Science Website Shutting Off Comments Section for ‘Undermining Bedrock Scientific Doctrine’

A 141-year-old science and technology magazine has decided to stop allowing comments on its website, believing Internet trolls are spreading unproductive misinformation that distracts from true scientific discussion and learning.

Popular Science’s Online Content Director Suzanne LaBarre announced the decision Tuesday, saying it “wasn’t a decision we made lightly.”

popular science front page
The front page of Popular Science as seen on Wednesday. On Tuesday, the science and technology magazine announced it would be turning off online commenting capability for most of its stories. (Image: Popular Science)

Although the magazine is “committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide,” LaBarre said “the problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.”

LaBarre cited evidence from recent studies that suggest disagreements between commenters can affect reader’s perception of the 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,’ LaBarre said, calling evolution and climate change hot topics that are now “mistakenly up for grabs again.”

LaBarre said that “scientific certainty” has become “just another thing for two people to ‘debate’ on television.”

“[B]ecause 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,” LaBarre wrote.

If readers wish to communicate with Popular Science or its authors, they are encouraged to use Twitter, Facebook, livechat, email and other forms of social media. Popular Science does plan to open comments for some articles “that lend themselves to vigorous and intelligent discussion.”

Popular Science is not the only website taking action to curb trolling on its comment section. The Huffington Post announced in August that it was ending the practice of allowing anonymous comments.

And just this week, YouTube said it was updating its comment system as well.

“In the coming months, comments from people you care about will rise up where you can see them, while new tools will help video creators moderate conversations for welcome and unwelcome voices,” YouTube’s Nundu Janakiram and Yonatan Zunger wrote in a blog post Tuesday.

As for comment moderation, the video-sharing site is giving users new tools to review comments before they’re posting. This new functionality will allow words to be blocked and certain fans to be pre-approved for commenting.

“These can help you spend less time moderating, and more time sharing videos and connecting with your fans,” the blog post read.

Wired’s Roberto Baldwin said this is YouTube’s effort “turn those conversations into something that doesn’t make you want to take a shower and weep for mankind.”

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