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Social Media for Scientists Part 2.5: Breaking Stereotypes

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Ok, I swear I will get to Part 3 soon. But first, I want to comment on some of the critiques of my article.

There are two main ones: this post by Steven Hamblin and this one, by Kevin Zelnio. Both seem to suggest that I made the argument that “all scientists have to do is get a Twitter account and a blog and magic will happen.”

But both missed my point. I wasn’t saying “build it and they will come” – I was saying “don’t build it and they can’t come”.

More and more, people are turning to the internet for news, information, and conversation. If the scientists aren’t there, they won’t be included in the dialogue. End of story.

Kevin argues that it’s about reach. That blogging or tweeting won’t really reach anyone, and is thus not necessarily worth it, but I disagree. First off, Part 3 will go into detail about what the scientist gets out of all of this even if no one reads it. Second off, so what if my post only reaches three people? That’s three more people who can name a living scientist. Three more people who care about the research I am doing in my lab. Three more people who I communicated my science to successfully. I personally think those three people matter. They are worth my time and effort, and they are enough. As I said in my second post, it’s not about being popular, having a thousand twitter followers or getting millions of pageviews a month – it’s about making yourself and your research searchable and accessible.

For that matter, imagine if every lab reached three people. That wouldn’t be a total of three people – it would be thousands. And those thousands would actually be themselves plus the friends, family and colleagues they tell about what they learned and who they learned it from. Don’t underestimate the power of reaching three people.

But what disturbs me more is that both posts seem to operate on a flawed assumption. You can hear it echoed when Steven says “they do good science, but they make for terrible speakers” or when Kevin writes “we shouldn’t expect every scientist to want to do this and many should, in fact, NOT engage with the public!”. It’s the same assumption made by Randy Olson when he wrote Don’t Be Such A Scientist. It’s the assumption that the stereotypical scientist is the norm for the profession.

By the stereotypical scientist, I mean that gruff, elitist misanthrope with crazy hair and the social skills of a wet blanket. They’re not alone in portraying scientists that way – that is exactly what the public thinks scientists are like, too. But from what I’ve experienced in Academia, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Of all the scientists I have met, only a very small percentage fit the bill. Most are like most of the farmers, plumbers, lawyers, and salespeople I’ve met – that is, they’re just like everyone else.

They go out and hit clubs on a Friday night. Or they have happy, healthy kids who are athletes or musicians. They are, if anything, scarily normal people who all just happen to be good at and like science.

My whole point with saying scientists should be active in social media is that it’s not just about getting the research out there, it’s about getting the scientists out there, too, so we can break the very stereotype that Steven and Kevin use as a reason for scientists not to get engaged.

Sure, scientists could be better communicators. But by and large, I think we’re not too bad at it. Good communication skills are how we get grants from non-scientific agencies like National Geographic or NGOs. Social skills are how we network at conferences, not just with each other but media specialists, government officials, and the locals we meet at the bar after hours. De-jargoning what we do for a living is how we tell our kids, parents and grandparents about our research.

I know that not every scientist will do what I propose (though, to be fair, I didn’t say every scientist – I said every lab, but I digress). I don’t think every scientist has to be on twitter. But I do think every scientist should consider the dissemination of their research a crucial part of their job. It’s not naïve to think that social media is an important part of doing that – it’s naïve to think that we can make any kind of impact on the global scale without it.

** Given the comments, I want to add that I’m not arguing that social media is the only way for scientists to reach out to the community at large, and other ways are important, too. I will contend, though, that all kinds of outreach can be improved by adding social media to the mix.

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Christie Wilcox About the Author: Christie Wilcox is a science writer and blogger who moonlights as a PhD student in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii. Follow on Google+. Follow on Twitter @NerdyChristie.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. jagaines 9:51 pm 10/4/2011

    This is a great follow-up to a fantastic post. As a science blogger/Tweeter myself, I agree with your philosophy: a tweet that reaches either 3 or 3,000 people is totally worth the 5 seconds it takes to type 140 characters.

    Link to this
  2. 2. BehavEcology 9:56 pm 10/4/2011

    >Kevin argues that it’s about reach. That blogging or tweeting won’t
    >really reach anyone, and is thus not necessarily worth it, but I disagree

    I made a similar point, but I was arguing not that it’s not worth it, but that it is hard to reach any significant (i.e. > 2 people) audience and that we shouldn’t badger people into doing something that they don’t want to do. Not everyone wants to be on social media – why is that such a bad thing? You don’t have to get *every* scientist out there to break stereotypes or increase the level of acceptance of scientist. And what’s wrong with the suggestion I made, that we work to make science writing and journalism a respected field and a valued outcome for writers and Ph.D. students alike?

    I think the audience that reads what I write matters, too. If what I write affects them for the better, great! But I write because I enjoy the process, not because I’m flogging myself to do it in the name of science. I’m on social media because I want to be.

    >By the stereotypical scientist, I mean that gruff, elitist misanthrope with
    > crazy hair and the social skills of a wet blanket. They’re not alone in
    > portraying scientists that way – that is exactly what the public thinks
    > scientists are like, too.

