Popular Science has an evidence-based reason for shutting down its comment section



It’s interesting that they decided to give up, rather than fix the system. Most scientists today are specialists, which means by definition that they don’t exhibit a wide breadth of knowledge in science. Our culture increasingly looks to these specialists for cues on what to believe, but the PhD program is a real mess. Consensus is oftentimes manufactured within the PhD programs themselves; those grad students who risk critical thinking are oftentimes simply weeded out of the programs, leaving the “gung ho” memorizers (See Jeff Schmidt’s book, Disciplined Minds). When you cut off feedbacks, systems will tend to become increasingly rigid over time.

Meanwhile, there is a whole new technique called “topic modeling” – based upon the same Bayesian techniques that helped win WWII – which has yet to be applied to the forum/chat paradigm. A person could be forgiven for imagining that there’s not a whole lot of desire to perfect critical thinking by the public of the work of professional, specialist scientists today. The public will obviously support the destruction of public feedback to the scientific community because most critics are not very good, but that’s in truth because they see very little of the opposite problem – the manufacturing of consensus – which happens behind closed doors in rooms full of professors deciding the fates of PhD students.

The bigger threat to science is not the one we plainly see. It’s that more secretive process behind the closed doors where the notion of “thinking like a scientist” becomes increasingly ideological. Those who might imagine that they are protecting science in the short term by censoring competing views will find in the long term that our dialogue lacks a critical slant – and it will take more and more money to generate fewer and fewer results as the specialists are permitted to avoid asking the critical questions which might undermine their theories.

The specialists were never really meant to be cultural icons, in the first place. After all, they only know a small slice of the total body of scientific knowledge (Note that James Maxwell had to avoid becoming a specialist in order to combine the concepts of light & EM radiation). It’s the systems thinkers that we need to be listening to, but the corporations don’t want hordes of system thinkers, for they threaten the hierarchical structure. Thus, we generally train scientists to become specialists.

This recent move by Popular Science is not some final solution. The next step for forums is to investigate the utility of topic modeling. But, don’t expect such changes to originate from our professional scientists. They would apparently prefer to not be critiqued – which is a small, but important part of the reason why we have hordes of outsiders (some better than others) coming at them in the comments, to begin with (because our models remain grossly incomplete in a number of domains). These newer forum systems will be designed by outsider entrepreneurs and will ultimately be chosen by the public for the very reason that they impose critical thinking upon the specialists. Rather than running away from the problem, we need to directly address it.


They decided they didn’t like it (the commenting) one bit because there wasn’t enough thought provoking intelligent discussion, but they will select certain articles and open them to comments because they want thought provoking discussions. Um…okay.

As an aside, I am usually more turned off by the name caller’s opinion than drawn toward it as the study suggests. Anyone else?

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[quote=“IMB, post:3, topic:10659”]
As an aside, I am usually more turned off by the name caller’s opinion than drawn toward it as the study suggests. Anyone else?[/quote]
The way I read it, it’s not agreeing with abusive commenter that changes your own opinion on topics. It’s that the mere presence of abusive commenters turns people of the topics that’s being abused.

Take climate change. It’s a complex topic with lots of interrelated factors, and it’s difficult for any single person, especially a lay-person, to get a decent grasp on the topic. If, on top of that, you get commenters wittering on about the ‘climategate’ emails, for example, at every opportunity, then many people turn off the topic as a whole, even though they may understand that the climategate thing was a tempest in a teacup which is in no way damaging to the science of climate change.


Perhaps they would get better discussion if their articles didn’t suck.

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I can see tuning out the comment section in the example you provided. However, I can’t say that I would feel particularly influenced by it in terms of an opinion on the subject. I thought that the article was stressing that once emotion is triggered, logic and critical thinking is last and one is more influenced on the subject matter through their gut reactions to other people’s comments, particularly the nastier ones. Did I get that wrong? That a batch of negativity under an article sways people from believing the science behind it in favor of outrage with or against opposition to a position?

I will reread it.

Editing to add an excerpt:

Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more
polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.
Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough
to make study participants think the downside of the reported
technology was greater than they’d previously thought.

I took that to mean, “We don’t have the man-hours to moderate all articles, so we’ll do so only on the ones that seem worth it.”

Beats paying an intern overtime to e-babysit I guess.


