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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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23 Comment on this post

  1. This post is an exercise in absurdity. First, a point about scope: freedom of speech is something that governments allow to citizens; it is not something that publications are obligated allow to every single member of this globe with internet access. An association of people such as those who work for a publication should be free to work towards their own aims, and are under no obligation to allow others to do things that undermine those aims. (Nor, however, should those whose aims oppose those of Popular Science be prohibited from disseminating their own ideas in accordance with their own projects.)

    A second point is about consequences. Increased debate and polarization in society are not necessarily goods. Indeed, in this case, epistemically legitimate knowledge is being undermined by epistemically illegitimate ideas which are, however, not obviously less truthy to those who have no scientific training. When debate about scientific knowledge is turned into a political struggle rather than one of scholarly disagreement, serious harms to society can result. The most obvious of these is the decrease in vaccination rates which are leading to outbreaks of entirely preventable diseases. In a few decades Africans and Indians will bear the brunt of the consequences resulting from the doubt sown about the reality of global warming. These are serious issues, and allowing nonsense to vitiate knowledge acquired through sound methodology does not improve society.

    1. Good to see I’ve collected an uncivil denial. The idea that freedom of speech is something that governments allow to citizens has got the issue entirely back to front. Freedom of speech is a right that neither government nor anyone else may infringe.

      So what if what you call illegitimate ideas are not obviously less truthy? The problem of political distortion is why we should keep as much as possible of life outside of political control. Some things we can’t, of course. The answer to political distortion is not less speech but more. The alternative is that political speech is controlled by some politically distorting process. Perhaps you think if your side was in charge of it everything would be fine. If so, Lenin agreed with you.

      Note that the problem with vaccinations for measles was originated not by political distortion but by a scientist doing lousy research. You make a claim about the effects of DOUBTS about global warming. Set aside that the background behind your remark is probably contradicted by the consensus of economic research, which as I understand it, and accepting IPCC estimates, is for there to be net benefits up to 2080 (see a report on this by Matt Ridley You seem to be saying the effect of such doubts overrides freedom of opinion and you want to control opinions so they don’t have effects you disapprove of. I hope hereby to polarize opinion: the choice here is between your totalitarian control of opinion, under which nonsense is forbidden to vitiate knowledge, or freedom. There is no middle ground.

      1. Dr Shackel wrote: “I hope hereby to polarize opinion: the choice here is between your totalitarian control of opinion, under which nonsense is forbidden to vitiate knowledge, or freedom. There is no middle ground.”

        I don’t see why there’s no middle ground, and why a magazine or newspaper choosing to spare their readers some drivel amounts to “totalitarian” control. It’s a pretty feeble totalitarian who censors their own media site while leaving the others alone.

        Imagine that someone posted racist lies on practicalethics – things that are factually incorrect. How about Holocaust denial, or claims about particular races and intelligence/responsibility/ethical conduct etc. “Studies show…” he says, and he can cite something in the Journal of Racist Idiocy in support. Do you think practicalethics should censor those comments? Would the poster have the right to lie, or knowingly misrepresent? How about personal abuse, or (completely baseless) allegations of scientific fraud. (How about death threats ok? I know several scientists who have received death threats.) Imagine one of the animal rights activists who occasionally set fire to things in Oxford and Cambridge posted a threat against the personal safety of a researcher and their family. I’m guessing you’d draw the line at death threats/threats to personal safety. How about baseless allegations of science fraud? Isn’t this “middle ground”?

        Plus, I think you’re mistaken about the ordering of the public duties of science magazines. Personally, I would put the obligation to inform the public fairly accurately about science above the rights for anonymous posters to freely express their opinions. ie freedom of speech is not the only, nor obviously the primary, responsibility a magazine/journal about science has to its readers/the public.

