Comments on science stories are smart, meta, and funny.

The Best Slate Comments Are on Science Stories

The Best Slate Comments Are on Science Stories

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Nov. 5 2015 6:01 AM
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The Best Comments Are on Science Stories

They are smart, meta, and funny. 

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Laura Helmuth.

Image by Slate. Portrait by Charlie Powell.

When we introduced Slate’s Top Comment function about a year ago, I was skeptical. This feature pops a reader comment into a box within the original article. The comment is chosen by other commenters; if enough of them like a comment, it automatically populates that box. I worried that trolls would band together to like vicious comments and use the Top Comment feature to deface our writers’ articles, spraying graffiti insults all over the page. (I am an editor and feel very protective of our writers.)

Laura Helmuth Laura Helmuth

Laura Helmuth is the health, science, and environment editor at the Washington Post. From 2012–2016, she was Slate’s science and health editor. Follow her on Twitter.

It turns out I was wrong. We do get plenty of vicious comments, especially racist and sexist comments in stories about sexism or racism (proving Lewis’ law that the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism). But some commenters are fabulous—and the best comments on Slate come on articles in the Science and Health section, which I edit: Medical Examiner, Science, Wild Things, and especially Bad Astronomy. These departments’ Top Comments—not all of them, but enough—are smart, generous, thoughtful, and above all else, funny.

Here are some of my favorites, all of which have been voted Top Comments by other readers.

In response to a story about Gwyneth Paltrow telling her Instagram followers that she is going to treat her flu with a sauna—which is exactly what not to do if you have the flu:

#iwilltryanythingatthispoint.

Except, apparently ... ACTUAL MEDICINE.

A lot of the best comments are meta—they mock anti-science beliefs, and they work because everyone in the comments section is in on the joke. As in this response to a story about how humans retain vestigial muscles that would pivot our ears like a cat’s or dog’s:

Slate, please stop trying to make "evolution" a thing

I find the self-deprecating jokes particularly sweet, like this one about the HPV vaccine, which protects against a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cancer:

What is really unfair is that they don't pay for the vaccination after 26 years old. It's entirely possible I could get a girlfriend one day.

This one, in a long thread about Carly Fiorina’s lies about abortion, is a lovely mix of self-deprecation plus fellowship:

I can't believe this thread has picked up so much speed this time of night. Don't you people have lives?
I mean, I'm old and drunk and my truck has a blown head gasket so I'm pretty much stuck at home but it's Friday night folks.
God love us, we're pathetic.

Speaking of fellowship, a lot of readers who enjoy Science and Health stories share a sense of exasperation with politics. This was evident even over the summer, when we ran this collection of photos of hot animals.

Thank you, Slate. I'm exhausted from all the college rape, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, dying migrant stories. Like most people, I want to make the world a better place but have no real power to do so and it gets overwhelming sometimes. I like critter pictures. I would actually vote for the monkey and capybara for co-presidents right now, I think. At least they get along.

Commenters tend to be kind to writers who share personal stories, as in this piece by a writer whose treatment for PTSD went badly wrong.

Thanks for sharing your story.
It is absolutely amazing how little we still understand about the brain - and how much we (as a society) expect a one-size-fits-all cure. I hope that you (or someone you love) has been advocating for a treatment path that works for you, and that you're on the way to getting well.
And that you got a new knife and cell phone. Just keep them separate in the future.

We get a lot of genuine, simple “thank you” messages on health stories in particular, like this one pointing out that it’s wrong to blame depression for the Germanwings airplane crash. To all the commenters who say thank you: Thank you.  

This is the wisest thing I have read in years. Thank you so much for your compassion and insight.

We also get a lot of awe, especially in Bad Astronomy comments. I really love the awe comments. Here’s one on the Pluto mission:

It's been a LOOOOOONG trip for the little New Horizons probe.
When it was launched, Pluto was still a planet.

Awe when things go right, and compassion when they go wrong, as when a SpaceX rocket crashed:

Rocket science is hard. It really is rocket science.

Righteous indignation is a common theme. Politicians who spread anti-science nonsense make Phil Plait’s head asplode, and mine, too, and our commenters’:

To call Sen. Cruz a "science denier" is not really descriptive. Better to describe him as a "moron who is proudly ignorant." Could anyone seriously vote for this idiot for president? How much do you have to hate America to risk putting someone so dishonest in the White House?
I'm not sure what is more nauseating about the "dress is white" crowd; their hypocrisy or their complete immoral sociopathy. I think it's disgusting that the government lets them walk around unmonitored among us nice normal "dress is blue" folks.

Another theme is mocking the elaborate conspiracy theories one often finds in less clever commenting threads. This is in response to a story about weird features on Mars:

Sherlock Holmes used to say that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. It's clearly the Face on Mars making breath clouds.

I get a kick out of it when commenters mock the notion that scientists are colluding to make up climate change and the effects it is causing in Wyoming already:

Global warming is a lie created by scientists so they can spend 8 years getting a PhD and make $40k a year while living on glaciers and eating spam.

