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I'm not sure where to bring up this issue, but the CV meta seemed as good a place as any.

Recently I was reading this question about whether the banning of p-values and confidence intervals by the journal Basic and Applied Psychology was a good idea. As a research psychologist with a great interest in statistics, this issue is of great interest to me.

While reading the responses to these questions, I came across this comment, which was upvoted 10 times:

"Great idea. Using statistics just hides the unscientific nature of this field."

I understand that this comment was made in jest, but to me, this comment comes across as both off-topic and quite rude. Whether psychology is "scientific" has absolutely no bearing on whether banning the use of p-values and confidence intervals is good policy. However, what concerns me more is that many research psychologists use CV on a regular basis (including me). This sort of comment that makes a blanket statement about my field makes me feel unwelcome at CV, and I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case for other research psychologists. Moreover, the question on which the comment was made was highly upvoted, and the decision by BASP was highly publicized, meaning this comment is likely to be seen by other research psychologists with an interest in this issue. I think the comment should be removed.

I flagged the comment as rude, but my flag was declined.

I have used CV regularly for almost three years, and this is the first time I have had a problem of this kind, so I don't necessarily think that this incident reflects any deeper problems with CV. This incident does, however, touch a sore spot with me and with research psychologists generally.

So, my question to the community is, is this comment appropriate for CV, and if so, why?


This edit was added about a month after the original post, after I've had some time to think about the various responses

There has been a bit of discussion about why I found the original comment offensive. Psychology is defined as the "science of human behavior", so I hope it should be clear that comments that claim that psychology is not a science (and is more similar to an art than a science) might be viewed as offensive by people who call themselves "scientists of human behavior". If the comment was germane to the linked question, however, I would not have flagged it for deletion. I do not think a comment about the scientific status of psychology is germane to whether the policies of BASP are statistically valid.

There is, of course, another complicating factor to this particular incident, and that is that people are more prone to questioning the scientific validity of psychology and other behavioral sciences than they are of disciplines like physics. Let's take an extreme example -- for hundreds of years, inventors have submitted patents to the US Patent Office for perpetual motion machines, despite the fact that such a thing is completely impossible. Yet, despite the existence of these crackpot patents, few people would use the patents to say something like "These patents just reveal the unscientific nature of the field", whereas they might use the existence of parapsychology journals to say something like "These journals just reveal the unscientific nature of the field". Moreover, the perception that psychology has very real consequences for things like scientific funding, so this is not a trivial issue.

Anyway, going back to the original comment, I think that when I originally made this post, I misunderstood the overall purpose of comments. The StackExchange model encourages clean, on-topic questions and answers, and it appears that comments aren't held to the same standard. This is the main reason I flagged the comment for deletion rather than leave a comment of my own on the question (which is something I have now done).

Prior to this discussion, I also never really understood the purpose of the chat room, which is why I did not think to start a chat with Aksakal. This is something I may well do in the future.

Overall, as a result of this post, I have learned a lot about the various tools on CV, CV policy, and the different opinions of the moderators about how to handle requests for deletion. In the future, I may very well be more proactive with how I use comments on this site.

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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps it'd be interested to know why it hits your sore spot? $\endgroup$ – Momo Mar 26 '15 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ In response to why I call this a "sore spot" -- this sort of issue often occurs in conversations when I explain what I do. While I view it as part of my duty as both a research psychologist and a scientist to correct misunderstandings about what I do, sometimes I just want to read about statistics (which is the purpose of this site) rather than correct misunderstandings about whether psychology is a science. $\endgroup$ – Patrick S. Forscher Mar 26 '15 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ The title should perhaps be Why is a comment that maligns my field not considered inappropriate for CV? I know that's more indirect and long-winded, but it's closer to the issue. It's not that the community endorses that comment; it's rather that a moderator decided on balance that the comment should stand, while recognising that there are objections to it. $\endgroup$ – Nick Cox Mar 27 '15 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ @NickCox fair point. I have made the suggested edit. $\endgroup$ – Patrick S. Forscher Mar 27 '15 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ Why didn't you reply to the commenter? Sometimes, it is more fruitful to engage in a discussion (even if it is only written text rather than verbal communication) and to ask for clarification. Whether the issue is the number of votes or the content of this comment, which is still unclear to me, I would have taken the same decision as @whuber: it is not targeting a specific user or the SE system as a whole, and I do not consider it as spam or offensive; it is however open to (possibly) endless discussion and this deserves to be discussed in a chat room, IMHO. $\endgroup$ – chl Mar 29 '15 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ I made that comment, and had no idea that it inspired such an interesting discussion. You can trash physics all day long, and it won't offend me a bit. As a physicist, I'd think that whoever made the comment is an idiot and forget about it. So, I didn't think that my comment would offend psychologists. I guess I don't get psychology! :) Also, not everything needs to be science. Music and theater are not science, and there's nothing wrong with them. $\endgroup$ – Aksakal Mar 30 '15 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Aksakal The reason why it wouldn't upset a physicist is that there is no "Physics is not a science" stereotype. The fact that some people do psychology research poorly or that psychology data will inherently be more noisy than physics data does not make the field less scientific than physics. Similarly, I doubt white people would be offended by the phrase "white people are lazy" because it doesn't reinforce any stereotypes about white people (obviously this is completely different from race - but I think it helps illustrate the point). $\endgroup$ – WetlabStudent Apr 8 '15 at 17:53
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Cromwell's rule : "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken."

