Eric Price

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Do Scientists Need to "Silence" un-Scientific or Subjective Debate to Protect Truth?

A "Popular Scientific" magazine recently published an article stating, "Comments can be bad for science. That's why...we're shutting them off."

Further quotations: "...even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story, recent research suggests." "Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself." "Another...study found that just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers' perception of science."

Bottom line..."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."

In other words, to further truth science must ensure that "truth" is not swayed by erroneous public opinion, whether by emotion, firm statements or otherwise.

I find the conclusions deeply disturbing. If a magazine must resort to a position of dogma treating their material like a sacred text not to be questioned, then it becomes tantamount to propaganda - even if the content is scientifically sound. Must scientists be the gate keepers of truth, having no confidence that commoners can reason, question ideas and be objective to learn truth for themselves? I still believe that people can be taught to use intelligence and reason to process information. To lose that belief is to lose hope in a civil society.

If what the article states is true, what must naturally follow is the suppression of free thought and dialogue, a division in social position between those who can discern truth and those who do not or can not, and a further risk that the unenlightened can only become greater targets for erroneous beliefs.

World changing ideas have never come easy. Do you agree with the conclusion and action to surpress discussion for the sake of science?

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    Oct 8 2013: Denis Diderot, the founder of the 18th century Encyclopedie, was against slavery. However, so important was freedom of speech to his view that he included racist articles in favour of slavery. And the reader could thereby judge.
    Isn't that surprising?
    I don't think I'd allow racist comments if I were a TED administrator, for instance, because of the principle that such freedom of speech invaded the integrity of other human beings. Regarding science, matters are slightly more complicated because science is at war.
    Science is at war against stupidity, publicity, superstition and laziness. Just as the US created controversial prison to keep and torture terrorists, science needs to educate at this point. It might be clumsy in the way it mimics at times religious authoritativity and seems to become the very thing it purports to fight, but any teacher knows that sometimes the kid needs to shut the fuck up and listen.
    I tried to find a documentary about the pyramids for my kids to watch on Youtube. Guess what. Bullshit sprinkled all over about UFOs or long-gone civilizations. I have a keen eye for bullshit detection but many of my relatives are not so lucky and they just can't separate crap from knowledge. I don't think content should be deleted from Youtube for being in part responsible of delaying the launch of an age of reason. But under the extreme circomstances and given the extreme credulity of the mass, one might consider JUST flagging bullshit for what it is.
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      Oct 8 2013: Thanks for your comments, I think your comments were right on track to address my concerns. Maybe I have to much confidence in the belief that people can be taught to think on different levels. For me this comes naturally - or perhaps I was raised to do this naturally. Either way I'd rather err on the side of believing and having hope that we can find solutions to the problem of having open discussion around difficult topics.
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        Oct 8 2013: I don't think Popular Science has given up on finding "solutions to the problem of having open discussion around difficult topics," though the title of their article might have given that impression. The author said near the end of the article that they would have open comments on some articles that lend themselves to a variety of thoughtful views. So they seem to be continuing to experiment with how they can promote thoughtful discussion of alternative perspectives. They are focusing that effort for now on a subset of their articles.

        They are trying things out, experimenting, as one might expect from a science magazine. I respect them for working on this issue. I am sure there has been a lot of believing and hoping already that an atmosphere of thoughtfulness and balance would emerge naturally and that they are now trying a new approach.

        I don't think anyone seriously doubts that people can be taught to think on different levels. Right now Popular Science does not seem to think that being awash in the kinds of comments their articles are drawing is the best path to promoting such multi-level thought, and, rather than acting on assumption alone, they seem to be studying research addressing that point.

        It isn't surprising that a science magazine would take a research approach to a question like this, I think, or an experimental approach.
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      Oct 9 2013: Gerald,

      You stated, "Science is at war against stupidity, publicity, superstition and laziness."

      Consider the following:
      "The earth is flat"
      "The earth is the center of the universe"

      These at one time commonly held beliefs in our history were dispelled through time, knowledge and education. These changes in belief and thought took time.

      Some still believe (or try to make believe) that man never made it to the moon. But those voices are in the minority and most don't believe them.

