Monday, 14 January 2013

The Commenting Conundrum

My commuting-podcast of choice this morning was The Pod Delusion. I was really interested to hear their piece on the effects comments have on someone's opinion of science information.

You can listen to the piece here:

It featured an interview with Dominique Broussard, who had been involved in some research which ultimately showed that people's opinions of a science article (nanotechnology was the basis for the research) could be swayed by the comments left on the page. Essentially, the research found that abusive comments could actually lead to more polarised opinions in the reader, so if someone had vaguely held views against nanotechnology, and the comments on the piece were derogatory to the science in the paper, they would end up with more strongly held views against nanotechnology.

This got me thinking about a bit of research that me and my colleague Nancy (of Evidence Based Skepticism fame) did a while ago. We looked at information available if you searched for antineoplastons on google, and whether the quality and types of concepts used on websites differed depending on the motivations of the writer. I'm not going to cover the whole Burzynski saga here, because its been done much better elsewhere, but I just wanted to focus on one really interesting finding.

We split the concepts found in original articles from those found in comments left on each article, and one thing became very glaringly obvious: Hardly any sites that had "pro-Burzynski" sentiments had the facility for commenting, whereas those that were questioning the value of his treatments tended to have comments available, in which rather heated debates would strike up (in some cases, becoming rather abusive at times, mainly on the part of the pro-Burzynski supporters).

When I set up this blog, I decided to have open comments. I'm happy to invite debate and feel confident enough in my arguments because they are backed up in evidence as much as possible, and if they're not, I will have said so in the post. I don't want to be accused of not publishing comments from people who disagree with my views. But it strikes me that, based on this new evidence, this may not be the best tactic. Should we, as skeptics, rethink how we invite commenting on our blogs and websites, and take on the tactics of, for example, Burzynski supporter websites and just close down commenting? To me, this feels like the wrong thing to do, and it seems to counteract a lot of principles that i think we as skeptics share. But we also need to reassess our stance given evidence to the contrary.

Do we need to consider the risk that someone who may have vaguely held views reads something we write, then sees the sort of comments we are becoming used to from anonymous shills or those who disagree with the evidence, which makes them disagree with us more?

I guess it's ironic to now invite comment, but I would love to know what other people think on this subject.

H xxx