Thursday, October 16, 2014

Good Comment! Science in the Internet Age

A Place For Dialogue (h/t to Sharon McKenzie Stevens)

As technology and culture change, new avenues of science open up. In the 1600's coffee shops became fertile grounds for political and scientific discussion, even while the royal court argued that these "dens of thieves" were illegitimate, divisive, and undermining of authority. So too, today, with online debate comment-threads and forums devoted to contentious topics such as climate change and genetically modified organisms.

I've been reading and participating in online discussions after reading Smarter Than You Think, a wide-ranging and persuasive case for the good side of technology. The author, Clive Thompson, argues that computers and the new types of communication they enable can make us smarter and more efficient. I've been consistently impressed by the quality of discourse online (especially when it is moderated). Wikipedia's methods are the gold-standard for creating knowledge and their standards seem to be widely adopted in many online discussions. For example, in comment-thread debates, facts are treated skeptically unless they are sourced, and scientific articles are held as better sources than news or magazine articles. So although intellectual debates have moved online and outside of academia, the standards for reliable knowledge have been translated to this new domain.

Is it Science?

Much online discussion focuses on current controversies at the intersections of science and society. Ironically, one of the most controversial questions is whether there is a debate at all, on a range of issues. The crux of the question comes down to whether online debates are legitimately "scientific", in the way that curated debates in scientific journals are supposed to be. Based on my analysis, I would argue that discussions characterized by normative standards of knowledge are indeed scientific discussions. I think an open-minded observer would agree that the substantive discussions being held on topics like Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) and the adoption of Genetically Modified Organisms certainly look like legitimate discussions, and it is hard to imagine holding ourselves to a higher level of discourse. Certainly there is ignorance and personal attacks, but these come from both sides in these debates.

Interestingly, many self-styled "defenders of science" commonly argue in online discussions that there is no substantive debate over the very issues they are debating. Even when comment threads run to hundreds of entries examing the arcane details of programming Global Circulation Models, the proponents of AGW maintain that "the debate is over." As if the online discussion doesn't 'count' in the way that a discussion in a scientific journal or conference would.  Although there are discussions in journals and conferences on these issues, certain commentators seem to conceptualize science as a monolithic enterprise that generates truth that cannot be questioned.

I find this definition of science more dangerous and erosive to the scientific enterprise than the danger posed by skepticism, debates, and unresolved questions. It is far better to expand our definition of science to include online dialogues and debates than to wall off science in the Ivory tower.  Everywhere people uphold normative standards of truth, scientific discourse is possible, and skepticism and questioning should be recognized as a central --and essential-- component of what defines science.

My wish is that both sides in these debates could see that they are engaging in science and legitimate dialogue -- even if they disagree on the ultimate conclusions. Science doesn't have to be monolithic or hermetic.  It is better (more creative, diverse, and relevant) when any conclusion based on facts can be legitimately believed or legitimately doubted.

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