Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science Advocacy and Social Media

By Campbell Phillips

The ever-changing media landscape is continuing to affect the role of science communication. How can scientists and medical practitioners be expected to respond to social media?

In the world of Web 2.0, where information is shared, diluted, convoluted and conflated just as easily as it is published, how can the layperson expect to divine fact from fantasy?

The past year has seen radical changes in the media landscape, and particularly in science communication, where credibility and accuracy of reportage have been called into question in several instances. These events threaten the exposure of scientific knowledge in the wider community, as people turn to the internet in ever greater numbers for information.

The problem is compounded on social media, in which platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow information to become part of a virtual popularity contest, where the winners are usually pictures of cats or quotations of cheap sentiment. In this information age it has become very difficult to parse what isn’t from what is.

Among such a muddle, is there an opportunity for useful science advocacy? Can an aspiring voice of reason be heard in such a crowded room?

The Digital Debate

Unfortunately, the notion of using a virtual forum for an intellectual debate is nothing more than a pipe dream. Mostly, this is because there is rarely a cohesive incentive to keep the debaters (i.e. users, commentators) reasonable or civil, let alone honest.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the occasional challenge being thrown down for just that sort of debate. Recently Dr Barry Bickmore, Associate Professor of Geological Sciences at Brigham Young University in Utah, issued a challenge to Lord Christopher Monckton “to debate [him] about climate change in an online, written format, in which we have time to check our opponent’s sources”. This was in response to Monckton challenging Al Gore to a spoken debate on the same topic.

Just as in the case of Bickmore’s challenge to Monckton (which was unanswered by Monckton), it’s often extremely hard to find a party willing to risk their reputation in a virtual arm wrestle.

Rather, the debate – if it exists at all – doesn’t lie in a set-piece format of well-prepared material to which an equally reasoned counter-argument is offered. Instead, it takes the form of discourse – the constant ebb and flow of conversation, commentary and often invective, which continues to accelerate alongside the technology that is enabling it.

Social media has risen to prominence as a platform for this discourse, and expert opinions are desperately needed in these spaces. However much professionals may shun these forums, it is here that many members of the public will begin to inform their own opinions. It’s therefore an imperative that advocates of science and reason are as active here as anywhere else, no matter how distasteful it may seem.

In other spaces, the realm of science communication is beginning to gain traction online. Insightful blogs and dedicated websites are proliferating. Unfortunately, so too are the sources of mis-information, and this can only further discourage relevant experts from voicing their opinion.

“Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence,” said American journalist Christopher Hitchens, and while I can appreciate how many medical practitioners might view social media as being fraught with danger, I believe this is relevant advice.

Crowd-Sourced Science Advocacy

The online discourse, as in any published medium, is frequently less about defeating the dissenters and more about appealing to the sensibilities of the agnostic. In a sense, this is a mechanism that the Friends of Science in Medicine have already employed to great effect.

By creating a platform to facilitate science advocacy, FSM has promoted and highlighted positive discussion within professional circles, and its supporters continue to improve its visibility among the general public; a phenomenon Dr Rob Morrison, Vice-

President of FSM, has witnessed first-hand.

“FSM has provided a rallying point,” he says, “so all those people who thought sensibly about health sciences and the spurious practices that infiltrate them, but wondered how alone they might have been, now find a great collection of people, and a body, with whom they can align themselves and to whose voice they can add their own.”

Real headway has been made in this fashion, with the vaguely named Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) now being forced to change its name due to a successful awareness campaign, petitions from the public and the Australian Medical Association.

However, this doesn’t indicate that the need for science advocacy is diminishing. The role of the journalist in science communication may be taking a back seat as mainstream media downsizes, but this only leaves room for the more practiced experts to voice their thoughts.

Regardless of the perceived dangers of doing so, whether it be via social media or in a blog, the dangers posed by the absence of such voices are surely far greater.

Campbell Phillips is a professional writer/researcher covering topics including science, nature, business and technology. Content Creator and Editor of www.powerretail.com.au, you can also follow him @Phillips_CF.