One of the things in life which amazes me the most is just the timing of things. Two things which would be largely unremarkable on their own happen in such proximity to one another, it just feels like it can't be coincidence - even though they have no relation to one another. This post is about an example of that.
As my last two posts discuss, I recently discovered Ivan Oransky of the popular site Retraction Watch secretly modifies the user comments at his site. It turns out he considers that normal. It's the standard policy of his site to do it. They'll modify comments from users in any way they feel like without leaving any indication of the changes.
Now at about the same time this happened, a different story emerged regarding another site. This one involved, depending on who you talk to, identity theft and fake comments. The timing of it is remarkable.
I'm, of course, talking about the Skeptical Science story that's not anywhere near as much of a story as people are making it out to be. John Cook, owner of Skeptical Science, had posted under the name of a skeptic he dislikes in his private forum. Again, I want to stress, this was in his private forum. In his private forum where the only people who would see it were people who would know what he was doing.
Yeah, I don't know why people are talking about identity theft. The only real story in this is the reason Cook posted under a fake name. The fake name itself doesn't matter. What matters is John Cook was seeking to perform some experiments. He had already performed one experiment. As he explains:
I've been conducting a psychological experiment with UWA cognitive scientists testing for the effects of blog comments on readers' comprehension. The first stage of the experiment was live on SkS and we've analysed the data and found that for a warmist blog post, there was no difference in reader comprehension when the reader was exposed to all warmist comments or no comments. However, when the reader was exposed to all skeptic comments, their comprehension dropped.
So it's officially been quantified - reading the comments threads on denier blogs will make you stupid.
This is what the story should have been about. Cook's goal was to get an "official" message: "People who listen to our opponents are stupid." To help support this message, he planned to perform a new experiment:
Anyway, we're now moving onto stage 2 of the experiment - they're going to conduct a similar experiment in the lab at UWA but with a twist - they're going to have 4 conditions:
Warmist blog post, all warmist comments
Warmist blog post, all skeptic comments
Skeptic blog post, all warmist comments
Skeptic blog post, all skeptic comments
You've already seen and been horrified by my hideously evil skeptic blog post. I'm now asking SkSers to perform duties even more arduous - I need you to embrace your inner-climate-denier and post skeptic comments avidly supporting the denier post. Specifically, we need 10 comments for each condition. So it only really requires a handful of SkSers going into the 4 conditions (linked above) and interact with each other, either wholeheartedly embracing and endorsing the post or vigorously criticising and nitpicking it. We will then take the 4 conditions into the lab and see what impact they have on reader comprehension, see if it confirms our first result.
That's a story. Cook wanted to prove simply being exposed to his opponents makes you stupid. This goal is part of the motivation behind something he is constantly pushing now, four years later, called the "innoculation approach." Basically, he wants to make people "immune" to skeptics by getting them to where they won't listen to his opponents. Why? Because his opponents are bad, and listening to them will make you stupid.
And to prove this, he wasn't going to test the effect comments from his opponents had on people. Instead, he was going to use a bunch of fake quotes written by people who held his opponents in obvious disdain, to write comments supporting a position they felt was "hideously evil."
See? That's a story. Cook posting under a fake name would have made for a great hook for the story. But that's not the route people went with. Instead, a lot of attention went to the idea there was some "identity theft." Which was stupid. But whatever. I tried to head off some of the worst of it by explaining the situation and context of what happened over at the blog Watts Up With That, but the reactions I got were disheartening. People there seemed determined to ignore all the evidence of what had actually happened to stick with the narrative of "identity theft," even though they had no basis for it. It's baffling.
But it's also not something I would normally bother bringing up. I only do so because it ties us back to the issue of Ivan Oransky and the people at Retraction Watch committing systematic fraud by secretly modifying their users' comments. You see, these two stories developed at pretty much the same time. That sort of timing seems incredible to me.
What also seems incredible to me is the people at Watts Up With That apparently are so determined to stick with their insane narrative this actually happened:
The user hunter posted under the name "John_Cook," which was obviously a poor joke aimed at the fact Cook's use of someone else's name in his own forum, then posted a quote which he attributed to the user "Brandon_Shollenberger." Of course, that quote is nothing like anything I've ever said. It was intentionally designed to make me look stupid, a reference to the fact Cook and his pals intentionally wrote comments to make their opponents look bad.
In other words, hunter did what people at Watts Up With That were complaining Cook had done, only he did it in a public location rather than a private forum. A moderator felt it wasn't appropriate, so he changed the "John_Cook" username. Only, the moderator left the fake quote, saying:
this person posted a reasonable comment
So apparently publicly posting fake quotes to make people look bad is considered reasonable at Watts Up With That, but posting under someone else's name is not...? I'm curious just where the line is drawn.
More importantly though, the reason what Cook did wasn't wrong is he did it in a private forum where people knew what he was doing. How many people reading Watts Up With That would know that quote attributed to me wasn't real? Given what I've seen in that thread, I'm not sure any would.
On the upside, at least the moderator had the decency to note the change he made to the comment. See Oransky? That's what not-completely-insane people do.