September 24, 2013 by David K. Sutton
Popular Science Decides To Shut Off Article Comments, Citing ‘Decades-Long War On Expertise’
Popular Science (PopularScience.com) has decided to shut off their article comments, saying trolls and spambots undermine their science reporting. “Comments can be bad for science,” writes Suzanne LaBarre, who goes on to cite research that shows a minority of uncivil commenters have the power to change perceptions of a story.
Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments | Popular Science — In one study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard, 1,183 Americans read a fake blog post on nanotechnology and revealed in survey questions how they felt about the subject (are they wary of the benefits or supportive?). Then, through a randomly assigned condition, they read either epithet- and insult-laden comments (“If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” ) or civil comments. The results, as 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.”
LaBarre says article commenters can shape perceptions, and that means they have the ability alter public opinion, which then can affect public policy, including funding of scientific research. In other words, a few oxygen deprived lunatics who erupt in a rage of climate change denial rantings, have the ability to tweak reality, even just a little bit. No, they aren’t changing the science itself, but they can potentially alter public debate. And if they manage to inject just a small amount of doubt into the minds of some, they have done their job. It doesn’t matter that they are uninformed and unqualified on the subject matter.
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.
It’s refreshing to see a paragraph like the one above in a mainstream publication. And I can understand why Popular Science chose to shut down article comments, as nothing good can come of attaching an addendum to your science reporting, filled with uninformed hyperbolic babble.