Tag Archives: Social media

Discussing science on social media

Some relevant memes I picked up on Facebook recently.

How often do discussion partners adopt this approach?:

Comfirm bias

Or when pushed for their “evidence” we have to respond with:

Citing

Finally, a citation from their recommended “scientific” source – but:

facts

Then – the “nuclear” or Mutually Assured Destruction  (MAD) approach  – scientists can’t be trusted anyway:

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Gagging of scientists – a common problem?

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A recent NZ Association of Scientists survey indicates that 40% of NZ scientists report they feel gagged from communicating their scientific findings to the public. Management policies and funding problems were blamed and there are issues around “embarrassing the government.”

The Science and Innovation Minister, Stephen Joyce, is not convinced by the survey results but is unwilling to accept there is a problem without  “a heck of a lot more evidence than we’ve got from one write-in survey.” (See Call for closer look at scientists’ claims | Radio New Zealand News.)  You can be sure he won’t go out of his way to look for such evidence.

Wider than direct censorship

Despite Joyce’s attempts to “turn a blind eye,” I think there is a problem and can certainly remember examples from my time working in a Crown Research Institute (these problems may not be as bad in the Universities). But the problem is wider than direct censorship – limiting publication because of commercial sensitivity, protection of intellectual property,  fear of scaring away or offending potential funders and succumbing to legal action – or just threats of legal action – from commercial interests.

There is also the gagging effect arising from the institutional culture, the attitudes and perceived interests of management bureaucracy, the old-boy network (which these days incorporates people from the commercial  sectors as well as the government and political system). I experienced an example of the old-boy network when a National MP attempted to get my director to “discipline” me because I had made a public statement on nuclear disarmament! I am sure this sort of “behind the scenes” pressure is exerted all the time on research institute managements by commercial and political figures. And how often do management figures consider the interests of freedom of expression and information, or the responsibility of science to communicate with the public, when subjected to such pressure with its implied threats to the funding or “name” of the institute?  Or to the career of the management figure themselves?

Wider than one’s own research

The issues, for and against, may be fairly clear when the findings being gagged are the research results of the scientists themselves. But scientists do have the responsibility to speak up about science itself, and about general findings which may not be directly linked to the narrow field of specialisation of the scientist concerned.

This is especially true today when so much pseudoscience and outright distortion of science is promoted in the public sphere. Very often the promotion is done in the interests of business so managements may feel the need to prevent staff from fulfilling such responsibilities so as to avoid commercial pressures on the institute.

A common example is the scientific misinformation peddled by the “natural”/alternative health industry, which today is a big and profitable business – despite attempting to present itself as the “David” challenging the “Goliath” of “Big Pharma.”

Institutional management may pressure staff not to face up to their responsibility to fight this misinformation – especially if they believe there may be possibilities of research contracts from businesses within that industry. Maybe management will express this in relatively bland terms such as the need to protect the “name” and “reputation” of the institute. Or express the concept that the institute should not be seen to be “taking sides” as this undermines its credibility and appearance of objectivity.

Becoming a “street fighter” or abdicating scientific responsibility?

Then, of course, there is just the outright viciousness of some anti-science campaigners. Getting into public fights with some ideologically motivated activists can be like participating in a pub brawl. Responsible management cannot be happy about staff being seen as “street fighters.”

Management also has a responsibility not to expose their staff to danger. In New Zealand District Health Boards have tended not to take part in public meetings which are stacked with anti-fluoride activists – partly for the safety reason. And recent reports of attacks on health spokespersons and city council leaders, by anti-fluoride activists, show this is a reasonable concern (see  Lismore mayor assaulted in broad daylight by fluoride-hater, and Beware the violent antis – Lismore Mayor physically assaulted).

