Turn ON Your Smartphone and Let’s Talk Science
By: Louise Pei & Beatrice Ballarin
Today, it is almost impossible to stay away from social media. Since the development of smartphones, it has become incredibly easy to connect to the web, anywhere, anytime. Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, there is no hiding. With this rise in social media platforms, their access, and usage, people have started using them as tools to show la bella vita—a mix of holiday pictures, exotic landscapes, and amazing food recipes. Yet, is there a way for scientists to use these platforms effectively? Here, we examine the history, current trends and potential of social media in science dissemination.
In addition to connecting with other researchers around the world, several scientists have chosen to use social media as a tool to engage with the public. These platforms can also provide a window into everyday research life, virtually bringing people inside their laboratories and sharing their ideas. For some, social media could also be seen as a unique opportunity to “reclaim” their identity and to change the stereotypes associated with the word “scientist”. Rather than portraying science as nerdy and complex, scientists wanted to reframe science as cool and accessible. Thus, driving a new the era of “science communication”.
Importantly, science communication— defined as the act of sharing “scientia” (Latin for knowledge)—is nothing new. Actually, in Ancient Greece, the sharing of knowledge took place in the main square, the agora, through the form of public debates. Unfortunately, this form of education and information dissemination was lost during Europe’s dark ages, where the majority of the population was left illiterate. Later, in 1456, thanks to the invention of the first printer by Johannes Gutenberg, knowledge slowly began to be shared again by means of printed text and manuscripts. However, the high cost of printing made it difficult to distribute information widely and only centuries later, after the printing press revolution, could science sharing be made accessible and affordable again.
And so, it began in 1632 with Galileo Galilei. He first published “Dialogo sopra i massimi sistemi del mondo” (Dialogue concerning the two chief world system), a revolutionary book that attempted to change the dogma of the Earth being at the centre of the universe. Galileo chose to write it in Italian, when it was considered the language of the common people, as opposed to Latin, the official language of science and literacy. By doing so, he directed his book to the broader public, expanding his audience in support of his revolutionary ideas.
Since this time, science communication has evolved and faced new challenges. For the increasingly complex information hidden within convoluted manuscript figures, language alone is no longer enough to reach a large audience. For this reason, scientists must consider alternative platforms. Adding to this issue, tools for the distribution of information are changing rapidly, with resources such as newspapers and television losing popularity. Quick to adapt, scientists are beginning to use blog posts, YouTube videos, and Instagram pictures to share their daily lives and research ideas. Interestingly, a 2016 survey that sampled approximately 600 scientists found that Twitter was the most widely used sharing platform. It is easy to understand why—messages are short, sweet, and arguably promote the most audience-scientist interaction. Therefore, with increased unfiltered access to the public, scientists need to reconsider their responsibilities.
One of these main responsibilities will be to overcome the public’s mistrust of scientists and their research—a reality caused by decades of miscommunication. One of the best examples of poor communication has been the issue of climate change. Sensationalization, distortion, and misrepresentation of research findings has created a dichotomy in public opinion. Advances in science communication can help solve this problem by providing a stronger understanding of unadulterated research and expressing its everyday relevance. More importantly, social media also provides an opportunity for conversation and discussion between scientists and the public. Therefore, through effective social media application, scientists can share findings with increased transparency and even build rapport with the public, potentially influencing project funding, whether it be by government or crowdsourcing (such as for the ALS campaign with the “Ice bucket challenge”).
Another important goal of science communication is to inspire the next generation of students, shaping the future of STEM. Therefore, these platforms are important in engaging and interacting with the younger public. During the early to mid 2000s, the only source of science communication in schools was through guest speakers, which in and of itself was very rare. Now, we’ve entered an era of smartphones and tablets. Needless to say, this change in technology also brought upon a change in the way that we communicate with one another. Elementary school students are already familiar with the concept of being a world citizen; they choose what they want to be informed about, and they also actively pursue the kind of knowledge they are interested in. This is a great opportunity to fully utilize the influence that these social media platforms have on the population to effectively increase science literacy.
While social media for science communication offers significant advantages, it is also important to note the limitations. It takes time to become established on these platforms and to develop a large subscriber network. Posts are very time-sensitive, easily missed unless they are released during peak hours. Above all, being in the public eye also means facing scrutiny and criticism on a regular basis.
Nevertheless, science communication is an integral part of our culture. The evolution of technology has brought us to where we no longer have to solely rely on traditional news outlets for the dissemination of scientific knowledge. We can collectively agree that translating research into jargon-free content to a layperson is difficult, and scientists are not known to be the best communicators. Although social media usage has yet to be globally adopted, we see an increase in scientists using these platforms to teach others. Proper science communication will result in numerous personal and professional benefits, and through the use of social media, today’s scientists can become even better educators.