Closing Commenting

Popular Science, one of the longest running and, well, popular, magazines that deals with science has a website. Last Tuesday, on-line editor Suzanne LaBarre announced that Popular Science would no longer have comment sections on most of its pages. The reason sited was that "Comments can be bad for science." She noted:

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

She is absolutely correct. It seems, in fact, that attacking science in the comment sections of blogs and web sites is a cottage industry practiced vigorously by a very active minority of readers (we hope). And it may well be effective. Last January, Chris Mooney wrote:

Everybody who's written or blogged about climate change on a prominent website (or, even worse, spoken about it on YouTube) knows the drill. Shortly after you post, the menagerie of trolls arrives. They're predominantly climate deniers, and they start in immediately arguing over the content and attacking the science—sometimes by slinging insults and even occasional obscenities.

Chris talks about a study done by researchers at George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication (and others) that showed that these negative comments can be effective in ruining readers' perception of the validity of science written about on line.

The study did not examine online climate change trolls directly—but there is good reason to think that the effects of their obnoxious behavior will, if anything, be worse. ... When it comes to climate change... "the controversy that you see in comments falls on more fertile ground, and resonates more with an established set of values that the reader may bring to the table," explains study coauthor Dietram Scheufele, ... If commenters have stronger emotions and more of a stake, it stands to reason that the polarizing effect of their insults may be even stronger—although, to be sure, this needs to be studied.

... This is not your father's media environment any longer. In the golden oldie days of media, newspaper articles were consumed in the context of…other newspaper articles. But now, adds Scheufele, it's like "reading the news article in the middle of the town square, with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it."

(Click through to CM's post to get the link to that study.)

Chris told me "It is indeed possible to moderate comments to make them productive, but it is a huge amount of work. So I'm not that surprised that Popular Science opted not to do it."

Will Oremus writing at Slate disagrees. He notes:

Sure, some very important scientific questions are pretty much settled ... But LaBarre's metaphors conjure an image of science as an ancient and immovable stone fortress, from which the anointed few (Popular Science staff writers, say) may cast pearls in the direction of the masses below, but which might crumble to dust if the teeming throngs aren't kept at bay. This conception is antithetical to the spirit of free inquiry that has always driven scientific discovery.

And here, in Will Oremus's comment (and elsewhere) I see a flaw. The assumption implicit (or not so implicit) in Oremus's commentary in Slate is that comments contribute to the science directly, by becoming part of the "spirit of free inquiry." And I'm sure this is a feeling shared by many of the comment trolls of whom we are speaking.

The problem is, this is largely a made up fantasy. There are two distinct things going on here. One is science, which involves free inquiry and lots of communication among scientists, and the other is public understanding of science, which is very important because it is a key part of the process of translating science knowledge into science policy, especially in a society that thinks of itself as a democracy.

The comment trolls are not ruining science. They are ruining public perception of science. The commentary on web sites and blog posts is not part of the science conversation that produces scientific results (or, if so, rarely).

I wrote an opinion piece for The Scientist expressing this view, and it was put up this morning. Please go and have a look: Opinion: Part of the Conversation? On whether online comments help or hurt science.

If you have a comment on any of this, please feel free to add it to the page at The Scientist, or below, or both. I don't have any control over the comment section at The Scientist, but here on this blog, have at it, even if you are a troll, as long as you are not a spam bot (and I can tell the difference, usually).

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Hubris. That's what trolls who think they influence the science have too much of.

There may be some web sites, and I am thinking of Real Climate for one example, where actual scientific conversations happen in the comments on occasion.

Slate seems to have disabled comments, too.

By Deuce X. Mackinaw (not verified) on 02 Oct 2013 #permalink

I would have a lot more respect for scientists if they could raise themselves above such cheap shots as talking about "climate deniers" which is an obvious attempt to associate thise who are unconvinced with the holocaust deniers. This is unethical on two fronts the holocaust happened, climate change as predicted has not yet happened. Secondly nobody has proven anything yet. There are climate models that may well prove to be correct, but right now we are still on hypothesese not theories. So play fair, you may be right but that is no reason to throw mud!

By Mark Totton (not verified) on 02 Oct 2013 #permalink

So where will I tell people that my sister's best friend's college room mate made over $400 a day online just denying evolution?

