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The default position of HN is skepticism
69 points by Elite on Aug 24, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments
I've noticed recently that for almost every submission that hits the top page, the top-rated comment is a skeptical response to the thesis of the link content or the poster's argument.

Go ahead, pick any 5 of the front page posts right now and see if I'm right or not.

In general, this is a good thing as taking the skeptical position forces a minimum degree of critical thinking, which makes that comment more useful. And it's an excellent form of filtering out the large amount of BS we come across everyday.

But I certainly would like to see more top comments that agree with what the poster said, or expands on their argument.

(Eagerly awaiting the top comment to this post !!)

In my opinion, this is because there isn't a downvote button on stories.

Because there isn't a downvote button on stories, posting a comment that disagrees with the premise of the story has become the de facto "downvote" button.

It's easy karma to get, all you have to do is disagree with the sentiment of the post with barely more detail than "no, I disagree".

Then, when people come into the comments to argue that they don't agree, they see that there is already a comment that says essentially what they want to say so they upvote it.

The newest type of default comment that we're starting to see is the "disarming comment". On reddit this showed up as pun threads. I'm not sure exactly the form they will ultimately take here, but they're usually pretty highly rated as well. In any contentious thread there will be supporters by way of upvotes, detractors by way of the critical / skeptical comments, and people who attempt to make peace with comments that are either light-hearted or attempt to be conciliatory.

It's not just an HN thing though. Any community has these sorts of behaviors. It's just that there isn't a default way for someone to register their disagreement in the same numbers of ways there are for them to register their agreements; especially since comments that do nothing more than agree whole-heartedly with the submission and add nothing new to the conversation tend to stagnate or get downvoted.

I've found that the skeptical comments are a pleasant side effect of the lack of a down vote button.

HN seems to be a fairly scientifically minded community and, as such, wants proof to verify claims. The skeptical comments can be a good filter for the hype that seems to end up in all kinds of articles.

I've always thought HNers were one of the toughest audiences on the internet, and that's why I keep coming back. There are so many bright people who have the energy to research and verify claims, I stand a chance at getting to the truth.

I also know that this is a good community to discuss startup ideas and projects with, because I know I'll get a straight answer. Hopefully I can provide my own healthy dose of skepticism and constructive criticism to the mix.

Interesting perspective.

My only question is: you mentioned positive comments, negative comments and people who are conciliatory or funny. Apart from the trollish/provocative stuff that ends up downmodded, what have you left out?

Not sure if it's clear what I am asking. At first it seems like you pretty much included every possible comments. So I was wondering if you could be a little bit more specific. In particular what sort of comments do you _not_ see?

Good questions.

There are certainly many other types of comments here. There are many informative comments on most HN submissions, they usually carry a slight skew to either support or oppose the submission. There are comments that provide additional context to submissions – those usually do quite well.

The “tribes” metaphor fits pretty well with regards to online communities (including HN). HN as a whole values information, both factual and opinionated – as long as the facts have a solid foundation in reason.

Since the economy of this tribe is powered by knowledge, most of the comments that survive are related to determining the value of any given piece of information. An upvote on a story says that it’s worth something. A comment that disagrees says it’s worth less. There are plenty of comments from people trying to determine what the value of the information is from their perspective.

There are a growing number of meta-comments, especially on submissions of questionable relevance or quality. A comment that says “Hacker News?” calls into question how much the submitter actually belongs here. As with other tribes, a constant state of tribal / endemic warfare is present. Refugees are rarely well accepted into existing communities, HN is no different. The “Eternal September” problem is a nicer way of saying a place is being overrun by refugees. A common insult here is “this isn’t reddit”. On reddit, a common insult is “this isn’t Digg” and on Digg, “this isn’t Fark”. It’s not that there is a hierarchy of quality in a series of sites, comments like that exist to point out that someone’s comment (and by extension the commenter) don’t belong here. Pointing out someone’s “otherness” is a diversionary tactic that has existed long before the internet.

