Science, Public Knowledge, and Public Controversy: The Case of Popsci.com
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At the end of September, Popular Science Magazine made a bold move on their website. They disabled reader comments.
But what intrigues me most about Popular Science’s decision isn’t just that they did it, it’s that they based their decision on scientific research into the effect reader comments have on public knowledge of science. I’m tickled that an online science magazine is changing gears based on science.
Popular Science based their decision on research that suggests “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story.” In one study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard, researchers investigated the effect rude comments had on the perceptions of controversial science topics, in this case a product called nanosilver. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/opinion/sunday/this-story-stinks.html?_r=1&) If study participants read rude comments, especially ones that included an ad hominem attack, participants reported more downsides to the reported technology. However, if participants read civil comments, they experienced no polarizing effect.
Another study by Brossard looked at how rude comments affected participants with different levels of internet savvy. Brossard found that infrequent blog readers are more likely to be influenced by the disagreement they encounter in comments; while people who regularly read comments and blogs are less likely to sway from their beliefs when confronted with disagreements.
Now, I’m firmly of the belief that many user comments on news sites can often best be summed up by the October 4, 2013 tweet from@avoidComments:
Science needs public engagement that values debate and disagreement. And while I agree with Popular Science’s removal of comments as a way to ward off polarizing attacks that discourage engagement, I wonder if there’s a better way. Some sites use moderators who patrol commenting, but that adds another level of “big brother” –esque difficulty to the equation. Popular Scienceadvocates using social media to engage in “vigorous and intelligent discussion” but I wonder how many of us would then struggle with trying to contain that discussion when a rogue uncle or trolling friend takes the conversation down a dangerous path fraught with vaguely disguised ad hominem attacks? Plus, how much deep engagement can we really get when we have limited ourselves only to our closest circle of internet friends (or those who already agree with us)?
Research into public engagement with science is one of my biggest interests professionally. As a PhD student in history, I confront this issue in the period between the two World Wars. I am particularly interested in how different mediums interact with scientific knowledge about “modern” technology. My research looks into the interactions of representations of science and actual science during the 1920s and 1930s in Great Britain and Germany. This period saw an explosion of science and technology that engaged people not just on a national security level of guns, tanks, and aeroplanes, but on a more personal level as new technological innovations entered their work environments, homes, and sometimes their very own bodies. My work seeks to examine how people imagined science in their daily lives and how these imaginations in turn affected public discourse and policy.
Popular Science’s decision to shutdown comments aims to educate, rather than polarize, readers about scientific knowledge. I find their decision very similar to H. G. Wells's famous critique of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis in 1927, which railed against the film for its inaccurate depiction of mechanical progress. Both Popular Science and Wells acted from the belief that the public needs as accurate information as possible when it comes to the benefits and risks of science, and polarizing information, whether from comments or inaccurate depictions, only serve to invite fear of science.
So I wanted to pose a few questions to my fellow HASTACers in an effort to engage in “vigorous and intelligent discussion” (again, quote Popular Science). When you think about science and the technology through which you come to learn about it, how does the medium affect the message for you? Where and with whom do you engage in conversations about technology and science? Does HASTAC provide you with the forum you need, or can you imagine a medium that would push the envelope further?
And probably most critically if you’re an avid Facebooker, how do you reign in that rogue uncle whose comments put you in a social bind or that well-intentioned best friend who accidentally insulted your aunt?
(By the way, if you’re interested in the type of current research that this blog cites, see Dr. Brossard’s work at http://lsc.wisc.edu/people/faculty/dominique-brossard/dominique-brossard-2/. If you’re interested in historical science and science fiction robots, you can find me on Twitter www.twitter.com/DRPicardHIS or shoot me an email.)