"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, March 18, 2013

On Online Trolls and Blogs

The World Wide Web offers a medium for scientists to communicate their ideas and findings to a wider audience. Peer-reviewed journals do not extend to a wide audience and with issues of great public interest hinging significantly on a scientific perspective, it is important for scientific findings to be communicated correctly and effectively to a larger number of readers. Issues of great public interest include evolution and creationism, anthropogenic climate change, genetically modified organisms, and even education reform. This blog, for example, has been sharing scientific studies that shed light on education, from how teachers are paid and how these affect learning, to how technology impacts learning.

The internet is indeed an attractive medium for this purpose. Platforms such as blogs and news sites can cultivate discussion. Readers can post comments, and as it happens especially in popular news sites, readers even post comments on  comments that have been posted. Discussions are helpful. However, there is a major difference between how a scientist's findings are evaluated in a peer-review process and how the same findings may be treated in a lively discussion on the internet. In the peer-review process, reviewers are unable to see what other reviewers' comments are. Reviewers are then able to examine the findings without influence from others. Reviewers, of course, are also from a selected pool of experts who are familiar with the area of research, and can therefore properly evaluate and comment on the findings. Discussions on the internet are obviously vastly different. Readers see each other comments and there is often a lack of civility.

Anderson and coworkers have recently published a study in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1083-6101
The article, "Crude Comments and Concern: Online Incivility's Effect on Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies" examines the effects of uncivil comments on discussions of scientific issues on the internet:
Abstract
Uncivil discourse is a growing concern in American rhetoric, and this trend has expanded beyond traditional media to online sources, such as audience comments. Using an experiment given to a sample representative of the U.S. population, we examine the effects online incivility on perceptions toward a particular issue—namely, an emerging technology, nanotechnology. We found that exposure to uncivil blog comments can polarize risk perceptions of nanotechnology along the lines of religiosity and issue support.
The authors in the study describe incivility as follows:
The definition of incivility has been debated by various scholars (see, Papacharissi, 2004), but for the purposes of this study it will be defined as a manner of offensive discussion that impedes the democratic ideal of deliberation (Papacharissi, 2004; Shils, 1992). In this sense, incivility online can range from unrelated, rude critiques and name-calling (Jamieson, 1997) to outrageous claims and incensed discussion, which is also known as flaming (Papacharissi, 2004). However, concerns over incivility extend beyond online communication.
To perform a controlled study on this issue, the authors use a neutral blog post from a Canadian newspaper describing both benefits and risks of nanotechnology. The list of hypothesis examined is as follows:
  • Exposure to incivility in online comments of a newspaper blog post on the issue of nanotechnology will be positively related to risk perceptions of nanotechnology.
  • Compared to those with high levels of perceived familiarity of nanotechnology who are exposed to civil comments, those with high levels of perceived familiarity who are exposed to uncivil comments will have lower risk perceptions.
  • Compared to those who are highly supportive of nanotechnology and exposed to civil comments, those who are highly supportive of nanotechnology and exposed to uncivil comments will have lower risk perceptions.
  • Compared to highly religious people exposed to civil comments, highly religious people exposed to uncivil comments will have higher risk perceptions.
And the findings are:
  • Online incivility does indeed have a polarizing effect on attitudes when considering certain predispositions of support and religiosity.
  • The interaction between familiarity with nanotechnology and incivility was not significant.
  • When exposed to uncivil comments, those who have higher levels of support for nanotechnology were more likely to report lower levels of risk perception and those with low levels of support were more likely to report higher levels of risk perception.
  • Among those exposed to uncivil comments, those with high levels of religiosity were more likely to report higher levels of risk perception and those with low levels of religiosity were more likely to report lower levels of risk perception.
And this is only about nanotechnology. What more with issues that people find thorny in their hearts?



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