Unsophisticated people read an article like this and think: Gosh, I better eat honey for breakfast! People a little more sophisticated think: Hey, this is anecdotal evidence! Yeah, we know that. But is that the most interesting thing one can say about this article? Is it not at least a source of ideas for things to investigate further?
The problem with the middlebrow dismissal is that it's a magnet for upvotes. The "U R a fag"s get downvoted and end up at the bottom of the page where they cause little trouble. But this sort of comment rises to the top. Things have now gotten to the stage where I flinch slightly as I click on the "comments" link, bracing myself for the dismissive comment I know will be waiting for me at the top of the page.
Very likely one could find plenty of more interesting things to say about those articles. One can find interesting things to say about anything. But if an article is about an attention-grabbing subject, is superficially plausible, but is just plain unsound in the sort of way the grandparent of this comment is alleging, the "middlebrow dismissal" -- predictable as it is for the cognoscenti -- may still be the most useful thing there is to say about it, and a comment thread that didn't have "please note, this is probably wrong in the usual way" near the top of it would be a bad and misleading one.
If HN is worse off for being full of middlebrow dismissals, the real problem may not be the middlebrow dismissals but the articles that provoke them.
You don't get many points for interesting. You get points for cynicism and negativity.
What the HN discussion deserves, though, is different. We as a community can do much better than that. We do, sometimes. We can more often.
Perhaps a challenge for anyone who feels that an article really must have a middlebrow dismissal---
Limit your dismissal to a few sentences, then follow on with a paragraph or two of thinking that goes beyond the dismissal into areas of thought sparked by the subject of the article. What bigger picture might it factor into? What underlying phenomenon may be behind it? What additional understanding can it add for us as a community?
I certainly won't try to speak for pg, but one thing to keep in mind is that this is a good way to approach topics if you're trying to come up with new ideas that have big potential. Merely pointing out the existing problems is the first step. Take the next few as well.
cargo cult skepticism.
edit: ~10 previous results on Google. :-/
http://www.smartercarter.com/Essays/Thinking%20as%20a%20Hobb... It's "Grade-two thinking".
cargo cult skepticism is to skepticism like cargo cult science is to science. (Which is to say: it isn't)
Removing karma entirely might help. Too many people treat it as a vanity metric, and game it.
As a poster I am often surprised by what gets upvoted. Everyone surely can see this: negativity is rewarded. It only reinforces in my mind that "karma" means little anymore.
You can get karma just by being dismissive. Look at the tone of some of the posters who consistently jump into the top spot, thanks to their "karma". I get tired of seeing those same monikers over and over^1; the comments are often rubbish. No matter how articulate and cogent their commetns may have been in the past, no one is 100% consistent; we should not have to read _everything_ they say. But it doesn't matter if they are on the mark from day to day because they get a top spot no matter what they contribute, based on accumulated karma. You are forced to read what they've said, no matter how silly it is.
1. Unless you need to contact someone, I find usernames and profiles to be about as useful as karma (=not very), but I doubt many others would share my view. My interest is in quality comments that offer useful information, not "reputations". People with great "reputations" often make some very dumb comments. Judging the quality of a comment by the author's username instead of its content is a fool's game. It's also a basis for the HN algorithm.
So what other viewpoints are there?
How do you propose to do this while avoiding empirical evidence?
OK, I don't think we're using 'empirical' in the same way, then. 'Empirical', the way I've always seen it used, just means 'evidence-based' or, more verbosely, 'based on observed facts and not purely theory or philosophy'.
In particle physics, the fine structure constant is an empirical constant: We don't know how to derive it from any theory that doesn't include it already; if we want to have the correct value for the fine structure constant in a theory, we have to explicitly put in the value we know from experiment, that is, the value we derive empirically. Compare this to the value of the acceleration due to gravity between two objects of known mass: We can compute this value, derive it from a theory, called the theory of universal gravitation. We don't have to physically construct an apparatus and perform an experiment every time.
Frankly, it seems that you're tired of people being dismissive based on an imperfect knowledge of a set of specific formal and informal fallacies they came across once.
"Empirically" there is something interesting on that island. I'd love to hear ideas of what it could be, along with ways to test those ideas. The former without the latter is how snake-oil gets sold, but shutting down all conversation because snake-oil could be sold doesn't move us forward.
It's amusing that people are so worried about being correct (and others being correct) on the Internet. Insisting on only talking about empirically measurable things is not a fail-safe way to raise the S/N ratio of a site; it just dulls the topics to those we already know well.
Meanwhile, it potentially rules out threads on things that we're still trying to discover the inner workings of: nutrition, aging, sleep, and many others. Those topics are extremely interesting because they can veer into uncharted intellectual territory. And we may only have anecdotes to go on. Quelle horreur!
And we find out where to look based on empirical evidence most of the time.
> shutting down all conversation because snake-oil could be sold
This has nothing to do with empirical evidence.
-- This is most often not true.
Conscious thought is terribly inefficient. Most 'looking' is instinctive, or intuitive. That's not to say it has not been educated or modified by empirical data at some stage. But this illusion of such hyper-rationality is worth avoiding.
What is interesting (sometimes) is to hear other people's intuition and prioritization as the evaluate what to look for. This is typically what seperates out class in real world performance. This can be considered "framing" done loosely. when, why and where people create a box (in which to think, in the manner you are suggesting above).
To the parent's point, it's often times boring to disregard an interesting framing (out of hand) because of a technical flaw. Similarly, there is endless boredom to be had reading articles with reasoned logic in flawed or boring frames (ie, those which exclude or impugn the interesting bits).
