Science by Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

This is an essay I wrote in 2013.

At the time, I was President of the Zoology Society of UNE and in charge of setting up and administering the Society's blog and Twitter accounts, so I was keenly interested in the role social media had to play in science communication.

 

Introduction

In the era of social media, tools such as blogs and Twitter offer a powerful method for scientists to act as a public voice for science. In spite of the wide variety of types of online conversations and the information being disseminated, scientists are increasingly turning to social media platforms as a way to share research findings (both theirs and others), ideas and opinions on scientific matters. Social media forums offer the ultimate platform for extensive scientific discussions, both preprint commentary and post-publication review, and tools such as blogs and Twitter allow for fast-paced conversations about issues that scientists want and need to discuss now. It has been proposed that the ‘online scientific community could become a powerful force for promoting important causes and connecting with policymakers’ (Bik & Goldstein 2013). Two topics that have risen to noteworthy prominence in social media are #arseniclife (to use its Twitter hashtag) and climate change.

In 2010, a research paper was published online by the peer-reviewed journal Science, and its authors claimed to have discovered a bacterium that could grow by using arsenic instead of phosphorus. The importance of the discovery was alluded to in a NASA media advisory four days prior to publishing (the journal article was under embargo by Science), and a press conference was held by NASA when the embargo was lifted. Within days it was reviewed and criticised across multiple social media forums by many scientists, including Rosie Redfield. Despite the media advisory and press conference, the authors felt a media forum was not the proper setting to respond to the criticisms levelled at their research, and refused to respond unless the discussions occurred within the peer-reviewed environment, which they eventually did – but eighteen months later. On the topic of climate change, there has been much discussion between some of the different ‘sides’ of the debate: those who agree climate change is real and humans are the primary cause, those who remain skeptical in the true meaning of the word, and those who refuse to acknowledge the facts and the science behind global warming. Social media provides a platform for extensive discussions and, for the topic of climate change in particular, it also has the capacity to bring together ‘disparate resources into an organised whole and weed out untrustworthy sources’ (Bik & Goldstein 2013). These examples are just two ways in which both society and the scientific community are embracing the concept of ‘science by social media’ – there are and will be many more.

 

Arsenic-munching bacteria

On 2 December 2010, a research paper with the innocuous title ‘A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus’ was published online by Science. (It appeared in print six months later on 3 June 2011.) The authors of the paper suggested it was possible that phosphorus, sulphur, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon were not the only elements that could make up lipids, proteins and nucleic acids, and they described a bacterium that was able to ‘substitute arsenic for phosphorus to sustain its growth’ (Wolfe-Simon et al. 2011). On the same day, NASA (2010) held a news conference to discuss the paper’s astrobiology claims, which had been advertised four days earlier via a Media Advisory and stated the findings ‘will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life’. This ‘terse, mind-bending announcement’ by NASA, which was probably intended only for the scientifically-literate who would understand the real purpose of the press conference, was a example of ‘woefully 20th-century thinking’ (Zimmer 2011). The advisory was rapidly taken up by bloggers across the world and news that alien life forms had (possibly) been discovered ‘zipped through the media ecosystem, eventually ending up on the websites of the major news organisations’ (Zimmer 2011).

Two days later, on 4 December, Rosie Redfield (2010), Professor of Zoology at the University of British Columbia, published a post on her blog, RRResearch, which Zimmer (2010) writing for the Slate blog on 7 December described as a ‘scathing attack’. Redfield’s post included the following criticisms of the Wolfe-Simon et al. (2011) paper:

“NASA’s shameful analysis of the alleged bacteria in the Mars meteorite made me very suspicious of their microbiology, an attitude that’s only strengthened by my reading of this paper.  Basically, it doesn’t present ANY convincing evidence that arsenic has been incorporated into DNA (or any other biological molecule).
 
“Bottom line:  Lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information.  The mass spec measurements may be very well done (I lack expertise here), but their value is severely compromised by the poor quality of the inputs.  If this data was presented by a PhD student at their committee meeting, I’d send them back to the bench to do more cleanup and controls. There’s a difference between controls done to genuinely test your hypothesis and those done when you just want to show that your hypothesis is true.  The authors have done some of the latter, but not the former.
 
“I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda.  I hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been overruled by Science’s editors in their eagerness to score such a high-impact publication.”

Zimmer (2010) contacted two of the paper’s authors for their responses to the criticisms, but ‘both politely declined by email’:

“We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time,” declared senior author Ronald Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey. “If we are wrong, then other scientists should be motivated to reproduce our findings. If we are right (and I am strongly convinced that we are) our competitors will agree and help to advance our understanding of this phenomenon. I am eager for them to do so.”
“Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated,” wrote Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. “The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner.”