They have a good grasp of the science of GMOs:

What annoys me about this debate is that the people who hold this anti-GMO view also tend to be staunch environmentalists. So if you were to say, "What if we had a way of increasing farm productivity so we can use less land, reduce the water needs of crops so we can use less water, make crops disease and pestilence resistant so we can use less harmful pesticides, and increase the nutritional value of crops so we can feed the poor more cheaply." They would respond, "YES! What is this magical technology?!"


But when you ask them, "Are you in favor of the development of GMO's?" they would say, "No, I want to buy 'pure' food, not to enrich corporations!" The two thoughts are seemingly incompatible.

Our commenters also mock the elaborate conspiracy theories that claim scientists are covering up for Monsanto or pharmaceutical companies or vaccine producers. This comment was on a story about a simple water filter that is helping eradicate guinea worm infections:

What they don't want you to know is that those straws with filters were pushed by Big Straw just like Big Pharma pushes vaccines! Wake up, sheeple.

In the battle between humans and parasites, commenters are firmly pro-people. This was a response to a story about genetic engineering strategies to eradicate mosquito-borne diseases:

this sounds great but i would prefer that they engineer something that is horribly painful for the mosquito so that they die screaming and the living will envy the dead.

And this commenter is rooting for the bird, for once, in response to a photo of a weasel riding on the back of a woodpecker. The weasel tried to attack the woodpecker, so it took flight, stowaway attached:

I usually root for the mammal, but this one was just being a jerk.

But they’re not always rooting for the children.

We have coyotes in Houston. They get into the city via the natural walking channel created by Buffalo Bayou and other smaller rivulets.
They tend to eat pets and wayward children, two feral groups that it's important to keep under control.

Science commenters are frequently smarty-pantses. We had a story this spring about a very special Pi Day moment—26 minutes and 53 seconds past 9 a.m. on March 14 of this year. (In other words/numerals: 3/14/15 9:26:53.) Some wiseacre said that he had another favorite day:

I haven't been this excited since February 7th,1828.

(That’s referring to the value of e, the natural logarithm constant. To be clear, I am pro-wiseacre.)

Stories about science and religion elicit plenty of comments, especially our stories about how religion is being forced upon students in public schools.

I don't see anything wrong with teaching children that they will have to suffer terribly because somebody took a bite at the wrong apple after having an intellectual conversation with a reptile a few thousand years ago, and that they should be devoted to this being who is his own father, without the need for a mother, who created billions upon billions of stars exclusively for our eyes to feast on, who is lovely and kind, but will roast you in hell for eternity if you don't join his clan. C'mon, what's wrong with that?

Commenters often pick up on an implicit point in a story and make it explicit, as in this reaction to a story by a physician about resuscitating a patient who probably would have been better off unresuscitated:

Well, this should help all of us get our DNR orders in place when the time comes!

They also share personal stories that enrich the original article, as in this comment on a piece about the harassment of abortion providers:

I had an abortion thru Planned Parenthood a few years ago. My state required that I be informed of certain "facts" such as the ones referenced in this article (e.g. breast cancer connection and risk of death). These "facts" were presented in video form to a group of 10 or so women who were having abortions that week. Immediately after that video, we watched another one in which a PP physician flatly stated that the state's "facts" were not supported by science and he then told us what science did have to say about a link between abortion and breast cancer, and the relative risk of maternal death during an abortion vs carrying to term. I remain impressed by the skillful way he subverted the state's ridiculous, political-not-medical mandate while fulfilling the terms of the law.

This personal story also helps us understand and appreciate the original article, about the struggles creationist kids face when they are confronted with actual science:

I was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist family that rejected evolution. I only started changing my mind when I went to college and realized that most other people simply took evolution for granted. That, in addition to my concern's about the church's stance on gay rights and its sexism, caused me to deconvert.
I also remember feeling uncomfortable in high school during evolution lessons. But I just kept quiet. I feel for kids who come from very religious households. When you leave, you have to relearn all sorts of behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, etc. It's certainly been a process.

This Top Comment offers a hopeful contrast Lewis’ law that comments on articles about feminism demonstrate the need for feminism. An astronomer was quoted on NPR as saying that astronomy is “boys with toys.” He didn’t mean to offend, but it perpetuated a sexist stereotype, and there was a very satisfying “girls with toys” hashtag on Twitter that women used to show that they are also involved in science and technology:

I used to dismiss this kind of outrage, but today my five year old daughter showed me a paper airplane she had made at school. She ended her description of it with, "but paper airplanes are for boys."
We spent the next hour making paper airplanes at home.

One of my all-time favorite comments made a great piece about how the dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex had sex—which I didn’t think could be any better—even better:

WELL, I GUESS A REACH-AROUND WOULD BE OUT OF THE QUESTION.

Thank you to everyone who has ever written a thoughtful or funny or skeptical comment, even if you disagree with what a writer says. And thank you to the people who hit the like button to endorse a comment you enjoy. I’ll see you in the comments section!