Popular Science silences its comments section

Explaining that comments are bad for science and backing it up with -- well, science -- the 141-year-old magazine is shutting down the comments section on its Web site.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
3 min read

The comments section can be among the most vile of Internet cesspools, where wars are waged without regard for things like decency and civility and where oft-used "up vote" systems keep dissenting opinions buried and the most easily digestible one-line takedowns up top.

For Popular Science, which holds strong to its motto, "The Future is Now," the comments section has gone a step too far. By giving voice to all readers on its Web site, the 141-year-old magazine -- according to its editorial team -- has hurt its mission of championing science. So it has silenced the comments for good.

In a post titled, "Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments," Popular Science's Online Content Director Suzanne LaBarre detailed how comments on the Internet can be bad for science at large. LaBarre cites a study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Dominique Brossard in which 1,183 Americans were given a fabricated story on nanotechnology and were asked how they felt about the subject, both before and after reading fake comments. By reading both civil and vile-trolling responses, the study found that people were swayed far more by negativity.

"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," wrote Brossard and coauthor Dietram A. Scheufele in an op-ed in The New York Times.

And this study is backed by countless others who have tried to understand the extent to which the detrimental effects of mob mentality pervade discussion on the Web. This includes cliquish Internet groups, anonymity, and the uncontrollable trolls. Technology site Ars Technica has routinely tweaked its comments section to avoid these pitfalls, and Reddit has long grappled with the possibility that its up-vote, down-vote system may be inherently anti-intellectual. Most sites simply use software by companies like Disqus or Livefyre. In the case of the former, up-votes are king. In the latter, you're typically wading into an all-out free-for-all.

But for Popular Science, protecting its mission is paramount.

While nanotechnology seems a bit more arcane a subject to worry over, the editorial team cited issues like evolution and climate change as topics of fierce debate and the one's most subject to skewing by fervent readers with biased agendas.

"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," writes LaBarre.

Her point couldn't be more prescient. Just last week, Texas held yet another contentious debate over creationism's inclusion in its highly influential State Board of Education-regulated textbooks. The debate was, as many scientific issues that venture into the political realm go, spun off into dozens of television pundit back-n-forths, all of which centered on political intricacies and almost never on the firm ground upon which science stands.

"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 Web site devoted to championing science," LaBarre added.

There are other ways, of course, to engage in discourse on the Internet. A number of Web sites -- from music criticism vanguard Pitchfork to the satirical master The Onion -- disallow comments, relying instead on social media to give readers a voice. Popular Science has taken this route and invites its readers to stay active in discussions on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. It also will open up the comments section on certain stories, as The New York Times often does with discretion.

So while "Apple vs. Android" wars deep within comment sections may be enough to shake one's head at, it appears Popular Science's goal of looking forward to the future of scientific discovery has no room for trolls.