Keep in mind that a number of these scientific disciplines lack any critical component to them at all. Astrophysics and cosmology, for instance, are the most speculative branches of all domains since our ability to measure and experiment are extremely challenged, and yet the material is presented as though it’s completely factual. Constructs which have never been directly observed – like dark matter, black holes, dark energy, etc – are taken for granted by all students today in those fields as though they are absolutely real. This is a complete failure in critical thinking within those disciplines, and what we will predictably see here is a desire by those specialists to turn Popular Science’s decision into a trend. The public will ultimately lose, as the theories will predictably become less and less scientific. This is what naturally happens when specialists can consistently avoid questioning their theories.

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I have to agree.

On reading your comment a second time, I think we agree to an extent. People exposed to negativity double down on an opinion rather than examining it further, so in that sense, they are shutting it down.

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Explains why the other phone companies feel it is worth it to pay people to spread bad feelings about Apple.


So, I have a question for you. Have you actually been involved in graduate studies in the physical sciences, or are you just sniping from the sidelines here? I’m honestly going to say that if you haven’t gotten to the point where you can effectively use the techniques of the physical sciences to make accurate predictions about our reality, you aren’t really in a position to be making these kinds of critiques. There are people who are in that position, and many of them, to a point, do so (scientists within any specialty are perfectly willing to tear apart publications that they think are substandard), but, unless you have attained that level of understanding of what they’re talking about, and of the basic physics that underlies any of the cutting-edge theoretical stuff, you are not one of them.


We’ve never “directly observed” electrons, either. We infer their existence and their properties by all kinds of proxies, and this allows us to make extremely accurate predictions about their behavior in a wide variety of situations. We have observed dark matter, eg. gravitational effects on other objects and gravitational lensing in the absence of other matter: http://phys.org/news/2013-02-dark-galaxies-ways-collision-hefty.html We have observed lots of things that are consistent with our predictions about black holes. The term “dark energy” was coined to describe an observed phenomenon, and, as far as I know (I am not a theoretician or an astrophysicist), we don’t know anything about what it is, just that we observed that phenomenon, and I don’t think I’ve heard anyone presenting a specific hypothesis about what dark energy is as any more than a hypothesis. This idea that specialists, as a group, “consistently avoid questioning their theories” tells me that you are not a specialist in any field in the physical sciences, because it is simply not true. Modern physics allows us to make incredibly accurate predictions about a huge range of phenomena (If statistical physics, quantum mechanics, and relativity were not fundamentally accurate, there’s no way we could have designed the computer you’re using to type these posts) The fundamental issues is that it takes the willingness and discipline to spend several years doing essentially nothing but study math and physics to get to the point where you’re in a position to even know how to go about questioning our current theories.


Ars Technica’s comments system does one thing right (although a lot of things wrong): they have upvotes and downvotes: downvote totals over a certain threshold are by default hidden. Also, you can individually block a commenter. They aggressively promote the idea that you don’t want to do this without serious cause, and constantly warn you about the dangers of turning your view of the comments into an echo-chamber, but after about a week of doing this in various climate related threads, my Ars experience is about 95% asshole moron free, and when there are disagreements, even in the climate threads, they’re often interesting and worth thinking about.

And I can read their articles and threads without that sick feeling in my stomach about the gross currents of malice and imbecility at the bottom of our culture.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Talking Points Memo: they recently created their own (bare bones and crappy) comments system and left Disqus because the wanted to reduce the number of screechy trolls in their threads. I could have told them it would be a complete failure, which it is: the problem wasn’t Disqus, the problem was their “own” commenters, many of whom are pretty dumb, knee-jerk liberals to start with (making their threads boring and repetitive generally) and almost all of whom are unrepentant troll-feeders. The trolls have hopped on to the new system, continue to be well fed, and all I want is to be able to read their articles without ever accidentally glancing at the comments section at the bottom, where I’m either nauseated by seething racist psychopaths or embarrassed by cretins purporting to be “on my side”.


As a moderately long-time follower of popsci.com, I’d say it’s cute that they put a scientific bent on this decision, but honestly, I’ve never seen a more rabid pit of trolls and unapologetically sarcastic ideologues in my comment-section travels. Inevitably on most articles the first 3-5 comments would just be harshly, albeit lazily and unspecifically trashing the story, the publication, and the worth of the author as a human being and journalist, followed by some spam. When not that it was just anti-“liberal propoganda” tirades on anything from global warming, to solar power, and somehow, on topics previously-thought un-politicizable. There were occasionally interesting discussions, but they were the exception, as moderation was absolutely zero, and the commenting system was stodgy.