This wise rule (modernized perhaps by substituting "probable" for "possible", and maybe changing the gory religious reference), should have been all along supplementing the SE-wide catch-phrase and policy "Be Nice".

Now, "Be Nice" is more wide-reaching that it appears: it essentially asks from us to think nicely, rather than only speak nicely.

But for the less-sensitive to polite suggestions, Cromwell's rule implies "don't transmit an objective sense of certainty when there isn't one".

And I believe that the comment that led to this meta-question violates exactly that: it transmits a sense of objective certainty -when there is none. It speaks as though the "unscientific nature of this field" is as widely accepted as the movement of earth around the sun. And it isn't (that's easily verifiable).

If it was something along the lines of

"I am not yet persuaded whether psychology is truly a scientific discipline or not, and I know that many other people share these doubts. The adoption of statistical tools may have provided a false sense of "scientific status" to psychologists themselves, leading them to not worry enough -and not work enough on- the scientific foundations of their field. So maybe a move away from such tools, which moreover appear to have been misused, may be beneficial after all",

I conjecture that the OP would not feel the way he felt with the actually posted comment.

In my opinion, the comment does violate the Cross-Validated culture, if not the SE rules. But then, this does not make "deletion" the only route that should be taken. After all, I have to, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that I may be mistaken.

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    $\begingroup$ +1, however, I feel compelled to note that although I work hard at speaking / writing nicely, if the requirement were truly "think nicely" I might be banned from CV. $\endgroup$ – gung - Reinstate Monica Mar 26 '15 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ @gung I wonder what kind of meaning we should attach to "CV's Most Wanted" in such a case. $\endgroup$ – Alecos Papadopoulos Mar 26 '15 at 23:53
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    $\begingroup$ This seems very reasonable, Alecos. On balance I still think the comment (and others like it) contributes to an unwelcoming environment. However, it is certainly possible that I misinterpreted the intended meaning. $\endgroup$ – Patrick S. Forscher Mar 27 '15 at 2:25
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I agree with most of what has been said so far.

Disclaimers: I didn't see the original comment or add +1 to it. My comments can easily be sharper than average here, so I am not posing as a nice guy, but I would never dispute a moderator's judgement on my comments.

  • Comments can be sharper than answers, but they must not be offensive. But give and take is needed: comments must be seen in context and be judged knowing that people can disagree in good faith on what is amusing or not and what is fair comment or not. Comments are often the community's way of having fun, with all that is implied.

  • Adding +1 on a comment is not, as I understand it, strictly an upvote. It shows approval of some kind but it has no effect on reputation. Some badges may be awarded depending on the scores for comments that someone receives, but that's secondary and trivial here.

  • Part of the problem is clearly that without a following comment explaining why a previous comment got your +1, no one can tell exactly why +1 was given. When I get +1s on comments, the reasons seem to vary, including "agree strongly", "interesting point", "helpful reference", "very amusing", "hi Nick!": elaboration is hardly needed. I suspect without any evidence that the most common single reason among those 10 +1s was something like this: Wicked comment, but I found it amusing.

  • I have wanted to be able to put -1 on a comment. Clearly I know that I can flag something obnoxious or add my own comments. But reasons can include a thread being already too long or too heated; the comment already being a digression from the question; my wanting to indicate a polite boo as well as a polite cheer backing comments are I think are correct, interesting, or helpful. Adding +1 to those comments you think are most telling is the best way to add your own minute cheer, but I have wanted -1 too.