33618It is a complex issue. On the one hand engagement with those who are misrepresenting science can sometimes end up like fighting a pig – one’s opponent is so slimy they can escape from any rational debate and the expert ends up just a dirty as the pig in the end. In the other hand not to take part in the public debate  results in the abdication of our scientific responsibilities and handing over the public issue to those who promote misinformation and pseudoscience. (In NZ anti-fluoride propagandists are continually claiming  the refusal of district health boards to front up to their meetings as evidence that science does not support fluoridation!)

Social media

Social media can be just as nasty to pro-science people who attempt to challenge misrepresentation and pseudoscience (have a look at the abuse rendered by the Australian anti-fluoride propagandist Dan Germouse here). There is little point in engaging extremists on social media – unless one is sure there are other readers, or “lurkers,” who may learn something from the exchange.

But one thing is sure, advocates of science do not use social media as often or as effectively as they should. Studies do show that pseudoscientific groups and those peddling scientific misinformation tend to dominate social media like Facebook and Twitter. Social media can be effective in creating opinions – and anyway it is a popular forum which we ignore at our peril.  Scientists need to find ways to effectively take part in social media – if we don’t we are abdicating our responsibility to society to defend science and oppose misinformation.

Conclusion

Gagging of scientists is much wider than the few cases where publication of individual research findings is restricted.Unfortunately institutional culture, its conservatism, authoritarianism and bureaucracy, inhibit the freedom of scientists to take part in the public debate around scientific issues. They inhibit participation in social media where much of the public debate occurs (see Science and social media in new Zealand). Institutional culture can therefore restrict a scientist’s ability to fulfill his or her responsibility to communicate science to the public and to oppose widespread misinformation and pseudoscience.

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Science and social media in new Zealand

How is New Zealand science dealing with social media?

Screen-Shot-2015-06-05-at-2.04.57-pmThe latest report* from NZ’s Science Media Centre answers that question (see Social Media Snapshot – how are our research institutions using Twitter, Facebook etc.).

It concludes that “science and social media make comfortable bedfellows” because:

“Most research institutions have some form of social media presence and several have amassed tens of thousands of followers, helping them to stay engaged with a broad audience who “share”, “like” and “favourite” their content.”

That is good news, on the whole, but it does tend to be a “cup half full” interpretation because it doesn’t analyse why some of the scientific institutions are failing when it comes to social media. It’s great that 91% of the country’s 45 major research organisations engaged in scientific research have an official social media presence. But what about those 9% which don’t?

Which institutions are the slow uptakers?

First the good news:

“The University of Auckland, GeoNet and Te Papa have the most followers for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube respectively.”

But apart of Auckland University, Auckland Museum, Te Papa and Geonet the main users of social media appear to be the universities. Although smaller sections of the research community – including university faculties, departments and research labs and collaborations – have been slower to adopt social media. Facebook appears to be their preferred platform.

What sticks out like a sore thumb to me is the absence of the larger Crown Research Institutes. My old institute, AgResearch, certainly wasn’t among the front-runners in this report – despite the fact that it is the largest Crown Research Institute and involved in research vital to this country’s main industries. However, on checking I found that AgResearch does have a Facebook and Twitter presence. It’s just that the likes (Facebook) and followers (Twitter) are very low compared with the front-runners. For example, its about 1100 Facebook likes compares with University of Waikato’s 35,000!

At least it is something, I suppose. From my memories of the conservatism of the heads of communication departments in my day I was half afraid they were shunning social media altogether. Mind you, with this low performance I can’t help feeling their approach to social media is possible only luke-warm.

If this is the case, I suspect it could be a common problem with Crown Research Institutes which tend to be bureaucratic and unwilling to allow uncontrolled or unsupervised contact of staff members with the public. I guess that is a human organisation problem but it is a pity because these institutes do have large “client” or “customer” groups which already use social media and would willingly connect via such media. Probably more so than through the limited industry meetings, conferences and field days – and centrally managed press releases.

This is not a suggestion that these institutes turn away from their tried and true communication methods – far from it. Just a suggestion that supplementation via social media can enhance and widen such communication.