      Do you believe that the issues facing science today are any different than in times past and do we really need to take a different approach to gain acceptance in new evidence?
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        Oct 9 2013: Back in the days of Galileo the issue was a philosophical one. Science was then a response to the mystery that honnest observation and honnest questionning brought. So it was about being flawless, as Darwin later was, and about caution in what could be explained and what yet couldn't. And that rigour gave it its credibility as a proper philosophy for investigating reality.
        Today, however, things have changed. No one can question how evolution works without bumping into all the medical advances that we derived from it, and no one can question how transistors work while typing on a computer that does function perfectly. And in fact, because of the enormous progress achieved since Galileo or Darwin, very few people have enough understanding of how common things work to remotely begin to raise the right questions.
        And we know that people are not central to the universe, and we know that authority has nothing to do with being right or wrong. This part we've acquired already.
        The big problem, however, is that guys in a white blouse have inherited the trust of the layman from all this. It's a good thing on the one hand, since it would be impossible if everybody expected thorough explanations for absolutely everything, given all that is currently understood. But on the other hand, this opens the door to pseudo sciences and their incomplete half-baked theories, or even to some publicity lying about scientific proofs of such and such without bothering to explain anything.
        I can't think of a better way than education to talke this problem. I'm not talking about massive biology/physics/astronomy/history courses, but of philosophy courses early at age that remind students, year after year for as long as it takes, that if they really want to know if an idea works they are entitled to expect elegant explanations about it. Or, at the very least, explanations as to why there is a slight chance of the theory to be better than another.
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        Oct 9 2013: I had been given homeopathy as cures for various illnesses throughout my youth. When I met a girl that didn't seem to believe in its effects, it took me about fifteen minutes of web browsing to figure out, with no medical knowledge, that homeopathy was a billion dollar hoax.
        I later revised my view on the account that homeopathy is a very special case of philosophical dilemma where belief, or faith, actually transforms sugar into medecine (via placebo effect). And placebo healling is cheap and effective, and only works if the people selling it also believe in it. It's crazy, I know, but I leave this subject for another discussion.
        Just saying that it doesn't require a phd in physics to figure out that Deepak Chroprah's understanding of quantum mechanics is nonsense. It takes the philosophical notion that superfluous explanations, or ones that ask of you to take a few jumps from time to time, are probably schemed to fit a commercial/religious/political agenda and that it's no more science for the sake of knowledge.
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    Oct 10 2013: While I don't hear anyone challenging the well accepted principle that people learn most effectively by thoughtful and active engagement with material rather than just by listening, I thought I would share some specific references on this point. The quickest is to look up "Constructivism." A very readable book often assigned in teacher training is Bransford et al,How Children Learn. For the very passionately interested person, I like Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.

    The research does not say that people come to a good understanding of a subject from just any kind of social interaction about it, of course, just like practice doesn't make perfect if you are not practicing thoughtfully or if you are practicing a technique that doesn't actually work. But thoughtful exchanges, like focused and careful practice, have undeniable value to the learner.

    I think everyone here is on the same page too in understanding that comparing and testing each others ideas is a fundamental principle of how science is done and that progress in science comes from thoughtful challenges to current thinking, including gathering of data, testing of alternative theories, and not ignoring alternative interpretations of data.
  • Oct 9 2013: No, I don't think you need to be deeply disturbed. The thing of it is that their choice does not quell freedom of speech. Nor does it quell public dissent. It returns it to its rightful place, in the public between the people. The capacity of the common person to debate scientific merit is and should be questioned. Scientific literacy is a genuine issue. So, share their article on your own FB page or with your families and feel free to write a letter to the editor if you like. Just don't ask the magazine to give you a platform for your opinion - which is what comments sections are. Peer reviewed magazines are held in higher esteem than others because they are held to a higher standard. Are there/will there always be issues of gate keeping those voices, yes, of course, and we depend upon and count on fields to hold themselves accountable. But, this instant interactivity between reader and author is all still fairly new to society. And to many (from the my opinion is equal to your facts camp) the opinions expressed in a comments section hold just as much sway as the facts determined by the author. This is supposed to be science. You get the right to your own opinion but not your own facts.
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      Oct 9 2013: Hello Sharon,

      Thank you for your suggestions and thoughtful comments. You bring up some, good points. This type of format in which literally anyone can post a comment is relatively new. However, it is that type of ability - to comment on information published on the internet - that allows anything published to remain in 'check'. Yes, there are other avenues in which discussion can take place. Regarding posting to FB page though - no thank you I don't have one. But, really I'd much rather have this sort of dialogue take place in a forum that encourages open intelligent discussion - which is why I posted this here on this website.

