Sunday, 18 December 2016

Closing down comments

Popular Science has decided they will no longer permit comments on their new articles. If you are a ‘vexing commenter’, a ‘shrill boorish specimen’, rather than a ‘delightful, thought-provoking commenter’, it now turns out you were never welcome. Of course, they have a perfect right to close their comments: it is their website. Their reasons for doing so, however, show a distressing lack of respect for the value of free speech and free opinion.
It is true that some people are shrill, boorish and vexing, but some people are merely called that because they are saying things others do not wish to hear. Climate skeptics are frequently dismissed in these terms. Very good, you might say. But so were abolitionists, feminists and gay rights activists. This is that well known irregular verb, I am forthright, you are argumentative, he is boorish, she is shrill, we are reality based truth speakers, ye (you all) are clamorous and they are vexatious liars.

They also cite interesting research on how ‘a fractious minority [may] wield enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story’. There is, of course, an important difference between skewing and changing perception. Apparently ‘just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers' perception of science’. Well, I rather hope it might and I am troubled to see such a point marshalled in aid of the suppression of speech.

Rather more persuasive is the research referred to and reported by its authors in  the New York times It appears that ‘Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself.’ Certainly commenters play all the sophistical games we know and love and no doubt uncivil comments can polarize opinion. But sometimes opinions should be polarized. Isn’t that issue itself among the very questions that should be open for debate rather than foreclosed without debate?

I doubt this effect of incivility can justify the suppression of speech. The accusation of incivility is levelled against opinion you don’t like and once again, those of fixed opinion frequently find denial of their belief to be uncivil even when it is not. Furthermore, sometimes incivility is entirely justified. When people talk ridiculous nonsense it is sometimes permissible to say so. Some people are fools who don’t understand what’s relevant or how the argument bears and sometimes it is permissible to say so.

I share some of the concerns about the denial of good science. I am, however, offended by the aroma of their remark that
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.
an aroma that also pervades an article they reference, Professor Frank’s ‘Welcome to the Age of Denial’. Professor Frank is annoyed, or at least disappointed, that
instead of sending my students into a world that celebrates the latest science has to offer, I am delivering them into a society ambivalent, even skeptical, about the fruits of science.
Were the world as it ought to be, we would just shut up and believe what those wonderful scientists tell us to.
This strikes me as narrow minded intolerance accompanied by overconfidence. For scientists to have joined the bandwagon against denial shows a lamentable knowledge of the history of free thought. Nothing is more fundamental to free thought than the freedom to deny what society insists is true. Remember the research showing the importance of just one person speaking up against a false consensus. Notice also the question begging phrase ‘the fruits of science’. The whole issue is whether a product of science is a fruit or a blight. My own prejudice is entirely on the side of increasing our knowledge by all available means but I am not so stupid as to assume that all uses of knowledge are fruitful. I think that we should be skeptical about all claims of fruitfulness, whether from science or anywhere else.

Nevertheless, the editors of Popular Science will no longer tolerate
the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine … now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.
This, however, is what I like about free speech: we find out what people think. Here, the free speaking of the editors shows how they view us: we cannot be trusted to form the right opinion, the opinion that the editors intend us to form, unless they can speak to us free from the comments of fractious minorities. Because, you see, only the immoral can disagree with the editors about anything fundamental so it is better to shut them up than let them have their wicked way with our flabby minds.

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