I read a lot of newspapers online and peruse the funny and the fatuous responses hiding in the readers' comments.

These often sit far below the article itself, down past other story links and promos, requiring scrolling to the mysterious depths below the line.

It is there that the keyboards of the internet age get to twinkle and rage - some more coherently than others.

My columns get their share of responses. Some are driven by outrage; others show the writer has had a satirical bypass or that they have overdosed on the irony pills. Occasionally, a commenter agrees with me.


The best comments are the witty ones. A recent favourite was the crack about crocodiles climbing trees that followed a column I wrote on Australian politics.

The highlight, in terms of feedback to my column, was two letters received a few days apart - one from a prison inmate doing a long stint, the other from an elderly lady living in a small town. Both said they liked the humour.

If these two are regarded as the outliers on a bell curve covering all points across the spectrum of my readers, then it would seem I am ringing the right bell.

A graph showing the confidence intervals, averaging the risk ratio and identifying the statistical significance of the result plotted against, say, five years of randomly selected New York Times column responses, converted into a Venn Diagram sounds impressive. You might also be very sceptical and suspect that I was using pseudo-scientific gibberish.

The international lexicon of jargon and the widely spoken language of gibberish has, in fact, been tested with somewhat alarming results.

John Bohannon, a science writer, submitted a nonsense paper to 304 Open Access publishers and half accepted the article without questioning its authenticity or doing any peer review.

The big international publishers of scientific research with their robust processes would be unlikely to fall for this type of bogus pseudo-science fakery but the sting did promote some consternation.

Research is complex and takes time. We, the general public, rely on the process of peer review to sort the strength of the evidence for and against a theory.

This brings me back to my opening remarks about online comments.

A study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communications looked at what Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele from the University of Wisconsin called "the nasty effect".

They got 1200 people to read a fictitious blog about a new technology product. The blog included a run of made-up comments.

The participants were asked to add their comments, half having civil comment lines to follow and half having rude remarks such as calling a commenter an idiot. Surveying the response showed the rude comment lines had a definite polarising effect.

Brossard and Scheufele summarised this effect saying: "By going on the attack, we may succeed in winning more support from those who are already inclined to support us (whatever our stance) but we are also undoubtedly driving away people who might otherwise be more inclined to listen to what we have to say."

It seems that extreme language brings extreme responses that can demolish and bypass the opportunity for dialogue. This is not only relevant in the online realm but also crucial to productive political and community debate.

Terry Sarten is a writer, musician and observer of life, the universe and nearly everything - feedback: tgs@inspire.net.nz or www.telsarten.com/