Is the enthusiasm of the Internet FOR SCIENCE hurting real scientists?
March 14, 2015 11:53 AM   Subscribe

That's the argument made by Ben Thomas earlier this week. Thomas charges that overenthusiastic viral sharing of half-baked scientific projects can make it more difficult for more well-planned projects to achieve success, particularly when high-profile crowdfunded projects go on to flop badly. Worse, the public backlash when real, messier science fails to live up to the flashy, unrealistic claims that media and social media hype blows up can have repercussions even for scientists who are funded by traditional grants. Signe Cane has a useful criticism of Thomas' piece with advice for non-specialists on how to try to separate cool things in real scientific work from cool things that are mostly hype and exaggerations. On the flip side of crowdfunding, Jacquelyn Gill shares her experience of using crowdfunding to fund her scientific research, ultimately concluding that it was a hell of a lot of work for relatively minimal payout. And Terry McGlynn, another ecologist, expresses some reservations about the effects of crowdfunding and other publicly marketed initiatives on science more broadly.
posted by sciatrix (18 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Per populi, exposita lucror, ad scientia.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:12 PM on March 14, 2015

Definitely, science fandom has gotten really obnoxious lately.

But I think it's a mistake to excuse credentialed scientists from all blame. Blaming the AI crash of the '70s on the public and media is pretty unfair, for example, given the kinds of claims working researchers used to make all the time.

In fact, the proposed demarcation between scientists (blameless) and public and media (blameworthy) seems like a symptom of the same fan culture. Ignorant public, out of the way, let the Scientists do their thing; I fuckin' love science!

Overall, while the cultural institutions of science are a tremendous success on average, they are far from perfect and in some cases they are shameful. Social psychology has recently generated a string of scandals, perhaps most hilariously the "positivity ratio" case, where work that had literally nothing to do with the theory being advanced led to a large literature in top journals, tony appointments and grants, and a huge amount of popular attention. An eager public and media certainly played a role here, but none of this would have happened if the professionals of the field had displayed a meager amount of scientific virtue.
posted by grobstein at 12:53 PM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've always thought that membership in the "I Fucking Love Science" Facebook group should be restricted to people who ever took a science course as a free elective in college, or barring college attendance, can show that they've read "A Brief History of Time" or some similarly suitable book.

But Facebook continues to ignore my increasingly angry letters on the subject.
posted by Hatashran at 12:55 PM on March 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

AKA Elon Musk's Career
posted by Sangermaine at 12:57 PM on March 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yes, this. Thank you for posting.
posted by destro at 1:04 PM on March 14, 2015

I feel the main thing hurting science/scientists is the fact that there is almost absolutely NO value whatsoever placed on negative results. Awesome project idea: a journal/repository of such results.
posted by sexyrobot at 1:05 PM on March 14, 2015 [19 favorites]

'The International Journal of Negative & Ambiguous Findings'

sign me up
posted by j_curiouser at 1:40 PM on March 14, 2015 [7 favorites]

The problem with Thomas's proposed solution is that 10 seconds of googling is mostly going to get you other bloggers saying the same thing as the bloggers you're supposed to be verifying.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:44 PM on March 14, 2015

Detailed decade long analysis for modest, possibly negative, results: FUCKIN' SEXY, PRINT THAT SHIT.
posted by Ferreous at 2:19 PM on March 14, 2015

My mom sends me stuff on Facebook all the time from 'I Fucking Love Science' and I do not have the heart or the energy to explain whenever the thing she is excited about is inaccurate.
posted by pemberkins at 2:22 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Selections from Ben Thomas' twitter account:
"Tomorrow's anti-#cancer drug could be... aspirin? "

"Unlike Humans, Monkeys Aren’t Fooled By Expensive Brands"

"Researchers in Germany have grown complete spinal cords in a Petri dish!"
Yes, really.
posted by euphorb at 2:41 PM on March 14, 2015 [8 favorites]

Man, Bruce Sterling sees stuff coming from a long way off. From Distraction, published in nineteen goddamn ninety-eight:
"We live in the Age of Noise, and this is how we learn to be the scientists of the Age of Noise. We don't get to be government functionaries who can have all the money we want just because we give the government a lot of military-industrial knowledge. That’s all over now. From now on we’re going to be like other creative intellectuals. We're going to be like artists or violin-makers, with our little krewes of fans who pay attention and support us... We’ll do cute, attractive, sexy science, with small amounts of equipment. That’s what science has to be in America now.”
Weird internet moment: I had to look up that quote on Google Books, where I had to take a screengrab — you can't copy the text because people would scrape it — then upload the screengrab to an OCR site, where I had to fill in a CAPTCHA, because spammers were abusing the OCR solve CAPTCHAs. Can't make this shit up.
posted by sixswitch at 2:47 PM on March 14, 2015 [23 favorites]

I have an ecologist friend whose work has ended up a lot closer to that Sterling quote than she probably originally expected. She does great work, but the funding/employment side of things has meant a lot of careful personal branding, social media and online writing, and at least one crowd funded project that I know of. The option of having stable public funding for basic science is less and less available all the time for many people.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:02 PM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

One of the things I loved in Miyazaki's animated movie "The Wind Rises" was the way it didn't make science seem too easy. It showed how much you have to sacrifice, and how science can be well used or misused. I don't see that level of complexity on Facebook or in most movies or TV shows. On Facebook, science is the new bacon.
posted by acrasis at 3:05 PM on March 14, 2015 [8 favorites]

"i bet that guy fucking loves science" has been an in-joke with my friends about a Certain Type of guy for a while now
posted by p3on at 4:54 PM on March 14, 2015 [9 favorites]

I'll stay with the net neutrality idea, personally - or let the buyer beware, if that's more fitting. I can't imagine a day when a scientific post - a hard, "true" science post - wouldn't have some other scientist argue that it isn't correct or complete or it's contaminated or it's been disproven elsewhere. Points that all scientists agree upon are few and far between and there's no way the internet could ever host only hard, accurate science.

Foo-foo science has its place also in that it brings attention to errors and causes discussion and re-evaluation and even, sometimes, new approaches and new studies. And foo-foo science is also delightful when it leads a writer to fun sci-fi - steampunk would be a good example of steam-powered nonsensical mechanical inventions which are impossible but very entertaining.

I think we're best off letting people decide what they want to believe and what they don't; some people will believe anything they're told if the source is a favorite and won't believe anything else, no matter who says so. Those people would never be moved by hard science anyway - you can't make people understand who don't want to.
posted by aryma at 7:28 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I see the point the article is trying to make, and IFLS is probably the top of the list of offenders for breathlessly over promising, but prior to the internet, I would be forced to take the evening news' science report as truth. These days, there's a link to arvix for the actual paper, and internet commentary to put things into perspective.

For instance, today in the news,
Scientists discover how to change human leukemia cells into harmless immune cells which sounds amazing. Not to denigrate their hard work, but the corresponding /r/science link points out this work only applies in vitro, and is also very early stage, and not a new ingredient for cigarettes just yet.
posted by fragmede at 11:01 PM on March 17, 2015

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