by David Mendez
Popular Science, the long-running magazine and gateway to hard-science discussion, recently made a drastic change to their website: The editors are cutting out the discussion.
This week, PopSci.com decided to close the comments for their publication, save for selected stories "that lend themselves to vigorous and intelligent discussion," say the site's powers that be.
Now, why on Earth would they choose to do that? Well, partially because of this March op-ed from the New York Times, containing information from a survey noting that the content of comments on a story can change how a reader perceives the story they just read:
In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.
Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.
PopSci found the study to be fairly accurate, noting the discussions found beneath articles on climate change and abortion studies to be cesspools of spam, climate change deniers and slut-shamers. Keep in mind, this is a website focusing on things that can actually be tested and proven. Using science.
From Suzanne LaBarre, the online content director for PopSci.com:
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.
Trolling commenters are a fact of life when one does business as an online source for news and opinions — God knows that we've dealt with our fair share here. My own commenting trial-by-fire began not long before the last Presidential election, when a post about the concerns of an uninformed electorate devolved into a screaming match in the comments section.
Personally, I'm of the mind that comments are a valuable resource for sites like this, involving commenters in the discussion, influencing future articles, and (in the case of certain columnists in this city) providing content and opinions to fill up column inches. I don't think the Weekly would ever do such a thing, even if comments do occasionally turn into threats against one's person or their food.
But in the case of Popular Science, where the entire point is to discuss the best of science, I can get why they'd tune out the worst of the Internet.