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Popular Science Says to Readers: “Shut Up and Listen to the Experts!”

popsci-2Apparently, the best way to maintain “popular consensus” is to shut dissenters up. At least, that’s the sense I got after reading why Popular Science announced it was shutting off comments.

Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off.

Comments can be bad for… huh?

Citing a study from the University of Wisconsin that shows readers exposed to rude or insulting comments reported a slanted view of the information they read in the article, PopSci concludes:

…even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.

And Lord knows we mustn’t skew a reader’s perception of a story. Especially when those “stories” are a not-so-veiled attempt to “scientifically” justify abortion rights or charge Republicans with “fearing science”? Why, how dare commenters call out the emperor’s nakedness!

Now, what’s good for science is to keep that “fractious minority” from skewing “a reader’s perception” of the real stories. And who determines the real stories? Why, the experts, of course! And apparently that’s what science is now about: Getting people to shut up and believe “the experts.”

But where would science be without a “fractious minority”? You know, “crackpots” like Galileo, Newton, and Copernicus, who prodded the status quo. Apparently, “popular science” is aiming for an echo chamber not a think tank.

So allowing public comments has “eroded the popular consensus.” And we all know how important maintaining “public consensus” is to the elites.

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.

So this is the “evidence-based” justification for stifling pro-lifers and “climate deniers,” er, trolls? Besides, when did issues like “evolution” and “climate change” become infallible? I must have missed that coronation. And if there’s really a “politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise,” are we to believe those who possess said expertise are apolitical?

But the following phrase is the one that turned me utterly “fractious” — “Scientific certainty.”

Is there such a thing?

I mean, what is the “evidence” for “scientific certainty”? Can we really be “certain” of the accuracy of our cognitive faculties and an unbiased interpretation of data? Is “scientific certainty” scientifically provable? How can it be? You can’t use the scientific method to prove the scientific method is flawless. Using science to prove that science is reliable is circular. Which leaves plenty of room for error and uncertainty.

Perhaps questioning the certainty of science’s “public consensus” is actually the more reasonable way to go.

Then again, I’m a non-expert.

Oh, well. Maybe they’re right. Popular science only works when YOU shut up.

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • R.J. Anderson September 27, 2013, 6:22 AM

    I have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, I think they’re right about the stupidity and ignorance of many comments sections, and the way it leaves a negative impression on the reader — there’s a reason “don’t read the comments” has become a maxim when linking to otherwise good and thoughtful articles. So I actually think it’s not a bad idea for a site like Pop Sci whose mandate is to present information (regardless of whether the information itself is accurate or not).

    After all, it’s not like they’re silencing their readers: they’re just not making it easy for them to shoot off their mouths with a single click. Those readers can still discuss the article with other interested parties on a separate forum, blog or tweet about it with their opinions, or send e-mails to the writer / editor if they’ve noticed errors or omissions that should be corrected.

    Of course, as you point out, shutting off comments can also imply that the author believes there IS no debate about the issue, and clearly this is what Pop Sci believes in certain cases. Nonetheless, they aren’t the only site to decide that open comments are more trouble than they’re worth, and encourage their readers to send e-mails or use outside forums instead — look at Christian author Ann Voskamp’s very popular blog, for instance.

    I have to admit that much as I enjoy participating in discussions on other sites when there’s a solid community of generally reasonable people to talk with, the majority of comments sections are enough to make anyone weep with despair. And having been a part of the very discussion-based LiveJournal community in the past, and seen how exhausting and frustrating it can be to battle trolls and douse flamewars whenever one posts something even slightly unpopular, I think it could actually lead to freer and bolder discourse, and certainly more thoughtful and sustained arguments, if more bloggers stopped trying to please everyone and simply turned commenting off.

    I’m not saying I think you should do that here, though. First because it wouldn’t be your style NOT to open things up for discussion, and in any case I think it would greatly decrease your readership. But news and information sites, and some personal blogs with a different focus than this one — sure, why not?

    • Jessica E. Thomas September 27, 2013, 9:48 AM

      They could have just turned them off and not been so pretentious about it.

  • Abby Normal September 27, 2013, 6:22 AM

    1) You can’t “use the scientific method to prove the scientific method is flawless” because the scientific method is a TOOL. The same tool your buddies Galileo and Copurnicus were using, in fact. You record your observations as accurately as possible, you make your conclusions, you (or someone else) reproduces them. It’s the best method that scientists have for “proving” phenomena, because it’s worked for millenia. What do you propose should take its place?

    2) The magazine that you are having kittens over is Popular Science. Not Nature. Not the New England Journal. At the academic level, all scientists that get published have to face a rigorous peer review process where dissention (based on competing data) is encouraged. (I know this from experience.)

