Field of Science

Fairness or intimidation: How do you handle difficult commenters?

Last week I wrote a post on my Scientific American blog criticizing a guest post about nuclear power on Andrew Revkin's NYT blog "Dot Earth" by John Miller, a social psychologist and journalist who had very briefly served as an officer on a nuclear submarine in 1972. Miller's post criticized "Pandora's Promise", a film showcasing environmentalists supporting nuclear power which I reviewed a few months ago. Since Miller vehemently disagreed with the film and I found much in it of merit, not surprisingly I disagreed with Miller on many points and clarified my disagreement on my blog. What I found most remarkable was that several of the links that Miller provides themselves contain information qualifying or contradicting his views.

Here's how events unfolded from then onwards. Firstly, let me say that everything that I am stating here is from public sources like Twitter and Andrew Revkin's NYT blog.

It's worth noting that long before I wrote the post, there were hundreds of comments criticizing both Miller's lack of expertise and the flimsy, misleading and cherry-picked evidence that he presented in his piece. As of now there are more than 600 comments on the NYT blog, several of them critical of Miller. In response Miller replied to hundreds of these comments, and in many of them asserted his supposed expertise on the matter and denigrated that of others (always signing his comments as "Dr. John Miller"). He takes a swipe at leading climatologist James Hansen (who has recently supported nuclear power), insisting that his own experience as a nuclear submarine officer makes him more qualified than Hansen to comment on nuclear energy. Phrases like "your comments are nonsense" and "you know nothing about this topic" are commonplace. One commenter remarked that  "The level of sniping and character assassination here makes me feel the need to double check the masthead to verify that it is indeed The New York Times rather than The Huffington Post or The Drudge Report."

Nuclear expert Rod Adams (who writes the Atomic Insights blog) put Miller's qualifications in perspective:

"After reporting to his submarine, Miller again went through the qualification process and became an Engineering Officer of the Watch on a new plant. For his non watchstanding duty, however, he was assigned as the ship's Supply Officer, NOT as an engineering division officer. 

Within 9 months after his arrival, his submarine was put into drydock for a conversion to special operations. It remained there with the reactor shut down until after he had resigned and left the Navy.

When Miller left the Navy in 1972, he was extremely "light" and wet behind the ears. His nuclear knowledge has not improved in the past 41 years."

Adams of course felt it necessary to address Miller's qualifications only because Miller was so fond of reiterating them. Miller's replies to this and other comments were a mix of technical facts and personal remarks. Most of the personal remarks consisted of re-asserting that since he had served as an officer on a nuclear submarine in 1972, he knew more about nuclear power than almost every other commenter. As of this moment, this torrent of commenting shows no sign of abating.

Now let's come back to my post. After I wrote it Miller wrote an extremely long comment countering my points. The comment was filled with personal remarks and a diatribe against Sci Am's editors; Miller could not believe they had let these "falsehoods" through (at this point he was not aware of the difference between Sci Am Blogs and Sci Am magazine). Perhaps the most notable part of the comment was a demand that Sci Am "retract" the article and "issue an apology".

Upon reading this long comment filled with a mix of technical information and personal attacks, I made the editorial decision to not publish it. Why? For simple reasons. Firstly, the comment added nothing new to the discussion. But more importantly, I want to moderate the tone of the comments on my blog; this decision is mine and mine alone, and I am not obligated to publish any comment which I think will affect the tenor of the discussion. Your blog is your living room, and you decide what kind of conversations you allow in it. This decision was bolstered last year after reading a study which said that the nature of comments on blog posts affects a lot of things: the inclination of new commenters to comment (they are reluctant to enter what they perceive to be a minefield), their perception of the post itself (it is seen as polarizing and biased rather than reasoned) and their own opinions of the topic (which change from neutral to polarized simply based on the comments) . Thus I stand by my decision to not publish Miller's comments. My decision was followed by several emails from Miller demanding that I publish his comments. In these emails as in the Twitter exchange there was little evidence of reconciliation or willingness to reach an agreement; almost every statement was in the form of a demand or entitlement. Maybe it's just me, but if I really wanted to have a blogger publish my comments, that would be the last kind of attitude I would pick.

When his first comment did not appear, Miller followed up by posting no less than 22 comments of similar nature, sometimes doling out technical information and often denigrating other people's knowledge. This number by itself constitutes massive spamming, irrespective of the nature of the comments. One of the cardinal rules on blogs is to not hijack the conversation by excessive commenting, and Miller violated this rule almost right away.

