25 September 2013

Popular Science comments: not popular

Popular Science has decided to stop feeding the trolls:
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.
Mixed thoughts here.

Crisis and online PR professionals can easily see the logic in the editors' decision.  We tell brands all the time to control their own platform and not let critics attack them on their own website. There is always some risk in having a Facebook page or a blog that allows unmoderated comments. Brands and journalists have to be transparent to maintain credibility, while anonymous commenters don't have to own their words.  It's not a fair fight.  Further, when resources are scarce and you can't commit to moderating an overwhelming amount of abusive comments, sometimes it's best to shut them down.

The editors at Popular Science have gone a step further, and suggested there is real science to back up their decision.  They cite two studies suggesting basically the following:  blog post comments that assertively expressed a different point of view prompted readers to doubt the credibility of the blog post. They continue:
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.
Sorry, but that's a bit more of a "logical" extension than I'm ready to accept. There isn't a "butterfly effect" that starts with "bro2001" telling a blogger he sucks and ends with NIH getting gutted.  But it was this line that really gave me pause:
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.
Preventing those who reflect a "grotesque" culture from making comments that cynically undermine doctrine.  That sounds more like a paranoid religious inquisition than something from a group of science advocates. Last time I checked, stifling dissent wasn't much of a recruitment tactic. It certainly doesn't fit the mold of science - even those topics where the data are overwhelmingly clear, like climate change or evolution or vaccines.

In the big picture, closing comments on the PopSci blog isn't going to have a huge impact either way.  The real problem is this - Popular Science isn't really reaching an audience that isn't already interested in science. This decision isn't going to enhance their own credibility with anyone new, because they're not pushing hard to expand their audience.  Very few people in science communication are, and they are really hesitant to start.

Yes, trolls suck, and yes, plenty of people have used sophisticated communications strategies and tactics to obfuscate science for financial or political gain.  But if the editors at Popular Science are interested in good policy, we need more interaction between people who don't agree, not less.  Scientists and science communicators will improve science policy if they conduct more and better outreach.  (And the best way to do that is to work with the people who do outreach for a living.)

Instead, this decision only serves to isolate science advocates further from their critics. It also serves as an excuse for critics to exclude scientists from their discussions. To quote Dr. Alice Marwick, "when people with likeminded beliefs congregate together, they collectively move to a more extreme position."

Trolling is a bush-league tactic performed by cowards. But this decision to further isolate the scientific community doesn't help.


Melissa said...

I had a evolutionary genetics professor as an undergraduate explain to me why he wouldn't share a stage with creationists- he said (and I am paraphrasing) - by standing on stage with them, there is an assumption of grounds to debate- you cannot begin to discuss the science if you are arguing basic assumptions.

David said...

Funny, a religious leader might say the same thing about "debating" an atheist.

David said...

Funny, a religious leader might say the same thing about "debating" an atheist.