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‘Popular Science’ Mag: Online Comments Are Bad For Science

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
September 24, 2013

The online content director for PopularScience.com announced Tuesday that the website will no longer accept comments on new articles, saying a small but vocal minority of “shrill, boorish specimens of the lower Internet phyla” were ruining it for everyone else.

We’re all familiar with that deep, dark rabbit hole of Internet comment boards. A negative or critical comment sparks a firestorm of debate until the discussion erodes into a cavalcade of insults and personal attacks. Once you finally snap back to reality, you realize you’ve often strayed so far from the original story that it’s often difficult to find your way back.

This distracting nature of online comments is part of the reason Popular Science, the venerable 141-year-old science and technology publication, declared that it would be shutting its comment boards down.

“Comments can be bad for science,” writes Suzanne LaBarre, the online content director of Popular Science. She continues:

“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.”

LaBarre writes that while PopularScience.com is certainly not the only site that attracts these sorts of commenters, and also praises the many thoughtful ones it does get, she says that “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, recent research suggests.”

And what would a science magazine be without a little research to back up their reasoning for the decision. LaBarre cites a University of Wisconsin, Madison study that, among other things, found that: “Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.”

Study authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele wrote about their research in a New York Times op-ed:

“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.”

LaBarre says the often politically motivated debates erode the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics, such as evolution and the origins of climate change. She says that on occasion they will still open the comments section on select articles that “lend themselves to vigorous and intelligent discussion.” The windows of communication will also remain open on other platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Google+, and the hope is that readers will still chime in there.

“Don’t do it for us. Do it for science,” she says.

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments — but let’s keep it civil. [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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