        1. I was taking it that in saying nonsense vitiating knowledge should not be allowed Mr James had slid beyond the issue of the rights of the magazine. One of my points is that the justification for closing the comments has exactly this kind of slide based on accepting the legitimacy of controlling people’s opinion.

          As to the other stuff, tolerance means putting up with things you don’t approve. I think respecting free speech and free thought requires drawing the lines of tolerance broadly.

          1. Dr Shackel wrote: “As to the other stuff, tolerance means putting up with things you don’t approve. I think respecting free speech and free thought requires drawing the lines of tolerance broadly.”

            Sure – but I don’t know what you mean by “broad”… in a physical sense broad could mean anything from broad like the Pacific ocean, broad like the back of a bus, or broad like the galactic plane… can you give me a feel for just how extensive you take the right to free speech to be by answering the following:
            (1) are death threats against scientists protected by freedom of speech?
            (2) are threats to personal safety of scientists and their families protected by freedom of speech?
            (3) are bogus (ie made-up, untrue and intentionally scurrilous) accusations of scientific fraud protected by freedom of speech?
            (4) Even when such bogus claims have been shown to be false, should they be permitted to remain on a comments board?
            (5) Would you defend the “rights” of white supremacists, anti-semites and other hate-mongers to make up and propagate spurious “scientific” studies which argue that their various targets/victims are less human than other people?
            (6) Would you argue that scientific magazines should permit this material on their sites in the name of open debate?

    2. Tiresias,
      You write : “The most obvious of these (harms) is the decrease in vaccination rates which are leading to outbreaks of entirely preventable diseases”
      What better way to fuel the harmful campaigns of the anti-vaccination brigade than to allow them to claim that the scientific establishment won’t even let them publish their comments ?
      Better, IMHO, to allow them to be exposed and refuted openly.

    3. Firstly, this is a very interesting article for me, thanks.

      Tiresias wrote that “freedom of speech is something that governments allow to citizens; it is not something that publications are obligated allow to every single member of this globe with internet access.”

      Complementing Dr Shackel’s point: in many republics, such as France, it works the other way around (at least in principle), so that it is the people that allow the government to exist and determine the extend of its power. Moreover, it is a fundamental right in these countries, meaning that it does not matter if the individual is working for a company. It is the same principle that prevents a publishers of torturing and enslaving the worker.

      As for the the consequentialist argument: free speech may lead to unwanted consequences, such as those you mentioned. But, well, this is the price we pay for it. We just give people education and hope for the best, but there is nothing stopping spammers from creating a completely distorted view of the issue.

      Side note: some governments forbid anonymity, which should help reducing this effect.

      … to be honest, when I first read the article’s title a chill went down my spine and I thought the blog was closing its comment section. An interesting question is: why exactly was I afraid of that?

  2. You make the very predictable but fallacious defense of freedom of speech by associating dissent with oppressed minorities or innovative thinkers who were initially disbelieved, but this is an emotive argument that must be kept in perspective – for every correct person who was called a nutcase, there were many more nutcases who were called nutcases. These advocates of science are not supporting the kind of intellectual homogeneity that your quite hysterical reaction implies, they are supporting a respect of the scientific method in cases where it *has* proven to be reliable and correct, such as evolutionary theory and climate change. I highly recommend that you read Isaac Asimov’s short article on our Culture of Ignorance if you haven’t already; we may live in a democracy, but freedom of speech does *not* mean that one person’s ignorance is as valuable as another’s knowledge, and this pseudo-democratic, anti-intellectual relativism is a persistent hindrance to the betterment of humankind.

