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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.

Science
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 PopularScience.com, 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
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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This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

PopSci is doing its readership a disservice
By Monkey's Uncle on 9/27/2013 10:53:39 AM , Rating: 2
I have sent this same comment to Suzanne LaBarre (author of report on this controversial decision):

quote:
Ms Labarre and anyone else on PopSci’s staff who may care,

I as a frequent visitor and one whose news blogs send traffic to your site am dismayed at popsci’s decision to stop allowing comments on its articles.

I understand your magazine’s wish to report the frontiers of science without seeing negativity from your reading public. I also understand your magazine’s wish to not requiring policing your commenting system. Running a few technology blogs myself, I understand the amount of work that requires. However I also understand that this is the nature of a technical blog. I know the information I post will not always be understood and that my members may need to discuss them to better understand what is represented. They will also discuss/argue the merits of what is presented, and in my view that is a very good thing.

Disallowing comments, even positive ones, is a huge disservice to your readers.

Not only does commenting allow your readers to assimilate the merits of the information by talking/arguing it through, it also allows them to decide among themselves if an article was really relevant and worth reading. There are also benefits to you as well. Without commenting, how do you know if an article you publish was worth reading? Mouse clicks? Page views? That does not tell you what your reader thought about the article or that they even understood it. That only showed they glanced at it. What kind of reader feedback do you get if there are no comments? This is all very valuable information to any news site/blog. It tells you where you which subjects you really should be focusing on and helps you weed out the irrelevant.

In short. Without commenting not only we, your readers lose, but you do too.

Please think about it and possibly reconsider your decisions.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions, please feel free to discuss this with me :)


I doubt they will read or even comment back to me on it. I understand their desire to reduce spambots and trolls, though even the latter will provoke folks into thinking through the topics at hand. PopSci is a good resource examining the what's what of the general scientific community, but it loses a most of its value if they will not allow discussion of the articles they present on their own site.

Too bad since I am cancelling my PopSci subscription though I may still repost their articles on my own blogs and allow discussion.




By Dragon's Eye on 9/28/2013 1:29:48 AM , Rating: 2
You folks at DailyTech have my absolute permission to remit my singular post that direction as well!

Though my opinions may be "un-trained" in the accreditation-system of the establishment, "commonsense" is what science is supposed to be about, isn't it??? Well! I do believe I was well-trained in "using my brains for other than a -hat-rack-" by my upbringing!


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