We see this alot in the media, now, because its part of the PR spin game. The formula is to put bounds around the problem that suit your desired result. Journalists also often due this due to ignorance of a technical subject matter. We also see this as part of the fairness doctrine -- every story needs 'two sides' so a (often false) dichotomey is cookie cutter textbook inserted into every 'analysis'. ect.
2 years ago, many HNers were predicting that HN's growth would inevitably turn it into yet another Reddit or 4chan. Instead, the consistent top comment is what you call the "middlebrow dismissal". Really, that's not so bad, compared to the top comment on $ANY_OTHER_SITE,_REALLY. Just scroll down to the next!
(that said, I found your complaint insightful: in fact, I realise now that I've been guilty of the odd middlebrow dismissal myself)
This isn't as bad as you think it is. This kind of dismissal is a bit like adolescence; you engage in it as a part of mental growth. Every strong thinker has gone through it at some point, and probably regresses to it with some frequency. You hopefully grow past it, but you do go through it.
Do you have some data that we could use to play with? That sounds like a nice problem to solve.
If anyone wants to try to train a filter to detect this sort of comment, I'd be very interested to see the result.
To any that have experience getting comments data from HN -- what's the fastest, most polite way to do this? And am I correct in remembering that there's some aggressive rate-limiting for crawling the site?
(That might introduce a confounding factor, though--namely that by alleviating people's urge to downvote the article by giving them a [nonfunctional] button to do just that, people might stop upvoting the dismissive comments. Hmm....)
Wouldn't that require real AI though? I thought for a minute that NLP (Natural Language Processing, not the other meaning(s) of the acronym) might help, but then thought that it may not work for cases where the comment is quoting another comment. Note: I'm not at all an expert in any of those fields, just interested.
You could probably find a way to mark negative and positive comments. Whether the resulting algorithm would be fine-grained enough to semi-reliably mark 'middlebrow dismissal,' I really don't know. Actually, as somebody who has worked on that stuff in the past, I don't think it would be very easy.
Agreed I don't think it would be an easy task, but I wonder how would perform a "bag of word" approach.
Harder part as I see it would be to categorize the comments on middlebrow dismissal / Not dismissal. It seems like we would be spending more time preparing the data than in the algorithm itself.
The hardest part is always getting the data into usable form. Its not as much fun as fitting models, but its definitely the majority of any role where people pay you to do this kind of stuff.
There's a lot of good research on forums (pm me if you want a bibliography i collected for a previous role), and short texts have become a bigger deal post Twitter. I completely agree with pg on the somewhat annoying nature of comments such as the GP.
I did have worked with ML before but mostly with images which are (IMHO) way easier to put in a format depending on the problem.
The idea is to use past voting correlation with other users to sort the comments.
declare @userId int;
select @userId = UserId
where Username = 'pg';
/* Let's calculate expert table first. We will use it to rate comments later. */
sum(v1.Score * v2.Score) as VotingCorrelation
from CommentVotingLog v1
inner join CommentVotingLog v2
on v2.CommentId = v1.CommentId
where v1.UserId = @userId
group by v2.UserId;
/* Now we can rate comments against #expert table: */
(select sum(v.Score * e.VotingCorrelation)
from CommentVotingLog v
inner join #expert e
on e.UserId = v.UserId
where v.CommentId = c.CommentId
) as Rating
from Comment c
where c.ArticleId = 4692598 -- or another article that's discussed
order by Rating desc;
I also assume that CommentVotingLog table has at least one record for every comment -- the author of that comment gives Score = +1 to that comment.
These queries don't have "freshness" adjustment (older comments had higher change to get upvoted, so their rating should be somewhat downgraded).
So do I upvote because I learned something from his comment, or downvote because his tone degrades the quality of discourse on Hacker News? Clearly pg says "downvote", and I often do, but I'm always on the fence about it.
I've never understood the point behind anonymous voting.^1 What value does it add?
1. But some people, think of them what you will, have tried to use voting as a way to be more convincing when pandering to advertisers, e.g., Facebook "Likes".
Assuming we were the intelligent, high brow readers you would hope would be reading your forum, then wouldn't we be smart enough to see that voting adds nothing, except a source of amusement (as the silliest comments or those from random members with "high karma" rise to the top)? Intelligent people do not need a "karma system". They can take in all available information and separate the wheat from the chaf on their own. (No need for someone else, someone else's algorithm, to manipulate the order of comments.)
Of course, it doesn't need to be called "middlebrow dismissal" but there is nothing better for determining if something is or isn't middlebrow dismissal than users.
TBH, the flag link could be more powerful/useful by asking people to explain why they are flagging something. Later on you can release the categorized flagged post dataset for others to train an algorithm against. If someone is willing to spend the time to click on flag, they are demonstrating that they care about post/comment quality and that is itself a good indicator that they'd be willing to spend the time to tell you exactly why they are flagging something.
3 years ago, HN was great. Amazing in fact. What's changed in 3 years? Certainly not the system. The user base has changed, grown, degenerated into stereotypes and punch lines. There is an old saying that I believe succinctly explains what has happened: Garbage in, garbage out.
I keep seeing people writing about wanting to "improve HN." Every time I see this I think, are these people mad? It's dead Jim. He's been dead. We can all sit here and prod his body and make recommendations for how best to make his arm into a grappling hook or some such nonsense, but at the end of the day, the patient is STILL dead.
If there is one thing I would do to improve HN, it would be to write the death certificate and move on to finding or creating the next HN.
Also, I thought the article was excellent, albeit long.