Science, Public Knowledge, and Public Controversy: The Case of Popsci.com

At the end of September, Popular Science Magazine made a bold move on their website. They disabled reader comments.

But what intrigues me most about Popular Science’s decision isn’t just that they did it, it’s that they based their decision on scientific research into the effect reader comments have on public knowledge of science. I’m tickled that an online science magazine is changing gears based on science.

Popular Science based their decision on research that suggests “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story.” In one study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard, researchers investigated the effect rude comments had on the perceptions of controversial science topics, in this case a product called nanosilver. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/opinion/sunday/this-story-stinks.html?_r=1&) If study participants read rude comments, especially ones that included an ad hominem attack, participants reported more downsides to the reported technology. However, if participants read civil comments, they experienced no polarizing effect.

Another study by Brossard looked at how rude comments affected participants with different levels of internet savvy. Brossard found that infrequent blog readers are more likely to be influenced by the disagreement they encounter in comments; while people who regularly read comments and blogs are less likely to sway from their beliefs when confronted with disagreements.

Now, I’m firmly of the belief that many user comments on news sites can often best be summed up by the October 4, 2013 tweet from@avoidComments:

Don't Read Comments "Debate and dissent are healthy, but they work best when people consider their thoughts, not in the knee-jerk snippets of internet comments."

Science needs public engagement that values debate and disagreement. And while I agree with Popular Science’s removal of comments as a way to ward off polarizing attacks that discourage engagement, I wonder if there’s a better way. Some sites use moderators who patrol commenting, but that adds another level of “big brother” –esque difficulty to the equation. Popular Scienceadvocates using social media to engage in “vigorous and intelligent discussion” but I wonder how many of us would then struggle with trying to contain that discussion when a rogue uncle or trolling friend takes the conversation down a dangerous path fraught with vaguely disguised ad hominem attacks? Plus, how much deep engagement can we really get when we have limited ourselves only to our closest circle of internet friends (or those who already agree with us)?

Research into public engagement with science is one of my biggest interests professionally. As a PhD student in history, I confront this issue in the period between the two World Wars. I am particularly interested in how different mediums interact with scientific knowledge about “modern” technology. My research looks into the interactions of representations of science and actual science during the 1920s and 1930s in Great Britain and Germany. This period saw an explosion of science and technology that engaged people not just on a national security level of guns, tanks, and aeroplanes, but on a more personal level as new technological innovations entered their work environments, homes, and sometimes their very own bodies. My work seeks to examine how people imagined science in their daily lives and how these imaginations in turn affected public discourse and policy.

Popular Science’s decision to shutdown comments aims to educate, rather than polarize, readers about scientific knowledge. I find their decision very similar to H. G. Wells's famous critique of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis in 1927, which railed against the film for its inaccurate depiction of mechanical progress. Both Popular Science and Wells acted from the belief that the public needs as accurate information as possible when it comes to the benefits and risks of science, and polarizing information, whether from comments or inaccurate depictions, only serve to invite fear of science.

So I wanted to pose a few questions to my fellow HASTACers in an effort to engage in “vigorous and intelligent discussion” (again, quote Popular Science). When you think about science and the technology through which you come to learn about it, how does the medium affect the message for you? Where and with whom do you engage in conversations about technology and science? Does HASTAC provide you with the forum you need, or can you imagine a medium that would push the envelope further?

And probably most critically if you’re an avid Facebooker, how do you reign in that rogue uncle whose comments put you in a social bind or that well-intentioned best friend who accidentally insulted your aunt?

(By the way, if you’re interested in the type of current research that this blog cites, see Dr. Brossard’s work at http://lsc.wisc.edu/people/faculty/dominique-brossard/dominique-brossard-2/. If you’re interested in historical science and science fiction robots, you can find me on Twitter www.twitter.com/DRPicardHIS or shoot me an email.)

finchster11

On Reader Commentary...

Thanks, Dani, for the fascinating read!  While I understand Popular Science's (and Wells') stance on the impartiality of information dissemination, I wonder if even the way that information is packaged and presented to the general public could be construed as less than "ideal" in its impartiality.  In other words, to what extent can an article's author, medium of presentation, etc. be truly objective?  To that end, I'm reminded of recent articles on the Higgs boson being labeled as the "God particle", and then reading in the reader commentary that both gentlemen who were awarded the Nobel Prize for its discovery actually dislike that label.