    1. Well said, Callum. I don’t know the details of the Asimov piece, but I think there is obviously a point beyond which cranks should be ignored rather than indulged. The Internet has posed a new way for nutcases to assemble, coordinate and spread nutcase views. Think of 9/11 conspiracy theories, climate change denialism and various other bollocks. Sex weirdos, too: the Internet has given people with paraphilias of different sorts an unprecedented chance to find each other and share their thoughts and feelings. In the case of climate change, this has given rise to two powerful, depressingly common and similarly flawed narratives: in one, climate change is a myth or hoax (presumably radiation physics is wrong, but other physicists dealing with the spectrum are usually thought not to be members of the hoax); in the second, climate change is the end of the world and governments are too cowardly to admit this (equally bonkers, in my view). Basically, both amount to conspiracy theories, and like other conspiracy theories, they elaborately mimic real scholarship, with the exception that they look only for material in support of (not in opposition to) their arguments. Likewise creationist arguments and 9/11 nutjobs. The problem is that these guys can distort debates about significant public policy issues. The usual example of limits to freedom of speech is shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre, presumably because the misinformation carries a high likelihood of inducing bad decisions with high social costs. I’d use the same tests to consider how to evaluate willful misrepresentations of science, in venues in which scientific accuracy matters for good/bad decision making.

  3. Callum,
    I don’t think that Isaac Asimov would agree with you – the thrust of his article was not that people’s opinions should not be heard, but that society should so approve and reward of learning that we can all be parts of the “intellectual élite” and contribute more intelligently. Without free speech, it is hard to see how this could actually come about.

  4. Getting the balance between anything goes criticism and “trust me I am the expert” is not easy. I tend to the anything goes end for reasons you give and more.

    I am a bit worried from above the posts that evolution theory and climate change theory have been presented as being off limits to criticism by outsiders. A great deal of very bad science has been and is still being done in the name of these two theories. For sure, much of the criticism that is levelled against these theories is unsound and draws on belief systems that have little or nothing to do science. Scientists might find it tiresome that they have to repeatedly explain and correct misunderstandings of a theory, but that has always been part of the job description and hopefully will remain so as it is a vital function of science.

    Cullum’s use of Isaac Asimov’s claim that one person’s ignorance is not as valuable as another’s knowledge is another example of how wrong Isaac could be. In 1974 he gave a lecture entitled The Future of Humanity at Newark College of Engineering, during which he explained the then dominate theory of climate change, i.e. the earth was rapidly cooling because of industrial pollution. At the time, in my ignorance, I had doubts about this theory. I still have little doubt about global warming, but I appalled by the very poor quality of the climate science. It needs to be challenged from every quarter in order for it become a robust sound science. The ‘culture of experts’ (very much alive and well in Practical Ethics posts) creates bad science and pseudo-science (it does even less for ethics).

  5. A private institution finds it easier to accomplish its goals without undesirable comments on its website. Freedom of speech has nothing to do with this whatsover. Freedom of speech has no application outside the public sphere.

    1. ‘Public sphere.’ Not that easy to define – Habermas has spent much of his life writing about it and numerous people have added more to it. Given the role of science and technology, with their close links to the state, capital and media, they must at some level fall within the public sphere.

  6. ‘Public sphere.’ Not that easy to define

    That’s not the point. The point is: The normative concept of freedom of speech does not apply to the aforementioned situation since the situation involves no infringement upon anybody’s right.

    Popular Science had been offering a service on its website which began to be misused relative to the institution’s goals and therefore was discontinued. End of the story.

    Of course there WOULD have been a moral question there HAD the goals or the activities of the instutition to meet them been morally questionable relative to any moral claim. But since writing one Popular Science’s website does not constitute a moral claim, there is no moral question at all.

    1. The issue is not whether they have the right to close comments but the justification they offered for doing so. Their justification is (among other things) question begging in that it assumes the very thing that the critics they don’t like reject but does so in a weasley way. The claim that only the immoral disagree with us is a sophistical trick and when the issue is the ethics of belief is self refuting, since at one and the same time it claims to occupy a higher moral standpoint whilst contravening the obligation to make only epistemically relevant objections and justifications. Contrast their justification with what they might have said: it’s our website so we can do what we like; we don’t like what they’re saying so we’re closing comments. Here we have a simple assertion of their right rather than a self-righteous, self-promoting and pompous claim that the magazine occupies a higher moral standpoint than the commenters it disagrees with.

