Monday, September 30, 2013

Science! (Pauling, Streight, Feldman, and you)

Many businesses - heck, all businesses - must deal with the impact of Science. Science (and I capitalize the word intentionally) is an Absolute Certainty which all businesses must acknowledge.

Well, it's an Absolute Certainty - except when it isn't.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote the story of Nobel Prize winner Dan Shechtman, and how his quasicrystal advances in science were greeted by the scientific community. OK, they weren't greeted so well. In fact, one person commented, "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists." And no, that person was not from Bob Jones University. The person who made that statement was Linus Pauling.

Initially, I made no connection between the Shechtman story and the recent story involving Popular Science's discontinuation of comments - although some of Popular Science's statements struck me as somewhat odd.

Comments can be bad for science. That's why, here at, we're shutting them off.

Re-read that first sentence again.

Comments can be bad for science.

Popular Science got into specifics a little bit later.

As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter....

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.

So, as they put it, Popular Science is defending itself against the Neanderthal yahoos (not that they'd appreciate being called that) who do not accept the "scientific certainty" espoused by the scientific community. (Although frankly, I'm not aware of a time when such a "popular consensus" universally existed.)

But Steven Streight wonders if something else is going on.

Science can't hold its own against pseudo-science trolls?

Science must run and hide from the mean old unorthodox thinkers?

Wait a minute. What is Popular Science shutting down?

Debate. Discussion. Conversation. Argument. Clarification. Confirmation. Dissent. Criticism. Questioning.

In other words, the interaction and testing of other minds and ideas, which is the very foundation of scientific progress.

Now Loren Feldman has noted that most comments are truly inane, and that if someone had something worthwhile to say, that person could use his or her own platform, rather than piggybacking on Popular Science's platform. And he's probably right, and I bet that even Steven Streight would agree that Feldman has a point here.

Of course, the ramification of this is that the debate on popular science will not take place at Popular Science.
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