    I honestly don’t know how you got that out of what I wrote. I said that writing and communicating science well is hard, that not everyone has or wants to develop those skills, and that there’s nothing wrong with some scientists wanting to leave science communication to professional science writers and journalists and just do the research that they love. I’d argue that it’s not a character flaw to not want to write a blog or use Twitter, or even to actively avoid these things. What I would *not* say is that all (or even very many) scientists are “gruff, elitist misanthrope[s]“.

    > though, to be fair, I didn’t say every scientist – I said every lab, but I digress

    You said that in your second post, but I was responding to your first. You don’t make that distinction in the first, and indeed your wording strongly implies every scientist.

    You may have gotten the wrong idea. I don’t think that the push to get scientists on social media is a bad thing, and I liked your posts; I just think it’s going to be more complicated than you portray it. My feeling is that naively shoving every scientist – or every lab, or every school – onto social media is just going to result in a flood of unused information; I think that we need to simultaneously work to change the popular engagement with science (especially in the US, with the current streak of anti-intellectualism that’s been getting attention) for social media to have the impact you want it to.

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  3. 3. Christie Wilcox in reply to Christie Wilcox 10:43 pm 10/4/2011

    Steven,

    There’s nothing wrong with making science writing and journalism a respected field and a valued outcome for writers and Ph.D. students alike – I think it’s a very good suggestion, and I do agree with your closing statement that it’s not just about the scientists getting involved. My post, however, was targeted at scientists.

    That said, you make it sound like arduous torture for scientists to engage in social media. I’m not saying we have to browbeat every scientist into doing it, but I do think that we need to make it clear that social media is an important avenue of communication. You say what’s wrong with just doing research? Ask NSF. Or NIH. Or any major funding agency, because we already “flog” and “badger” scientists to go beyond just doing the research. That’s what the NSF broader impacts are all about. It’s a requirement for most funding sources that the lab has a plan of action to give back to the community at large. So why not through social media?

    As I did say in my second post, not everyone has to do everything (for the record, you brought up the slides, and the “every lab” is the title on the slides). If tweeting isn’t their thing, it doesn’t have to be. But they should understand how and why twitter is being used by the rest of the world, and that their choice not to use it means they are not participating in that conversation.

    Of course we need to simultaneously work to change the popular engagement with science. I completely agree that, as you said at the end of your post, more than just the scientists need to work together. But how exactly will the scientists be a part of that if they’re hiding in their labs and not engaging in the online conversation? It’s more than just a way of spreading news – it’s how people are networking, talking and collaborating.

    Wanting to better science education and communication but not being willing to engage in social media is like wanting to stay up to date with the latest movies, but only owning a VHS player.

    And honestly, a flood of unused information is better than that information not being available at all. If the information is there, then at least we have something to point to when we try and change the way science is talked about and viewed.

    Link to this
  4. 4. BehavEcology 11:10 pm 10/4/2011

    You suggest that Kevin and I assume scientists are misanthropic and anti-social, but I would turn the mirror back to you. “Hiding in their labs”? Not blogging / tweeting / Facebooking does not equal hiding in their labs. Scientists can give back to the community in many ways, and social media is just *one* of those ways. For instance, I’m collaborating with someone right now whose NSF grant proposal includes a brilliant suggestion to make local children part of the data collection process. I would argue that her involving 50 groups of students (the target number in the grant) is going to do more for the “conversation” than a hundred times that number of blog posts or tweets.

    Scientists who don’t want to use social media might not be involved in the *online* conversation, but the online conversation – for the purposes of this discussion – only matters if it advances the acceptance and understanding of science. I say that it’s perfectly fine for people who don’t want to use social media to just do research and find other ways to have an impact.

    To be fair, I should probably have made that last bit (“… and find other way”) clearer; I was reacting to the idea that the only way to contribute is to have a social media presence, but I’m fine with the idea that scientists should view *some* sort of contribution as part of their job. It just doesn’t have to be as a science communicator. They could write a book, they could volunteer for a community organization, they could just be a role model for reason and critical thinking in their every day life (though that’s harder to put on a tenure review package…:-); they could do a dozen things that have nothing to do with social media or even communication, and have just as much impact or even more on how people view and accept science.

    It’s not like only owning a VHS player: it’s like going to see a play instead of watching a movie. Different methods, different desires – same goal. And some of these things even work for the gruff, elitist misanthropes like me (though I can’t claim crazy hair, unless I use a lot of product on what remains of it…).

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  5. 5. Christie Wilcox in reply to Christie Wilcox 11:26 pm 10/4/2011

    I definitely agree that outreach can come in many forms – and, frankly, should. Social media is only part of my outreach efforts. I would even go as far as saying every lab should do multiple outreach methods. I might even badger or flog them into it, if given the chance ;)

    I’ll happily concede that impacts can be made without social media (and are, every day), but I will continue to contend that every way in which you just described would make even more of an impact if social media were added to it. The book author would get more people to read his book and be more well-known and liked if he’s on Facebook, too. The volunteer could get more people to come out and offer a helping hand if he’s got a network of tweeps. And that role model will be seen by far more people if he exemplifies his reason and critical thinking in blog posts. All of these localized efforts can be global instead – and isn’t that even better? Isn’t that worth the effort to include social media? To train scientists who aren’t comfortable with these platforms so they can utilize them, too?

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  6. 6. all4kindness2all 10:13 pm 10/5/2011

    I see an unstoppable force of nature with unbounded vision, passion, and love for science.

    Link to this

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