Jul 05 2013

Feedback on Feedback

There are many appealing aspects of the new media – its immediacy, the democratizing effect of lowering the bar on content production and distribution so that many people can participate, and the ability to customize the content you want. I especially love the interactive nature of blogging, tweeting, and even podcasting, the immediate feedback.

Having been on the giving and receiving end of such feedback for years now I wanted to share my thoughts on giving effective feedback. I am busy prepping for TAM, so this is also a good light topic to tackle.

The first thing to consider when giving feedback is – what is your goal? Why are you bothering? I find that feedback (meaning e-mails and comments not geared toward having a conversation about the topic at hand, but targeted toward the content provider) generally fall along a spectrum from simply expressing a feeling to wanting to change behavior.

I get many e-mails that can be summarized as either saying, “Love what you’re doing, thanks,” or “You’re a jerk, (although they don’t use the word “jerk”, if you know what I mean – btw, that’s a movie reference). That’s fine. People want to express their support or displeasure, and I get that. Just don’t expect the anonymous expression of raw displeasure to have any effect at all on my behavior.

Some e-mailers don’t seem to know what they want. They fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, giving feedback as if they have an actual point but only managing to make vague negative comments. To be honest, these ambiguous e-mails tend to be worthless.

The rest of this post will be aimed at that feedback in which there appears to be some hope that the feedback will be taken to heart and actually affect a change in behavior. If that is your goal, the following feedback on feedback might be helpful.

Here’s a quick list of what to keep in mind when giving feedback: Be constructive, be specific, give examples, offer remedies, give context, be objective, and be concise.

Context is important because you have to remember that if you are giving feedback to a blogger or podcaster you read or listen to regularly, you may have the feeling that you know that person, but they do not know you. Feedback and criticism is always as much about the criticizer as the criticizee – it is about the dynamic between a content producer and their audience generally, and the person giving feedback specifically.

For example, you have certain expectations and desires about what you want to get from the content. You also have a particular background – a scientist is likely to have different expectations and needs than someone who works in a non-science field. You also have a particular set of biases, and you have a certain relationship to the content – how long have you been reading/listening, and do you generally like and agree with the content, or not.

Some e-mails spend too much time on personal background, violating the brevity rule, but it is a good idea to start with a quick overview, a single sentence that summarizes your perspective.

Context is also about putting any criticism into proper context – “I love your work generally, but have this minor quibble, ” or “your blog has the potential to be great, but suffers from a major flaw I think you should address.” Don’t blow the criticism out of proportion. Don’t write as if one relatively minor error makes an entire post garbage. If your criticism is out of proportion, it won’t be taken as seriously.

Keeping the criticism constructive is critical if you want it to be taken seriously and get a response. Saying, “you suck,” is not constructive. Saying that the post or segment would be better if specific claims were sourced, or given better balance, etc. is constructive.

However, it is hard to know what to make of such feedback without specific examples. Saying – in this specific post you made this controversial claim without providing a source or reference, is much more effective than just giving vague feedback.

This is especially true if there is a subjective component to the feedback. It it always best to stay as objective as possible, but sometimes you want to give feedback about how a post or segment makes you feel, which is fine. You might want to convey that sometimes the writing or discussion seems angry or dismissive. These are subjective perceptions, however, and often matters of personal taste, not to be confused with objective standards. With subjective feedback it is especially important to give examples, because one person’s angry is another person’s restraint.

It’s also helpful to know that the content provider is likely getting conflicting subjective feedback. I get feedback, especially about the SGU, that is often directly contradictory – we are too harsh, we are too gentle, we have too much humor, we don’t have enough, etc. If you are respectful and constructive your feedback is likely to have more weight overall. If you are petty and rude, you will be easy to ignore.

Offering remedies – specific methods of improving or addressing the issue you are giving feedback about – has a remarkable clarifying effect. First, it forces you to be constructive, almost by definition. Second, thinking about possible fixes will likely give you a bit of a deeper perspective into the issue. It may become apparent that there is no easy fix, or that any fix comes with downsides, or at least the situation is more complex than it first appeared. If your position is, “I don’t know how you can fix this, but…,” you may be answering your own question.


I love getting feedback from listeners and readers, positive, negative, or mixed. It’s all interesting, adds to the interactive nature of the medium, and lets me know that I am not just whistling in the wilderness. Any response is better than no response. If I motivate someone enough to send me a negative e-mail, that’s great. I would get a bit worried if I never received any negative feedback.

I do get the impression that many of my e-mailers/commenters want to be heard, and they feel their opinions are valuable and can contribute to my work with their feedback. For those people, at least think about how you construct your feedback with the above factors in mind. Also – read your comment before hitting the send or submit button. I always do that myself, and will often delete parts that are unnecessary, make the tone harsher than I intend, or are simply gratuitous. I also often add clarifications or needed context. If you’re angry or emotional when you write the comment, read it 10 minutes later before submitting it.

