The blog entry starts with a chilling phrase – “Comments can be bad for science”. It is the announcement that Popular Science is shutting down the ability to comment on articles on their site – and it is being done because they see harm happening to the spread of science based on negative and politically charged commentary.
So what is the big deal? I mean, have you been on YouTube lately? The discourse on PopSci is definitely civil compared to that level of vitriol. But it is the way negativity and misinformation in comments can shape whether or not someone believes the outcomes of the article. And THAT is the issue. The editors used the outcomes of studies about the impact of commentary on the perception of the actual content, as noted in the post:
Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.
In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.
Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.
They also note that other studies found that civil but contentious debate in the comments can impact a reader’s perception of the actual science.
And it is the actual science that is at issue. Popular Science – like many technical journals that have gone online, they must now deal with critique that is distinctly different than it was in decades past. It is no longer sufficient to have your article and science peer-reviewed (meaning it is sent around for colleagues to review and analyze) before publication – now you must endure an endless onslaught of ‘armchair scientists’ who are often ill-informed … or worse.
This is not to say that we must simply accept scientific results at first glance. Not at all – in fact good science is based on the idea of skepticism and reasoned challenge. In the article ‘Welcome to the Age of Denial’, the New York Times looks at the growing trend of ‘politicization of science’. Good science – in fact ALL of scientific progress is based on growing the ‘body of knowledge’. The impact of ‘deniers’ is the erosion of that body of knowledge and the devaluation of science.
For example, research I led in a previous job looked at the metrology aspects of defects in a semiconductor material in the liquid form and in the ‘cast’ form after being spin coated and baked. Since our study was based on metrology, we needed to consult the body of knowledge of spin dynamics, chemical bonding, adhesion properties and so on. Fortunately for us these are not things with political connotations, so the clear science remains unassailed and we could present our findings. They were hotly debated in the conference where I presented them, in the hallway after, and even in our company ‘open house’ event the next evening. It was wonderful and amazing – and all about the science.
Another depressing quote from the article:
Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.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.
It is really sad to say that many otherwise intelligent people – including many who work in science – are doing the “cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine” on a regular basis.