# Am I right to be defensive?

I recently put an answer on the Matrioshka AI question. It's generated a fair amount of controversy and differing viewpoints. Essentially, I found that I needed more information than was reasonable to formulate my answer to be based on a futuristic simulator, so I answered based on the question's principles but using current simulation methods.

There have since been a number of comments which have the overall tone that my view is wrong. This has put me into defending my answer; I think it's reasonable that answers here have some difference of opinion (as TimB said on one of my other recent answers).

As I write, the last comment in the stream is mine. One user asked if I could claim to be an expert in simulations, but I felt the tone of his comment was, while not out there rude, a bit... off. I replied with this comment, which essentially says many answers have some opinion base and if he can't claim to be an expert either then there is no need to argue so violently.

So, am I right in defending myself and my view, or should I have handled this differently?

• Sorry if my question seemed rude, but my point in asking if you claimed expertise was not to attack you personally, it's just that if someone makes a claim about what physics simulations can and can't do, it seems to me the only reasonable basis others would believe their claim is A) they can offer some argument to support their view, or B) they can point to an expert who says so, or C) they are an expert themselves. Since you weren't offering A) or B) even after I had asked you twice what was the basis for your claim (you just repeated a variation on the same assertion), I asked about C). – Hypnosifl Jan 13 '15 at 17:58
• (continued) If you had just said something like "it's just my personal hunch" I would have just agreed to disagree, but your responses to my questions continued to just be matter-of-fact assertions that your statement was correct, while ignoring my requests for explaining the specific basis for it. – Hypnosifl Jan 13 '15 at 18:02
• @Hypnosifl I'm afraid I still disagree. While I don't have sources, I attempted to clarify in the comments that I am not an expert but have had a stab at explaining why I think it wouldn't work. – ArtOfCode Jan 13 '15 at 18:05
• Which of your comments do you think is explaining why you think it wouldn't work? "We couldn't simulate heat enough to fool sensors" does not seem to me to be explaining why, just repeating the assertion, and "I am sourcing this answer from modes of simulation and computing that we currently have available" just looks like an assertion that we should trust that you have broad-based knowledge of "modes of simulation" in physics, without telling us why these modes have difficulty simulating heat flow (as opposed to any other random physical property like elasticity). – Hypnosifl Jan 13 '15 at 18:09
• Maybe it would help to imagine some property where you think physics simulations can simulate it well enough that simulated sensors could be fooled, like elasticity. If someone claimed they couldn't and you asked them why they had said that, would you be satisfied by "We couldn't simulate elasticity enough to fool sensors" or "I am sourcing this answer from modes of simulation and computing that we currently have available"? Wouldn't those seem like non-answers to a question about why elasticity in particular can't currently be simulated? – Hypnosifl Jan 13 '15 at 18:12
• Gentlemen, might I suggest you take this to the chatroom? This is what it is there for. chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/17213/worldbuilders-general-chat – Danny Reagan Jan 13 '15 at 18:12
• @Danny Thank you - I'll head over – ArtOfCode Jan 13 '15 at 18:15
• I find it strangely amusing that a meta post about an argument in comments led to that same argument taking place in the comments of the meta post. – KSmarts Jan 13 '15 at 18:29

Some observations, coming in after the fact:

First, the conversation should have gone to chat way, way earlier. There are now enough comments that I can push a button and move the whole thing, which I will do in a bit (so you might want to quote from the comment you currently link to, as the link will break).

Second, online communication is hard, especially when any form of negative feedback or critique is involved. I think we all, authors and readers, need to take some extra care:

• When writing a comment, be aware that phrases like "do you claim to be an expert" may sound neutral to you (hey, you think you're asking about credentials), but words like "claim" carry an accusatory tone. Asking what someone's sources are is encouraged, but try to use the most neutral language that does the job. Sometimes a simple "could you say more about X?" does the job.

• As an author, I've found that expressing my own lack of knowledge can help with that: "I'm having trouble following your argument; could you spell out steps X and Y for me?" "I'm not familiar with that research; where can I learn more?"

• When reading a comment, try to assume the best intentions unless there's clear evidence otherwise. The Internet is a worldwide, multi-cultural environment and people have vastly different levels of knowledge, experience, and ability to express themselves. Try to assume that that negative-sounding comment wasn't really a slam on you and address the content without reacting to the tone.