Redfield conceded that the scientists had the right to hold off responding to their critics (Zimmer 2010) and she wrote a formal letter to Science (which she also published on her blog), detailing her objections, including that contamination of the biological samples was not meticulously eliminated, and it was published as a technical comment (Redfield 2011). University of California evolutionary biologist, Jonathan Eisen, however, was not so accommodating and suggested the authors’ refusal to address the criticisms outside of journals was ‘absurd’ and emphasised that ‘they carried out science by press release and press conference’ and it was therefore hypocritical to now restrict their responses to the scientific literature (Zimmer 2010).

There are no fewer than eight Technical Comments and a Response appended to the original Wolfe-Simon et al. (2011) research article in Science, plus an Editor’s Note and a News & Analysis piece by Pennisi (2011), which stated the debate ‘over whether a bacterium could thrive on arsenic ... is finally being aired in the scientific literature rather than on blogs’. The proper scientific discourse that Wolfe-Simon had invited in her communication to Zimmer (2010) was answered by James B. Cotner and Edward K. Hall; Steven A. Benner; B. Schoepp-Cothenet, W. Nitschke, L. M. Barge, A. Ponce, M. J. Russell and A. I. Tsapin; Patricia L. Foster; István Csabai and Eörs Szathmáry; David W. Borhani; Stefan Oehler and, of course, Rosemary J. Redfield (2011).

Then, at the end of January 2012, Redfield and her colleagues submitted a manuscript to Science, in which they ‘found that arsenate does not contribute to growth ... when phosphate is limiting and that DNA purified from cells grown with limiting phosphate and abundant arsenate does not exhibit the spontaneous hydrolysis expected of arsenate ester bonds’; additionally their mass spectrometry results demonstrated that the DNA contained free arsenate in only trace amounts and no detectable covalently bound arsenate (Reaves et al. 2012). The Oremland challenge was also taken up by Erb et al. (2012), who concluded that while the bacteria was arsenate-resistant it was also still phosphate-dependent.

In his Slate blog post, Zimmer (2010) made the closing comment, ‘this controversy may be burning brightly at the moment, but it probably won’t burn for long’. The controversy, however, has been played out on numerous social media forums for almost three years, including science blogs and Twitter. In fact, the first Twitter #arseniclife hashtag was used on 2 December 2010 and the most recent on 27 September 2013 – and there are quite literally thousands of Tweets on the topic in between (Twitter 2013).

The pertinent point raised by all of this online chatter is that the #arseniclife research paper was no longer just a scientific account about supposed arsenic-munching bacteria – it had become an example of how science by social media works, how Twitter and science blogs provide an immediate platform for public analysis and criticism, how social media is changing the way science is packaged and delivered to the wider world, and how the Internet has the potential to make science better. The world no longer has to wait (or always pay) to get quality scientific information. Nor do scientists have to wait to air their criticisms anymore, as Rosie Redfield clearly demonstrated.

Science by social media has its detractors – those who see it as a free-for-all without peer-review – but, as Rosen (2012) so fluently described it, ‘the science and surrounding reporting coming from [social media] looks smarter, cooler-headed, and more solid than that emanating from the older organs’. In comparing science by social media versus traditional science publishing in the context of the #arseniclife paper, ‘no greater stain exists than the mere fact of the study’s publication in that holy of holies, the peer-reviewed pages of Science’ (Rosen 2012). Shelley D. Copley of the University of Colorado told Zimmer (2010), ‘This paper should not have been published’ and, to date, it has not been retracted by Science (Retraction Watch 2013) – only refuted – and this fact demonstrates that social media provided a better peer-review service than did the journal; ‘the vetting that should have happened before publication happened after’ (Rosen 2012). As Battles (2010), a writer for the Gearfuse: Earth & Space blog, summarised in his post:

“The scientists’ onstage tensions, like the grumblings of colleagues elsewhere, are entirely healthy expressions of the human reality of science – but perhaps a NASA press conference was not their ideal setting. Results like Wolfe-Simon’s would be better presented in a journal committed to open access. In future, NASA would do well to let the process play out before calling for the biology textbooks to be rewritten.”

In the #arseniclife case study, the long held notion that the ‘proper way to engage in a scientific discourse’, as communicated by Wolfe-Simon to Zimmer (2010), will produce better science and therefore better science reporting was turned on its head. These so-called proper methods resulted in ‘uninformed hype, poor science and kept the sources – both human and paper – away from a conversation that was simmering with genuine enthusiasm and curiosity’ (Rosen 2012).

