Scientists need to talk to more than just each other.

If you’ve ever talked to a scientist, you know they usually have pretty strong opinions that they are not shy about expressing. Except, apparently, in the comments section of general science blogs. Here the silence is scary and, depending on whether these comment sections matter or not, potentially dangerous.

If the comments section is a sort of clearinghouse of ideas, then scientists need to be represented in a science blog. People should hear every part of a debate including a scientist’s perspective. This is especially true if the blog hinges on some key scientific fact which has a huge amount of data to support it. A scientist needs to step up and let people know what the data shows. Unfortunately, this isn’t happening right now as much as it should.

This situation has kind of bothered me for awhile but a red flag went up as I perused the comments section of Liza Gross’ recent blog on vaccines. There were a couple of comments that were flat out wrong and yet no one challenged these doozies directly. And what’s more, there seemed to mostly be support from the other commenters which may have made the comments seem more legitimate than they were.

The most egregious assertion in the comments was that “vaccines have never saved us from these diseases…” This is factually incorrect and it would be extremely difficult to find a scientist that agrees with this assertion. Not because they have all been bought off by pharmaceutical companies but because the facts completely disprove this assertion. There is no “controversy” in the scientific world about the fact that vaccines have saved millions of lives.

After reading this comment, I waited patiently for someone to refute it. There was eventually a comment that refuted a different part of this comment but it didn’t focus on the idea that vaccines have never prevented any diseases. In the meantime the comment got 23 little up arrows (equivalent I suppose to likes on Facebook) and only three down arrows (one of which was mine!). This made it look like most people agree with this assertion.

I then sent out a plea to a bunch of scientist friends to please comment on the blog. They replied about the deplorable state of science education in the U.S. and how you’ll never convince these folks of anything, but none of them commented on the blog itself. Which got me to thinking about why they stayed away.

Undoubtedly they didn’t want to deal with the blowback of the internet world. You have to feel pretty strongly about something and feel that what you’re saying will make a difference to deal with the insults, down arrows and so on. It could be they just didn’t think it was worth it.

Another big issue is time. It takes a lot of time to craft meaningful answers to these comments.

Ideally you want to provide links to support what you say which, if it is a bit outside your field, will take a lot of work. This is especially a problem given some of the lengthy comments that need refuting. It would take so much time to refute eleven separate points in a single comment that a scientist might just throw their hands up in frustration and walk away. (I have certainly done that on occasion.) Add to this the fact that most scientists aren’t natural writers and that there is little to no incentive for providing these comments and you have a recipe for no scientist involvement.

A final reason might be the loneliness of being the one person bringing up mainstream science. This is really driven home in the comments section of Liza’s blog by the one commenter who doggedly refuted many of the most egregious assertions on the vaccine blog. I have the utmost respect for this person because he (or she?) was willing to keep going in, spending the time and taking the abuse to point out what the science actually says. This is probably more than most scientists would be willing to deal with.

And unfortunately, without support, this commenter appeared to be shouted down and almost seemed a minority opinion even though he was expressing the majority view. What this person could have accomplished with some support and a little sunnier disposition!

What all of this points to is scientists needing to be more involved in these sorts of comments. Now I don’t mean they should dominate or be the only voice heard. One of the greatest powers of the comments section is that alternative views get to be expressed and debated. But for a debate to be meaningful, all sides need to be heard and mistaken comments corrected.

Wanted: Scientist Comments 28 December,2012Dr. Barry Starr

  • It’s a lot of work for very little reward. I am willing to tackle these sorts of things that I care passionately about (chemophobia, “STEM shortage” talk, etc.). Perhaps the best way to deal with the issue to for science communicators to have a mental list of people who specialize in the particular myth that needs refuting, etc.

  • DeepBlueScience

    Agree with you 100% Barry, though I can’t help but ask why you didn’t submit a comment or two yourself to the article in question. Perhaps your reasons were shared by your friends.

    Scientists do need to make their voices heard more in internet debate, 5 minutes effort here and 10 minutes there can make a real difference when enough people are doing it. This is why Speaking of Research joined several other organizations in launching the Science Action Network to counter misleading animal-rights propaganda, posting alerts on twitter with the hashtag #ARnonsense. One of the things the Network does is provide information on many common claims to help save time in crafting a response.
    It’s early days yet, but perhaps in time this and other similar initiatives in other areas of research will begin to persuade scientists that getting involved in public debate doesn’t mean having to devote many hours a week to running their own blog or website (though it’s great that some do this).

