Pick a story about some aspect of science, any story, scroll
down to the blog comments and let the bashing begin:
- "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
- "This article is 100% propaganda
- "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@!$%#."
Such nasty back and forth, like it or not, is now a staple
of our news diet, and in the realm of online science news, the diatribes,
screeds and rants are taking a toll on the public perception of science and
technology, according to a study by researchers at the University of
UW-Madison science communication researcher Dominique
Brossard reported 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.
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.
"It seems we don't really have a clear social norm
about what is expected online," says Brossard, a UW-Madison professor of
Life Science Communication, contrasting online forums with public meetings
where prescribed decorum helps keep discussion civil. "In the case of blog
postings, it's the Wild West."
Why people make such
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 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.
Highly religious readers, the study revealed, were more
likely to see nanotechnology as risky when exposed to rude comments compared to
less religious readers, 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," says Brossard.
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 explains.
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