John C. Dvorak: On Popular Science, Idiocy and Trolls



aNewDomain.net — Online comments are a plague, at least according to the honchos at Popular Science. Management recently cut the comments section from the online version of the magazine. Here’s our John C. Dvorak on why that’s pure idiocy — and how the magazine’s huckster-like science coverage brought on a lot of the nasty commentary it was getting all by itself.

When Popular Science decided to kill the comment section from the online version of its magazine, there was a big fuss.

The fear was that the comments were turning people away from science itself. Sketchy research out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison indicated that people would become skeptical of original articles — just because of the snide remarks and carping found in the comments.

For Popular Science, that research was enough to kill the comment feature. Commentators at NPR and various podcasts and newspapers backed this decision. Right away website commenters were called out as “trolls,” “creeps,” “spammers,” “haters,” and in one instance, told to “get a job.”

Image credit: Popular Science

johncdvorakpopularscience

Popular Science elicits much of the spam through its articles — articles that often tend to be inane or shallow or both. Google Popular Science magazine covers and you’ll see what I mean.

This is a magazine that has traditionally dealt with futurism, like flying cars. This sort of thing demands comments. And in fact, comments should be encouraged not discouraged.

On closer examination, Popular Science is really complaining about two problems. First, there is a lot of machine-generated spam clogging the comments. And secondly, nasty commentary is distracting from the credibility of the articles.

In the first instance you’ve got nothing new. There are all sorts of systems available to publishers to minimize actual bot-driven spam. This includes forcing people who comment to register to comment.

Also, media should encourage moderation by the writers who produce the articles.

And in a pinch the publication always can turn to Disqus, a company that runs the comment sections for websites as a third-party service.

So this complaint about bot-driven spam is bogus.

Next we have the problem with people reading the articles and ridiculing them in one way or another. Popular Science, being all-in with hot-button topics like global warming, will surely exacerbate this.

But even without hot-button issues most articles will draw attention if they are attention-getting.

Most magazine editors see the comment section as a useful tool to gauge the success of an article. Excepting lots of social commentary around pieces, lots of comments show interest. No comments show no interest.

And you lose this metric when you kill comments.

Comments are a form of entertainment and create engagement. People who write comments may often be snarky or wrong-headed — and these comments can easily be removed if the publisher so desires.

In a vital comment eco-system this generally resolves itself. Users can easily become a mob and decide to attack the attacker and set him or her straight. This is common. This, in itself, is highly entertaining for the readership.

It also creates a lot of engagement and will often bring people back to the site. A community will naturally form and the beneficiary of the growing crowd is the publication itself.  This functionality seems to be totally ignored by the pundits who applauded Popular Science for its “no comments” decision.

But let’s get to the crux of this insanity. The publisher is concerned that the credibility of the magazine, and science in particular, is jeopardized by the snide commentary. Are they kidding us?

For over a hundred years this magazine has promoted crackpot inventions and screwball ideas that have zero foundation in science and appear to be either fringe science or science fiction. Since when did they become so high and mighty? Flying cars, screwball boats, unusual army tanks shaped like a ball.

I’m serious here.

Go to Google and search “Popular Science Covers” to find the collections.  You’ll find miniature steam engines that will power the cars of the future. There’s an assertion in 1965 that we will all be driving at 120 mph. Then there’s the man “amplifiers” that allow you to carry a ton!

In 1967 the claim was that you’ll be driving the “Amazing Urbmobile,” a car on tracks.

Throughout the 1970s the magazine was promoting both the Wankel engine and the Sterling engine as the “sure-thing” engine of the future.

Popular Science has been fanciful for all its history. Now it sees itself as some bastion of scientific truth? Who are these editors kidding?

Worse are the people who are on board with this self-image manipulation. I heard a serious commentator say that it was about time the magazine stood firm. There are too many attacks against science already, she said. According to her, we do not need carping commentators questioning the “science.” What science?

The fantastic imagination of this magazine has not changed in over a 100 years. In 2008 it was discussing the hydrogen-powered super jet that will take you from New York to London in 2 hours. It never ends.

If you are going to run all this sort of nutty science and claim the magazine is some sort of peer-reviewed journal then yes, you are going to get a lot of negative comments.

Get over yourself.

For aNewDomain.net, I’m John C. Dvorak.

John  C. Dvorak is co-founder with Gina Smith and Jerry Pournelle of aNewDomain.net. An award-winning commentator, he  discusses these sorts of issues with Adam Curry on the No Agenda Show. Check it out at www.noagendashow.com , and follow John @theRealDvorak. He writes Tech Stock Corner for aNewDomain.

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  • webitube

    I’m leaving a comment here to indicate my engagement with John’s article.

  • Louis

    Yeah, I heard that said on TWiT too, John. And it really rubbed me the wrong way. Peer-reviewed, scientific evidence stands for itself. It doesn’t need popular consensus. Do why not let the commenters be wrong? (And don’t even get me started on what that particular TWiT panel said about “mean, ” “bullying” comments. You’re all adults. It’s up to you to get over them or ignore them.)

    I’ve seen some truly terrible comment cesspools online, but I’d rather them be there than not. Even on political sites, I’ve learned something from articles’ comment sections, and those are among the WORST.

    And I’m sure this policy change is solely about popular opinion on global warming (much of which–on the part of the average joe–is purely political and not based in knowledge of scientific fact). That’s if it’s about science at all, like you said.

  • Electronic Incident

    PopSci says, “Shut up already, it’s SCIENCE!”

    Have to agree with previous commenter that this was done primarily, if not solely, to silence those who would deny the FACTS surrounding global warming aka climate change.

    All that aside, I do hope they were right about the man amplifiers.

    • anonjedi2

      There is very little evidence to support any of Popular Science’s wild climate change claims. They want to censor comments because they’re afraid that people might start thinking for themselves and expose the Global Warming scam.

      • Mel Gross

        Your comment is exactly why this is done. You are living in a fantasy world.

        • anonjedi2

          not really. you are living in a world of propaganda and psychological warfare. The main difference is I was once a believer in this silly scam but realized after doing a lot of my own research that it’s just another form of psychological warfare. so, I’ve been on both sides of the fence. Look up Plato’s Allegory of the Cave if you want to understand this better.

    • scott_ao

      ITM!

  • http://fakeologist.com/ Ima Fakeologist

    Clearly there’s enough people pushing the bullsh*t back up the pipe. It’s a lot of work for them defending their lies. When people stop believing the myth makers they call scientists, they may even start thinking for themselves. Then everything we know may unravel.

  • jdawgnoonan

    John is spot on I believe.

  • http://www.Verizonsucks.com/ Johnny Test

    John is my new favorite person.

  • Dwight E Howell

    They weren’t controlling spam to the point I wondered if they were paid adds. They were shoving AGW with a shovel and the science on that doesn’t stand up to a hard look. Of course I’ve largely stopped looking at their links on Twitter and may drop them. They have always been science light and science as fun and the anointed champions of AGW crap doesn’t fly with me.

  • h0llywood

    “So this complaint about bot-driven spam is bogus.”

    John,
    You’re using “So” in the beginning of your sentence again, dammit!
    Great article though.

  • Mel Gross

    Well, I don’t see any author moderation of John’s articles in PCmag. Nor do I see the editor or writers removing spam from comments either, even though I’ve asked them to several times. That includes John’s column.
    And John used to respond to comments, though often in a very negative way when some disagreed with his often absurd, click friendly, assertions. Really, he shouldn’t talk about nonsense articles.

    Sorry to be so rough, but it’s true.

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