      I interpret your response to agree with the magazine's position, and that is in order to protect the facts presented, a science magazine may necessarily need to remove the ability for others to comment/dialog on the content of the magazine.

      On another note, I'm sure you know - PS is not a peer reviewed journal.
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      Oct 10 2013: Hi Sharon, after considering your input further I have a few additional thoughts for you to consider:

      The magazine is published for lay readers who appreciate scientific topics, not specifically for educators, professionals or those in position where policy is decided. Excluding the subscribers from participating might actually skew readers away from embracing the concepts.

      The ability to post comments doesn't necessarily mean that the discussion taking place has to be about the facts contained in the content of the article. The discussion taking place can be about the implication of the facts contained in the article. For example, If the topic of climate change is posted in an article, a discussion can take place around what does this mean to all of us? How can we be more responsible to reduce our carbon footprint? etc.

      I think there might be some studies out there that talk about how website users being able to interact with the topic may actually make them more interested in the topic and ask deeper questions before answering. I'm not aware of these studies outside of those related to Wiki's, but I can share the impact on my life personally. When I know that I am going to participate in a discussion, I certainly think through the issue on a deeper level.

      You mention elsewhere that science is in trouble. Although I find that if you look at the trend over time, you'll find the solid scientific ideas and concepts survive the test of time.
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    Lejan .

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    Oct 8 2013: Scientists got better things to do than wasting their time on the ignorant.

    I am more concerned about the fact, that the industry gained influence on the decision process of government spending in science, as this only extends corporate R&D budgets on public expenses. It also cuts down the variety of new gained knowledge, and reduces sciences to what makes a quick buck or two. This is way more dangerous than armies of the ignorant.

    Yet science itself is morally neutral, so in order to bring it in resonance with the society who finances it, there got to be a feedback loop to keep it balanced. As much as I know, education is a good vaccination against ignorance, so we may re-focus on that instead wasting our tax-money to bail-out private interests.
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      Oct 8 2013: Scientists (as specific individuals) may not make the best use of their time by wasting it on the ignorant. However we shouldn't venerate them either, placing them in ivory towers. They should certainly worry about the impact of the ignorant on ideas and furthering a society that can embrace the outcome of any research they do. If not the scientists, certainly those that support them or fund their research should be concerned.

      Formal Education is one avenue by which we can dispel ignorance. However, we need other ways in which a forum for discussion can take place. Ted Talks seem to be one of the most successful ways to get new ideas from brilliant thinkers to a broad audience. I doubt that many of those thinkers feel that they are wasting their time by sharing their ideas or influencing others. Ted Talks seem to invite a variety of concepts and positions without fear that one has to necessarily win out over the other.

      I believe that If a magazine feels it must silence certain voices to ensure that it can further truth, it's taking the wrong approach (again this is not a peer reviewed scientific journal). They become no different than any other organization that rather than influence a change in thinking or how to think, only produce ideas or concepts that might later be replaced by other perhaps louder or more frequent voices. I'd prefer to be a part of the discussion so that I can align my thinking through challenging dialogue. Otherwise, the magazine is not written to teach me because part of learning is questioning, discussion and consideration of differing views. It's only there to indoctrinate.

      I wish the magazine's decision had been to write an article on how to spot a ruse, How to use logic and reason to question proposed ideas and then, post a link to that article above every comments section.
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        Lejan .

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        Oct 8 2013: Its not any magazines job to teach logic, reasoning or how to question the ideas they proposed. If this has not been taught and learned before, the public education system has definitely failed.

        But I am not sure if I really understand your concerns, because shutting down the comments section on a website does not appear to me to be any loss for an open dispute in science. Especially as 'popular science' is often known to surf quite shallow waters...

        If youtube was closing their comments section no harm would happen to open discussions.

        Printing media has been under high financial pressure since the Internet and many magazines are struggling to transform their business models into 'pay per read' on-line services. Simple ad-blocker apps for modern browser just kill any alternative income source via advertisement, so that I wouldn't be surprised, if shutting down those comment sections is simply done to save man-power.

        Bots and bad language filters help to maintain a certain level of decency on open forums, yet they are not advanced enough yet to do the whole job. So to do it right, there got to be supervision, as otherwise you simply end up like youtube and supervision means payed employees.

