Sciencing On Street Corners

21st January, 2018

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ately, I’ve been trying to use social media to help with my work by following accounts of various journals and scientists. A side effect of this is seeing more of how researchers engage with the public on social media, and why they do so.

From my observations, these are the main reasons behind scicomm/outreach participation, in descending order of nobleness: 

  1. If everyone lived their lives according to what science finds, we’d all be happier, e.g. vaccinating kids so they don’t get sick. Therefore, everyone needs to know that science matters.
  2. Science is publicly funded, so scientists have an obligation to let the taxpayers know what happens to their money.
  3. Science needs more funding, so scientists want to convince people to give them money.
  4. Science communication via social media is good for my resume/a potential alternative career.
  5. The lab is a sad place and I would like attention to keep me going.

If the first 3 are the “official” reasons, then I’ve noticed one huge problem in the way people go about it: these scientists often aren’t interacting with actual laypeople. When I went to one of those pub science talks, most of the audience were people from the speakers’ labs. It's the same on the internet: a person who started an Instagram hashtag challenge devoted to #scicomm posted a poll that showed about 90% of their followers were other scientists. 

This suggests that it’s often a “like for a like” situation between scientists, reminiscent of how aspiring lifestyle influencers (beautiful people who are paid to endorse products in their posts) interact with similar but more successful accounts in an attempt to get a leg-up. In fact, I see grad students who are seemingly trying to cross over into lifestyle blogging by posting inspirational quotes, outfits, and tagging vendors in photos of lab consumables. From looking at all this, I can't help but feel that reasons 4 and 5, the less-sciency reasons, are the big motivators for scientists to be online.

People can do whatever they want with their personal social media, but the issue I have is that it all gets swept under the umbrella of #scicomm, when it really has little to do with science, science as in the actual way of getting knowledge. Looking at the people around me, I feel that few will be won over into liking science via the fashion sense and lifestyle quality of scientists. But that's a bit mean-spirited. Maybe these posters are just hoping that the more bases they cover, the more likely it is that an audience will eventually show up.

How do we reach the public better while keeping on topic? That depends on what the ultimate goal is. It seems that we want everyone to “believe” in science, which could mean several things:

  1. Understanding the entire process
  2. Understanding just enough to trust it
  3. Submitting to scientific authority because it feels right

In an ideal world, everyone would understand everything enough to look at a claim and use good thinking skills to decide if it’s valid. The problem is, not everyone has the time to learn enough to be able to read and evaluate a scientific journal article in one field, let alone every subject. However, if we wanted to try our best to create this kind of world, I suppose we’d have to dedicate ourselves to being really fantastic teachers and creating Khan Academy-type resources. 

The type of science I see laypeople interacting with most is the fun, aesthetically pleasing popular science content, like the podcasts, YouTube channels, and infographics that accessibly explain things like space and weird chemical reactions. Not all the information, but enough for people to understand that things aren’t magic, and know that scientists really are doing interesting and useful things. 

This is all good, until someone collects a sizable fandom, starts pontificating about areas outside their expertise, and the followers blindly accept it. What follows is the low-effort content that gets passed around by people who are already “believers”, like memes and quotes about the greatness of the universe plastered over photos of their favourite scientist. Not all science awareness is good science awareness. Honestly, some of it is counterproductive and perhaps should be discouraged. 

The worship cult of celebrities like the Four Horsemen of New Atheism and Neil DeGrasse Tyson has lead to the criticism that science has become a new mainstream evangelical religion. I could write a whole thesis about this, but in brief: these celebrity scientists are televangelists, pictures of space are iconography, and TED Talks and science festivals are Science Hillsong. People all over the political spectrum are shouting that their views are supported by science as if it were some infallible authority. It's a bad look.

Now I wonder: is it inevitable that we resort to appealing to emotion or vanity to win people over? It seems to have worked well enough for the Christians in their millennia of existence, and if there was a better way, you’d think they’d have figured it out already.