Some comment sections are enlightening, some are depressing, and many — according to Popular Science — are actively hurting the scientific community. In a post today, the online wing of the magazine explained its decision to close down commenting on new articles, though comments on old ones will remain. "Comments can be bad for science," writes online editor Suzanne LaBarre. The reason isn't just that some commenters are unpleasant, and LaBarre takes pains to stress that much of the site's community is excellent. "But even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story, recent research suggests," she says, citing studies that find the tone of some comments, even if they're not in the majority, diminishes the credibility of articles.
Comment sections are coming under scrutiny, and Boing Boing has also opted to move readers onto forums rather than let them voice their opinions directly below articles. But LaBarre sees this not just as a service to writing but to scientific research itself.
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.
That doesn't mean that the site will stop taking feedback altogether. In addition to maintaining a presence on channels like Facebook, Twitter, and live chats, Popular Science will also "open the comments section on select articles that lend themselves to vigorous and intelligent discussion." Nonetheless, the decision hasn't been without backlash. GigaOm's Matthew Ingram has called the decision "both wrong and sad," saying that other studies had come to the exact opposite conclusion, though he has not yet cited such research. Others say that the studies LaBarre cites are more complex than her analysis suggests. But so far, these concerns have been voiced on social media — and unless Popular Science determines the issue will lend itself to productive debate, that's where they'll stay.