I see that Popular Science is shutting down the comments function on their web site. Like a lot of news organizations, I think that their signal/noise was pretty low in the comments. (And that prompts me to express, again, my appreciation for the commenters on this blog - one of the first questions I get when I talk to anyone else who runs a web site is how on Earth the comments section around here stays so readable and sane!)
They're citing some experiments that seem to show that fractious comments sections actually make the original posts above them seem less reliable, and that may be how it works. In reality, my impression is that if a site seems to have a lot of fist-waving in the comments section, that pretty soon most readers don't even bother with it, and the only ones that show up are there for the fights. I'll say this for the Popular Science folks - they're not doing this for monetary/traffic reasons, because wildly argumentative comments sections also drive traffic from the people who just can't stay away (and hit "Refresh" over and over in the process).
Here's the key quote from their article:
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.
I know where they're coming from, but I'm not so sure about that "again". My belief is that there hasn't been a time when evolution was not controversial with many people, nor climate change/global warming. The internet, it's true, gives everyone with a point of view a chance to ventilate, so it brings this sort of thing to the surface much more easily than in the past. (Look back a few decades, and ask yourself what was available to someone with a strong opinion. Letters to the editor? Soapbox in the park? Handling out flyers on the corner?)
And I don't think that there's been any big, coherent, "decades-long war on expertise". If there is, then there always has been. It makes a person feel better to believe these things, but that's the sort of self-congratulatory thinking that I believe one has to avoid. "I'm too smart for the crowd, the mob - a member of a persecuted minority just because I see the truth. . ." That doesn't do anything to help your own reasoning.
No, most people don't understand scientific topics, but most people never have. If anything, I'd be willing to bet that the population today is more literate in these matters than ever before. The sorts of people who go hunting through web sites looking for things to confirm their own opinions have always been with us. As have groups who'd rather obfuscate topics than debate them, for reasons of their own. We just have a better look at the whole process these days.