Wednesday 25 September 2013

Why Commenting Switched off at "Popular Science" will no longer accept comments on new articles. Here's why (Suzanne LaBarre 'Why We're Shutting Off Our CommentsStarting today', 24th Sept 2013). The public's comments "can be bad for science" they say, justifying shutting them off, despite being "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. 
An experiment is then described in which readers' perceptions of a story were shown to be affected by the nature of the comments below. They found that the Internet-typical "uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself". This included the surprisingly strong effects of ad hominem attacks in a reader's comment on the reader's perception of the article itself.
 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. Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story. 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. 
This seems a bit tough though on the "many delightful, thought-provoking commenters" who want to share reflections, ideas and information.
We see this same process of undermining expertise in archaeology too. Now it is commonly considered that to "do archaeology" all you have to do is get a metal detector and go and find your own "old stuff", or maybe build up a collection by buying stuff looted from sites in Bulgaria and the Near East from Dealer Tom and Dealer Hamid. Whether this process of undermining proper scholarship, leaving the past totally up for grabs to whoever shouts loudest  really is "politically motivated" I could not say, but the PAS has a clear role in the whole dumb-down process.

I'm not turning off my comments, the antics of the "shrill, boorish specimens of the lower internet phyla" of metal detecting and coiney ilk only add to the message of this blog about those groups of collectors.  Despite what these people themselves say, I seldom get any other kind of comment from either fraternity. None are blocked if they have something to say, especially if they want to highlight problems get a proper discussion going with a reasonable debate, and stick to the guidelines in the sidebar over to the left (near the bottom).

UPDATE 25.09.13:
Alex Hern, 'Popular Science kills comments - while YouTube tries to fix them',, Wednesday 25 September 2013

The article reports on other approaches to the Internet's dehumanised anonymous and pseudonymous troll problem.  Google has announced "a major change to the way comments on YouTube, widely seen as the worst of the worst, are displayed".   Huffington Post focuses on encouraging good comments and requiring,  at least stable pseudonyms if not real names. Maybe that is all the PAS needed to do on their forum, make all the so-called "trolls"  accountable by ensuring that they all wrote under their own real names. 

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