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Comments can be bad for science. That’s what Popular Science argued when it announced it was shutting down its comment section back in September.

“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics,” wrote online editor Suzanne LaBarre. “Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again.”

This is undemocratic. It reduces the power of the reader. It’s contrary to everything the Internet believes to be sacred.

And it just might be exactly the right thing for Popular Science to do.

Medium Matters

It’s a phrase every intro-level media class teaches students: “The medium is the message”. First uttered by Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, it points to how the way you experience information is part of the message you get from it.

breaking-bad-poster

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On a really basic level this isn’t so hard to understand. To binge on Breaking Bad using Netflix is a completely different experience than watching it week-to-week on TV. The former medium allows you to watch episodes closely together, meaning you’ll notice a lot about the ongoing story arch – experiencing the show as a really, really long movie. Watch week to week, however, and you’ll have more time to reflect on individual episodes as self-contained units – possibly noticing things you wouldn’t while binging. Neither approach is right or wrong, but the way you experience Breaking Bad will change how you think of it.

In Frozen Music, a particularly brilliant episode of the always-awesome 99% Invisible podcast, host Roman Mars makes a similar point about music recordings:

I once bought vinyl albums and cassette tapes, where there were two first songs per album, Side A and Side B. The energy of a first song makes it stand apart, at least in my head it does. Then the CD came along and eliminated Side B and there was only first song, and the actual number of a track (that you see prominently on the UI) became my index for sorting songs. Then MP3s jumbled my sense of track order, and albums began to feel more like a loose grouping of individual pieces rather than a conceptual whole.

Mars is pointing out how the tools used to listen to music alters the way he experiences it. You can probably think of other examples, such as how conversation over SMS is different than over phone, or how reading an ebook on a tablet is different than reading a paper book. It’s the different experiences that changes how you perceive information in subtle ways.

This is all my extremely simplified version of McLuhan’s idea, but it’s sufficient for what I’m trying to get across here: that the medium you use to consume information affects the way you perceive it. The Internet is the defining medium of our age, and we’re still working out its message.

Comments as a Medium

“But what does this have to do with comments?” you’re asking. Well, almost as long as newspapers and magazines have been on the web they’ve allowed comments. These almost always show up at the end of articles, and it’s not hard to understand why: they give readers a reason to stay on a page longer without a lot of extra work on the part of site owners.

But what’s the message of Internet comments, as a medium? You could say it’s that all ideas are equally valid. The author states her view, sure, but then readers can state theirs. Everyone decides what’s true based on what they find convincing.

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Think about it: comments are staggeringly democratic. You, after reading (or not reading) an article have the ability to supplement it with your own views. This could be a thank you to the writer, or it could be an attempt to undermine the writer’s credibility. It could be a supplemental point, or it could also be a completely unprompted appeal to support Ron Paul’s 2016 bid for the presidency.

To put the unfiltered thoughts of anyone with the inclination to do so below articles is to give these thoughts value. And for a site like ours, which acts as a collaborative way for people to find cool web sites and apps, that can be awesome. Readers frequently point out amazing alternatives to the tools we profile, helping readers find more cool stuff and us to find the next tools we’re going to profile.

So a potential message of comments may be that your view is just as valid as that of the authors. And again, I would argue that message makes sense on a site like ours – we see ourselves simply as regular people who love technology enough to write about it. But does that message have a place below articles outlining the latest scientific news?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Science Doesn’t Care What You Believe

“Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, recent research suggests,” said Popular Science’s article about their decision to stop allowing comments. They’re pointing to research done where the presence of online comments criticizing a study’s conclusion skews people’s perception of that study.

To Popular Science, giving comments so prominent a placement as directly below an article helps perpetuate fundamentally unscientific ways of thinking.

“But isn’t this undemocratic?”, you might be asking. “Shouldn’t we allow everyone to state their viewpoint and arrive at their own conclusion?”

Well, science isn’t democracy: it’s a process. And science, as a process, does not care what the majority of people believe. It’s about proposing a theory, then using observation and data to try to prove that theory wrong.

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You might not like some of the conclusions that process leads to, but you have it to thank for everything from modern health care to robots on Mars to the device you’re reading this article on right now. It’s important people understand this, and Popular Science believes comments composed in mere seconds could undermine research in the public mind.

So science, as a method, is arguably incompatible with comments, as a medium.

Questioning Comments

Two more ideas. First: it’s worth noting that the vast majority of web users don’t leave comments. For example: the typical MakeUseOf article is seen by thousands of people the day it’s posted, but it’s extremely rare for an article to get more than 100 comments. You could argue, then, that comments represent not popular opinion but that of a small minority of readers. Should that minority be given so much power to influence the way people process scientific information?

