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Opinion: Part of the Conversation?

On whether online comments help or hurt science

By | October 2, 2013

WIKIMEDIA, OCTAHEDRON80Where in science do we find free inquiry, vigorous debate, open and frank discussion of research, and productive—if sometimes acrimonious—conversations about methods, data, findings, interpretation, and implications? Most of these conversations happen in the comment sections of blogs and other websites, right?

Actually, no.

These conversations happen elsewhere. For example, many research labs hold weekly meetings that all members attend. There are e-mail lists used by groups of scientists working at diverse institutions to hash out their methods, share data, and challenge one another’s interpretations. Then there are more formal settings, such as conferences, where some give talks while others prowl the hallways, cafeterias, local pubs, and hotel lounges getting in touch with colleagues, exchanging ideas, making plans, and renewing their contacts with fellow scientists. And there are many other fora that are much better suited to discussing science than the comment sections that accompany most blog posts and news reports. Arguably, peer review is the ultimate conversation in science.

While notes left on blogs and websites are not part of this formalized process, some people do have meaningful discussions of scientific issues in the comment sections of these sites. These conversations can be quite interesting and informative, but they have virtually nothing to do with how science is done. Some scientists engage in online commenting now and then, but when they do, it is almost always to lend their support to science when a reported finding is challenged by anti-science trolls.

I’ve written many blog posts that report on scientific findings. In doing so, I often send a link to the researchers involved in the work, inviting them to participate in the comments. They almost never do, though when they have, I’ve never seen the resulting conversation replicate a discussion that might occur within the science community.

Recently, PopularScience.com—the website of the eponymous magazine—decided to shut down commenting on most of its pages. Popular Science said its comment sections had become polluted with trolls and spambots. While the publication could have spent additional resources policing, cleaning up, and even redirecting the conversations on those pages, its staff instead elected to eliminate this public forum.

Some have complained, suggesting that the commentary on these pages—or on blogs and websites more generally—is somehow part of the scientific process, and that closing out comments will have a negative effect on inquiry. But removing the comment boxes from these web pages will have little to no effect on what scientists are doing. To my mind, Popular Science is not doing science any harm.
 
Even so, while science may not be at risk, public understanding of science certainly is. Non-scientists with a thirst for scientific knowledge read websites like Popular Science, The Scientist, and ScienceBlogs, and indeed, members of the general public can learn and engage in the comment sections of these sites. But if the comments have become infested with trolls, then that’s all been ruined and there is not much hope of advancing the general understanding of science by preserving such a forum. Troll-infested fora negatively impact the public side of scientific discourse. We should not encourage—and certainly should not protect—virtual soapboxes for anti-science blather.
 
As a blogger, I understand how difficult managing online comments can be. A couple of years ago, I got strict with commenting on my blog in an effort to shun the science denialists. I let the occasional questionable comment through, but made it clear my blog would not be a platform for people engaged in what I regard as a nefarious activity: diverting progress by messing with our single most important resource—knowledge. When I implemented that rule, I did not see a drop in my readership. Rather, I received numerous appreciative e-mails, and significantly reduced my use of antacids. I suspect the Popular Science editors are experiencing a similar sense of relief now.
 
Online discourse is a good thing, and it has become part of our Internet Culture, but there is no rule that says that every page on this World Wide Web needs a comment box at the bottom of it.
 
Greg Laden is a biological anthropologist and science communicator who has done research in the evolution of human diet and ecology. His blog is hosted by ScienceBlogs.com.
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Comments

Avatar of: Neurona

Neurona

Posts: 33

October 2, 2013

Amen to never feeding a troll.

Avatar of: MXJ

MXJ

Posts: 1

October 2, 2013

Here's a good opportunity for a scientific study.  Go to any online article from a reputable source, scientific or otherwise.  Count how many comments are abusive, threatening, insulting, or make any illogical, unsubstantiated or blatantly false claims.

Compare that number to those that make a logical statement, and possibly provide some sort of references for their facts (APA formatting not required).