So, keep the feedback coming. I do greatly appreciate it when people take the time to give me thoughtful feedback.

22 responses so far

22 thoughts on “Feedback on Feedback”

  1. mumadadd says:

    Good post Steve. Wait, am I leaving feedback on Feedback on Feedback? Can believe nobody beat me to it…

  2. ca1879 says:

    Steven – you goin’ crazy out there at the lake? Nice obscure reference, and some good advice.

  3. locutusbrg says:

    Interesting post. I would like to give you some constructive criticism about feedback. I too get feedback on what I do lectures, conferences and written outlets. Just not in the very public way that you get it. Everyone neglects to clearly hear and convey tone in written internet confrontation.
    You have one notable bias related to feedback. It is not just related to your blogs. I follow you on SBM listen to SGU, and respect your opinion.
    I see one recurrent theme through out all your mediums. I think it limits your general appeal.
    You slam the door on people pretty hard. Unless they are guest of the show or acquaintances. It can come across as condescending. TO a casual reader/listener it can turn people off to the message.
    For example.
    Your post Yet another bird fossil.

    ” Yehouda Harpazon 30 May 2013 at 8:58 am
    That is all ignoring the possibility that all of the stuff from Tiaojishan Formation is fake.
    It is not that I have any doubt about evolution, but this article wouldn’t convince me
    if I did.
    It is the total breadth of the evidence that is convincing, and it is wrong to highlight any
    specific part of it.”

    Your response:
    “Steven Novella on 30 May 2013 at 9:15 am
    Harpaz – I did put this one example into the context of all the evidence for evolution, so what are you talking about?
    Also, while there was, in fact, one fake fossil sold to paleontologists by a private collector, it was discovered upon close examination. There are far too many fossils coming out of the Tiaojishan formation, with direct involvement from paleontologists, with careful and transparent analysis (and full knowledge of the prior fake) to make a coherent argument that all these fossils are fake. Origins are confirmed by analysis of sediments, and many of the anatomical details are not revealed until later examination and preparation by scientists. You might as well argue that all fossils are fake.”

    The lead sentence and the tone was very dismissive.

    Your second response was more informative less dismissive but still “You”.
    “Harpaz – I completely disagree with you.
    When I wrote “all of this” is stunning confirmation of evolutionary theory, I was clearly referring to all of the fossil evidence of bird evolution from dinosaurs. It is, all by itself, very stunning evidence. It is a powerful prediction of evolutionary theory. None of it had to exist were evolution not true. Period.
    Your alternate theories – fraud or error – are not viable. The process of examination of the fossils is transparent and involves the scientific community, which has already proven its ability to root out fraud and error. The magnitude of fraud and/or error that would be necessary for the entire assemblage of paraves and feathered dinosaur fossils to be suspect is staggering. You are now at the level of dismissing all of science. This is in the grand conspiracy realm.
    Perhaps you are just not familiar with the amount of evidence we are talking about, and the amount of scrutiny they have undergone. These findings are no longer preliminary – they are well-established. I am not overselling anything.
    It’s also not an argument from authority. It’s not just the authors – it’s peer-reviewers, and editors, and then the entire relevant scientific community who will also review their analysis and claims. This is a new fossil, but for all the paraves fossils wwe have two decades of peer review from the community. Again – you are in the realm of denying the basic process of science.”

    Similar statements making the same argument. One reads completely differently to someone paging through comments than the other. First comment very dismissive and confrontational. Especially given the banal nature of the commentators previous statement.

    We all have bias and possibly it is mine coming through, since I work in a medical field as well. Maybe your treatment of these responses strikes me because it is somehow related to medical training and I am sensitive to that type of response.

    The reason why I bring this up is I love your blogs and when I try to get others to read it I guess I hype you up too much. I get the “he’s too preachy” or “he’s kind of a tool” from some people.

    Maybe I am disappointed because I want others to enjoy what I enjoy.

    How do you balance telling people something they don’t want to hear softly while being true to the truth.
    My opinion, read comment two out loud and then comment one to yourself. If you find they are the same then it’s obviously me that’s the problem. If not try to be a little more two and not one.

    At least I hope I was interesting.

  4. BillyJoe7 says:

    Harpaz’ objection to that post boiled down to disagreeing with Steve’s phrase “stunning confirmation”.
    What’s “stunning” is rather subjective don’t you think? Steve thought it was stunning. Harpaz didn’t think so. Most of us were probably somewhere in between with some leaning towards Steve’s subjective impression. No big deal. Except Harpaz – who insisted it could not be subjectively described as “stunning”.
    Then there was the argument about the definition of the word “confirmation”. As if there is a rigid definition set in stone. As if one definition excludes the possibilty of any other.
    As if any of the above actually mattered.
    In the mean time any discussion about the subject of the actual post was lost.

