This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: “Popular Science” Shuts Down Its Comment Section
With all due respect to our insightful online community here at the Banter, which is made up almost entirely of Mensa members and Nobel Prize-winners with sex organs capable of secreting an elixir of lavender oil and Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Rose Cuvee 2004, internet commenters can really suck sometimes. The funny thing about making a statement like this in a forum like this is that, maybe counterintuitively, most in the comment section will agree.
Everyone’s had a battle or two with a troll — and if you’re a writer or blogger, many battles — and all know how frustrating it can be. What’s more, the internet has become such a cultural Thunderdome, with representatives of both extremes on the political spectrum always eager to step up and do battle, that even benign subjects spawn comment sections that look like the kind of thing you’d find at The National Review. Seriously, go read a review for a band at Rolling Stone, or a celebrity profile at one of the entertainment sites, or anything at YouTube and count how many comments you have to go through before the whole thing devolves into people yelling at each other because somebody blames Obama or the Republicans in Congress for why he or she doesn’t like the subject at hand.
Then of course you have the misinformation sometimes spewed in the comment sections, often connected to, or the direct result of, an intractable loyalty to one political philosophy or another. When it follows an opinion piece, it’s unfortunate, the way any spewing of bullshit out into the ether would be, but it’s still not the biggest deal on earth. But what about when it follows an article that traffics in proven fact — something like, you know, science? Is it okay to let people whose views are completely untethered to reality have a say in whether or not a verified piece of scientific fact written by a professional is authentic? Specifically, is it okay to give climate change deniers, creationists, and those whose superstitions make them immune to things like logic and reason a forum at a place that’s home only to what can ostensibly be proven? Does faulty reasoning cloud the issue and actually cause harm in cases like this? A recent study says yes on this last question — and that’s why Popular Science says it’s doing away with its comment section entirely.
From Suzanne LaBarre, the online editor of the magazine:
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.
I’m not sure wiping reader interaction off the map is the way to go here, but if you’ve got a brain and you’re familiar with the way the internet works these days it’s tough to fault Popular Science completely for going with the nuclear option. While scientific discovery should always be subject to challenge by worthwhile parties with good intentions and an unfailing adherence to the scientific method, a guy just spouting gibberish who refuses to play by the rules and who’s got nothing to back up his views but a whole lot of certitude isn’t contributing a thing — in fact, he’s potentially causing damage on a large scale. And Popular Science is, it can be argued, enabling his nonsense and ensuring that in some capacity his lie will continue to undermine the truth. Carefully moderating comments would be an alternative to what Popular Science is doing, but an immediate war would break out over what’s fact and what isn’t and accusations of “political” bias would come fast and furious. So instead the site is choosing to keep the whole class quiet because some can’t behave themselves when they’re given talking privileges.
It’s kind of funny: the very name Popular Science implies that there’s a democratic decision-making process at play when it comes to science. There isn’t. Science is a neutral concept; bulletproof to everything but logic; resistant to the whims of the public. The fact that there are some who don’t understand this — and insist on being vocal about it — is why Popular Science is making the decision it is.
Got an opinion? You know where to leave it.