Blue Tuesday: Is there too much work against Blue Monday?

60_jahre_allgemeine_erklarung_der_menschenrechte_3084670759

This bear is leaving home because its owners believe that Blue Monday has a scientific origin. (Attribution)

Yesterday wasn’t Blue Monday. Or to use its full name, Blue Monday (A Normal Day Of The Year Which Was Rebranded Through Marketing With A False Veneer Of Misleading Science). Blue Monday (ANDOTYWWRTMWAFVOMS) became a “not a thing” which happens as a result of holiday sellers, Sky Travel, and public relations company, Porter Novelli, selling holidays and public relating. They invented a formula which supposedly calculates that the third Monday in January is the most depressing day of the year and stuck what looks like a scientist on the front to complete its fancy-dress costume of sexy fake science concept. Needless to say, the average mood of everyone is too complex a thing to calculate with the simple equation being touted. Saying it can is a horrendous misrepresentation of the scientific method, human emotions and mental health. The added scientist, Cliff Arnall, is not a doctor or a professor of psychology. Or of anything. Saying he is is…

It’s difficult to argue with the success of the Blue Monday (ANDOTYWWRTMWAFVOMS) idea as a piece of marketing. On the day itself, the number of companies, including charities, that use the term to promote their products or causes is vast. With the general theme of spending money to improve your mood, Blue Monday (ANDOTYWWRTMWAFVOMS) is used to sell pretty much everything; be that the holidays it was designed to sell, cars, chocolate or financial advice. Perhaps more subtly, some groups have tried to re-purpose Blue Monday (I’ll stop now). They argue that while the supposed science might be a gargantuan heap o’ nonsense, it can still be a day to consider and support those who are unhappy. In addition, a lot of people have put a lot of work into explaining why, as a scientific concept, Blue Monday has the same credibility has half a brick with a picture of Dr Emmett Brown sneezed onto it by a guinea pig. So much so, that the publication of pieces debunking the science of Blue Monday have become as much of a tradition as the shower of gaudy sadverts.

kiara

This dog is more scientific than the formula for Blue Monday. (Attribution).

For the last few years, I have gained the impression that the pieces attempting to counteract the Blue Monday information have become more common than the items using its selling power. If this was indeed the case, the main thing keeping Blue Monday alive would be the valiant efforts to kill it. This could be placed in the Venn diagram of ironic things and bad things. However, whether this is the case is far from decided. While I have seen the same claim from others, my perception that anti Blue Monday work is more common than pro Blue Monday work is just that, a perception. Perceptions are at risk of bias.

Confirmation bias would mean that I might be interpreting information in a way that confirms my pre-existing beliefs. All the evidence I’ve seen shows that confirmation bias exists. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (or frequency illusion) would mean something that’s recently been noticed by me, suddenly seems to occur at a greatly increased rate. Once you’ve noticed the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. Finally, the perception that anti Blue Monday work is more common than pro Blue Monday work might be the result of an echo chamber. I’m more likely to associate (digitally or in the great outdoors) with people who hold similar points of view to me. I’ll therefore see opinions the same as mine with greater frequency, and if I’m not careful will come to believe that those opinions are the most common. Everything I’ve seen on Twitter confirms I’m right.

One potential antidote to the plethora of human bias is correctly analysed data. I didn’t have that, so I took to the internet. On 16th January 2017, I searched for the term, “Blue Monday” on Twitter. I didn’t specifically use the hashtag because I wanted to avoid people or organisations using it just to make their tweets more locatable on the specific day. On a separate note, SEX! I then counted the tweets that seemed to believe the effect of Blue Monday, the tweets that actively opposed the effect of Blue Monday, and the tweets that didn’t believe Blue Monday, but wanted to use it to at least gain some benefit. I did this until the total tweets I’d counted reached 100. To be counted, a tweet had to at least hint at belief in Blue Monday or otherwise. It couldn’t just spout a load of a nonsense about sofas and then end with a hashtag. I also did a similar thing with Google (incognito window to avoid the influence of my search history) to count sites, news items, blog posts etc. and place them in the same categories as were used for the tweets. This was also completed when the total links reached was equal to 100. I later checked the Google search o a separate device and found the resulting list to be practically the same.

