How Informed Science Can Counter the “Nasty Effect”

How Informed Science Can Counter the Nasty EffectIn September 2013, Popular Science announced that they were closing down their comments section. This has lead to many public debates, including discussions on Science on Google+, a large community that I help manage. I wrote the following post in response to our community discussions at the time. I 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. I also reflect on my own moderation experiences with the hopes of encouraging sociologists and other scientists to contribute to public science education and engagement.

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 Science versus Deep Science

Photo: Michael Gil via Flickr, CC 2.0
Photo: Michael Gil via Flickr, CC 2.0

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 Popular 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 little point pumping out science to the public if we give up on informed discussion, leaving the public to (often erroneously) fill in their own gaps. Here’s a Science on Google+ video that I co-hosted with biologist Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, where we chat with Jason Osborne and Dr Aaron Alford, founders of two citizen science programs. They discuss the benefits of engaging with the public through not-for-profit initiatives, especially in bringing science to marginalised and under-privileged  youth.

Supporting Public Science

How Informed Science Can Counter the “Nasty Effect”
Photo: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, CC 2.0 via Flickr

It’s interesting that Popular Science kept 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. Elsewhere, I’ve shown why this is a problem, with a popular science news website publishing a poor article that lacked science and led to sexist discussions, leaving the public’s science questions unanswered.

Abandoning moderated science discussion only contributes to poor public engagement with science, rather than supporting spaces where the public might learn to think more critically about science.

I empathise with the difficult task of moderation from personal experience on my blog and the other communities that I help moderate. In many ways, it is much easier to academic publish in journals read by our peers and to present at conferences where everyone already has the same training. Yet if scientists and popular science news sites 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 illiteracy continues without informed discussion.

Let me illustrate this with another video I co-hosted for Science on Google+. Dr Samarasinghe and I we spoke with virology expert Professor Vincent Racaniello and epidemiologist Dr Tara C. Smith who dispel myths about the Ebola virus in 2014. Our science moderation team worked tirelessly to address misinformation and conspiracy theories. On one thread, our life science moderators Dr Samarasinge and Professor Rajini Rao address our members’ questions about mutations and spread of the disease, and I address the negative stigma placed on African and Muslim societies as a result of poor reporting by news sites.

Overcoming the Fear

I was intrigued that so many scientists wrote about their research on one Science on Google+ thread about our future community events. Many of these scientists are members who read and comment on other people’s posts, but do not necessarily write their own posts. I wonder why more of these scientists 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?

I’ve spoken with other sociologists about how to use blogging and social media, and I see a mixture of these two issues: fear of public backlash and fear resource drain. In one discussion, a sociologist and editor of an academic publication candidly said:

“I’d be scared to write in my own voice and not to hide behind my academic references.”

Yes, running a blog means moving away from a purely academic style, and inevitably dealing with negative comments, but there are many different ways to blog and moderate these public discussions.

Very few Australian sociologists blog, though more of them prefer to publish on conventional media publications likes established newspapers and new media hybrids like The Coversation (though even then, few sociologists seem to engage with public comments). The Australian Sociological Association currently lists 10 sociology blogs; two have been inactive for a couple of years; one is largely used to reblog other articles from The Conversation; and three of the other blogs are mine! Sociology Professor Raewyn Connell writes about her recent academic activities and publications in plain language, but she also writes other issues-based articles without a single academic reference. Her content is an excellent example of public science: original, thought-provoking, and authoritative without the jargon. Interestingly, she does not have a comments section, nor does she use other social media. I’ve been enjoying The Australian Sociological Association’s Youth blog, where postgraduates write about their ongoing dissertation research and conference papers, such as this excellent piece on gay youth identity in urban Japan. This is a good example of a curated, multi-author blog, which provides scholars a way to publish their material for the public without the strain of managing their own website.

You get to set your own boundaries for public discussion. 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. Whatever science you share, know that it’s within your control to answer the comments that challenge your thinking and move  your argument into new areas, and alternatively it is within your control to not allow unhelpful comments.

I am clear that I do not engage with abusive comments. Informed criticism and debate are fine, but personal attacks, racism, sexism, and other forms of hate speech do not advance science in any way. The comments I get on my blog and on sometimes on social media range from passive aggressive provocations (random Wikipedia links tweeted at me about feminism and racism) to downright offensive. Towards the end of last year, a White male academic publicly tweeted racist and sexist comments at me, presumably because I had ignored his email request to work for free. (No thank you!) Of course negative comments are unpleasant to read, but the constructive comments far outweigh the bad.

I deal with the awful nonsense by having ties to other science bloggers I can privately vent with, in support of problem-solving and general good mental health checks. It also helps that for many of the other science communities that I help moderate have private communities for moderators, so we can collectively deal with problems (and with a good dose of humour!).

Regardless of what comments are sent my way, I do not have to allow these to derail my public conversations about sociology. I am influenced by The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, who only allows comments on his articles that add value to the discussion.

The only thing I ever think about is what I would like to read. I always tell people it’s like a dinner party – and I try to host it that way. I try to keep the conversation interesting. In terms of what is the bane of all comments sections, the rude commentary, people going over the line, trolling that sort of thing, I generally follow the same rules. I always tell people: if you were in my house and you insulted one of my guests, I would ask you to leave. I don’t understand why it would be any different in the comment section.

While Coates admits that moderation can limit diversity of voices, he notes that those voices already dominate in other online and public spaces.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on moderating online comments
The beauty of the web is that whatever my comment section is, it’s not the internet. So if that’s not what you want, you can go somewhere else. – Ta-Nehisi Coates

There is a very clear distinction between not allowing comments that perpetuate bigotry and exclusion, and censorship. Just as you would walk way from a person yelling obscenities face to face, blocking commenters who are deliberately disruptive is an option, especially when they derail conversations that are already pushed out of the mainstream, such as on gender equality. Clearly communicate your rules for science discussions and your policy on moderation, and remember that public science does not have to be done as a silo. Join a community, talk with other science bloggers, especially if you’re a woman or an under-represented minority (as we cop additional abuse). Stay engaged with the conversations that matter to you by staying true to your own terms of scientific engagement.

Feel empowered to join us at Science on Google+. We’re the biggest science community on Google+, with an ever growing membership, currently over 510,000 people, many of them members of the lay public. (We also have a Google+ page with an additional 537,000 members, many of whom work in science and technology). Tell us about your latest research project, or submit a summary of your latest publication, or simply explain a new or classic study that influences you. See some of our favourites at Curator’s Choice, and visit the Social Science stream that I help curate. All of these acts of public communication improve science outreach!

This post was first published on my Google+. I’ve expanded my original argument.

Learn More

Check out this feature on PBS MediaShift, where I was interviewed about how our dedicated team of 10 moderators collectively manages our Science on Google+ community.

Read my other posts on science literacy and public outreach by scientists.

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