Popular Science, one of the longest running and, well, popular, magazines that deals with science has a website. Last Tuesday, on-line editor Suzanne LaBarre announced that Popular Science would no longer have comment sections on most of its pages. The reason sited was that “Comments can be bad for science.” She noted:
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.
She is absolutely correct. It seems, in fact, that attacking science in the comment sections of blogs and web sites is a cottage industry practiced vigorously by a very active minority of readers (we hope). And it may well be effective. Last January, Chris Mooney wrote:
Everybody who’s written or blogged about climate change on a prominent website (or, even worse, spoken about it on YouTube) knows the drill. Shortly after you post, the menagerie of trolls arrives. They’re predominantly climate deniers, and they start in immediately arguing over the content and attacking the science—sometimes by slinging insults and even occasional obscenities.
Chris talks about a study done by researchers at George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication (and others) that showed that these negative comments can be effective in ruining readers’ perception of the validity of science written about on line.
The study did not examine online climate change trolls directly—but there is good reason to think that the effects of their obnoxious behavior will, if anything, be worse. … When it comes to climate change… “the controversy that you see in comments falls on more fertile ground, and resonates more with an established set of values that the reader may bring to the table,” explains study coauthor Dietram Scheufele, … If commenters have stronger emotions and more of a stake, it stands to reason that the polarizing effect of their insults may be even stronger—although, to be sure, this needs to be studied.
… This is not your father’s media environment any longer. In the golden oldie days of media, newspaper articles were consumed in the context of…other newspaper articles. But now, adds Scheufele, it’s like “reading the news article in the middle of the town square, with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it.”
(Click through to CM’s post to get the link to that study.)
Chris told me “It is indeed possible to moderate comments to make them productive, but it is a huge amount of work. So I’m not that surprised that Popular Science opted not to do it.”
Will Oremus writing at Slate disagrees. He notes:
Sure, some very important scientific questions are pretty much settled … 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.
And here, in Will Oremus’s comment (and elsewhere) I see a flaw. The assumption implicit (or not so implicit) in Oremus’s commentary in Slate is that comments contribute to the science directly, by becoming part of the “spirit of free inquiry.” And I’m sure this is a feeling shared by many of the comment trolls of whom we are speaking.
The problem is, this is largely a made up fantasy. There are two distinct things going on here. One is science, which involves free inquiry and lots of communication among scientists, and the other is public understanding of science, which is very important because it is a key part of the process of translating science knowledge into science policy, especially in a society that thinks of itself as a democracy.
The comment trolls are not ruining science. They are ruining public perception of science. The commentary on web sites and blog posts is not part of the science conversation that produces scientific results (or, if so, rarely).
I wrote an opinion piece for The Scientist expressing this view, and it was put up this morning. Please go and have a look: Opinion: Part of the Conversation? On whether online comments help or hurt science.
If you have a comment on any of this, please feel free to add it to the page at The Scientist, or below, or both. I don’t have any control over the comment section at The Scientist, but here on this blog, have at it, even if you are a troll, as long as you are not a spam bot (and I can tell the difference, usually).