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Do inappropriate blog comments dim the allure of online science?

15 February 2013

Pick an online story about some aspect of science, any story, scroll down to the blog comments - and watch the bashing begin.

I am apparently not alone in believing that the comment area beneath a well-crafted online story, while containing the occasional thoughtful observation, is mostly the preserve of disenfranchised individuals wishing, in anonymity, either to vent their spleen and hurl unwarranted abuse at the author, or to discredit the latter's work.

"Wonder how much taxpayer cash went into this 'deep' study?"
"I think you can take all these studies by pointy headed scientists, 99 percent of whom are socialists and communists, and stick them where the sun don't shine."
"Yawn. Climate change myth wackos at it again."
"This article is 100 percent propaganda crapola."
"Speaking of dolts, if you were around in the 70s, when they also had scientists, the big talk then was about the coming ice age. And don't give me any of that carbon emission bull@!$%#."

Just a selection of the nasty back-and-forth that you are likely to encounter if you venture beneath the author's credit at the foot of an online article.

But like it or not, this is now a staple of our news diet, and in the realm of online science news, the diatribes, screeds and rants are believed to be taking a toll on the public perception of science and technology, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US.

Addressing scientists at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, UW-Madison science communication researcher, Dominique Brossard reported the results of the study. Taking the subject of nanotechnology as an example, these results imply that the tone of blog comments alone can influence the perception of risk posed by this important area of scientific research and materials development.

The study, supported by the US National Science Foundation, sampled a representative cross section of 2,338 Americans in an online experiment, where the civility of blog comments was manipulated. For example, introducing name calling into commentary tacked onto an otherwise balanced newspaper blog post, the study showed, could elicit either lower or higher perceptions of risk, depending on one's predisposition to the science of nanotechnology.

"It seems we don't really have a clear social norm about what is expected online," says Professor Brossard, contrasting online forums with public meetings where prescribed decorum helps keep discussion civil. "In the case of blog postings, it's the Wild West."

For rapidly developing nanotechnology, a technology already built into more than 1,300 consumer products, exposure to uncivil online comments is one of several variables that can directly influence the perception of risk associated with it.

"When people encounter an unfamiliar issue like nanotechnology, they often rely on an existing value such as religiosity or deference to science to form a judgement," explains Ashley Anderson of the Centre for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and the lead author of the study, to be published in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication.

Highly religious readers, the study revealed, were more likely to see nanotechnology as risky when exposed to rude comments compared to less religious readers, Professor Brossard notes. "Blogs have been a part of the new media landscape for quite some time now, but our study is the first to look at the potential effects blog comments have on public perceptions of science," she says. And while the tone of blog comments can have an impact, simple disagreement in posts can also sway perception: "Overt disagreement adds another layer. It influences the conversation," she adds.

UW-Madison Life Sciences Communication Professor Dietram Scheufele, another of the study's co-authors, notes that the Web is a primary destination for people looking for detailed information and discussion on aspects of science and technology. Because of that trend, studies of online media are becoming increasingly important, but understanding the online information environment is particularly important for issues of science and technology.

So, if you want to take issue with anything you have read here and aim a wordy swipe at yours truly; sorry, you can't. We just don't offer that facility - yet.

Les Hunt

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