*Download the report here.

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Anonymous comments on social media

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Something I picked up on the internet.

Yes, I know – some people have legitimate and understandable reasons for being anonymous when they comment on social media. Concern for jobs and protection for family and self.

I can appreciate that and have no issue with those people.

But there is just such a lot of rubbish spouted by anonymous commenters on social media. I can only conclude the reason for anonymity of these hostile and drive-by commenters is that they are at least subconsciously aware of the rubbish they are promoting so do not want their name associated with it.

Whatever their reason, anonymity seems to bring out the worst in these people. and they waste a lot of time for others who attempt to debate them.

Social media and science – the problems and the challenge

Social media – Facebook, Twitter, etc., – are a challenge for science.  Often considered frivolous or at least not serious, they are tempting to ignore. But it seems that many anti-scientific or pseudoscientific ideas a promoted by social media. What’s more, these new social media are very effective at promoting messages, especially in areas of social health, so we ignore the media at our peril. Social media are a fact of modern life and if we can’t beat them, perhaps we should use them ourselves. These are the messages I got from a recent study of the way public health misinformation is promoted via social media. The paper is:

Seymour, B., Getman, R., Saraf, A., Zhang, L. H., & Kalenderian, E. (2015). When Advocacy Obscures Accuracy Online: Digital Pandemics of Public Health Misinformation Through an Antifluoride Case Study. American Journal of Public Health, 105(3), 517–523.

Although limited to an anti-fluoride Facebook case study I believe that the findings are also applicable to other anti-scientific movements like anti-vaccination and climate change denial. Here are some of the findings in the paper.

Anti-fluoride Facebook groups are highly connected

The connectedness within and between anti-fluoride networks was measured to get an idea of their social influence. networks Facebook “friend” connections between members within groups and between groups was very common and overall the study sample showed a significantly higher degree of connection than in Facebook overall. This is probably the result of group members having similar ideology or other traits leading to a desire to form social connections. Social influences lead to group shaping of individual attitudes and behaviours related to health and not reliance on expert findings.

Social diffusion of scientific misinformation

Using an original source article the authors followed posts about the article to determine the degree of social diffusion. They found 60% of the time a reader would have to follow 2 to 3 links to arrive at the original source with such a search failing 12% of the time. This demonstrated that:

“on average, there was a high risk that antifluoride Facebook group members engaged in posts about the article would be forced to navigate through multiple pages to locate the original post or would never succeed in locating it at all, greatly increasing the likelihood for the spread of misinformation and misrepresentation of the scientific article’s content.”

Although not detailed in the paper I believe that key sources of primary information for such social networks is very often articles in the “natural” health or alternative health magazines and websites which have already misinterpreted and misreported the scientific literature.

Engagement and sentiment

The levels of engagement and sentiment of the most influential posts were analysed:

“to explore the user experience with social diffusion of information and to determine how these posts could potentially influence group member attitudes and behaviors. Considering the distance between reference posts and the original source, this is particularly important.”

The figure below illustrates their finding for  the 2 most influential posts in the social diffusion map. Interestingly:

“The most frequent type of comment about the posts and the type of comment that received the most engagement were the science-based comments . . . Science-based comments overall received a positive (profluoride) total sentiment score of 36 (additive over all comments), whereas all other types of comments received an overall negative (antifluoride) sentiment score of –47.”

Seymour-3

“These results demonstrate that the user experience, when engaging with these influential posts, is just as likely to be negative and irrelevant to the original source as it is to be positive and reference scientific information (accurate or not). Our results demonstrate a high probability (1 in 2 chance) of encountering negative and non-science-based information about fluoride that is unrelated to the original peer-reviewed scientific publication under discussion.”

Social media overriding traditional health communication?

