Social media may DAMAGE SCIENCE. Could YOU be affected?

Henry Cotton.

Bridging the gap between scientific research and the public’s understanding of this research has always been a difficult task. With the complicated nature of scientific theories and discoveries, the internet has provided a wonderful medium for scientists across the world to connect with the public and educate them in new ways never seen before. However, with the current rise of social media platforms, have we reached a point where science is no longer benefiting from the accessibility of the web, but instead is suffering from it? We shall discuss the implications of abusing science in return for page views, and what the effects may be when condensing complicated scientific knowledge into a single graphic or short video. Finally, we must ask the question; does the publics exposure and desire for ‘cool’ science influence the paths of discovery in the scientific field? Read on to find out how quantum, multi-world time travel may be a contributing factor.

Clickbait

Any social media user will recognise the attention-grabbing title provided above for what it is. Clickbait. For those not familiar with this concept, it is the use of carefully selected images and text, designed to tempt the reader into clicking the link, giving them their two-minute information fix. As the articles and content required are designed to attract readers, it has become a common occurrence for scientific ideas and concepts to be used for this purpose, due to their sometimes mysterious and unusual nature. This doesn’t seem to be much of a problem, however, having fallen guilty to the curiosity these articles provoke, there is rarely an occasion when I haven’t come to find their content either completely false or largely clutching at straws, with a very loose, poorly defined connection to the scientific research to which it refers.

After a quick google search using the buzzwords ‘Quantum’ and ‘Time Travel’, a news report from The Sun is a first page hit with a title of “QUANTUM LEAPS Time travellers could use parallel dimensions to visit the past, scientists claim”. After reading the paper to which the article refers, it becomes very clear that no direct claim was made which involved time travellers using parallel dimensions. Not only this, the article in question makes no reference to any of the maths and physics supplied as evidence supporting the ‘Interactions between many classical worlds’ theory. Most unbelievably, the original paper to which the article refers to, along with the comments quoted from all of the author’s, are not cited at any point in the article!

Herein lies the problem; scientific concepts and terms are primarily used to attract readers, with a total disregard for the research used. Not only this, but the process in which the articles comment on the scientific theories, without providing the reader with any supporting evidence, goes against the whole scientific process. An important facet of research and the scientific method is how the supporting evidence has been collected, and to what scope the evidence covers. By producing poorly referenced, opinion filled articles we are not only misinforming the readers, but setting a very poor example of how assumptions and claims should be made and judged.

That being said, we can only comment with certainty on this one example, which does not reflect every article produced covering scientific discoveries, however further searching through social media and the web in general will easily yield many more examples similar to the one given. Yes, it is beneficial to report on the latest scientific discoveries with enthusiasm and interest, on the other hand, when they are not correctly communicated by the individuals with a great knowledge in the field, we begin to have a breakdown of understanding and truth.

This type of tactic is not just limited to social media and the variety of outlets which produce this material, it has been observed that academic journal articles that contain ‘clickbait-y’ characteristics are shared more widely. This is not surprising, as the number of articles produced can be overwhelming, therefore it seems the titles of the scientific articles have been adjusted to contain ‘clickbait-y’ features so as to stand out from the growing crowd. This may not have any serious repercussions on the knowledge or understanding of the public and scientific community, however it does show that this tactic is very successful, even amongst a more scientifically knowledgeable audience.

Even though the web is abundant with similar, questionable articles, it only seems fair to suggest that any media which sparks a readers interest in science and discovery is valuable. The whole reason that science is so suspect to clickbait is that it deals with the unknown, and people are interested in anything that explains the unknown, it’s in our nature. Therefore, by offering an answer to the readers, this may kick-start a desire to find more answers to other questions they have, igniting in them an interest in science and the scientific concepts that may provide explanations. However, as it provides some mindful solitude in the fact that they now have the answer they need, they may also be less inclined to explore other points of view, this depends on the reader.

To summarise, we can’t be sure how each individual will react, but surely generating a curiosity in only a small percentage of readers is beneficial for science? In any case, after recent incidents during the US presidential election, social media giant Facebook is moving to implement new controls and tools which a user can use to flag up fake news. As well as this, third party fact checkers will be scouring the site in an attempt to reduce the number of false articles, which may hopefully begin to help combat the worst cases of incorrect news.

Educational Media

Moving away from the hypothetical, clickbait media, there are some great educational resources available on the internet, including popular YouTube channel AsapSCIENCE and the Facebook page Curosity. Both of these examples do a much better job of explaining important scientific concepts in more detail, but the information they share is squeezed into a three-minute video or on a single graphic. Just how far can we condense and simplify the science, until the information we are trying so desperately to communicate becomes invalid due to the tiny size of it? To start with, we must investigate the audiences of such pages, and what sort of experience they are looking for. For most of us, it will be to fill time throughout the day, occupying us on the bus into work, or providing an excuse to stay in bed for those extra few minutes.

On average, we look at our mobile devices 76 times a day, spending averagely 2 minutes scrolling and tapping each visit. For those instances, the content provided by the examples given is perfect, as it is concise, factual and usually well presented. However, it is becoming more popular for internet users to view this media as a source of deep knowledge and understanding, giving them a false sense of expertise.