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    $\begingroup$ This is an interesting point. I would have felt much better if I had had a way to down vote the original comment $\endgroup$ – Patrick S. Forscher Mar 27 '15 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ There is a simple extra dimension to this. Sometimes even otherwise smart, independently minded people just follow the crowd. If I see a really terrible question already downvoted heavily I will still (be tempted to) add my downvote even though it is totally predictable that the question is doomed. The same can happen with +1 on comments too, even if no-one can see who you are. (The opposite can happen too, but I'll stop there.) $\endgroup$ – Nick Cox Mar 27 '15 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ A good way to see disagreement with a comment is to respond to it (as long as it's not too long after the fact). With a good response, upvotes for the response will also tend to indicate the feeling the other way. $\endgroup$ – Glen_b Apr 2 '15 at 1:13
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It seems to me that we have to balance two imperatives on CV:

  1. We need to preserve information that is germane to on-topic threads and provide information about statistics, machine learning, data mining and data visualization.
  2. Material that offends someone or makes some class of people feel unwelcome should be deleted.

How should these two be balanced? It's hard to say in the abstract; it will probably require case-by-case judgments. I should say that I have been consistently impressed by our moderator team and thankful for their (extensive) efforts to keep CV running smoothly. For what it's worth, if I ran the zoo I'll tell you just what I'd do:

  • In one hypothetical case, if person A said that a $t$-test is a parameter estimate divided by its standard error, and person B found that offensive, I would leave that content on the site nonetheless.
  • In another hypothetical case, if person A made a comment that isn't particularly relevant and doesn't communicate any information about statistics, and person B found that offensive, I would delete it, even if it had been highly upvoted.

This seems completely unambiguous to me. Note that I did not include anything about person B's reasoning behind feeling offended. That strikes me as immaterial. The rationale could be totally bogus—I just don't care. I would leave a note to the original commenter explaining the situation, however. I would also be open to arguments that addressed the case on its merits, but I would not give any weight to 'slippery slope' arguments.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree strongly with this reasoning $\endgroup$ – Patrick S. Forscher Mar 27 '15 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ Honest question: What if a person writing the comment would feel offended by the deletion? I remember a contributor who called for a lot of deletions because he felt mistreated. And that in turn alienated other users. $\endgroup$ – Momo Mar 27 '15 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ That's a good question, @Momo. In this scenario, are the potentially offensive comments relevant to the thread they're on & do they contain legitimate statistical information? $\endgroup$ – gung - Reinstate Monica Mar 27 '15 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ Lets assume its a comment as the one thst started this. No statistical content whatsoever but not against SE rules. It gets deleted because it was flagged as offending. Now the author of the comment feels offended and complains that it was deleted (or any of the 10 upvoters). Who should get precedence? I think thats what @whuber calls the slippery slope. $\endgroup$ – Momo Mar 27 '15 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Momo, yes I would delete that. Under this reasoning, possibly 11 people are offended, but I might suspect it's more like 1. On the other hand, although only 1 person flagged I would guess that more people, especially over time, would be offended by the comment, but no one else will view the page, think to themselves 'why isn't there a comment like psychology sucks on this thread somewhere?' & be offended. In the long run, the balance of offense will run strongly in favor of deleting. $\endgroup$ – gung - Reinstate Monica Mar 27 '15 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ Although I wasn't offended by this comment, in retrospect I'm not surprised that someone was, but I would be surprised if anyone beyond (possibly) the comment's author is offended that they cannot use CV to vent. Eg, I would be surprised if a comment upvoter were offended by the deletion. (I have to say that my intuitions are not very reliable, though; I am one of the least thin-skinned people on the planet.) As @Andre notes, SE policy is that comments are supposed to be impermanent anyway. $\endgroup$ – gung - Reinstate Monica Mar 27 '15 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ Here's an analogy: on the same thread, person A says 'I like blue cheese!', which gets 10 upvotes. Another CV user who is part of People for the Ethical Treatment of Mold flags this comment as offensive. In this case, I would delete the comment. It isn't related to the thread, doesn't contain any statistical information & offended someone. $\endgroup$ – gung - Reinstate Monica Mar 27 '15 at 20:50
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First of all--and most importantly--I am sorry you feel bad about that comment.

In coming to a decision about the flag, I considered several aspects of the situation.