  • Anna Haynes

    From a practical standpoint it’d be helpful if all fields of misinformation had a “myths refuted” site like climate science’s, and that scientists knew about it, so that anyone replying could just point to that site or to the particular refutation.

    Or better yet, write a (self-identified, signed, science-aligned and peer-reviewed) bot to do this work.
    But what science organization could we task with taking on the reviewing (and perhaps content-writing) process?

    • Anna Haynes

      And a bot wouldn’t solve all problems; we still need an expert to clarify the communications (of detail or big picture) of “local experts” (of all political persuasions) who have wider reach than just a comments section, and who may have more confidence than expertise.

      …which means that the expert needs to feel comfortable about offering up “big picture” statements (particularly when the picture that was being painted gives a misleading view), to give the readers/viewers/listeners the information they need to be – along with their descendants – free and self-governing.

    • Rbutr is something I used that way. Partly as my own way to store rebuttals to quackery that I’m sure to need in a comment thread later.

      Although I agree on the “point to” site: many of my cohorts would love a ScienceSnopes, and we toyed with the idea for GMOs, but it’s hard to do as a small group.

  • I’m afraid the only way to get healthy participation from the scientific community in the blogosphere may be to assign some sort of impact factor to blogs.

    I try to participate in online public forums but one discouraging factor is the level of debate that usually occurs in the comments. Sure I can swoop in and call BS on some anti-vaccine troll and I can even post links to support my assertions but to the lay reader I am indistinguishable from the troll. They too post links to sites with very sciencie-sounding words, they too are very opinionated, and they come armed to the teeth with anecdotal evidence that looks very convincing to folks that can’t recognize ‘anecdotal’ evidence. I agree, participation is important but the real contribution of the scientific community should be to raise the level of debate so that it’s easier for the lay person to identify crap.

  • onesleepynerd

    That’s precisely why Quora is more reliable than Yahoo Answers and/or blogs. The question answerer is identified, along with credentials, and members who upvote the answers are also often identified with their credentials. Personally, I don’t comment on these blogs because my scientific background does not specifically deal with these controversial topics, so while it is easy to discredit a random commenter, it would be equally easy to discredit my opinion because I am not an expert in the matter.

    • John Fiorentino

      A few comments……………….

      1. to onesleepynerd………..The idea that one must be an “expert” in a particular field, to even have an opinion about something is to me well……ludicrous. We are not in a court of law, where the “expert witness rule” applies.

      I was involved in the law for many years, and through various associations I can tell you that even many judges get frustrated with that particular rule of evidence. It can be and often is subverted.

      I have communicated with Barry on NUMEROUS occasions and I think if he is honest about it, he will say we’ve had some rather lively discussions, even though my “formal” qualifications in some areas don’t match his.

      And, just as an aside……..I do think it extremely important to make a distinction between “education” and “formal education.” Most people, get some education every day of their lives, though certainly not all are attending a University for example.

      The idea that one can only learn or be educated at Harvard, or Yale, or behind ANY four walls with a name out front is the height of ignorance.

      I think most who have responded on this blog are sincere, There does seem however to be a thread of disdain which runs through several comments here.

      The idea that because one is a scientist might require that you answer questions from “lay persons” or defend your positions with those who are not members of your club is and (I know from experience) disdainful to many in the sciences.

      Certainly most of us are very busy, (that includes non-scientists, believe it or not), but that excuse is often used to simply cut off a dialogue which perhaps isn’t going the way a participant may like.

      Many scientists don’t make public comments or engage in debate because frankly, they often cannot defend their positions adequately, or are afraid they may be faced with some incontrovertible rebuttal from the other side.

      In closing let me just give you a few definitions of “scientist.”

      1) A scientist, in a broad sense, is one engaging in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge.

      2) “A scientist is a person who asks questions and tries different ways to answer them.”

      3) Science in its original sense is a word for a type of knowledge (Latin scientia, Ancient Greek epistemē),rather than a specialized word for the pursuit of such knowledge. In particular it is one of the types of knowledge which people can
      communicate to each other and share. For example, knowledge about the
      working of natural things was gathered long before recorded history and
      led to the development of complex abstract thinking, as shown by the
      construction of complex calendars, techniques for making poisonous
      plants edible, and buildings such as the pyramids.

      And to end it……and I’m sure many here if they’ve gotten this far will be eternally grateful…………I don’t know any Pharaohs who attended Harvard or Yale..

      So, anybody out there who wants to start a dialogue….I say.”fire away.”

  • I am a scientist who occasionally does this, and I agree that there are no professional incentives for doing so (probably even disincentives). But this is partly the case for blind peer review as well. I find myself much more likely to comment if I get a sense that the blog post or original article is a community and a conversation, rather than a broadcast model. If the author of the original post is taking part in the conversation, then I feel that they have much more of an ownership and a stake in the conversation. They will moderate, by deleting obvious trollery, and perhaps even supporting thoughtful links and explanations.

    I would also say that another way that original authors/journalists can support scientists taking part in these conversations is just asking. Scientists may often respond to a reporter calling about a story before it is written, why not ask a scientist for comment after it is written as well? If there are multiple misinformed commenters, the original author could post the scientists response as an addendum at the end of the original post. I can say pretty honestly that if a journalist asked me to comment on a story (let’s say on learning styles, one of the topics I have published about), I would probably be likely to leave a short comment at the post. But if the author responded to the comment with another question? I would be far more likely to leave several detailed comments.

    Scientists, like most people, are probably more likely to contribute to a conversation if they get a sense that it is a conversation, and not just lecturing into a void.

  • I try to chatter in many news/blog sites precisely because of that. And I used to be less visible about my gender but decided it was also important to have female voices be apparent.

    But I have some freedom: I work for myself. I know some people–including public health scientists–who are not allowed to use social media because of employer rules or discouragement. And there have been consequences for those who tried (see #EpiGate).

    I have had other scientists thank me on the backchannel because they can’t do it. One was a researchers on a controversial topic who felt he couldn’t really talk because he had fear for his kids. We know in this field labs have burned, so I can understand not taking that risk.

    However–it’s tedious. The 4-millionth* time you whack-a-mole on vaccines or GMOs or homeopathy you get pretty tired of it. And you know some of the other chattees are the same people you’ve given the facts before, and are completely impervious to data. It’s very frustrating. They aren’t playing on the same field, and it feels really futile.

    *unemcumbered by actual data; anecdote

    • DeepBlueScience

      Good point about scientists who are unable – for one reason or another – to comment under their own name, but in many circumstances a post under a pseudonym will do just as well. In particular I”ve been struck on many occasions when commenting on false allegations or misleading statements made in a local, national or student newspaper about research at a particular university that no scientists at that university seem able or willing to comment, despite being best placed to do so. We need to change this, and make responding the norm, otherwise we”re just ceding ground to those attacking science.

      • I know at some companies even that (pseudonymity) is discouraged. Because later it still could be claimed “shilling” or other flavors of conspiracy. It is policy to identify as someone from that company if you are going to comment. That can immediately derail discussion too, though, so it’s a tough call.

  • Liza

    Thanks for your post, Barry. I should say, in response to Cedar, that in the past, I’ve tried to respond to some of the more egregious statements, but things quickly get bogged down in personal attacks (not from me) and often outright craziness that it’s hard to know how to respond. The QUEST moderator has stepped in to delete posts that appear to be personal attacks or spam (there’re a lot of “cut and paste” commenting trolls in the anti-vaccine world). Since I’m no expert, it can involve a serious amount of time for me to check on a specific “assertion of fact,” which when it comes to vaccines can involve an endless stream of alternating tropes, red herrings, and myths. I’m familiar enough with most of them to correct the record but new ones pop up with alarming regularity. I realize that scientists have the same problem with time, but at least if the topic is in their field, they usually don’t have to check the scientific record. I have in the past asked a community of scientists on Google+ (where folks do break down topics into GMOs, vaccines, climate science, etc) and Twitter for help in some cases and they’ve responded when they could. The problem is, these discussions aren’t always what you would call a reasoned conversation or debate, which just ends up frustrating. That said, I do think it’s important to correct the record, to go to Barry’s main point, especially for readers out there who simply want to learn something.

  • Ask yourself: if you are not going to stand up and speak, who is? PETA, HSUS, BUAV?
    I thank all of you for the wonderful work you do every day whilst being lambasted for doing so…

  • Barry

    Thanks for all the comments…they show what a great forum a comments section can be. I had it in my head that maybe we should create a website loaded up with links to the
    appropriate research articles and gather up a large group of experts. Whenever any of them find a false statement along the lines of “vaccines have never saved us from these diseases…” then a warning cry goes out (maybe via Twitter?) and whoever is available from that large group can respond. And then I see in the comments section that something like that is already going on at How cool is that?

    I do want to reiterate that I really like the comments section that I don’t think people have to be an expert to comment there. My only point was that if someone says something that is factually incorrect like the world is flat or 2+2=5, then an expert should come in and refute that. Not to necessarily convince the person who makes the factually incorrect statement, but instead to let other people who are reading the comments section know what is factually correct. This is where expertise can help…when we are dealing with facts and not opinions.

    Finally, I want to point out an example where comments from nonexperts really helped me think about a problem differently. With even just a quick glance at chimpanzee
    and human chromosomes it is obvious that human chromosome 2 is really just
    chimpanzee chromosomes 12 and 13 stuck together. But then I got questions about how that could possibly happen and that made me think about the problem more deeply. It made me investigate balanced translocations and think about genetic drift.
    It all then culminated in an email from a Chinese doctor who had a patient with 44 instead of 46 chromosomes who was perfectly normal. He had two of his chromosomes stuck together in exactly the way you’d expect. Very cool and I am not sure I would have dug so deeply without the questioning from the comments section. 44
    chromosome man:

    • John Fiorentino

      “I do want to reiterate that I really like the comments section that I
      don’t think people have to be an expert to comment there. My only point
      was that if someone says something that is factually incorrect like the
      world is flat or 2+2=5, then an expert should come in and refute that.
      Not to necessarily convince the person who makes the factually
      incorrect statement, but instead to let other people who are reading the
      comments section know what is factually correct. This is where
      expertise can help…when we are dealing with facts and not opinions.”

      I want to thank Barry for the above, but would simply interject that on occasion the “layperson” is in possession of the “facts.” and it’s the “expert” who needs correcting.

      And while I’m not sure, I believe perhaps some of the conversations Barry and I had via personal e-mail and some on the record re: “Human Chromosome 2” may have spurred his continued interest.

      I find his even mentioning it to be quite refreshing.

  • Barry

    I find the expert thread of these comments to be really interesting. I hadn’t thought about some people not being able to reveal themselves as an expert out of fear. We also probably need to think about the fact that experts don’t necessarily have a good reputation. How do we get past this problem? Presenting data probably isn’t enough, especially when we present it with lots of jargon.

  • Richard Carlson

    Could I be right or am I wacko?

    I do hope I
    can clearly get my points across without too much confusion.

    Let us start
    with a ball and place it in front of a mirror. We all know that a mirror is
    absolutely bound by only two dimensions; height and width.

    The ball’s
    reflection takes up a particular AREA of the mirror. In other words, it’s
    reflection DISPLACES a given AREA. It will do so as long as there is nothing
    else in the way.

    Thus, the
    second dimension is simply an IMAGE of the third dimension. Think about this
    for a minute before going deeper into my thoughts.

    remember, if the second dimension had intelligence, it could neither see the
    third dimension nor fathom such a thing; because it has two dimensional eyes
    and two dimensional thinking.

    Well we are
    in the same boat…we do not have 4th dimensional eyes nor 4th
    dimensional thinking.

    The “why?” it
    seems to me, is that we are simply an image of the 4th dimension. To
    put it another way, we are a three dimensional mirror.

    I will not pretend to understand nor visualize
    the concept of how the 4th
    dimension appears or functions; but I
    believe it makes clear to me what GRAVITY really is.

    upon the VOLUME, not the mass of an object a certain amount of the 4th
    dimension is being DISPLACED, which we define as GRAVITY.

    When something is placed into water, it receives water pressure in accordance
    to it’s volume; not it’s mass. Although Jupiter is very large, it’s mass is not
    so great, but it’s gravity is greater than that of Earth….because of the
    greater VOLUME.

    To my
    thinking, it appears there is a parallel between the two examples.

    This is my
    simple explanation of what has baffled scientists for many, many years.

    Remember the Bible tells us that God said, “Let us make man
    in our IMAGE.”

    Please give me your
    opinion: Richard Carlson…1514 Ambrose
    Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio 45224 E-mail
    Thanks for your participation.

  • Barry
  • Angharad

    The Ebola outbreak proves my point that stupidity wins!
    And i thought they were smarter than that.


Dr. Barry Starr

Dr. Barry Starr (@geneticsboy) is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition.

You can also see additional posts by Barry at KQED Science, and read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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