    3) The growing distrust of “experts” is worrisome, in my opinion. Look at it this way: what do you do when you take your car into the shop and the mechanic tells you you need a new air filter? Do you figure it’s time and let him put a new one in? Do you take it to another mechanic to see if he says the same thing, and if he does let him replace it? Or do you decide that it’s your firmly held belief that air filters only need changing once a year and leave it in there?
    Or suppose your doctor tells you that you need meds for your blood pressure? Do you assume he’s part of that evil left-wing pharmaceutical company lobby that’s trying to sell you something and ignore his advice?

    4) Unlike other disciplines, science is the one area where eventually, if the data supports it, a principle is just no longer open for debate. No one debates whether blood circulates through the heart anymore, because it has been proven. Nobody debates the laws of thermodynamics anymore, or the germ theory of disease, or the molecular structure of glucose. Unfortunately, in the wilds of the internets, you probably will come across folks who will insist on doing just that. While they have a right to think whatever they want, a magazine that’s supposed to be about science is probably not the place to give them a voice.

    • Jill September 27, 2013, 7:36 AM

      “Or suppose your doctor tells you that you need meds for your blood pressure? Do you assume he’s part of that evil left-wing pharmaceutical company lobby that’s trying to sell you something and ignore his advice?”
      This is news to me that that the pharmaceutical company lobby is evil and left-wing. But sure, I do believe they’re trying to make money off developing drugs. If my doctor told me to take blood pressure meds I’d be very skeptical and do a lot of research before I took those drugs. I’d be a questioning voice because blood pressure meds are inherently dangerous and aren’t the only way to lower blood pressure, and may not even be the best way. I don’t trust “experts”. I trust logic, reason, information, and my ability to read through the technical language of studies. Experts must earn my trust.

    • Mike Duran September 27, 2013, 8:46 AM

      Abby, what do I propose? Less hubris, for one. Also an admission that science is constantly in flux, that few findings are absolute, that there is tremendous peer pressure within science communities, that scientists can be biased, and that believing in science requires faith — faith in past findings, faith in our senses, faith in our instruments, and faith in those who interpret them.

    • D.M. Dutcher September 27, 2013, 10:19 AM

      A lot of those things aren’t as settled as you think. If you are familiar with peer review you are also familiar with publication bias and “publish or perish,” and also that the sheer amount of research published per year makes meaningful peer review on all but a small minority of research hard. Especially when the errors come in ways that one can’t verify from the abstract or study, but need to try to reproduce.

      Mechanics can be unethical and will rip you off, and doctors can prescribe medicines like antidepressants or Ritalin far too easily, and even for non-psychiatric symptoms. Not everyone is a disinterested researcher, and even on things like global warming it’s not the actual research that drives dissent, it was how people used it to justify things like carbon credits or other methods that enrich some people at the expense of others and don’t really solve the problem listed. You really do have to be skeptical within reason of things because people will use expert testimony to profit off of you.

      • Abby Normal September 27, 2013, 11:03 AM

        Couple of things, guys–

        Jill–I was being facetious about the conspiracy whatnot in an attempt to make a point. Sorry that wasn’t conveyed.

        Everone else–As a bit of background, I am a doctor. I’ve also done some more basic research during my fellowship, so, yes I’m familiar with “publish or perish”. However, I’m also familiar with how incredibly difficult it is to even get to the publishing bit.

        I will also mention that I come into contact with the results of people refusing to listen to “experts”. I had an HIV patient that decided to “cure” his disease through prayer. I had a sweet little old lady try to treat her husband’s diabetic foot with a “salve” she saw a preacher selling on TV (only bringing him to the hospital when he was in septic shock).

        So, yes, I understand the need to be skeptical and be a good consumer and all that, but please understand me when I point out that at some point it crosses a line into utter ridiculousness.

        I will also mention something that my prof told me when I was working on my research project–that a good scientist must always start with a hypothesis that he/she is willing to reject. As much as you may want your hypothesis to be true, you must be willing to reject it if the data you gather doesn’t support it. This, I believe, is where creation science breaks down–they start with the hypothesis of “God created the earth in six days”– something they have no intention of giving up. And they work backwards from there. You may disagree with me, but I worry that climate-change deniers and anti-vaccinaters work the same way.

        Finally, Mike–do you actually know any scientists? (Serious question, not snarky.) I only ask because there’s so much misinformation out there about how science actually “happens” that it might be informative to see what someone who’s actually “in the trenches” thinks about what you wrote.

        • Jill September 27, 2013, 3:19 PM

          You can bemoan others’ autonomy all you want, but you can’t force people to respect your authority. Why shouldn’t somebody w/ HIV pray? As long as the person understands that God may or may not heal him, then there is really nothing wrong with that. Even if the person is deluded, it is still up to that person to decide whether or not to go the route of traditional medicine. Some people simply don’t want to endure the side effects of traditional medicine. I know a woman who had breast cancer very soon after having gone through chemo for another kind of cancer. She decided to go with some weird herbal healing route, and everybody criticized her decision. However, she didn’t want to ever go through chemo again. It was nobody’s business but her own. She died, but she died with her autonomy intact. Just because you earn a doctorate doesn’t mean anybody has to respect you as an authority. They can only weigh the pros and cons of what you recommend and then decide for themselves. The same goes for any scientist who deems himself an expert. Thinking human being will always question their claims You may wish it be otherwise, but you can’t force it to be so.

