Online comments called bad for science

04:58, Sep 25 2013

Popular Science is shutting off comments on its website after "shrill, boorish specimens" ruined it for the rest.

Online content director Suzanne LaBarre said Popular Science did not make the decision lightly, but comments could be "bad for science".

"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," she said in an online post.

"The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter."

Research suggested that an article with insult-laden comments not only polarised readers, but often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story.

In the study, led by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard, more than 1000 Americans read a fake blog post on nanotechnology and revealed in survey questions how they felt about the subject.

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The participants who read the article with civil comments continued to feel the same way about the nanotechnology after reading the comments.

Negative comments about another commenter on an article was enough to distort the reader's perception of the content of the article.

"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.

"The cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science."

LaBarre said there were plenty of ways for readers to talk back to them and to each other - "through Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, livechats, email and more".

"There are plenty of other ways to talk back to us, and to each other. We also plan to open the comments section on select articles that lend themselves to vigorous and intelligent discussion," she said.

"We hope you'll chime in with your brightest thoughts. Don't do it for us. Do it for science."

Fairfax Media