Research stories that go viral on social media can bring science to a wider audience. But there is a downside to this ‘science fandom’, argues writer Ben Thomas in an essay on the Medium website that triggered discussion online. Much of what gets shared lacks the nuance and uncertainty of science — a gloss that Thomas dubs “scienceyness”. He writes that sharing the latest sciencey headlines without any critical thought or fact-checking, whether by scientists or non-scientists, is contributing to an “onslaught of misinformation”.
Some on social media thought the blame was misplaced. Picking on the consumer who may not have science training “is a little unfair”, says Lindsay Waldrop, a mathematical biologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who commented on the article on Twitter. Others suggested an upside to scienceyness. Paul Coxon, a materials scientist at the University of Cambridge, UK, tweeted: ““Scienceyness” isn’t bad. It’s often a way for excluded groups to get involved.”
Thomas argues that readers who unquestioningly reshare science memes can create unrealistic expectations that might damage the credibility of science. He gave the example of the European Union’s €1.2-billion Human Brain Project, which ultimately aims to build a computer simulation of the brain. The project has been criticized for having poor management and shifting goals, and Thomas says that online hype surrounding the project announcement in 2013 contributed to its problems.
Some spoke out on Twitter to defend science enthusiasts. Waldrop tweeted:
In an interview, she said that it can be challenging for a layperson to evaluate scientific data. This is especially true for hot topics such as climate change, in which scientists are competing with interest groups to get information out. “How on earth is a normal person supposed to tell the difference between what’s scientific consensus and what’s being made up to sow doubt?”
Others noted that researchers can benefit from scienceyness. Coxon tweeted:
Thomas does not solely blame science fans for hype. In an interview, he said that the media and press officers are also part of the problem. But he adds that sharing of content by news consumers can take a “headline or article or press release that’s already exaggerated and exaggerate it exponentially. It makes a bad situation even worse.”
Thomas calls on news readers to at least check whether the source they are sharing is a trustworthy science website. But convincing people to take even that step might be challenging, says Dominique Brossard, a researcher who studies science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. People are “cognitive misers”, she says. “We don’t want to invest a lot of cognitive energy in everything we do.”
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