Why the Internet is killing rational discourse

Keyboard and glassesIt’s on the Internet, so it has to be true. Right?

I’m convinced that the World Wide Web is both the greatest technological development of my lifetime, and simultaneously the invention that is likely to tank our entire society as we know it. Ever-present in our lives, our culture is the most “wired” on the planet and the most connected in the history of man, and yet in many ways it is eroding the basic ability – for many folks, it seems – to research, analyze, process and argue important ideas in a rational fashion.

My Feedstuffs colleague Tim Lundeen first got me thinking about this way back in February, when he penned an excellent article about some of the big barriers to science communication. A presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston, Mass., pointed out several such barriers, including a lack of reward for engaging the public and decision-makers on science, limited communications training and the time pressure faculty members face while trying to obtain tenure.

Arizona State University professor Leah Gerber said other barriers for researchers include prioritizing their commitments, understanding the value of communicating their work to the public and needing to push their comfort zone, such as standing in front of a camera.

While the culture is slowly changing within academic institutions, success in higher education still is largely measured by publications and grants, which demand large amounts of time, Gerber said.

Gone are the days when the average consumer was not afraid to read scholarly writing and form and opinion about its merits – academics and technical folks are increasingly being called upon to become great communicators themselves, in hopes of spreading their ideas in layman’s terms.

Me troll, you stupid!

Image courtesy of Comicvine.com

But there is a bigger problem, it seems. The trolls are winning:

Pick a story about some aspect of science, any story, scroll down to the blog comments and let the bashing begin: 

  • “Wonder how much taxpayer cash went into this ‘deep’ study?” 
  • “I think you can take all these studies by pointy headed scientists, 99 percent of whom are socialists and communists, and stick them where the sun don’t shine.” 
  • “Yawn. Climate change myth wackos at it again.” 
  • “This article is 100 percent propaganda crapola.” 
  • “Speaking of dolts, if you were around in the 70s, when they also had scientists, the big talk then was about the coming ice age. And don’t give me any of that carbon emission bull@!$%#.” 

Such nasty back-and-forth, like it or not, is now a staple of our news diet, and in the realm of online science news, the diatribes, screeds and rants are taking a toll on the public perception of science and technology, according to a study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

UW-Madison science communication researcher Dominique Brossard, speaking at the AAAS meeting, reported the results of a study showing the tone of blog comments alone can influence the perception of risk posed by nanotechnology, the science of manipulating materials at the smallest scales. For example, introducing name calling into commentary tacked onto an otherwise balanced newspaper blog post, the study showed, could elicit either lower or higher perceptions of risk, depending on one’s predisposition to the science of nanotechnology.

Now, consider the same concept in the context of stories about agricultural technology and food production, and ponder the types of comments likely to appear – perhaps you’ve read some of them yourself.

“It seems we don’t really have a clear social norm about what is expected online,” said Brossard, a professor of Life Science Communication, contrasting online forums with public meetings where prescribed decorum helps keep discussion civil. “In the case of blog postings, it’s the Wild West.”

I’ve often said that if you want to see the dregs of society in living color, just go to the comments section of any major newspaper’s website – bonus points if you read the comments on political- or sports-oriented stories. The sorts of things that often appear in these forums make my blood boil, and quite frankly give me pause to ponder the survival of the species.

Another article from the pages of Feedstuffsthis time one under my own byline – presents another major challenge with communicating about such heady issues in the online space: despite growing up in the Internet era, young people have a helluva time determining the credibility of information read online.

According to an October 2012 “Project Information Literacy” (PIL) report published by Allison Head, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, the basic online search skills of new college graduates are only attractive enough to help them get hired.

“Yet, employers found that once on the job, these educated young workers seemed tethered to their computers,” the study found. “They failed to incorporate more fundamental, low-tech research methods that are as essential as ever in the contemporary workplace.”

The findings of the PIL study are supported by the results of a separate study of more than 2,000 high school Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers. Conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the study found that 87% of teachers think that the internet and its digital search tools are creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans,” with 64% saying today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”

According to the teachers surveyed, students rely mainly on search engines to conduct research in lieu of other resources, including online databases, the news sites of respected news organizations, printed books or reference librarians (Figure). In fact, the vast majority of these teachers said a top classroom priority should be teaching students how to “judge the quality of online information.”

Internet tough guyTake these stories together, and you have a society that is unable to competently judge the quality of information found online, but is more than content to hurl insults in Internet forums under the cloak of anonymity the medium provides. It’s not a recipe for constructive dialogue, I fear.

