The blogosphere held no fascination for me before my involvement with I had checked into a few blogs, and found some capturing attention, allowing exploration of ideas and personal views in greater scope than allowed for in scientific papers. But many seemed not to expand discussion after an original post.  When the blogger would describe some series of events or ideas, there would follow a series of pro and con short commentaries, whose authors seemed to enjoy sniping at irrelevant issues. The emotional level rose with each series of exchanges. One had to search for pages with comments that expanded knowledge, and were not just argumentative.Some commenters took off on small details in the original.. Then ensued a series of yes I did – no I didn‘t, you said – I said, you said – I meant, you‘re a blank – you’re a worse blank, and on, as readers know.

I wrote an article or two for an online ‘zine, and the format allowed for extended exchanges, like the blogs. Comments followed a similar pattern. They continued for 2 weeks. Same thing happened when I critiqued traditional Chinese medicine, implausible claims, ethics of “CAM” in editorials in an online journal. Questions there were screened by editors, but I filled more space  elaborating answers than I was allowed by the word limit to the original articles. I noted that even news items in online news sources were followed by series of comments, challenges, counterchallenges and on they went, often getting uncomfortably personal. Lost in some of this was the meat of the original article as small point after smaller point appeared.

All this is old stuff to most of you readers, but to me, it was new. And I wondered not only about the format and policies that allowed ongoing sniping, but had to look at my own reactions, often surging in the same direction of telling people off. I keep telling myself not to answer snipes, but the temptation sometimes wins. Too much chance to show cleverness and to enjoy that basic, innate joy of putting it to someone who wrote something that really ticked me off.

I also wonder about people who do not write original material but who find blogs, listservs, zines, and Net news services and then criticize and rail against whatever tweaks them that day. The pattern reminded me of snipers in combat Snipers are dispersed along lines of enemy advance to harass and kill without hope of immediate tactical advantage. Sniping is almost senseless killing except that it serves a strategic purpose. It instills fear and doubt in the minds of the enemy. One of my nephews, a marine lead man in Viet Nam was victim of one.

I cannot forget a weekly magazine photo essay during the height of the Bosnia-Herzogovena war. It featured a young mother, holed up in a second or third floor apartment with a months-old baby in a crib, and a window view to a no-man’s land area. Beside her was a high powered rifle with a scope sight pointed toward the road. The caption described her as taking shots at whoever might cross the road, collecting a bounty for every body she could drop. I don’t recall her body count, but neither age nor sex, civilian or uniform, religion or nationality mattered. Nor was there identified who paid. Sniping was apparently her means of support. Chilling.

Snipers are necessary cogs in the function of radical politics, in which tearing down of the social order is a prelude to victory by revolution or evolution. Some of the sniping on this and other blogs reminds me of revolutionary tactics, directed strategically against the structure of science and reason.

Quackery sympathizers use sniping commentary to insert irrational material into the medical system and to attempt to induce distrust of medical science. Another object is to draw authors and others into unproductive counter-sniping, hoping for challengable material, which they perhaps could use elsewhere. Readers will understand not answering irrational snipers routinely.

Snipers with no expertise or productive intent do not add usable information to a discussion, but their comments can be useful for teaching purposes – recognizing their behavior patterns, and as examples differentiating substantive material from the insubstantial.

Nevertheless, as for reading snipers and answering them, despite their tempting bait, except for using them as an object of sociological study, I’d rather go swimming.

Posted by Wallace Sampson

Retired hematologist/oncologist, presumptive analyzer of ideological and fraudulent medical claims, claimant to being founding editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, and to detecting quackery by smell.