        You may not mind to dig through hundreds of stupid spam-messages, yet my sense for professionalism would be highly disturbed. But this is just personal taste, I guess.

        Anyway, if you take a look at TED, you may notice, that only a few, very few speaker ever comment on comments of their talks. Actually, I don't even recall if I have ever seen one. Once, one speaker did show up here on TED conversations, without being part of some 'special event'. Besides that, at least I didn't notice any.

        I absolutely agree with you, that there is a gap to be bridged in between those 'ivory towers' in science and 'the people'. It is very important. That important, that the private sector alone isn't good enough. Yet budget cuts is not allowing for change anytime soon, if ever ...
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          Oct 8 2013: Well, what I'm really looking to get input on here is this: "Is moderating (subduing, stifling, etc.) certain ideas / voices for the sake of science necessary to further the cause". Which I think you've answered.

          My concern? Once someone decides that certain views are not worth hearing, then you can go in any direction for the sake of furthering your cause. I don't agree and it can be a dangerous viewpoint if taken too far.
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        Oct 8 2013: Eric, I am absolutely with you on your concern! And this not 'just' for science, as any kind of censorship is undesirable to me.

        Yet where does censorship start and opinion begin? I may even censor myself and I think I do, as forming decisions does exclude alternative ones, to which unconsciously I may be pre-selective in my perception of information.

        Without doubt, and on this I agree with you as well, as more open discussions we have, as more voices we hear, as better we are able to spot censorship, and the direction it is coming from.

        For any source of information I have to consider where it is coming from, and who is making the decisions about what is published. This is hell of a lot of work, yet to get a picture as clear as possible, there is no other way than to do that.

        I expect no source to be unfiltered, yet I have to respect the right of any publisher to select what gets published in his/her name.

        Do some research and you can easily find quite interesting TED talks who got banned later off this site. In fact, getting to know censored information is the best you can have, as it makes absolutely clear what the agenda is. This is why whistle-bowers and wikileaks are hated so much, because 'reverse engineering' of censored information is a peace of cake.

        What about alternatives? Could you find any other magazine which didn't close their comment section?
        What about social websites? Could there be open discussions on science? The Internet is usually known as the Hydra of information. You shop one head off here and two new ones pop up on the other side.

        Get active here. Debates on science are often highly frequented.

        Without you I wouldn't not have noticed what you observed. I am more sensitive now, thanks to you.

        So get TED rolling in your favor but please don't flag any of my comments, not even the stupid ones, which are difficult at time to distinguish from the others .... ;o)
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          Oct 9 2013: Thanks Lejan,

          I know that this post may have come off sounding as though I really had some major problem with the magazine. Really it was about the idea - regardless of the source. I agree that the magazine should be entitled to moderate their website however they so choose.

          I feel quite lucky to live in a country where their are no internet 'filters'. I hope it stays that way. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and ideas.
  • Oct 7 2013: Screening out pseudoscience and general nonsense away from the mainstream media sounds like a good thing, not a problem.
    There is a difference between silencing legitimate science with controversial conclusions, and throwing bad research into the garbage bin where it belongs.

    Besides, have you ever tried going through a comment section in a site that posts articles? Its more graffiti than anything else. There is often some legitimate points and discussion raised, but its typically buried under so much crap that it gets completely overshadowed.
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      Oct 7 2013: Personally I'd rather read through all the crap knowing that everyone had an equal opportunity to comment on the article. Remember this is a general magazine for the public it's not a scientific journal. Perhaps I'm taking this too seriously or perhaps the magazine is taking themselves too seriously.
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        Oct 8 2013: There is a difference if a magazine is 'for the public' or financed 'by the public'.

        The private sector is free to decide what they publish, as long as it does not conflict with the laws. The public sector is different, or should be, as it is a service by and for society itself.

        You could compare this with the BBC, which was meant as an independent broadcast service for the UK and to guarantee its independence it is mainly financed by tax-money, yet legally protected from any governmental interference.

        A private broadcasting company, mainly financed by corporate money and their commercials, has no obligation to inform the public in any 'neutral' or 'balanced' way. And they don't. In fact, they can't due to their financial dependency on their clients.

        Unfortunately, it becomes more and more questionable if public services do any better nowadays...
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          Oct 8 2013: I am not certain that private broadcasting companies have no obligation to inform the public in a neutral or balanced way. Different countries may impose different requirements, because the company's ability to offer its product may depend not only on advertising revenues but also on access to radio bands and so forth which it does not own but which it is licensed by the government to use.

