'Popular Science': Web Comments Are Bad For Science

Popular Science magazine shut down online comments to stories on its website Tuesday. Robert Siegel speaks with Jacob Ward, the magazine's editor-in-chief, for more on the decision.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Internet, from its inception, has been embraced as a great democracy, a leveler, a town square. Upload a video, like a friend's status, write a comment about an article you read, insert your thoughts here. Well, you can no longer do that on the "Popular Science" magazine website, Popsci.com. It announced on Tuesday that comments can be bad for science.

And joining us to explain more about the decision is Jacob Ward, editor and chief of "Popular Science" magazine. Welcome to the program.

JACOB WARD: Great to be with you.

SIEGEL: Why are you ending comments?

WARD: We had three deciding factors that it came down to. One is the rise of trolls, which is a pretty well-understood term these days - basically, people who come into a comment section of a website to be abusive or unpleasant. Second, we had bumped into on our own site, and then had seen it sort of confirmed in other places - and seen, also, studies about this - we discovered that troll behavior - that being unpleasant, being uncivil, sort being really fractious in a debate - can cause readers to actually misunderstand things that are scientifically validated.

And third, we decided that it was a matter of resources. There is a way - there are many ways to patrol the comments on one's own site; but if we have a limited number of resources - and everybody does - I'd rather pour that into our primary mission, which is great journalism; putting out the best science journalism we can, rather than just trying to patrol our comments for all time.

SIEGEL: Well, those were the negatives working against having comments on the articles anymore. What about the positive value of offering people the right to comment after an article they've read?

WARD: You're absolutely right. There can be a great deal of lively, helpful discussion that should, in theory, compliment the primary mission of any publication, which is to put out the best journalism they can. We have, as a result, moved all of our commentary to Facebook and Twitter and Google Plus. You know, there are many, many ways for people to get in touch with us, let us know what they think of our articles. And we hope they will do so.

SIEGEL: In making this decision, you cited a University of Wisconsin study which you say found that uncivil discourse in the comments after an article effects the way people digest what they just read and it can make a settled fact appear to be contentious, for example. But doesn't the study say actually that negative comments do not persuade, they only edify people who are leaning one way or another?

WARD: The researchers found that the reaction was skewed by the level of fractiousness in the debate, that basically the more uncivil the discourse, the more people's perceptions had changed, their opinions changed over time. Now, you're absolutely right that a portion of readers are going to able to come through that unscathed and...

SIEGEL: But was the finding of the University of Wisconsin study that readers typically were affected by comments or that readers who were leaning one way or the other leaned farther after reading those comments?

WARD: The thing to keep in mind here is that in some cases it can intensify it. In some cases, it can skew people's understanding of an otherwise established scientific principle and it can lend this air of debate to places where science has really come to a place of consensus.

SIEGEL: And you seem to have bumped into the problem here that science, at its heart, is not a populist enterprise. There's expertise. There are people who stage experiments and prove things and that's different from someone else having an opinion on the same subject.

WARD: The nature of publishing a magazine about science involves sort of taking responsibility for translating science into layman's terms and that is a very holy responsibility. You know, it's one we've had for 147 years. We published Darwin. We published Isaac Asimov. We published Louis Pasteur. And so you don't, in trying to boil something down for you and I understand, cut corners.

And so, we put so much work into making that possible that to then also try to take on this role of sort of comment moderation, referee, where you're inviting in any kind of commentary dressed up sometimes as science when it, in fact, is full of misleading information - that, to us, you know, it could have a place in what we do, but the way we are put together right now it's just not possible for us to control that kind of conversation. And so we decided to focus on what we can control.

SIEGEL: Mr. Ward, thank you very much for talking with us.

WARD: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

SIEGEL: That's Jacob Ward, who is the editor and chief of "Popular Science" magazine, talking about the decision to discontinue reader comments on the magazine's website Popsci.com.

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