It was then that I logged on to Twitter and became aware of an epic Twitter war between Miller and Sci Am Blogs editor Bora Zivkovic. Miller was demanding that Bora and I publish the comment, Bora was being unfailingly reasonable, civil and clear in saying that Miller's behavior did not oblige me to publish any comment from him. In all his tweets there was little evidence of wanting to reach a reconciliation or an admission that he might have started out on the wrong foot by writing a very long comment filled with condescending remarks and demands for retraction and apologies. Miller also did not seem to appreciate how much editorial control individual bloggers have - and should have - over their posts. He also does not seem to understand how easy it would have been to start his own blog and respond and comment to his heart's content. In fact, protocol would have dictated that since I countered his post on my site, he offer a rebuttal on his own.

In any case, about a day after this Miller went one step further: He published the entire content of his long comment in the comments section of Andrew Revkin's blog. Of the hundreds of comments that he has written, at least ten (ranging from bold-lettered "PART ONE" to "PART TEN") are devoted to duplicating the contents of his comments on my blog. The rest of his comments consist of complaints about me, Bora and Sci Am in general. According to Miller, Bora and me are "grotesquely unfair and cowardly" for moderating his comments on my blog and our actions "tarnish Scientific American's reputation". He also urged readers to write to Sci Am's editors to complain about our behavior. I don't know about readers, but if I actually paid this kind of attention to any post criticizing my views, my detractors would probably be forgiven for calling me pathologically obsessed.

In any case, Miller's original comment has now been let through after his many complaints (along with 4 others) and after we had him significantly temper it to conform to the comment policy. His comment says nothing that he has not already said and does not provide new original criticism in my opinion, so I don't feel any need to amend my post. I am also not going to allow him to comment further on my blog; he says that he wants to respond to every other commenter on my post who is critical of his writing, to which I say, "Get your own damn blog".

I wanted to write about this this incident since it is, in my opinion, a good case study in handing difficult and obsessive commenters. The case raises a number of interesting questions: Is Miller's behavior intimidating, obsessive and bullying or is this about free speech? I think it's the former. Should bloggers automatically allow rebuttals to their posts even if they think those rebuttals will significantly affect the tone of their comments section for the worse? What is the correct reaction by a blogger to a commenter who seems obsessed with commenting on their blog and who will go to great lengths to criticize the blogger and his or her sponsor on other websites? On my part I found it most interesting to be a part of the debate; as a blogger it only helps me to learn more and provides me with a background to handle similar cases in the future.


  1. I have only banned one commenter from commenting on my blog, and that was also for several of the behaviors you described: (i) multiple successive comments and (ii) personal attacks that add nothing to the conversation.

    And he's not actually banned...his comments just go into moderation until I approve or delete them.

    I don't think you can be criticized for enforcing your comment policy. If he wants his comments to post, he should play by the rules. It's a private site.

  2. I agree. The lengths to which he has gone now to get his views heard (tens of emails to Bora and the chief editor of Sci Am just to complain about me not publishing his comments) give me grounds enough to ban him. This guy is a childish, obsessed bully who I don't ever want soiling my site.

  3. The truth is that you censored my comments. That's unacceptable.

    Second, you can't even get basic facts straight. I served in the Navy from June 1968 to June 1972. That's four years. Even Rod Adams says I did in his comment, but that didn't alert you to your mistake.

    Rod is welcome to his opinion about my experience. He stayed longer in the Navy. But his service was on missle-firing subs. They just go around in circles underwater waiting to destroy the world. In contract, I served on the Navy's second-oldest submarine, the USS SEAWOLF. It was old, breaking down and accident-prone. So we had the beginnings of several accidents, including two that developed in a way that the Navy had never trained us to expect. I got great experience, much more than Rod got in the same period of time.

    Dr. John Miller

    1. If you think a 40-year-old stint on an old, broken-down and accident-prone submarine qualifies you to assume that you know more about nuclear energy than anyone else, then you clearly have a problem.

      But that's not even the main issue here. Since this whole episode began I have realized that you clearly have no understanding of comment etiquette, nor any experience of commenting on blogs. Almost every single one of your comments was arrogant, talked down to commenters, insulted them, pulled rank and denigrated their knowledge while highlighting your own limited experience ad nauseum. My own post did not insult you, yet you chose to do so in almost every single comment you tried to post. Whatever valid technical points you may or may not have had were lost in the flurry of condescension and sanctimonious demands for retraction and apologies. Why in the world would you think people would want to engage in respectful debate with you after this display of arrogance?