          Until the advent of cable television, the law in this country included the Fairness Doctrine. This link describes its inception and its demise: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairness_Doctrine

          In the United States, I believe there are rules against a network's giving one electoral candidate more airtime than another. It is called the Equal Time doctrine, or something like that.

          Other countries probably do this differently.
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    Oct 13 2013: thankfully we have the free will.
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    Oct 10 2013: Just in case anyone is interested, the editor-in-chief, I believe, of Popular Science, is hosting a discussion on their site today about their decision to close down comments on some articles.

    If you are interested in learning about their thinking, raising questions, or otherwise participating in their open forum, try this link: http://www.popsci.com/article/science/ask-jacob-ward-about-popularsciencecoms-decision-shut-comments?dom=PSC&loc=recent&lnk=6&con=ask-jacob-ward-about-popularsciencecoms-decision-to-shut-off-comments

    EDIT: The thirty minute video is now on the Popular Science site. The Editor was pretty clear, in my opinion, that their big problem was indeed incivility, or what he described as people posting things under pseudonyms they would not have posted under their own names. They are re-directing comments to their Facebook page, to their Google plus, and to Twitter, where discussion takes place under people's real names. Do listen if you are interested.
  • Oct 10 2013: I don't think that unscientific viewpoints should be silenced in this way. This just makes scientists into dictators and very few want this sort of thing to prevail. The best way for unscientific or what is called subjective aspects of society to dwindle away is for scientists to demonstrate the ability of science to do its job and be comprehensible for everyone. Most importantly, anyone can learn about what science does at any university in the world, nothing is being kept secret here. While a minority of people within society may be influenced by these subjective viewpoints the majority will not provided science is open to society. On the other hand some things which are now considered to be subjective by the current scientific paradigm may not beat a later time. Some things are considered subjective because the stadard paradigm cannot explain its existence or phenomenon. In some instances these phenomena are ignored or ridiculed by scientists until they are shown to be just as real as other phenomena that are accepted as objective.
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    Oct 10 2013: Hello All,

    I've really enjoyed this discussion and I've gained a lot of perspective hearing from everyone. Thank you for participating. I've tried to expand on my comments whenever possible to clarify my intent. Perhaps I was too wordy in my opening, but just a few areas I'd like to clarify here:

    First, I don't have anything personally against this particular publication.
    Second, I believe the magazine is entitled to moderate their website however they choose.

    The question I was hoping to focus on here is really, "Is suppressing discussion (subduing, stifling, etc.) certain ideas / voices for the sake of science necessary to further the cause"

    This can be an emotional topic. I read a book "Crucial Conversations" which lays out a framework from which difficult conversation can take place. You might find it useful here as well as in other settings where a difficult conversation needs to take place. Here's the summary: http://www.wikisummaries.org/Crucial_Conversations:_Tools_for_Talking_When_Stakes_are_High

    "A crucial conversation is a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. When we face crucial conversations, we can do one of three things: We can avoid them, we can face them and handle them poorly, or we can face them and handle them well. Ironically, the more crucial the conversation, the less likely we are to handle it well. We often hold things inside by going silent until we can take it no longer—and then we drop a bomb. In short, we move between silence and violence—we either don’t handle the conversation, or don’t handle it well. We may not become physically violent, but we do attack others’ ideas and feelings. When we fail a crucial conversation, every aspect of our lives can be affected—from our careers, to our communities, to our relationships, to our personal health."
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    • Oct 10 2013: They are not suppressing discussion!! They're choosing not to offer a platform for it. There is a difference. And they are not obligated to offer a platform to anyone!
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    Oct 9 2013: excellent question Eric,

    Science requires differing hypotheses that can be empirically tested and replicated. When Science attempts to justify, mitigate externalizations or ignores relevant data and or assumptions or verify a specific conclusion, it stops being science and becomes politics. Unfortunately the line is very fuzzy in many areas.

    I would also suggest pursuing published science, look at the questions researched and ask yourself, what social relevance does this question have? Particularly in light that so many problems intersect science, technology, economy, environment and society.

    my two cents....
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      Oct 9 2013: Thank you Craig. I think your two cents are some of the most valuable comments I've heard. Nicely worded.