The results can be seen below. In summary, the pro Blue Monday items were much greater in the number than the anti Blue Monday items. These were both much more prevalent than items trying to re-purpose the day. My perception was wrong, and unfortunately the work to demonstrate that the idea of Blue Monday is anti-scientific rubbish appears to still has some way to go.

blue-pie

Pie part showing the proportion of pro Blue Monday, anti Blue Monday and re-purposing Blue Monday items.

 

One thing to note however, was that out of the pro Blue Monday items, 72% were advertisements. As discussed, these would make the argument that it’s the saddest day of the year so why not buy chocolate/hair gel/happiness? It is unclear to what extent the people behind these believe that Blue Monday was a scientific concept. While their adverts vaguely hint at belief, it’s just as likely that the mention of Blue Monday and its supposed effects are being used as devices to enhance how noticeable their brand is on a specific day. An increasingly difficult task given how common the use of the Blue Monday “brand” is. It seems to me that an advert that went with something other than Blue Monday marketing on the third Monday in January would be the one to stand out.

I’m not sure why efforts to educate people as to the non-scientific origins of Blue Monday are not working or even if they are actually not working in the first place. As discussed, it’s possible people know all of this, but find the term useful for their purposes; whether these are charitable or otherwise. Indeed, some news outlets may be using anti Blue Monday work to join in and take advantage of the temporary interest while maintaining an appearance of credibility. There’s no point in having your cake if you can’t eat it.

Ultimately and unfortunately, it appears that not much can be done about the Blue Monday juggernaut. I might still hold out hope for those valiantly explaining the gibberish behind the claims and even for those re-purposing the day for more noble causes. Judging by the current proportions, these efforts need to increase or change their methods to become more effective. How? I don’t know, although at least I’ve got nearly a year to think about it.

The Science of “The Science of…” Articles

Science of Word Cloud

Introduction

The science of biscuits, ducks, politics, trains and glitter. If not for these then it’s likely you’ll have seen at least one article in the media that claims to explain the science of something. But what does that mean? Does it mean the articles contain a list of facts? Sometimes, although you’d have thought not because science is a methodology rather than a list of facts; and articles with the title “The Facts about…” are often confined to pieces about supermarkets, dieting and celebrity gossip. “The Facts about Ryan Gosling, the secret food behind his rock-hard toe muscles and how he used them to woo an eagle.” Like that.

However, neither should “The Science of…” articles be the direct reporting of a piece of research. That’s what we have scientific journals and 0.5% of science press releases for. It might be fairly safe to argue (he said on the internet) that a “The Science of…” article should contain some facts that were obtained using the scientific method, some description and criticism of that method and how it explains the phenomenon in question. Is this what “The Science of…” articles are doing? “Is this what people think “The Science of…” articles should be doing? Is the device of asking yourself a question overused in writing? Yes.

The aim of this post is therefore to aim some science(ish) at “The Science of…” articles to investigate what they should contain and if they contain them. The hypothesis is that “The Science of…” articles exist and contain some stuff. The null hypothesis is that “The Science of… articles don’t exist and don’t contain stuff. The square of the hypotenuse is the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Hippopotamuses are large mammals.

Method

First I conducted a carefully thought out pre-study survey (I asked on Twitter what they thought should be in a good, “Science of…” article and had a cup of tea and a biscuit). I received 23 responses. This places the power of this experiment closer to the kitten pulling a super-tanker using string woven from Climate Change Denier accuracy end of the spectrum than to the Superman with He-man’s sword, SuperTed’s secret magic word and The Black Widow’s everything end. I then took all of the responses and used them to make a word cloud because of infographics. When this accomplished nothing more than my delight at seeing it create the phrase “inductive gorilla” I decided some more analysis was needed.

