A belief that online commentary is "bad for science" has led to a comments ban on Popular Science magazine’s website, reports Pam Belluck in The New York Times (10/1/13). The immediate problem for Popular Science is that it does not "have the resources to moderate all comments." The magazine does cite a bit of science to back up its ban: A University of Wisconsin-Madison study finds "that people’s perceptions of the riskiness of a scientific advance can become more entrenched and polarized after reading comments written in an uncivil tone."
The study involved asking "1,183 people to read an article about a fictitious type of nanotechnology." It found that those "who started off with a negative view of the technology" were even more polarized after reading uncivil negative comments about it. Same thing happened, in reverse, with people who began with a positive view. (link) Dietram Scheufele, one of the study’s researchers, comments: "There’s no way that a completely unmoderated discussion is not going to be detrimental to the facts."
Needless to day, PopSci’s ban is, itself, controversial. "The comments section can often express the openness of scientific debate," says Noah Gray of Nature magazine. "Removing this channel for feedback rather than exploring an alternative means to improve it simply ignores the problem." He also questions "whether the study accurately ‘mimics the natural engagement of the reader’." Meanwhile, reader Nick Anglewicz straddles the issue in an email to PopSci, writing: "I think you’ve made the right decision … Now if only I could state my opinion on your post publicly on the website."