Science in the era of Facebook and Twitter - a whirlwind of hypes and likes.
Science in the era of Facebook and Twitter – a whirlwind of hypes and likes.

“Science is wrong, most of the time” – I am not sure who said that first, but I am sure someone did so well before me. This is a banality for those who do science at the forefront of our knowledge, yet sometimes it seems very difficult to also accept that view in the public discourse. Well, in the days of Facebook and Twitter it is plain obvious to everyone.

As an active astrophysicist I had to reflect on this, while a number of big and small events were accumulating.

It all started with a press conference at Harvard where astronomers announced that they found evidence for cosmic inflation. This news quickly spread over the entire world via Twitter and Facebook and it was hailed as spectacular evidence for the big bang by the regular press. Just  a few weeks later people aren’t so sure anymore. In fact, I personally think that the measurement is impressive but insignificant at this stage (due to foreground uncertainties that are impossible to quantify right now – but, I too could be wrong, of course).

This morning the SWIFT telescope announced a new gamma-ray source in the nearby galaxy Andromeda, that was picked up by news sources, Twitter, and Facebook well before most scientists did. That source would have been very interesting indeed. Alas, it turned out not to be there. That fortunately happened so quickly that neither print media nor TV could report it. Clearly, in the past there were other major false alarms that (astro)physicists remember, such as the announcement of faster-than-light neutrinos, life on Mars, or cold fusion (which actually occurred in prehistoric times).

So, what is going on? Does science lose its credibility? At least that was a question I was asked by our university news paper in connection with an ongoing debate here. My answer was that we – scientists, media, and general public – need to learn how to handle science in the era of social media. It is not as it used to be. Scientists are no longer the almost omniscient divine beings that, thanks to their unchallenging wisdom, hover well above the ground that absorbs normal mortals.

Failure is part of the scientific enterprise. It is good that some scientists stick their neck out and dare to claim something. However, it is equally good that other scientists try to chop these heads off – with counter arguments. That is proper science and cherished academic tradition. Scientific truth is not the outcome of a single Eureka moment but of a long sociological process and hence it is subject to all human deficiencies.

This is no news and has been said many times before, but scientists, media, and general public tend to forget too often. Well, social media reveals that just too clearly.

In the past most scientific debates would take place in academic circles and results would only gradually diffuse into the general public. Now the information transfer is instantaneous – often not filtered by journalists, who can only follow the wave rather than steer it.

Is that a problem? It may seem so in a society where science seems more and more optional and becomes part of the entertainment and political circus. The consequence: science is becoming defensive.

In subjects like climate change, vaccination, evolution, but also more ethics-related issues such as stem cell research, there is either a vocal minority or sometimes even a silent majority of the general public that questions scientific positions. Moreover science is big business for large institutions and groups. That raises suspicions and the scientific credibility comes under pressure. Every additional false discovery, immediately amplified by social media, may shatter that credibility further.

So, what to do? Shall we dig in and stop sharing our latest finding with each other and with the public? Or shall we stop making claims and just publish highly polished results?

The latter is, in fact, something that big science collaborations have adopted as their working model and it may become the model of the future. Too much money is at stake.

However, I prefer honesty. Let’s simply get used to the fact that science can be wrong – and that scientists can be wrong – without dismissing immediately the entire body of scientific knowledge. Scientists should not be made afraid of making claims and also not be made afraid of being wrong. Being wrong is as much part of our job as is losing part of being a football player. I am convinced, if scientists are less arrogant and more honest about the inner workings of science, credibility will naturally prevail in the long run.

However, we probably need to develop an etiquette on how to communicate science results and how to involve the public in the scientific process these days.

For example, announcements like that of a sudden outburst of a cosmic source need to get out as soon as possible to the community, so others can react before the flare is over. In the case mentioned above, the SWIFT team did nothing wrong. They communicated their result as they usually do: swiftly and properly. The event turned out to be a glitch; that is not normal but can happen. Any media reporting on such events has to make its own choice: either be too late to report or report on something that is premature. To make this call hire and train good science journalists and do not be afraid of correcting your story if it goes wrong.

Very different, however, is the story of the Big Bang result. It was presented in a press conference as “first direct evidence of cosmic inflation” accompanied by a rumor-based social media campaign. Nobel prize winners were invited to be present at the data release and soap-opera style reality TV movies about potential Nobel prize winners went viral. The authors of the paper asked for the media and social media attention, they got what they asked for, and they will have to carry the consequences – potentially together with the rest of the community if it turns out to be wrong.

The paper in question had not been submitted to a journal and was not yet refereed by  experts, but instead it was released to the entire world together with a very bold claim.

Many colleagues hailed that as a major step towards openness and a transition from traditional publishing  methods to modern swarm intelligence and social media based interaction. I think that is crap – or at least naive.

The procedure was primarily adopted in order to beat others (e.g., Planck), to secure a dreamed-of Nobel prize for whoever, and perhaps to secure tenure and other jobs for collaboration members. Does anyone really believe none of these thoughts played any factor in this story? Science can be a fierce competition and our Harvard colleagues certainly know very well how to play that game.

So, may I suggest three options on how to proceed:

1) If you want to use the web to referee your work, then do so, but be defensive.  Make clear that this are preliminary results, subject to discussions. Let the process take its course and then have a press release summarizing the conclusion at the end. Any ensuing media frenzy is their problem – let the media and the web find a way to deal with the process and get used to it.

2) Or, have it refereed thoroughly and traditionally and then have a press release or even a press conference organized by your institution, following some clear ethics rules. In case of an extraordinary claims, editors of journals should be very careful in selecting a number of very different referees, rather than be very quick. Still, be humble in your claims as author.

3) Finally, you can release it to the media before submission, but then make clear that this is just one possible explanation, an interesting hypothesis, a contribution to the discussion. The media needs to learn to understand and report that properly. Certainly, refrain from press conferences,  emotional youtube videos, etc. in this case.

Which method you choose (I have chosen 2 and 3 already) also depends on the enormity of the result. If you really have Nobel-price winning results (which I haven’t had yet), then Method #2 is perfectly fine – you will get it in any case. If you don’t, also the biggest press campaign will not get you one.

Above all, let’s make clear that science is an ongoing discussion. It can benefit a lot from social media interaction with each other and the public. However, that automatically requires honesty, less agitation, more understanding from the public, and a sense of humility among us scientists. In the end, however, it makes us vulnerable – whatever we do. We also need to learn to live with that.