  1. Relevance. Despite your claim that the comment is off-topic, a huge underlying issue in that thread is whether banning the use of a standard tool for pursuing scientific investigations is an appropriate strategy for a legitimate branch of science. I suspect the initial reaction of many people to the BASP announcement may have been something like what was expressed in the comment.

    One way to test relevance is to imagine replacing "psychology" by other fields that make claims to being scientific. At two extremes are parapsychology and atomic physics. In either context, the comment would make sense and be apt. If parapsychologists abandoned hypothesis testing, they would have a much harder time keeping up the pretense of being scientific. If physicists did, the first question they would hear is "but isn't that unscientific?" In both cases the comment is apt, so why wouldn't be relevant to psychology?

    The claim that a large group of people--such as research psychologists--would be sorely offended by such a benign offhand remark is certainly surprising. If that were true, we would have to conclude there are some profound concerns in the profession about its scientific nature, or lack thereof: and doesn't that even more amply demonstrate the relevance of the remark and the need to address it rather than suppress it?

  2. Correctness. Comments are frequently incorrect or downright false. That's frustrating because they cannot be downvoted or edited and extensive debates within comments are discouraged. But that's how it is. Usually, factuality plays almost no part in making keep-or-delete decisions: people have a right to be wrong in public.

    In this case, I feel that the implication you are drawing ("BASP banned hypothesis testing, therefore social psychology is unscientific")--which to be fair may be a broader conclusion than intended by the commenter--ultimately reflects a limited and incorrect understanding of the editor's decision. But that's a matter that can constructively be discussed by posting an answer in that thread.

  3. Tone. Given the dissonant juxtoposition of its preface, "Great idea," and the consequent charge of being unscientific, it is difficult to read the comment in any other way than sarcasm. It is equally difficult to interpret it as personally rude or insulting. I won't defend the tone--it comes across as a little sharp--but it doesn't appear to transgress any boundaries of impropriety. We should all err on the side of generosity when reading comments and not take them too much to heart nor interpret them in an overly broad or personal fashion.

Should we, then, unilaterally delete this comment? As I see it, that amounts to a request to limit discourse and suppress an idea that has relevance and could constructively be discussed. On balance, because the comment does not appear to breach the norms of this community, I could see no justification to remove it.

More generally, what should we do about comments that offend valued contributors to our community? If the sole test is to be that somebody feels offended, then we are left with no consistent or rational way to decide what material should remain visible on our site. The tests we do have (of which the strongest is that ad hominem remarks are not tolerated) are clear and practicable. Removing comments solely because they might be construed by someone as being negative about some branch of science seems like it would head too far down a very slippery slope that would force us eventually to abandon the comment mechanism altogether.

Might I suggest, then, that you consider the possibility that this comment may have a more benign interpretation and that it was written without malign intent? The best course of action might be to post a constructive answer in that thread and ignore the comment altogether rather than drawing undue attention to it.

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    $\begingroup$ FWIW, if I had been a moderator & I received an 'offensive' flag to that comment, I would have deleted it--really w/o any hesitation, although I would have left a comment to its author. The argument that removing that comment would have eventually forced us to abandon the comment mechanism altogether does not strike me as plausible. (NB, I also have a strong reaction to slippery slope arguments that is orthogonal to this issue, but may relate to my reaction here.) $\endgroup$ – gung - Reinstate Monica Mar 26 '15 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ I would have deleted it as well - it's not a request to limit discourse, but to maintain CV as a welcoming environment. $\endgroup$ – Fomite Mar 26 '15 at 22:13
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    $\begingroup$ I understand the argument that I should read the comment charitably. However I disagree that the comment is germane to the topic, which is about whether BASP's change in policy is wise, not about the scientific status of psychology (which, by the way, is much larger than one small journal). $\endgroup$ – Patrick S. Forscher Mar 26 '15 at 22:39
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    $\begingroup$ This is why people don't apply for being moderator; it is very tough job :). If it helps, in the main meta site, they keep saying comments were designed to be temporary. $\endgroup$ – Andre Silva Mar 27 '15 at 2:05
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    $\begingroup$ I don't agree with the commenter that psychology is an unscientific field, and I don't think the comment was meant to be benign, but I applaud whuber's decision not to delete it. $\endgroup$ – mark999 Mar 28 '15 at 8:39
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    $\begingroup$ That's an interesting position, @mark999. Can you explain your reasoning? Most here who have argued that it should stay do so by arguing that it was (or should be read as) benign. Do you think it's good to have a comment that you believe is inaccurate & is not benign on the site? Would CV be better off if we had a lot of inaccurate, non-benign comments all over the place? $\endgroup$ – gung - Reinstate Monica Mar 28 '15 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ @gung My reasoning is simply that I value freedom of speech. I'm not saying that I think the moderators should never delete anything, but I don't think that "someone was offended" is sufficient reason for deletion. In reply to your second question, I see the presence of that comment as neither good nor particularly bad. In reply to your last question, of course it wouldn't. $\endgroup$ – mark999 Mar 29 '15 at 4:32
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    $\begingroup$ Would it have been less offensive to say that "several disciplines (including psychology, medicine, and economics) have a record of using statistics to dress up conclusions that cannot be repeated and have dubious validity"? (I'm a physician and am continually embarrassed at the sloppy use of statistics in the medical domain.) $\endgroup$ – DWin Apr 7 '15 at 2:30
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Let me address it as if a similar comment had been directed at my own field.

