Turn Down the Comments; We’re Talking Science Here

A couple of days ago, Popular Science decided to turn off comments on news articles. In a blog post, Suzanne LaBarre explained why:

Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off….[W]e 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….[E]ven a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, recent research suggests….[A]s 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.
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.

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.

Many blogs do not have comments turned on for a variety of reasons, though I think Popular Science‘s rationale is the first I’ve heard from a public policy perspective. It is seemingly an ironic one: isn’t science supposed to flourish in an open atmosphere of review? Well, no. I left off the word ‘peer’ in there. Those who comment negatively on science stories–and I mean the ones that think evolution is ‘just a theory’ for instance–are not peers; more often than not, they are ignoramuses with a political axe to grind.   They are not offering constructive critique; they are actively seeking a proscription on the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

I do not mean to suggest  that peer review in science or in academia works perfectly. Indeed, I have suggested, in the past, that in many ways, it is a broken system (here; here; here; and here). But whatever its faults, it will not be fixed by opening the field to those whose agenda runs directly counter to that of the academy, no matter what the discipline.

I have often advocated open peer-review in the sciences (and other fields as well): place draft research articles in an open forum, invite comments and critique, let the author take the article off-line for revision and then place back online for ‘ final publication.’  Such a system will obviously only work if commenters on the article are suitably qualified peers. The editors could vet them and then allow anonymous comments as well.

I do not know if Popular Science‘s policy will be followed by other science forums on the net but at the least it is a depressing reminder of the Internet’s dark side.

Note: In a future post, I will offer some thoughts on Internet commentary in general.

2 thoughts on “Turn Down the Comments; We’re Talking Science Here

  1. I read some research in the last week or two saying that if an article’s author follows the stream of comments and re-enters the conversation every so often to interact with commenters, the civility (and quality, I think) of commentary improves. Isn’t that interesting?

    1. Katherine,

      That is very interesting indeed. Sometimes authors jumping into fray can provoke even more abusive comments as trolls figure out they have received attention. (I have a troll on this blog whom I don’t feed at all!).


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