Trolls Dim The Allure Of Science

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online
The Internet can be a cruel place. Nowhere else can this best be seen than the comment section of any news story or blog post. Posts about current events, gadgets, or science and scientific research are sure to evoke some colorful comments from the readers.
These off-color and often rude statements may serve to upset the author or even start a “flame war” in the comments section, but new research has proved that these comments may have much deeper impact.
According to a paper written by Ashley Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, such nasty comments can even turn other readers off to the ideas presented in the original post.
This can be particularly troubling for scientists who are working on brand new, cutting-edge technology. After all, it´s difficult enough to persuade people that this brand new thing, such as nanotechnology, is worth researching. If the general public suddenly acquires a bad taste in their mouth about these new developments, it may be even more difficult for the scientists to advance their studies.
Dominique Brossard with the University of Wisconsin-Madison addressed a gathering of scientists on Thursday, presenting these findings at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
“It seems we don´t really have a clear social norm about what is expected online,” said Brossard in a press statement. “In the case of blog postings, it´s the Wild West.”
As a part of the research, Anderson enlisted the help of 2,338 Americans in an online experiment. These participants read “balanced newspaper blog posts” pertaining to the growing industry of nanotechnology. These blogs were tacked with comments, which were manipulated to either include negative or positive sentiments. According to the research, these participants had their perception of what they had just read influenced by negative and nasty blog comments.
Nanotechnology is already used in more than 1,300 consumer products. Yet, this new research has found that simply reading a blog post with a nasty comment can leave one feeling skeptical about this new development in technology.
“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,” according to Anderson.
Brossard agrees, saying this study showed that highly religious people were much more likely view nanotechnology as very risky once they read negative comments supposedly left by other readers. Those who did not describe themselves as religious were not so prone to have their attitudes adjusted by the rude comments of others.
“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,” said Brossard.
More than simply the content of these nasty replies, any argument in the comment section of a blog can cause some to change the way they originally felt about a certain issue.
“Overt disagreement adds another layer. It influences the conversation,” said Brossard. The team hopes this study will cause scientists and science bloggers to understand the way this perception can be swayed and take this into consideration when posting these stories and studies online.