The science of comments

Popular Science, the 141-year-old American magazine, announced it is closing comments on its online articles after concluding that an open forum at the end of articles “can be bad for science.” Sheesh. If online commenters of a science magazine can’t have an intelligent discussion, how does that bode for the rest of us?

(Cue the comments about how Popular Science isn’t really a science magazine.)

Comments provide a forum for “informed debate,” which is great, except when it’s less than an informed debate.

In explaining its decision, Popular Science cites a study in which 1,183 Americans were given a fabricated story on nanotechnology and were asked how they felt about the subject, both before and after reading fake comments. By reading both civil and nasty responses, the study found that people were swayed far more by negativity, according to news reports.

That’s the problem with so many online comments — the constant attack mode. Regardless of the topic. Or reality.

For example, this week The Herald reported on a statewide study that was headlined, “Drivers ignore school buses’ light, stop signs.” Sixty-three people have commented online. Two comments are tied with the most “thumbs up” at nine. One lists the rules for stopping around buses. It’s good to know nine people thought that comment was the best. However, the other comment says since no children have been killed at a bus stop, it’s greed that is driving any/all concern in this area.

Other commenters pile on, calling the article “phony” and a “scam.” Others allege that the article was “planted” by American Traffic Solutions, the company behind the red light cameras in Lynnwood and elsewhere. Bus drivers are bashed, children are criticized and the newspaper’s integrity is questioned. Just common, everyday, over-the-top online comments. But to clarify:

Importantly, it’s Herald reporters who wrote about American Traffic Solutions, and its practices, in the first place. (How exactly could American Traffic Solutions plant stories in the paper? Everyone here would notice if we suddenly had a new reporter.)

The article was about a one-day, self-reported study by school districts, as requested by the state. The information is a public service/safety announcement: Be careful around school buses, a lot of drivers are not.

Comments that question and challenge are great. Making stuff up is not great.

(An exchange between the character Sheldon and his mother on the TV sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” sums up the problem:

Mary: You watch your mouth, Shelly. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

Sheldon Cooper: Evolution isn’t an opinion, it’s fact.

Mary: And that is your opinion.)

Please drive and comment carefully.

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