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Reader Comments Distort Perception of Science News: Parents? No Comment!

Posted Jan 08 2013 3:16pm

People who read news on the internet are swayed by the comments other readers post.

The comment from the parenting sphere?

Stop cackling at your smartphone.

One word: vaccines. Okay, two: autism.  In other words, we parents are well aware of the potential for aggressive/aggressively inaccurate comments to sway public opinion. 

Not breaking news here. Not to those of us at once agitated and yet still drawn to the spectacle/car accident/slaughter in the Roman Coliseum/Housewives live finale on Bravo a.k.a the on-line comment section (hand raised way high here). It's easier to see how some of the more reasonable yet wrong arguments in the comments would shade a reader's perception of the issue. Some of them sound so good, citing statistics, findings and methodologies. It's not quite as easy to see how the vitriolic remarks would alter someone's impression. 

This news does not surprise psychologists who've long toiled to name the many biases that color judgments about everything from political candidates, strangers on the subways, screams for help, the chance of getting a sexually-transmitted disease and now, nanotechnology. I cannot imagine parenting issues, especially the ones that elicit strong emotion are any less subject to subjective interpretation (i.e. comments).

People historically have not been perceived as savvy decision makers. Daniel Kahneman, Mr. Thinking, Fast and Slow  is not surprised one bit by the new study soon to be published showing comments following an article on nanotechnology distorted the perception of the risks of this new technology.

Thank goodness the authors found a relatively "neutral" topic.  Not say organic diets or ADHD meds. Can you imagine those messy results? 

The lead authors, Dominque Brossard and Dietram Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin, discuss this foreboding study, the consequences of dwindling science news in the traditional/print media, the pitfalls of reading scientific news on-line in the newest issue of Science. Catch the article if you can -  Science, New Media and The Public.

Sounds like this study spells more work for us here at Momma Data
In their newest study, they show that independent of the content of an article about a new technological development, the tone of comments posted by other readers can make a significant difference in the way new readers feel about the article's subject. The less civil the accompanying comments, the more risk readers attributed to the research described in the news story. UW-Madison News
The effect of regular reading of the comment section? Not clear according to Brossard and Dietram but they know communication between scientists, journalists and the public need to improve.  Talk away, people. Not to throw shade at your sunny day, but as Brossard and Dietram point out in the Science articles it's also quite unclear how search engines distort the quality of the "science" articles users read, how Tweeting, Liking, Emailing and Google Plussing plus all the other social media behavior of which I am ignorant impacts not only the quality of the articles you see but your perceptions of the ones you actually get around to reading.  Come on, admit it, has the number of Likes changed your opinion about any news lately?

Now we at Momma Data need not only consume ourselves with the task of picking over the context of news articles but the comments, the peanut gallery. Now in addition to less than stellar news coverage we are going to need to start fact checking the comments.  There's a good argument for meeting inaccuracies there straight on.

I know it could be a full-time job but forward me the ones in need of discussion - the most truly remarkable posted comments. The ones that make you rage at your keyboard or smartphone. The bar is high here, people. What's the most outrageous comment you've read lately?  What's the most outrageous comment section you frequent in the more mainstream or better-known media?  Maybe that's a new blog - highlighting the most egregious comments.  Anyone?

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