Popular Science Decides Internet Comments Are “Bad for Science.’ That’s Lazy and Wrong.

Popular Science thinks science journalism works better when people can't question it.

Popular Science thinks science journalism works better when people can’t question it.

Screenshot / Popular Science

Popular Science announced today that it is shutting off comments for good. “Comments can be bad for science,” explained Suzanne LaBarre, the magazine’s online content director. She pointed to “trolls and spambots” who “overwhelm” the magazine’s efforts to “spread the word of science far and wide.” Thanks to these trolls, she went on, “the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.”

Now, I get as annoyed as the next right-thinking person when Internet commenters misconstrue scientific research—let alone when they regale me with tales of their aunt’s third cousin who makes $73 an hour working from home. But I couldn’t help but notice an almost religious zeal in LaBarre’s framing of her magazine’s mission. Spreading the word of science? Undermining bedrock scientific doctrine? Substitute “Christianity” for “science” and “Christian” for “scientific” in those two phrases and perhaps you’ll see what makes me uncomfortable here. These aren’t the words of a scientist. They’re the words of an evangelist.

Sure, some very important scientific questions are pretty much settled, and it’s journalists’ job to convey that. But LaBarre’s metaphors conjure an image of science as an ancient and immovable stone fortress, from which the anointed few (Popular Science staff writers, say) may cast pearls in the direction of the masses below, but which might crumble to dust if the teeming throngs aren’t kept at bay. This conception is antithetical to the spirit of free inquiry that has always driven scientific discovery. 

The magazine bolsters its rationale by mentioning a pair of recent studies which found that strongly worded Internet comments can change readers’ perception of the facts in a story—for instance, by heightening their perception of the risks associated with a given technology. For Popular Science, grounding a decision to jettison the comments section in peer-reviewed research is a neat maneuver.

Even here, though, the magazine seems a bit too ready to enshrine scientific findings as gospel rather than thinking critically about their implications. In one of the two studies, subjects exposed to a comments section studded with ad hominem attacks came away with “a more polarized understanding” of nanotechnology than those who read polite comments. But does that prove that readers would be better off with no comments section at all? I don’t see how it could, given that the researchers didn’t even address that question.

I happen to know that only because I clicked through to the New York Times op-ed cited by Popular Science, which in turn linked to the study in question. Incredibly, Popular Science itself didn’t see fit to link directly to either of the studies it cited as justification for its anti-comments stance. And for the second of the two studies, it provided no link at all, nor did it mention the title, the authors, or the name of the publication—no way, in short, for readers to examine the source material and draw their own conclusions. I guess Popular Science doesn’t trust its readers with original sources, either.

Reaction from the blogosphere ran largely positive. “Couldn’t be more proud of PopSci for turning off comments,” tweeted Joel Johnson. “Hard to believe it took them this long,” agreed John Gruber. At the august Atlantic, Derek Thompson compared comment sections to “sewers,” adding, “If you have ever visited YouTube, you cannot pretend to not know what I’m talking about.”

Yes, YouTube has long been home to some of the net’s nastiest natterers. But rather than kill its comment section, Google has decided to improve it by linking commenters’ identities to their Google+ accounts and ordering comments by relevance rather than chronology. Reddit, meanwhile, has quickly become one of the most popular and vibrant sites on the Web by making comments the main attraction and letting its users sift the best ones from the chaff. Granted, that takes a little technological investment. But a number of less-wealthy platforms have found ways to highlight witty and worthy comments at the expense of the vicious and the inane.

Writing on Slate, I’ve encountered plenty of both varieties over the years, and on balance I far prefer a mix of useful and useless comments to no comments at all. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been alerted to new developments, factual oversights, dissenting opinions, and fresh story ideas by readers using the comments section below my stories and blog posts. Commenters also help authors understand where they’ve explained a point in a misleading way, and what readers are taking away from their posts. Our commenting system is far from perfect, and yet I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Gizmodo’s Matt Novak neatly encapsulated the alternative: Writing on a site without comments, he said, felt like “whispering to myself in the wilderness.”

Popular Science doesn’t see it that way. Its editors seem to think of themselves as heralds trumpeting unimpeachable pronouncements from the castle tower to a crowd of subjects somewhere below. Allow the subjects to talk back, and some traitors to the cause of science are likely to foment rebellions that would threaten the integrity of the castle walls. LaBarre concedes that some commenters might contribute delightful, thought-provoking insights, yet concludes that “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.” Better to cast them all beyond the pale.

The edifice of science, I suspect, is neither as rock-solid nor quite as brittle as Popular Science seems to believe. Yes, creationists and climate-change skeptics have a habit of clogging up the comment sections of stories about scientific developments. Leave those sections untended, and the trolls and spam bots will indeed take root. But a little maintenance of the grounds—a flagging system for abusive comments, a little human moderation, maybe an upvote system—is typically enough to tilt the field toward the civil and the scientifically literate. On Slate, most commenters have learned to ignore the most inane and irrational commenters: “Don’t feed the trolls” is a common refrain.

I would understand if an academically oriented site like Nature News decided that the investment required to run a decent comments section wasn’t worth making (although in fact the site does allow comments). But this is Popular Science. Popular, as in, “adapted to or indicative of the understanding and taste of the majority.” But I suppose the magazine is confident that it knows what the majority of people like and understand without having to actually consult them. Either that, or it’s getting lazy.

Come to think of it, what do the magazine’s own readers think about its decision to shut off comments?

Oh, right—I guess it’s better not to know. For science’s sake.