January 5th, 2013
Similar to Dominique Brossard (quoted in this article on the anti-science literacy side of science blog comments) I am not the least bit surprised by the finding that the comments sections in blogs damages science literacy. What do you expect from so much negativity? It’s why I created The Benshi as an “on-line journal” 3 years ago with no comments.
HEAVEN AND HELL IN THE SCIENCE WORLD. What do you expect when you create these on-line venues for unlimited negativity?
HEAVEN: MY ORIGINAL SCIENCE EXPERIENCES
In my life I have know two science worlds.
The first I knew for 32 years: 1974 to 2006. It was made up of the incredibly fascinating, fun, intriguing and adventurous science people who drew me into their profession at age 19, then caused me to head to Hollywood at age 38, inspired to tell the stories of their lives. Yes, I used to bitch about the headaches of science funding, but I met so many wonderful people and I’ve tried to pay my respects to some of the best through my media work, like Stephen Jay Gould (I honored him in “Flock of Dodos“), Bob Paine (I dedicated my book to him), Ruth Turner/Colleen Cavanaugh/Cindy Van Dover (I made a video about these three women who worked in the deep sea submersible R.V. Alvin), and Jeremy Jackson (I made videos about him for Shifting Baselines). I left the science world with this warm, glowing reverence and fondness for the people I met.
And then in 2006 that all changed.
HELL: THE BLOGOSPHERE
Suddenly this thing called blogging came along, suddenly all these “science blogs” appeared, and suddenly there were all these writhing, thrashing, moaning, miserable voices emerging from the world of science that I had never, ever heard during my career as a scientist. The voices arose somewhat from bloggers, but much, much worse from the people posting anonymous comments on the blog posts of the bloggers.
Bloggers were eventually stunned by the hatefulness and by 2007 there were discussions about whether to do anything (to his credit my favorite blogger Andy Revkin spent a lot of time wrestling with this dilemma and does at least limit foul language). But some supposedly brave souls felt it their duty to the first amendment to not “censor” the comments on the blogs and just let the animals run wild.
Now Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele have published a study showing what everyone could have guessed — that if you give people a factual article accompanied by a bunch of horrible comments they walk away with a different experience than just reading the article by itself. And that overall experience is not a good thing for science. Nice work, dummies. Way to lower science literacy.
In 2007 I really couldn’t believe the sheer tone of negativity in the science blogs. And I wondered, “Don’t the leaders of the science world realize what this does to your profession?”
The answer to that question, as I’ve learned, isn’t really yes or no, it’s more like “Question Not Relevant.” Meaning that there is no real leadership to the science world, so there is no one to take much interest or concern. I’ve learned, particularly through my involvement in recent years in some committees from major science organizations, that the whole profession is run by committees with very limited leadership. Basically no one is guiding the ship, it’s all set up with assumption the ship will guide itself.
WHY SHOULD SCIENCE BE ANY DIFFERENT?
This is the obvious first reply — “Well, every other field has its blogs and they don’t censor anything so why should science?” Because the profession values honesty and accuracy more than any other profession. With honesty and accuracy goes a certain sort of dignity. If the profession loses it’s dignity then a basic message is sent out that honesty and accuracy no longer really matter. And guess what — there’s an awful lot of science scandals these days. Yet another big surprise?
Anyhow, I just want to say thank you to Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele for publishing this study. It is important. Communication is important. The TONE of communication is important. It takes leadership to maintain dignity. Running blogs with comments sections filled with the wailing of hyenas shows no leadership whatsoever.