Using the word cloud and the most obvious themes from the responses I made a list of what a good, “The Science of…” article should contain or be. This was as follows:

  • Big words
  • Comprehensive
  • Diagram/Graph/Infographic
  • Evidence
  • Inductive reasoning
  • Links to more in-depth stuff
  • Pictures
  • Referencing
  • Theory

This list isn’t necessarily what I think a good “The Science of…” article should contain. It may not even be what the majority of people think a good “The Science of…” article should contain. I can only speak for the people who responded to my question and sadly can’t take the opinions of the people who didn’t respond (the grey Twitterature) into account. I also asked what improvement could be made to produce a better class of “The Science of…” article, but I’ll save talking about that until the discussion.

I then used an internet search engine which might have been Bing (it wasn’t Bing) and typed in “The Science of” and took the first 10 articles that were the “The Science of… “ articles.

The Science of Search

 

Figure 1. The search engine suggestions for The Science of a.k.a. a fairly depressing poem.

I read the 10 articles and after multiple moments of increasingly less quiet despair, I determined if they satisfied the criteria identified by my survey. I then turned the results into graphs because of graphs and had a look to see what I thought/wanted them to show. By this of course I mean, the results were analysed and any trends in the data were identified.

Results

The table below displays the first 10 articles produced by my internet search that were “The Science of…” articles and what I initially thought before reading them. This doesn’t even slightly matter, but I was told once that people relate to science articles more if they contain a personal element. The story of how I was told this is of course heart-warming.

Table 1. The articles found and my initial reaction to them

Articles Table

 

Figure 2 shows the source of the articles found. Obviously as I used an internet search engine, the articles were all technically on websites, but some of those articles (40%) were associated with specific newspapers and magazines. Magazines and newspapers put articles online! You can practically hear the ground breaking.

Pie Chart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2. Sources of the “Science of…” articles.

Figure 3 shows the proportion of articles that contained the desirable qualities identified by the survey. This was decided by me after reading them. You might come to a different conclusion and you’re welcome to read them and see what you think. I wouldn’t recommend it though. Unless you hate your spare time.

Graph

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 4 is an Action Man with eagle-eye action.

Action Man

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 4. You know.

Discussion

 The whole point of this post was to use scientific(ish) methods to question what makes a good “The Science of…” article and see if “The Science of…” articles are doing those things. That depends. In science, it always depends. Note to self: make an “In science, it always depends” t-shirt. As you can see from figure 3, in terms of using big words and pictures, “The Science of…” articles are doing quite well. Ninety percent of articles had a picture and 60% used big words! Make them waterproof and you’ve got the ingredients for an educational children’s book! Over 50% of the articles contained evidence, inductive reasoning and theory. This seems good, but isn’t. In fact it doesn’t even seem good. A science article without evidence?! Fine. I’ll get back to you with what I think about that when I’ve finished watching this football game that doesn’t have a leather orb or any teams of entitled orb-kickers. The rest of the results are similarly dismal, with only 40% of articles being judged as comprehensive and about 25% of the articles linking to more in-depth material. I’ll let them off in terms of diagrams and formal references on account of them being articles about science rather than actual research papers. Something I think scientists would do well to keep in mind when reading and criticising science articles.

Can “The Science of…” articles be improved? Well, you’ll recall I asked about this. The suggestions for improvement are shown in the table below.

Table 2. Suggestions for improving “The Science of…” articles.

Improvement

 

 

 

 

So there you go science writers. Your problems solved. If your problems were a lack of pedantic titles and sparse nudity.

Ultimately what I read seems to indicate that “The Science of…” in an articles title is generally shorthand for “This article offers to explain something. It might mention science. Go on. Read it. SCIENCE!”  If it actually contains some well-written information about the scientific method, what it found and how it might (and might not) explain the subject at hand, then that’s a bonus. Although it should be a given.

