46 Comments

Summary:

Popular Science magazine says it is shutting down comments because they are “bad for science,” but what’s really bad for science is closing off a potential avenue for informed debate around the topics the site is writing about.

comments

There’s been a lot of sound and fury around reader comments lately: Gawker Media founder Nick Denton is rolling out a new platform that he hopes will help improve them, the New York Times magazine ran a long piece that tried to analyze how and why they got so bad, and now Popular Science magazine has decided to shut off comments altogether because they are apparently “bad for science.”

I’m tempted to argue that it’s also bad for science when you jump to conclusions based on very little evidence, or when you close off potential avenues for informed debate that might help your reporting, but there’s a bit more to it.

Comments are “bad for science”

shouting, free speech

In a blog post about the reasons behind the move — a post that, not surprisingly perhaps, is closed to reader comments — editor Suzanne LaBarre says the magazine thought long and hard about the decision, and eventually came to the conclusion that whatever thoughtful debate or intelligent commentary actually took place in the comment section wasn’t worth putting up with all of the spam and trolling that came with it. As she put it:

“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.”

Presumably, fighting the trolls and spam — which almost every internet site, including this one, has to deal with as a matter of course — sucked up valuable resources that Popular Science believes could be better used for actually writing about science rather than trying to moderate comments, as a number of defenders of the magazine’s decision argued. The site also used the by-now-familiar argument that readers can always discuss articles on Twitter and other sites, although whether anyone would pay attention if they did so is unclear.

Yes, comments can be polarizing

Popular Science didn’t leave it there, however: LaBarre’s post also referred to a recent research paper that looked at the effect of reading comments on the perceptions of readers about the content of scholarly articles. According to the study, which was widely reported earlier this year, negative comments can skew the viewpoint of readers — hence Popular Science’s view that comments can be “bad for science.”

But as Nature magazine editor Noah Gray pointed out, the study seems to show that readers who were already negatively inclined towards a topic became more so when they were asked to read uncivil comments about the article and then respond to questions. Is that really a surprise?

Commenters

Comments can definitely be polarizing, but that still doesn’t justify shutting them down entirely. Why not try to fix them, the way YouTube is with its recent announcement about threaded and ranked discussions? Or use readers as moderators, as Michael Erard suggests in a post related to his NYT magazine piece? The evidence tends to show that writers who moderate their own comments have a consistently better community than those who don’t — why not incorporate that into the job?

Comments can also have a lot of value

I’ve seen a number of examples of significant errors in research being discovered through comments on scientific articles and blogs, something that is arguably similar to the peer-review process. One example — which I found, fittingly enough, in the comments section on a blog post about Popular Science’s decision — talks about how the science writer in question learned of an error through a comment:

“Sure, managing comments on a science-based website is challenging, but I managed it for five years on a popular science blog. In fact, the discussions in the comments were hugely valuable, and contributed greatly to scientific discussion. A comment on a post about some dubious chemistry lead me to test the science, which we debunked, and the paper was withdrawn.”

Obviously, that’s only one example. And when it comes to how much trolling and spam a site should be expected to go through in order to create that possibility, that’s ultimately up to each publisher to decide. At Gigaom, we believe that reader comments are an important part of what we do — and if Popular Science cares as much as it does about science, I would think it might want to try and come up with a better way of doing comments rather than just shutting them down.

There are all kinds of interesting experiments going on out there, from the “annotations” or “notes” approach taken by Quartz and Medium, or a similar effort from the New York Times — which highlights certain comments alongside the article — to Nick Denton’s effort to turn engaged readers into bloggers and moderators, something that harkens back to the early days of sites like Slashdot or Metafilter. Closing them down seems like an admission of defeat.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Aaron Amot and Flickr user Jeremy King

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  1. You are making the naïve assumption that the swamping of comments by negatively focused lies and drivel on science-related sites is driven by a normally-distributed population of commenters.

    It is not. There is money behind the almost instantaneous vitriol that gets posted on any reputable site that discusses CO2-related climate alterations. Money that understands that if you repeat a lie long enough, it will begin to echo and be perceived as truth.

    Name the hottest decade on record. Name the hottest five years on record. And yet, somehow, we have stories of no increase in global mean temperature in the last 16 years. And you cannot successfully fight what money wants to accomplish. There are folks paid to post lies and disinformation on credible sites. They are paid to Google up new articles and fill the comments with trash. Such paid shills outnumber the editors vastly. There is simply no cost effective way to continue a fact-based debate when there are folks being paid to besmirch the facts.

    Flat-out censorship is repugnant. So we have the closing of the comments section. The internet desperately needs an end to anonymity, and mechanisms to deal out shame and ridicule to those who lie, libel and slander. The only way to end the echo chamber of the big lie is to not allow it to be repeated.

    1. I’m not sure that outlawing anonymity would fix all those problems, but I agree astroturfing of all kinds is an issue. Thanks for the comment.

    2. Good points in general, but Mathew is right about anonymity. It’s a red herring. The real issue is accountability, which can be achieved easily with a mix of reputation scoring, delegated moderation, meta-moderation and the like. It’s all been done already on the pioneering tech sites. Making pure anonymity accountable is labor-intensive, but pseudonymity is easily managed. And neither involve throwing out privacy and free speech.

