There’s been a sudden burst in articles about science and science news communication websites – and the comments left on such sites.
On MotherJones.com, Chris Mooney wrote, “The Science of Why Comment Trolls Suck: The online peanut gallery can get you so riled up that your ability to reason goes out the window, a new study finds.” Excerpt:
“In a recent study, a team of researchers from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and several other institutions employed a survey of 1,183 Americans to get at the negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science. Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology (which is already all around us and supports a $91 billion US industry). The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were “civil”—e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.”
The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.”
That sounds very similar to many online comment threads I’ve followed regarding various screening tests.
Then I found an anthropologist’s blog that addressed “Online communication biases upon the public perception of science” and concluded:
“Comments on professional news websites are almost always useless, misguided, or malevolent. Combine this with Brossard and Scheufele’s claim that the tone of comment sections affects readers’ comprehension of science and technology stories, and I propose a hypothesis: Professional news websites may be the worst way to communicate science, because their comment policies undercut science comprehension.”
That blog also led me to the Xark blog’s post, “Why I Shut Down Comments.”
On a Discover Magazine Gene Expression blog, Razib Khan wrote, “Comments, the fine line between relevance and trash.” Excerpt:
“I removed trolls and banned them immediately without any warning. This happened every single day. Extremely low quality comments drive away engagement. Second, I also tended to draw commenters out, and demand more of them, than they might be willing to give initially. Why? Because people need to see that their contribution to a discussion will result in genuine dialogue and exchange. If commenters got out of line, but not necessarily in a conventional trollish fashion, I felt it within my rights to track them down on Facebook and demand answers. This was usually trivially easy, and those who took upon haughty airs invariably expressed humility or remorse when called out by their real name by another human being.”
And then the Retraction Watch posted an updated comments policy, as follows:
“We are huge fans of Retraction Watch commenters. They broaden our posts, send us tips, and correct us when we get things wrong. Without them, the site would be a shadow of itself. However, we have recently found ourselves — this update is from January 2013 — having to edit ad hominem attacks out of comments, unapprove other comments, and contact some commenters to remind them of what’s appropriate.
It may not be clear to those who feel the need to resort to such personal attacks that they destroy the discourse that we and others have worked so hard to build on Retraction Watch, but it is abundantly clear to us and many others. The same goes for unfounded allegations and unverified facts.
We will not tolerate these sorts of attacks, and will simply edit or delete comments that contain them. Until now, we have made an attempt to contact the commenters who left them, as long as they provided real email addresses, but given the volume, we will no longer be able to do that.”
With permission, I intend to adopt some of that language for my own updated comments policy.
I’m sure that I missed some of the other exchanges in this recent rapid-fire exchange of comments about comments. As we headlined this piece, and as the Retraction Watch policy notes, there can be treasure in the wisdom of the crowds. But the concerns cited about ad hominem attacks and the impact on public perception from unfounded allegations and unverified facts are growing.
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