Second: comments below an article are far from the only tool Internet users have for communicating with writers. Social networks offer a direct line of contact, not to mention a powerful platform for discussion. Disabling comments doesn’t shut down conversation: it moves it elsewhere. So why should Popular Science allow potentially inaccurate statements on their own site to skew the public perception of scientific research?

Should You Turn Comments Off?

Wondering what the web would be like without comments? Shut up for Chrome allows you to turn off comments for most popular sites Block Website Comments With One Click Of A Button Using "Shut Up" [Chrome] Block Website Comments With One Click Of A Button Using "Shut Up" [Chrome] Are you tired of seeing stupid comments around the web? Tell those people to Shut Up with this extremely simple Chrome plugin. It blocks comments on most websites, allowing you to ignore the disasterous consequences... Read More . You’ll be amazed how much less time you waste on the Web, and how little actual information you miss out in the process (MakeUseOf aside: our commentors are awesome).

Oh, and there are also ways to improve comments on YouTube 5 Ways To Improve YouTube Comments 5 Ways To Improve YouTube Comments YouTube's comments section is one of the worst places on the web. On an Internet already full of nonsense no sane, intelligent person would want to spend their time reading, YouTube's comment section stands out.... Read More , most of which replace the text with quotes people like Feynman and Nietzsche.

Are you wondering whether you should allow comments on your own blog? Nancy outlined the pros and cons of comments Should You Allow Comments on Your Site? The Pros and Cons Should You Allow Comments on Your Site? The Pros and Cons Should you allow comments on your site or blog? On the one hand, you can argue that quality content will encourage quality comments; on the other, there's always someone out there with something negative to... Read More , so check that out if you’re on the fence.

Of course, there’s nothing vaguely scientific about this article: it’s opinion through and through. As such, I’m thrilled to hear your thoughts. Do comments undermine science? You already know my viewpoint, so let’s talk below.

Image Credit: YouTube Comment comic courtesy XKCDMars Rover (NASA)

  1. aacmiami
    September 12, 2016 at 5:42 am

    Thanks for this nice article and totally agreed with you that science doesn't care what you believe.
    Really it's a nice article and highly recommended.

  2. dragonmouth
    October 16, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    "“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics,” wrote online editor Suzanne LaBarre. “Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again.”"
    Oh, really?! If your cherished beliefs cannot stand up to questioning by those unconvinced, maybe it is time time re-examine those beliefs instead trying to institutionalize orthodoxy by eliminating discussion. "If 50 million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing" - Anatole France.

    Let me remind everyone that for centuries the orthodox view was that the Earth was the center of the Universe. The Church, like Popular Science, disallowed any commentary on the subject. If it wasn't for comments and questions from Copernicus and Galileo we would still be learning Aristotelian astronomy in school.

    If it wasn't for various commenters and questioners, we would still be ascribing various diseases to "bad air" and "vapors."

  3. Vishnu Sreevalsan
    October 16, 2013 at 4:43 am

    Comments are often made by lay people - people who are not subject experts and should not be treated seriously, this is especially true in matters of science. But there are also websites which deal with things which are subjective, like politics, history, sports and others, there comments play an important role in bringing out/countering the bias of the author.

    Other than that the process of having an opinion however dumb or inappropriate goes hand in hand with the libertarian philosophy that I believe in. Disagree with or ignore the person who's making the comment, but never take away his right to comment.

    Voltaire would approve of it if he was still alive. I am sure.

  4. dragonmouth
    October 15, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    "So science, as a method, is arguably incompatible with comments, as a medium"
    Comments, especially critical ones, are part of the scientific method.

    POPULAR Science means that it is available and accessible to the masses. Remove the accessibility and it becomes restricted to just the select elite.

    • Dave P
      October 16, 2013 at 3:20 am

      Maybe a name change to Elitist Science is next on the agenda.

  5. Brian
    October 15, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    And of course, that's assuming PopSci is feeding us the truth, unfiltered from opinion and politics…

  6. Koshy G
    October 15, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    There has been a lot of talk about what really happened to Abraham Lincoln here. I have decided to tell you what really happened, as I have said before Abraham Lincoln obviously knows how to time travel, for you to understand what really happened you need to understand how time travel works, It seems like most of you don’t know how time travel actually works, unlike popular belief when somebody time travels it is a copy of the person that time travels, leaving the original to continue to exist in that timeline/reality. What happened that fateful night at the Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C is like what our history books tell us but not exactly like that. John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in the head but Lincoln did not die, Lincoln acted fast, he knew the he could survive if he time traveled, as he was too gravely injured, he did not have the strength to time travel far, so he time traveled just back enough to shoot himself before John Wilkes Booth could, he made sure to make it look like it was Booth who shot him. After shooting him Lincoln used all his remaining strength to use his self deletion tool to delete himself. Lincoln knew, he had to die in this reality to preserve the natural order but he made the shot in such a way that it was possible for him to time travel to the future and get proper medical care. This is what really happened. What he did that night freed him from that reality and that timeline making him free to roam through all of time and space, hunting vampires and whatnot, but if anybody were to find definitive proof of him not being dead that timeline would collapse and that reality will cease to exist, the reality in which he survived will cease to exist. Its ironic how if somebody proves if he is not dead, he will die.

