Social Media for Scientists Part 2.5: Breaking Stereotypes

By Christie Wilcox | October 4, 2011 8:55 pm

Ok, I swear I will get to Part 3 soon. But first, I want to comment on some of the critiques of my article.

There are two main ones: this post by Steven Hamblin and this one, by Kevin Zelnio. Both seem to suggest that I made the argument that “all scientists have to do is get a Twitter account and a blog and magic will happen.”

But both missed my point. I wasn’t saying “build it and they will come” – I was saying “don’t build it and they can’t come”.

More and more, people are turning to the internet for news, information, and conversation. If the scientists aren’t there, they won’t be included in the dialogue. End of story.

Kevin argues that it’s about reach. That blogging or tweeting won’t really reach anyone, and is thus not necessarily worth it, but I disagree. First off, Part 3 will go into detail about what the scientist gets out of all of this even if no one reads it. Second off, so what if my post only reaches three people? That’s three more people who can name a living scientist. Three more people who care about the research I am doing in my lab. Three more people who I communicated my science to successfully. I personally think those three people matter. They are worth my time and effort, and they are enough. As I said in my second post, it’s not about being popular, having a thousand twitter followers or getting millions of pageviews a month – it’s about making yourself and your research searchable and accessible.

For that matter, imagine if every lab reached three people. That wouldn’t be a total of three people – it would be thousands. And those thousands would actually be themselves plus the friends, family and colleagues they tell about what they learned and who they learned it from. Don’t underestimate the power of reaching three people.

But what disturbs me more is that both posts seem to operate on a flawed assumption. You can hear it echoed when Steven says “they do good science, but they make for terrible speakers” or when Kevin writes “we shouldn’t expect every scientist to want to do this and many should, in fact, NOT engage with the public!”. It’s the same assumption made by Randy Olson when he wrote Don’t Be Such A Scientist. It’s the assumption that the stereotypical scientist is the norm for the profession.

By the stereotypical scientist, I mean that gruff, elitist misanthrope with crazy hair and the social skills of a wet blanket. They’re not alone in portraying scientists that way – that is exactly what the public thinks scientists are like, too. But from what I’ve experienced in Academia, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Of all the scientists I have met, only a very small percentage fit the bill. Most are like most of the farmers, plumbers, lawyers, and salespeople I’ve met – that is, they’re just like everyone else.

They go out and hit clubs on a Friday night. Or they have happy, healthy kids who are athletes or musicians. They are, if anything, scarily normal people who all just happen to be good at and like science.

My whole point with saying scientists should be active in social media is that it’s not just about getting the research out there, it’s about getting the scientists out there, too, so we can break the very stereotype that Steven and Kevin use as a reason for scientists not to get engaged.

Sure, scientists could be better communicators. But by and large, I think we’re not too bad at it. Good communication skills are how we get grants from non-scientific agencies like National Geographic or NGOs. Social skills are how we network at conferences, not just with each other but media specialists, government officials, and the locals we meet at the bar after hours. De-jargoning what we do for a living is how we tell our kids, parents and grandparents about our research.

I know that not every scientist will do what I propose (though, to be fair, I didn’t say every scientist – I said every lab, but I digress). I don’t think every scientist has to be on twitter. But I do think every scientist should consider the dissemination of their research a crucial part of their job. It’s not naïve to think that social media is an important part of doing that – it’s naïve to think that we can make any kind of impact on the global scale without it.

** Given the comments, I want to add that I’m not arguing that social media is the only way for scientists to reach out to the community at large, and other ways are important, too. I will contend, though, that all kinds of outreach can be improved by adding social media to the mix.

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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer and postdoctoral scholar at the University of Hawaii. She is renowned in the science blogosphere for her delicate balance of contemporary science and scientific perspective seasoned with just the right amount of wit. Her award-winning posts have landed on the pages of major media outlets including The New York Times and Scientific American. To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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