          Do I know any scientists? Yes. I live in a science town. I attend a science university. I even know science professors who believe that God created the world in six days. If you believe in God, it isn’t outside the realm of what is philosophically possible.

          • Abby Normal September 27, 2013, 5:11 PM


            I never said, nor implied, that someone with HIV, or any other disease for that matter, shouldn’t pray. I often pray for my own patients, both for their own well-being and in the hope that I’ll be shown how best to help them.

            What I have a problem with is this growing distrust of modern medicine that some evangelical Christians (not all!) seem to have. And of course, every doc has to respect their patients’ autonomy. I know full well that I can’t tie anybody up and make them do what I tell them, and I know that no one is obligated to listen to me just because I’ve got a degree. However, I am still obligated to offer what I think–what clinical trials and the experiences of myself and all the preceding doctors have taught me–is the best advice. And if a patient with HIV tells me that he’s going to go be prayed over instead of taking meds–of course it’s his decision and I can’t stop him. But no way am I going to tell him that I think it’s a good idea. (The guy I mentioned wound up coming back to see me and going on meds when he got sick, by the way.)

            What bugs me is this automatic distrust of the medical profession (and a lot of other academics) that seems to exist among some Christians. I’m not going to tell anyone not to pray. I’m not going to tell anyone that they’re stupid for believing in God. I don’t get any kind of kickback from anything I prescribe. It’s just that from the years of work I’ve put in to getting where I am I’ve developed some specialized knowledge–and I’m going to share that with my patients whether they believe me or not.

            You want to know something else? I recently found out from my mom that she doesn’t tell people at her church what I do. She told me that “most of them just say that doctors are pill-pushers that don’t believe in God.” So she just tells them that I “work at a hospital” and leaves it at that, just so as not to make waves. In what universe is that not completely screwed up?

            And here, ironically enough, I chose medicine because I thought I could serve God this way. In some circles of Christians it’s become something my own mom is supposed to be ashamed of.

            • Jill October 1, 2013, 9:11 PM

              Honestly, I’ve never been to a church like that, and I’m sorry that fellow Christians would treat you that way. Most Christians I know regularly go to the doctor (different Christian culture, perhaps?), and I’m the rebel for visiting a doctor maybe once in ten years. But I don’t seek medical attention because I can’t afford it. Just keep doing what God has called you to do. When you help people, when you help to save their lives–God knows. I’m sorry it took me so long to respond to this. I’ve been very busy. I wanted to leave you with a positive thought, though, and not an argument.

  • ginaburgess September 27, 2013, 8:14 AM

    Actually, the study only indicates a polarization between religiosity and nanotechnology issue support. No scientist will equate nanotechnology with ALL science. Research doesn’t work that way.

    Obviously, Popular Science did not read the entire article. Results suggest there is no direct relationship between exposure to incivility and risk perceptions (H1 not supported).

    “Religiosity was measured by asking respondents, “How much guidance does religion provide in your everyday life?” with 1?=?“No guidance at all” and 10?=?“A great deal of guidance” (M?=?5.97; SD?=?3.23). Ideology was measured by asking respondents to rate how socially liberal or conservative they are on a 6-point scale, with 1?=?“Very liberal” and 6?=?“Very conservative” (M?=?3.61; SD?=?1.36).” An extremely broad measurement.

    Analysis of the results suggest to me that people’s minds are already made up before they start spewing any vitriol. (2nd paragraph under Discussion heading–“Individuals may be focusing on congruent messages about the topic at hand and discrediting incongruent messages, thereby strengthening their preexisting beliefs about the technology. And it appears that online incivility may drive this polarization.”) And this also suggests those who read the vitriol are not swayed to change their minds, the vitriol only solidifies their opinion.

    This is why I never take someone’s opinion on any particular study but read the thing for myself. I have found that researchers have a penchant for discussing their results in a way that may or may not be supported by their findings. If that happens, then those who are reporting on the study invariably read something into the study (as Popular Science did) that actually isn’t there.

    Engraved in His palm,

  • Robert H. Woodman September 27, 2013, 6:14 PM

    So, Mike, are you going to close the comments section here and just start dispensing your wisdom, which we, your slavishly devoted followers, will be expected to lap up without question?


  • Guy Stewart September 28, 2013, 3:49 PM

    Mike — speaking of Galileo, you might be interested in this in depth analysis by a (genius) science fiction writer named Michael F. Flynn. He is a Christian Catholic AND a superior, award winning writer and has carefully and with annotated research undermined the secular world’s simplistic lie that “the Church HATED Galileo because it was a bunch of closed-minded, anti-science ‘ijits'”. Anyway, he speaks far more eloquently than I could EVER hope to DREAM about speaking. His six part article is here:


    That is all.

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