What sort of conversation do you get on The Conversation?

Another of my resolutions for the New Year was to get rid of unwanted  regular emails. It’s not as easy as you might think. I’ve tried blocking, and that works, to a degree, for anything generated in Australia. But those from overseas are immune. I looked at sites I’ve subscribed to, such as purveyors of goods of various kinds, like clothes. It seems that if you buy something you are offered a goody if you subscribe, and one does. But I’ve got rid of most of those, too.

And that leaves The Conversation, which claims 2 million unique hits a month, and seems to be funded largely by universities. I’ve complained about its bias before (here, and here, for example). Its published ‘community standards’ are fine:

We want The Conversation to be a place for intelligent discussion. By posting, you’ll be contributing to independent, fact-based debate. We want the discussion of an article to be, if anything, more illuminating than the original article and we need your help to do that. Follow these guidelines to help keep things on track.

In brief

Don’t attack people and don’t respond to attacks – report them and move on
Keep your posts on topic and constructive
Take responsibility for the quality of the conversations you take part in
Above all, respect others and their opinions.

Who could object to that? Certainly not me. But to go past the essays and enter the Comments section is to encounter a much more savage world. Moderators do remove comments, but many of those that are retained fall well below the standard set out above. More about the comments in a moment.

I decided that I ought to subject The Conversation to a real analysis, which took far more time than I had expected. I chose two days in February a week apart, and read every essay and every comment. The essays fall into a small number of discrete groups. There are pieces of reportage, such as those by Michelle Grattan, still one of Australia’s best journalists. She sets out what has happened, who has said what, and what the implications might be.

Then there are essays of explanation — what happened in the first billion years of the universe, who is responsible for deaths at sea. Then there are pieces of analysis, like the extent to which student loans will be repaid, or how the Chinese New Year affects the Chinese economy. And then there are arguments with a tendency, on women and violence, on state violence, or on plagiarism. Finally, there are opinion pieces. All of them are written by academics of one kind or another, or by the editors of the Conversation themselves.

It’s an eclectic mix, and the quality varies a great deal. If you are a seeker after general knowledge, and I’m one, there’s usually something that will cause you to stop and read. There is a general bias in those essays that are not analysis, explanation or reportage (and it is there in some of these, too), which is that the world needs improvement, and the essayist has the answer. Since most of the proposed improvements seem to require government action, the bias is what is generally referred to as ‘Left’.

It needs to be remembered that the general bias of all the social sciences is that greater knowledge ought to lead to improvement of humanity, and that is true for the natural sciences, too, if not directly. A good deal of economics points to the need for personal improvement, in the better maximisation of one’s utility, but a good deal of it, in macroeconomics, is also about how the economy works, and what governments ought to do about it.

I’ve been reading essays in The Conversation for a few years now, and it is rare to find anyone writing pieces that say that things are better than they used to be, or that poverty is declining, or that, all things considered, humanity is doing well. Since I think that there is evidence to support such points of view, it puzzles me a little that I see so few essays of that persuasion. Perhaps it is that no one in the academy sees things that way, or that the editors don’t want such pieces, or that people who feel that way don’t publish in The Conversation. I once tried to get published a piece on ‘climate change’, and was told that I was not an expert. It has to be said that many of those who write for the website are only mildly expert in what they write about.

But it is the Comments that really put me off. By and large, there are few comments for the explanatory essays. The bulk come on what I would call the ‘social  good’ essays — child abuse, ‘climate change’, metadata, violence on women, and the like — and the prevailing tone is angry, scornful, personal and anti-government. Mr Abbott is a perpetual target, and in vituperative terms.

Not only that, it seems that the Comments are dominated by a few commenters who must spend much of their life commenting on the day’s offerings. There were 339 comments about a lead article on whether or not there had been fiddling with temperature data. Of those, 144 were provided by 7 commenters, and in fact there were only 59 separate commenters in all. In vain do thoughtful people try to contribute to the desired independent, fact-based debate. The bulldogs growl them down, one of them (at this particular essay) adding, I would prefer that deniers were banned from the conversation now.

One dogged contributor finally gave up, saying, in part, this is not a conversation but a bunch of people who wallow in their collegial condemnation of Tony Abbott and his government. I cannot see any productive outcome except that we might delude ourselves into thinking that everyone thinks like that.