• If there is clear evidence otherwise, that the comment is an attack or trying to start a fight, try not to engage. Remember that you can flag things, and particularly if somebody is being rude we want to know that. But please try to minimize the splash zone once you realize it's gotten to this point.

• When receiving a comment, please try to remember that someone may still have a valid point even if he's not an expert. Even a student can spot an error in a PhD thesis, and people can spot logical flaws in arguments even if they're not experts in the particular field.

• For everybody, remember that people will be wrong on the Internet, and if you've reached the point where you don't think you can (calmly) persuade the other of your view, all you can do is walk away.

Finally, some Stack-Exchange-specific reminders:

• Comments are not for discussions. If you put [chat] in your markdown that'll turn into a link to the main chat room; you can use that to try to move a discussion early, before the auto-prompt pops up.

• The primary tool for expressing agreement or disagreement is the vote.

• Isn't part of the value of comments to alert other readers to claims they should be skeptical of, particularly in discussions of scientific or technical matters? I didn't mean for "do you claim to be an expert" to be a personal attack, but I did mean to suggest that an answer like ArtOfCode's "I am sourcing this answer from modes of simulation and computing that we currently have available" isn't very trustworthy unless the person making the statement has broad-based knowledge of "modes of simulation" in physics, or is referencing others who do (I'd already asked for specific sources twice). – Hypnosifl Jan 13 '15 at 21:44
• @Hypnosifl sure, it's helpful to point out issues in an answer -- the more "neutrally" and succinctly the better. "Are you aware of so-and-so's research on this topic?" is something that any reader can easily follow up on, for instance. But what we don't want is an argument in the comments where the two of you go point-by-point through so-and-so's research. In the ideal world, after a critical comment the author updates the post to address the concern, either correcting mistakes or strengthening the answer to address in some way the issue in the comments. But sometimes people just disagree. – Monica Cellio Jan 13 '15 at 21:55
• Yes, that's reasonable. I did want to restate the question a few times to be sure ArtOfCode wasn't just misunderstanding what I was asking for, and as I said above after a few tries there was also the element of making the rhetorical point that claims like that aren't convincing unless supported by argument/expertise/reference to others with expertise, but probably my first few comments were enough for those purposes, and at least the last two were getting into "someone is wrong on the internet" territory. – Hypnosifl Jan 13 '15 at 22:22
• @Hypnosifl understood, and no worries. I'm going to move it all to a chat room now, so if the two of you want to discuss it more, please do so there. – Monica Cellio Jan 13 '15 at 22:26
• I love that xkcd comic...its utterly brilliant. Oh, and well written Monica. – James Jan 14 '15 at 15:13

I don't think the issue was handled very well by any of those involved, including, to some extent, me. The back-and-forth comments went well past the point where they should have gone to chat, for one. It seems that there was misunderstanding between the parties about the basis of the answer and the criticism, and since it was not easily clarified, it should have been moved to chat for better two-way communication.

In general, I agree with the content of the comments that you mention, but disagree with the tone. I think that you have some unfounded assumptions in your answer that need to be explained or justified, but the comments do seem to be a bit hostile, in particular, the implied accusation that you have no argument.

It is important to remember that StackExchange is supposed to be constructive. So, when leaving comments, one should avoid attacking the answer or question, or the one who posted it. As for you and your response, when you encounter comments that strike you as rude or hostile, you should assume that you are misinterpreting and that the commenter meant simply to point out room for improvement. Getting defensive is just responding to hostility with more hostility, which never really helps things. If it is inappropriate for someone to ask "are you an expert in modeling physics?" then it is also inappropriate to respond, "are you?"

• Thanks for your post. I'll have a look at the answer to see if I can clarify – ArtOfCode Jan 13 '15 at 18:31
• Doesn't constructive discussion include criticisms of statements one thinks are unjustified, particularly when it comes to real-world scientific or technical claims? My initial comment was phrased as just asking what the justification was. Also, why do you think my comments have an "implied accusation that you have no argument"? How would one go about making the point that someone hadn't presented any argument (as opposed to mere assertions), after repeated requests that they do so, in a way that couldn't be perceived as hostile or containing implicit accusations beyond what was said? – Hypnosifl Jan 13 '15 at 18:44
• We all get defensive...well I won't say all. I know I can get defensive when things don't go well for something I put time and effort into, it is a very natural response. Its difficult to fight that urge but yeah, its just the internet, if it starts making you mad its best just to walk away for a while. – James Jan 14 '15 at 15:15