Why you shouldn't read the comments

Negative comments skew understanding of science articles.

A new study has worked out the effect online comments have on readers - and it's surprisingly large.

The study hails from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and concentrates on layman reports of science stories (appearing in regular newspapers and magazines). It found that content in the reports were very easily undermined by the comments below - even when it was a simply a matter of tone.

Authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele asked 2,000 people to read a news report about nanotechnology. Half of them saw it with balanced comments underneath, and half saw it with vitriolic, name-calling, angry comments underneath.

"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 the researchers.

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

Knowing about science didn't seem to make a difference, either - informed readers were just as easily swayed. The researchers warned of the dangers of setting science reporting in an online context, where other people's perceptions are immediately available to us.

Conclusion: don't comment, don't read the comments, don't allow comments. Save the science!

 

Comments can radically change your perception of an article. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for International Trade.

Only Nixon, it is said, could have gone to China. Only a politician with the impeccable Commie-bashing credentials of the 37th President had the political capital necessary to strike a deal with the People’s Republic of China.

Theresa May’s great hope is that only Liam Fox, the newly-installed Secretary of State for International Trade, has the Euro-bashing credentials to break the news to the Brexiteers that a deal between a post-Leave United Kingdom and China might be somewhat harder to negotiate than Vote Leave suggested.

The biggest item on the agenda: striking a deal that allows Britain to stay in the single market. Elsewhere, Fox should use his political capital with the Conservative right to wait longer to sign deals than a Remainer would have to, to avoid the United Kingdom being caught in a series of bad deals. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.