While reader commentary has, in recent years, leaned toward unfounded shock-value contributions, it seems that it could provide the forum to expose the information presented in an article to other perspectives.  Of course, a well curated online journal/magazine/website could structure the presentation of information in a way that includes multiple perspectives, but I wonder how that will affect that particular site's readership.  I can already imagine that there will be a decrease in the number of overall hits on Popular Science's website, with those readers who enjoy active engagement spending that time they would spend on PS elsewhere.  Also, I wonder where, if anywhere, many readers will go to actively engage with the information furnished by PS (HASTAC, anyone?).

As far as my own reading habits when it comes to science and the technology through which I hear about it, I confess I fall into the trap of online headlines.  I often come by this type of information through a news outlet website, click on the tab that covers the field, then skim the headlines.  If a headline is particularly interesting, or if it made its way to the website's homepage, then I will read the article.  Otherwise, I only hear about science news well after its "moment in the sun", and generally by word of mouth.  I come by technology news a little differently -- mostly by Twitter, or certain technology blogs and podcasts, where the nature of the news outlet style online headline is, in my opinion, diminished.  It is in techonology news articles where I most appreciate reader commentary, since many can provide first-hand accounts of technological advances or offer troubleshooting for problems.  

P.S. The internet meme has ruined Facebook for me, thanks to those "rogue uncle[s]"!

steven.wenz

Wonderful post

Thanks, Dani, for bringing this issue to our attention! I too very much enjoyed your post.

When you mentioned controversial science topics, my first thoughts involved debates with very clear political motivations, such as global warming and alternative fuel sources. Whenever I have read either side of these debates, I have found the inevitable, predictable backlash in the comments section. In these cases, the ability to comment provides not a forum for discussion and rational thought but rather a space for opponents to post the same counterarguments as always. I can see why the editors would wish to disable commenting here.

In popular journalism in general, I wonder to what extent many headlines are simply "baiting" commentators. (The familiar term "trolling" would be too harsh in this example.) In Argentine online newspapers, one often finds quotations from politicians taken out of context in order to provoke the users into commenting, which in turn generates more page views, and therefore more advertising revenue. Before reading the comments section on these sites, you already know what you are going to find. "Knee-jerk snippets," indeed. However, like Vivian, I must confess that I fall prey to this tactic as well, if only out of curiosity regarding the comments!

Some final thoughts about the medium and the value of comments. Without naming names, I have seen tweets from respected popular science magazines regarding astronomy (one of my hobbies), which is the only area of science where I have enough knowledge to spot misinformation on basic topics. Every once in a while, one can find stories about "supermoons" or similar phenomena that exaggerate in order to generate attention. The "retweet" option in Twitter and comment sections in the articles proper do provide, in these cases, an excellent space for the public to take the writers to task for their poor decisions or lack of knowledge. Here we have some "vigorous and intelligent discussion" facilitated by open access. The editors often incorporate the commentators' corrections, thus improving the article.

Zoe LeBlanc

Right place, right time?

Hi Dani,

Great post that touches on a lot of the bigger questions regarding knowledge and power, as well as how knowledge travels, especially in the internet age.  As a self-admitted internet lurker, your post immediately reminded me of the site www.foxnewscomments.com.  While, I usually dismiss the comments section as internet fooder, your post reminded that there is a power to these words.  One thing I think is worth considering if there are better places to look for forums than the comments section, especially for analyzing how people are engaging with scientific knowledge.  Spending many hours on reddit, I've seen numerous conversations, some actually quite informative, on the latest scientific discoveries.  The great thing about reddit and some comments sections on particular websites is that they allow you to upvote comments.  Thus, a type of averaged opinion tends to emerge over time, as well as a fairly robust debate.  This is the opposite of what I usually see on normal comments sections or internet forums that provide only a reply model and don't organize comments based on popularity.  On the latter type of sites, the conversation usually quickly devolves into name calling and useless tangents.  I think regardless of comments sections, if someone wants to distort a latest scientific discovery or government policy *coughs death panels* then they will find a way.  Perhaps instead of completing throwing in the towel, Popular Science needs to create a better forum for discussions and engage, as much as possible, with their internet trolls, allowing the reader to witness popular science in action.

Thanks for sharing,

Zoe

todd.hughes

Do websites suffer from "lack of self-esteem?"

Dani,

This is a very insightful post.  I have to say that I am one who sometimes prefers to read the comments first, before he actually reads the article.  Why might I do this?  I find that the quality of the comments oftentimes leads me to make decisions about the credibility of the source.