      Let me instruct you on a basic tenet of interacting with people: if you want to actually convince someone, you have to play nice and be respectful. You're just doing it all wrong if you come swinging in by launching personal attacks, insulting people's knowledge and acting like you are a pompous know-all (trust me, appending "Dr." to your name every single time you comment instantly colors people's perception of your personality; I can't imagine how silly I would look if I did that even a fraction of the times that you do). This especially applies to bloggers who are very protective of their territory and want to make sure the comments section is not hijacked by any one commenter; that is why it is unacceptable for *anyone* - and not just you - to try to populate it with 10 or 15 comments. You may call withholding your comments "censoring", but other bloggers would simply recognize it as keeping the comments section clean and not allowing arrogant commenters to take over. And we did allow you to have your say later by allowing 5 comments to appear.

      In addition, if you try to go over and around bloggers and whine and complain to their superiors, if you launch a campaign of sending them tens of emails and petitioning others to do the same, if you play blame games and try to smear everyone up the hierarchy who's in sight, then you are almost certain to become persona non grata for good. In plain language, what you were trying to do is widely recognized as trolling, bullying and harassment. Nobody would ever want to play with you after that.

      The above lessons for interacting with people in general are very simple ones, and I am a little surprised that your training as a psychologist did not equip you to understand this most basic aspect of human psychology.

      Anyway, since you have already replied to hundreds of comments on the NYT blog, I assume you know the drill about replying on other sites. You clearly have a lot to say on this topic, and if you are respectful and nice you may even find a group of people who listen. So let me recommend to you two sites where you can start your own blog and comment and write to your heart's content; in fact the correct protocol would have been that, since I have countered your post on my blog, you write the rebuttal to my piece on your own instead of trying to flood my comments section.

      But as for my blog, I have no intention of debating you further on this topic; You want to reply to every single comment on my blog (a wish that you firmly expressed on the NYT blog)? Do it on your own site. My blog is my living room, I decide what gets discussed and debated here, and I am ready to move on to the next topic of conversation. And remember, a commenter who resorts to condescension, bullying and harassment very quickly becomes an ex-commenter.

  4. it's a BLOG, and part of writing a blog is both moderation and managing of comments (and commenters). if you cannot state your case without resorting to personal attacks and other misbehaviours, then your comments don't belong in a comment thread; they belong on your own blog as a separate entry, and probably as a response the the blog essay that originally got your panties into a twist.

  5. When Scientific American was a magazine, they were under no responsibility to publish every letter to the editor. You are certainly under no obligation to publish his comments.

  6. Wow, this guy appears to be a lunatic. Also, his website is pretty special. You want to know how to make your CV look like you did something, when in all actuality you haven't held a real job in roughly 20 years? Here is your answer:

    "helped Wake Forest U. plan a two-day statistics workshop" Oh boy, I bet Wake is really excited to have you mention them...

    Good grief. Shame on Michigan for giving this guy the ability to call himself "Dr. John"...

  7. Ash, I have a select 20 or so blogs I read regularly and yours is among them because you tackle topics in a reasoned and rationale manner. Also the commenters to your blog appear to respond in the same vein. I value blogs which have intelligent and informative commenters who are respectful of each other. I will admit that there is entertainment value when commenters make a funny play on words or deliver a bit of a burn to either the original piece or another commenter (a wee burn) but this entertainment value does not outweigh my desire to read informative and insightful material. I have stopped reading blogs where the bloggers and commenters personally attack everyone that does not agree with their view and fail to provide rationale evidence for their argument. Please, continue to maintain the level of integrity, reason and respect that you have on your blog.

    1. Thanks for your valuable comments and for reading. I do try to keep the tenor of my comments section moderate. That being said, firstly, I want to hear a diverse smattering of views and opinions, and secondly, sometimes the object of the blog post is so worthy of criticism, that I find a little bit of drubbing from other commenters to be well-deserved. However I agree that this style of commenting should not overwhelm rational responses and reasoned debate.

  8. I have deleted two comments from John Miller which were again very similar to his previous ones. I don't think I have an obligation to give someone who spammed my blog with 27 comments with a platform. John , instead of wasting your time trying to flood my blog with comments which are inevitably going to be deleted, why don't you start your own blog? It's really not that hard.


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