I do find a great deal of humor in the “this isn’t reddit” comments, because reddit has a pretty elegant solution to the fact that humans coalesce into tribes – subreddits. It’s significantly easier to recognize other commenters in a subreddit because there are fewer people to recognize. Many of the people that lament the state of HN often mean that they don’t recognize the people making the submissions and comments. I believe that it’s the state of like-mindedness that people are attracted to; not a state of unified agreement or disagreement on a topic. With a smaller set of contributors, the question of “what has value?” is much clearer, the community can then focus on the merit of any given contribution. As a community grows, the idea of what values are espoused by the community become much more murky and it becomes difficult to assess the worth of any given comment or submission.

This has become much more lengthy than I intended it to be; I suppose I could have just said “there are many types of comments on any site, the ones that tend to do well are the ones that help others accurately assess the value of the topic under discussion”. Of course, my point may have been missed if I had just said that ;)

How do I downvote this comment? You're disproving my argument ;)

You can't downvote direct replies, and icey's comment is a direct reply to your post. You should be able to downvote a grandchild, if you have sufficient karma.

It's not really disproving your argument, you said almost every submission.

Ha, your non-skeptical comment is on top. So there


I took your challenge. The top 5 posts, in order:

1. "There is no nanotech, stop talking about it and start laughing at it". Top comment: jacqquesm. Character: sceptical ("Nano machinery is real, it exists, it powers the world, it's called biology.")

2. How to minimize politics in your company. Top comment: abalashov. Character: critically supportive ("There are certain problems [...] that simply cannot be solved or mitigated entirely"; "A few points to add:")

3. Rapid prototyping as a burnout antidote. Top comment: riffer (but admittedly only 16 minutes ago). Character: supportive ("Yes, this really works...")

4. Apple seeking to patent spyware. Top comment: ubernostrum. Character: "sceptical" ("vicious lying stinking reeking bullshit FUD")

5. HTML5 presentation. Top comment: sofuture. Character: meta-sceptical ("I don't have a better answer, and I'm not even saying HTML5 is the wrong path, just pondering!")

That's 2 out of 5 which are basically in support of the article, 2 out of 5 which are sceptical of the article, and one (the HTML 5 presentation) which doesn't address the article so much as address a trend which the article exemplifies.

Given that giving a sceptical response is much easier than giving a vote-worthy non-sceptical response (the latter requires specific domain knowledge, the former doesn't, necessarily), I think that's a pretty good ratio.

Sorry for the sceptical response. :)

It's not just that giving a voteworthy supportive response requires domain knowledge — you also need something to add to the original article. I've seen lots of good articles on topics I know about, but usually I'll just upvote rather than comment because the original article did a fine job by itself. If I do comment, a lot of the time it will just be a minor clarification or tangential thought rather than something that merits a lot of upvotes.

Skepticism, on the other hand, is automatically something meaningful you can add.

1) I don't read HN for the stories, I read it for the insight the community brings to a topic. I will often upvote an article that I disagree with, but that still brings up interesting questions. Maybe others do this.

2) Sometimes there is just less to discuss when you agree with a submission, apart from adding your own piece of anecdotal evidence.

3) It's important to challenge ideas and to be able to call bullshit. People are good at that here.

> I will often upvote an article that I disagree with, but that still brings up interesting questions. Maybe others do this.

That's exactly what I like and hate about r/programming and r/netsec on reddit. People tends to upvote irrelevant submissions just to see insightful responses. But it's the exact kind of submission made those subreddits eternal septembered. Upbait is the new flamebait and trollbait.

The community values articulate cleverness, and sometimes folks optimize for this by trying to be more clever than the author of the article under discussion.

The easiest way to move community norms is to write the comments you want to see on the site. (I'm trying to be better at this myself.)

You know skepticism is a good thing, but too much of it makes people reluctant to learn and even share things. I just think that an argument is something no one wins. [edit: as arethuza pointed out what I am truly against is cynicism i.e. crab behavior. I know you're wrong because I know what's right and you can't be right because I know I am right. That is exactly the sort of thing that the world doesn't need]

So, whenever I think someone is wrong instead of just screaming it out on them like I used to and sometimes still do. I try to be nice and genuinely listen to what they have to say. If I realize that I'm indeed right I try to gently nudge the idea into their minds.

