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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, November 25, 2013

Reddit Science Wants an Echo Chamber Comfort Zone

Reddit.com is a hugely popular web site where users can submit links to articles and posts they see on the web. There are numerous different “subreddits,” each of which deals with some particular category such as Sports, Politics, or Science. If readers like a story, they can press an Up button that causes the story to get a higher ranking on the list of top stories listed by a particular subreddit. A very-liked story may rise to the top of the list on a particular subreddit.

One of the top subreddits is Reddit Science (www.reddit.com/r/science). There are some good articles, posts, and links. However, this subreddit has a very strange posting policy, which seems to be quite antithetical to the true spirit of science, besides also being offensive from the standpoint of simple common sense.

Below is the posting policy currently stated by Reddit Science:

Please ensure that your submission to r/science is :

  1. a direct link to or a summary of peer reviewed research with appropriate citations. If the article itself does not link to these sources, please include a link in a comment. Summaries of summaries are not allowed.
  2. based on recent scientific research. The research linked to should be within the past 6 months (or so).
  3. not editorialized, sensationalized, or biased. This includes both the submission and its title.

Each one of these guidelines is very inappropriate. I'll explain some reasons why.

The first requirement is inappropriate because it straight-jackets a person wishing to discuss science, by limiting him to merely making a “summary” of a paper by another scientist. In many cases, an appropriate response to a scientific paper is not to merely make a summary of it, but to challenge it, interpret it, or to point out that other scientific papers have reached contrary conclusions.

Below are some examples of some scientific papers that should not have been merely summarized, but which should have been criticized, discounted, interpreted, or otherwise handled.

A recent scientific paper claimed to have discovered evidence of extraterrestrial life in the upper atmosphere. Was it appropriate to merely summarize that sensational claim? Of course not.

Another scientific paper claimed that the genetic code used by earthly life “displays readily recognizable hallmarks of artificiality,” thereby implying that either God or extraterrestrials somehow tinkered with the genetic code. Was it appropriate to merely summarize that sensational claim? Of course not.

Every year there are numerous scientific papers reaching a conclusion that some type of food or other item used by humans causes some type of medical problem, whether it be heart disease, early death, cancer, or whatever. Should such a paper merely be summarized? Of course not. The reason is that in a large fraction of cases, there are conflicting scientific papers reaching the conclusion that there is no such causal relation between the food or other item and the medical problem in question. So it's entirely appropriate to criticize a study that reaches conclusions in conflict with other studies.

Every year cosmologists release many papers advancing all kinds of highly speculative theories, which are normally called models within the papers. The next time a cosmologist publishes such a paper, is it appropriate to merely summarize his speculations? It is is often better to call attention to how speculative the model is, and how other scientists have different theories.

I may also mention that an intelligent discussion of science requires "big picture" looking at the larger trends and wider implications of science, not just a narrow small-scale discussion of individual scientific papers.

So Reddit Science's first requirement (“summaries only”) is very inappropriate. What about Reddit Science's second requirement, that there should only be posts about research done in the past six months? That is also inappropriate. It encourages a mentality in which previous research is put on a hallowed pedestal and “set in stone,” no longer subject to dispute and debate. Why discourage someone from making a critique of research just because it appeared more than six months ago?

What about Reddit Science's third requirement, that posts about science should not be “editorialized”? This is also inappropriate. Part of the scientific process of discovering truth involves criticizing or discounting previous work. But that involves stating an opinion, and that's editorializing. If a scientist publishes a paper that is speculative, poorly supported, or in conflict with other papers, it is entirely appropriate that we should “editorialize” by criticizing that paper.

Let us also consider the fact that scientific research can sometimes lead to gigantic perils for the public. An example is the creation of thermonuclear bombs, which put the whole human race in danger of extinction in a nuclear holocaust. Another example is a recent real-life paper suggesting a new way to modify a pathogen to make it vastly more deadly, capable of killing very many millions of people. In both cases (and in many other cases) any responsible treatment of such items calls for “editorializing” about the need to limit the dangers. “Check your moral concerns at the door” is not how we should be dealing with science.

The Reddit Science submission policy is a prescription for an authoritarian “filter bubble” or “echo chamber” – an environment in which the original research or speculation by a scientist is repeated uncritically by writers afraid to challenge it or compare it or dissect it.

Below is a satirical statement of the impression created by the Reddit Science submission policy. It isn't quite their policy, but it sure sounds like it:

Click to expand parody