Science is about curiosity, testing hypotheses, making mistakes, learning, discovery and much, much more. It is no longer bound to the traditional peer-reviewed journals, and valuable scientific discussions are taking place across platforms such as Twitter and science blogs. As Jonathan Eisen told Rosen (2012):

“There is nothing in that system that says that [science] only works in this system that we have of peer reviewed journals. It is true that the system we have has done a decent job for years. And there is no doubt in my mind that the web, social media, and other novel forms of communication can enrich science.”

Zimmer (2011) explained that both the paper’s authors and NASA attempted to downplay the social media criticisms by resorting to the ‘bloggers-in-their-pyjamas card, but it was a losing hand’. Firstly, many of the people who were communicating via Twitter and blogs were actually practicing scientists wearing lab coats who wanted to have an open discussion. Secondly, while Zimmer’s (2010) invitation to respond in those early days was rejected by two of the leading authors, Wolfe-Simon has since delivered a high-profile TED lecture and appeared in a full-page spread in Glamour magazine, which contradicted her own definition of ‘the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse’.

To dismiss social media as an improper forum for science and accurate scientific reporting is not only naïve, it is also ignorant. Such an attitude has the potential to both alienate the people who reject it too quickly and to insult the many educated people who use the social media platform as an outlet for robust scientific discussion.

 

Wake up and smell the methane

Skepticism in science is beneficial. Science should be skeptical, because legitimate skepticism means taking into account all of the evidence before coming to a conclusion. Looking at the arguments expressed by climate change (so-called) ‘skeptics’, however, a common theme emerges: cherry picking of data while rejecting results that don’t support the arguments. This is not technically skepticism – it is wilful ignorance of the facts and scientific evidence. A more accurate term for people who demonstrate such behaviour is ‘denialists’.

“Scientists look for independent lines of evidence pointing to a single, consistent answer. The full body of evidence in climate science shows us a number of distinct, discernible human fingerprints on climate change. Measurements of the type of carbon found in the atmosphere show that fossil fuel burning is dramatically increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Satellite and surface measurements find that extra CO2 is trapping heat that would otherwise escape out to space. There are a number of warming patterns consistent with an increased greenhouse effect. The whole structure of our atmosphere is changing. The evidence for human caused global warming is not just based on theory or computer models but on many independent, direct observations made in the real world” (Cook 2010).

According to a collaborative effort between Dr Jan Dash and Dr John Cook, some of the top myths surrounding global warming and climate change are (1) climate has changed before, (2) there’s no consensus, (3) models are unreliable, and (4) it hasn’t warmed since 1998 (Skeptical Science 2013). The myths and countering scientific evidence are discussed below.

Climate has changed before. Richard S. Lindzen is a well known skeptic of the scientific consensus about climate change and critic of what he has termed ‘climate alarmism’, which he blames on climate scientists who have bowed to political pressures. Writing for the Doomed Planet blog, his post titled ‘Resisting climate hysteria: a case against precipitous climate action’ claimed that climate is always changing. He explained that the Earth has experienced warm periods and ice ages, that ice ages have occurred for the last 700,000 years in approximately 100,000-year cycles, and that earlier warm periods appear to have been even hotter than what the Earth is currently experiencing, in spite of CO2 levels being lower than they are now (Lindzen 2009). But what does the science actually say? The ‘climate has changed before’ argument proposes that because climate has changed naturally in the past humans are not responsible for the present global warming. This is not the case, however, as has been demonstrated by peer-reviewed research (e.g. most recently Huber & Caballero 2011; Valentine et al. 2011; Westerhold et al. 2011; Yang et al. 2012).

There’s no consensus. The Petition Project features the signatures of over 31,000 scientists who support the statement:

“There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the forseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environment of the Earth” (Petition Project 2013).

When scientists stop arguing about a topic it can be assumed that a consensus has been reached. Many different disciplines combine to inform the field of climate studies, and consensus about climate change is evidenced by the number of scientists who have ceased arguing about the cause – nearly all of them! A survey conducted by Oreskes (2004) of 928 peer-reviewed papers published between 1993 and 2003 on the subject of ‘global climate change’ established that not one single paper discarded the consensus position that global warming is a result of human activities. A subsequent study by Anderegg et al. (2010), which took into account the publication data of 1,372 climate researchers, found that 97-98 per cent of the field’s most actively publishing climate scientists supported the IPCC’s view of anthropogenic climate change. Additionally, the study compared the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the ‘unconvinced’ 2-3 per cent to that of the convinced researchers, and found they were substantially lower. This was supported by Doran and Zimmerman (2009), who explained that ‘the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes.’ Amongst climate science experts, the consensus is undeniable: global warming is caused by humans.