Another, shaking his head at the comments following a sensible and temperate piece of reporting by Michelle Grattan, wrote, …if all I read was The Conversation I’d become convinced that everyone hates this fellow called Abbott, everything mentioned by him is totally fake, and that explains everything about all worldly events.

People like these two have a go, and then leave, making the Comments even more one-sided. I don’t know whether or not the editors (and there are quite a few of them) worry about the bias that is there. It is reminiscent of the bias in the ABC, which is part caused by people convinced that they are wise, rational, good-hearted and sensible, which means they can’t be wrong, and that their opinions are the right ones for everyone else to have.

Anyway, I have decided that I’ve given The Conversation a decent run and, apart from sending a copy of this essay to the editors and the Board, I too will leave The Conversation. I’ll even send a copy of this essay to a vice-chancellor I know…


Join the discussion 22 Comments

  • Alan Gould says:

    I enjoyed this post, Don, and agree about how surprising it is that commentary noting the amelioration of life’s circumstances is so sparse. I have often noted this with respect to book reviews, how thin or bland seem to be the resources reviewers have to vitalise positive response to a book. In my own practice as a reviewer, I reckon I need to put more wit, more searching, into bringing a positive response alive than I do where I wish to be scathing. wonder if human brains have a natural tilt toward the negative/defensive, and therefore better developed resources in expressing that, id and ego outnumbering superego in the playground.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Yes, there is a good deal in that, I think! And we don’t want to be seen just as a supporter, so even in a supportive review we try to find a criticism or two…

  • 750.organism says:

    I admire your persistence to have stuck it for so long.

    I scrubbed it not long after it first started and apart from dipping in to an occasional essay when it has been suggested by a blogger I cannot be bothered to go there.

    I’d rather see a website devoted to “The Argument” rather than “The Conversation”.

  • David says:

    “I once tried to get published a piece on ‘climate change’, and was told that I was not an expert.”

    You are obviously interested in the topic why don’t you put the effort in and become an expert.?

    • dlb says:

      What do you mean David? Don is an expert commentator on this subject. You don’t have to practice or preach in a particular field to offer critical insights. For example Michelle Grattan has never been a politician, Jim Maxwell has never placed test cricket, and Margret Throsby has never played classical music. I could go on with other examples but Don is well suited to critique this field.

      • David says:

        Commentators like Maxwell, Gratton and Throbbers are measured and balanced. Sure they share the odd opinion but they don’t devote them selves to pushing a position.They describe the cricket, politics or music.

        Maxwell does not relentlessly tell the world that Clarke can not bat, or Gratton that Abbott is a good PM. Nor does Throbbers tell us that Mozart cant play.

        Don is not like them. He pushes his position, hard. I cant think of one article Don has written in the last 18 which has been positive about a piece of “pro” AGW research. Certainly his overwhelming position is anti-AGW.

        Lets put it this way if you met someone who knew nothing about the AGW debate. You could not in all honesty just send them along to Don, thinking they will leave with a balanced view on the topic. But you could send them along to Maxwell,Gratton and Throbbers to get a pretty balanced view on cricket politics and music.

        • dlb says:

          I dunno David, I think Don would have much the same balanced view as me 🙂 I would certainly tell them CO2 is a greenhouse gas, its increase in the atmosphere is largely due to burning of fossil fuels and all things being equal the doubling of it would increase the global temperature by about 1C. Its all the other alarmist nonsense that I take issue with.

          • Radical Rodent says:

            Several flaws in your argument, there, dlb: is the increasing CO2 largely due to burning fossils fuels? Figures I have seen attribute about 5% of the increase to that; what causes the rest? Will the doubling of CO2 raise the global temperature by 1°C (i.e. the ECS is 1), all being equal or not? While raised CO2 concentrations can be made to show an increase in temperature in the laboratory, I have seen many times when it hasn’t; also, will that be so in the rather less controlled environment outside the lab? I have seen many persuasive arguments that the entire greenhouse effect is actually bunkum, and a lot of my own observations support them.

            I agree with you about the alarmist nonsense, though.

          • Hugh says:

            Figures I have seen attribute about 5% of the increase to that; what causes the rest?

            I have also seen wildly small numbers claimed based on total misunderstanding on how the balance with seas and vegetation works.

