This week’s top entry-of-interest into my Twittersphere was this piece on ‘A Disease of Scienceyness: How Misguided Science Fandom Hurts Actual Scientists’ by the blogger Ben Thomas. The reason it’s of interest to me is simple. The three key concepts in the piece are science, social media, and fandom. The same is true of my ongoing PhD project. Unsurprisingly, I have some thoughts.
The piece’s argument, as I read it, is as follows. Lots of self-proclaimed science fans use social media to share science-based stories. They do so without any critical reflection on the stories beforehand, but simply because the stories have ‘scienceyness’ – “inaccurate, overblown science headlines that get shared and reshared by people who have no idea whether they’re actually true or not.” This is bad for a two main reasons. Firstly, these people are only sharing the stories in order to perform the identity of an intelligent person who is well-informed about cutting-edge research. Secondly, these exaggerated or inaccurate expectations can damage the reputation of professional scientific work, leading to missed expectations, retraction of research funding, and loss of jobs. I’ve encountered versions of these arguments before, often in a considerably more aggressive form. And I support Thomas’ plea for people to do at least some double-checking before spreading stories. But I think the claims of harm are misdiagnosed, and that in dealing with more pervasive harms of science-in-public social media should bring us hope rather than concern.
Firstly, I’m not convinced by the links Thomas draws between social media and the alleged impacts on professional research. Of his two examples, one of them involves criticism of the Human Brain Project by professional researchers, including neuroscientists – precisely the people who, one expects, would be thinking critically beyond the sharing of science headlines. The same is true of the second, the 1973 Lighthill report, which was researched, written, and read within professional scientific circles. None of the sources Thomas provides clearly show the role played by public opinion in either case. By contrast various other sources suggest that criticisms were made in a well-informed scientific spirit, or even that any hype might even be blamed on researchers.1 Clearer examples of public opinion feeding back into scientific practice would be the case of BSE, or ‘mad cow disease’, in the UK circa 1995, or the ‘Climategate’ controversy of 2009. But both of these are less to do with science fandom, and more extreme examples of what happens when science intersects with prominent – and sometimes entirely fair – political and public concerns.
The next question to ask is what novelty social media is bringing to the problem. Thomas, as I read him, seems to think we are in a new era whereas “twenty years ago we could’ve just blamed2 pop-science journalists and left it at that” (though the inclusion of the 1973 example confuses me somewhat r.e. that). But people have always ‘shared’ erroneous scientific information – pre-internet it happened by word-of-mouth. Which still happens today. One might make suggestions about how easy the internet makes sharing and accessing huge amounts of information, both helpful and harmful. But evidence suggests that the public still get a lot – quite possibly the majority – of their science from offline talk, newspapers, and television. Trying to separate and empirically study the actual impacts of these various media on science-in-general is extremely difficult. But a key novelty of social media sharing is that it leaves a lot of visible traces of gossip, which makes that sort of assessment a damn sight more feasible than for word-of-mouth. If there’s going to be erroneous sharing – and realistically I think there always will be – I’d rather it was in space where we can see it, try and counter it, and prepare for any impacts.
Let’s move on to the criticism that people are only sharing stories in order to attach themselves to ‘scienceyness’, to perform an identity as a ‘sciencey person’. Education, whether at school or self-driven, is not just about sharing knowledge. It’s also crucially tied to questions of identity, how you perceive yourself and how you want to be perceived vis-à-vis others around you. Research into science communication and science education shows that the difference between people who engage (or more crucially don’t engage) with science is often down to whether they see science as ‘for them’, whether they feel they’d be welcomed. I am therefore uncomfortable with any arguments which limit people’s right to identify themselves with science. Particularly on the internet, a medium which gives people the potential to play around with identities, to push (somewhat)2 against the usual constraints of geography, gender, class, and race which all too often restrict access to self-identification with science. To be fair to Thomas, he agrees that there’s nothing inherently wrong with performing a science identity, as long as it’s backed up by critical thinking. I agree that more critical thinking on the internet would be nice. But short of that, and in lieu of the belief that uncritical sharing is genuinely a harming modern science, I still think that ‘sciencey’ participation holds more hope for a welcoming, socially responsible scientific community than a fear of participation.
Finally, let’s consider the idea of ‘scienceyness’. I actually prefer this to the stark science/not-science boundary used by such groups as I Fucking Hate ‘I Fucking Love Science’. But it’s still a boundary, and there’s still an implicit hierarchy. As I (alongside many many others) have argued previously, trying to demark anything by an appeal to ‘the scientific method’ is intensely problematic. It’s even potentially harmful to reputations, as when scientists behave in a manner which does not conform to an idealised scientific method it is held up as poor practice – see Climategate. The reason I quite like ‘scienceyness’ as a term is that it acknowledges science can connect to notions like beauty and wonder and humour. As has been pointed out in this debate already, these features make the whole practice of science seem a lot more open. Whereas separating a superior ‘science’ and a knock-off ‘scienceyness’ doesn’t exactly encourage people to feel confident around science. Yes, I’d prefer it if peer-reviewed papers and more in-depth scientific blogs appeared directly alongside memes and photos of galaxies, rather than being separated between r/science and I Fucking Love Science. But I refer you to the conclusion of my previous paragraph. I am continually unconvinced that trying to separate out ‘science’ from its alleged impurities, rather than operate on much more clear and useful categories like ‘professional science’ and ‘science jokes’, does anything other than appear a bit elitist.
To conclude. Yes I think there’s a problem with science being reported and shared inaccurately, and yes I would like it if people thought critically before passing on these inaccuracies further. But I think that’s a wider problem of passing any sort of message through a lot of successive channels, and I don’t think under-use of critical thinking is one that’s limited to science (particularly with the UK General Election coming up). Trying to lay the blame on social media users, just as trying to lay the blame anywhere, doesn’t help. I don’t think the internet is a straightforward solution to the problems of science-in-public – lots of internet debates around science are extremely unwelcoming – but I think there’s potential. If we want to observe, understand, and tackle inaccurate sharing then social media is a vital empirical tool. And I am unconvinced that Thomas has presented sufficient evidence for the widespread harm of science he sees from social media. By contrast, there is strong evidence that science is a profoundly unwelcoming space for a great many people. This, for me, is the disease of science, and it’s afflicting those already weakened by plenty of other social ills. If social media ‘scienceyness’ can potentially be used to alleviate that, or even just be a diagnostic tool, then I think science should welcome it.
1 = Which is refreshing to see; if we’re going to have these sorts of debates I’d argue it’s worth actually considering the possibility of blaming scientists, or even that outside critical voices on science – especially massive public-funded science projects – might maybe be a good thing.
2 = Elsewhere Thomas has joined other voices in adding press releases and media departments might also be to blame. But see previous note. Basically I think the blame game is less helpful than the understanding-and-tackling game.
3 = A lot of offline social problems are reflected online, let’s not be too techno-utopian here.