    3. Gee wiz NICK 67 no anonymity? For shame.

      All I see here is the typical liberal tactic of shouting down the opposition.

  2. That is when you assign moderators that love to do stuff like that on the side and are just readers. You don’t have to spend any resources and they feel like they are a part of something they consider important, like a science magazine. Have them all feed into one person that gets complaints about unfair moderation so you can boot the Mod off your pseudo-staff / volunteers for unfair moderation, if extreme or provide guidance.

    God, what are they doing anyway. taking off trolls and bad lang.

    Look for solutions, not barriers. Not very bright for a science mag are u.

    1. lol………….Your comment is awaiting moderation

    2. Thanks, Jon — I agree that using motivated readers as moderators is a great idea. That’s what sites like Slashdot have done for some time, and it seems to work.

      1. Slashdot moderation creates an echo chamber. To slashdot’s credit, they do allow anonymous commenting, something most sites don’t allow any more. I think popular science will be much less popular without the comment section.

      2. A suggestion would be like those of other sites, in which they have up and down votes. That way it could POTENTIALLY weed out the troll comments and promote actual decent comments.

  3. I will stopp reading it. .removed off bookmarks.

    Their articlers are barely scientific – often copy paste, wrong facts and manipulated/fixed viewpoints.
    Comments – tho with some spam, were the reason i stayed there. You often got more science from the comments.
    Now they can feed you whatever bullshit they want and noone can say if it was right or wrong anymore.
    I can get my real science news from wired and newscientist instead.

    1. @Mauro Tamm
      YOU are exactly the reason they are turning off commenting. Rarely are the comments as well-researched, vetted, and error-checked as the article. PopSci understands that the ‘science’ you are getting from the comments is usually biased, false or misleading (Jenny McCarthy acolytes anyone?) You will be going elsewhere.

      At least PopSci won’t be contributing to continued willful ignorance anymore. Doesn’t mean that willful ignorance will become any less widespread though

  4. PopSci shuts down comments to protect the overly-suggestible masses from heresies against cherished scientific “doctrine” #Courage

  5. Mat, your last line really resonated. Maybe there’s some truth to the idea that science is being defeated by ignorance, and Popular Science felt it needed to take an extreme measure to stop the damage. Perhaps I’m becoming a grumpy old man, but it really does seem like ignorance has become a more powerful and acceptable weapon lately, and I can’t help but wonder if this is due to the enabling effects of comments sections. Should people who know things have to defend themselves against people who don’t? Should the ignorant enjoy equal access to otherwise informed debate? Do comments simply legitimize the idea that every opinion, however unfounded, should be heard? Do the mass shamings of people we’ve seen – and which you have denounced – owe part of their existence to the easy spread of misinformation that comment sections enable? I’m not convinced the answer to these questions is always going to be more comments and more moderation of them. If nothing else, the Popular Science decision might make us all reflect on these questions, which may be what we need at this point – a bit of peace and quiet and time to think.

    1. Thanks, Anthony — those are all good questions. But if fighting ignorance is our goal, then how do we achieve that by shutting down an avenue for people to help us do that?

      1. Mat –

        I think you’re missing PopSci’s point here – they are shutting down an avenue of ignorance, not an avenue of fighting ignorance.

        The articles fight ignorance, the comments increase ignorance (a point they believe has scientific backing). I agree with other commenters that they could have moderation, etc. but that’s a tough battle as well and they may simply feel that it’s not worth it.

        At the end of the day they now feel that they can’t maintain discourse at their level of expectation, so they aren’t a discussion forum anymore, they’re a digital magazine.

  6. Thus withers the Internet as community. All that is left is one way dialogue – didn’t we used to call that the broadcast model – and trackers like the 12 on this page. That after all is all that the commercial ventures want – advertizing and invasion of privacy without the noise of public participation. Maybe we should just say the hell with net neutrality and other illusions, just pack it in, and let them implant RFIDs for some meaningless but pleasant service they provide for “free’. Not necessary, they call doing that cell phone apps. Just keeps getting better and better.

    I know, let’s give the Internet back to DARPA and the NSA. They can implement an Acceptable Use Policy that forbids commercial activity and trolling. This time the NSA can enforce it. Oh wouldn’t that surprise everyone. Just a Modest Proposal, this time without eating babies.

  7. What is bad for science are no comments…

  8. The spam-killer we use at WordPress – Akismet – easily removes 99% of comment spam.

    In addition, a moderator can mark frequent trolls as spam – :)

  9. As someone who’s seen and dealt with the comment thing for a long time, I’ve seen comments sections actually de-volve than e-volve since more people have become social online. It seems like it’s all a race to the bottom rather than a rise to the top…

    1. I know what you mean, Tish — I just feel like closing comments is giving up.

      1. well, as I mentioned, it could be The Gizmodo Strategy– say they’re closed, leave them closed for a fair amount of time and then voila! comments open again. the closing strategy isn’t always the permanent solution :)

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