Here’s a post I did for Science on Google+ on why it’s worth engaging in public science debate on social media, despite the negative comments. Without our contribution as scientists, the public only gets “surface level” science that panders to superficial interests. Supporting a culture of critical thinking and informed debate requires “deeper level” communication, which should be led by scientists.
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Originally shared by Zuleyka Zevallos
How Informed Science Can Counter the “Nasty Effect”
Popular Science recently announced they were closing down their comments section. This has lead to many debates, including discussions on our community. I will discuss the role of public science moderation in context of one scientific study that Popular Science used to support its decision to close their comments section. The research shows that people who think they know about science are easily swayed by negative internet discussions, but these people more likely to be poorly informed about science in the first place. For this reason, popular science publications and scientists need to step up their public engagement, not shy away from it due to the so-called “nasty effect” of negative comments made through social media.
Problems with Measuring the “Nasty Effect”
In support of their decision to close down comments on its blog, Popular Science cited a study published in July by the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. The study set out to measure online incivility, or as the researchers call it, the “nasty effect” that online comments can have on people’s understanding of emerging technologies.
The researchers surveyed around 2,300 people measuring their “familiarity” with science (in their study, nanotechnology). The researchers did not measure levels of general education nor scientific knowledge specifically. They measured socioeconomic status by aggregating education and income. This variable was not tested against knowledge. This matters because education shapes not simply our ability to think critically. It also gives us the mental tools to process new information, as well as giving us the research skills to seek out alternative and reputable sources of information. Scientific training teaches us how to read articles and data from an objective perspective, using objective theories, concepts and methods. More importantly, it teaches us to argue from a place of knowledge, not from emotion or personal opinion.
The researchers did not measure where people got their information, lumping different newspapers into one category, TV in another, and then the internet. The problem here is that if people are generally getting most of their information from poor sources, their thinking is already coloured by misinformation.
The researchers find that irrespective of their subjective ideas about how much they think they know about science, negative comments influenced people’s opinion. Religious people and those who already held low levels of support for nanotechnology were more likely to perceive a risk of this technology after reading negative discussion. The researchers do not engage with these findings.
Understanding, support and risks associated with science might be understood as the socialisation of science. These biases don’t just exist in individual minds; they are shaped by prior education and exposure to poor scientific debate either through their family culture, religious schooling, or media use.
What this tells us is that people who think they know about science are swayed by others’ negativity. The distinction between “surface” science and “deeper” science might help put this into perspective.
Surface versus Deep Science Communication
Many people think they know science because they find science news and certain factoids and images interesting. This might be seen as “surface level” science. Pop science is lots of fun, but there is wide scope for science to be misleading when it is reported incorrectly. This is the tip of the ice berg as far as science communication is concerned.
Nurturing deeper level scientific engagement is achieved by reading the science directly. This is difficult if you don’t have a science degree because science is written in technical language. Plus articles are hidden behind paywalls that require institutional access. Unless you have a personal fortune to invest in these collections, it’s hard to get access.
The other way to achieve deeper scientific knowledge is by engaging with scientists directly. This is where blogs and social media can help make science debates more accessible. In a community setting, the conversation is shaped through moderation. This was not measured in the study, and this is something that Pop Science has essentially given up on.
How might opinions be swayed when real scientists jump in to lead, moderate and comment on popular science discussions?
Science is about informed debate, not personal opinions. There’s no point putting out science into the public if we give up on informed discussion.
A Call for Scientists to Support Public Debate
It’s interesting that Popular Science is keeping their other social media channels open for discussion, suggesting perhaps that they are happy to support debate so long as it’s not in their direct domain (their website). This suggests, perhaps, that they are washing their hands of moderation, and letting people comment on Facebook, Twitter and so on, without feeling the same pressure to respond to comments. This will only feed the same “familiarity” with science, without the informed discussion. In this way, it only contributes to poor public engagement with science, rather than supporting spaces where the public might learn to think more critically about science.
I sympathise with the difficult task of moderation from personal experience here and in the other communities that I help moderate. It is much easier to publish in journals read by our peers and to present at conferences where everyone already has the same training. But if scientists and popular science news publications give up on public debate, what’s the point of putting out science into the world? The public will continue to write and debate science, picking up little snippets – which are often incorrect. The only outcome is that science continues without informed discussion.
If you’re a qualified scientist and you’re a part of our community, consider contributing to the discussion. We’d like to see more posts written by experts who can make science more accessible. Even if you tell us about your latest research project, or if you do a critical summary of your latest publication, this would improve science outreach. Don’t just throw out a link to your blog post or copy and paste your abstract, tell us about the science!
I was intrigued that so many scientists wrote about their research on this thread about our future community hangouts (http://goo.gl/iLzZCI). I wonder why more of these people are not writing to the rest of the community about their work. Could there be a fear of the “nasty effect”? Is it simply too daunting to write for a larger audience, or is there a fear that it might be too time consuming? Write about what you know. Write about the science you’re currently reading. Write about your lab work. Remember that basic concepts, theories and methods that seem old hat to you would be interesting to others. Link to original sources to give people an opportunity to read the science directly if they have access.
It’d be great to see more of you sharing your research with our community.
Read the study here: http://goo.gl/ObtfNH
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