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If Popular Science cares about science, why not try to fix comments instead of killing them?

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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?


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

46 Responses to “If Popular Science cares about science, why not try to fix comments instead of killing them?”

  1. Keith Rowley

    This action is both sad and appalling. Science is losing some current debates and I wonder if PS has not become rather over-sensitive. The issues I have in mind are those of consciousness and man-made global warming. The first is rather an esoteric area but the debate is heated and far from one-sided with science largely taking a reductionist, mechanical viewpoint and the opposition regarding consciousness as an interactive component of reality (refer the double slit experiment etc). . The second area to which I refer, global warming, is an area where science has tried to play the role of rather biased politics and has been firmly rejected by the mass of the people around the world. Possibly PS believes that comments give voice to dissent and dissent is not tolerable when science is in the uncomfortable and unusual position of losing the debate. Or there again, maybe they’re just to lazy to manage spam – which I doubt. Either way, I shan’t be reading PS again.

    • PS is taking the typical liberal action. If they don’t agree with you they put their fingers in their ears and make noise so they don’t have to listen. Failing that they shout you down.

  2. There is a new crowdsourcing project to try to tackle EXACTLY this issue. Allows commenting on any article, line by line if you want. The video explains it well.

    Maybe it gives hope? We need to add rigor to the system, so people can say what they want to say, while others can sort for quality/civility.

  3. I think that Pop Sci is doing the right thing, frankly. Cable is dominated by “point/counterpoint” as if both sides have equal value. In discussing scientific ideas, there should simply be no room for debates between evolutionary biology and “creation science” since the latter is an oxymoron. To treat a proponent of creation science as if he or she has equal standing to a scientist who has spent their entire life – and decades of research – to this field is lunacy.

    Likewise with climate change deniers. Even the insurance industry now figures climate change into their rates. And those folks aren’t what you’d call treehuggers. The Chinese are now working to limit coal emissions by not building more coal-burning power plants. They have a LONG way to go since their country is so heavily polluted already.

    It’s time for those of us in the fact-based world to express our righteous rejection, wholesale, of those who imagine that we should teach that dinosaurs and humans lived together on earth 6000 years ago. Or who want to argue that climate change is some evil plot by Al Gore.

    We must work MUCH harder in this country to correct this ignorant and flawed notion that we must discuss insane ideas with insane people while acting like they’re not batshit crazy. At some point we must turn the heat up on this subject. Rejecting discussions within the scientific community where the underlying assumption is that there is room for two sets of mutually exclusive facts is insane.

  4. Walt French

    I think comments are GREAT for opinion blogs (e.g., this one). Everybody gets to put in his 2¢. People come for the opportunity to spout off, and see the ads. We all win.

    But I know of very few sites that consistently serve as a channel for a favored topic, especially those driven by at least a spot of research, that merrily assumes an open debate will obtain. There are obviously people driven by a totally different agenda — usually ego about their views being right — who manage to make it impossible to sort thru the chaff and learn anything new or to be corrected. So the blog owner simply shuts the individuals down. That works OK when the stakes are modest, but I’m totally sympathetic to the fact that billions of dollars are being spent to shape public opinion for political purposes (that’s utterly undeniable) and anything resembling a well-orchestrated campaign can overcome any of the controls that work on sites where less is at stake.

  5. One thing I’ve noticed in the fallout from this event is the sense of entitlement that people have developed regarding comments. It isn’t enough for me to read a well-researched article on an interesting topic; I must have my say for the world to hear!

    PopSci gave a reason. It’s a good one, based on research. They decided that an unaltered perception of the articles is more valuable than contributions from their posters, and they’re probably right. What is more interesting to me is the volume of fallout. In simply saying “actually, we don’t care what YOU have to say – you’re here because you care what WE have to say”, they’ve taken a swing at the ego of internet commenters everywhere.

    Oof. Right in the entitlement.

