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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

RE: How low they've falled
By prophet001 on 9/27/2013 11:48:36 AM , Rating: 2
It blows me away that you believe that the community of scientists that make up the meteorological studies for the world are to be believed beyond reasonable doubt. That somehow their "theories" are now "facts."

This very same community, the one which would throw our economies and our governments into turmoil, cannot even tell you if it will rain tomorrow. However, you blindly believe that they can accurately tell you the future of our climate over the next 20, 40, 100 years? Why?

My word, they can't even tell you where a hurricane's going to be in the next 10 days. Their cone of error can represent 50% or more of the total path of the storm.

You speak of certainty and "reality" and of knowing these things. Yet you fail to acknowledge that they cannot even accurately predict weather over the course of a few days. I don't understand it. I do not understand why you would think that what you have chosen to believe amounts to "reality" and that the rest of us are fools to "deny" it.


RE: How low they've falled
By Bruzote on 9/30/2013 11:18:23 AM , Rating: 2
Again, more misunderstanding and lies from you and those like you. First, as much as we can call something a fact, theories ARE facts.

Second, you said the meteorological community " cannot even tell you if it will rain tomorrow". If you mean they cannot always forecast rain with 100% certainty, that's true. SO WHAT? Do you have a BETTER community you trust for forecasting weather? If not, should you not trust them over anybody else?

Third, you're flat our wrong to accuse people of "blindly" trusting meteorologists and climatologist. We do not do so blindly, we clearly see their track record compared to people like yours. We clearly see the reliable science used behind their forecasts (including the fact they mention probabilities in their ultimate goal of accurately expressing the limits of what knowledge is available).

So, we trust them more than we trust any other people discussing the topic. Why not? I challenge you to find one group of non-meteorologists that does better forecasting than meteorologists! I challenge you to find a group that has done better forecasting climate than climatologists. Go on, march out your superior group for review! Please, right now! Surely, you have more qualified experts than these communities. If you don't, you're a useless windbag.

Maybe all this has been above your head, so I'll try one more time with an example. Your idiocy is akin to saying, "Mariano Rivera has lost ballgames when his team had a two-run lead. So, can't be trusted to save a ball game for the Yankees and they should not have him pitch." That would be ludicrous and illogical. You don't replace the best thing you have with a lesser alternative. You don't replace Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning with a little league pitcher. Likewise, you don't replace climatologist forecasts with Tea Party forecasts just because the climatologists are imperfect. The Tea Party losers will do a worse job of climate forecasting. Count on it.

Most importantly, that you fail to see such logic is a reasonable cause to strip you of any right to expect people to listen to your opinion. You had your chance. You've proven yourself to waste time and bandwidth with the utmost of foolish and ill-advised statements. Given how counter-productive and time-wasting such comments are, you should be ignored from now on. Much more so than any climatologists you so unfairly take umbrage with.


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