Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.
Stephen R. Covey
Because trolls, of course: my subject matter attracts too many of them. Comments are a problem on science websites these days. Popular Science (www.popsci.com) decided to shut off their comments. Why? It’s sad but unsurprising:
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.
I never wanted open comments here. If I allowed them — considering my sass, debunkery, and generally provoking and poking fun at the sacred cows of the manual therapy professions — PainScience.com would be inundated with cranky commenting and flagrant flaming. If I would have to routinely (a) censor half of it, (b) ignore it all, and/or (c) respond and educate extensively and yet mostly in vain … none of which are appealing or a good use of my time.
I’m not a good ambassador for scientific medicine. My business is to create educational resources for people who already think science-based medicine is a pretty great idea. I’m just not writing for people who are already heavily invested in anti-scientific beliefs and attitudes, and I don’t want or need to hear from them any more than I need to stop and talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses and carefully peruse their weird “literature.”
For instance, if you are foolish enough to have ever made the clueless argument that “science is just another kind of faith,” or if you constantly refer disparagingly to “western” or “allopathic” medicine, or you assume that people like me are paid by Big Pharma, then you aren’t my audience. You’re welcome to look around, but you probably won’t enjoy it much. I am only diplomatic and gentle with my tone insofar as it (a) might reach a few of the smarter fence-sitters, and (b) prevent or minimize arguments and hassles with easily offended readers. Otherwise, I am a proud (and completely unapologetic) science guy.
Most negative comments here would come from shrill ideologues lacking even the most basic knowledge of how science works, but loudly grinding that anti-scientific ax anyway. Any good-faith attempt to “debate” them would inevitably boil down to their rejection of the whole premise of this website, of science itself.
Community regulation in the form of assistance from friendly commenters would never adequately balance the cranking. In alternative medicine, rational critical thinkers who can define “post hoc ergo propter hoc” and “regression to the mean” are outnumbered about 1000 to 1. Even if I had a small army of well-educated volunteers participating, it woudn’t be enough to balance discussions: one of the infamous problems with debating ideologues is that they can introduce fallacious arguments much faster than you can deconstruct them (the infamous “Gish gallop”). Comment threads would be choked with intellectual junk, where the pro-science perspective would not only be under-represented but poorly represented, with actual consequences, a genuinely corrosive effect on how other readers react: “Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of the story” (Popular Science editor Suzanne LeBarre, referring to the implications of Anderson et al., “The Nasty Effect”).
I find absolutely no utility in those comments except to utterly lose faith in humanity. It doesn’t add anything, you can’t have a conversation, it’s just a vomiting of negativity, paranoia, and conspiracy theories by the lowest dregs of society, and then maybe some people desperately trying to add some reason. I just don’t see any purpose to it. It does distract from the crafting and the message and the information in the article. What’s the point of throwing your comment into that? Whenever I read those [discussions], I feel like I’m punishing myself.
Dr. Novella is referring to comments on mainstream-scale stories, but health care attracts a wildly disproportionate amount of crankery. Crappy ideas about therapy and health care are just absurdly over-represented on the internets. If readers want that, they can get it effortlessly, practically anywhere else online.
But here? Here is where I curate the best science-inspired content I can create. I want PainScience.com to be a “clean, well-lighted place” where educated readers can come for a breath of intellectual fresh air. And doing that is already way more than a full-time job.
I’ll never do open-but-moderated comments, but “curated” is a different matter: thoughtfully selected and featured comments, both supportive and critical, integrated into the text instead of relegated to a comment zone at the bottom of the document. I’d love to add thousands of those to PainScience.com.
If you would like your perspective to be quoted, please send me your suggestion by email. I reserve the right to be super picky — that’s the point of curation (choosing only what I want) instead of moderation (allowing most, eliminating a few). But I will be eager to publish any useful, literate, interesting perspective. Ideally, please specify exactly which concept or even paragraph you wish to comment on.