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.