Popular Science Has Darn Good Reasons For Disabling Comments on Their Website

The website for Popular Science recently made a controversial decision, one that as a news blogger I understand completely.  PopularScience.com has finally disabled “comments” on their website after years of struggling through moments where some of the best, most solid scientific evidence set forth in a published post was attacked with enough vitriol that apparent fundamental tenets of science had to be re-stated and/or defended. We need not be retreading old ground in this manner at this delicate point in human history. Example:  Do we need to reiterate all of the fundamental science and astronomy which revealed long ago that the earth rotates around the sun? No. it’s the year 2013 A. D. Certain facts are not up for argument, much less negotiation. But in the world of ever-diminishing IQ points otherwise known as the internet universe, there will be the inevitable barnacle-like web troll, freshly graduated from the University of Idiocracy down the road,  who attaches himself to a certain topic, often actually challenging such common knowledge.

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The internet is one of the only public places where the unwashed, unlearned, uncouth and uninvited portions of the populace still mix and mingle with some of the most learned and well educated minds of our time. It definitely doesn’t seem fair to me that a scientist who has spent twenty years of his life proving a premise and examining corroborating scientific evidence should be forced to re-prove what he knows to be fact again and again because some 400 pound kid who lives in his mother’s basement with an IQ of about 90  takes his daily rage out on anyone and anything he finds online that might appear to sound intelligent.

I chose to disable comments on this blog for basically the same reason.  A few well placed “trolls” can not only bend and twist the way a post is received, they can be so off-putting that a story loses readers, and a blog or website loses subscribers.

If a scientist approaches his podium in a university setting to present a lecture, and ten minutes into his introduction – not having arrived at the facts yet – 40 people out of a room of 85 begin yelling nonsense at him and screaming profanities, how do you think the other 45 people are going to react? Do you think that at least some of those remaining people are going to step back and wonder ‘why the sudden outrage’? All civility now shattered, there will most likely be a portion of people who are just shocked and offended and choose to get up and leave to avoid the melee altogether.

The same kind of thing takes place online about 50 million times a day.  Every person who has ever posted an article, essay or YouTube video knows all about how ruinous the “wrecking ball” mentality is online. I sympathize with PopSci editors, and I do genuinely wish we lived on a more intelligent and civilized world, but we do not.  Just beneath that thin veneer…

Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments

Starting today, PopularScience.com will no longer accept comments on new articles. Here’s why.

By  Suzanne LaBarrePosted 09.24.2013 at 8:15 am

Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off.

It wasn’t a decision we made lightly. As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.

That is not to suggest that we are the only website in the world that attracts vexing commenters. Far from it.  Nor is it to suggest that all, or even close to all, of our commenters are shrill, boorish specimens of the lower internet phyla. We have many delightful, thought-provoking commenters.

But even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, recent research suggests. In one study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard, 1,183 Americans read a fake blog post on nanotechnology and revealed in survey questions how they felt about the subject (are they wary of the benefits or supportive?). Then, through a randomly assigned condition, they read either epithet- and insult-laden comments (“If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” ) or civil comments. The results, as Brossard and coauthor Dietram A. Scheufele wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

“Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.  In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.”
Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.

Another, similarly designed study found that just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers’ perception of science.

If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.

Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.

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.

There are plenty of other ways to talk back to us, and to each other: through Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, live chats, email, and more. We also plan to open the comments section on select articles that lend themselves to vigorous and intelligent discussion. We hope you’ll chime in with your brightest thoughts. Don’t do it for us. Do it for science.

Suzanne LaBarre is the online content director of Popular Science. Email suzanne.labarre at popsci dot com.

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