WIKIMEDIA, OCTAHEDRON80Where in science do we find free inquiry, vigorous debate, open and frank discussion of research, and productive—if sometimes acrimonious—conversations about methods, data, findings, interpretation, and implications? Most of these conversations happen in the comment sections of blogs and other websites, right?
These conversations happen elsewhere. For example, many research labs hold weekly meetings that all members attend. There are e-mail lists used by groups of scientists working at diverse institutions to hash out their methods, share data, and challenge one another’s interpretations. Then there are more formal settings, such as conferences, where some give talks while others prowl the hallways, cafeterias, local pubs, and hotel lounges getting in touch with colleagues, exchanging ideas, making plans, and renewing their contacts with fellow scientists. And there are many other fora that are much better suited to discussing science than the comment sections that accompany most blog posts and news reports. Arguably, peer review is the ultimate conversation in science.
While notes left on blogs and websites are not part of this formalized process, some people do have meaningful discussions of scientific issues in the comment sections of these sites. These conversations can be quite interesting and informative, but they have virtually nothing to do with how science is done. Some scientists engage in online commenting now and then, but when they do, it is almost always to lend their support to science when a reported finding is challenged by anti-science trolls.
I’ve written many blog posts that report on scientific findings. In doing so, I often send a link to the researchers involved in the work, inviting them to participate in the comments. They almost never do, though when they have, I’ve never seen the resulting conversation replicate a discussion that might occur within the science community.
Recently, PopularScience.com—the website of the eponymous magazine—decided to shut down commenting on most of its pages. Popular Science said its comment sections had become polluted with trolls and spambots. While the publication could have spent additional resources policing, cleaning up, and even redirecting the conversations on those pages, its staff instead elected to eliminate this public forum.