I should probably point out the flaws in this research, which for the most part are obvious as well as numerous. I only look at 10 articles, they were the first 10 articles I found, it was only me that looked at them and the criteria I used to judge them while, not arbitrary, were certainly not extensive. This clearly isn’t a high standard or even legitimate piece of scientific research. Unless Nature wants to publish it in which case that stuff just then was a hilarious joke. Most of the criteria could probably be applied to this post with it doing quite well as a “The Science of…” article and that perhaps would be a travesty (adj. music like that of Travis). However, maybe you’ll have a think about what “The Science of…” articles should be like and expect a decent standard from any such articles you read in the future. The Guardian has a series of articles/posts about science writing and how to do it if you’re interested in that sort of thing. You must be a little bit. You just read this for a start. If nothing else you’ll have seen some of the sections that go into the write-up of scientific research (introduction, method and so on). Also the inductive gorilla.

References

The Guardian. Secrets of Good Science Writing. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/science/series/secrets-science-writing

Google. Google. [Online][Accessed loads] Available from: Google it.

BBC. The Science of Love. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/hottopics/love/

BBC. The Science Behind Why We Take Selfies. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-25763704

Bartlett. T. The Science of Hatred. Available from: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Science-of-Hatred/143157

Fermilab. The Science of Matter, Space and Time. Available from: http://www.fnal.gov/pub/science/inquiring/matter/

Adams. S. The Science of Hangovers. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/science/sifting-the-evidence/2013/dec/19/the-science-of-hangovers

Keim. B. The Science of Handwriting. Available from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-science-of-handwriting/

Boggs. B. The Science of Citizenship. Available from: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/7810

Woolaston. V. The Science of Santa: Mr Claus will eat 150 BILLION calories and visit 5,556 houses per SECOND this Christmas Eve. Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2521973/The-science-Santa-Mr-Claus-eat-150-BILLION-calories-visit-5-556-houses-SECOND-Christmas-Eve.html

Chivers. T. The Science of Christmas: Santa Claus, his sleigh and presents. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/christmas/8188997/The-science-of-Christmas-Santa-Claus-his-sleigh-and-presents.html

Popper. B. The Science of ‘Her’: we’re going to start falling in love with our computers. Available from: http://www.theverge.com/2013/12/16/5216522/can-humans-love-computers-sex-robots-her-spike-jonze

 

 

Copy and Paste Science Stories

 

Nobody ever asks the infinite monkeys to write an original piece.

Nobody ever asks the infinite monkeys to write an original piece.

Science is often reported badly in the press. There a number of reasons for this and it’s a complex topic which I’m not going to cover in this blog post. Part of the problem may be the use of press releases for studies that may have public interest before they have been rigorously reviewed by the scientific community. Typically the public interest angle is enhanced through claims technically but tenuously linked to the study being reported. These press releases are often then reported almost verbatim by the press with little accurate interpretation. This isn’t just a problem with journal or academic institution press releases and can be due to companies performing surveys and then releasing the results masquerading as research to promote their product. Examples of this include the most depressing day of the year “research” performed by Sky Travel and Lloyds Pharmacy and their survey to sell carbon monoxide detectors.

Ultimately this leads to a situation where complex science is reported incorrectly and grouped with non-science copied and pasted from dubious survey results for the overall degradation of the public understanding of science. For example, recently the Mail Online reported a comedic science blog, written with predictions invented with humorous intent as genuine science prediction. Largely this was performed using direct quotations from the piece, rewritten in the third-person to give the impression of reporting. Dave copied this technique for the purposes of making a semi-humorous point about this kind of writing.

Sarah Griffiths, a kind of journalist for the Mail Online Scientist copied some details from the Brain Flapping comedy science blog written by Dr Dean Burnett for The Guardian without noticing it was full of joke predictions in a list of features he predicts humans could evolve. It includes tentacles, colour-changing skin, flexible skeletons and selective hearing. The article notices some humour when they note that the neuroscientist humorously notes that as evolution takes so long no one will be around to see his predictions are right or wrong. Taking inspiration from the chameleon, humans could evolve the ability to consciously change their skin colour; they wrote that he wrote in a blog for The Guardian. They muse that he muses that this could happen if humans evolved chomatophores – pigment-containing and light-reflecting organelles in cells found in reptiles – or even by using technology, but also note that he notes that whatever the case there are numerous evolutionary benefits.

