27 responses to “Science: So What – Showcasing Just How Much They Don’t Understand Social Media As Well as Science?

  1. Wulfstan

    The arrogance of that reply from Science: So What is very disappointing. Am I the only reader who perceived that handwave explanation for lack of references and citations as patronising?

    I hope that they do have the decency to engage with you and that very fine Science Communication post. However, I’ve yet to be pleasantly surprised by any of these people or similar bodies.

    • Just to say that we have emailed a link to this post to the Science: So What people. We hope that they will engage further with the issues that we have raised and our response.

  2. gimpy

    However, it is also of utmost importance to us that we engage the wider public with science in an accessible and friendly way. For this reason it is not always appropriate to cite original research when creating online content.

    What does it say about the people behind this that they see science as inaccessible and unfriendly? Not to mention the fact that they think the general public are so stupid and intellectually infertile that it is not worth seeding nuggets of intelligent links to reap a harvest at a later date.

    • I’d be interested to know how much Science: So What? cost. I’m guessing it wasn’t hugely expensive- for a start, DIUS didn’t even fork out for a new web domain, and just stuck it on direct.gov instead. Even so, spending money on a campaign is a bit of an insult when the organisation in question is also planning funding cuts:

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/22/university-funding-cuts-budget

      Science: So What? was just an exercise in back-covering: DIUS knew that even a half-arsed celebrity-backed campaign would receive more coverage than some dry science budget news. Journalists would be more likely to pick up on the celebrity debates than the fact that DIUS are encouraging more people to go into fewer research posts.

      In their words: “In the UK, we don’t value science as much as we should.” Written without irony as far as I can tell, but will they still manage to come out of this looking like they really do value science?

      • There is a FOIA request in place – we shall report what we learn.

        We note the SSW is using Blogger as their blogging platform – this seems a little odd.

        It doesn’t (as yet) seem as if there is any involvement with active scientists, science communicators, those involved with the public engagement community etc. We will be very interested to learn whether any of the government employees have any background in science or even a demonstrable interest.

        We would also like to understand why they decided to discard the well-reasoned arguments of the academic community that has a far greater understanding of this issue then is currently on display from Science:So What?.

        • It will be interesting to know how much this cost. On the one hand, they haven’t bought some very basic things (we had this blog mapped across to a .info domain name, rather than .blogspot, when I think the expenses were still in single figures). On the other hand, there seem to have been a number of people working on Science: So What? – which much have pushed costs up, at least to an extent.

  3. Just got this week’s issue of SPIN (Science Policy Information News) from the Wellcome Trust:


    3 Burden of oversight grows as committee membership drops

    The membership of the House of Commons’ Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) Committee has dwindled from 14 down to just nine – with only six members attending an average meeting. Phil Willis has argued that the remaining members do not have the capacity to properly scrutinise the science and higher education policies of the Government.

    THE http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/ 1893 23 April 2009 p.10-11, 5

    Only six attend? How can we expect them to care about science when they can’t even be bothered to turn up to their own meetings? As I said in my own blog post on DIUS, there are countless science enthusiasts out there, so how do the positions of power end up getting filled by people who couldn’t care less?

  4. Jason

    Speaking as an interested layman (indeed, the likely target audience of the Science: So What? campaign) , it seems not antithetical to the goal of the “Public Understanding of Science” to include links to the original research papers in all science-related articles, where possible. Failing free accessibility of the journal article, a simple one-line citation of the research paper would suffice, as that would allow those who are truly interested to purchase the article for further study.

    Would this inclusion not in and of itself promote better widespread understanding of the process of publication and peer-review, and in turn, the reliability of science itself? A broad swathe of the population is not even aware of this process at all. It seems to me that it could only serve to enhance understanding of the reasons why transparency, peer-review and repeatability provide such effective means for validating the results of research and experimentation.

    The public already feels far removed from the practice of science; separating them with yet another layer of abstraction, i.e. the particular interpretation of the journalist, only succeeds in further obfuscation and alienation, and would seem to undermine the very spirit of promotion of scientific understanding.

    I sincerely hope that SSW reconsiders their stance on this issue, as the only “reason” the commenter gave boiled down to either concerns for article aesthetics, or a rather vainglorious “possibility for confusing the great unwashed.”

    • Jason, I couldn’t agree more that citing the science research and modelling the importance of checking original sources is an outstanding ‘teaching moment’ that SSW is choosing to ignore.

