Give Popular Science credit: the magazine’s decision to shut off all reader comments on its website was based, as you’d expect, on science. Like many news sites, Popular Science has been deluged with “trolls,” who filled the comment section with vicious name-calling. But, the magazine reported, trolls were more than just an annoyance. According to a University of Wisconsin-Madison study of 1,183 Americans, and other research, vitriolic comment sections can also distort the way readers understand articles about science.
That, to the 141-year-old magazine, was a red line. When comments shape readers’ factual perceptions, they undermine the journalistic effort that goes into producing an article. They can also mislead readers by suggesting a greater level of scientific dissent than actually exists. “Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again,” the magazine’s online content director wrote in an explanatory note.
There’s no right solution to trolls, and the wide range of policies at different sites reflects how hard it is to translate traditional journalistic values onto the Web. But the trend has been toward less leeway. Huffington Post recently moved to require its commenters to provide the site with their real names, though it still allows screen names to display. (BostonGlobe.com has a similar policy.) Civility is a useful end. But accuracy is even more important. Popular Science deserves credit for taking a dramatic step to ensure that its readers receive accurate information.