offering in your blog.

    You are spectacular and are doing profoundly important work.

    Chauncey Bell

    1. Thank you for this different perspective about ways to evaluate comments. There is no one right way. Mine is an attempt to do so by evaluating the sources of information cited, which seems easy and objective.

      “comments by people who are actually thinking, and about which you should stop and think alongside them”

      That seems a superior way to do so, but far more difficult AND subjective.

  2. You forgot to summarize the lesson. Is this it?

    1) Parse your evaluation of comments per this or another model.

    2) Generate your own responses per this or some other model – to avoid wasted effort, your own, and other readers. [It’s always useful to practice, but on yourself, not always on your community.]

  3. You forgot one other class (which thankfully does not appear much on this site): bored shut-ins with way too much time on their hands (although they may just be a subcategory of the fanatic). Check out a small community newspaper that actually gives a count of each commenter’s posts, and there is often an inverse relationship between the commentator’s knowledge and the number of posts.

    1. Amusingly true; it’s very common for the most prolific commenters to present very little depth while the real nuggets are often found in those who speak rarely. You don’t have to be bored or a shut-in to find this on the internet!

      I suppose a loose analogy could be found in a gross simplification of two different tactics: spray-and-pray vs marksmanship. Anybody can fire wildly and appear effective (And may actually succeed by accident!) whereas the marksman is trained, focused and only strikes when success is to be had. Those with real, valuable knowledge tend to know where the limits of their skills lie and will keep their mouth shut if out of their expertise. The prolific don’t appear to understand that their knowledge is limited and just keep on talking…

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