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A sign of the times: Popular Science, the 141-year-old publication that's one of my favorites to pick up at airports for in-flight reading, shut off comments on its website today. An important part of the decision was trolls and spambots, just like we struggle to keep in check through community moderation here at Daily Kos.

But there's something else, too, about how people yelling nonsense skews the discussion away from science. Away from fact. Away from their mission, which is to promote science. Away from reality.

It was a difficult and bittersweet decision.

We have many delightful, thought-provoking commenters. But even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story, recent research suggests. In one study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard, 1,183 Americans read a fake blog post on nanotechnology and revealed in survey questions how they felt about the subject (are they wary of the benefits or supportive?).
From an op-ed the authors of that paper wrote in the NY Times:
  • Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself.
  • In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.
  • 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.
As to shutting off the comments, this might be their most important consideration:
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.
And so, commenting is no longer an option at the Popular Science website. Like I said, a sign of the times. Damned shame. (You can still write a letter to the editor. Or comment on Facebook, Twitter, Daily Kos, &c.)

Personally, it always bugs me - doubly - when there's reports on polls as to whether people "believe" in climate change. Somehow the Fundamentalist Right has made it a point of religious faith to deny climate change - funded by the Koch Brothers, whose wealth arises mainly by the petroleum industry. Yet another way the rich and powerful can put their thumbs on our cultural scales.

But really it's a matter of science, from the left-hand column of the above-the-squiggle table. No amount of propaganda, no matter how effective, will prevent the rising seas from swallowing low-lying islands. Yet the question gets framed in terms of belief, and then it gets reported as a poll result as if public opinion might somehow be able to stem the tide.

Popular Science might well be right that comments are counterproductive to their mission. Sad story, that. Kudos to kos and to all of us. For all our weaknesses and persistent problems, Daily Kos does a reasonably good job of managing the unwieldy chaos also known as comments.

Originally posted to Land of Enchantment on Tue Sep 24, 2013 at 08:31 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech.

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