I've said it before; whenever I look at a news story, especially one on a controversial topic like climate change, prayer in schools, or evolution, I always regret reading the comments section. The comments mostly seem to be written by screaming extremists. If I had a nickel for every time I saw the words "idiot," "moron," and "dumbass" in reader comments, I'd be a rich man. Instead, I always come away feeling like there's no hope for the human race.
Turns out that I'm not alone. A recent study at the University of Wisconsin (described here, in an outstanding article written by Chris Mooney; but if you want to read the original paper, the link has been taken down, for some reason) looked at how people react to reading comments from other readers. Each of the 1,183 volunteers read a blog post on the dangers of nanotechnology; the control group's version had a comments section that was neutral/civil, but the other half read one where the comments were steeped in fire and vitriol.
The results, if unsurprising, should be worrying to anyone who has an interest in seeing the public respond rationally to media. The researchers found that across the board, the people who read the nasty comments responded by becoming more extreme in their own viewpoints. If you already (prior to reading the post) thought that the risks of nanotechnology were minimal, you became even more sure of your position. If you were already worried about the risks, you became more sure of that. The audience, in other words, polarized, but not because of the facts -- the information presented was the same in both cases -- but because of watching how others responded.
This is entirely explainable based on the way our brain works. Given emotional activation, the rational centers of our brain get out-shouted. We react with a sort of mob mentality if we basically agreed with the comment; "Yeah! You tell him! Go get him! Wish I'd thought to say that first!" If we disagreed with the comment, our fear/anxiety centers are activated; we feel that our stance is besieged, and we double down on our beliefs because we feel they've been threatened.
Notice that in neither case do we respond logically.
This is a troubling result. For one thing, in issues of public policy that involve science -- such as what to do about climate change, and whether intelligent design deserves equal time in public schools -- we should be striving to discuss things more rationally, not less. The tendency of the human brain's logic centers to shut down when presented with emotionally-charged responses to media makes it even harder to keep these discussions in the realm of fact.
It's one of the inevitable downsides of the internet. Back when I was a kid, if you didn't like a news story, you had the option to write a letter to the editor, which was tedious and time-consuming, and there was no guarantee your letter would be printed even if you sent it. Now, anyone can respond to a news story... and does. Regardless of whether they know anything factual about it. They have the right to free speech, dammit, and they're gonna exercise it. And the University of Wisconsin study shows that this is, on the whole, not a good thing for anyone. As study co-author Dietram Scheufele said, reading the comments section of an article is like "reading the news article in the middle of the town square, with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it."
The whole thing reminds me of a quote from the late great writer and thinker Isaac Asimov: "Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through
our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that
democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge'."