Same deal with phys.org. I think they should follow suit.

What I recommend is that you expose yourself to what is actually happening within the graduate programs. Only then will you realize that what you’re saying here is a non-sequiter …

Peter Woit from Piling Conjecture Upon Conjecture - John Horgan and Peter Woit on string theory delusions - YouTube … 12:27 - 13:33 …

Our fundamental problem with unification is that a certain number of
ideas have been tried out which all have well-known problems – and
string theory is now one of them. But there’s a lot of things that
haven’t been tried … If you start to get to know the subject, you
realize the number of people working on the subject … It’s a fairly
limited community. It’s a few thousand people … And … most of them
are kind of following the lead of a fairly small number of people.
The number of actual different ideas that people are trying out is
actually quite small … There’s a much larger array of ideas out there
which nobody has taken the time to look into because the way the field
works … These things are very difficult. You would have to go spend
several years of your life doing this, and if no one else is
interested in what you’re doing (and most likely, whenever you’re
trying out new ideas, it’s not going to work anyways). The way the
field is structured, it’s kind of very very hard to do that kind of
work, because it’s likely to damage your career. If you’re trying to
do it when you’re young, you’re gonna very well end up not having a

Linus Pauling from YouTube video, Heretics of Science … 11:46 - 12:19 …

Heretics are absolutely necessary in science. I think it’s no
exaggeration to say that virtually all of the major breakthroughs that
have occurred in the history of science have occurred through
heretics, and have started out as heresies. Most of the progress in
science requires a willingness to be wrong. Somebody has to risk
being ostracized by the scientific community to advance science.

Fred Hoyle from the Cosmology Quest video on YouTube …

I’ve always said that the cause of the trouble is the American
graduate school … You see, when we had graduated first degree, we
were independent. We could thumb our noses at the professor. And in
fact the best way to get ahead was to do something that all the people
didn’t agree with … But, in the graduate school, you all have to
learn what the professors are teaching you. And then, those people go
out and get jobs and they go to their own graduate school … You get
a few places like CalTech or like Harvard, and they set the fashion
for [all the rest] …

Then there is Jeff Schmidt, who was one of Physics Today’s best editors for 19 years. While he was on the job, and after he completed his physics PhD, he wrote a book titled Disciplined Minds. He was fired by the American Institute of Physics once his manager read the book, as it was designed as a critique of the physics PhD program. More than 700 researchers, plus one Noam Chomsky, signed petitions and wrote letters in his support, forcing a large settlement in Jeff’s favor and the AIP to reinstate his job – which Schmidt rejected. It’s somewhat peculiar that nobody who follows physics in depth appears to have even heard of this story, as is it is the discipline’s largest freedom of expression issue in its history.

My thesis is that the criteria by which individuals are deemed
qualified or unqualified to become professionals involve not just
technical knowledge as is generally assumed, but also attitude – in
particular, attitude toward working within an assigned political and
ideological framework. (p16)

The qualifying attitude, I find, is an uncritical subordinate one,
which allows professionals to take their ideological lead from their
employers, and appropriately fine-tune the outlook that they bring to
their work. The resulting professional is an obedient thinker, an
intellectual property whom employers can trust to experiment,
theorize, innovate and create safely within the confines of an
assigned ideology. The political and intellectual timidity of today’s
most highly educated employees is no accident. (p16)

Furthermore, professionals are the role models of the society toward
which we are heading, a society in which ideology trumps gender, race
and class origin as the biggest factor underlying the individual’s
success or failure. (p19)

This book’s analysis finds the supposed political neutrality of the
process of professional qualification a myth: Neither weeding out nor
adjustment to the training institution’s values are politically
neutral processes. Even the qualifying examination – its cold, tough,
technical questions supposedly testimony to the objectivity and
integrity of the system of professional qualification and to the
purity of the moment of personal triumph in every professional’s
training – does not act neutrallly. The ideological obedience that
the qualification system requires for success turns out to be
identical to the ideological obedience that characterizes the work of
the salaried professional. (p26)

The professional is one who can be trusted to extrapolate to new
situations the ideology inherent in the official school curriculum
that she teaches. (p32)

