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Comments interfere with preaching a "scientific doctrine" (presumably a religion of sorts), according to PopSci

First they came for the BoingBoing comments, then they came for the Popular Science comments, then they came for... wait, that pretty much sums up the current state of affairs.  After BoingBoing opted to scrap its in-article comments for a forum in a few months back in June, PopSci just announced its decision to follow in suit with an article entitled "Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments".  This remarkable act of reader censorship is backed by a number of questionable assertions -- most notably the notion that reader comments undermine the preaching of a "scientific doctrine" and that "comments are bad for science."  

(The New York Times has also scaled back comments, disabling them entirely in some pieces.)

I. Censorship, the Tired Retreat of the Thin Skinned

These decisions may smack some as subjective or even malicious.  After all comments are arguably the digital age response to print's "letter to the editor" -- and they often contain criticisms of the article ranging from grammatical erorrs to factual oversights.  Some may view the decision to ban comments as a form of censorship, a means for writers to escape any sort of visible accountability among their audience.

And while moderation of extreme trolling is at times necessary, comments provide an essential outlet for user opinion.

PopSci views comments as "bad for science". [Image Source: MNN]

But PopSci argues that the evil of comments outweighs their merits.  It says that it has been ovewhelmed by "trolls and spambots" and its editor Suzanne LaBarre writes:

Comments can be bad for science. That's why, here at, we're shutting them off.

And since the blog is about science they at least attempt to back their conclusion with a scientific study -- a journal paper published by Dominique Brossard a Life Sciences Communication professor at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.  Published in the February 2013 edition of the peer-reviewed Journal of Computer-Mediated Communications, Professor Brossard's study involved perceptions of a fictious nanotechnology article, which people were asked to react to.  

People reacted neutrally when comments were disabled, but even when comments were generally positive their reactions did not noticeably improved.  However, when the reader feedback took on a "less civil" tone with people questioning the merits of nanotechnology, user perception of the publication itself (not just the topic discussed) took a decidedly negative turn.

II. PopSci Complains That Comments Interfere With Its Ability to "Indoctrinate" Readers

PopSci piece also in a roundabout way suggests it had to revoke its users' commenting rights due to their criticisms of studies on global warming.  It writes:

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television.

And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

She cites an editorial in The New York Times voicing similar complaints.

South Park
PopSci is preaching a "scientific doctrine" according to its top editor.
[Image Source: South Park Studios]

But it is Ms. LaBarre's use of the phrase "scientific doctrine" which should is most interesting, and perhaps telling.  The root word of indoctrination -- brainwashing with a rigid set set of beliefs -- is "doctrine".  Indeed the Wikipedia entry for "doctrine" states:
Doctrine (from Latin: doctrina) is a codification of beliefs or a body of teachings or instructions, taught principles or positions, as the body of teachings in a branch of knowledge or belief system. The Greek analogue is the etymology of catechism.[1]
Often doctrine specifically connotes a corpus of religious dogma as it is promulgated by a church, but not necessarily: doctrine is also used to refer to a principle of law...

And Google Inc.'s (GOOG) built in dictionary describes doctrine as:

a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group.

Science has little to do with beliefs.  Science is the process of observation, of collecting hard, repeatable evidence.  Belief is unnecessary to a scientist who does their job right, as they are simply studying reality.

The phrase seems decidedly odd as coming from a science publication: after all isn't open, informed debate the root of all science?  Since when has indoctrination -- peddling of a set of rigid, unquestioning beliefs, most often associated with religion -- become part of the scientific process?

Perhaps lack of critical feedback, user bickering, and spam may indeed improve the perception of PopSci.  But it's hard to imagine Socrates or Plato, were they alive today, shutting the door to public commentary.  After all, as journalists we all have to remember we aren't actually doing science -- at least not at our news jobs -- we're simply trying to represent it in a clear and concise form that the public can understand and enjoy.

Socrates chose death before submitting to censorship and surrendering his right to free thought and free expression.

While PopSci writes "we have many delightful, thought-provoking commenters," it's hard to escape the impression that its editors think themselves greater science minds than their readership.  Perhaps that's why they're so eager to "indoctrinate" readers (quite literally what Ms. LaBarre says is the site's goals) with their superior wisdom (i.e. interpretations) of science.

But here at DailyTech we take a different view.  We reject censorship and believe in free expression.

We welcome all opinions from the novice to the professional.  We welcome respectful criticism of our authors, our articles, and the material therein, in a public place for all to see.  We don't believe doctrines and indoctrination have a place in open scientific discussion.

At the same time we acknowledge that comments -- criticism, trolling, and more -- are a painful burden at times.  But it is a burden we choose to bear because we must.  Perhaps it will hurt our readers' impressions of our site.  But journalism and science are founded upon open discourse and a receptiveness to feedback.  Once you lose that, you risk rapid loss of your accountability and credibility.

Sources: PopSci, BoingBoing, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communications, The New York Times

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Simple fact
By Ammohunt on 9/25/2013 10:18:18 AM , Rating: 1
Time to wake up this is the information age! All the knowledge previously locked up in dusty books and obscure journals by elitists has been made available to everyone. So anyone that has any interest in a given topic can study all the data and come to a different conclusion then the so called authorities.

The fact is anyone with any cognitive reasoning ability can make up their own mind on any scientific topic. They don't need yet another authority to tell them how and what to think. The religious leaders of science are having their Martin Luther event they are afraid of loosing their grip on popular opinion.