Comments don't significantly affect the conduct of professional science, but they may affect other readers' perceptions of the strength of evidence for the viewpoints being presented to the public. You are inclined to think that this is a bad thing because the first example that jumps to your mind is one of negative comments reducing the support for an opinion that you consider proven beyond doubt. I am inclined to think that it is a good thing because the first example I think of is one of negative comments reducing uncritical acceptance of an opinion that is not really well-proven but is being portrayed as such by a careless or biased writer. Consider the numerous puff pieces in health news - not just for the lay audience, but on professional websites - that promote interventions without commenting on their harms or on serious flaws in the studies touted as supporting them. In such cases, knowledgeable commenters with a perspective that differs from the author's enormously increase the value of the webpage to readers.

All good points and, in my own experience, absolutely on the money.

By Helga Vierich (not verified) on 02 Oct 2013 #permalink

How depressing - that the very freedom to communicate ideas on which science crucially depends is also in some ways the biggest obstruction to its ability to make the world a better place. And the worst part is that unless there is a revolution in public understanding of science (and critical thinking in general), I can't see how it's ever going to change.

By Robin Saunders (not verified) on 02 Oct 2013 #permalink

trolls r just keepin the internet from getting uppity, if you cant stand the heat then gtfo.

By Robert Dobbs (not verified) on 02 Oct 2013 #permalink

The danger of anti-science trolls is that they can sway the opinions of naive or undecided readers, affecting their votes and in some cases changing election outcomes. In some cases they produce direct harm such as by spreading anti-vaccination conspiracy theory that leads to contagious disease outbreaks.

The key to trolling (and fighting trolls) is the use of emotionalisms both subtle and overt. For the vast majority of humans, emotions determine behavior, and "reasoning" follows after-the-fact with an "explanation" that only has to pass the individual's internal consistency-check threshold. (The "explanation" may also be wholly irrational, such as "scriptural authority".)

For a given comment (or arguement presented in a media outlet), reduce it to the emotion-related words alone. This will usually give you the "emotional narrative" the poster is seeking to promote. A typical example is "Rage against X >> Join our tribe of anti-X ragers >> feel righteous, feel as if you are part of a bigger tribe." Words are the "carrier," emotions are the "payload."

The best way to fight back depends on the audience you're trying to reach. In some forums, posting an "ignore the troll" comment will suffice, all the more so if it causes the troll to get more extreme and lose credibility.

In some cases, exposing the trolls' emotional narrative is effective: "So, Bub, what you're saying is rage-rage-rage and we'll all feel much better if we join your tribe and feel collectively righteous?"

In some cases, using countervailing emotions will work. Where trolls are using fear, rage, or hate, fight back with humor. Where trolls are using humor to belittle an opponent, fight back by using humor against them. Very often a one-word or brief reply will work best, such as "weak!" or "yawn" or "is that all you've got?"

Another tactic I've used in the past, is what I call "prescribe the symptom," where you appear to take the troll's side but inflate their "arguement" into a self-parody. This has to be just subtle enough that it won't backfire. Setting up logical double-binds is also useful, and works even with irrational people: crashing someone's consistency-check produces an unpleasant feeling and causes them to reject the offered position.

The goal isn't to win on facts & reasoning (try arguing reason with a religious extremist or anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist), it's to evoke emotions in casual readers, and ideally to vaccinate casual readers against further emotional viruses.

Yeah I agree with them. Science is about Free Enquiry, but its also about a *process*. And that process has nothing to do with people arguing on pop-sci comments. Pop Sci is about educating people on science, not doing science, and if the comments are screwing with that mandate, then kill the comments. And if, in the case of the journals themselves, legitimate scientific comment is being drowned under illiterate gibberish from conspiracy theorists, creationists, and climate denialists, then yeah, we have a problem.

G: Unfortuantely I'm not convinced about the whole plan of setting up amplified cognitive dissonance in politically motivated trolls. Theres unsettling ,but so far quite respectable, evidence from neuro-science that a lot of self identified conservatives appear to be quite comfortable holding conflicting ideas in our heads, and whereas us logical folks might go "conflicting evidence? does not compute, violates non-contradition axiom therefore must investigate further", a lot of these guys just sort of accept it.

