Before I head off to the office (or, more correctly, go from watching the news in the living room, to the dining room table) I thought I would briefly mention a recent paper that has analysed blog comments. It’s by Jenni Metcalfe and is about Chanting to the choir: the dialogical failure of antithetical climate change blogs.
The basic premise of the study was to assess the comments on two prominent climate blogs. The analysis suggests that
both blogsites were dominated by a small number of commenters who used contractive dialogue to promote their own views to like-minded commenters. Such blogsites are consolidating their own polarised publics rather than deliberately engaging them in climate change science.
The problem is that the two sites were Skeptical Science and JoNova. They are vastly different in terms of credibility. Skeptical Science mostly uses the peer-reviewed literature to rebut climate myths, is regularly highlighted as a reliable source by climate scientists, and has been given numerous awards for their climate communication. JoNova, on the other hand, largely promotes pseudoscience.
Of course, this is a topic that is of interest to researchers, and there is nothing wrong with asking a research question, and trying to determine the answer. I’m just not sure what this particular analysis tells us that those involved in blogging haven’t already known for some time. The views about this topic tend to be rather polarised. If you run a mainstream climate blog, and don’t want your comment threads to degenerate into a stream of abuse, you end up moderating in ways that will tend to discourage a typical JoNova commenter from commenting.
Also, if you accept that anthropogenic global warming is real and presents risks that we should be taking seriously, and you don’t enjoy being verbally abused, you’ll tend to avoid commenting on a site like JoNova’s. So, it’s not a surprise that the comment threads end up with like-minded people.
In some sense the paper has simply pointed out something that few who are familiar with climate blogging will be surprised about. On the other hand, it has implied that there is some equivalence between Skeptical Science and JoNova, which is rather sub-optimal, given that Skeptical Science focuses on debunking myths, and JoNova mainly promotes them. This will, unfortunately, promote a sense of false balance.
To be fair, the author does defend this in this Making Science Public post, and ends with
we clearly need to find ways other than blogs to engage laypeople in credible climate science which leads to political and individual action.
which I was going to say that I agree with, but I’m not sure I do. Clearly there are many different ways to engage with the public; it certainly shouldn’t just be blogs. However, that climate blog comment threads tend to become filled with like-minded people doesn’t mean that blogs can’t play a useful role.
Not only have many people put a lot of effort into providing reliable scientific information on blogs (Skeptical Science, Realclimate, Tamino, etc), the comment threads aren’t necessarily a good reflection of the readership. For example, I have many more unique visitors, than I have unique commenters. So, I do think that one has to be really careful of using the comment threads to assess the value of climate blogs. I’m pretty sure mine would be far less reliable if I hadn’t a strong moderation policy when I started (which, to be fair, was mostly Rachel and Willard, rather than me).
Conflict of interest
I should acknowledge an association with Skeptical Science, which may introduce a bias. On the other hand, one reason I have an a association with them is because I regard them as a reliable source of information about climate change.
Chanting to the choir: the dialogical failure of antithetical climate change blogs – paper by Jenni Metcalfe.
Chanting to the choir: The dialogical failure of antithetical climate change blogs – Making Science Public guest post by Jenni Metcalfe.