Popular Science bans comments on articles

  • Popular Science

It's every journalist's secret dream: a return to a pre-digital world where an article could be published without being chased and shouted down by a wealth of intemperate below-the-line abuse, ridicule and sarcasm.

Popular Science, despite having the boast "the future now" on its masthead, has taken that step back into the past by banning comments on its online articles. The magazine blames trolls and spambots as the main cause of their decision, but also argues that comments can diminish the perceived authority of an article.

The Popular Science online content director Suzanne LaBarre said that the decision had not been taken lightly, but she cited research from University of Wisconsin-Madison suggesting that negative comments below an article can change the reader's initial opinion of the piece. Which seems like a redundant observation, but academia is rife with examples of researchers claiming grants to state the obvious.

"Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they'd previously thought," the researcher Dominique Brossard told the New York Times.

LaBarre said that important Popular Science articles could not afford to be affected or have their contribution to a debate be diminished by ill-considered, inexpert or plain malicious comments. "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," she said.

Unsurprisingly some journalists were all in favour of the magazine's initiative. The Washington Post's Alexandra Petri wrote that "it can't come soon enough". A trawl through the comments sections in even the most upmarket newspapers suggests that the initial internet-age idealism about the wisdom of crowds has been swiftly superseded by a new adage about the idiocy of the compulsive commenter.

Comments welcome. Bring it on.

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