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C5: Science and Public online (DFG SPP1409)
Both Sides of the Story? – How Information Complexity Influences the Selection of Online Science Articles
University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany
(a) Relevance & Research Question:
Easy access to information in the Internet certainly offers new chances for citizens to inform themselves, but this may involve more effort of information processing as well as a high level of media literacy. According to the knowledge-gap hypothesis, it can be assumed that complex or two-sided messages are avoided by users who have limited ability of (or low interest in) processing information. This would be particularly relevant for scientific information, which is typically complex and fragile. Therefore, the present study investigated the influence of information complexity on selective exposure to online science articles.
(b) Methods & Data:
In our experiment, information-seeking behavior of 60 participants on a science weblog was analyzed. As exemplary scenario, the discussion on the effects of violent media contents was chosen. On the overview page of the blog, summaries of articles were shown. The complexity of the given information and the direction of arguments were systematically varied. Information selection and reading time were coded as dependent measures. As personality characteristics, we assessed the users’ need for cognition, reading skills and their attitude towards the topic.
The results showed that complex, two-sided texts were generally chosen more frequently than one-sided texts. With regard to ability of information processing, users with lower reading skills also preferred complex information, whereas users with higher reading skills generally selected more texts of both kinds. An interaction between complexity and need for cognition demonstrates that users with a high NFC (people who enjoy effortful thinking) showed a stronger preference for complex articles.
(d) Added value:
These findings suggest a general tendency to choose complex messages when searching for information on a scientific topic, not only in the group of users with a high capacity of information processing. This is in contrast to concerns that are connected to the knowledge-gap hypothesis and may underline the potentials of the Web as a source of information for laypersons. Unlike objective reading skills, need for cognition increases the preference for complex over simple information.
The role of plausibility and coherence in evaluating competing explanations on the internet
University of Goettingen, Germany
Relevance & Research Question:
In daily life, laypersons often encounter information about controversial scientific issues on the internet. An important characteristic of such controversial scientific issues is that there are competing explanations for a scientific phenomenon. Thus, laypersons need to evaluate the quality of the explanations to understand which explanation best explains the scientific phenomenon. Although theories in the philosophy of science postulate criteria for evaluating the quality of explanations, empirical investigations of the psychology reality of these criteria in a layperson’s evaluation are rare. Similarly, is not clear how characteristics of the internet come into play when evaluating explanations. For example, explanations on the internet are often not presented in a coherent fashion. Against this background, we examined the role of plausibility and coherence in explanation evaluation. We made the following predictions: (1) Laypersons assign a higher quality to plausible explanations than to implausible explanations. (2a) Laypersons assign a higher quality to plausible explanations that are coherent than to plausible explanations that are not coherent. (2b) Laypersons assign a higher quality to implausible explanations that are not coherent than to implausible explanations that are coherent.
Methods & Data:
We conducted a study in which we manipulated the plausibility and the coherence of competing explanations for scientific phenomena. A total of N = 240 university students were asked to critically read the explanations and to evaluate their quality. Their mean age was M = 21.90 years (SD = 3.30). Of all university students, 71% were female and 29% were male.
The plausibility significantly affected the evaluation of explanations in that plausible explanations were preferred over implausible explanations. The coherence affected only the evaluation of implausible explanations in that implausible explanations that were coherent were preferred over implausible explanations that were not coherent.
The experiment demonstrated the psychological reality of a preference for plausibility in processing competing explanations. Thus, laypersons tend to routinely check explanations for implausible information. However, when evaluating implausible explanations, their evaluation seems to be contaminated by factors that are not related to the content.
Making Sense out of Scientific Information: How Laypersons Develop Conceptual Understanding in Online Forums
University of Muenster, Germany
A growing number of people visit forums or chat rooms to get informed about a specific topic like, for instance, the efficiency of a new treatment for depression (Baker et al., 2003; Berger, Wagner, & Baker, 2005). Here, they typically encounter information that are related to current research findings and journalistically prepared to be accessible for laypersons. In order to process this type of information appropriately, laypersons must be able to distinguish between the surface meaning and the semantic content of technical terms. This study seeks to examine the extent to which laypersons gain a sophisticated understanding of scientific concepts communicated through technical terms in online discussions on depressive disorders. Based on the phenomenon of lexical alignment, we expect the usage of identical technical terms by interlocutors to hamper the development of a sophisticated understanding of scientific concepts.
Participants were 114 students (38 male) with a mean age of 23.37 years (SD = 4.67) who were randomly assigned to 57 dyads in a 1x2 experimental design. At the beginning, participants individually read one of two text versions in that either the same or different technical terms were used to refer to the same underlying concept. Then, each dyad had to mutually discuss a case study via chat in order to make a decision for an appropriate treatment of depression. Afterwards, individual measures on the understanding of relevant scientific concepts were administered.
Detailed analysis of discussions showed an effect of available terminology on participants’ term usage: Dyads who worked with different terminology engaged more in clarifying the terms’ underlying conceptual meaning, whereas dyads that had the same terms available merely used the terms further on without explicit clarification. The differences in discourse behaviour influenced participants understanding of the topic discussed. As expected, participants in the different terminology condition performed better in post knowledge test and produced more differentiated answers to the case study.
The findings of this study provide insight in laypersons’ processing of scientific-related information in online discourse. Implications for the design of journalistic texts as well as supporting tools in forums and chat rooms are discussed.