Worth Noting

Jo Nova on the Popular Science shutting down comments, readers smarter than the writers?

Popular Science stop comments, because debating science is dangerous, readers are dumb

Popular Science – a 141 year old science and technology publication — have announced they’re shutting down their comments entirely. Apparently they can’t cope with open debate of contentious scientific areas like climate change.

As usual, there are pat lines about “fostering debate” even as they close it down.

“It wasn’t a decision we made lightly. As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.”

Actions speak louder than words.

Of the two posts used to justify the silencing, the first was about climate, and had all of 16 comments — two of which were spam (see Ninna and Lili) — the rest mostly skeptical, and one used crass language. The other post was about abortion (90 comments) — yes, killing the unborn is going to generate debate. Is that it?

The real problem here is their mission statement (as contained in the quote above) is profoundly unscientific. A scientist’s job is not to “spread the word of ‘science’ “, it’s to find the truth. A science communicator’s job is not to spread the word either. Because there is no “word” to spread — there is only debate, argument and evidence in the endless quest to find the truth. The best science journalists interview the people with the most insight to share from both sides. They save their readers time, by putting the points that matter right in front of them.

Pop Science sure thinks it has dumb readers and points to research showing a few bad comments can fool them:

“…even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, recent research suggests….”

and

“Another, similarly designed study found that just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers’ perception of science.”

Condescending, what? They quote one survey of (I presume) random citizens who were allegedly swayed by rude ad hominem remarks. And what a giveaway: “skew a reader’s perception” — presumably Pop Sci wanted the reader to go away with a particular perception, and the readers were getting it wrong. The editors seem think that there is a single correct “perception of science”? Says who? By what evidence? Is Pop Sci in the advocacy business or the science business?

Tellingly their greatest fear is that voters might want their tax funds used to fund different kinds of research, or even something else entirely? See this:

If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded — you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.

The nub of the matter is that Pop Sci voluntarily acts as a propaganda rag for government authorized science. They serve government funded scientists first, PopSci readers second.

One of the key issues is obviously “climate science”, since it scores another mention. Since when was a consensus “valid science”?

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.

PopSci are turning away free help, and site traffic (which means advertising), because they can’t defend their weak articles. They are cutting off one of their greatest free assets — customer feedback. Their journalists don’t have a good understanding of what science really is, and some of their readers are trying to help them. They argue that people can still use Twitter and Facebook, which is true but less efficient (try tweeting a whole paragraph). Many commenters won’t bother, so they’re making it harder for reality to reach the editorial office or appear in print.

Probably more to the point, they’re making it much harder for their readers to see that feedback and be aware of the paucity of their evidence and reasoning. And therein possibly lies the real issue, perhaps Popular Science is afraid that subscriptions will fall if readers can see that the journalists don’t know as much as some commenters?

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About Russ Steele

Freelance writer and climate change blogger. Russ spent twenty years in the Air Force as a navigator specializing in electronics warfare and digital systems. After his service he was employed for sixteen years as concept developer for TRW, an aerospace and automotive company, and then was CEO of a non-profit Internet provider for 18 months. Russ's articles have appeared in Comstock's Business, Capitol Journal, Trailer Life, Monitoring Times, and Idaho Magazine.
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