Editors of the Popular Science website last month announced they would no longer accept readers’ comments under new articles. Why? Because studies suggest Internet “trolls” don’t just spoil the chance for intellectual debate, they create doubt where there should be none.

“It wasn’t a decision we made lightly,” wrote Suzanne LaBarre, the magazine’s online content director. “As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are 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.”

LaBarre cited a study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard, in which 1,183 Americans were asked to read a fake blog post on a science topic and state in a survey how they felt about the subject. Then they were randomly assigned either “epithet- and insult-laden comments” or “civil comments,” LaBarre explained.

The study’s authors said of the results in a New York Times op-ed:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

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.

Another similar study determined that disagreements between commenters that were firmly worded but not uncivil still impacted readers’ perception of science, LaBarre reported.

“If you carry out those results to their logical end,” LaBarre wrote, “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.”

“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.”

“Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story,” LaBarre wrote.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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