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.