Popular Science ends reader comments, says practice is bad for science

The scientific method relies on rigorous observation and peer-based feedback as critical components in testing a hypothesis. But one of the world's leading science publications now says there is a major difference when it comes to reading news articles about science.

In a surprising move, the website for Popular Science announced it is no longer allowing reader comments on its articles. And in a potentially even more controversial move, the site’s online content director boldly explains the decision was reached because of the publication's belief that reader comments are actually bad for science.

“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics,” writes Suzanne LaBarre. “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.”

LaBarre says there is evidence suggesting that skewed comments can impact a reader’s original view of a news story, even if the comments are inaccurate or misleading. “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,” LaBarre writes.

The move has received a mixed reaction publicly. GigaOm writer Mathew Ingram called the decision “both sad and wrong,” arguing that the publication should have made a greater effort to fix its reader comments section before closing it. Other sites like Poynter have linked to suggestions about giving the reader community more autonomy to moderate the comments section in order to quarantine disruptive commenters.

However, LaBarre says the site will not permanently block all reader feedback. For now, it will still accept and occasionally respond to user feedback through its social media accounts on sites like Twitter (where the site has nearly 200,000 followers) and Facebook. She also says it plans to open up reader comments sections “on select articles that lend themselves to vigorous and intelligent discussion.”

Nonetheless, it’s an interesting risk for the 141-year-old publication, as any news editor can explain that reader comments are often a big part of site’s reaching its monthly traffic goals.

And for an interesting counterpart, Scientific American recently published a blog post in July attempting to explain why we read reader comments even when we know the potential downsides.