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Keeping order with the head moderator of Reddit’s r/science

It takes a lot of people with a small time commitment.


Cynthia McKelvey


Posted on Jul 10, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 11:40 am CDT

Spend any time on Reddit and you’ll notice that mature, intellectual discussions frequently and rapidly give way to shouting matches. But among the website’s 50 or so default subreddits—that is, the subforums any new user is automatically subscribed to—there is one subreddit that stands out among the pack for its consistently good, reasonable discussions and intellectual community.

R/science is a place for users to engage in discussions about the latest scientific findings reported in the news and academic journals. It’s also one of the best-moderated subreddits. There are well over 11 million subscribers, and keeping tabs on the discussion are 1,100 moderators. The top-level moderator Nathan Allen, who goes by the handle u/nate, has helped shape the subreddit over the past few years to not only foster discussion, but also to make Reddit a platform for scientists to interact with the public through “Ask Me Anything” threads commonly known as AMAs.

Given the amount of work that goes into moderating such a large forum, you may think that u/nate has found a way to moderate professionally. But in reality, he’s a synthetic chemist working at a small company. He has two kids and still finds the time to moderate r/science while his kids eat breakfast, on his lunch breaks, and after the kids are in bed. He talked with the Daily Dot over the phone to tell us just how he does it, and what he hopes will become of r/science in the future.

What drew you to Reddit?

I’m a very old user of Reddit. I started using it within the first year of its existence, so about 10 years. Unlike most redditors I’m an old man. I’m 41 so I’ve been using the internet for a long time. I started out in Slashdot and Fark. Then Reddit and Digg came out, and I thought they were pretty interesting. Reddit appealed a little more to me because of the subreddits.

When did you become a moderator?

For the first years of that I wasn’t interested in being a moderator because it seemed like a lot of work with no thanks and no pay, so why would anyone do that? I like Reddit as it is, so why would I want to police it? It wasn’t until I started answering a lot of questions on Reddit and got to know the r/askscience moderators that I became interested. But [I] actually started moderating right around when my daughter was born four years ago.

Were those two events connected?

Yes they were. Because once you have a child, it turns out you spend a lot of time at home without much to do. Before that, I was spending my three to four hours a day doing mountain bike racing. Suddenly you can’t do that anymore, so you find something else to do.

Was moderating how you expected?

Uh, it was far worse. It was a mess of flame wars, people yelling at each other, misinformation—it was really a mess. When I first started there was maybe, I don’t know, 15 people on the list of moderators. Most of them are inactive. Moderating a large subreddit burns you out pretty quickly. We have a lot of moderators now, but every time we add someone new, they are always shocked at the volume and the content and the amount of atrocious things that are removed. And of those who were moderating when I started, there are only one or two left.

Why do you think you’ve outlasted most of the other moderators?

I think it’s partially because of my involvement level. If you build something and you constantly have a stake in it, then you tend to stick with something longer. Also, a lot of our active moderators are second- and third-year grad students. These are people who have some time sitting around in lab waiting for a reaction to happen. That’s why they’re on Reddit, dicking around. But once they’re done with graduate school, then they’re looking for a new job, they start a new job, they move to a new place. Life completely changes. And then we see them trail off because life catches up.

I started moderating well past that. I was already established in my career. I fit it into my lunch hour, while I was waiting for my reactions to get done, while I was doing science-y things. Now, my career’s advanced and changed over the years. It’s a little harder for me to do the comment moderation, but the job of being a moderator has changed a little bit more due to our AMAs and our other programs that we worked on. My job is more of a communications, organization, and policy-setting role, rather than the classic, “let’s just remove comments that are bad.”

So now you leave the grunt work to the graduate students, as is the natural order of things.

Well yeah, that’s how that works. We also make substantive use of automoderator. But it works because I recognized what the problem with moderation was. Now, there are more moderators of r/science than there are the rest of the 50 default subreddits combined. We’re always adding more, and the vast majority are just there for comment moderation. The idea is, instead of relying on a very small group of highly committed people, you rely on a really large group of people who have occasional time.

What this gives us is a community of people who have a vested interest in the functioning of the subreddit. And from those, we have a natural growth of people who are more involved and as our full moderators get a little busy with their life, then we can just promote from within.

This must help a lot with the AMAs.

We want the general public to get a feel for what scientific conversation looks like. It’s about the normalization of scientists as people—it’s one of our driving forces. A lot of people in society think of scientists as something that’s outside of society. Scientists are in this ivory tower, they’re a separate group. But scientists are not that. They’re people, they have families, they interact. Scientists are just like you, but they do science.

So the AMAs are something that I set up. They were something that, we would occasionally do AMAs but they were sporadic and not very well organized. They were just when some redditor would happen to do something and do an AMA. We talked about reaching out to scientific organizations and scientists and how to set up AMAs for a long time. We have to give an iron-clad guarantee that they will not be unfairly attacked in the comment sections. That’s the hard part.

