Net democracy: the great science magazines value readers’ comments, but a pop-sci counterpart shuts down discussions and criticism

Reader-commenters are vacuous birds of prey for some members of the media's old guard - drawing by Hugh Lofting 1886-1947

Reader-commenters: vacuous birds of prey, to media’s old guard
– drawing by Hugh Lofting (1886-1947)

‘My user names and passwords … ’ the wrinkly figure in the drawing wheezes at the heirs leaning over his bedside, in a recent addition to Private Eye’s ‘Modern Last Words’ series. ‘I want you to continue my work as the most hated troll on the internet.’

Trolls. Harpies. Brainless vultures. Vacuous attack dogs. Surprisingly often, it is not just the media’s old guard but political liberals in occupations unrelated to publishing – status-obsessed and change-resistant types – who froth at any mention of commenters on media web sites. As this blog began with a proposal for newspapers to evolve into sites partially owned by reader-commenters, we at post-Gutenberg have been flabbergasted by reflexive references to public debate in these spots as unintelligent – usually, from people who have never devoted enough time or effort to ‘below the line’ conversations to discover how often these are more informative than the articles or posts that initiate them.

Imagine how amused we were to learn from a New York Times report last week about the reactions from illustrious upmarket competitors of Popular Science to the news that this magazine was shutting down commenting on its web site altogether. This is hardly a move you would expect from a publication whose headlines appear to be written by a teenager desperate to win a popularity contest: ‘Giant Carnivorous Plant Found In Silicon Valley,’ for instance, or ‘Eating Yogurt Does Weird Things To Your Brain’.

Grave as a sermonising clergywoman, Suzanne LaBarre, the magazine’s ‘online content director’ justified the decision to return to print media’s traditional one-way dialogue:

Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off.

It wasn’t a decision we made lightly. As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.

That is not to suggest that we are the only website in the world that attracts vexing commenters. Far from it. Nor is it to suggest that all, or even close to all, of our commenters are shrill, boorish specimens of the lower internet phyla. 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 …

Really. In a justification that  revealed the power of intelligent and articulate readers as her real fear – an argument that would delight dictatorships all over the world, she added:

[C]ommenters 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. 

Her reasoning did not impress science magazines with a serious interest in science. Snippets from the NY Times story – for which that newspaper must be congratulated:

Fred Guterl, the executive editor of Scientific American: ‘I have to say I don’t think comments are bad for science. To a point I think it’s good when people talk about things and try their ideas out. Social media can go off the rails but I don’t think comments are worse than Twitter.’

Noah Gray, senior editor at Nature:

“There’s no doubt that uncivil discourse is bad for science,” Dr. Gray said by e-mail.

But, he said, comments can be very valuable, sometimes pointing out errors or alternative interpretations of the facts and theories presented in the article.

“The comments section can often express the openness of scientific debate,” Dr. Gray said, adding, “Removing this channel for feedback rather than exploring an alternative means to improve it simply ignores the problem.”

A reaction from a NY Times reader-commenter seemed especially apt:

Laird Wilcox, Kansas

I suspect that an individual’s capacity for objectivity depends upon their ability to entertain conflicting values, opinions and beliefs without feeling threatened by them. When you find someone who “can’t stand” another’s “ignorance” you may be dealing with an insecure bigort[sic] who fears contradiction or is woefully unsure of themselves.

But some egotistical old media professionals apparently cannot stand readers discussing their work as incisively as in this delicious exchange between Popular Science commenters – about a 2009 piece titled, ‘Could There Be A Planet Hidden On The Opposite Side Of Our Sun?: We ask a scientist who has peered around it.’

bdhoro87

04/20/2009 at 11:01 am

Behind the sun? This article is tempting me to use a lot of profanity. We travel to the other side of the sun and back every year, what does behind the sun mean? Behind the sun with respect to earth? So like where the Earth would be half a year from now? Or on a different axis or what? All logic tells me is the sun doesn’t have a front and behind… its pretty spherical and it rotates. Was this a search for a planet that maintains the exact orbit of earth but 180 degrees out of phase? Can someone please clarify how the sun could have “sides” and where “the other side of the sun” is?

Loschen

04/20/2009 at 12:07 pm

I’m guessing that what they mean is it revolves at the same speed as the earth but stays on the exact opposite side of the sun. Therefore, it is perpetually out of normal sight for earth. But, that’s just how I read and understood it. you’re right they didn’t do a very good job of clarifying…

qlmmb2086

04/20/2009 at 2:33 pm

One thing people need to realize about PopSci is that these are not scientific articles. It’s similar to, say, a CNN reporter writing an article on a scientific discovery; these are written by journalists, not scientists.

That having been said, this article does seem kind of pointless… Why bother debunking a theory about a hidden planet synchronized with earth’s orbit, when nobody thinks that anyhow? You may as well write an article to show that the earth isn’t flat.

… We can hardly type for laughing …

Advertisements