The Democratization of Fact

now that this newfangled internet thing has been around awhile, we’ve all gotten pretty used to reading our journals and magazines on-line. you might even read the comments at the end of the article. and that’s when you’ll find the same old diatribes, same old screeds, same old trolls commenting with the same old stuff. Now, we’re all free to avoid the comment section, but the question is: does it change your perception of the information in the article?

if it’s an opinion piece, comments are probably part of a lively debate, but when the article is publishing results of a scientifically conducted study, do comments matter?

that’s what university of wisconsin – madison science communication researcher dominique brossard decided to study.

according to the report of the study published in university of wisconsin-madison news, “the study, now in press at the journal of computer mediated communication, was supported by the national science foundation. it 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.”

brossard reported that “the results of a study showing the tone of blog comments alone can influence the perception of risk posed by nanotechnology, the science of manipulating materials at the smallest scales.”

so, what does it matter?

according to brossard, an estimated 60 percent of the americans seeking information about specific scientific matters say the internet is their primary source of information — ranking it higher than any other news source. for on-line news outlets or journals, comments have been an issue for quite some time, mainly because of trolls.

some sites, wishing to extricate from the intensive process of policing comments, have employed various strategies, most popularly, forcing the commenter to connect through their facebook or twitter account. the thinking is that lack of anonymity will encourage more civil behavior. well, maybe. Others have tried to solve the problem in another way by moving comments to a completely separate section of the site in addition to requiring a login. this blogger has some interesting thoughts on the topic, not the least of which is the misperception that people go to news sites to feel like a part of a community. it would be safe to assume that people visit news sites to read the news. Shocking, I know. We may be able to extrapolate the same of people who visit an on-line science site.

but the bigger question is whether comments are necessary at all in the context of a science journal.

for this, and many other reasons to be sure, popular science is ending comments in its on-line format. jacob ward, editor and chief of “popular science” magazine says “we had three deciding factors that it came down to. one is the rise of trolls, which is a pretty well-understood term these days – basically, people who come into a comment section of a website to be abusive or unpleasant. second, we had bumped into on our own site, and then had seen it sort of confirmed in other places – and seen, also, studies about this – we discovered that troll behavior – that being unpleasant, being uncivil, sort being really fractious in a debate – can cause readers to actually misunderstand things that are scientifically validated.”

There is, and has long been a long-standing war on actual science in lieu of ideological belief or agenda and this, even in the context of free speech, is not servicing anyone.

“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 judgment,” explains ashley anderson, a postdoctoral fellow in the center for climate change communication at george mason university and the lead author of the upcoming study in the journal of computer mediated communication.

again, why does it matter? it matters because in our ability to access vast amounts of unfiltered information, we are losing the ability to access the validity of the information and in so doing, we fall back on our lizard brains.

You might be able to think of some current day examples of this. Fact is, when lizard brains are allowed to rule, we all lose.


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Filed under communication, politics, religion, science

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