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The role of social media in science communication

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

It’s a lovely Saturday morning and I am on my front porch scrolling through my Facebook reading about my friends’ take on the latest Marvel movie and watching videos of adorable kittens when my contentment is rudely interrupted. A Facebook post stating that genetically modified produce is “toxic” appears under my scrolling thumb instantly making my intellect bristle with frustration. In the deep recesses of my mind, I wage an inner war- should I comment and try to educate this obviously confused Facebook friend, or should I go about my day and ignore it?


All of us at one time or another have experienced this exploitation and misrepresentation of scientific information. Whether it be about vaccines, genetically modified organisms, or the fact that it is beneficial (Ask Dr. Jenny Gunther- this is NOT the case) to rub Vicks on your lady parts misinformation is rampant in this day and age thanks to the lovely world wide web. This misinformation can be spotted by professionals such as scientists and physicians, but it is sometimes difficult for the general public to recognize such trumpery. Now you may ask why does that matter as long as the professionals are aware of the truth?


Individuals are armed with an arsenal of misinformation and this can lead to dire consequences. A prime example of this is the comeback of once controlled diseases such as mumps and measles due to the anti-vaccination movement. The majority of this country is comprised of individuals that are not experts in the fields of science. Let’s look at some statistics to put the issue in perspective. According to a Google search, the population of the United States is 325.7 million. Of those 325.7 million approximately one million are physicians and one million hold doctorates in a field of science. So less than one percent of the country’s population is professionally educated in fields of science and healthcare. This gap demands to be filled.


The only way that this gap will be filled is if individuals with the educational backgrounds necessary to fully understand these issues educate the public and social media is the way to go. It is instant and for the most part it is free for individuals to interact with- both for the one posting the information and the reader. One way to implement this would be to have courses (or portions of a course) specifically targeting scientific advocacy and communication via social media introduced into graduate programs. For example, an assignment might be given where a student must make a video or blog about a misconception in their field of science. This is something that could be done by members of a graduate student association/club as well.

Benefits to this idea include: a force of up and coming scientists that grew up in a world where social media is second nature to them educating their followers on social media, it will allow for two way communication between the general public and the nation’s future scientists in an informal setting, and it will provide the students themselves with invaluable experience that they can use later in their career to further educate others. There are drawbacks, however. One of the main ones is that a student could promote inaccurate information. This would reflect on the institution/graduate program which could cause a myriad of problems. Another challenge is that there will be individuals on the receiving end of the information that will argue to the death that accurately presented information is in fact a conspiracy (Anti-vaxxers anyone?) or in some way false. I think, however, that the benefits of promoting sound scientific information far outweighs any of the challenges that might be faced. After all, that is what science is all about finding the truth and spreading the word about it.



Resources:

MalakoffApr, David. “What If Every Scientist and Engineer in the U.S. Marched? How Many Would That Be?” Science | AAAS, 26 July 2017, www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/04/what-if-every-scientist-and-engineer-us-marched-how-many-would-be.

Laporte, John. “Topic: Physicians.” Www.statista.com, www.statista.com/topics/1244/physicians/.



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