Social media is an interesting place. It can be a repository for amazing information and access. At the same time, it can be a dead end street of meanness and misinformation. It can be a place for credible experts to connect with others beyond the ivory towers and a place where someone can get an audience, whether they deserve one or not. My wife recently pondered how I would so effortlessly ignore trolls or personal attacks when she’s ready to pounce (that’s one of the reasons I love her). The simple answer is, by acknowledging stupidity, you legitimize it. However, the conversation sparked a deeper question. Why do respected, published, and admired scientists endure trolling and attacks from faceless people behind keyboards? I offer three reasons based on my own experience.
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – APRIL 5: Trolls social media texts appear on the demon banner meanwhile … [+]
Although I am unable to speak for all scientists, I can offer perspective. As a meteorologist and climate researcher active on social media, I’m sure to get my share of the trolling. People will attack my perspectives on climate science, my race, my intelligence, etc. It doesn’t bother me at all and I am often amused by it. However, there are scientists who avoid social media because they cannot stand the trolling or fear the intimidation. But it’s worth it.
One reason we endure the “hot mess” that social media can be is because it is an effective medium for exposing the general public, the media, and policy makers to real science. The vast majority of people don’t regularly crack scientific journals or conference reports, but rather are on Twitter and Facebook. It is imperative that academics get involved in these areas because when credible expertise is not involved, pseudo-competence and poor agendas are happy to fill in the gaps we leave behind. MedicalBrief columnist Alastair McAlpine understood this. According to McAlpine’s Law, pseudoscience will always try to fill gaps in scientific knowledge.
A 2013 study by Isabelle M. Côtéimcote of Simon Fraser University and Emily S. Darling of the University of Toronto found that scientists with more than 1,000 followers have exponentially increased their ability to share credible scientific information. Dr. Robert Rohde is a senior scientist at Berkeley Earth. Rohde recently did an excellent job analyzing the reach and effectiveness of climate researchers on social media. He recently tweeted Professor Katharine Hayhoe’s Twitter list of climatologists, the most-followed climatologists, and some outstanding experts who may be flying under the radar.
WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 10: Atmospheric scientist and Christian Katharine Hayhoe poses for a portrait … [+]
The Washington Post via Getty Images
Another reason why scientists are likely to endure trolling is passion, which not only serves as an antidote to the “Admonish Kruger Effect”, and coordinated campaigns of misinformation. We are excited about what we do. I’ve been in awe of hurricanes, thunderstorms, etc. since 6th grade and have had a career understanding how our Earth system works. This sets a yardstick and shield that trolls may not understand. For them, it could be agendas, political motives, or the goal of being disoriented or angry. For many scientists, the opportunity to share, talk about, or practice science is golden. It’s organic. I can usually see ulterior motives and stay away from them.
The final reason some scientists can bear the discomfort of the occasional stimulus from social media is what I call a “boiled peanut incentive.” I grew up in the south and love cooked peanuts. If you’re not from here, you might say, “What are these?” They are amazing and a staple of country roads and college football games here. Anyway, it can be a bit messy and awkward to step into, but once you get the shell behind you, the moist, slightly salty nut is sooo worth the effort. I think this feeling probably applies to crab lovers too. Scientists studying climate change, or COVID-19, have goals that go well beyond the triviality of Twitter arguments. Our work is for a greater good – the advancement of knowledge, the betterment of society and the future of our children. We are able to endure a few internet shells to get to our ultimate price.
I hope this captures what some of my colleagues are feeling too. When I think about my life, my upbringing, my challenges, and my circumstances, there are several other things that I’ve come to realize with age and experience. When I think about my trip, the rule “sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me” comes up and I just brush the silly stuff off my shoulders. I have overcome and mastered far greater challenges.
A woman cooking peanuts in the Bama Nut shop. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg / Universal Images Group … [+]
Universal Images Group via Getty Images