If I'd been doing the review, I'd very likely have let the comment stand.

While personally offensive behavior would need to be removed (so "You're an idiot" as a comment would be removed without hesitation), broader classes of comment like "statisticians don't know what they're doing" would be more likely to stick around, even if a certain level of sarcasm and snarkiness might be present.

[In fact I'm all for controversial points of view if they support the point, and respond properly to counterargument. Are comments the right place for that? Possibly chat is better, but I wouldn't intervene for a single comment or a single response. An extended back and forth would lead to 'move this to chat']

What could lead me to consider deleting a comment of the second kind would be relevance (does it clarify something about the question, or give/point to useful information while not being an answer?), but given the particulars of the topic and the nature of the question, I'd nevertheless tend to lean toward 'let it stand' (but also 'let a similar kind of response to it stand').

(On the other hand, a question that's primarily "statisticians don't know what they're doing" would constitute a "rant rather than a question", and closed on that basis. I've seen a couple. It's not that it's offensive -- it's that it's not really a question.)

Maybe psychology can be argued to be unscientific*, and maybe statisticians don't know what they're doing (sometimes I do wonder about us, so let's hear what the problem is).

* (as a broad proposition, I really don't agree, but I'd want to tolerate the argument -- I'd simply look for more than mere assertion, and if the comment stands, a comment in response is a fair place to ask if they can support such a general comment)

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I suppose its an opinion expressed as a comment and since it is not ad hominem, there is no reason to delete it else its censorship. I'm not sure a comment can and should be considered off-topic in the first place. Off-topic we usually only apply to questions and sometimes answers.

A comment can be offensive and then it is removed. I think the difference would be if someone said "Patrick S. Forscher or his work is unscientific". I'd worry more about why so many people share that sentiment (as a trained psychologist myself, I share it too!). I guess our job as research psychologists is to help correct that sentiment in public by our deeds (e.g., you with your nice answers and questions on CV), not censorship.

B y the way, such comments regularly pop up here, usually economists and medical doctors are the butt of the jokes (see my own here, aimed at economists). That attitude of some statisticians making jokes of other people's research is made into a joke about statisticians by Stephen Senn here).

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    $\begingroup$ Don't we want CV to be used by economists, medical doctors, and research psychologists, and so on? If these comments do occur regularly, then I see this as a problem. There's a big difference between saying "Psychology is unscientific" and "X practice leads to invalid conclusions". The former comment is unconstructive (and, I believe, impolite), while the latter is constructive (and may actually have something to do with statistics). $\endgroup$ – Patrick S. Forscher Mar 26 '15 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ Also, I don't think that concerns about censorship apply here. CV is not a free-for-all environment where anyone can express any opinion -- it is a site where people can ask and answer questions about statistics. The specific purpose of CV is reflected by the fact that moderators can edit and remove posts that do not facilitate the site goals. If comments like these do not facilitate the site goals, I think they can and ought to be removed. $\endgroup$ – Patrick S. Forscher Mar 26 '15 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ FTR, I thought your remark about economists was funny & I upvoted that post & @naught101's comment. I am not an economist, but I do think it's a valuable & interesting field--I just thought it was funny. However, if I were a moderator & someone flagged those as 'offensive', I would delete them. They don't speak directly to the thread's question or to any legitimate statistical issue. If someone had been offended, I would have deleted it. I don't see any gray area here. $\endgroup$ – gung - Reinstate Monica Mar 26 '15 at 22:17

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