Professionals generally avoid the risk inherent in real critical
thinking and cannot properly be called critical thinkers. They are
simply ideologically disciplined thinkers. Real critical thinking
means uncovering and questioning social, political and moral
assumptions; applying and refining a personally developed worldview;
and calling for action that advances a personally created agenda. An
approach that backs away from any of these three components lacks the
critical spirit … Ideologically disciplined thinkers, especially the
more gung-ho ones, often give the appearance of being critical
thinkers as they go around deftly applying the official ideology and
confidently reporting their judgments. The fact that professionals are
usually more well-informed than nonprofessionals contributes to the
illusion that they are critical thinkers. (p41)

Beginning physics graduate students must devote an entire year or two
of their lives to homework. Indeed, the first part of physics graduate
school is well described as a boot camp based on homework. One
characteristic of any boot camp is that the subject matter the
instructors present in their day-to-day work is not really the main
thing they are teaching. Teaching the subject matter is certainly one
goal, but it is not the main one. In military boot camp, for example,
drill instructors make recruits spend large amounts of time learning
to dress to regulation, march in precise formation, chant ditties,
disassemble and reassemble rifles, carry heavy backpacks, and so on,
yet the main goal of all this is something much more profound: to
create soldiers who will follow orders, even to their deaths.
Similarly, the most apparent goal of graduate physics courses is to
indoctrinate the students into the dominant paradigms, or theoretical
frameworks, of physics. But the primary goal is to train physicists
who will maintain tremendous discipline on assigned problems. (p129)

At the end of the [qualifying examination] week the entire physics
faculty gathers in a closed meeting to decide the fate of the
students. Strange as it may seem, in most physics departments a
student’s score on the test is only one factor in the faculty’s
decision as to whether or not that student has passed the test.
Students are not usually told their scores: this gives faculty members
the option of deciding that a student has failed the test even if that
student has outscored someone they are going to pass. In arriving at
their personal opinions on whether to pass or fail a student,
individual faculty members consider anything and everything carried
away from informal discussions with the student and with others around
the department.

A faculty member who talks informally with a student in the hallway or
at the weekly after-colloquium reception inevitably comes away with a
feeling about whether or not that student ‘thinks like a physicist.’
The student’s political outlook can easily make a difference in the
faculty member’s assessment. For example, in the usual informal
discussion of an issue in the news, the student who rails against
technical incompetence and confines his thoughts to the search for
technical solutions within the given political framework builds a much
more credible image as a professional physicist than does the student
who emphasizes the need to alter the political framework as part of
the solution. Indeed, the latter approach falls outside the work
assignments given to professional physicists in industry and academe
and so represents thinking unlike a physicist’s. (p134)

The fact is that these are some very talented physics PhD’s here who are trying to tell us in very plain language that there are problems with the way in which the physics PhD program works today. We need to pay attention.

I’m confident that physorg will indeed follow suit. And, to be honest, none of this really concerns me, speaking as somebody who is highly skeptical of some of the more speculative scientific articles routinely posted there. If the major scientific press release outlets want to abandon public discourse, somebody will come in and fix it, and they will lose the little control they once had over public scientific discourse. I honestly feel that if this becomes a trend, it could turn out to be really great, because scientists generally aren’t interested in a public which can effectively critique them. It’s not what they’re trying to do, in a general sense.

Somebody will in fact figure out how to have public discussions which evoke critical and emotionally intelligent responses. The mistake which the public will predictably make, en masse, though is in simply assuming that the existing scientific programs don’t need outsider critics – and that we can leave all of the critique to the insider specialists. That will predictably fail to address any of the problems identified by professional physicists that are associated with our university physics PhD programs – which is, in truth, a far more serious problem than people posting rude stuff in comments. Anybody who takes a very close look at Schmidt’s book, Disciplined Minds, will come away with a very different perspective on what it means when climate scientists all agree on the models. And, to be honest, this is a question which should have occurred to science journalists to ask, to begin with: If you see everybody agreeing, the very first place one should check is what is happening to the critics within the graduate programs. It’s really a no-brainer. But, amazingly, the question was never asked until Jeff Schmidt simply provided the answer.

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This reminds me of the problem of science on talk radio and I bet it is similar. Whenever a qualified science person does a Q&A the question coming from the audience are just so bad it is embarrassing. They reinforce many dumb and wrong ideas that are out in the popular culture simply through repetition.

I bet Popsci had a similar thing going on. Long arguments about dumb junk science.

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It’s religious. The whole country is possessed by a spirit of stupid.