My guess is that the former outnumber the latter by at least 5 to 1.  Any discussion that is not solely based on logic or referenced facts is just opinion, and has very little value in the scientific process.  Anything containing foul, abusive or insulting language actually hinders any sort of intelligent debate.

So, is anyone here willing to take up that study across the internet's most popular news sources?  You would be famous if you did.

Avatar of: Christopher R. Lee

Christopher R. Lee

Posts: 10

October 2, 2013

Scientists who have been forced away from the lab because of unemployment, illness or retirement should sometimes have something useful to contribute, though occasions don't arise too often. One may also feel inhibited because of gaps in knowledge of the exact field being discussed, and by a lack of recent experience.

Avatar of: Ken Pimple

Ken Pimple

Posts: 23

October 2, 2013

Excellent commentary. I suspect Popular Science attracts trolls precisely because it is popular and more accessible to most of us who read ScienceNature, and, of course, The Scientist. I frequently read the comments on these three sites, and I can't remember reading a really bad post.

It's sad, though. A productive, troll-free forum for (dare I use the term?) ordinary people to discuss science could do great good. Maybe there's one out there....

Avatar of: Greg Laden

Greg Laden

Posts: 2

October 2, 2013

This ("The Scientist") would be a good example of a site where commenting is not likely to be 5:1 troll:non groll because the comments are moderated.  It takes a fair amount of work to do that, of course.

 

On my own site I "moderate" comments by only allowing previously approved commenters to post a comment . After that, they are more or less free to do what they want, though occassionally a troll gets through by pretending to be not a troll for a comment or two.

 

Oddly, Wordpress blogs have a way to approve a comenter, but as far as I know, no way to remove that approval status. When a commenter transmogrifies into a troll their name has to be put into a moderation list, which is a problem when their name is "bob" or something. 

Avatar of: Judy A.

Judy A.

Posts: 2

October 2, 2013

I continue to believe that science needs to connect with more people, in ways that are meaningful to them. That said, conversations that are respectful, open-minded, constructive, and on-topic are critical if we are going to keep the conversations going. Thanks Greg.

 

Avatar of: jackcschultz

jackcschultz

Posts: 1

October 2, 2013

Here's the actual reason they stopped comments. 

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcc4.12009/abstract

So, MX3, the study has already been done.  The nastiness of comments influences how the article is understood and interpreted by readers. 

Avatar of: Greg Laden

Greg Laden

Posts: 2

October 2, 2013

For those interested in further discussion, online guru Bora has an interesting item at Scientific American (and you can comment on it if you want but don't be a troll!)

 

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/a-blog-around-the-clock/2013/01/28/commenting-threads-good-bad-or-not-at-all/

 

Avatar of: PastToTheFuture

PastToTheFuture

Posts: 30

October 2, 2013

Like it or not, I just see too many trolls. I can easily understand the decision by PS to remove the comments. It's too bad, but I do understand.

Avatar of: M2Jon

M2Jon

Posts: 2

October 3, 2013

Open forums for discussion are not only highly desired amongst enthusiasts but also sought after by those looking to gain knowledge in a particular subject. As it pertains to science, it is very important to contribute to relevant discussions. I agree with some of the other folks on here commenting that the useless comments are far outweighed by the relevant ones. Also, most forum platforms allow the administrators of the site to moderate comments before they are publically displayed. This would be a great solution to a problem that still seems rather miniscual. I myself enjoy reading comments and opinions from others in forums like this. May we also not forget that when it comes to seeking opinions about products or services, whether negative or positive, commentary from other users is very important during purchasing decisions. In the case of Popular Science and other forums that have shut down their comment boxes, they may have also effectively decreased their value to potential subscribers. Too bad. Bravo to The Scientist for not having done so. 

 

Jon Mosher

Co-Founder

M2 Scientifics, LLC

www.m2scientifics.com 

October 3, 2013

Online comments  often serve as feedback to any scientific issue or topics. Therefore,  relevant comments  should be encouraged while discouraging the irrelevant ones.

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