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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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This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By Dragon's Eye on 9/28/2013 1:21:49 AM , Rating: 2
I would first off like to say,

Very good article on a very increasingly-thorny issue of mine!

I have been an avid student of the sciences for as far a back as I can remember. My best "marks" in school were typically in science, as far back as the second grade. My eight-grade teacher was very influential in my life, especially when he wanted me to learn the "Twelve Steps of the Scientific Process" before proceeding with any experiments with any chemicals in his classroom. I wrote about fifteen such planned experiments in the provided format of the Scientific Process.

I was very disheartened to see that these days, the schools - if they teach any solid science curricula, use an abbreviated form of the "scientific process" (only SEVEN steps)! I was shocked that I could not readily find a copy of the old "Twelve-Step" format I was taught. The newer format leaves too much room for "estimation", and very little for actual observation and close examination of the results. The newer format seems to be more in support of the idea that one creates his/her "theory" and can easily sway the testing and the results in order to support the original "pet theory". (At least, that is what I see.)

The "peer-review" process, today, is also very politically and dogmatically-oriented. The true purpose of a peer review process is supposed to ensure that any such experimentation and evaluation as documented, were done properly according a set of acceptable criteria to ensure accuracy, efficacy, and that the results are presented as clearly as possible to demonstrate that the data supported the supposed conclusions accurately. - The "peer review" process, today, is very broken and absolutely alien to the commonsense that is at the heart of science.

Also, debate, discussion, and reanalysis of the testing, evaluation, results, and the "debugging" of the whole procedure is a necessary requirement in order for science and the scientific process to remain as credible and reliable in its standards of scientific conduct and academic accuracy. Open debate is also very necessary for the furtherance of science and how science is to evolve.

"Scientific Doctrine" allows very little, if any, such open debate where it is critically-needed. Open debate is vital in that science and the various fields of study are constantly evolving, that is to say: "This is how all of us troubleshoot the process, and find where the process may be weak and fix those weaknesses to help improve the process for the betterment of the scientific and the rest of the community." - If you squelch open debate on scientific matters, ever, you hobble and constrain science to operate purely on a "subjective" level. Subjective-level science can NOT evolve to meet the growing needs of exploration, query, experimentation, testing, evaluation, and defining the repeatable and known results to the community.

"Scientific Doctrine" is as much a lethal poison to science and all of its progress, as Arsenic is to the living body. This "doctrinal-thinking" will be the death of countless years' of scientific thinking, research, data-collection, and the stability and reliability of the scientific process! Critical-Thinking does NOT mean "Closed-to-Thinking", even if it challenges our currently-held perception and "beliefs".

- Your friendly amateur "scientist".

By Bruzote on 9/30/2013 11:58:25 AM , Rating: 2
I strongly disagree with the comment, "'Scientific Doctrine' is as much a lethal poison to science and all of its progress, as Arsenic is to the living body." Maybe your version of scientific doctrine is bad. The version used by respectable scientists is simply the belief (a.k.a., "doctrine") that the scientific method is the best way to learn about and describe reality. That's all. Nowhere does "doctrine" have to be about certain theories being difficult to challenge. The only "doctrine" that is here is the belief in a method. So, please don't ignorantly shoot down a doctrine when you fail to realize where the doctrine ends and human frailties begin.

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