      Here's how I might estimate the magazine's position using your examples:

      - When it comes articles that relate to "how to build a better Rocket engine" - comments may be OK
      - When it comes to articles that impact social/political issues that the magazine writers/editors/owners would like to further - comments may be restricted.

      I realize that may be an oversimplification, but might work as a general guideline.
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        Oct 9 2013: These are, in fact, the closing lines in the Popular Science article, for anyone who wants to stay close to the facts we know:

        "We also plan to open the comments section on select articles that lend themselves to vigorous and intelligent discussion. We hope you'll chime in with your brightest thoughts. Don't do it for us. Do it for science."

        Contrary speculation about possible plans to suppress ideas out of the social and political motives of the magazine may be more than oversimplification. It may be a misunderstanding and a resulting misrepresentation of their plans and intentions that might not at all "work as a general guideline" and that you could try to verify with them, as Sharon suggests.

        These claims so often turn into false rumors that could have been stemmed by fact gathering.
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      Oct 9 2013: Hi Fritzie,

      Craig has speculated and made some excellent comments, and so have I. I don't intend to know the magazine's full intent. Here's another quote from PS:

      "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."

      It's clear the magazine may - on occasion - hit the "off" switch on articles that impact how public policy gets shaped. These are their words.

      There's no malice intended in my comment at all, just trying to summarize how another poster's comments might apply to the overall question posed.

      BTW, the magazine hasn't responded to the inquiry I sent them. Maybe someone can invite them to join in the conversation.

      Thanks

      EDIT: Please note that I intentionally used the words "May be" not "Will be". Indicating that this isn't a rule per se.
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        Oct 9 2013: That's a good idea to invite them. If they do reply to you privately, it would be nice to share their response here in its entirety, if you are comfortable with that.

        I interpreted that paragraph as saying only that public opinion matters, so they take seriously their responsibility to help to inform rather than to mislead.

        I believe they want to remain a good source of science that is supported by scientific evidence.

        Do share what you learn about their actual plans for supporting thoughtful inquiry and discourse into science topics of public importance.

        Thanks.,
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    Oct 9 2013: "Do Scientists Need to "Silence" un-Scientific or Subjective Debate to Protect Truth?"

    No more than:

    "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain"

    See what science is becoming?
    • Oct 9 2013: I disagree. See? My opinion is as worthy as yours is it not? But, is my opinion as worthy as the facts shown through rigorous scientific method? I think not. Science is fighting for its life these days as more and more people have decided for themselves, based on no knowledge whatsoever, that they can debate settled points of science. This is not healthy scientific debate, its nonsense and makes us an illiterate society hell bent on causing ourselves more damage than not. When high school science teachers have to hold meetings to discuss that they will be teaching evolution we have reached a crisis point.
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        Oct 9 2013: Sharon, of course your opinion is as worthy as anyone else's. Nowhere have I ever disputed that.

        As someone who loves science, it saddens me to the core at the very suggestion that it should become some sort of exclusive fundamentalist institution, not unlike the very worst adherents of so-called religions. That was the point of my comment. I was pointing out that "Silencing subjective debate" has become a kind of blasphemous sleight on another Godhead of our own making.

        The very reason why science is fighting for its life is precisely because the scientific method is actually losing rigour, by forming too close an allegiance to politics and commerce. Any institution that allies itself that closely to politics, risks losing its original identity and ethical standing within the wider populace, who in turn, lose trust in something where trustworthiness should be written in stone.

        Likewise any respected institution that becomes so studiously narrow as to exclude contributions to its knowledge base from those who 'think outside the box', will get precisely nowhere at all in the advancement of knowledge. This is because, in excluding imagination and subjective debate, 'settled science' would tend to stagnate mostly in what it already knows.

