Popular Science Magazine Decides to Ban All User Comments

Readers no longer have the ability to comment on Popular Science articles. The magazine announced it has banned all online comments, suggesting that negative comments can be detrimental to the understanding of science. The ban has stirred a controversial debate about the ramifications of online comments, and has prompted discussion about how online comments impact people’s comprehension of and appreciation for science.

“The magazine said that vicious, insulting or ignorant comments can pollute otherwise intelligent online discussions and undermine public understanding and appreciation of science itself. ‘Trolls and spambots,’ it said, sometimes hijacked the conversation, particularly on divisive issues like climate change and evolution,” reports The New York Times.

Some sites try to screen comments and have moderators either post or reject submissions. However, even in these instances, people with strong opinions are generally allowed to voice them, only to get shot down by others (many readers enjoy following such threads). Since Popular Science is not able to moderate comments, personal attacks and other less desirable content can be found on the page.

“Still, the move to silence what many online readers consider a digital town square has ignited a burst of reaction from bloggers and commentators on science and the media, as well as editors at other science magazines. Many sympathized with the feeling that a Wild West of uncouth, illogical commenters can infect the tenor of discussion,” notes NYT.

“Unless a comment stream is actively moderated, it inevitably is ruined by bullies, hotheads and trolls,” suggests James Fallows, explaining why he does not allow comments on his columns for The Atlantic.

“I have to say I don’t think comments are bad for science,” argues Fred Guterl, executive editor of Scientific American. “To a point I think it’s good when people talk about things and try their ideas out,” he said. “Social media can cause things to go off the rails, but I don’t think comments are worse than Twitter.”

Popular Science defends its decision with a University of Wisconsin-Madison study that suggests people become more polarized after reading uncivil comments.

“The study asked 1,183 people to read an article about a fictitious type of nanotechnology, a scientific subject chosen because most people know little about it and have no strong ideological views, said Dietram Scheufele, one of the researchers. The study found that people who read uncivil comments ended up more polarized in their views of the technology than those who read civil comments,” explains NYT.

However, some science journalists are skeptical that the results are enough to justify banning all comments. Popular Science may start a network of blogs and attempt to introduce comments on those in some fashion.

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