For the Love of Science, Don't Turn Off Comments

BlogHer Original Post

To say I had a strong negative reaction to the news that Popular Science is shutting off comments is an understatement. It makes me sad. It frustrates me. It pisses me the heck off.

Popular Science shuts off comments
Screenshot of the 9/24/13 announcement on PopularScience.com

I've been moderating comments in one form or another for a good 15 years, and while I know how annoying spam and trolls can be, there are plenty of ways to deal with those issues and keep your comment streams clean. There are also solid ways for dealing with personal attacks and flame wars. Ever heard of community guidelines? A good community guidelines policy and a reliable moderator or two can go a long way toward ensuring your comment stream is full of civil discourse and interesting discussions. It makes me sad that Popular Science wasn't willing (or able) to create community guidelines and implement them properly.

In a time when comments are like gold to bloggers, it's incredibly frustrating that sites with robust commenting communities don't bother to moderate their comments or shut them off completely because they don't want to moderate them. I know a whole lot of bloggers who'd be happy to have those comments, since Popular Science doesn't want them.

And it just plain makes me angry that a site focused on science is using bad science to justify shutting down comments. Science is a field that should always encourage discussion and debate, questions and answers, alternative points of view and experiences. Without those things, can there really be scientific understanding? Without those things, can there be scientific growth?

I'm not the only one on the BlogHer team that had a strong reaction to this news. With their permission, I'm going to share a few of the comments from the editorial team (and my reaction to their comments.)

Julie pulled quotes from the announcement and responded inline:

  • "If you carry out those results to their logical end--commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded--you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the "off" switch." Is this science? Looks like assumption to me. They cited NO research to support this very rhetorical and sweeping assertion. Not to mention the grandiosity of basically asserting they are going to save scientific research with the decision to turn off comments.

  • "Another, similarly designed study found that just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers' perception of science." No link here; no identifying factors. We just have to take their word for it. Is this the standard for science reporting in the digital age? Since this study would be the one key to a decision to turn comments off altogether (rather than moderate), readers deserve to KNOW WHAT IT IS.

  • And this is terrible online journalism: A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. The link does not prove a "war on expertise." The link is to a freaking OP-ED. Not that I disagree that a war exists. But the sloppiness with the journalism just leads me to further suspect the uncited and possibly exaggerated science they’re reporting.
  • I read this and I cheered. Loudly. (Scared the prairie dogs and my poor Skeeter poodle. Lola ignored me.)

    Julie also says:

    "Shouldn’t the best way to promote science be to hold to the highest scientific ideals? And shouldn't the best way to tell the world your journalism matters be to have good journalism?"

    Did you hear loud cheering coming from the Chicagoland suburbs at about 11:45am CT? That was me cheering again, (which didn't trouble any of my pets, but did possibly frighten my partner's mother, whose bedroom is attached to my office.)

    Stacy says:

    "... to me, the interesting thing about this debate is that it feels like PopSci was just throw-hands-in-the-air giving up, instead of creating guidelines for what would be considered acceptable."

    I agree with Stacy. I suspect that they're either giving up for business reasons or they've decided that, editorially, they don't want to give space to alternative points of view.

    On the other hand, Rita says:

    "I don’t think articles in magazines (and PopSci IS a magazine, albeit one with an online presence) should have comments. There, I said it. Blog posts are different, in my mind." and also "In my mind, a blog post is something that invites conversation and a news article is something that reports facts. Blog post, op-ed. Op-ed also invites comments. News article -- journalist stays out of the story, therefore not inviting comments. "

    My feelings are exactly the opposite -- If you're going to cut out any comments, I'd rather they be cut on op-ed pieces. I think that if you're telling a personal story or sharing your personal opinion, it's less important that you have comments open than if you're reporting the news or relaying facts. Op-eds are being presented as exactly that, so it's obvious that there are going to be alternative opinions. But for things being reported as facts, isn't it important to be able to question those things and point out errors? If we can't do that or if we're even discouraged from doing that, what kind of society are we going to be living in?

    I've had my say about this issue; now, it's your turn. How do you feel about Popular Science's decision to turn off their comments? Is this any different than turning off comments on some posts, (as many bloggers do)? Is this similar to the changes happening with comments on YouTube and Goodreads? Would you be more likely to read stories if there were no comments at all? What about blog posts? Would you be more likely to blog about those stories or share your commentary in social media spaces if you weren't able to comment directly on them? Please respond -- in the comments.

    ~Denise
    BlogHer Community Manager
    Flamingo House Happenings

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