Website comments can be bad for science

Website comments can be bad for science March 19, 2014

In connection to the rant I made about Randy Everist and his Nazi, unfair and unjustified comment strategy he has on his blog, here is a post from the Popular Science website which a Twitter follower and friend from Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub sent me. Hopefully they won’t mind me posting it here. Some interesting research regarding commenting and negativity bias:

Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments

Starting today, PopularScience.com will no longer accept comments on new articles. Here’s why.

Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off.

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. In one study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard, 1,183 Americans read a fake blog post on nanotechnology and revealed in survey questions how they felt about the subject (are they wary of the benefits or supportive?). Then, through a randomly assigned condition, they read either epithet- and insult-laden comments (“If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” ) or civil comments. The results, as Brossard and coauthor Dietram A. Scheufelewrote in a New York Times op-ed:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

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.

Another, similarly designed study found that just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers’ perception of science.

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.

Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.

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.

There are plenty of other ways to talk back to us, and to each other: through Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, livechats, email, and more. We also plan to open the comments section on select articles that lend themselves to vigorous and intelligent discussion. We hope you’ll chime in with your brightest thoughts. Don’t do it for us. Do it for science.

Suzanne LaBarre is the online content director of Popular Science. Email suzanne.labarre at popsci dot com.


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  • Luke Breuer

    Let’s not have faith in our population to possibly act responsibly; that is the best way to teach them to act responsibly. Instead, let them be consumers of spoon-fed content; that will surely lead to something more like a democracy and less than an aristocracy/plutocracy/technocracy.

    What if instead, one of the many academically researched reputation systems were tried out, such that the blog commenters self-sort into the kinds of people they want to talk to—just like happens in real life? Some can be found at hypothes.is. What if people were challenged to build reputations for being knowledgeable in some areas, curious in others, etc.? Turning people into mere consumers—or requiring them to use some other mechanism (160 characters definitely promotes in-depth knowledge, yeah) is not the solution!

    • Your strongly worded post is giving me a negativity bias.

      • Luke Breuer

        Some snarky comment about democracies and people who fall prey to negativity bias. :-p

        • Some non-sequitur and ad hominem abusive followed by a series of unintelligent, arm-chair-academic, statements of attempted reasoning.

          • Luke Breuer

            Questioning about whether this is rational or emotional discussion, plus questioning whether the statements made are mythologically- or evidence-based.

  • A team of moderators would probably do if, say, they want to go that route. It’s probably a lot of comments; I’ll take a starting salary of $80,000 and we’ll work out the bonus package later.