    • Justin P
      October 15, 2013 at 8:53 pm
    • Mark O
      October 15, 2013 at 8:55 pm

      Koshy, can I have the phone number for your dealer? Whatever you're smoking must be really good.

    • Dave P
      October 16, 2013 at 3:20 am

      Koshy, why not explain your theory on Technophilia. Go on, do it, you know you want to. Do it, do it, do it, DO IT!

    • Mark
      October 16, 2013 at 3:23 am

      Thank you Koshy, for the enlightenment - and Justin for the apt response :-)

    • jprime
      October 16, 2013 at 10:37 pm

      You have won this round of internet.

  7. Reza G
    October 15, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Comments are as much about interaction as they are about opinion. Not everything we say must be about correcting someone or telling someone he is wrong.

  8. MerryMarjie
    October 15, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    As pointed out in the article, comments on useful sites such as MakeUseOf are often very helpful in finding links or solutions and answers. The problem with a lot of web pages is that the commentary dissolves into "No, he didn't!" and "Yes, he did!" and "Are too!" and "Am not!" Civil discourse is rejected for yelling, bullying, name-calling and general craziness. One recent news article I viewed contained at least 50 posts from one individual interjecting long passages (diatribes) and why she was right and everyone else was wrong, not very helpful in sorting out the "truth."

    PopSci is correct in abolishing such discussions on its site. Science is science.

  9. Matthew
    October 15, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Pretty sure the main reason some sites have for abandoning comments, is they don't want the hassle of moderating them, and I'd give them more credit for being honest about that!

    Seeing a spew of spam that survives more than a day, makes you question the amount of care that goes into running things

  10. Grant R.
    October 15, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Great article, Justin. I design websites, and I always recommend a combo platter called moderation. Allow comments, but remove the unhelpful and inappropriate ones. For a site like PopSci or MakeUseOf, this can seem to be a daunting or impossible task; but there are filters and technologies out there to help automate the process for larger blogs.

    Personally, I'm happy to skip most comment sections because it is a time drain. One spot where I love the comments sections is at the NY Times site; most of the opinion, philosophy, and business articles are often followed by engaging and educational comments.

  11. Jesus Corujo Puga
    October 15, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    today all comunications silent the real world (people not have real "lider" not have plan and not have real world), only have yellow sugar (virtual world)

  12. Daniel J
    October 15, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    More over comment sections on YouTube are time killers ;)

  13. Koshy G
    October 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Abraham Lincoln is Doctor Who.

    • G
      October 15, 2013 at 3:59 pm

      Maybe Abraham Lincoln was a companion. ;)

    • Mark O
      October 15, 2013 at 8:58 pm

      Next, you'll be telling me that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are not real.

  14. Anthony L
    October 15, 2013 at 10:52 am

    Who is this Nancy? I look back to see if you reference her earlier in your article, but you don't.

    • Daniel
      October 15, 2013 at 1:03 pm

      It hyperlinks a post of hers right next to her name. She's a writer for MakeUseOf.

  15. jerry5063
    October 15, 2013 at 10:45 am

    Maybe he did time travel and it was a double that got shot and Lincoln could be live and well moving from time and will never die we just don't know:)

    • Justin P
      October 15, 2013 at 1:44 pm

      This fall, on Fox: Lincoln, A President In Time

  16. Pravin Kumar S
    October 15, 2013 at 10:20 am

    Very True!!!

  17. Kieran C
    October 15, 2013 at 10:11 am

    If he knew how to time travel, how come he went to the theater that night? Ah, or did he.....?

  18. Victor A
    October 15, 2013 at 9:12 am

    I think Abraham Lincoln said it best when he said " Don't believe everything you read on the internet just because there's a picture with a quote next to it." And I know he said this... I saw a picture of him with this Quote on the Internet!

    • Aiden S
      October 15, 2013 at 9:47 am

      Too bad the internet didn't exist back then, so how he knew what the internet even was is beyond me. -_-

    • Koshy G
      October 15, 2013 at 9:58 am

      Don't be an idiot Aiden, Abraham Lincoln obviously knew how to time travel.

    • Brad
      October 15, 2013 at 1:34 pm

      And this chain why scientific america doesn't allow comments... :(

    • B. Obama
      October 15, 2013 at 1:46 pm

      Aiden don't be stupid. He was the freaking president, whatever he says is right!

    • Micah
      October 15, 2013 at 3:03 pm

      "I'm saying when the President doesn't it's not against the law(s of physics)."
      --Dr. Trick E. Dick

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