      For the 1000th time: Please learn to append your comments correctly.

      1. The claim that only the immoral disagree with us

        To me this claim seems to be a figment of your imagination, just as the claim that their justification is question-begging. As far as I understand the original post, they are shutting down comments because bad comments spoil good comments and because the result of presenting science along with spoiled comments does not fit their goals as a private institution. That is why freedom of speech is beside the point.

  7. I totally agree – there is no moral question at all. My reply was about your use of the ‘public sphere’ which now appears to be limited to rights. We are unlikely to agree about this issue if that is your definition.

  8. As someone who contributed to a science forum for many years, I can well understand Popular Science’s decision. The problem is not reasonable dissent being reasonably discussed and reasonably resolved in favour of the most reasonable and scientifically sound conclusions, which I’m sure would be very welcome. The problem is pseudoscience crusaders interminably posting the same nonsense and ignoring all the careful rebuttals, turning the comments section into an embarrassing troll’s playground that lowers the whole tone of the website while adding nothing of value. Certainly pseudoscience needs to be confronted and discussed, but it makes more sense for sites like Popular Science to do that in articles written by experts, without giving nutcases the last say underneath.

  9. I actually support Popular Science in this, even though I usually think that forums should be ‘public’ in spaces like Popular Science. The problem I see is not the presence or absence of dissent. The creationists, climate change deniers various conspiracy theorists and their acolytes are NOT in the business of debating anything. See, they already KNOW the ‘truth’. It is us ignorati who are to be bludgeoned with the ‘truth’ till we see it their way. Anyway, if you are really interested in actually dissenting, you can still send emails to the magazine or the authors. Most reputable magazines like reasoned debates and welcome these.

    Most comment debates usually go on till someone brings the Nazis in. After that, continuing it is useless. Wasn’t there an Interwebs ‘law’ that said something similar?

    1. Tony Schumacher Jones

      Just one point. You wrote that “most comment debates usually go on till someone brings the Nazis in…” I disagree with that. In my opinion, once people play the God card, as in, this is what God wants, says, believes and so on, then all debate ceases. I am not making any case against God but I think we cannot use God to legitimate an argument. Even people like Kant saw that your argument must be based on reason and logic and that to invoke God is a squib. But people do. And it really annoys me. TJ

  10. Tony Schumacher Jones

    Something JS Mill said in his well known essay On Liberty. A reason for unfettered free speech is that if the ideas of the large unwashed are silly (climate change denying for example) then sound evidence and reasoned debate will educate them and allow us to refine our arguments and the way we communicate, but if the ideas of the large unwashed are correct (and heaven forbid we are wrong) then we will be able to reassess our position and adjust it accordingly. Now I do not think the world works like this, but if you try and silence the nay sayers, even on topics such as climate change, you will simply give oxygen to them and strengthen their position. This is a negative.

    However, mostly in debates about things you think are a given (the world is not flat, there is climate change, women should have the right to vote and so on) you are actually not talking to the looney who asserts non science but you are talking to all the people who are not sure but don’t want to write a note or a comment as they are afraid they will be rubbished. Thus your dialogue is much wider than you think. You will not convince a racist that her views are wrong but you might influence all the other people watching from the sidelines that racism is wrong, both morally and intellectually. And you do not want to loose the ability to communicate with them.

    1. Well said. I have only a couple of things to add: whether the world works like this is not outwith our competence. Suppressing people we disagree with and calling them immoral for disagreeing is not only a contemptible way to treat others but also entirely ineffective at influencing them and almost guaranteed to get them to cling to their opinion yet more tightly. Why heaven forbid we are wrong and the unwashed correct? Yes, I know many people think like that but isn’t this an appalling arrogance? If we are wrong we’re wrong and better to have it out and known.

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