September 25, 2013

Popular Science Shutting Off Comments

There was a time I would have begged Popular Science not to shut off the comments feature.

A few years back I encouraged the former editor of the Springfield News-Leader to implement an open comment system. I said at the time — and still believe — that it is the best way to jump-start discussion. But I also said that some kind of control system would have to be created in order to mitigate the usual crap we suffer from trolls, flamers, and the ideologically blind or politically motivated.

The current editor implemented the current system that uses Facebook as the comment engine — a good move, I think.

Popular Science is choosing to give up. And I like the reasons:

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.

Just today on Facebook I saw a meme that read: Only Science can disprove science. Simplistic as all memes are, but there’s a deep truth here: the rhetoric of science, with its rigorous process of invention (i.e. the scientific method), is not open to persuasion from interlocutors employing different rhetorics (i.e. no scientist cares about your opinion of science). The very method of invention employed by scientists to discover and transmit (persuade) knowledge contains the further argument that one can only challenge the knowledge of science on its home field. We can certainly debate the merits of that, but one thing appears clear to me: One does not challenge the findings on, say, climate change, by arguing that it’s a hoax perpetrated by politically motivated geeks in lab coats for the purpose of world socialist revolution.

On that home field that is.

While political steps we might take to fight climate change might indeed have the effect of challenging capitalist assumptions, the purpose of studying climate change is not to have that effect. The purpose is to understand what is happening and why it’s happening.

The persuasive strategy of the “politically motivated” people identified by Popular Science is, among other things, to change rhetorical venues or change the venue that Popular Science provides and, thus, undermine expertise and trust in science and scientists.

Remember: Rhetorical strategy is about winning. Popular Science is taking its ball and going home to prevent the other team from scoring. It remains to be seen what if any effect this has on the popular discourse of science.

In any case, I understand and sympathize with their frustration.

Comments are closed.