Editorial: PopSci Kills Comments, Blames Global Warming, Evolution
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.