I am not that good at it right now, since old habits die hard, but someday...

I think your description of "too much skepticism" is really describing cynicism:


YMMV, but I often get more interested in a new topic by reading a skeptical comment. I remain skeptical about skeptical comments.

Skepticism is generally the rational position - unless the evidence contained in one article is overwhelmingly conclusive.

The whole idea of the Scientific Method is to not believe something until proven. Just flat out believing anything you are told without questioning it is what leads to flat-earth maps and golden chariots pulling the sun across the sky.

Right. And a skeptical discussion isn't necessarily a negative thing, or even indicative of disagreement. I certainly use a Socratic way of extracting deeper information, and this frequently comes across as disagreement or even being argumentative.

Not true currently. The top comment of two of the top five posts are supportive:

Rapid prototyping as burnout antidote, riffer: "Yes this really works"

Things I've Learned from Traveling Around the World for Three Years, acabal: "I can attest that everything in this article is true."

Irony prize: There is no nanotech, stop talking about it and start laughing at it, jacquesm: "For those that are skeptical about nano machinery, google 'ribosome' and be amazed." Skepticism about skepticism! Perhaps he counts double for the purposes of your argument :)

And right now 4 of the top 5 are positive! It'd be interesting what the proportion is in a bigger sample size over time, though.

I think it is generally a good thing as long as it's not skepticism for the sake of skepticism, without any substantial argument.

To illustrate this, I've often found myself totally agreeing with an article until I read a rebuttal from an HN comment which helped me put the article in perspective.

I have a theory as to why the default HN attitude is one of skepticism.

Here's a quote from an article from Philip Greenspun, who company's board (ArsDigita) was taken over by VCs:

....But for most of this year Chip, Peter, and Allen [the suits] didn't want to listen to me. They even developed a theory for why they didn't have to listen to me: I'd hurt their feelings by criticizing their performance and capabilities; self-esteem was the most important thing in running a business; ergo, because I was injuring their self-esteem it was better if they just turned a deaf ear. I'm not sure how much time these three guys had ever spent with engineers. Chuck Vest, the president of MIT, in a private communication to some faculty, once described MIT as "a no-praise zone". My first week as an electrical engineering and computer science graduate student I asked a professor for help with a problem. He talked to me for a bit and then said "You're having trouble with this problem because you don't know anything and you're not working very hard."


(I found this from a link in the footnotes of pg's essay "A Unified Theory of VC Suckage" http://paulgraham.com/venturecapital.html)

In many areas in the hard sciences, maths and engineering, when you are wrong, you are wrong. No discussion. Many on HN have a background in these areas, hence their skeptical attitude to things that are fuzzy or as yet unproven (such as in the marketplace). People here often seem to assume that whatever is being discussed in a given article is dubious (or bullshit as the case may be). I believe this is healthy. The opposite attitude leads to all sorts of problems.

seeing the world in black and white is typically reserved for teenagers. as we mature, we are able to understand more perspectives and see how numerous factors influence a problem, and how solutions can have complex and unexpected consequences. we tend to see bigger and bigger pictures. discussions becomes more than arguing over particular numbers; now they include the meanings of those numbers, and then the experience of the discussion itself matters.

Being critical and firm is fine, but being mean is unnecessary energy. If anything, we should encourage creativity and boldness. We should strive to be ourselves open and lead by example, as teammates not enemies.

I went to MIT. The cultural "no-praise" was both present, and yet seemingly lifting, if not in academia itself, then in the more mature "millenials" (!$!&@!(@!#(!) who seem to have more optimism, and thus more guts and less defensive reactions. In general the computer hacker culture has been broadening and is filled with a more inventive than argumentative mindset, which I think spirals positively on itself in terms of inclusiveness.

