Arguing is a terribly exhaustive thing that is often mostly about ego. Often, fights that begin as well-intentioned if impassioned discussions about a given subject devolve into name calling simply because no one is willing to relent. The great thing about science, however, is that a theory must be proven to be considered legitimate. Oh, sure, scientists will debate a theory that hasn't been proven until they are blue in their pasty-because-they-live-in-the-lab faces, but only testing and re-testing producing the same results wins an argument.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for arguments in the comment sections of news stories and blog posts. There, it's a strange Lord of the Flies arrangement where only the loudest, thickest skinned and most brutal survive. Truth is rarely determined and civility is in short supply, which is why PopularScience.com, the Internet arm of the long-running science magazine, has decided to turn off all comments to their stories.
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.
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It's a fairly bold move by a large organization, but it doesn't come without real merits. I can tell you that people who write for blogs and news organizations HATE having to face ridiculous comments. This is not because they (or we, I suppose) fear reprisals from those wiser than them (or us). As the writers at PopSci.com point out, some comments are brilliantly well thought out, funny and even insightful. But, even if those are the majority of the commenters -- they aren't no matter where you go -- the "fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story," as PopSci.com puts it.
Shouting someone down, however, is not proof that you are right and no doubt some will point to this as an admission that arguments put forth in comments strike close to home. Then again, a huge number of climate scientists are gathering in Stockholm this week to pen a report that will be a scathing rebuke of those who think the idea that man-made bio fuels are the reason behind global warming is nonsense. A majority of scientists have said this time and time again, but their opinions are so often buried under a deluge of accusations and fake science, they have to repeat themselves over and over.
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.
I'm sure a lot of other news organizations would love to do the same. Dealing with commenters is a time consuming and annoying process. But, when it comes to science, it seems to make sense perhaps more so than with politics or sports, for example. Still, it underscores that even in a level-headed, science-specific forum like PopularScience.com, trolls exist and thrive to the point they have to be cut off. Imagine what's happening on YouTube right now. On second though, just try to ignore it.