Opinion: Social Media, Science, Expertise and Influence

Social media is testing (disrupting?) the universe of science. While scientists are trained to systematically study systems and data for anomalies by developing and testing hypotheses, the scientific discussion of results has historically occurred in highly selective communities – research enclaves, member-restricted scientific meetings, and written correspondence via peer-reviewed journals. With the advent of social media, discussions are becoming much more transparent. Transparency is good. However, the rules of engagement are changing. Here are 4 things to keep in mind in the new world.

1. Scientific debate is healthy. I want a world where hypotheses are vigorously debated. Scientific disagreements unearth faulty assumptions. Contention stimulates creativity.  As an example, Archer and colleagues identify important limits to current approaches to measure dietary intakes. It is timely to push for new approaches, such as validated biomarkers.  It is constructive for scientific societies, such as the  American Society for Nutrition, to advocate a nutrition research agenda.

2. Tone (of voice) matters. Of the 9 million comments published monthly on The Huffington Post website, 75% are deemed “vile, mean and obscene” (ScienceWriters, Fall, 2013). On September 24, 2013 Suzanne LaBarre, online director, announced that Popular Science would no longer be accepting comments on articles. Why?  Because uncivil comments are undermining readers’ perception of science. There is also an impact within the scientific field. While some nutrition scientists disagreed with the conclusions in PloSOne article (Validity of US National Surveillance: National Health and Nutrition Survey Caloric Energy Data, 1971-2010), it was the opinion by the same author in The Scientist (A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing) which aroused indignation among nutrition scientists. Within a social world where comments are not moderated in print by editors and by peer pressure in scientific forums, self-restraint becomes ever more important.

3. Expertise is earned.  Scientists spend years studying, conducting and publishing research to earn post-graduate degrees. Many positions require additional training. These experiences transform scientists into an expert, defined by Merriam Webster as someone:

having or showing special skill or knowledge because of what you have been taught or what you have experienced.”

In essence, scientists meet the Google definition of expert:

a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area”.

Traditionally, scientists have evaluated degree of expertise by the number of peer-reviewed papers published, the impact factor where these manuscripts were published, and invitations to serve on expert advisory panels. Top-ranked scientific journals were often published by prestigious scientific societies. With the emergence of open-access journals, scientific discussion among experts is becoming more global and will be guided by interactions on websites.

4. Influence can overwhelm expertise. The internet levels the playing ground because it gives voice to any who can create a following.  Extreme opinions seem to draw more readers than moderate voices. And with respect to content, how does one separate the chaff from the grain It seems that anyone can pontificate on the value of science. As Suzanne LaBarre noted when shutting down the comments section on the Popular Science website,

“Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories.”

The demeaning of expertise, and especially scientific authority, is apparent when one reads the definitions of an expert in the Urban Dictionary:

someone who thinks they knew how to do something but actually just screwed everything up”,


 “someone with a blog or a dude with an opinion”.

The internet can give voice to anyone. Everyone has opinions. They guide our buying habits.  However, scientific progress requires experts to have science-based conversations. Expressing differing viewpoints drive innovation, understanding and ultimately research. As science-based conversations migrate from their hallowed halls to the internet, the challenge appears to be keeping conversations civil and constructive. And keeping perspective on expertise versus influence because nutrition and food policy should be guided by experts not just someone with a blog.

This blog was originally published on December 5, 2013 by Nutraceuticals World at http://www.nutraceuticalsworld.com/blog/everything-nutrition/2013-12-05/social-media-science-expertise-influence


About Michael McBurney

Personal Blog | Nutrition scientist with broad interests, including social media and the impact of open access journals on science publishing | Self-employed freelancer
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