Models are unreliable. In an interview with the National Posts’ Lawrence Solomon (2007), Freeman Dyson, a mathematician and physicist, claimed that climate modelling is full of ‘fudge factors’ that are fitted to the current situation to ensure the modelling roughly agrees with the observed data. No grounds exist, therefore, to suppose that such fudging would give the right behaviour in a world with elevated levels of atmospheric CO2. The science, however, says that modelling has successfully reproduced global temperatures since 1900 and, far from being exaggerated, predictions may actually be conservative. For example, The Copenhagen Diagnosis evaluated tide gauges, satellite observation and the IPCC’s model-based predictions to show how they compared (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Sea level change from 1970 to 2010 (Allison et al. 2009).

Figure 1: Sea level change from 1970 to 2010 (Allison et al. 2009).

Models by their very nature, however, have limits and uncertainties, but they are improving over time. With more sources of real-world data, including satellite observations, the output of climate models is being continually refined to enhance their usefulness and power. Many of the incidents for which empirical evidence now exists were predicted by climate modelling – for example, Atlantic hurricanes (Chen & Lin 2011) and oscillations (Casado & Pastor 2012). Thus, models can be a reliable predictor of climate change.

It hasn’t warmed since 1988. The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC – and not to be confused with the IPCC) would have the world believe that global warming ceased in 1988 (unpublished data). The NICPP’s (2009) publication, ‘Climate Change Reconsidered’, reported temperature data that indicated a dramatic incline in the warming trend in the first ten years of the 21st century, and that this had been preceded by a comparably more moderate warming trend in the preceding two decades. To assert global warming ceased in 1998, however, ignores a basic physical truth – the atmosphere and land make up only a tiny fraction of the planet’s climate. To see the wider picture of climate change, the Earth's entire heat content must be considered, and when it is it plainly demonstrates that the planet is still accumulating heat – warming has continued since 1998 (Hunt 2011; Murphy et al. 2009; Lean & Rind 2009). Based on surface temperature records, 1988 the hottest year on record but, according to Fawcett (2007), this ‘record’ needs to take into account that in the same year an unusually strong El Niño triggered heat transfer to the atmosphere from the Pacific Ocean. As a result, the planet experienced higher than average surface temperatures and, since then, moderate La Niña conditions have had a cooling effect on temperatures globally (Fawcett 2007).

The Skeptical Science website was the initial source for most of the information presented in this section, ‘Wake up and smell the methane’ – both the myths and the countering scientific arguments – with peer-reviewed literature subsequently added. The Internet is awash with material about climate change and global warming. On the social media platform, much of this information can be found in blogs – both reliable and unreliable. They may take the form of accurate reporting of peer-reviewed scientific research, such as Skeptical Science, or they could be the various soapboxes of unapologetic denialists (e.g. Andrew Bolt’s Herald Sun blog). Thanks to the era of social media, almost anyone has the opportunity to express their opinion online – whether they are scientifically ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. In the realm of global warming and climate change, social media has become the virtual battleground between good and evil – between proper science and outright denial. Both sides appear just as convincing, but here is where the peer-review process comes to the forefront. The distinction between a ‘good blog’ and a ‘bad blog’ is quite easily determined by the calibre of evidence being presented. Social media forums may attempt to simplify the data on climate change so ordinary people can understand it, but a high quality science blog, for example, will still cite the peer-reviewed studies the author is basing his or her views on. Unreliable blogs may appear to do the same, but it only takes a little curiosity and some resourcefulness to check the references and separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff.

 

Conclusion

With each day that passes, science is becoming less and less of a monologue delivered to a very specific audience. According to Small (2011), ‘the days of scientists communicating only with each other, in the languages of our individual disciplines, and relying on science journalists to translate for the public, are rapidly coming to an end’. Scientists pride themselves on ‘doing meaningful, cutting-edge research and publishing it in the top-tier journals of [their] field’ (Wilcox 2012). Such publications, however, generally communication science to other scientists and most articles are only available to paying subscribers. Even those that are ‘open access’ are full of jargon, which acts as a language barrier, preventing those who wish to become more scientifically literate from understanding. Correspondingly, science has to find its place online and be actively engaged in social media forums – whether it’s critiquing research and discussing findings as per the #arseniclife example or, in the case of climate change, synthesising information and correcting falsehoods. The digital age means that scientists need to be connected with new opportunities to communicate with a wider audience. Sturgis and Allum (2004) suggested that, even though science is generally trusted and accepted, confidence can be lost when it comes to issues such as climate change; additionally, religious beliefs, personal values and the opinions of trusted people all interact with a person’s scientific understanding. ‘By connecting scientists with the rest of the world, social media is the most powerful tool available for us to shift this paradigm [and] it is an integral part of conducting and disseminating science in today’s world’ (Wilcox 2012).

 


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