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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Gravity--It's the Law: Science and Free Speech

Popular Science magazine is shutting off its comments.  Here is part of its rationale:

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.

This is too bad, but I hear you, Popular Science magazine. Too often the comments on an article (scientific or otherwise) are little more than ad hominem political attacks that betray not only the ill will but the absolute incomprehension of some readers. These types of comments, for me, are like people throwing rotten tomatoes at a work of art available for us all to look at. I don't always like the art piece, but at least I want to be able to contemplate and absorb it unencumbered by people who aren't there to look and offer reasoned critique in the first place. This art metaphor doesn’t go far enough to express what’s wrong with throwing rotten tomatoes at scientific assertions of facts.  At least with art a person can reasonably entertain his or her own opinion about the “truth” or the “merits” of a piece. In the case of science, you can’t seriously argue with certain foundational principles. As one of my high school teachers used to say: “Gravity: it’s the law.”

Now, there are some people who will insist that shutting down comments is somehow a loss for “free speech.” But, to them, I say, “not really.” There is, of course, no Constitutional right, First Amendment or otherwise, to post comments in response to an article in a privately run journal (though this is the very sort of assertion that such commenters often make). Even if we think more broadly about philosophical freedom of expression norms that govern public discourse and ongoing political debates, there is no “right” to make inane, offensive comments that subvert the underlying communication. I talk more about claims around freedom of expression norms in my NYU Review of Law and Social Change article A ‘Ho New World: Raced and Gendered Insult as Ersatz Carnival and the Corruption of Freedom of Expression Norms.

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