‘Being able to either visually blend in or stand out at will would be a potent advantage in modern society, one that evolutionary pressures could make more common,’ they say that he said. Which he did. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “context” as a noun representing the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.

Sarah Griffiths points out that Dr Burnett points out that humans already have the ability to focus their hearing on certain conversations and noises, but the human ear does not have a physical mechanism for doing this. She believes that he believes that over time selective hearing could become more important – perhaps to filter out increasing noise from social media and other sources of continuous information.

‘Rather than diverting attention to more relevant inputs, humans could develop the ability to actively ‘tune out’ things they don’t want to hear, like closing your eyes to block an unpleasant sight,’ She said that he said. Which he did. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “satire” as a noun representing the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

While this could result in humans taking in less information over all, The Mail Online believes that Dr Burnett believes future humans might be less stressed and angry to live longer, happier lives.

A copy of a picture of some paste.

A copy of a picture of some paste.

They say that he said that in order for humans to use keyboards and touch screens to communicate with computers more easily, we could evolve more dexterous hands that allow us to make precise movements but are less rigid to help us type faster. Which he did. Actually he typed it using his human fingers and a computer keyboard and checking the words on a computer monitor using his human eyes. All of this was coordinated by Dr Dean Burnett’s human nervous system I can report in a tedious attempt at excess description to make it look like I’ve given the issue some thought.

They could even end up more like ‘tentacles like those on a sea anemone,’ they say he said. Which he did. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “repetition” as a noun representing the action of repeating something that has already been said or written. Repetition can be used to hammer a point home or for humorous effect with varying degrees of success.

While noting that Dr Burnett noted that there might be limited practical reasons for humans to develop tentacles, they recognise humour and report it when they recognise that he humorously suggests that they could be used for sexual selection as an alternative method of arousal.

Humans could also develop more cartilage in their skeletons like sharks, which would have benefits such as being able to give birth more easily, they say he said. As the world gets safer for most of us, there is less need for humans to have rigid and inflexible bones to withstand forceful impacts. While The Mail Online’s suggestions as to what Dr Burnett’s suggestions for features that humans could evolve are just their own musings based on his own musings, new research has found that that humans could one day grow beaks if you misrepresent it slightly.

Sarah Griffiths believes that Dr Fraser, a biologist at Sheffield University, believes that humans will evolve constantly developing teeth thanks to ‘tooth fairy’ cells. The Mail Online reports that he believes that human teeth are no longer fit for purpose and could even change into a beak that beak would not rot, chip or fall out. While nobody believes that this is likely to happen it makes a good headline for enticing people to read the story. This is based on Dr Fraser’s research into the growth and robustness of pufferfish beaks and the possible applications to human teeth. Dr Fraser’s research is particularly well-timed as staff at The Mail Online’s teeth are no longer fit for purpose and they find it difficult to chew. This isn’t true either but could be inferred from the things they say other people say if taken out of context.

Overall this sort of copy is a parody of science journalism and as I have stated has negative effects on the public understanding of science. It is a joke when completed how it’s been completed here. Stopping it is likely to be complex, even it is does boil down to people stopping misleading press releases and journalists being vigilant with regards to the information they include in their stories. Hopefully then we can avoid this sort of copy and paste science journalism and avoid the repetition of inaccurate stories in this sort of copy and paste science journalism.

Generic Article About Disagreeing With Science With Opinions And Anecdotes.

An angry cat because I am angry and people like cats with facial expressions.

An angry cat because I am angry and people like cats with facial expressions.