      And yes, charitably, it reads as the triumph of form over substance (and displays ignorance of the deft way in which the NYT, inter alia, manages to include citations and links); less charitably, it reads as high-handed concern for the imagined literacy of interested readers.

  5. Re Science: So What? failing to link to original research: As I’ve said elsewhere, this is something I particularly dislike – the mainstream media report on “current interesting news stories” and fail to link to (or properly cite) the research that the stories are based on. Speaking as a member of the wider public, I have to say that it drives me mad that they do this. That a group claiming to wish to “engage the wider public with science” seems to want to copy the approach of the MSM is worse.

    Their response that it is not always appropriate to cite original research when creating online content because they want to be “accessible and friendly” is just not good enough – I fail to see how attempting to be accessible and friendly necessarily means that one shouldn’t link to original research. If I read about research it makes me more likely to want to read the actual research and “Science: So What” are making it more difficult for me to do so than if they provided an inline link or a citation at the bottom of the page. This means that the actual science is itself less accessible than it would otherwise be. I think it’s totally counter-productive for SSW to take this stance and I think that this approach does nothing to improve the public understanding of science – quite the opposite.

    It also ignores the importance of checking original sources. As dvnutrix wrote in the above comment: “less charitably, it reads as high-handed concern for the imagined literacy of interested readers”, which is the impression I got when I tried to ask mainstream media outlets to publish citations or link to research. As Ben Goldacre wrote of the MSM:

    “I suspect newspapers like to fantasise that they are mediators between specialist tricky knowledge and the wider public, but I wouldn’t be so flattering. In fact, if you have access to the original journals, you can see just how rubbish things can get.”

    I have an email somewhere from the BBC that I thought perhaps implied that members of the general public reading their online content would be put off by a sciency reference appearing in one of their items. [Quoted verbatim:

    “As the is site intended for lay readers, it is our editorial policy not to give specific references to pieces in journals, as is the practice in national newspapers.”

    I used to have higher expectations of the BBC than I had of national newspapers. Having read some of their articles and been apprised of their policy on citations this is no longer the case.] The BBC don’t seem to have a very high opinion of the wider public and it’s disappointing that “Science: So What” seem to concur with the Beeb’s low opinion of myself and other lay readers.

    [/rant]

    Admin edit: inserted link to Ben Goldacre quotation; inserted blockquotes to highlight the quoted text. lmk if you’d rather we removed these.

    • It is maddening, jdc. People like Patrick Holford blog and regularly give the wrong reference while purporting to use that reference as the scientific underpinning of his claims (and typically a sales pitch for his products). However, at least it is now possible to check that it is the wrong reference very quickly. It seems SSW has no interest in nuance or in stimulating readers to investigate further.

      I was very disappointed by the lack of response or the nature of the response to your initiative in writing round to MSM outlets. As you say, for SSW to be modelling itself on this dead tree approach is the more deplorable.

  6. Sharpie

    For any Science: So What bods reading, would you be happy with match reports that omitted the scoreline of the game?

    • Indeed, it would seem as if, in the SSW view of the world, there is no room for the equivalent of knowledgeable, experienced commentators, and absolutely no room for the sort of additional knowledge and statistics that is contributed by the John Motsons of the world.

  7. You’re just jealous ‘cos Neuroskeptic is on their blogroll now, and HolfordWatch isn’t.

    However, I think it says something about Science So What that I only found out they were linking to me after googling myself, not because I got an incoming referral from them.

    I’ll let you know when referral #1 happens…

    • Heh – really? Well, we’re pleased to see that SSW is expanding their blogroll, so let’s celebrate that good behaviour at the party.

      Nonetheless, the team members of SSW do have some questions to answer, as both we and various commenters have outlined.

  8. Hi,

    I work for the agency that helps DIUS run the Science: [So what? So everything] campaign. I posted that comment this morning with all good intentions, but there appears to have been a miscommunication on my behalf, which I am very sorry about – it was definitely not a statement of policy.

    What I was trying to say (and apologies if this didn’t come across) is that between the demands of trying to reach a very broad target audience and limitations of space in having conversations in social media, adding links can sometimes not be practical. Having said that, and seeing some of the comments above, I now realise that this is something we should work harder to address and will now do so wherever possible.