What are the solutions? Unfortunately they appear to be few and far between. Some of it starts at home, with parents modeling good examples for their kids, and imparting the wisdom that the cloak of online anonymity is not an excuse to abandon civility. Teachers, likewise, must take steps to help students learn how to evaluate the reliability of sources and resources, and as importantly to sharpen their own critical thinking skills.

For administrators of online forums, particularly those where potentially controversial topics are likely to be discussed, laying out a clear set of ground rules, expectations and consequences might be a good place to start. I’ve seen a pretty good example of this in practice at my favorite non-work-related website.

And then for the rest of us, common “netizens,” as it were, I’ll quote Ron Burgundy: Stay classy.

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About Andy Vance

Grains and Biofuels Editor at Feedstuffs, the weekly newspaper for agribusiness, and resident blogger at BeefProducer.com. If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, I may be the most dangerous man I know...

8 Responses to “Why the Internet is killing rational discourse”

  1. The trolls are winning. You’re correct, although your definition of a troll and mine and other peoples’ versions create problems. A la Einstein’s Theory of Trollitivity.

    Overall, your post makes excellent points about academia and the Internet.


    Questions for you, Andy.

    Which competition are the trolls winning? Just one competition or multiple? And against whom are the trolls playing?


    • Are you trolling me right now? Just kidding.

      The trolls are winning in a lot of places: it’s just my observation in this instance, but I see them especially heavy in stories involving (in no particular order) politics, sports, biotechnology, animal rights/welfare… and these are just areas of my own personal interest. Much of the two stories I sourced from Feedstuffs, of course, focused on the broader topic of trolling in science communication, and much of the agricultural trolling I see probably falls under the broader category of science.

  2. Those of us who write for a living are regularly “trolled.” Some of it is innocuous name-calling, a frightening number of comments, though, threaten great violence to the writer and his or her family. My son and daughter had to try their best to remove any information about themselves from the internet when a particularly unhinged person took offense to something I wrote and responded with a direct threat to me and mentioning both my children by name and location. Those psychos have always been out there, of course, but they now have a new tool to spread their venom on a much wider scale.

    • I’ve always been somewhat amazed that I haven’t (thank goodness) gotten much of that level of vitriol. I’ve had people complain they were going to threaten advertisers, they were going to write nasty letters to my boss, etc. etc. etc., but I’ve apparently avoided the real crazies. But you’re right, of course – hiding behind that cloak of anonymity (or just plain craziness), people lose a lot of their inhibitions… and common sense and decency.

  3. HA! Andy, good one. Thanks for your reply. Asking questions and posting comments, I’m a friendly troll seeking information to eat because I don’t like eating rotten fish. One of my good friends is the Tooth Fairy.

    My opinion: People who don’t understand and therefore fear the unknown. The unknown is scary because it is out of our control. The Internet, as you said, has become an outlet for irrational discourse caused by a realization that life is not as imagined.

    FYI: Your story was passed along by my adviser, Dr. Tracy Rutherford, associate professor of ag leadership, education, and communications at Texas A&M University.

    BTW: I enjoy the images included in your post.

    • You couldn’t be more right about the fear of the unknown. It’s a natural response, of course, but for most of us we learn to deal with that fear through learning and accumulating knowledge.

      Well, at least we used to…

      Give my regards to Dr. Rutherford! If I was a younger man without the responsibility of a new baby at home, I’d definitely be thinking about graduate studies with her in College Station.

  4. Good article. What I’ve noticed is that there seems to be a theme among some topic trolls. If it’s possible to follow their comments back to their source, all too often they merely repeat stuff they hear on fake as well as real news shows. Esp. the ones who think global warming is bunk, and scientists are commies. The lesson is to follow the money: http://www.democracynow.org/2012/12/5/from_fossil_fuels_to_global_warming

    That comment in your article was funny where the employers want tech savvy employees and then complain that they can’t use 45 yr old technology. My viewpoint is that the baby boomers in management are stuck in the past, and tend to blame the younger generations for everything, sort of like your ‘troll.’

    • Your observation about trolls is pretty well spot on – I see unsubstantiated comments all the time, but often times you can follow a train of thought back to its origin and pretty easily debunk it. (On the global warming thing, I’ve been telling folks in agriculture that it doesn’t matter if they believe in it or not, they need to start treating it as reality in their risk management plans.)

      While you’re right to a point about Baby Boomers, the bigger picture about determining online credibility is that we have a real potential problem. It’s fine to get surface level information from Wikipedia, for example, but can you actually suss out the source material behind the entry to determine if the information is rooted in solid facts, or do you take it as face value. Your link to an FDN article is another example – lots of good, thought-provoking commentary there, but there is a tribe of folks online content to take anything printed on FDN as the gospel without bothering to verify the veracity of the claims made.