How to Communicate on the Internet

Let’s say you want to communicate an idea X.

You would do well to simply say “X.”

Also acceptable is “X. Really, just X.”

A slightly riskier strategy, in cases where miscomprehension is especially likely, would be something like “X. This sounds a bit like A, and B, and C, but I’m not saying those. Honestly, just X.” Many people will inevitably start arguing against A, B, and C.

Under no circumstances should you say “You might think Y, but actually X.”

Equally bad, perhaps worse: “Y. Which reminds me of X, which is what I really want to say.”

For examples see the comment sections of the last couple of posts, or indeed any comment section anywhere on the internet.

It is possible these ideas may be of wider applicability in communication situations other than the internet.

(You may think this is just grumping but actually it is science!)

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23 Responses to How to Communicate on the Internet

  1. code_monkey_steve says:

    “X. Really, just X.”

    “Why do you hate Z?”

  2. keith says:

    Now I have to read the previous articles to see if they’re your crazy religious rants or if you have a point.

  3. With all due respect, the link by which your grumbles are to be associated with SCIENCE deals much less with science than with debating and marketing tactics.

    Granted, these tactics (e.g., less is more, improving typographic and grammatical readability, etc.) can be used as effective tools for increasing the efficiency by which the truth of an argument is reached. Effective communication is all about clarity and brevity.

    Yet it can happen that a true and important fact can be obscured by a fog of needless words. Just as it can happen that a masterfully launched marketing campaign can succeed even though its product is suicidal or otherwise false and malignant.

    Sifting truth from falseness, riches from garbage, on the internet is a perpetual challenge. One of the best strategies for success, I think, is to take as much of it as possible with a grain of salt and good humor. Is this not a sub-theme of Kaplan’s recent book?

    On the internet, as everywhere else (please forgive me for repeating): “There ain’t no sanity clause.”

  4. Richard Holmes says:

    You realize, of course, paragraphs 4–6 are examples of “You might think Y, but actually X.”

  5. QSA says:

    If I say X nobody believes me. But if you(Sean) say X then it must be ok , except for the antagonists!

  6. I agree but sometimes it is far easier to say than to do.

  7. James Cross says:

    Since you link to The Debunking Handbook by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, have you actually taken a look at some of Lewandowsky’s “science”?

    One of my favorites is the NASA Faked the Moon Landing one:

    Here is how the sample was selected:

    “Visitors to climate blogs voluntarily completed an online questionnaire between
    August and October 2010 (N = 1377). Links were posted on 8 blogs (with a pro-science
    science stance but with a diverse audience); a further 5 “skeptic” (or “skeptic”-leaning)
    blogs were approached but none posted the link.”

    OMG! A completely self-selected sample with no controls about whether the participants may have been “putting on” the pollers.

    When I saw this I thought it was either a joke or that Lewandowsky was actually studying something else, maybe about how rumors circulate and go viral on the Internet. Apparently it wasn’t either of those things.

    Whatever it was it wasn’t science.

  8. John Barrett says:

    For there to be any function of x, you need to introduce a y that is greater than any trolled aspect of any constants a, b, and c associated with x.

  9. Max Brown says:

    Anyone willing to enlighten me on when I should keep it simple and say “X” and when I should follow Derek Muller’s thesis and say “You might think Y, but actually X.”

  10. William says:

    By communicating “X” but obscuring “Y” , which may refute X, is unethical, a scientific “crime”. Is there realy any ethical behavior in science or just ego?

  11. Alistair Riddoch says:

    communication on the internet…

    it is more likely than not that the universe is entirely mechanical, and forceless.

    that the single component replicated endlessly is exactly and only this shape:

    that what we perceive as matter is in fact gaps in an othrwise completely full universe.


  12. Vijay Venkataraman says:

    Another corollary is “I’m not X, but Y” where Y essentially refutes X. Example, I’m not racist but I think the Irish drink too much.

  13. ganv says:

    The fundamental issue is that the world is actually very complicated but people (including me) only want (or can only comprehend) simple explanations. So you have to either oversimplify or overwhelm your audience. Sean argues we should oversimplify. That is probably the most immediately practical option, but in the end it doesn’t work because it turns the search for truth into a marketing game. And the truth rarely makes the best marketing message.

    We do have to acquiesce to the demands for simple myths, but we must also explain the whole complex situation as best we can. Most of all, we have to hold humans to a high standard of thinking about complex systems, because a civilization can’t long survive on the level of thinking typical on the internet.

  14. Sean
    If X is a perspective that promotes a three dimensional means or process that evolves up the ladder from the most fundamental beginning to the complexity of the cosmos and all in between then should this contrarian idea be allowed, ignored, or denied consideration no matter the source.
    If allowed how best to present such a thought?
    If ignored how best to raise awareness of such a thought?
    If denied how best to build awareness of such a thought?

  15. For the purpose of communicating an idea on the internet Sean Carroll apparently recognizes, supposes, uses, grants, and promotes the common ability of readers, as well as writers, to determine whether distinct instances of letters are

    – either referring to the same letter

    (e.g. in the instances
    > […] an idea X.
    > […] to simply say “X.”

    – or else referring to distinct letters

    (e.g. in the instances
    > […] an idea X.
    > “You might think Y, but […]”

    Really, just to comprehend the notions “same” vs. “distinct“.

  16. Jordan says:

    I’m not holding my breath for scientific accuracy in internet comment posts.

  17. Dave Greene says:

    I have seen the handbook before and it is great for discussions with confused but open minded folks who want a real answer. However, it seems useless against the committed conspiracy theorist as they seem to continually retreat into a “God of the Gaps” type mentality on climate denial, 9-11 false flags, fake moon landing, or etc. where any unexplained micro event, no matter how small or trivial, is proof in their mind against solid factual evidence.

  18. Harold says:

    Clearly, Sean is an X-ist parading around in the outlandish garb of a high priest of Y-ism. Y? you might ask. Because he cannot decide whether he is an X or C-ist, and because it is approaching that time of year when even adults do that kind of stuff.

  19. Skunk says:

    Substitute “foundations of quantum mechanics” for X, “nonlocality” for Y, “anthropic principle” for Z, and after following the discussions among physicists, you come to the conclusion that physics must be a pseudoscience. You see people arguing on the internet over various interpretations etc., but the language which they are using is imprecisely defined. Ono projects his own preconceptions on X and Y, another projects his own preconceptions on X and Y and although the preconceptions largely differ, they argue about who is right and who is wrong. I personally find the MWI interpretation of QM or multiverse interpretation of cosmology distasteful and fit for being shaved by the Occam’s razor, but others have different preconceptions.

  20. dmck says:

    Your “riskier strategy” is a classic, and happens in every part of science that I have dabbled in. In the worse cases, you will inevitably be castigated for believing something as obviously misguided as A, B, or C.

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