    The campaign is still relatively new and evolving all the time – for example, when people commented about the lack of a contact address we responded and changed the sites to include one. There are plenty of other comments and suggestions that we’ll be responding to in due course, although sometimes these things take time, as I’m sure you’ll understand.

    Meantime, we really hope that the campaign impacts positively on the science community. We aren’t all science professionals, but we do have science professionals on the team and take guidance from them on our activities. We are also actively helping to bolster the work of existing organisations and promote good content wherever we can.

    If we’ve been slow to pick up on comments, please do mail us on sciencesowhat at dius dot gsi dot gov dot uk. We’ll also respond to the PUS piece shortly – something we should have done already, and again, I can only apologise for this.

    Please rest assured – we are listening and hope you’ll include us in the conversation

    • To be honest, I’m a little disappointed to receive a holding response from a member of the agency that helps DIUS run the SSW campaign rather than one of the ‘science professionals’ to which you refer.

      I still demur on the difficulty of providing appropriate links and citations – the NYT has been doing this in a very elegant manner for some time.

      Your selection criteria for ‘good content’ seem a little less than transparent. E.g., to reiterate, there is no obvious reason as to why Understanding Uncertainty, inter alia, should not be on your blog roll. Given the ostensible role of promoting science, and the prominence given to developing UK science and technology in the Budget Speech, it is a little unfortunate that you and your ‘science professional’ colleagues find so few UK science blogs to be of merit.

      It is unfortunate that something as basic as providing a contact address is seen as a striking innovation and evidence of responsiveness.

      Nonetheless, I look forward to your response to the PUS item.

  9. Jason

    @SSW:

    I applaud your efforts, and willingness to listen to the community. As I’m sure you realize, in no small part due to the rampant pseudoscience and woo out there, many others have gone before you in communicating science to the public, so there is a lot of experiential knowledge to be gleaned by seeing what others are doing and working with them.

    Specific to the issue of publicizing science, there has been a bit of conversation going on in the last few months regarding the silly way that new research results and published journal articles are portrayed in the popular science media, specifically related to hyperbole that surrounds them. I think Dr. Steven Novella of the New England Skeptics Society phrased it best, and cut right to the point in a wonderful post:

    http://www.theskepticsguide.org/sgublog/?p=393

    The gist is that overly-sensational headlines or news reports, especially about incomplete research or preliminary results of long-term actually further confuse the public, rather than inform them. Think of all of the various studies about drinking a single glass of wine, or whether or not eggs are healthy, LDL vs. HDL cholesterol, second-hand smoke, etc. over the last 20 years, to get an idea of what I mean. As so often happens in a tight news cycle, by framing the study results as more conclusive than they actually are, the public is often left confused and unfortunately can learn to mistrust science in general.

    This may be less important to SSW, as from what I’ve seen on the site, you mostly provide an overview of ongoing research, it could affect the selection and framing of that research, so I hope you’ll also take care not to oversell studies, where it is unwarranted.

    I noticed that you added a Read More link to the page on the SSW site, re: infant diet and obesity, but it only links to the MRC site, and not the original research. Good start, but I’d hope that either MRC or SSW would actually provide the link somewhere :-)

    Anyway, good luck, and thanks for your willingness to consider opinions from the community. I applaud your Herculean efforts, and hope that the SSW initiative succeeds.

    “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
    ☄ Carl Sagan, “The Demon-Haunted World” ☄

    (a great read, by a great science popularizer)

  10. I’d disagree that “between the demands of trying to reach a very broad target audience and limitations of space in having conversations in social media, adding links can sometimes not be practical”. I always try to remember to link back to original articles / research that I discuss on my blog. I find that it’s fairly practical for me to include these links in the text of my blog posts and no reader has ever complained that these links spoiled their enjoyment of my articles. There seems to be a misconception that providing links to original research somehow makes the article you’re writing less accessible to the layman. Speaking as a layman, I can assure anyone interested that this is not how I view articles that include links. In fact, links can be made fairly unobtrusive by inserting them into the text as keywords and the uninterested reader can simply choose not to click on the link. There’s nothing difficult or complicated or inaccessible about it in my opinion. The reader who is interested has the option of clicking the link to read more – if you fail to link then you deny the interested reader this opportunity.

    PS – I’d also like to second the suggestion that Understanding Uncertainty be included on the SSW blogroll. It’s interesting, informative, and accessible.

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