Are online comments 'bad for science'?

In this file photo, a computer user worked on a laptop.
Photo for MPR News by Alex Kolyer

Last month, Popular Science magazine disabled all online comments on its website.

Citing a University of Wisconsin-Madison study on online comments and their impact on a reader's ability to process scientific fact, Suzanne LaBarre, the magazine's online content editor, said "comments can be bad for science."

"We are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide," she wrote. "The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter."

The Wisconsin study had 1,183 people read a fictitious blog post about a new technology called nanosilver. The post discussed the risks and benefits of it. Then the participants read the fake comments from other readers on the post.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

From the researchers' New York Times op-ed:

Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: "If you don't see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you're an idiot" and "You're stupid if you're not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver."

The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself.

On The Daily Circuit, we look at the importance of discussion in science and how readers can interact with research in more civil ways.