  6. Len Feldman

    The problem with trying to “fix” comments is that a lot of organizations have tried, and no one has yet come up with a solution. I give Nick Denton a lot of credit for his experiments; another approach already mentioned is to require commenters to use their real names. A third approach is to moderate every comment before it goes live, but of course the moderators have to walk a very fine line between keeping things civil and imposing their own beliefs. None of these have worked, at least for high-volume sites.

    If Popular Science was the only site covering scientific topics, I’d agree that keeping comments is important in order to provide a forum for public discourse. However, there are many sites that cover similar topics and accept comments; just in the magazine world alone, there’s Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, New Scientist, Science and others. If Popular Science’s decision has a big impact on their site traffic, they’ll see it in their usage reports soon enough. My suspicion is that it won’t dramatically affect traffic.

  7. Your headline is one of the most stupid arguments I have ever heard. Science is not debatable, except for those who have conducted proper scientific research and are scientifically trained. The craziest thing going on today is so called “journalists” printing all kinds of opinions that have nothing to do with verifiable facts. Who cares what you think, or what your opinion is. Everybody has an opinion. Very few people know much of anything. I am tired of ignorant people expounding, and doubters challenging everything they don’t understand. How is that news? In today’s so called “journalism” you can’t believe 2% of what you see. The downfall of journalism was the loss of integrity.

  8. Wikipedia is 100% moderated, user-generated content. They seem to be doing fine. There must be a way to apply the principles used at Wikipedia to improve the comments section on websites. It all comes down to weighing the time/effort against available resources.

  9. It’s a human ‘thing’. I read several years ago of a problem at one of the government’s nuclear research sites (Sorry, I can’t be more specific, it was several years ago.) Anyway, sides formed among the scientists over some trivial matter. This argument was primarily via emails and escalated to such intensity that some government officials had to intervene.

    [If anyone can correct me or elaborate on this I would appreciate it.]

    While trying to find more information on the above I ran into an article discussing how federal budget cuts have encouraged ‘bad science’ as researchers compete for ever shrinking funding.

  10. As for the use of spam filters and moderators: when the volume of comments is very high, spam filters do not catch all the spam. Not to mention spammers can be quite sophisticated and get past the filters. I see that on my blogs. As for moderators, well, when budgets are stretched thin due to technology needs (a better site! optimize for mobile across 3 platforms!) there is barely enough to pay for reporters, let alone a moderator staff. Often, moderator staff is an editor and some interns. The interns rarely know what a troll is, how to spot one, what constitutes a libelous statement, and so forth. to know how to moderate a community, one has to know the community, and interns rarely have the time to adequately learn. So, what appear to be logical and easy solutions to outsiders are impossible solutions once inside a publication…..

    Further, P.S. may be doing a Gizmodo–turning off comments for awhile but will turn them back on at some later date. This usually gets rid of trolls for a bit. they thrive on instant gratification, and when they can’t get it, usually go away. It’s a shame that comments continue to be such a bugaboo for publication sites, but those of us who were pioneers in this social thing have figured out that most people really don’t want civil conversation and don’t particularly care about knowledge. It’s disappointing, but perhaps the true reality of human nature.

  11. dan tynan

    Huffpo has had user moderated/voted comments for years, as well as teams of paid moderators. Why is it suddenly moving to a “verifiable identity’ model for commenters? Because the old system doesn’t work.

    The money quote from PopSci is here:

    “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.”

    GigaOm and PaidContent don’t generally get politically motivated trolls commenting on their posts. But PopSci gets them in droves. Many are, as suggested by one commenter above, likely paid for their time spent polluting the debate and spreading disinformation.

    The solution I think is not to ban comments entirely but to make a place for a public debate, separated from the stories themselves. That way people can argue their heads off w/o actually harming readers who are there to get real information.



  12. 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…

  13. 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.

  14. Anthony Reinhart

    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.

      • Alex Stevens

        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.

  15. Mauro Tamm

    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.

    • @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

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

    • 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.