        The advancement of knowledge should reflect the structure of our own brains - where art, subjectivity and philosophy could potentially make science dynamic, far-reaching and panoramic in its outlook. Especially important now with the the world lurching rapidly into another epoch, we need to use every neuron and every synapse available to us to get through it in one piece.
        • Oct 10 2013: Science has always been an exclusive institution and those who posit argument against its orthodoxy have an uphill struggle to make their points. And this is partly as it should be. It should be hard to get scientific ideas out there. You should have to prove them. Chris Kelly (below) insists that the theory of evolution will fall to the root race theory. I am - shall we say - less than convinced. So let them posit it in scientific journals, let them prove their case. Let them do the work that it takes to get their EVIDENCE and PROOF accepted by the scientific community. At some point settled science is not a stagnant thing, it is a foundation. Foundations that are solid can be built upon, foundations that are ever shifting waste time and energy in endless building and rebuilding. Science IS dynamic and far reaching. But it is supposed to be science. There is a difference between science and philosophy. There is supposed to be!
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        • Oct 10 2013: Thank you for making my point so eloquently. Seeds of life from astral comets I'll put under consideration, "Ethereal beings" will need to bring more evidence.
        • Oct 14 2013: you have a hard time integrating scientific truth into the ideas you want to accept are true. you think scientists are wrong simply because they believe something you dont want.. it easy to believe whatever in this world its hard to actually seek answers purely for the sake of answers and not reinforcement of something we want to believe
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        Oct 10 2013: Sharon, Going along with your metaphor - If science is the solid foundation that can be built upon, then subjectivity, philosophy and art is the sand, cement and ballast that has made it the solid thing it has become in the first place.

        In all great scientific theories, there has always been a hierarchy of thought that starts with intuition, subjectivity and philosophy, and ends, via reductionism into what we like to regard as 'certainty'. But even certainty needs to retain an amount of doubt, so it can be re-referred back to its intuitive roots in order to keep 'settled science' dynamic and modifiable.

        I'm aware of the difference between philosophy and science, but I do not see the two as separate factions, never daring to intrude on each other's territory. I see philosophy, and the subjective dynamism it is able to bring to the table, as a major food source for science. Without it, science would just feed on itself, malnourished, unmoving, in a prison of its own making.
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    Oct 8 2013: Hello Eric,
    Thank you for the clarification, and link.
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    Oct 8 2013: I read the link... I think that Joshua sort have got it right... research is not usually funded on public opinion.

    Popular Science simply was distressed by those trolls who can say anything they want on the internet. Rational thinking readers of PS will ignore the irrational comments and most do not even read the comments at the bottom of the screen... at least I don't. I have copies of PS from the 60's and 70's. By the way, the world didn't quite turn out like they thought it would back then. It is fun to read the old magazines.
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      Oct 8 2013: Well, I'm sure PS was distressed by trolls. Even if turning off the comments in the articles became necessary to moderate the extremes I've still got to say that I'm concerned by their position and language in the article.

      I know that the magazine has changed hands in recent years...I'm a bit skeptical.
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    Oct 7 2013: Hello Eric,
    In your introduction you state " ... public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded ... ". Are you sure about that? I always get the impression that science's funding mainly comes from certain big-business vested interests, either directly to universities, or indirectly by lobbying government funding bodies.
    If public opinion had any real say, I doubt there would be such huge funding for the science behind military projects (or maybe that comes under a different umbrella), and much more funding for researching things like sustainable energy production and public transport.
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      Oct 7 2013: Hello Joshua,

      The sentence you mention is taken directly from the magazine article that I mentioned. It is a direct quote.

      Here's a link: http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-09/why-were-shutting-our-comments

      I think the company that now owns this fine publication is interested in government funding scientific studies. And, I agree that public opinion has much less sway on any what government funds or doesn't fund. But interesting that the magazine feels it must turn off certain comments for the sake of protecting the future of 'policy'.
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    Oct 7 2013: stupidity can't hurt science, but can hurt a forum. every forum has to decide who can participate and who can't. that decision will in large part determine the characteristics of the forum. if you want a debate about contemporary problems in evolutionary biology, you don't want creationists around. it is this simple.
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      Oct 7 2013: You confirm the articles concerns. Just to confirm - a magazine that publishes articles for the general public must at times necessarily restrict comments from the general public. This due to the fact certain viewpoints should not be heard or considered i.e. censored. Is it that simple?
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        Oct 7 2013: i did not say must, i say must decide. they can limit participants in a debate, why they couldn't? i talk to whoever i want. what kind of attitude is that i have to talk to someone? no i don't. and if i have a club, i can limit who can join. and everyone else can get lost. it is this simple.
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          Oct 7 2013: Of course a magazine can restrict its content and limit those to which it feels is appropriate to add editorial. That's a given as it is a private company. It's the ideals that the magazine is espousing that concerns me. That's what I am debating here: Is the magazine's philosophy that some commentary must be restricted because of it's adverse affect in other readers valid?
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        Oct 7 2013: it also concerns me if they find it an absolute statement, and not their choice. if they infer that having a debate about wacky ideas is generally unfavorable, and who does that does wrong, it is a very silly statement. if they mean it is their vision, and they are not going to promote or participate in such a debate, that is fine.

        in short: "must be" restricted is a false view. "should be" restricted is a preference. "can be" restricted is a valid view.
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    Oct 7 2013: As you are quoting from the article, could you also link the article?