Let’s say after reading the article on time travel given above, I decided it was time to learn more about Physics, more specifically Quantum Physics due to its mysterious nature. Again, after another quick internet search I came across a video on YouTube named “Basic Quantum Physics in Under 10 Minutes”. After watching this video, I found that the concepts covered “in under 10 minutes” were equivalent to the concepts I covered in the Second Year of my undergraduate physics course in at University. It was attempting to teach physical phenomena which required a whole year of Undergraduate physics, along with 2 years’ worth of study of Maths and Physics at A-Level standard “in under 10 minutes”.

The recommended audience for this video is not given, therefore we must not assume that everyone watching the video is illiterate in physics. Likewise, it is still the case that for anybody attempting to educate themselves in physics, this video’s fast pace and lack of mathematical derivation can be damaging, especially for beginners to the subject.

Senior public figures, such as the previous Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, are starting to understand the problem that internet research is causing. Mr Gove recently claimed that “people in this country have had enough of experts” whilst speaking during the Brexit campaign last year. This reiterates the fact that we have reached a dangerous tipping point, where brief, partially explained science is considered to provide enough expertise to rival that of higher education obtained from Universities and similar institutions. Not only is this limiting people’s understanding of the science itself, it is breaking down the much discussed connection between scientists and the public. This can become apparent when a person, with little prior knowledge of a subject, uses poorly created resources online to obtain an incorrect understanding. When the flaws in their understanding are challenged by an expert, they then tend to become defensive, even if they are presented with the true explanation. This psychological phenomenon is known as the backfire effect, and without the correct persuasion this may prove damaging for public engagement in science.

All of this appears very negative and indeed damaging to the public’s knowledge of science, however, plenty of insightful and well developed educational resources do exist on the web as mentioned above. The public may think they have a deeper understanding than they actually do, but at least they have that exposure and insight (even if its limited), as opposed to not connecting with science at all. The ability to challenge and provide opposing ideas or points of view is critical for the advancement of scientific understanding. Presenting people with even just a small insight into the scientific world can initiate conversations and discussions, producing alternative theories, ideas and developments. This may appear far-fetched; the idea that a 10-minute video can influence the advancement of science, but sometimes the simple approach to a problem is to observe it from a differing perspective, which can be provided by anyone.

The influence on the advancement of science

Having considered the effects that the digital landscape may have on the publics knowledge and understanding of the sciences, it seems reasonable to consider how the publics knowledge can in turn affect science and its progression. Public interest in science has been on the rise since 2000, and if the trend seen in figure 1 is to carry on, it doesn’t look like interest in science will drop.

Cotton1

Figure 1: UK Public attitudes towards science: 2014 report, p.46.

Encouragingly, this means more and more people value the important work that scientists undertake, and it may also be interpreted that the scientific community are achieving their goals in effectively communicating their work to the public. However, it is difficult to pin down the exact reason of why interest has increased; it may have arisen from greater exposure to science, it may be due to an increase in teaching standards (if that is the case), or could it be that the research undertaken has been adjusted so as to generate more interest from the public?

This is a fairly bold statement, and one not to be taken lightly, however, the development of products such as Altmetric, which provides an insight to researchers about where and when their research is being discussed and mentioned, may prove to be influential. This online tool takes into account all sources, including news outlets, social media sites and online trending topics. Therefore, with this increased ability to monitor the conversation surrounding an academic’s research, it has created an even closer link between a researcher and the public, with the researcher determining exactly what the public and not just the scientific community think of their work.

Again this can all be very positive, albeit under certain pressures from institutions, companies and other investors, this tool can be dangerous to the direction of scientific research. It has the potential to inform researchers on which sections of their work attract the most attention, possibly encouraging them to direct their research so as to produce the most popular results, as opposed to the most necessary, alleviating some of the pressures they feel. If a choice was to be made between two topics; one which may not be scientifically beneficial but would appeal to the masses and generate attention and income, or one which may be seen as scientifically useful but maybe perceived as boring, it could become very difficult for researchers to make this decision.

This may appear to be a very pessimistic viewpoint, nonetheless the potential for this dilemma is real. That being said, this is not something new that has been generated by social media. News outlets across generations have been reporting scientific discoveries and generating popular, ‘cool’ trends which scientists can read in the media. This process has only been exaggerated through the use of social media. Not only this, but investment into scientific research is still controlled by the peer review process under the supervision of the research council, where scientists ultimately decide on how the funding is distributed. Although, it is up to researchers to submit their proposals, and if they do begin to take public opinion and popularity of their research more seriously, the research councils may begin to have less of a choice.

Combinations

Each of the issues which have been mentioned may admittedly be small influences on the progression and understanding of science, but when combined, they have the potential to be a very damaging combination. With an increase in incorrect science being distributed, as well as an increase in the ignorance of the public when dealing with scientific experts; the publics scientific knowledge takes a large blow, simultaneously degrading the vital connection between the public and the scientific community. Not only this, but with poor scientific methods being demonstrated from non-scientific sources, and an increasing potential for the advancement of science to be swayed by the public opinion, science as a discipline is under extreme pressures.

The time for scrutiny and adaptation to comfortably fit into the ever-growing technological world in which we live in, is now. More must be done to stop the spread of incorrect information, whether this relates to parallel dimension time travel, or if the US election really was rigged. Gone are the days of the public wholly trusting experts, instead we now face a long, upward battle against the ever growing, uncontrollable strength of social media.

Social media may DAMAGE SCIENCE. Could YOU be affected?

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