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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 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.


      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.


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