Climate change blog comment sections: Classroom or cesspool?

  • Published on May 3rd, 2020

Yesterday, we came across a long, ranty blog post at CliScep that took great offense to recent blog post and study by Jennifer Metcalfe that examined comments at SkepticalScience and JoNova to see how commenters behaved, and if they were living up to the ideals of the sort of interactive learning experience that brings the public into science communications.

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By Climate Denier Roundup

Steeped in the academic language of the “dialogic tools of social media,” and asking whether discussion is “expansive” or “contractive,” we’re not quite sure why either the tweeters that Metcalfe’s blog post responds to or the denial bloggers at CliScep are so upset about the paper.

What Metcalfe’s case study on three extreme weather events covered by the two blogs shows is basically what anyone who frequents climate blogs, or really any sort of online community, rather quickly comes to realize: a few users are doing most of the talking and moderation matters. Both sites’ comment sections are dominated by a small handful of users. According to Metcalfe’s analysis of the two blogs’ commenters, about 60% of the comments on both blogs came from about a quarter of the total commenters.

And of course, moderation matters. Skeptical Science doesn’t allow for political rhetoric, and requires comments remain focused on the topic at hand. JoNova’s rules, on the other hand, explicitly make a blanket exception for anything funny enough. As a result of that, at JoNova, “commenters often deviated to topics that reflected their political leanings or sparked people’s interest or sense of humour. For example, in response to the JoNova blog post about U.K. floods, commenters deviated at length to discuss the names of rivers and which river in the world had the longest name.”

Meanwhile, at SkepticalScience, “a significant proportion” of comments “were so technical that even a reasonably well-educated person working in the climate change arena might have difficulty understanding the content.”

That gets to the core of the study, which sought to determine if these commenters’ motivations for posting, how they’re engaging with others, and if blogs are fostering a constructive place for people to learn new things and challenge their assumptions and grow as mature intelligent individuals.

Not surprisingly, the study did not find an online utopia in either blog’s comment section.

As most people could tell you, “commenters did not demonstrate that they were listening to each other and then responding, so no true dialogue was taking place.” Instead, “a core group of commenters” have a tendency “to dominate the dialogue,” thus inhibiting “significant deliberation amongst commenters,” as “commenters for both blogs did not engage deliberatively with those of opposing views.”

It might be easy to write off this study as naive, because of course people aren’t going to blogs’ comments sections to “engag[e] dialogically with each other in blogs about climate change” — but that doesn’t make this study any less important. The rigor of the scientific method is valuable because it is what ensures the credibility of the conclusions. It’s why we can state so confidently that the science of climate change is settled.

Plus, now we have research that confirms what we’ve known in our hearts all along.

(Crossposted with DailyKos.)

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