In this case, you might end up actually making their ideas even crazier. The guys on the 'something awful' forums a bunch of years ago where having a bit of fun trolling the Ron Paul forums, and started spouting this mad idea about basing the economy on "purestrain gold from the heart of the sun". It was filled with mad contradiction and all sorts of irrational absurdity, but was carefully constructed in a way to make it seem like a plausible conservative-libertarian argument.

To many peoples horror, the Ron paul fans lapped the idea off and "purestrain gold" started appearing all over the web as a "legitimate" idea.

Moral of the story;- dont deliberately create crazy just to win an argument , you might just end up contributing to the mental entropy of the right and ya know sometimes those people win elections and end up acting on your hilarious parody of right wing ideas.

Online comment sections have really become battlegrounds for people who can't or would never get their ideas taken seriously by professional scientists simply because those ideas lack any real evidence or are contradicted by existing scientific evidence. I'm thinking here of climate change deniers, anti-vaccine campaigners, creationists and so on.

But by effectively publishing their comments on the online websites of magazines which have a good reputation of sticking to real science (Popular Science, New Scientist etc) these ideas are given some implicit authenticity and backing.

By happyskeptic (not verified) on 02 Oct 2013 #permalink

I apologize for the delay in getting these comments posted. Ironically, our Wordpress Platform decided to stop emailing me when there was a comment in moderation so I did not know there were comments in moderation. Irony in action.

The problems caused by climate change are only going to get worse. Much worse. In 30 years or so, looking back on the comments posted on articles about climate change with all the trolls and attempts to combat their misinformation will look almost childish. Our planet will be in serious trouble. There will be no question about that. No debate. Anyone attempting to control public discussion as is done today by the carbon cartel backed trolls would be immediately censored, possibly fined and maybe even jailed. That is my firm belief.

There is no higher threat to our existence. We have no other place to go. We must face the dangers to our planet's climate head on and brush aside any elements that would attempt to stop or retard that effort. If need be, at some point, a Stalinist approach may be appropriate. If nothing else works to shut down anti-science, anti-climate change fifth columnists (because that's what they really are), then I would back that up.

We are no longer in a debate. We are in a struggle to save our planet. That's what's different about this issue. The time to entertain them is over. They need to get shut down. The sooner, the better.

By Richard Chapman (not verified) on 03 Oct 2013 #permalink

A few comments:

• The biggest threat to public support of science are scientists themselves. Unfortunately. When scientists make grandiose claims for science that science was never meant to answer, e.g. the atheism of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, then public trust in science wanes. (My first reaction about Sam Harris was “How did this two-bit hick-from-the-sticks get published?” after reading one of his books that was so full of logical fallacies—I studied logic—that it negated the message he wanted to impart. I was later shocked to find that he has a PhD in a scientific field.).

• Again scientists—their hubris in thinking that they alone have all the knowledge. If it weren’t for a doctor who looked at the epidemiological study done by a couple of housewives, would we know about Lyme disease? So a little humility may be in order?

• Scientists—who have been willing to prostitute themselves for questionable crusades. An example are the scientists who worked for the tobacco industry to claim that cigarettes are not unhealthy. Is not the same thing happening with genetic modification (GM) of crops? I’ve studied genetics so I have enough information to be suspicious, but not enough for proof either way. But if given the choice, I won’t eat GM foods. Is that why Monsanto is fighting so hard to keep us from knowing? Are they fighting so hard because they know GM foods are not safe? That they are fighting so hard raises suspicions.

• Scientific fraud—this is now becoming so common that lay people are catching on.

When scientists themselves destroy trust in science, they open a vacuum that charlatans and conspiracy theorists rush to fill.

I personally am not anti-science, having studied even several upper level science courses as an undergraduate in college. But I’m dismayed by the number of scientists who make claims concerning which beliefs are “scientific” when they aren’t, who then with religious fervor persecute those who disagree with those pseudo-scientific beliefs.

By Richard Ortiz (not verified) on 04 Oct 2013 #permalink

I stopped reading comments on most website about a year ago. The very few who add to the conversation are drowned our by conspiracy theorists and trolls. It's just not worth sifting through 20 comments to find that one person who actually read the article and are not inflating their knowledge on the subject.

