Science. Communication. Community.
Social media and comments sections on blogs are increasingly part of the science news diet, and they may even change they way we interpret the facts. Is this a problem?
The New Year always encourages self-reflection, so while Figure One is just getting its start, I thought I’d begin by blogging about blogging.
A recent perspective in Science discusses the unique challenges facing science journalism in the interactive world of web 2.0. The authors, Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, are both professors of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They raise several concerns, but the one that caught my particular attention was the finding that negatively toned, or uncivil, comments can change how people interpret an otherwise balanced news story about nanotechnology.
Brossard and Scheufele conclude, “We risk creating a future where the dynamics of online communication systems have a stronger impact on public views about science than the specific research that we as scientists are trying to communicate.”
Yikes for science journalists, too. If one were to take this evidence at face value, it would seem that a fledgling blog like our own should pause and reconsider its own existence—or at least consider removing the comments section. But one reason this blog is hosted by WordPress is because we all thought having a comments section was important.
Free discourse and exchange of ideas and opinions has always been a boon to both science and journalism, and it seems antithetical to our purpose to eliminate this mode of communication. For every silly or negative comment on a news site or blog, there are usually several that are thought provoking or provide a different perspective that can be quite valuable.
One way of mitigating the problem is to moderate comments, and cull the offending ones from the web. (Scheufele seems to favor this approach, as his own blog allows comments to post only after approval.) But policing all comments in many outlets is simply not feasible.
Tackling the problem from the other end—i.e., teaching readers to know when to read comments or not, and to always approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism —is perhaps even more difficult, but worth the effort. In an era where even basic knowledge is becoming less of a necessity because it’s always a mouse click or finger swipe away, knowing how to evaluate the quality of online information is arguably the most important skill a person can acquire. This type of thinking applies to any online reading, not just to science stories, and therefore can and should be practiced in every classroom, regardless of the subject.
I’m not so naïve as to think a revised curriculum will solve all of these problems, but I suspect that as society adapts to the social web, uncivil comments will lose some of their potency. A more savvy readership will be more immune to these effects, and just like a real vaccine, that will lead to fewer ridiculous comments to influence those who may have less well-developed skills of discrimination.
Until then, why not kick 2013 off yourself, and add one more meta layer to this post. I’d love to see some comments.