            Unfortunately, this subject appears not to be linked to wikipedia and ipcc’s papers are pdf, not readable by me.

          • donaitkin says:

            I think you have placed this comment in the wrong thread…


    • Don Aitkin says:


      You might (or might not!) agree that the whole domain of ‘climate change’ is highly political, and I am surely qualified to comment on those aspects of it. Not only that, I spent 25 years or so assessing applications from all fields of research, including medicine. One needs to remember that Ministers are not usually expert in the areas they administer, and if, for example, only medically qualified people assess projects in the medical area, you will not have a wide range of opinions and judgments. My judgment was rarely decisive, but I learned how to assess, to ask the right questions, and to provide the right kinds of arguments to back up my assessments.

      With all due modesty, I feel that I can comment sensibly on most of what passes for ‘climate science’. Again, my judgment ought not to be decisive, but it will always be, I hope, soundly based. As the Popper quote says on my masthead, we only get anywhere by disagreeing . That’s why I am truly scornful of the attempt to argue that there is a consensus and it ought to be listened to with respect. And yes, I know about doctors and advising me on cancer. Indeed, I’ve been through that.

      • David says:

        My question still stands. Why not? I am not saying you should not comment or that I do not find what you have to say interesting. I obviously read what you have to say. But why not put the effort in and drill down into the detail of the science the statistics. Learn new things, etc

        There is no reason why you could not.

        • David says:

          “My judgment was rarely decisive”

          Don, I do like you, but you do come across as very decisive. 🙂

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Maybe so. The quote you cite points to the way in which judgments and recommendations are made at the end. There will be a small group, with someone in the chair. The members of the group have all read all the stuff, and all made their separate assessments. Now it is discussion time, and the group searches for a common position. Often the chair summarises. Sometimes one member argues in a way that captures support. In these situations my judgment was rarely decisive, but it was a few times, and I remember them clearly — and why.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          I ‘drill down’ every day by reading papers, either abstracts, like this one yesterday


          or this whole paper


          People send the links to me, or I come across the reference through other reading. I learn something new by doing so. I’m not really interested in becoming an expert on one or other small section of what is a giant field. I’m a generalist, and there aren’t all that many of us!

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      Hi David
      Please tell me, what do you think qualifies someone to be an expert? This is not about how it is one might be considered an expert by others – just in your personal view, what does one need to have demonstrated, to be considered by you to be an expert?

  • margaret says:

    I sometimes read the education articles in the Conversation. I’ve commented occasionally but often, the ‘conversations’ that should be sparked by an article (on literacy for example) quickly become a battleground in the comments section between academics who research the topic.

    It’s off-putting and not illuminating – much like the war being waged between climate change believers and deniers.

  • Gary in Erko says:

    “if all I read was The Conversation [etc]” … I’m pretty sure this was my comment. Thank you for noticing it.

  • giordano bruno says:

    The conversation is not exactly a good example of democracy or science. Climate extremists intimidate the opponents that as in every dictatorship are not authorised to reply. The tax payers moneys should be used in a different way than supporting the elite of Australian self appointed world scientific leader in the lack of any chance of climate change.

  • Michael 2 says:

    The best place ever for unmoderated, nobody-can-shut-your-mouth expression was the ALT newsgroups. It was also a cesspool at times but easy enough to block the trolls and carry on a lively conversation where points of view had to be defended on their merits rather than just banning you from their blog.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    I visited this website, curious as to John Cook’s response to Malcolm Roberts. He unashamedly promoted his ‘university course’ on climate denial, but failed completely to address any of the major points of contention. I took this to task, and in response to a claim of his expertise, pointed out that the Skeptical Science website was run by climate activists, and that Cook’s expertise, if he had any scientific reputation at all, was in Psychology, not in climate science. My posts were deleted, and I was subsequently banned from the site.

    That’s academic rigour, on an academic website, as supported by most of our major universities.

    • spangled drongo says:

      Bryan, I too have been banned from there. They only want comments that pander to the lefty, progressive philosophy and those comments often are quite biased and rude towards any other POV.

      Alarmists like Cook, Lewandowsky, Hoegh-Guldberg et al, rule the roost at The Con.

      As with “our” ABC, it is worrying to see such bias in a public funded organisation.

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