I stopped reading comments on most websites about a year ago. The very few who add to the conversation are drowned out by conspiracy theorists and trolls. It's just not worth sifting through 20 comments to find that one person who actually read the article and are not inflating their knowledge on the subject. People take a few college classes and all of a sudden they know more than researchers who have doctorates and actual experience in the field.

I realize that many readers are not educated in science, and lack the ability to filter the wheat from the chaff, so I understand the problem of letting the trolls rule the forum. But I think this is an overall loss, and possibly a victory for the trolls. I don't expect pop-sci articles to be fully informative, but I often read the comments, and ask clarifying questions there. There are often intelligent and educated readers who will take the time in the comments to add to the article or provide links to more info, and I really enjoy gleaning more information that way. Sometimes the trolls can be entertaining, and I get a little exercise of the logic circuits debunking their crap.
While I'd love to see the trolls gone forever, I feel like this is just ceding ground to them. The solution to free speech problems is always more speech, not less.

@ Richard Ortiz

You are personally not anti-science? That's a joke, right? I mean, you just finished writing a bunch of anti-science crap. So, how are you not anti-science? You say you studied several upper level science courses? I guess they couldn't have been too impressive. You didn't even bother to mention what they were. What were those "pseudo-scientific beliefs"? I guess they couldn't have been too important either.

You mentioned trust, but why should we trust you? You obviously are trying to raise public distrust against science. But you say you are personally not anti-science. You are a liar Richard Ortiz. A Big. Fat. Liar.

By Richard Chapman (not verified) on 04 Oct 2013 #permalink

Mark Totten writes from Norway: "I would have a lot more respect for scientists if they could raise themselves above such cheap shots as talking about “climate deniers” which is an obvious attempt to associate thise (sic) who are unconvinced with the holocaust deniers. This is unethical on two fronts the holocaust happened, climate change as predicted has not yet happened. Secondly nobody has proven anything yet. There are climate models that may well prove to be correct, but right now we are still on hypothesese (sic) not theories. So play fair, you may be right but that is no reason to throw mud!"

First, it's perfectly good English, and perfectly valid, to call somebody who refuses to believe a fact a denier, because that person denies the truth of that fact. Charges that using the word lumps climate-change deniers in with those who deny that the Holocaust happened are in my experience only made by climate-change deniers — and my experience on climate blogs is extensive.

Second, asserting that "climate change as predicted has not yet happened" is far too general. It deflects attention from what scientists have discovered about how climate is changing — not by models or predictions, but by actual observations. We know our planet is warming today, and we know how conditions on it changed when it warmed in the past. It's clear that today's warming will cause problems if it continues.

It's rational to question how bad things will get in the future, largely because what we do going forward has a big influence on those outcomes. But plenty of people are denying the known facts about today's climate, and calling those people climate-change deniers is both fair and necessary.

By Chris Winter (not verified) on 06 Oct 2013 #permalink

Richard Ortiz: You protest scientists making "grandiose claims for science that science was never meant to answer" and "their hubris in thinking that they alone have all the knowledge."

You wonder: "If it weren’t for a doctor who looked at the epidemiological study done by a couple of housewives, would we know about Lyme disease?"

Yes, we probably would, although we might have learned about it later than we did. Certainly scientists by and large are conservative, and that attitude sometimes delays a proper acceptance of new knowledge longer than it should. I understand the Australian discoverer of Helicobacter pylori had quite a struggle.

And yes, some venal scientists actively defend the status quo for profit. I could mention a few who have persisted in doing that for tobacco and/or fossil-fuel interests.

But science as an enterprise is self-correcting. When actual data emerge that challenge an existing view, the existing view eventually changes. You've provided one example; I've provided another.

The problem with climate change is that there are a lot of people (and a handful of scientists) resisting the mainstream view without providing data to refute it. Surely, if they had any data, they would bring it forward. But they don't, so they just obfuscate and obstruct.

The Internet has multiplied their ability to misinform the public. The "straight scoop" should be made available as well, and that duty falls mainly to bloggers like Greg and commenters like me.

By Chris Winter (not verified) on 06 Oct 2013 #permalink