RE: Simple fact
By Mint on 9/25/2013 11:09:38 AM , Rating: 3
The fact is anyone with any cognitive reasoning ability can make up their own mind on any scientific topic.
Of course they can make up their own mind, but what good is that if they come to an untruthful conclusion half the time?

The biggest problem with conveying science isn't in understanding the language of a scientific paper. It's understanding it in context of the body of established science NOT in the paper.

That's why it's so easy for anti-scientific drivel to persuade people away from the truth and towards their own teachings. No publication can possible anticipate all these arguments, nor would they be able to fit all the necessary background inside the publication anyway.

So no. A modicum of cognitive reasoning isn't enough.

RE: Simple fact
By Ammohunt on 9/25/2013 3:16:48 PM , Rating: 2
Who cares if it doesn't affect other people? Truth is determined on an individual bases.

RE: Simple fact
By Ammohunt on 9/25/2013 6:18:31 PM , Rating: 2
So no. A modicum of cognitive reasoning isn't enough.

So you needed a scientific authority in context of the body of establish thermal science to tell you that if you stick you hand in a flame you get burned? You defer to an authority because its safe and so much easier to nod your head then to come up with an original thought or belief you are not alone in this.

RE: Simple fact
By Paj on 9/26/2013 6:08:49 AM , Rating: 2
The fact is, anyone can read a scientific paper, however they're in no position to challenge it in scientific terms without proper training and methodology.

Someone reading a paper on climate change is perfectly able to refute it based on anecdotal evidence that it was a bit colder last winter. However, such a refutation would not be valid scientifically. A scientific paper requires that any refutation be based in science or data, and that such methods are repeatable and verifiable through peer-review.

Let's be clear - the scientific findings on anthropogenic climate change are well established by scientists - people actually doing the science, using the scientific method. This is consistent across all levels - individuals, universities, research academies and NGOs.

And that's the problem here. AGW pundits aren't presenting scientific evidence of their own - they're presenting anecdotes, misinformation, strawmen, cherrypicking data, astroturfing and PR campaigns. And thanks to the growing anti-science lobby and lack of critical thinking ability, the public are accepting this viewpoint as part of a valid scientific process, which it most clearly is not.

History repeats itself. The same thing happened with big tobacco, intelligent design, CFCs and the anti-vaccine movement. This is no different.

RE: Simple fact
By Ammohunt on 9/26/2013 10:24:42 AM , Rating: 2
Yeah i would agree with you if their wasn't an oblivious anti-capitalist anti-consumer agenda intertwined with the environmentalist movement of which AGW is a product of. To say their is a consensus of scientists is so much propaganda akin to AGW being in its entirety bad for us and the planet. In the past was a consensus on earth being flat neanderthals being dumb cave men.

Data (and even basic science) has been ignored that doesn't support the environmentalist causes has been purposefully ignored or manipulated in order to stifle debate to further this political agenda. The AGW "scientists" are no better than the Catholic church both severely lack credibility. The environmentalists motivations are not to save humanity but enslave it or better yet detroy it. Reasoned people disagree with that approach.

RE: Simple fact
By Paj on 9/26/2013 3:51:41 PM , Rating: 2
First of all,a clarification - I used AGW to mean 'anti global warming' rather than 'anthropogenic global warming', which completely changes the meaning - so apologies for that.

However, I completely disagree with you. There is no anti-capitalist agenda. On the contrary - failing to adapt to a warming world would have severe economic consequences. Already we are seeing rising food prices and legal conflict over water resources on a global scale. Left unchecked, these factors could contribute to serious regional or even global instabilities.

The Arab Spring started in Tunisia, where a fruit seller set himself on fire. The revolutions spread, because the price of food was so high that people could not afford to live, and thus gave them something to latch on to. If this trend continues, food prices could skyrocket, leaving millions more unable to feed themselves. If this comes to pass then it will have severe economic and political ramifications globally.

It's not just confined to the third world - reservoir levels across first world economies are at record lows. Many parts of the US and Australia are experiencing severe water shortages, which causes people to sell their farms and properties and move elsewhere, leading to unemployment and eventually ghost towns. Again, the economic ramifications could be immense if it gets any worse than it already is.

So it's pretty short sighted to say that being skeptical of global warming is somehow a pro-economic stance. Quite the opposite.

RE: Simple fact
By Ammohunt on 9/26/2013 5:49:31 PM , Rating: 2
You discount the effects of the recent population boom which has lead to over fishing and poor land management. Food shortages in Africa can be attributed to changes in farming practices. In Zimbabwe alone Mugabe turned a net exported of food to a net importer of food via his land grab policies. In the western united states where i live 90% of the water is used for irrigation of non food water hungry crops like corn for ethanol. Most of this land could be converted back to dry land farming in one season. Its an artificial water crisis that cannot be directly linked to AGW. If the earth was warming outside of a natural variation it doesn't mean that its all bad. All the talk has been warm earth = bad we do not understand the earths climate good enough to make that determination. Warmer climate could open up more northerly expanses for food production while at the same time increasing atmospheric water vapor leading to wetter climates and or more reflect heat. Environmentalists are almost always socialist and put responsible human interest second to "the environment" there needs to be balance and a often radical agenda by the environmentalist only serves to polarize otherwise rational people.

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