The George Mason University Center for Climate Chance Communication recently released a study on the impact of abusive online comments on public understanding of science. The study didn’t look at the public debate on climate change. Instead, it focussed on the issue of nanotechnology and the potential risks to health and the environment associated with the use of engineered materials.
All of the participants read the same article about that issue, but different comments were used. Some were given “civil” comments that avoided name-calling. Others were given the article along with negative comments in which readers called each other idiots, etc.
An article by Mother Jones on the study reports:
The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.
The article goes on to talk about this finding in the context of the psychological theory of motivated reasoning. In other words, emotional reactions are faster than intellectual ones. Although both reactions may be present, the emotional reaction to what someone reads may influence how he or she thinks about the topic. Reading insults may cause a reader to become defensive about their preexisting beliefs.
The polarizing effects of online comments on nanotechnology are likely to be far less so than those in the debate over climate change.
As our readers know, we moderate this blog to keep the comments more or less civil. We do allow criticism of an individual’s reasoning. We discourage posts that mock an individual’s intellectual capacity. We sometimes allow not-so-nice comments to get through, perhaps more so when we are trying to moderate from our smart phones at the Y or Kroger.
I’m interested in your thoughts about this topic. Do you think moderation, as imperfect as your humble moderators may be, helps the discussions on the RoundTable? If not, what would you suggest? That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop moderating, by the way, but I am interested in feedback. Thanks!