I've had the good fortune to have incredibly smart mentors*, who not only solve hard problems, but also lead by example on how it is possible to be a great engineer and socially fantastic.

So, to respecify the problem, if we could separate the skeptisism and interesting perspectives from reactionary negativity and meanness, that'd be hot.

I'm not sure skeptism or meanness is actually a problem---many have stated why skeptism tends to prevade the top and/or majority of comments---I just wanted to separate the problem domain into two distinct problems.

  But I certainly would like to see more top comments that agree with what
  the poster said, or expands on their argument.
There are plenty of those, but it's easy to mistake them for sceptical comments. Questions, side notes, alternate interpretations, etc. are expansions of an argument, into territory not covered by the original post. When someone starts a comment with 'However ...' or 'I mostly agree, but ...', the remainder of the comment is usually supportive, constructive and littered with tidbits that add to understanding of the point under discussion. However, simply due to the way the argument starts, we view it is 'criticism', because it sets itself up as countering the article, due to the use of an 'inverting' word/phrase, like 'however' or 'but'. There's probably a word for those words and this effect in English, but I don't know it.

People are more likely to post when they disagree with something because what is there to say when you are in full agreement? "Spot on! You rock!"? That kind of non-informative comment HN frowns upon.

Not that I disagree with you. :-)

I sometimes wonder if there are camps or cliques forming on HN. Sometimes the top voted stories are junk (sorry), and may have been submitted and voted up by Group A users. Group B users then voice their opinion of the submission in the comments, with the best of these negative comments getting voted up.

It would be interesting to see the data and trends behind submission upvoters and comment upvoters.

The default position seems to be we're supposed to applaud certain things automatically... anything YC-funded, any attempts to dislodge Flash using js/canvas games that are garbage by post-1980 standards, ridiculous stuff with CSS.

Some of the stuff and companies applauded on here are in my opinion really, really weak. There's no downvoting of submissions so you can only express dislike in a comment.

Unlike actual disagreement, mere dislike is not informative. Just saying that the post is not for HN will get you down-voted, and the guy who writes that you should just click on the stories you want to see on HN will get as many up votes.

Mere Dislike doesn't explain the top comments that disagree.

It could be that someone who doesn't like a story thinks about how he could disagree with it, and write the comment in the hope that it will stop the story to get up-voted. But that strikes me as a bit convoluted.


  Smart people can effectively criticize anything.
However, that doesn't mean their criticism isn't valuable. The world simply isn't simple and one can always add caveats that are worth realizing and knowing about. Actually, a lot of times these criticisms come from people that do have domain knowledge, which is why they feel qualified to make the comment. The fact that many more people can criticize something doesn't mean they will.

Secondly, I don't see a lot of 'trashing' happening here, so I'm not sure what your paragraph on 'people with a bug up their ass' is referring to. The top-voted critical comments are mostly good comments. Perhaps a purely additive comment should be ranked higher, but that doesn't make these critical comments bad.

If 1% of readers would 'trash' an article and that trash would get voted up, this place would not be worth reading. It is, so your numbers don't add up and the point doesn't hold.

> In general, this is a good thing as taking the skeptical position forces a minimum degree of critical thinking, which makes that comment more useful.

One thing I've noticed is that comments which basically start off with "Bullshit" followed by a heated, not obviously wrong rebuttal tend to get a lot of upvotes.[1] And it can still accumulate upvotes even after another comment has shown that rebuttal to be wrong, and not even wrong in a good way.

Default skepticism is a good thing, but I think we're overly susceptible to assuming that anything resembling a righteous debunking from another HNer is right.

The other thing I've noticed is that if a submitted article isn't popular with some faction, but seriously damaging criticisms have not been forthcoming, then a comment demonstrating that a non-critical claim is wrong, or merely uncertain, will tend to get highly upvoted and treated as if it justified dismissing the whole article.

[1] Recent example: back in the New App Rejection Reason thread, the most downvoted top-level comment initially had 9+ karma, and had the structure I just described. Thankfully, more thoughtful people showed how it didn't make any sense, and it quickly got downvoted into oblivion. But a good number of people got fooled.