When I first heard about the science in question I was sitting in my pyjamas, hoping that someone would say something that I disagreed with so that I could complain about it in a public forum. I like doing this and it’s a realistic image which makes you believe me and the rest of what I have to say. Someone disagreed with me fairly quickly as what I had chosen to believe about this area of science wasn’t quite right but was commonly researched and talked about. So it wasn’t long before I was casting my pyjamas aside.  After an embarrassing number of minutes stood at a window contemplating what I’m going to assure you is slightly evidenced based fury, I remembered that I didn’t need to cast my pyjamas aside to attempt to write a generic, anecdotal science piece. Don’t worry too much at the evidence though. It’s so “wrong” I’ll treat it as a humorous thing. The things I’m about to say will appeal to a template of certain group that agrees with me for political reasons. In fact really this is an opinion piece masquerading as a science piece but we’ll pretend otherwise so you more readily believe me and less likely to think that I’m pretentious, smug and bitter.

You’ll have heard of the survey, research, inspirational Facebook picture and The Daily Mail article in question because it was on the Twitter and I needed to get my article down quickly before my rage subsided and a desire for accuracy overtook me. What the research pointed out that what I previously believed about this area was science wasn’t quite right. I instantly mistrusted it because of the person that reported it and because of the numbers that they used. I had never heard of the person before which is suspicious to me despite there being quite a few scientists and I have never heard of a large percentage of them. Luckily they are a scientist so I can stereotype them as a typical scientist or point out that they don’t conform to my stereotype of a typical scientist. The numbers used were entirely the wrong sort and had obviously been worn out through all that heartless using them to describe evidence. Luckily a lot of people don’t trust numbers because of complicated counting so I’ll just disregard them or say they mean something else by doing them not quite right. For crying out loud I think I saw a four in there!

I’ve had the stuff that the research is talking about happen to me and to a relative and to a pet of mine so obviously my experience can apply to everyone else. You can tell this because of the story or anecdote that I have which will make you feel one of the emotions. You can then use this to identify me as an authority from experience and agree with me because chances are you’ll know someone with a similar anecdote. Also maybe something to do with the weather.  All science does is take some evidence and analyse it in a way that can statistically be applied to the population or area they studied. This means that it will apply on average but there will be some people or areas it doesn’t apply to and some people or areas it does. Hopefully the stuff it does apply to will be more common than the stuff it doesn’t. This is obviously unreasonable and often involves words like “mean” which can describe something mathematical but can also refer to not being very nice. That fact proves that the scientist saying these things is not being very nice. I am furious with rage that they would say these things about something I’ve misunderstood and about something that doesn’t quite apply to me because of complex circumstances. Why do scientists have to be so median?!

Now it’s time for me to quote some different science which supports my idea. This will be easy because science is complex and the analysis of its results difficult so it’s likely there are some results or some discussion that agrees with me and what I’ve been saying. I can use the science correctly so that if you thought I was misrepresenting it up until now you’ll think “actually that bit is right so maybe the rest of it is”. Then I’ll say, “yes” and you’ll say, “how are you reading the thoughts of a fictional person invented to agree with your increasingly bitter and smug point?” I’ll say something about bacon to show it’s a joke and in a misguided attempt to make people think this is witty. As you can see there is some science that agrees with me. Whether it’s because it agrees with me because it actually does or because I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented a number or a word which means something else in everyday language to its scientific definition I don’t know. You can see it definitely has the flavour of science and therefore makes my overall point correct. There is definitely an art to this kind of pseudoscience which is described much better in a piece by psychologist, Dr Pete Etchells which in a way inspired this one.

Now I’m not saying that everyone who disagrees with what I’m saying is wrong. That would be foolish and would contradict the paragraph that I am writing to make myself seem reasonable. My reasonableness and logic from everyday life now stands in opposition to the results that I disagree with and the people that produced them. I know there will be people that the results might apply to and good luck to them. However there won’t be many of them and they’re probably wrong but fingers crossed that they don’t notice when they are being patronised. The sentences throughout this piece have been quite long and some have been quite complicated so that might help in obscuring the exact meaning with shorter sentences to get across the general tone. The tone is that I am right.

