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Study Finds Online Comments Hurt Science Understanding

By Amy Cavanaugh in News on Jan 5, 2013 9:00PM

A study published in the journal Science by two University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers found that only 12 percent of Americans are using newspaper and magazine websites for science news, and when they do, they're just as influenced by the comments at the end of the story as the report itself, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports.

In the study, about 2,000 people read "a balanced news report about nanotechnology followed by a group of invented comments."

All saw the same report but some read a group of comments that were uncivil, including name-calling. Others saw more civil comments.

"Disturbingly, readers' interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story," wrote authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele.

"In other words, just the tone of the comments . . . can significantly alter how audiences think about the technology itself."

Even worse, knowledge of science did not change how people reacted to reading the comments.

Brossard said that realizing how potent online comments can be in undermining a factual report may help publications to better manage comments on their websites.

"I hope you're not going to ask me, 'What should we do?' " she said, laughing. "Because I don't know."

We're all doomed.