The new social media have given a new power to social networks:

“Historically, naturally limiting factors such as geography and communication barriers inhibited opportunities for strengthening networks with outlying views. Risky behaviors as a result of shared moral evaluations, such as opting out of  recommended childhood vaccination schedules and rejecting fluoridation, reverberated in existing small networks without necessarily scaling to dangerous magnitudes.”

But:

“online social networking allows greater connectivity among networks through the increased visibility of group behavior; previously nonnormative behaviors can thus become normative through the use of social media.”

Now that minority ideas and behaviours have an online market they can spread through confirmation bias and the expanding social networks, and the strong ties in the networks reinforce the sentiments behind the spreading messages.
The group thinking and the “silo,” even protective,  nature of social networks means that:

“Expert opinion grounded in evidence that contradicts the sentiments embedded in a socially diffused message will be quickly rejected; acceptance of this contradictory information would be socially detrimental to the network, challenging its very identity. Thus marks the beginning of digital pandemics of misguided and incomplete health information in which evidence becomes entirely secondary to the sociology of the networks diffusing it.”

Are there lessons here for pro-science groups?

The findings of this research will strike a chord with sceptics and others who fight anti-evidence-based approaches to health online. They will easily recognise the social norms of such groups which leads to rejection of any attempt to inject a pro-science discussion. They will have experienced the put-downs and banning or blocking used to reinforce and protect those within-group social norms.
But should we be drawing lessons from this? The authors conclude:

“Traditional vertical health communication strategies, such as broadcast diffusion through peer review publication and media reporting, may no longer be effective because of the existence and viral potential of social diffusion”

Perhaps we have to accept that:

“the sociology of networks is perhaps just as influential as, if not more influential than, the information content and scientific validity of a particular health topic discussed within and between certain networks via social media.”

Rather than trying to beat this new technology perhaps we should try to use it ourselves more effectively. The authors suggest:

“Empirical social strategies for health communication should focus not only on high-quality digital information production and dissemination but also on socially targeted and custom-designed messaging that conforms to the norms and values of specific target networks rather than challenging them. Developing an appreciation for the sociology of target groups could assist public health experts in increasing influence in problem networks and could provide the tools to predict, prevent, or reverse digital pandemics.”

The internet has forced changes on the traditional methods of information dissemination in other areas so it is really not surprising to expect it to change scientific and public health communication. As the authors say in their final words:

“The public nature of social media is at once a barrier to accurate information flow online and a tremendous opportunity for public health research, innovation, and intervention. In an age when negative digital pandemics can go viral, public health communication management strategies must go social.”

See also: An emerging threat of “digital pandemics”- lessons learned from the anti-vaccine movement
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“Internet and social media misinform thousands daily”

A recent analysis of the internet and social media illustrates the up-hill battle science and health professionals, and pro-science lay people, often face with misinformation and outright distortion of science. The authors show the problem for the case of community water fluoridation and concluded:

“The Internet and social media are misinforming thousands of people daily about the safety, health, and economic benefits of community water fluoridation. The leading anti-fluoridation website had 5 to 60 times more traffic than the two leading profluoridation health organizations. All Groups and Pages analyzed on Facebook were against fluoridation, while 99 percent of the videos searched on YouTube and the majority (70 percent) of fluoridation tweets on Twitter were anti-CWF fluoridation.”

This study drew important lessons for science and health professions:

Pro-fluoridation organizations need to have a better presence on the Internet and utilize social media to educate the American people about the facts on fluoridation. Individual dental and health practitioners need to educate their patients about fluoridation, so their patients will not be easily misguided by misinformation on the Internet and social media.

And, of course, these lessons are just as applicable to New Zealand.

The study is reported in the paper:

Mertz & Allukian (2014). Community Water Fluoridation on the Internet and Social Media. Journal of the Massachusetts Dental Society, 63(2), 32–36. (You can download a pdf here.)

They monitored website traffic for major fluoridation websites from June 2011 – May 2012 and fluoridation information on Facebook on April 3, 2012. In addition they collected search data for the term “fluoridation” on Twitter for 2 periods (March 1 – 14 and April 1 – 14, 2012) and on YouTube for April 3, 2012.

