Communicating Science, the Uncivil Response, and the Blogger’s Prerogative

When I worked at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (EPA ORD), I was pleasantly surprised to find that the organization had invested in professionals who specialized in Science Communication.  As the Associate Center Director for Water at the National Center for Environmental Research, one of my responsibilities was oversight of grants and communication of scientific results (both internally to the organization and externally to the public).  I can say from personal experience that mastery of the art of communication and the ability to communicate effectively, to any audience, are critical and indispensable skills.  If you rely on someone else to fund your work and you are a scientist, engineer, researcher, or just someone who wants to get a point across and build a network of advocates and supporters, you need to be able to convince people that your work matters.  In many, if not most cases, the people you need to convince are not scientists.  This is especially the case if you are funded by the public (state or federal funding).  The fact of the matter is that you not only need to convince your audience that your work matters, but you also need to make them understand why it matters, why they should care, and ultimately – why it should be funded when resources are scarce and you are competing with others to keep your work alive.  There are some out there who staunchly believe that the merits of their work are self evident – the science will sell itself.  The harsh reality is that even the greatest science is relatively meaningless if no one cares about it, understands it, or wants to see it continue.  Communication can be your greatest ally and it can set you apart from those who don’t master it.  If you want to see an example of science that has been translated into language that resonates with the general public, here’s one that has benefited from deliberate and professional retooling (EPA’s Science Matters Newsletter).  It’s just one of many examples out there.  One thing you will note in these articles is the consistent use of plain (but not dumb) language, the focus on explaining the benefits (the “so what”) of the science and research to the reader, the use of visually engaging graphics, and multiple modes of engagement (blogs, podcasts, etc.).

With the advent of scientific blogging and the need to communicate more effectively comes the inevitable question, “how do we deal with immediate, negative feedback?”  In the good old days, a critic had to find your article in a journal, read it, and take the time and effort to officially respond.  In return, you could take the time and effort to also respond.  Anyone interested in the dialogue would have to put some effort into following the correspondence.  The opportunity to deliberate was fairly abundant.  Today, it may take someone all of 30 seconds or less to fire off a critical response – that everyone can potentially see.  As the author, you are left with the decision to approve or disapprove a comment.  You may even consider blocking someone from your blog.  So, what does that really mean?

A recent article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education sheds some light onto the matter.  In, “How Rude! Reader Comments May Undermine Scientists’ Authority,” the results of a new study conducted by Wisconsin and George Mason University indicate that the relative civility of comments may have an impact on how science is perceived and whether or not it is supported by the public.  They study asked 2,338 Americans to read a blog article on nanotechnology and respond based on their perception of risk associated with advances in the field of nanotechnology.  The respondents were split into two groups. One group received the article with attached comments that were polite and civil in nature. The other group received the article with attached comments that were rude and uncivil in nature. The difference in the responses from the two groups was interesting – the distinction between rude and polite comments appears to have had a polarizing effect on reader response.  “Of participants who had already expressed wariness toward the technology, those who read the sample article—with politely written comments at the bottom—came out almost evenly split. Nearly 43 percent said they saw low risks in the technology, and 46 percent said they considered the risks high. But with the same article and comments that expressed the same reactions in a rude manner, the split among readers widened, with 32 percent seeing a low risk and 52 percent a high risk.  “The results led one of the study’s co-authors to seek advice from other noted scientific bloggers.  (I personally find the ultimate recommendation from the co-author somewhat amusing and also a little unsettling.)  She advocates for wide adoption of warning rude commenters and then blocking them if the warning is not heeded.  Another researcher consulted on the topic advised that, “scientists and science writers need to realize the power they have to control their online environments.”  (There are currently over 70 comments posted on this article – many express outrage at the idea of censoring comments and discussion on scientific topics).

Herein lies the crux of the dialogue.  At what point do you, as an author, refuse to allow someone’s comment to be visible?  We don’t know how rude the comments in the study were.  They could have been laden with profanity and personal abuse directed at the researchers, or they could have been overly critical of the topic and simply impolite in expression.  We don’t know from the article.  In general, we have to trust authors not to over-exercise the blogger’s prerogative.  You’re probably always going to get good and bad comments – if you’re topic is interesting enough to get comments at all.  If every single comment is rude and offensive and you weren’t deliberately trying to bait people, you may want to put some serious thought into what you said and why you got that response.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have the ability to control the content on a blog we’ve created. I am saying that we need to think carefully before we decide to block a comment.  If I wrote a blog article on a scientific topic and someone responded by insulting my mother, I may very well decide to block that comment.  For one thing, it doesn’t contribute anything to the subject matter.  However, if someone simply refutes my research or position, and does it in a rude or impolite way, I may very well choose to allow the comment.  It may be impolite, but it may add a necessary perspective to the discussion. Science can be, and often is, controversial.  People can become impassioned.  In some cases, the most outrageous responses can also incite critical thought and rally necessary support from the opposing side.

In the end, it’s all relative, largely subjective, and up to the author to make the call on what they will and will not allow.  As for me, I tend to think it’s better to know where your opposition comes from and how strong it is – and whether or not you need to consider a dissenting voice – no matter how much you may dislike it.  I tend to be suspicious and skeptical of anything with unanimous, glowing support.  I believe that critical discourse is essential.  I guess I’d have to see just how rude those comments were before making the final decision.

The study referenced above will be published in a coming issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 

1 thought on “Communicating Science, the Uncivil Response, and the Blogger’s Prerogative

  1. Great post! Civil discourse has helped move science forward since the beginning. As such a great connecting tool, the internet has amazing potential to move science forward exponentially. However, it seems like the Web’s potentially to magnifiy society’s ugliest features can creep into any discussion. As scientists, I think we may owe it to our work (and society) to be choosy of how/where we put our results. Thanks for bringing this to our attention!

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