  5. I do tend to get annoyed when people make specific false accusations against me, and that probably colors my tone.

    It is a difficult balance between being hard-hitting, uncompromising, and still polite and professional. If you look at all the skeptical blogs, I am way toward the soft end of the spectrum. Not sure how much further I could go.

    Both of your sample comments, it seems to me, are largely focused on the facts and arguments. Nothing personal or attacking in either of them. Saying – “so what are you talking about” was actually an honest question. What was he talking about?

    To turn this around a bit – nothing will turn me off more quickly to feedback than when it is unfair or flat out false.

  6. locutusbrg says:

    If I read this correctly, i agree you shouldn’t have to be nice to d-bags. If you felt i was was being unfairly demanding, sorry.
    I do understand it is not easy to be the guy voluntarily drawing the crosshairs on your own picture. Through hard work and effort you have become a leader. So we put higher standards on you than on ourselves. Maybe unduly elevating your public face to a standard thats unreasonable…or maybe, we are tools that just like to fight and you’re a good fighter. The good bad and the ugly of the blogosphere. I’m curious bet all you get in person is fawning admiration. Like cognitive dissonance.

  7. Rationalist2010 says:

    I really enjoy listening to SGU. It’s informative and strikes a great balance of presenting scientific information with a blend of humor. SGU and the blog teach people to be skeptical and rely on emperical evidence instead of woo. Steven and the crew should be getting awards and have a show on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, or the Science Channel. Scientific literacy in the US is poor and every attempt to improve it should be lauded. If every American listened to SGU, maybe TV shows such as “Ancient Aliens” would disappear. As it is, many people are ill-equipped to discern reality from magical thinking and outright scientific fraud.

    With regard to feedback, especially on the web, I applaud Steven’s efforts to provide some guidance on what is the best approach. Good luck with that, Steven. Those supportive of your efforts are less likely to give feedback. My request is that you, and the SGU team, continue to provide the listeners with the excellent information and humor we have come to expect. Thanks for your blog and podcast.

  8. rocken1844 says:

    Candid and direct. I think Richard Dawkins makes a good case for this in “The God Delusion” chapter 8 subheading “How ‘moderation’ in faith fosters fanaticism” He writes “…my point in this section is that even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.” and again “these people actually believe what they say they believe. The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself not religious extremism…Voltaire got it right long ago: ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.'”
    In my opinion the times require science professionals to speak with directness.

  9. Bruce Woodward says:

    Rocken, I haven’t read the book, but based on what you have quoted above I would be very careful coming to the conclusions you have. I would want to see evidence that without religion you would not have people going to extremist levels. I personally don’t think religion in itself is to blame for a lot of what people blame it for. I think there is an argument for good that it has done and still does in everyday life in giving people a feeling of togetherness and community. It might even be argued that this inbred sense of morality we all have is a result of religion hammering these ideas into our ancestors.

    Personally I think that some people are dicks and will be dicks whether they are religious or not. I think we as skeptics need to understand that we really have no “control” in that we don’t know what kind of society or world we would live in if religion had not been a part of our history and had not brought us to where we are.

  10. Heptron says:

    Dr. Novella.

    If we have a question we’d like to submit for discussion on SGU, can you offer any additional pointers on how one can stand out over the likely thousands of emails you get?

    Thanks very much for this article, by the way. Good info moving forward. I’ve sent a few emails to you in the past but after reading this, I can see where I went wrong.

  11. Bill Openthalt says:

    @ Bruce

    Personally I think that some people are dicks and will be dicks whether they are religious or not.

    It’s not that people are dicks — some very intelligent, erudite and otherwise well-balanced people are (and were) religious. As far as I am concerned, religiion is a society-building tool, allowing humans to live in societies (and not in groups, were everyone knows everyone). I am with Jonathan Haidt on this one; humans are part ape, part bee, individuals living in a hive. Religions are ideologies, and like other ideologies such as maxism, or feminism, they provide the cognitive foundation of our hivish behaviour.

  12. Bruce Woodward says:


    Yeah, I might not have been clear about it in that explanation, but essentially I agree with you. We are too quick to jump on religion as the reason for a number of attrocities, but it has also been the glue to keep us together for ages. I recoil when athiests immediately jump on an intelligent and well balanced person for having faith.

    In short, we should not judge the goodness of someone based on how religious they are. I have seen some pretty sick stuff being done in the name of militant athiesm, and have seen some amazing acts of kindness by people who are highly religious. Too often skeptics jump on the “religion is the cause of all our woes” bandwagon, I would challenge them to really investigate their claims and imagine a society evolved over thousands of years without religion.