My impression is that HN readers write more intelligent and critical comments than other places.

I gave up on Slashdot back in 1999 because, back then, I was somewhat aware of what was to be biggest drop event for domain names in history. A certain story was a link to a clueless article about the topic, and the comments were dominated by people who knew nothing but sounded authoritative, so they were getting their comments voted up.

Then I thought about it and realized that the information I had was commercially valuable, why the hell would I share it with a bunch of people who couldn't tell right information from wrong information.

The drop event came, our detection system worked, and we grabbed 6000 names that we wanted before anybody else.

I think it goes along with having a mostly technical / programmer audience. It reminds me of a saying (not sure origin):

"When crossing a one-way street, a normal person looks one way. A good programmer will look both ways. A good tester also looks up."

Something I noticed quite some time ago is that any sufficiently long comment thread on HN will converge on a semantic argument.

I must say that I love it this way. I see a headline that seems interesting, and there's a discussion, I read the skeptic first comment before all else, because it usually states quite clearly what the author of that headline is trying to sell. It's Anti-PR. I find this useful in more than one way.

I think part of it is just the nature of what gets posted here. One could make the argument that articles favor sensationalism for the purpose of link-bait (or a less cynical argument might be that they subconsciously favor sensationalism to stand out from the crowd), but if a large portion of "news" is inherently inflammatory/hyperbolic, then I think a skeptical response is both warranted and natural.

Also, a lot of articles that get posted here are technical blog entries whereby someone makes a pronouncement on the positive or negative effects of some technology/methodology. These are fundamentally opinions, and will immediately garner a response from someone who holds a differing opinion.

I'd wager this doesn't happen though on things which are truly laid out in front of us as a great idea/ argument/ event that has no perceivable flaw or downside. I think it is healthy to be sceptical by default though otherwise you end up with close enough is good enough. Things that actually need work/ refining are given unreserved praise and that discourages future pieces on the idea.

Interestingly enough if you go onto search yc and check the top submissions ever by karma most of the top comments are what you are looking for more of. The difference there are that some of those posts are defiantly great and don't warrant that level of skepticism.

My gut feeling (and this is completely not scientific) is that Hacker News tends to have a large percentage of people who are contrarian... which kind of makes some sense since if you were just following the crowd then you'd probably not be on HN, or possibly not even a hacker.

But the end result is that people take a lot more pleasure in showing that they can debunk or argument against something. Saying: "I totally agree" may feel a bit like you are following someone else's thought, and most people here take pride in thinking differently.

I also think patio (HN values cleverness) is another important factor.

I think HN proves that skepticism + optimism = entrepreneurism! Skepticism in using critical thinking to question everything, including the standard way of doing things. Skepticism leads to new insights in improving the way things are done (wrongly or rightly). Optimism kicks in and the HN'er runs off to build the new tool that will facilitate this new insight.

Alas, entrepreneurism!

I believe the term "skepticism" is, many times, just a curtain to hide plain and simple ideological bias.

But this is not exclusive to HN. Reddit is the same, although in a more leftist way, while HN has more conservatives. But it is funny how each place has its own paranoia and conspiracy theories.

My default view on anything is skepticism. I imagine that most HNers, being critical and logical thinkers, have similar positions. The abundance of skeptical posts makes sense to me.

I always thought a healthy dose of skepticism was considered a good thing. We can't always take what we read at face value.

It's going to be skepticism, of course.

When someone comes up with a new idea, it's up to them to present it. If they fail to, only skepticism will result. If they do well, there will initially only be skepticism and a few people who 'believe'. 'Belief' is not scientific. You have to wait a while for confirmations to come in, and a fast-moving news site like HN is going to drop the story before confirmation has had time to happen.

That's just life.

The highest rated reply to this comment will disagree with what I've written here.

I disagree.

I just looked at the top three articles and the top comments are all positive.

Hear hear!

Prove it

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