The data

I illustrate some examples of the data presented in the figures and tables below.

This figure shows that the most important anti-fluoridation website, Paul Connett’s Fluoride Action Network, had far more traffic than the Wikipedia fluoridation section and the institutional web sites (which are pro-fluoridation) on fluoridation.

web-sites

The situation for Facebook groups and pages was even more dire with 193 search results being “anti” while none were “pro.”

Table-1

The Twitter search also showed far more anti- than pro-fluoridation tweets, although the data shows  the numbers are influenced by important articles.

Table-2

Some observations

Of course this is a limited study and much more could be said about this situation, the business interests driving it and possible solutions. I list a few observations below:

1: This study is a snapshot in time. For example, Table 1 would look a little different at this time (January 2015) than it did in April 2012. There are now a number of specifically pro-fluoridation, or at least uncommitted Facebook pages and groups.

My brief search for Facebook “pages” and “groups” using the words fluoride or fluoridation showed about 8 pro-fluoridation, or neutral, pages in the first 50 results for “fluoride” and 2 for “fluoridation.” There were about 4 “pro” Facebook groups in the first 50 for either of these two search terms.

Things are improving. In New Zealand we have seen an increased activity of pro-science groups since the undemocratic decision (now reversed) of the Hamilton City Council to stop fluoridation. This was under pressure from anti-fluoride activists (nationally and internationally) and against the expressed wishes of the citizens. Similar fight-backs are happening overseas – in USA, Canada, Ireland and the UK. The progress is welcome  but more is required. Although I should note there is a tendency for anti-fluoridation activists to set up Facebook pages for many locations where there may have been suggestions of campaigns but the pages become inactive in a short while.

2: Who is financing these anti-fluoridation websites and social media activity? There is a clear connection between the “natural” health industry and anti-fluoridation organisations and activity. Paul Connett’s Fluoride Action Network is organisationally connected with Mercola’s “natural” health business (and anti-vaccination groups) through the “Health Liberty” organisation  and financial flows from Mercolla to FAN are well known. Similarly in  New Zealand the “natural” health industry, through the NZ Health trust, has financed legal action of anti-fluoridation groups (see Who is funding anti-fluoridation High Court action? and Corporate backers of anti-fluoride movement lose in NZ High Court).

3: Is there an underlying purposeful strategy behind then internet and social media anti-fluoridation activity? Definitely. I gave an example illustrating this in Anti-fluoridationist astro-turfing and media manipulation. Activist groups will create press releases pretending to be scientifically authoritative. These are picked up by the “natural” health web sites and magazines (and sometimes, if they are lucky) by the main media. They get coverage on Facebook pages and are tweeted – often automatically by internet bots and the web sites themselves. They can easily create “Twitter storms” this way and widely spread their misinformation.

Here are some typical examples that get repeated ad nauseum:

And, the misinformation cycle gets repeated. Information on Twitter gets reproduced in blog comments and included in web sites and press releases.

4: Institutional web sites are not really suitable for this sort of debate on the internet and in social media. This is partly the problem of a serious, rational or logical web presence challenging an often emotional web presence. A calm explanation of the science challenging claims appealing to preconceived prejudices and emotional needs.

Also, institutions traditionally have felt such debates are somewhat “below” them, preferring not to get into what they see as “street-fighting.” Recently I heard of a case where an anti-pseudoscience group had asked permission to use material from a professional dental site for use in a booklet. They were turned down because the association could not see why this was necessary!

This suggests that pro-science activists should consider taking the initiative, launching their own web sites, etc., and participating in these sorts of struggles, rather than relying on existing institutions. Similarly such activists should see they can play a far more active role on Facebook and Twitter than institutions can, or a willing to.

