Popular Science Disables Comments, Says They’re ‘Undermining Bedrock Scientific Doctrine’

    September 24, 2013
    Josh Wolford
    Comments are off for this post.

At what point do internet comments, whether they are civil or uncivil, begin to undermine the entire purpose of the site on which they are hosted? Whatever that point is, Popular Science has apparently reached it.

In an article appearing on the site, Online Content Director Suzanne LaBarre leaves little question as to why the long-running magazine has decided to shut down all commenting on online articles.

Basically, comment sections have become a breeding ground for scientific ignorance and it’s bad for the publication and bad for scientific progress in general.

Here’s the most pertinent segment of LaBarre’s explanation:

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.

LaBarre quotes research that suggests that “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.”

“Another, similarly designed study found that even just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers’ perception of science,” she writes. “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.”

In other words, comments that undermine accepted science are bad for the articles on which they appear and bad for scientific progress. One troll’s comment could butterfly effect all the way to U.S. scientific policy. The stakes are high.

If there were comments enabled on LaBarre’s article, you would probably see a bunch of people riled up, claiming that Popular Science is stifling dissent.

But it seems that Popular Science is sure in its course. To the publication, “bedrock scientific doctrine” is best served in a forum free of political motivations. “We’re committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate,” says LaBarre, “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.”

The magazine says that they’ll open up comments for some articles, but for the majority of new articles will have them disabled.

  • Sam Mitchell

    I think what Popular Science has done is perfectly valid. I read Popular Science, as well as other science magazines, to get updated on new developments. There is a reasonable assumption that the stories are fact-checked and based on sound science.
    As anyone who has read comment sections can attest, there is no limit to the unreasonable, factually questionable and downright false statements that will be asserted as fact. Conspiracy theories, religious dogma and trolling abound. It is also rare that a comment string will go more than half a dozen deep before it turns political. It is seldom an intellectual discussion. It is the idiots’ soapbox.

  • tim

    Popular Science is a bunch of chicken quacks who can’t stand all sides of the story being represented.

  • William Blanshan

    Yep, and a “consensus” of scientists once believed that the world was flat, too. Consensus means nothing.

  • SIN

    That’s how dictatorships start. Are they calling their readers stupid and high school dropouts who can’t think for themselves?

  • Bernhard

    I first was outraged, but when I read her explanation, I’ll admit she’s got a valid point

  • Dr Ruth

    I’m a physicist (but my name isn’t Ruth). I think that Popular Science has a point, but I was rather amused by the phrase “scientific doctrine”. Now, I’m getting a bit long in the tooth, but when I was learnin’ science, it was beaten into my head that the scientific method respected no doctrine and that nothing is beyond question.

    Perhaps she could have chosen her words a little more carefully.

    • Intact

      No, she meant every word. This is merely a reflection of how today’s fad ‘science’ operates.
      I also remember a time when science respected no doctrine, but those days are gone.
      Take one hot-button topic: Climate change.
      Only those that agree with one view are allowed to contribute the IPCC reports! Instant ‘consensus’!

      I’m afraid the scientific method is in shambles, and has been for some time now. The problem is that we that understand this are shut out of the conversation.

  • trlkly

    I understand their dislike of the lack of quality of their comments, but I think completely removing them is a bad idea. Just like proper scientific papers need peer review, pop-science publications need a back and forth. And readers need a way to feel engaged with the content. People don’t learn as well when they aren’t actively engaged in the process.

    What they need to do is embrace gamification and start rewarding people for making proper, scientific posts. Using the model by, say, Stack Exchange could dramatically improve the quality of the comments. Sure, at first, you’d probably have to have some moderators who would check to see if something is scientific. But, after a while, it would mostly police itself.

    Especially in this case, where most of the time, it is only a few very prolific individuals and groups that will make the bad comments. This is a science magazine–the main audience are not the pseudoscience peddlers. They just post there because the magazine is popular, and so they can get their content out. The community itself is not bad. Gamification isn’t magic, but when you have a core group of people who want to help, it really does work.

  • http://twitter.com/loveunderlaw loveunderlaw

    User comments & debating hekp to stimulate thought & further growth of society. Without alternative viewpoints there is only stagnation left…