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Column: Improving Debate by Muzzling the Debaters

Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten once noted that reading both a news article and the online comments was like ordering a steak and getting a side of maggots. This approximates my feelings. When I started blogging, I made the mistake of reading the comments every day, a practice I cannot recommend if your hobbies include Having a Sunny Outlook on Life or Believing That Humankind Is Basically Good.

This past week, Popular Science announced that it is removing comments from its site after a study revealed, fairly convincingly, that people who read an article with vitriolic and terrible comments beneath it regarded the scientific consensus as less settled than other readers did — and then presumably went out to sow misconception and bafflement in the public debate.

This study is a science-send for all of us who have long despised comments but only suspected that they were also UNDERMINING SCIENCE and DESTROYING AMERICA. Now we know for a fact that this is so.

In a post explaining the decision, Popular Science’s online content director Suzanne LaBarre noted: “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.”

Society has this mistaken idea that some settled facts are still up for debate. People may disagree on these things, but the only reason that they disagree is that, well, some of these people are wrong. You do not have to give people who are objectively incorrect equal time. There is no point disagreeing about facts. If you are constantly reduced to proving hundreds of years of scientific consensus again before you can even start to talk, you waste everyone’s time. Jean Kerr once noted that “the real menace in dealing with a 5-year-old is that in no time at all you begin to sound like a five-year-old.”

Popular Science is right.

“Never read the comments” is one of the few phrases I would not regret tattooing onto my body. Partially this is because, like Noel Coward, I can take any amount of criticism so long as it is unadulterated praise. Distracted by our phones from writing on bathroom stalls, it seems we store up those sentiments and pour them out at the bottom of news stories.

My theory for why sites such as washingtonpost.com have such difficulty with comments used to be the Internet Rule: The more obscure and bizarre the niche group, the friendlier the comments. By and large, the comments on Erotic Lincoln Vampire Fanfiction are much kinder, and better spelled, than the comments on a major news story about, say, wiretapping and surveillance (which consist mainly of erratically capitalized screeds against the president, erratically capitalized screeds against critics of the president and angry notes erroneously addressing the writer of the piece as “Wally”).

But why?

On most major news sites, commenters generally have in common only that they just read Whatever That Article Was and have Some Feeling about it — and, more damning yet, that they are hardy enough to venture off the safe map of the article and into the chartless waters of the comments section, where most of the occupants are weird creatures with the opinion equivalent of dangly, glowing protrusions on their snouts to lure in unsuspecting fish (“So, you think Obamacare ISN’T a sinister plot? Come closer and explain!”).

This does not conduce to civility or illumination.

The places on the Internet where the discussion is good are where a vigorous effort has been made to create community and bind people to more than simply Having Just Read Something: They come back to the same blogs day after day; they share an interest in certain policy areas; they like panda erotica. Whatever it is, it forces them to have a stake in making conversation polite enough today that it won’t be uninhabitable tomorrow. You can be much ruder to the waiter in a place where you are not a regular.

And even if some are regular commenters on news stories (hi, folks!), the nature of big news or breaking science is that, if it’s big and controversial enough for readers to flood in, the small regular community gets overrun. It is hard to maintain community in the middle of a stampede. You use the correct forks only when you aren’t fighting through throngs of people to tear hunks off the new carcass.

So, well done, Popular Science!

Let me know what you think in the online comments.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.