Comment policy

SBM’s comment policy has historically been pretty loose. Moderation tended, for the most part, to be fairly light (almost nonexistent, even), at least compared to that of many other blogs. We (mostly) relied on our community of blog commenters to regulate themselves. As the blog grew in prominence and traffic, we found that we could no longer be as laissez-faire about moderating comments as we had been in the past, particularly compared to the early days of the blog. Even worse, since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we have endured a large influx of trolls and bots into the comment sections of some posts that have at times turned the discourse there into real disasters. Overall, recent changes in Google policies that penalize posts with unmoderated comments sections and, more importantly, the increased frequency and intensity of trolling since the pandemic hit us, have left us little choice to make significant changes and institute tighter moderation policies.

Because SBM remains committed to fostering an open and inclusive environment for everyone willing to civilly debate issues of science, medicine, and ethics, we are therefore attempting to make as clear as we can, given that there will always be some subjectivity in such judgments, which behaviors and comments will no longer be tolerated (as, unfortunately, some had been in the past), the better to encourage respectful discussion and debate. Even with these changes, the comment section here is still likely more lightly moderated than the vast majority of comment sections of blogs with traffic comparable to ours.

To begin with, there are three main exhortations we have for commenters:

  • Try to be reasonably civil. We’re talking the Golden Rule here. That being said, we realize that the subject matter of this blog will inevitably lead to some discussions that get heated. Try not to take it personally when they do, and try not to escalate. Better still, encourage deescalation whenever possible.
  • DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS (DNFTT). As tempting as it is to do sometimes, don’t respond to trolls. It’s what they want, and it’s how comment sections after posts degenerate into angry chaos. DNFTT.
  • No one has a “right” to comment here. Comments are permitted solely at the discretion of SBM editors and comment moderators. SBM is under no obligation even to host comments sections after posts, much less allow commenters to say whatever they want as often as they want.

These are behaviors and speech that, unfortunately, were too frequently tolerated in the past but now will no longer be permitted:

  • Harassment, hate speech, or threats of violence. Depending on the severity, this will virtually always result in an immediate and permanent ban with extreme prejudice (and without warning). Threats that are perceived as potentially credible (e.g., when the target thinks they’re credible) will be reported to the appropriate law enforcement authorities, along with relevant e-mail and IP addresses from our logs.
  • Racism, antisemitism, sexism, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQIA bigotry. Bigotry of any kind has no place here. If your comments exhibit any of the above, our moderator will take action. Again, there will likely be no warning.
  • Excessive insults and/or nastiness. In brief, if you are insulting and nasty enough that you really start to get on the nerves of SBM bloggers and regular commenters, that will be enough justification for our moderator to take action. Depending on the situation, there might or might not be a warning or warnings first.
  • Trolling. Trolls will be banned without warning. Our moderators and editors will be the judges of what behavior constitutes trolling.
  • Sock puppeting (commenting under more than one name or pseudonym). This is one offense that, when detected, will nearly always result in immediate banning from this blog with extreme prejudice without warning. It’s OK to use a pseudonym to comment. (We understand why some people use one. Dr. Gorski used one for a long time and still does, even though the true identity behind the pseudonym is one of the worst-kept secrets in medical social media.) It’s not OK to keep changing your pseudonym for the purpose of evading moderation or producing the illusion that multiple commenters agree with your point of view.
  • Repetitiveness. If you keep showing up repeating the same science-denying or conspiracy theory talking points over and over again, we might decide to ban you, with or without warning. Although to many they are not obviously science-denying or conspiracy theory-promoting in and of themselves, behaviors that also fall under this category include sealioning and JAQing off, even when the commenter is ostensibly very civil and polite-sounding. Such behaviors are disruptive, often intentionally so. We also recognize that there is a continuum between honest concerns and these sorts of behaviors, but in general we know them when we see them. (If you are banned for these behaviors and think it was a mistake, you can appeal to our moderator and Dr. Gorski. We are not perfect.)
  • Threadjacking. This is a behavior in which a commenter hijacks the comment thread to steer the discussion away from the topic at hand to an unrelated topic. The term “threadjacking” does not describe a thread that organically drifts into topics unrelated to the topic of the post, something that happens in a lot of comment threads, particularly long ones, where in general the longer a comment thread goes on the greater the chance of its drifting into unrelated areas becomes. We have no desire to stop such “drift,” as it is part of the nature of blog comment threads and can help build communities. Rather, threadjacking involves perseveration on the part of (usually) one commenter designed to actively hijack the thread to be dominated by the discussion of a different, unrelated topic. A threadjacking commenter will keep bringing up the same unrelated topic over and over again in an obvious effort to get everyone commenting about that topic, rather than about the topic of the post.

Behaviors that we do not ban:

  • Opinions. We do not ban commenters simply for their opinions.  We welcome the comments of those who disagree with others and even the general editorial opinions of SBM regulars. We ban people for behaviors (as listed above), not opinions. However, facts are not opinions, and making factual statements that are demonstrably wrong is considered spreading misinformation. If misinformation is persistent despite being corrected that can be grounds for banning. (See Repetitiveness above.)
  • Asking sincere questions. We encourage questions, even if they are misinformed. A sincere questioner engages with other commenters, will respond to feedback, correct errors, and support assertions with references.  Endlessly asking questions in order to spread FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) is not asking sincere questions (under Repetitiveness, see “sealioning” and “JAQing off” above).

Actions taken in response to violations of the above rules:

  • Warnings. We tend to use the “three strikes and you’re out” rule for minor offenses. The more severe the offense, the less likely we are to wait to hit three warnings before a ban will be issued. We also point out that you will not necessarily receive any warnings before being banned if we deem it the offense severe enough.
  • Temporary bans. These bans can range from brief (days) to long (months).
  • Permanent bans. This is self-explanatory.

Our intrepid moderator (backed up by Dr. Gorski and, if it gets so far as to require the input of our fearless leader Dr. Novella) will be the arbiter of what sorts of commenting and behavior constitute a violation of the rules listed above, and our tech support will help us identify sock puppeting through IP addresses and other means.