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Not quite "the" conversation

May 23, 2012

There is an Australian web site called The Conversation which has the stated aim:

The Conversation is an independent source of information, analysis and commentary from the university and research sector – written by acknowledged experts and delivered directly to the public. Our team of professional editors work with more than 2,900 academic authors to make this wealth of knowledge and expertise accessible to all.

Only academics or people associated with a research institute can write articles for the site, but anybody can comment on those articles. Quite often the articles attract a lot of attention and the comment stream can be come quite robust.

On a recent article about homeopathy, The legal challenge that could stop homeopathy in its tracks, at least three comments were deleted by the editors. (At the time of writing this it was shown as the second-most popular article on the site.) The message I received about my deleted comment was:

Dear Peter Bowditch,

Your comment on the article "The legal challenge that could stop homeopathy in its tracks " has been removed in line with our community standards.

For more information you can read our standards here:

The Conversation

You will notice that it did not specify which of my comments had been deleted (I had posted at least three on the same day). I didn't see the email immediately, and I found out about it when Meryl Dorey of the Australian Vaccination Network complained that one of her comments had been deleted. The editor had this to say:

Meryl, just to clarify – I deleted a comment from another contributor that breached our community standards. Yours was a response to this comment, so I removed it as well.

Mine was the comment to which she had responded. I asked the following question of the editor:

If that was my comment about the register of homeopaths which was deleted then I would like a clear explanation of how it breached any standards. Perhaps a polite email to people when deleting their comments might be a good policy.

If community standards here exclude permission to wish that charlatans be run out of town on a rail then maybe it's time to revisit the standards.

I received no response.

So what was this message I posted which was so outside academic community standards that it had to be censored?

One of the truisms of the web is that almost any discussion of homeopathy will bring out people who strongly defend the idiocy. (Ms Dorey is one of these, but that is coincidental to my story.) One indefatigable commenter is wackaloon Nancy Malik, and she turned up on cue. In fact, Nancy posted 47 comments in less than 8 hours. She is a busy fruitcake. In one of her comments she tried to demonstrate the legitimacy of homeopathy by telling everyone that there is an Australian register of homeopaths. That's where I apparently became so offensive that my comment had to be deleted. I didn't take a screen shot (I didn't expect the message to disappear). This is what I said:

I would like to see the register of homeopaths treated like the register of sex offenders, with people daubing graffiti on the scamsters' houses and driving them out of their neighbourhoods.

(And before you start - No, I don't approve of vigilante or lynch bob actions against sex offenders, I was making a rhetorical point.)

I don't see any rude words there, or even anything that could be offensive to anyone except homeopaths. Remember, this is a web site with pretensions to high standards of literacy and education across its readership. Perhaps I've become immune to offensiveness through running The Millenium Project for all these years and reading the comments on hundreds of blogs and web sites, but somehow I feel I have the right to be aggrieved about the deletion of my post.

When Ms Dorey's reply to my comment was deleted she receive the same meaningless email as I did. This prompted her to go into hyperbole mode and say:

As much as I am enjoying the discussion on this page, I will not be participating any longer. I have just received notification that one of my posts has been removed for not being 'in line with community standards'. When others here have been allowed to equate homeopaths with pedophiles and to attack the integrity and intention of people commenting here without any removal, it appears that the moderator or moderators of this page are treating commentators unequally and that is a real shame. Especially for a website that claims to support academic debate.

I have not attacked any person nor have my posts contained foul language or abusive words.

The hyperbole was the bit about "others here have been allowed to equate homeopaths with pedophiles". (Apart from that I could have written the message myself.) She was referring to my deleted post. This resulted in the third deleted comment (that we know about). A friend of mine, Peter Tierney, pointed out that it was somewhat hypocritical of Ms Dorey to make the paedophile comment when she had herself once been guilty of comparing vaccination to rape "with full penetration". Peter's comment was gone in almost no time at all.

So it seems that "The Conversation" cannot be trusted to be the full conversation. Perhaps they should change the definite article in the title to an indefinite one. They can get one of their academic contributors to explain what I mean by that, and its implications.

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