Conclusion

This study shows that people are in general being misinformed by social media and the internet about community water fluoridation. I suggest this is not accidental – political and business interests are actively encouraging this misinformation. In particular, the “natural” health industry plays a key role in promoting misinformation on fluoridation.

Recently things are improving a little with a fight back from pro-science groups and individuals. I suggest their activity is essential as institutional groups and media outlets are not suited for  internet and social media debates.

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“I just know”

This is from a satirical site – but the trouble is many people seems to think this way. They are continually commenting on blogs and other social media and think their arguments trump science!

From The Spudd.


evidence-pyramid

“I just know” replaces systematic reviews at top of evidence pyramid

The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) announced today that “I just know” will replace systematic reviews as the top level of evidence available in medical research. For years scientists and doctors have dismissed anecdotes from the likes of anti-vaxxers and pseudoscience pushers, but it appears they are finally ready to listen.

“After much research and deliberation, we feel we cannot ignore what a parent or conspiracy theorist feels “in their gut”. There are just too many anecdotes and too many people buying untested alternative health products to ignore this any longer,” explained SHEA spokesman Dr. Harold Rami.

Homeopaths, Naturopaths, Chiropractors and anti-vaxxers the world over are celebrating this as a huge victory.

“Even though my son was showing signs of autism before he got vaccinated, I know in my gut and in my heart that it was still the vaccines that caused it,” said mother and anti-vaccine advocate Cheryl Jones.

“This is a big win for us,” said Naturopath and homeopathy dispenser, Paul Theroult. “I have seen it many times. I sell my patients a homeopathic remedy – for say the common cold – and then bam, they are cured within one to two weeks. There is no science backing up my claim that the homepathic pill cured their cold, but in my gut I just know it did.”

 

The inverted ethics of doxxing?

Came across this word “doxxing” lately. According to Wikipedia it refers to “the Internet-based practice of researching and broadcasting personally identifiable information about an individual.” My introduction to this new word was in a discussion of the ethics of identifying people who troll on social media sites.

doxxing1

Credit: Curiosmatic

I can understand why some people must protect their identity when commenting on social media. Whistle blowers, etc., are obvious – but even seemingly mundane topics may need some anonymity because of jobs, etc.

But, apart from jobs, I can never understand those people who insist on anonymity when discussing scientific knowledge. Surely that immediately undermines their credibility – especially when they confront, or abuse, other commenters who have no trouble identifying themselves.

In my experience it is the anonymous commenter who tends to be the most abusive. So, why should ethical concerns about doxxing give free rein to the internet bully? I find myself sympathising with PZ Myers comment on this topic in his recent post The inverted ethics of the internet.

“It seems to me that there is a significant difference between maintaining internet anonymity to prevent being harassed, vs. anonymity used to enable harassment. But this distinction is routinely ignored, especially by the harassers, who just lump violating either into the category of the most sacrilegious of all internet violations, the total desecration of the holiest principle of all communication, doxxing. I suspect the only reason that “doxxing” has been elevated to such a sacred level of knee-jerk abhorrence is not out of some virtuous desire to protect the innocent, but entirely to protect the guilty.”

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How can scientists use social media?

This video will mainly interest scientists who are interested in social media and its use in networking (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc). Scientist took a while to accept this new media, and many are still suspicious or reluctant to use it. But at least the media is being discussed and considered these days.

This is a Google Hangout video of a discussion by 5 US scientists. it brought home to me that different people use these media for different purposes and in different ways. As a retired scientist my use could be very different to the way a working scientist uses it. And scientists involve in policy issues, or science communication, will use it differently to those involved in teaching and/or research.

Credit: UCS Science Network: Tip of the Week | Union of Concerned Scientists.

Black cat in a dark room – and the role of science

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There are some  really excellent quotes on social media – Facebook and Twitter.
The one above really appeals to me. Sure the classifications are broad, and it would be interesting to break each one down. But the main message is certainly one I agree with.

It does summarise the problem very well. But I am sure someone will disagree?