Citing research on the general awfulness of internet commenters, Popular Science has decided to do away with its comments. Over at Boundary Vision, University of Calgary science education researcher Marie-Claire Shanahan offers clear, compelling reasons why she disagrees with this decision.
In addition to being on shaky justification grounds, I also see a serious problem with the gut and knee-jerk reaction to remove all comments. I know we’ve all been there, reading a perfectly great article about science and then having our faith in humanity shattered by the comments. I totally understand the impulse to say, “Ya, these guys have it right and maybe science communication would be better if more publications did this.”** And I want to clearly say that I’m generally in favour of strong moderating policies. Even if they don’t really change people’s minds about the risks of nanotechnology, I have no problem at all with the idea that uncivil comments may be undesirable for many other reasons. My issue is with the idea of doing away with the incivility by doing away with the comments all together.
A few years ago I completed a study of comments left in response to health stories in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. My study was about how commenters claimed expertise not about risk perceptions but I think there’s a piece of it that might be valuable to look at. For the study, I gathered all of the comments posted on four health stories one week after the stories had been published. For the analysis, I was only interested in comments where the commenters related their expertise or inexpertise in some way that was related to their scientific experience or their experience with the health condition in question. This basically meant all on-topic and civil comments. So my faithful undergrad assistant that summer had the joyous task of reading all the comments first and removing the off-topic and uncivil ones. You may wonder what was left. It turned out there was a lot left and a lot of important and valuable comments at that. Extensive contributions were made by parents, patients and people with medical expertise. Questions were asked and clear thoughtful answers were often given.
There are solutions to the "overwhelming" trolls and spambots cited by Popular Science – solutions that don't involve silencing those genuinely interested in meaningful discussion. Read about them in greater detail in Shanahan's comprehensive post.