Skeptics Online


For about a year now I’ve been an active member on the Skeptics forum within the Stack Exchange (SE) network. Stack Exchange bills itself as “a fast-growing network of 114 question and answer sites on diverse topics from software programming to cooking to photography and gaming.” Many of my readers will be familiar with Stack Overflow, the site for professional and enthusiast programmers. Stack Overflow shows up frequently in search results about various software- and programming-related queries. The other sites in the network are less popular by several degrees of magnitude, but they also have more of a community feel. On Skeptics, the core group is small enough to recognize its members by name.

My purpose here is to describe this little corner of the Internet, both as an ethnographic exercise and as a moment of self-reflection. At the very least, I hope to capture a snapshot of the quickly evolving life of an online forum. All Stack Exchange sites look and work the same way, using the same underlying software service. The idea of question and answer forums has been around since the early pre-Internet days of bulletin boards: you visit, write a post that asks a question, and hope someone answers. SE improved on that model by seeking not just an answer, but the definitive answer. Where general forums encourage open-ended discussion, SE is set up to finish the conversation. In a perfect world, a question should have one succinct answer. That is what makes SE so popular. Where, on other forums, the answer is hidden in a long string of replies, SE prominently features the definitive answer on top of the pile of responses.

Like many other social web sites, SE is heavily “gamified.” Active users get points for good questions/answers and badges for various achievements (like answering a particularly old question, for example). A registered user is able to vote on the quality of the post (in a binary way, either up or down), adding to the total count of the author’s reputation points. The end effect is a system of social filtration. Poorly-received posts “sink” to the bottom of the pile. Quality content “floats” to the top.

Points and badges (which are the essence of gamification) can feel infantilizing sometimes, but in this case the achievements are tied to real editorial privileges. It takes roughly 125 points (at 10 points per upvote) to be able to downvote someone, for example. At 2,000 points, a member can start editing all questions and answers (and not just her own). The ability to vote to delete posts from the site entirely kicks in at 3,000 points. 20,000 points grant further editorial privileges. Interestingly enough, the community moderators are elected in an open election that does not require a reputation threshold. Of course most moderators (who can do things like change the look and feel of the site) tend to be long-time contributors to the community. This model of governance rewards stable identities and active, high-quality participation. (The quality part is an important piece here. Other reward systems encourage quantity over quality, which can result in the frequent appearance of repeated “meme” content. At SE, such posts would be voted down and some effort is taken to remove duplicate content).

The Skeptics forum has high evidential standards. Questions must present a notable claim—something that appears in popular media, for example. Similar to the Wikipedia policy, SE answers should not contain popular research, relying rather on peer-reviewed scholarship and other reputable sources. When the answer is good, other members of the community may ask for further clarification, better source material, or offer other editorial suggestions. And, although it is not required, the person asking the question is encouraged to accept the correct answer, which brings a few extra points to the answerer.

SE sites tend to cluster around communities of expertise, like programming, physics, photography, and English language usage. The Skeptics community differs slightly from these in that it is a forum for applying the general principles of scientific skepticism. The site specializes in debunking notable bogus claims, popular misconceptions, pseudo science, and superstition of all kind. Medicine comprises the most popular category by far, with nutrition and history following close behind. My most popular answers on the site include “Do wild dogs use trains to commute to and from Moscow?” (yes they do),1 “Did only a handful of people in Europe know how to do division before the 13th century?” (no, long for division was widely known at the time),2 and “Did the Ancient Egyptians use twenty-sided dice?” (yes!).3

Writing these posts is time consuming, taking anywhere between a few hours (when the answer is limited to simple citation) and a few days (when it requires extensive synthesis). Why do I contribute?

First, I find it relaxing. There is great pleasure in using my research skills in areas which I don’t normally encounter in my professional life. Second, I believe in the cause of tough-minded skepticism. It is the sort of thing that often goes by the name of “critical thinking,” even though few are willing to apply it to all aspects of their belief. Third, I feel compelled to do it as a small measure of civic duty or citizen scholarship. I have easy access to university resources like PubMed and JSTOR, which are closed to the rest of the world. It takes me just a few minutes to answer questions like “Do girls mature more quickly than boys?”4 or “Is the value of a tree $193,250?”5 using fairly reliable, state-of-the-art sources. Finally, I find in Stack Exchange a powerful model for academic publishing (or publishing of any kind for that matter). Running a journal requires an enormous amount of work (by editors, managing editors, and reviewers). Most of this labor is invisible and, for the most part, unrewarded. We could learn a lot about streamlining the peer-review process from communities like SE. Imagine, for example, accruing reputation points for being an active reviewer (or being on time with your comments), and then trading those points for expanded editorial privileges or for faster turn-around times when submitting your own articles for publication.


One thought on “Skeptics Online

  1. Anouk Lang Anouk Lang

    These suggestions for improving journal publication are total genius … Dennis, I nominate you to carry forward this revolution in scholarly publication. To the gamification barricades, comrades!

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