No More Talk: Popular Science Closes Its Comments

Why can’t we ever have a civilized conversation?

That’s the lament we hear all too often when it comes to issues such as evolution or climate change.

As science pundit Greg Laden noted recently, a new editorial policy at Popular Science shuts down conversation entirely.  The online version of the magazine will no longer be open to comments from readers.

Why?  Such comments, online editor Suzanne LaBarre explained, could have a negative impact on the way readers understand science.  She cited academic studies in which readers of hateful comments had changed their opinions about the scientific content of essays and articles.  “Trolls and spambots” had a negative impact on readers’ understanding of key scientific issues.

LaBarre concluded,

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.

As a result, Popular comment forums will be closed.  Are such policies draconian?  Totalitarian?  Orwellian?  Is it a symptom of defeat among mainstream science popularizers that they can no longer accommodate disagreement?

Or, more chilling for those of us who want to see more and better science education in all sorts of institutions, could this new policy be a sign that mainstream academic science has been defeated at the popular level?  That is, is this new policy a sign that small-p popular science has become utterly unmoored from its connections to mainstream academic science?

When commenters, “cynical” or not, can close down the public conversation at such a storied institution as Popular Science, it demonstrates an epochal popular victory for non-mainstream science, whether that be creationism, climate-change denial, homeopathic medicine, or anything else.