The whole ‘social media is changing ______’ puzzles me. You can fill in the blank with science/government/social relationships/etc. It’s always the same notion. Somehow social media is engendering changes the like of which we’ve never seen before.
- The February 2011 overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt was all due to social media, as is the current social unrest in many Middle Eastern Countries.
- Social relationships are being negatively impacted (nobody talks to anybody else anymore or it’s opening new avenues for relationships)
- The practice of science is being changed by the use of social media.
Mostly I’m concerned with the one about science since I recently ended up on a panel where the discussion turned on this topic. I think there are a lot of things having an impact on how science is practiced and trying to establish the role social media is playing, if any, is a little premature.
We had Rosie Redfield on the panel. Rosie is a professor at the University of British Columbia who was part of the ‘arsenic life’ story that took the internet by a storm in late November/early December 2010. (Confession: I got caught up in the excitement in my Dec. 6, 2010 posting and recanted in my Dec. 8, 2010 posting.) Recently, there’s been a story about ‘arsenic life’ by Carl Zimmer for Slate magazine titled, How #arseniclife changed science. Here’s Zimmer’s set up (from the Slate article),
On November 29, NASA announced that it would soon hold a press conference to “discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Wild speculation ran amok—perhaps scientists had found living things on one of Saturn’s moons. At the press conference, the scientists did not unveil an actual extraterrestrial, but they did have big news. A new paper had just been published in the journal Science, they said, which described bacteria that seemed able to build their own DNA from arsenic. If that were true, it would be an historic discovery, because no such ability has ever been found among Earth’s life-forms.
The paper was published online in late November and attracted a great deal of discussion and criticism almost immediately on blogs (Rosie Redfield’s RRResearch amongst them) and on twitter via the hash tag topic, #arseniclife. The print version of the paper, along with critical letters, will appear in the June 3, 2011 issue of Science.
Here’s Zimmer’s take on what makes this particular scientific dust-up different,
For those of us who have been tracking #arseniclife since last Thanksgiving, however, today comes as an anticlimax. There’s not much in the letters to Science that we haven’t read before. In the past, scientists might have kept their thoughts to themselves, waiting for journals to decide when and how they could debate the merits of a study. But this time, they started talking right away, airing their criticisms on the Internet. In fact, the true significance of the aliens-that-weren’t will be how it helped change the way scientists do science.
Zimmer goes on to describe this new practice,
Redfield and her colleagues are starting to carry out a new way of doing science, known as post-publication peer review. Rather than leaving the evaluation of new studies to a few anonymous scientists, researchers now debate the merit of papers after they have been published. The collective decision they come to stays open to revision.
Post-publication peer review—and open science in general—is attracting a growing number of followers in the scientific community. But some critics have argued that it’s been more successful in theory than in practice. The #arseniclife affair is one of the first cases in which the scientific community openly vetted a high-profile paper, and influenced how the public at large thought about it.
Post-publication peer review existed before social media as per ‘cold fusion’ (Wikipedia essay). I remember it because I wasn’t particularly interested in science at the time but this was everywhere and it went on for months. There was the initial excitement and enthusiasm (the ‘cold fusion’ scientists were featured on the cover of Times or Newsweek or maybe both in the days when those magazines were powerhouse publications). Then, as the initial enthusiasm died down, the storm of scientific criticism started (those other scientists may not have had social media but they made themselves felt). The story took place over eight to 10 months and achieved public awareness in a way that scientists can only fantasize about these days. By comparison, the arsenic story blew up and disappeared from public consciousness within roughly two weeks, if that.
Social media may yet change how science is practiced but I wouldn’t use Zimmer’s story about #arsencilife to support that belief, in fact, I think it could support another idea altogether.
The ‘arsenic’ story was, by comparison, with ‘cold fusion’ greatly truncated and most members of the public never really heard about it and, as a consequence, were not exposed to the furious debate and discussion as they were with ‘cold fusion’. They did not get exposed to how science ‘really works and therein lies a problem because they did not see the uncertainties, the mistakes, and revised ideas.
As for what factors may be having an impact on scientific practice, I’d suggest reading Identifying good scientists and keeping them honest on The Black Hole blog by David Kent. Here’s an excerpt,
In a February 2011 interview with Lab Times, Cambridge scientist Peter Lawrence1 reflects on his own career and complains that “the heart of research is sick” as he charts the changes in the way in which science is pursued. Briefly, he cites impact factors and the increased need to assign metrics to scientists (# of publications, H-index, etc) as main drivers of producing low quality research and unfairly squeezing out some good scientists who do not publish simply for the sake of publishing. Impact factor fever runs deep throughout laboratories but, most damagingly, exists at the funding agency and university administrative level as well.
ETA June 17, 2011: For anyone who’d like to read some updated and contrasting discussion about the #arseniclife aftermath for scientific practice and science education there are two June 16, 2011 guest posts for Scientific American, one from Rosie Redfield and the other from Marie-Claire Shanahan. Plus, if you are interested in more details about the cold fusion story and the role electronic communication played, check out Marie-Claire Shanahan’s post, Arsenic, cold fusion and the legitimacy of online critique, on the Boundary Vision blog.