How do you do that?

That was one of the original driving forces for setting up a huge moderation base. It was so we could have very strict moderation of AMA comments. We’re very serious about it, because someone has come out of their normal situation to do something for free, and it’s insulting when you ask them horribly inappropriate questions. It’s gotten a lot better, but it used to be whenever there was a woman who did an AMA, there would be some grotesquely sexual question asked of them, utterly unacceptable. And if we allow that to continue, no woman would ever come and answer questions on our site.

But we have never backed down from very controversial subject matter. The system is designed to enforce civil behavior on highly emotional topics so that culture can have this discussion. So we had a scientist from Monsanto to talk about what Monsanto does. And it turned out all right. People got to ask their tough questions, and to his credit he actually said, “Let people ask whatever they want about the business practices, about whatever.”

I’ve been working hard to get industrial scientists to talk to the people. In industry there seems to be a lot to lose and very little to gain. But that’s how industry has been for 50 years, and as a result the public doesn’t trust scientists in industry. But in reality they’re good people who have families, who want the world to be a better place, who don’t want the world to be poisoned, and they have some things to say.

People should not shirk from hard questions, though. People should want to answer them directly and sincerely. Because if you do have a defensible position, explain it. And if your position isn’t defensible, maybe you need to change it, and maybe that needs to be drawn out into the light of day. And we’ve had AMAs that are like that. We had a professor who claimed that electromagnetic radiation had some effect on cancer growth, and he got torn apart in the comments by very civil comments asking about his methodology. And it quickly came out that he hadn’t well-controlled his methodology, and the data didn’t back up his assertions. So sometimes the AMAs we set up because someone has a controversial view and we want to highlight the arguments against it.

Was there any fallout for that professor after the AMA?

Eh, not a whole lot. He went on with his life because it turns out it’s hard to get funding for ridiculously unfounded presumptions. He wasn’t a particularly well-known person in the field. And he understands that his views are not accepted. I didn’t talk to him afterwards or anything, but I don’t think he had any misgivings. And it’s just what scientists do, it’s a conversation about the data.

One of the bigger moderator moves was to ban climate change deniers from the sub. In your essay on Grist, you said it was a well-received move, in spite of Reddit’s general feelings about censorship. Why do you think that is?

There are different types of censorship. There is censorship where a governing small body restricts the voice of the community. But there’s another type of censorship, which is the censorship of extreme voices. In articles about climate change, we found that minority voices at the fringes yelling at each other were drowning out middle, civil voices, such that people could not have civil conversation about the science. It always turned into politically heated arguments which weren’t about the science. And we spent some time giving ample warning of, “You can have your opinion based in peer reviewed science, but it needs to be civil or you’re going to be banned.” And, turns out, a lot of the climate deniers thought that basically any level of hostility was appropriate because of their beliefs. But it isn’t. R/science is not a free speech subreddit. If they could present peer-reviewed journal articles that could substantiate what they’re saying, that’s fine. We allow that. It just so happens that, “this is a liberal plot” doesn’t have any basis in science.  They argue free speech, they argue that they’re being censored, they argue a conspiracy. They argue everything but, “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I need to change.” And it’s not unique to them. It’s endemic to the human condition.

Why not just let them be debunked by other redditors?

And for a while we did that, but the problem was someone posted some hair-brained comment, and then there’s a time lag. Sometimes never is that challenged, because the right person never comes back and says, “Oh this isn’t right.” So then there’s this comment that’s misled a bunch of people. The best-case scenario is that the public gets some misleading view of the science: that there’s some sort of controversy. And the worst-case scenario is somebody gets the view that climate science is wrong, which is really wrong.

Do you think you’re going to expand the ban out to things like anti-vaccination and denying evolution?

We already do that. Our policy is any comment that you post that purports to challenge a well-established consensus position of science must include references to back it up. So go ahead and go try and find your creationist peer-reviewed journal article.

We have back rooms for the moderators where rules and how they’re enforced are being discussed. So we have thousands of people with different viewpoints banter around to determine, “What is the scientific position, what should be allowed and what shouldn’t be?”

And you believe news outlets should also stop giving climate change deniers a voice, right?

They’re so worried about being yelled at by the political extremes, so they present a skewed representation of what the reality truly is. In their zest to remain politically balanced, they become scientifically unbalanced. And that’s not a good situation. It doesn’t service the community and our society for journalists to have a false equivalency position.

If you read journalist articles, you get the sense that there’s some sort of clout within the climate denial community. There are a few cranks who have some very technical and esoteric complaints with the research community, but there’s nothing that represents the idea that there’s some sort of disagreement within the community. And any time I see journalists saying there’s any sort of ambiguity within the research community, it’s misleading. They are misleading the public, and there’s a sacred trust that’s at stake. 

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*First Published: Jul 10, 2016, 11:00 am CDT