Overall though you can see that my definite real experience that happened means that what I have to say against the evidence that I disagree with is nicer. This is probably the same as being right. If it isn’t nicer then I’ll probably just say that it’s more realistic and if you disagree with me you’re a daydreamer. You know you can distrust the numbers I don’t like from the person I don’t like because I’ve told you I don’t like them. You also know there’s other science that might agree with me. Don’t look it up whatever you do! Ultimately I’m a reasonable person because I told you I am in a paragraph. Whatever the point is about the science I disagree with I will now entirely win you over with this joke or comment that refers back to my opening paragraph or anecdote and which broadly reinforces my point. And also James Delingpole, Melanie Phillips and some Twitter outrage was there.

Know Comments: A zoology of online commenting.

Unlike more computer based trolls, these ones appear to have friends.

Unlike more computer based trolls, these ones appear to have friends.


This is the most ludicrous, supposedly science article I have ever read on this so-called subject. This article is hilarious and raises interesting points. Regarding the first point, at least he got one thing right. Regarding the second point, this is just getting confusing now. For anyone familiar with the comments sections on any number of online newspaper articles, blog posts or YouTube videos, you will know that they can be a source of wildly veering emotions. Going from indignant rage and criticism via mild praise to gross and the grossest ever hyperbole in the space of a click. This isn’t news. It is however interesting to consider what motivates people to comment on such things in such a way. “This is my opinion, it matters and you must know it” each comment seems to say. And to an extent why shouldn’t it? The person writing the article/cobbling together the blog/posting the video of the drunk cat has considered their own opinion worthy of strangers in the ether. Why shouldn’t those strangers have the right to reply with their own bon mots? Apologies. I like to pepper my conversation with French. I find it adds a certain, “I don’t know what.”
Of course people do have the right to reply and to express their opinion. Often they do so with unreserved gusto. Below are some comments taken from previous Dean Burnett’s popular Brain Flapping science/comedy blog for The Guardian.

From the post about the psychology behind topless sunbathing:

“WTF is this doing in the science section? This paper is moving beyond parody.”

From the post about the myth that sharks get cancer:

“What on earth is the point of your stupid blog. BTW in case you hadn’t noticed Everyone DOES know 9/11 was an inside job …and not too very far from now Everybody WILL know vaccines cause autism …”[sic]

And from the post about the lack of scientific evidence behind anti-wrinkle cream:

“This feature shows that you are a completely unsuitable person to write about cosmetics. The fact that the industry uses the word ‘cream’ has nothing whatever to do with dairy products and everything to do with consistency and appearance.”

Common sense would point out that I’ve cherry-picked these comments because they are critical without being constructive. There are probably many comments giving constructive compliments, constructive criticism and rational ideas for improvement. It’s certainly true that I fairly randomly picked these comments because they seemingly display overt criticism for the sake of it. Either that or they seem to have missed the point of this particular blog in its combination of science and humour. Humour as in comedy rather than medieval body liquids. There are some similarities. What reaction do these comments hope to elicit and are the comments even thought through to that degree?

With the nastier comments we can see them as either having not enjoyed something and wanting to forcefully let people know or simply wanting to insult someone. If they do both and make money then they’re probably Simon Cowell. Michael Marshall in New Scientist states that people may behave more rudely on the internet as online commenting is treated to some extent like a pub conversation. Commenters don’t expect to be taken seriously and the social rules which would normally apply are more relaxed. In addition, comments appear as text without important body language cues and as such can easily seem more offensive than is intended by the writer. The bastards.

It is well known in psychology that if you increase an individual’s anonymity they are more prone to ignore social norms, even becoming violent or in the case of online discussion more abusive. A process known as deindividuation. The individual experiences reduced self-awareness due to increased anonymity. Psychologist David Dodd, in a 1985 study found if participants were told their actions were anonymous and without repercussions, then 36% would engage in acts considered anti-social. These responses represented a change from their normal behaviour.

