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Good or evil?

Posted 01/10/2013 by sevans

The internet can be of great benefit or a thing of evil, as recent newspaper headlines have highlighted. Reports of internet bullying, for example, have suggested that this phenomenon is rampant among teenagers in the UK, leading to self-harm and even suicide. Meanwhile, this same tool can also be a route to more information than it is sometimes possible to comprehend. Like all new advances it is not the tool itself, but the way it is used, and human beings seem to have an unending ability to find the downside of, and abuse, almost every new innovation.

So much so that the US publication Popular Science has decided to cease publishing comments about stories that appear in the publication; and the reason given? ‘Comments can be bad for science’, according to Suzanne LaBarre, online content director, adding, however, that ‘it wasn’t a decision we made lightly’.

‘As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter,’ she writes on the Popular Science website.

Now, debate is the life blood of science, and something that C&I itself encourages, but Popular Science has made its decision with the backing of some recent research that appears to support the view that even a ‘fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story’.

The results of one US study, led by Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, of the University of Wisconsin and published in the New York Times, involved the reading of a fake blog post on nanotechnology by a group of almost 1200 individuals, who were then asked how they felt about the subject. The same individuals were then allowed to read either insult-laden or civil comments and then asked again how they felt about the topic.

The authors discovered that uncivil comments not only polarised readers but often changed the reader’s interpretation of the story itself. They ended up with a much more polarised view of the risks involve with nanotechnology, compared with those readers who had seen civil comments and continued to feel the same way as when first asked after reading the story. A similar study where there were firmly worded, but not uncivil, disagreements between commentators also had an effect of the readers’ perception of science.

‘If you carry out those results to their logical end – commentators shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded – you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch,’ says LaBarre. ‘A politically-motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically-validated topics. Everything from evolution to the origins of climate change is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television.’

Pretty strong stuff, and perhaps something of an over-statement to UK C&I readers, but there is more than an element of truth about all this. We have all seen or heard such discussions between people who are not even novices regarding the subject they are talking about, and, more seriously, have major influence over public policy. We have a tendency to dismiss them but we do so at our peril.

Scientists have been hearing the same story about improving their communication of their science, and to judge by the current spate of tv programmes with science themes, and the inevitable scientific celebrities that they promote, there is a public appetite for more science. This may be a very good thing but we must all be on our guard against those who would try to change the public’s improving perception of science.

What do you think? And please post only civil comments here.

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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