brainwagon "There is much pleasure in useless knowledge." — Bertrand Russell

27Jul/113

Hackaday Comment Policy: We’re cleaning up

I am a long time reader of Hack A Day. It's a great website, and often details projects that I find interesting well before they are picked up on other sites. It also tends to drive significant amounts of traffic to sites mentioned, so it's good publicity for many interesting objects.

But lately, their comment section has become a complete and utter cesspool. I've read hundreds of comments over the last few months which fall into predictable categories...

  • You're stupid.
  • Your project is stupid.
  • Why didn't you do X?
  • That isn't a hack.
  • Your grammar/spelling is wrong.
  • That video is fake, nobody could do X.
  • Any of a number of racist, sexist, and idiotic comments which decorum prevents me from reproducing.

I don't see any of these kinds of comments as helpful, useful, informative, or inspiring.

To their credit, it appears that the Hack A Day crew are beginning to realize that this kind of stuff does nothing to enhance their brand and are taking steps to correct this.

Hackaday Comment Policy; We’re cleaning up. - Hack a Day

My own blog policy is simple (and given the relatively low number of non-spam comments, pretty easy to implement): be nice. If your postings aren't nice, then they aren't going to stay. I can handle disagreements and dissent, but if you can't do it in a civil way, you can post your comments on your own blog and link back to me. I won't mind. My blog is like my virtual living room. I wouldn't allow anyone to come in and act like a complete buffoon in my house, and I'm not going to pay for the web services that lets them do so in my virtual living room either.

And arguing that some kind of "free speech" should be the rule is not going to fly either. You are entitled to your own free speech, but I don't have to pay for it or promote it. You are free to pursue your own free speech using your own resources, but you don't get to volunteer mine.

Some people have asked that come kind of comment voting system (like that employed on Slashdot) could be employed. I'll merely say that I don't read Slashdot anymore precisely because gaming of their comment system has reduced its utility considerably. It's never been clear to me that such systems can be engineered to even reduce, much less eliminate, the kinds of negative comment trolling that I've been seeing.

Here's my advice: if you think that a particular project on Hack A Day (or brainwagon or any other site) is deficient in some way, then get off your duff, make a better project, and publish it. Lend your own expertise to the discussion, and help elevate everyone's game. That's what the web should be about.

Oh, and keep up the good work, Hack A Day.

27Jul/110

How to mistake correlation and causality, from Scientific American

My tweets this morning included a link to a story by Scientific American editor Anna Kuchment, entitled "How to raise a science fair champ".

How to raise a science fair champ | Scientific American Blog Network

On the one hand, it's a mildly interesting look at some talented kids who have risen to the top of the increasingly prestigious world of science fairs. But the thing that struck me was how it totally failed to deliver on the promise of the title. The story repeatedly mistakes correlation with causality.

Here's the basic problem: Kuchment is looking at 15 finalists for the first Google science fair, and trying to determine what they have in common, and then implies that if you can do the same thing with your children, they could join the same kind of elite company as these 15. But that's a serious mistake, and an incredibly persistent one.

Take for instance this:

Leaving stats aside, the top things finalists named as the foundation of their interest in science was having a family member who was interested in science and making trips to the local science museum.

That seems like an interesting fact, but it is actually not a fact, but just a story. There are plenty of people who aren't science fair champs (or even interested in science at all) whose family members are interested in science and who take them to science museums. Kuchment is reasoning from the result back to the cause. If one is to actually learn something about what makes science fair champs, one needs to look not just at champions, but all the non-champions as well. And when you do that, I suspect that you'll find thousands of candidates who have many or all of the distinguishing characteristics of the golden fifteen that Kuchment interviewed, save that they didn't win science fairs.

As human beings, we are all interested in achievement. Mark Zuckerberg becomes Time Magazine's Man of the Year because he was the brains behind Facebook. We idolize Steve Jobs because of the meteoric rise of Apple over the last decade. We like to read the stories of the rich and famous, because we hope that if we can just do what they did, that we could attain some small portion of the success that they have. But it is devilishly difficult to learn anything truly useful from the stories of the few, because we naturally don't hear the stories of the many who did all the same things, but didn't end up rich and famous.

No doubt that a lot of my current sensitivity to this kind of thinking is coming from the fact I'm currently reading Duncan Watt's Everything is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer. It's an excellent book, and tries to shake our confidence in the common-sense reasoning that we all seem to rely on when we look at the world around us.