On Tuesday, Sept. 24, Popular Science posted an online article in which they announced their plan to turn off their online comment section, effective immediately. "Comments," they claimed, "can be bad for science."
They have a point. Take a look at any comments section just about anywhere, and you will find plenty of self-proclaimed experts spouting off poorly-supported "facts" — and that's when they're being nice about it. For every polite, thought-out discussion on the Internet, there are at least two that will make you seriously question the current state of humanity.
Turning off the comments section on a website "devoted to championing science," however, is not the solution, because trolls on the Internet do not constitute the real problem.
Tuesday's article went on to reference the "politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise," "eroded ... popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics," and "the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine." It also cited several scientific studies that purportedly demonstrate the ability of uncivil or even just "strongly worded" comments to polarize readers' perceptions.
The problem is not the existence of comments that act to sway public opinion; the problem is that public opinion is so easily swayed.
At my last lab meeting here at the Brain Research Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, one doctor displayed the sensationalized headlines that accompanied the media reporting of the study he was presenting. My professor pointed out these headlines as "very American." One of the post-doctoral fellows commented that Americans must be very confused as to why diseases like Alzheimer's still exist after scientists have reportedly found the key to the cures so many times.
There is a growing disconnect between the scientific community and the general public that it both serves and heavily depends on for resources. Public distrust in science is growing, and, in turn, scientists are increasingly discouraged as their words are taken less and less seriously and their funding becomes less and less certain. The obligation they feel to the public they research for becomes weaker, and scientific misconduct in the academic pressure to publish or perish becomes easier. With every case of such misconduct, of course, public distrust increases.
The sources of this distrust are manifold. Popular Science is correct in their assertion that it is political. They are mistaken, however, in attributing this distrust to forces outside of scientist control. It is the scientist's job to educate. Who else can teach scientific literacy, after all, if not the scientifically literate?
Magazines like Popular Science and other media sources are not absolved of responsibility here, either. It's no secret that the media is often sensationalist, and the intense specificity of most scientific research does not often lend itself to attracting readers' views. Headlines, then, are routinely overblown, and an overstatement in science is a misstatement.
In turning off their comments section, Popular Science may be avoiding some immediate questioning of the science that they post and publicize, but they are contributing to the feedback loop of the ever-expanding distance between the scientific community and the general public. Not only are they signaling their distrust in the interpretive capabilities of the reader, they are acting defensively — as if they have something to hide. And as one of the most read science magazines in the world, with more than 141 years of publishing history and more than 30 languages in 45 countries, the precedent that Popular Science is setting here is significant.
This is not the way that science should be. At its best, science is produced in the interactions between scientists performing research for the benefit of society and a well-informed, scientifically-literate, willing public footing the bill. As one crucial component of this ideal slips further and further away from us, we ought to try to strengthen these interactions, not suppress them.
Melissa Lee is a senior in College Scholars. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.