It has only been in the last year or so that I have paid much attention to the comments sections at the bottom of online science articles. It strikes me that everyone feels the need to comment, regardless of whether they understood the article or not – in fact, those who have not understood it tend to be the ones who comment most vociferously. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this tends to include a substantial proportion of creationists. Every article that touches upon my fields of interest (biology and palaeontology) seems to be followed by an irritating and distracting cloud of creationist comments, akin to the swarms of biting flies that pester large mammals. Here’s an example.
Creationists seem to have dual standards and selective hearing. They demand evidence and expect robust philosophical grounding from scientists (which is reasonable), but they then ignore or peremptorily dismiss the evidence that is presented and repeatedly commit (amongst others) the fallacy of false alternatives by concluding that if the science is incomplete or in any way contentious, the only remaining answer must be God (usually the Christian flavour, but sometimes the Islamic variant – I want to know how Odin or Vishnu feel about this). The hypocrisy of creationists demanding increasing levels of evidence when their own evidence amounts to an inaccurate book and a sort of warm feeling inside is also worthy of note.
Such responses are exacerbated by the obligatory journalistic hyperbole used to get stories past editors, which is yet another hurdle faced by scientists trying to make their research accessible to the public. Journalists and their editors are like lenses through which stories have to pass before they can be projected onto the world’s media. As with all imperfect lenses, the resulting projection is a distortion of the original image. Of course, these distortions are frequently seized upon by critics and the wider media alike – just look at ‘swine flu’.
Of course, editors need their papers to sell – and nothing sells papers like war, scandal or disaster – making science unappealing unless there is a ‘breakthrough’ or something to do with cancer cause/cure. It also means that any new fossil discovery has to be dubbed with the headline ‘missing link found’ (google it) unless it happens to be exceptionally large or push the temporal range of its group back in time (google the terms ‘largest fossil’ and ‘oldest fossil’) [N.B. see update]. But of course, almost every new fossil species is a ‘missing link’ at some taxonomic level, unless it represents the terminus of an extinct lineage – so are journalists and editors simply using the term to drum up readership from defensive creationists?
Perhaps this is why creationists feel the need to comment on science articles that they quite clearly do not understand. I almost feel sorry for the creationist because they are being goaded into making themselves look ignorant in response to the media hype that has become acceptable in science reporting. Of course, I don’t actually feel sorry for them at all. I feel sorry for the other commentators who feel the obligation to set the record straight in response. This is something that religious groups have managed to really get right – they simply don’t allow contradictory views to be expressed on their websites, either by not having space for comments or by weeding out any comments that don’t agree with their agenda. This frees up more time for their flock to wander the web in search of new pastures in which to start arguments, whilst simultaneously keeping their own pastures unfouled.
I for one would be keen to see a ban on creationist trolling in the comments on science articles – it would free up space and time for genuine and intelligent discussion about the research. Users should report distracting nonsense and moderators should have a disclaimer justifying bans on the trolls and their tired philosophically flawed tricks.