The potential anonymity of the internet awards a certain freedom of speech, removed from fear of physical reprisal. Like a drunken aunty at a wedding with osteogenesis imperfecta, people can say what they are thinking at the moment of thinking it, without the time or motivation for inhibition. In a real-world social situation where identities are available, such rudeness or criticism could lead to violence or social rejection. This is not something that has to be considered when dealing with strangers on the internet. This may explain why abusive or unhelpful internet commenters feel they can get away with saying what they do. However it doesn’t explain why they do it. Social identity model of deindividuation effects (Lea and Spears, 1991) argues that anonymity either enhances the individual’s perception of being a small part of a large group or isolates the individual from perceived social groups. Both have the effect of causing people to perceive and depersonalise others as part of a stereotype rather than as individuals, thus more open for abusive criticism. Because all humans love stereotypes.

Overall I would say it is unlikely to be any single factor that makes people post negative comments although anonymity would seem to be important. Unfortunately this theory still doesn’t answer why people comment in the first place and the broad range of comments available. With this in mind and tongue in cheek I have attempted to categorise the various types of online comments and the creatures who make them. Further comments and examples that back them up can be left below.

Ah Buts… (Columbo pendanticus)

Often seen with their hand raised at an inconsequential point in a lecture, Ah Buts take the greatest of pleasure in finding a sentence that is technically incorrect and making sure other people are aware of it. All the greater pleasure can be achieved if this sentence is incorrect in isolation but makes sense in the context in which it is used. Whether this pedantic thrill is addictive is currently not known but has been in other species, for example in fish such as dolphins.

Opinion Gardeners (Pointus of viewus)

Thought of by naturalists as the comment equivalent of dog urine on a local lamppost. They didn’t like it. They thought it was too smug. They did like it. They thought it was a good cup of tea. Either way you have to be aware of their opinion. Why? It’s a very important opinion. Why? Because they’ve spent their time reading or watching something they didn’t have to that didn’t cost them anything. Oh right, fair enough then.

Skim and Launchers (Vaguearius norealknowledgia)

Little is known about this common species as they don’t have much time to sit and talk. Their lack of time is such that they only have the opportunity to skim read articles or online forums gathering the vaguest knowledge of the content. Then, presumably due to the relativistic effects of the speed at which they have read, they find the time to air their preloaded opinions on matters marginally connected to what they’ve just experienced. Their natural habitat is presumably a series of newsagents followed by a street corner with a megaphone.

Just Angries (Ragus trollum)

A sort of cloud of emotion if that emotion is being annoyed and the rain is bitter amusement. Just Angries are, as the name on the tin suggests, just angry and need other people to know it. This anger does not seem to abate when compulsively shared through the medium of the internet but they do seem to take what from a distance looks like pleasure in annoying others with what they write. So that’s nice.

Brain Flaunters (Cerebrum showoffia boredom)

Technically a type of peacock, Brain Flaunters have some knowledge of the subject they are commenting on and feel compelled to display it in as verbose a manner as possible. This is for the purposes of gaining a mate or more likely, eliciting a slightly impressed confusion from someone they will never meet. Fortunately they can imagine the strangers’ state of awe and can be satisfied by just typing out that they know more than everyone else. Sometimes these cerebral emissions make sense.

You Must Knows (Verbal diarrhoea maximus)

These poor individuals have taken Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” to its illogical extreme. It’s not enough for them that having thoughts may prove their existence. If they don’t constantly share their thoughts then they believe they will cease to exist. If you are lucky then the opinion they are compelled to share will relate to the item they are commenting on. Don’t hold their need to compulsively share their random thoughts against them. It is the commenting version of some sharks having to constantly swim forward or they will die. My toe itches and the pattern on those curtains is too bright.

Constructives (Too rare to have a proper made up Latin name.)

These are human beings who realise at the other end of their comments are other human beings. Whether delivering criticism or a compliment they are diplomatic and sensitive and have real suggestions for improvement. A glimpse of these people can sometimes be seen in the reflections of hens’ teeth.