PopSci: “Comments can be bad for science”

Popular Science just announced that they’re turning off reader comments on at least some science articles:

It wasn’t a decision we made lightly. As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.

That is not to suggest that we are the only website in the world that attracts vexing commenters. Far from it. Nor is it to suggest that all, or even close to all, of our commenters are shrill, boorish specimens of the lower internet phyla. We have many delightful, thought-provoking commenters.

But even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, recent research suggests.

The post goes on to cite research indicating that critical reader comments on an article — not criticism of a study’s methodology, mind you, but ad hominem attacks — tend to skew readers’ perception of the results described in the article. In other words, trolls cause readers to misunderstand science.

This won’t be news to most bloggers. Back when I was affiliated with Scienceblogs, I chose to turn BioE’s comments off for basically the same reasons Popular Science cites. BioE is about sciart, the place of science in our culture, and different ways of communicating scientific concepts (through art, and otherwise). It is ruminative, not persuasive. It should be a neutral, nonpartisan ground. Yet I saw the comments on my little blog routinely devolve into off-topic political/religious/ideological diatribes. In an ideal world (bracketing the well-worn debate about whether, as a practical matter, science is politicized) reporting on science should be truly objective and apolitical. Yet I saw the trend in commenting on my blog mirrored, to a much greater extent, on high-profile blogs that objectively reported scientific findings.

Commenters who are argumentative, opinionated, and reasonable are the backbone of healthy discourse and a boon to any blog; they are not problem commenters, but the regulars that give a watering hole its local color. The vocal minority of true problem commenters aren’t part of the community, and aren’t there to have a friendly open-minded discussion. They’re motivated by a hyper-partisan intolerance of anyone who appears to question, or merely declines to agree with, their convictions. I was forced to admit, through experience, that pointing out that a post did not advocate a political/religious/ideological position, and thus could not be read to invite this or that off-topic fight, was utterly ineffective, because there was usually no good faith misunderstanding involved. Problem commenters are simply not willing to countenance the existence of alternative viewpoints. They’re self-righteous fanatics who want to WIN THE INTERNET: just another breed of troll.

The key question is what harm, if any, problem commenters do. Some people say they’re harmless, and should just be ignored: don’t feed the trolls, and don’t read the comments. But Popular Science has concluded that’s overly optimistic, and that allowing such comments on science news articles hurts “science.” I think that’s probably right, if by “science” we mean “public understanding of science.”

Having students practice reasoned scientific debate in a controlled environment is clearly beneficial. But engaging the public in a shallow caricature of such debate, where the loudest voices “win,” only teaches people to shout louder. Unless there is a well-established user moderation/rating system for upvoting/downvoting (which requires both infrastructure and a dedicated commentariat) any truly useful comments about related research or methodological issues, etc., are quickly buried in a deluge of crap. That deluge drives more neutral voices to abandon the discussion. Comment threads become vitriolic and hyper-partisan, because rational people don’t see any point in engaging fanatics. And the absence of moderate voices fosters the illusion that well-settled scientific principles are genuinely in dispute — which is, of course, one of the trolls’ goals.

Over time, if this keeps up, there will be fewer reasonable commenters, fewer nonpartisan bloggers and news outlets, and fewer fora for reasonable discussions. I’m not sure we’ll end up with echo chambers, exactly, but we may well end up with a handful of successful self-moderating communities, and a glut of boxing rings. And I fear that in such an environment, an uninformed reader will be unable to distinguish scientific debate from ad hominem debate, or to distinguish “scientific uncertainty” from “uncertainty that can be resolved by crowdsourcing” — i.e., which Emmys dress was the ugliest.

Back when I was at Scienceblogs, some readers assured me that uncivil comments were harmless, because they could read the comments while ignoring the trolls. But I couldn’t do that. I was already moderating the worst craziness. Moderation was a system no one liked, myself included: it required me to not only read, but quantify the offensiveness of every crazy/sick/rude/ignorant comment (e.g., a commenter who, for no good reason, named a rape victim uninvolved with the discussion, and indicated that she deserved to be raped). It required me to do so on some roughly objective and actionable scale. It was like a ring of purgatory in which one must assign grades to hundreds of abysmal and offensive essay question answers: a job I would not wish on my worst enemy. Because I didn’t ban most trolls, my former regulars — the “delightful, thought-provoking commenters” PopSci recognizes, the ones I really wrote my posts for — were participating less and less in comment threads. And that was only a microcosm of the situation at high-traffic blogs.

When bloggers complain about uncivil commenters, the typical response goes like this: get a thicker skin, and if you don’t like it, don’t have a blog. That response erroneously presumes bloggers have some kind of duty to permit comments (we don’t). But it also has a kernel of truth, in that only an irrational person routinely burns personal time on a hobby they find unpleasant and unrewarding.

I wouldn’t engage with a problem commenter at a party; I’d walk away. If I were an ideological blogger trying to advance a partisan viewpoint, I might be motivated to argue, but I don’t want to spend my free time arguing about topics chosen by other people. So it’s not surprising that when I did a cost-benefit analysis of blogging, the pervasive negativity and sheer nuisance value of the problem commenters, tipped the scales. I work a lot, I don’t sleep enough, and if I’m going to do something unpleasant, it may as well be the laundry. So I quit allowing comments, and I now spend very little time blogging.

BioE is but one dot in a galaxy of niche voices. It has never been an important forum for scientific news or information, and closing comments, or closing the blog, would have no practical repercussions for public understanding of science. But there are much larger and more important outlets, many of which are already struggling with the evolution and monetization of new models of journalism. They are affected by the sad truth Popular Science has obliquely acknowledged: while fighting trolls almost never benefits us individually — and in fact often feeds them — we may be harmed collectively if we all just walk away. I respect Popular Science’s decision to avoid that harm by closing comments. I just wish there was a better way.

Update: here are a few other perspectives on PopSci’s decision:

Please don’t blindly follow PopSci’s lead and get rid of comment spaces (Boundary Vision)
The Case for Banning Internet Commenters (Atlantic)
Popular Science has turned off comments. Here’s why that’s a bad idea. (iO9)
Note the Chris Mooney at Mother Jones discussed the underlying research cited by PopSci a few months back.

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