In science, reputation is important, and it rests in large part on integrity. The currency of integrity is made up of truthfulness in the reporting of experiments and in intellectual honesty in interpreting the results of the experiments. Although exceptions can always be found, science tends to be a business based on trust. If I want to found my work on Professor Z's results, I have to be able to trust that the lab did what they said they did in the published work. If not, it will usually become apparent. If it does come out that a paper misrepresents the results, I will curse Professor Z, complain bitterly to my colleagues, and possibly publish my findings. Thus are reputations sullied, and if it happens often enough Professor Z's work becomes untrusted.
One also trusts fellow scientists to say what they mean, and to argue points they believe. It is a large part of our culture to look for the legitimate holes in each other's theories, and to evaluate the data critically -- sometimes harshly so. However, the criticisms tend to be based on experimental, testable data, or on points which would be subject to experiment. The idea of testability is crucial. If Dr. A's critique of Dr. B's work is based on a disproven hypothesis, Dr. B has every right to politely and respectfully tell her colleague to go jump in a lake, in large part by pointing to the data which show Dr. B to be wrong. If Dr. B insists in the face of evidence, Dr. B's reputation suffers because he looks stupid. If, however, Dr. B claims to have made the critique knowing perfectly well that the evidence was against him, Dr. B suffers similar damage to his reputation.
Why? Because we don't have time for this. Our intellectual life is spent in working out hard problems, and such game-playing might be construed as a waste of Dr. A's time and effort for Dr. B's entertainment. If Dr. B had framed the discussion from the beginning as a matter of testing assumptions -- always an important practice -- Dr. A would probably have engaged in a critical review of the data in the same spirit. Had Dr. B questioned a student, one can argue that he was engaging in a useful teaching strategy by forcing the student to learn to defend his ideas appropriately. To treat a colleague the same way, however, shows rudeness and arrogance. What damages Dr. B's reputation in the example above is the presentation of the contrary (and disproven) opinion as if it were his own opinion, and forcing Dr. A to answer seriously, as if Dr. A were Dr. B's student. If he continues in such behavior, none of his colleagues and peers will know when he actually means anything he says, and his critiques will become untrusted.
Some readers may recognize my description of Dr. B's behavior as similar to trolling. Because I live primarily in culture where one's words and ideas are the currency of reputation, I do not immediately understand the appeal of trolling. I have heard the practice defended as more than entertainment at the knee-jerk responses, and that a good troll forces opposing viewpoints to state themselves articulately. By this thinking, the more earnest responses to trolls serve to cogently defend positions which might otherwise merely be held by inertia or herd behavior.
I grant that such things may be true, particularly outside the scientific milieu, where criticism is a constant. Still, it always troubles me when a person who expresses opinions contrary to what they really think does not frame them in that way. First, I have a personal dislike of the arrogance of the troller who sets themselves in a superior, teacher's role ("I'm just trying to get people to think!"). They have chosen to place themselves in that role toward people who have not chosen the student's role. Second, few people like to discover they've succumbed to manipulation.
As I write this, I can think of many situations where a "teacher" role might be a good thing. Certainly my own posts to K5 often follow the path of the didactic lecturer. In large part, however, those posts are in response to trolls full of misinformation. My purpose in such responses lies in trying to correct the record in public rather than in using rhetoric to manipulate other people. Quite often I resent the time it takes, and yet I feel the need not to let the most egregious misinformation stand. I fear that people will take the articulate misrepresentations of the skillful troll as truth.
The writers of good trolls seem to be very smart, and very arrogant. If people are dumb enough to believe their slick presentations, it proves the troll's superiority. The idea of the divide between the 1337 (elite) and the lusers runs deep in internet culture. Trolls generally get recognized as such by other 1337s, and anyone with a clue knows to place little trust in net posts. But what happens outside the net?
Let me propose the following thought-experiment. US Vice President Dick Cheney recently stated that conservation of resources had no place in long-term US energy policy. What would have happened if, several weeks previous, some randomusername posted an article to K5 or Slashdot based on the same idea? The shouts of "Troll!" would have been heard (in either admiring or annoyed tones) far and wide. But Cheney wasn't trolling when he made that statement. Instead he was propagating a Big Lie.
Big Lie is the name I use for an untruth so big that it stuns even those who disagree to momentary silence. The difference between a big lie and a mere troll lies in the intent and in the power base of the speaker. What was Cheney's intent with that statement? Was it actually a troll not meant to provoke discussion but to gauge outcry? And without outcry, was it his way of ensuring his oil industry buddies of robust profits over the next decade?
I don't know what Cheney's purpose was, but I doubt he can honestly say he believes that statement. Or perhaps he's been a politician for so long that he has no concern for any objective measure of truth, and only cares for political expediency. I do not limit that criticism to any side of any politcal divide. Most propaganda consists of big lies packaged with rhetorical efficiency, repeated often enough that the lie becomes accepted as truth.
Internet trolls don't have the power base or publishing budget to have their distortions taken as truth. It isn't their intent, either. The big liers want their targets to merely accept the lie, where the trollers want their targets to jump at the bait. Both of these situations reflect power games and the desire to control other people's behavior. Scientists are not a perfect breed, and individual scientists certainly have their power games, but the opinions we express tend to be those we honestly hold.
If, as Paine said, truth does prevail where opinions are free, I suppose those both honestly and dishonestly expressed can have similar value in the dialectics of discussion. Part of Jesuit training is to learn how to argue any side of a point, to play the Devil's Advocate. There is certainly value in the intellectual flexibility and the rigour of research that the practice requires. In playing Devil's Advocate with myself, I can see point of view of the troller, and the expediency of the big liers, but I don't have to like either one. And I don't.