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Reddit’s moderators disallow any claims in the / r / science forum that do not have hard scientific support.

Reddit has over 4 million subscribers — yet many more viewers — of the news- and opinion-based topics that flood the site every day. The site hosts moderated forums about nearly every topic under the Sun, and anyone can sign up and make their voice heard. But what happens when fact meets opinion? This week, Reddit moderator Nathan Allen lead everyone down that path.

Allen moderates content on Reddit’s science forum, known as /r/science for those in the know. He recently posted an opinion piece titled Reddit’s science forum banned climate deniers. Why don’t all newspapers do the same? on Grist.org. The controversy behind this piece is not just about what Allen believes, however. Instead it is about how Allen transferred his beliefs to the /r/science forum.

Jane J. Lee at National Geographic writes that Allen, as well as other moderators in the /r/science forum, have been banning posts from users who do not back up their claims with peer-reviewed research. Since this all but removes climate change deniers from the conversation, many commenters are up in arms about both Allen’s views and Reddit’s moderators’ actions as a whole.

It’s important to note that the policy of banning such claims is not new. Lee says this behavior has been taking place for nearly a year. Allen takes it upon himself, in his Grist.org piece, to describe how the /r/science forum works:

“Given that our users are mainly academics (and all are nerds), the discussion generally resembles any scientific debate. That is, there are always numerous links to peer-reviewed science to support positions, people don’t deliberately mislead or misrepresent content, and there is a basic level of respect shared regardless of position. When a user strays from such decorum, they are kindly warned and, if necessary, the comment is removed.”

He also notes that some topics can become very contentious. Global warming is one such topic, with Allen saying that deniers sometimes visit the forum to insult objective science without providing any science to back up their own claims. He says proactive moderation — banning posts without non-peer-reviewed research — has resulted in better discussion with science and research as the focus.

“Where once there were personal insults and bitter accusations, there is now discussion of the relevant aspects of the research,” he says.

To provide contrast, Lee points to some /r/science participants who disagree with this style of moderation. She quotes wbell, who posted this comment on /r/science:

“I would say if the posted article meets the criteria of the forum it should be allowed,” wbell said. “Given that most climate denial articles are just blog posts and not current peer-reviewed research, they would not meet the criteria and should be removed on [those] grounds, but if someone can find a valid article they should be able to post it.”

It is, however, the very nature of the blog posts and other non-peer-reviewed research that Allen calls into question. He says that the forum is built upon the foundation of research, not the foundation of opinion. Climate deniers aren’t simply being obnoxious about their views — something which may, in fact, get their posts banned from the forum. They are being obnoxious without the aid of scientific journals.

Allen points to research that suggests “97 percent of climate scientists agree that man is changing the climate.” Certainly, that leaves a lot of climate deniers out in the cold. They will be forced to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Similarly, it is on the shoulders of /r/science moderators to permit deniers’ posts if they meet the requirements of civility matched with research. Allen appears not to want to ban that aspect of science; he only wants it to be represented for what he believes it is — a smaller part of the climate science as a whole — and wants /r/science to remain a place where scientific debate reigns over personal insults. He must be held to that standard.

Image courtesy of Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons