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

Author

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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