    Is this the right link? http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-09/why-were-shutting-our-comments

    It seems they were being hit with lots of trolling and spambot activity that was overwhelming comments actually posted by people.
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      Oct 7 2013: That's the link. I think the article is not concerned about spambots but is more concerned about the influence of people commenting on the content. I think that would be confirmed by the studies quoted in the article.
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      Oct 7 2013: P.s. didn't list the article link out of concern for using any copyrighted info. guess were ok.
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        Oct 7 2013: People link articles all the time, so I think it must be okay unless the linkee objects maybe?

        I think you are right that the author of the argument was concerned about incivility and so forth. Someone who participates on their site would know what their problem has actually been that prompted their taking this difficult step.

        One thing I think may worry them is the possibility that on sites that get flooded with trolls and incivility, thoughtful people and people with actual expertise will withdraw from participation out of distaste for that style of discourse and because they don't want to be associated with it. So you lose a lot of high quality posts.

        There was a famous article in the 60's, maybe, by George Ackerloff called The Market for Lemons that makes a similar case, but uses the market for used cars.
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          Oct 7 2013: "Sites that getting flooded with trolls and incivility, thoughtful people and people with actual expertise will withdraw from participation out of distaste for that style of discourse and because they don't want to be associated with it."

          Good point, but as a friend pointed out there are ways to highlight useful posts, etc. Such as the thumbs up on this site or how answers/questions get highlighted on stack overflow or yahoo answers. But I agree that many reasoned thinkers might shy away from participation for that reason.
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        Oct 7 2013: The thumbs up is not effective in these cases, I think. Trolls can operate under multiple identities simultaneously that give each other thumbs up. A person with ten pseudonyms, for example, can give each of his ten identities nine thumbs up on every post. Alternatively a group with an agenda can come in in a concerted way and do the same thing.

        I don't know whether the science site you indicated had this experience.

        A couple of times on other sites I have seen people rally a large special interest group to enter with this sort of strategy onto a second site that had been hopeful of a thoughtful exchange of divergent views. Few, I think, would stay to present a thoughtful case when the other side is such an army.

        Were you a participant on that science site? Do you know what specific situation led to their announcement?
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          Oct 8 2013: The websites I'm referring to are not specific to scientific debate per-se. Stack overflow is a programming/coding website where participants vote up or down answers they think are worthy.

          I'm sure there are a few malicious individuals who can create havoc and cause this type of reaction for any website.

          There are very few forums where people remain civil anywhere when the topic is hotly debated. I've seen reputable individuals use disappointing language when they've become frustrated or have reached their limits. I guess that's why I posted this topic on this website, so that I take part in a real discussion.
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        Oct 8 2013: It is possible that the magazine staff, like many engaged in scientific inquiry, is concerned mainly about something else which the writer put forward more briefly in her article: "A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise ..."

        Popular Science, while not a scholarly journal, likely sees its mission as making accessible to the lay but science-interested public the most important findings of scholarly science. While scholars writing papers in legitimate peer-reviewed journals, or disagreeing with each other heatedly at conferences, have the background to understand the strengths and weaknesses in each other's positions and to savor that working through of possible understandings, the lay reader typically does not have such a background and must rely on other cues in forming a judgment.

        The staff of a science magazine may worry about its site being used by commenters to sell snake oil. While one could argue that readers should realize that anyone can comment or make a claim in social media or comments sections without actually having any knowledge of the topic on which he comments, what people actually take away from comments is an empirical question. The author looks at research that suggests people are highly influenced by tone.

        That magazine may feel that lots of its efforts to publish good science are wasted if readers are then misled by by the comments below them.

        From the article it does not at all seem they are trying to protect widely accepted findings from thoughtful critique. I think they are more likely trying not to host politically and commercially motivated comments and rude comments. They may not feel confident that they can do this efficiently through their moderating activities, if they have them.