Take CNN for example.  At one time, CNN was a well-respected news source.  Believe what you want about its perceived "slant," it was always considered "credible."  I now look at the CNN website as a joke because of the mere fact that they allow hundreds, sometimes of thousands of absolutely crazy comments to be posted after every article.  I ask myself, "How can they still consider themselves to be credible when they have a rush of people filing up the comment sections with their rage/bad humor/crazy beliefs?"  In fact, I'd even posit that CNN thinks that they deserve that, otherwise they would put an end to it.  Hence my statement "lack-of-self-esteem."

As scholars we would never put our ideas out there to be torn apart in that way.  Now, they might be torn apart from time to time, but we don't place them in venues where we know that this will happen with 100% certainty.  CNN does this on a daily basis, and I would also go one step further in saying that they promote this discourse.

So, I have to say that I do applaud Popular Science's decision.  It took away one possible layer of craziness on the Internet.  Now, I wonder how they can reopen this dialogue amongst their readers?  Is it time to pay for the opportunity to enter into these dialogues?  Is it time for monitoring?  Is it time for the presentation of credentials?  I don't know, but it will be interesting to see what develops!

sdlong

Importance of commenting on the primary source

Your previous two commenters seem to be conflating subjects: comments on news stories about science and comments on politicial news stories. (If not conflating, at least not making clear distinctions.)

With regard to the former, any science writer worth his or her salt will link to the peer-reviewed research, scholar's website, or PLoS ONE article being written about. In my experience, when the writer fails to provide this direct link or to quote appropriately from the study (especially quotes regarding the study's scope and limitations), that's when the crazy comments fly. Of course, even when the writer links appropriately, crazy comments can still fly. When that happens, it's easy to tell who actually read the research and who didn't. And to me, whether or not people are dealing with the research itself in a comment is more important than whether or not people are being rude or hostile---indeed, to me, "crazy comments" should be defined as those comments which obviously don't make relavant points given the research under discussion, going off on tangents instead. Excellent points can be made uncivily and with lots of profanity, and I get the sense that when people condemn "knee-jerk snippets" in comments sections, they're referring to an agonistic style of discourse they personally don't like, not to the content of said discourse. Some of my favorite scientists could be pretty nasty.

In short: People who have a reaction to research based on whether or not the research is being discussed "civily" or "rudely" are probably not looking at content, and probably don't have much of an interest in the research anyway. The study discussed in the OP seems to admit as much: "infrequent" blog readers are the ones most influenced, whereas frequent readers don't seem to give a s-it.

[With regard to comments on political news stories, well, what more can you expect from them? It's the "barnyard" of human discourse. Are we prepared to say what kind of discourse is allowed in the barnyard? On some days, I am prepared to do so, but then, those are the days when I'm feeling particulalrly elitist. And make no mistake: to enforce norms of "civility" on the human barnyard is an elitist move.]

 

drpicard

Not just about content but learning

Thanks for your comment, Seth, and sorry for the long reply-delay. For me, the sense I get about people's condemnation of "knee-jerk snippets" in the comments section is the visceral response some people have when research doesn't seem to agree with their world view. In knee-jerk snippets, research becomes boiled down to a black and white issue, rather than expressed in its many shades of grey. 

My own fear of comments section and its influence on knowledge comes from a problem I experience in undergraduate classrooms. Students who have less content-knowledge are more likely to talk about the content they do know in the same soundbite black vs. white way that we see in popular culture (and comments sections). Many of my students want to learn material by quickly fitting it into their own schemas of the world; and often times that schema does become shaded with their political views - however fledgling. When comments sections and even in-class discussion with science novices have knee-jerk snippets that say inflammatory things like "only moronic liberals believe that global warming is real," it affects the discourse and how people learn/remember content. My students don't want to be "wrong" or in the minority of thought, especially when they're still trying to grapple with learning the content. And that's what Brossard's research has found with comments sections too. 

I agree with you that enforcing norms of civility can be considered elitist and top-down. It forces people into certain types of discourse that are often not what they have with their peers in a social setting. But for a magazine with a popular, non-expert audience like PopSci to do this, I do see education as its goal - and don't we academics insist that our own classrooms uphold a certain level of discourse to encourage learning for all levels of our students? Shouldn't we hope that people have higher calibre conversations about science in a social setting rather than resorting to reductionist logic and ad hominem attacks?