Many years ago, I joined an online forum community. One of the areas on this community was for scientific discussions. I had never had much interest in science in general, but I had been reading books about the brain – partly out of curiosity about my own issues, and partly because they were really fascinating. By the time I found this place, I had graduated to reading a fair number of skeptical and science blogs. My curiosity had been aroused. At the same time, my critical thinking skills were being tested and honed. Finding a place where people were discussing research and providing evidence and links to studies about brain things that were relevant to me was wonderful and exciting.
When people posted things that were well-supported, I found new sources of information in links and searches. When people considered implications or possibilities, they provided evidence and reason for their ideas. When people posted things that looked suspicious, I went off in search of the truth, and found out all kinds of knowledge that either rebutted or supported these things.
In fact, if it hadn’t been for someone posting about epigenetics in a way that sounded an awful lot like magical thinking, I would never have delved as deeply into this fascinating process as I have, and would not have learned most of the amazing things I now know about genetics, evolution, and developmental neurology. I had learned a lot about the physical structures of the brain and their functions, but without the input of the other curious and intelligent people there, I wouldn’t have known about the interconnectivity and the complex chemical and electrical communication that makes these structures function as a whole.
This was different from reading scientific information from scientists. While some were writing for public understanding, most were writing for their peers. These were not always places to pose elementary questions or ask if some speculation you had might have some factual support. This forum was, and I looked forward to visiting it every day. The dialogues were lively, and disagreements were usually battles of who had the most robust evidence. I was interested in science, but it was this particular place that got me excited about it.
Sadly, an extremely small number of people have been given carte blanche to ignore all the rules that used to make this discussion area work. Should anyone dare to post anything remotely resembling fascinating new information, they descend upon the conversation and shut it down. Every thread looks like a copy-paste of every other thread; evidence is disregarded in favor of dogma; anyone who disagrees with what is basically the only topic of the entire area is told they are wrong with a thinly veiled insult to their intelligence.
Cognitive dissonance should be a call to arms – go out and find the truth! It should prepare you to learn more and change your mind if you discover that the best evidence contradicts what you think you know. Now, the ability to ignore that conflict is treated as the highest of virtues.
Here was a place filled with creative, curious people, who had unusual approaches to connecting ideas, different ways of putting things together and taking them apart. Here was a place where the goal was not to be right for the sake of being right, but to be right because you could show your work. Here was a place that was exciting and interesting and challenging.
It is gone, and I don’t anticipate it ever coming back. I used to direct people to this place to get information; now I tell them they won’t find what they’re looking for there. It is hostile and uninviting to the very type of thinkers it used to attract. I miss it terribly.