(Promoted by Colorado Pols)
This month marks the end of an experiment for the online edition of Popular Science; the editors there have decided after a lot of agonizing internal debate to end their reader comments feature. Why? Because several online studies have determined that the tone of debate could negatively affect a reader's opinion about an issue, more than the debate itself.
Their reasoning is sad, but sound:
Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they'd previously thought. [...]
Another, similarly designed study found that even just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers' perception of science.
If you carry out those results to their logical end–commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded [...]
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.
Lately, that has been the tone on this website, too – from all sides. It seems there's little discussion – or even heated debate – about whatever topic a blog post might have originally been meant to explore. Instead too many of us – and I'm not immune – devolve into insults and name-calling and only tangentially or at best secondarily address the topic at hand.
Not only does that diminish the content that the diarist posted, but if these studies hold for controversial facts in general, it diminishes what other people see as the usefulness of this blog and the accuracy of the reports posted.
So maybe in our own interests we should de-escalate the war of insults – unilaterally if need be – and focus on the topic at hand, whatever that might be. At most perhaps a short "ad hominem attack – no further reply" response would be appropriate – to tell future readers that we the regular posters don't support such attacks nor will we waste time responding to a post containing such an attack.