    A lot of this verges on evolutionary psychology, which is vague at best, but we really have no controls so cannot make outright claims.

  13. Heptron – Good form as outlined above is definitely helpful. But with the SGU, content really is the most important. If you want a question answered on the show, they are picked almost entirely based upon what topic we want to discuss.

    In terms of just getting a personal reply, it’s hard to come up with a formula. It’s mostly just getting lucky – we happen to have the time, for some reason I want to engage, or we feel someone really needs a reply.

  14. pdeboer says:

    I’ve heard the argument that criticism must offer remedies. I often try to include some sort of example of a solution in my feedback. However, I don’t think that this makes or breaks a valid criticism. I do agree that this makes more useful feedback assuming the suggestions are worth considering.

    I’ve heard criticism that was rational and thought out, but did not include remedies, dismissed for this reason.

    It is unfair to put the burden of correcting the content on the critic.

    All this being said, I’m not saying that this sentiment was meant by Steve.

  15. Hoss says:


    I find it puzzling why many skeptics fail to properly criticize ideology. True, the foundation for ideological skepticism stands on weaker ground than scientific skepticism, but that does not mean that the soundness of the internal logic cannot or should not be addressed.

    For instance, faith(belief without evidence) is part of the ideological toolbox that is demonstrably, highly erroneous. The retention mechanisms of faith, which reaffirms belief, increases the potential for delusion, denialism, and (as a result) harm.

    Ideologies do produce a spectrum of good and bad results for individuals and societies, but skeptics not addressing the logical flaws inherent to those ideologies(some pointing at the good end of the spectrum as a results oriented excuse) seems illogical and counterproductive.

  16. Bill Openthalt says:

    @ Hoss

    Ideologies do produce a spectrum of good and bad results for individuals and societies, but skeptics not addressing the logical flaws inherent to those ideologies(some pointing at the good end of the spectrum as a results oriented excuse) seems illogical and counterproductive.

    We go where evidence leads, and (as I am happy to notice) you have moved away from the distinction between ideology and religion (religions are well-established ideologies based in the worldview of pre-scientific humanity). As far as I can see, evidence tells us ideologies bind people into large societies, and one cannot have a cohesive society without some form of ideology (definition: the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.)

    Atheism and skepticism do not an ideology make, and if one wants to build a larger community around these ideas, one needs to add belief and doctrine (as well as a few myths :)). It doesn’t really matter if supernatural beings are included, as long as there is a sufficiently strong core belief (such as class struggle, or patriarchy, or racial superiority) to attract large numbers of people. The belief has to be sufficiently unassailable (read: not obviously contrary to the basic knowledge of the majority) to generate traction. The core belief of polytheist religions (human-like superhero gods), which made a lot of sense to Celts, Vikings and ancient Greeks (as well as J R R Tolkien :)) became to obviously impossible around the time monotheism became fashionable. By now, monotheism appears sufficiently implausible to more and more people to envisage it going the way of Zeus and Leda.

    The problem is that we need a replacement core belief, and concepts like the class struggle (which made a lot of sense in the 19th century) are far too easily challenged.

  17. Bruce Woodward says:


    Is there any evidence to show that societies that evolve in an ideological vacuum are better? Can an athiest honestly say that wiping religion off the planet today will result in a better world?

    I am not sure we would be where we are today without a lot of those erroneous ideologies of our ancestors. Maybe it was better for us as a species to evolve these morals before we had the full force of science unleashed on us? And by that I am saying that religion might be necessary to set up the society we have now and without it we may have been a lot more destructive of those around us.

    I really just think that belief is a very personal thing and trying to force a belief in nothing on other people is not the best way of creating a better society. I would rather people learn the critical thinking skills and let them in time make up their own minds.

    This is something that has attracted me to the SGU and turned me off other skeptics. Steve might not agree with how I get to my conclusion, but he does have a much softer approach than most and I am often quite amazed at his patience. Anyway, we have hijacked the post.

  18. Hoss says:

    @ Bill

    You’ve made many interesting points and have given me much to think about.

    I wish i had more of a response for you, but I don’t want to be rash, as I need more time to thoroughly investigate these issues.

  19. Jared Olsen says:

    Good stuff Steve. Never would I doubt you, but is “criticizee” a real word?

  20. Bruce Woodward says:

    If you google it, you get a bunch of blog that use the word with this exact post as number 10.

    Could we be in at the genesis of a new word?

  21. Waydude says:

    You suck

  22. Waydude says:

    Just Kidding!! Couldn’t help, sometimes I’m still a 12 year old…

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