Social media is an interesting place. It can be a repository of amazing information and access. At the same time, it can be a cesspool of mean-spiritedness and misinformation. It can be a place for credible experts to connect with others beyond ivory towers as well as place for someone to gain an audience whether they deserve one or not. My wife pondered recently how I so effortlessly ignore trolls or personal attacks when she is ready to pounce (That’s one of the reasons I love her). The simple answer is that by acknowledging foolishness you legitimize it. However, the conversation triggered a deeper question. Why do respected, published, and admired scientists endure trolling and attacks from faceless personas behind keyboards? I offer three reasons based on my own experiences.
While not able to speak on behalf of all scientists, I can offer some perspective. As a meteorologist and climate scientist who is active on social media, I certainly receive my share of trolling. People will attack my perspectives on climate science, my race, intelligence, and so forth. It doesn’t bother me at all, and I am often even amused by it. However, there are scholars that avoid social media because they cannot stomach the trolling or fear the intimidation. It’s worth it though.
One reason we endure the “hot mess” that can be social media is because it is an effective medium for exposing the broader public, media, and policymakers to real science. The vast majority of people are not cracking open scientific journals or conference proceedings on a regular basis, but they are on Twitter and Facebook. It is imperative that scientists engage in these spaces because if credible expertise is not in the fray, then pseudo-expertise and bad actors with agendas will gladly fill the voids that we leave behind. MedicalBrief columnist Alastair McAlpine understood this. According to McAlpine’s Law, pseudoscience will always try to fill vacuums in scientific knowledge.
A 2013 study by Isabelle M. Côtéimcote of Simon Fraser University and Emily S. Darling of the University of Toronto found that when a scientist had greater than 1000 followers they exponentially increased their ability to share credible scientific information. Dr. Robert Rohde is lead scientist at Berkeley Earth. Rohde has done an outstanding job recently analyzing the social media reach and efficacy of climate scientists. He recently tweet stormed Professor Katharine Hayhoe’s Twitter list of climate scientists, the most followed climate scientists, and some outstanding experts that may be flying under the radar.
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Beyond serving as an antidote to the “Dunning-Kruger Effect run amuck” and coordinated misinformation campaigns, another reason scientists likely endure the trolling is passion. We are passionate about what we do. I have been in awe of hurricanes, thunderstorms, and so forth since 6th grade and have spent a career trying to understand how our Earth system works. This establishes a benchmark and a protective shield that trolls may not understand. For them, it may be about agendas, political motive, or the goal to disoriented or annoy. For many scientists, the opportunity to share, talk about or do science is golden. It’s organic. I usually can recognize ulterior motives and steer clear of them.
The final reason some scientists may endure the discomfort of the occasional social media irritant is what I call the “Boiled Peanut Incentive.” I grew up in the South and love boiled peanuts. If you are not from here, you might be saying, “What are those?” They are amazing and are staple of country roads and college football games around here. Anyhow, they can be a bit messy and cumbersome to get into, but once you are past the shell, the moist, slightly salty nut is soooo worth the effort. I guess this feeling probably applies to crab lovers too. Scientists who study climate change or COVID-19 have objectives and goals that extend far beyond triviality of Twitter bickering. Our work is for a greater good – advancement of knowledge, the betterment of society, and the future of our kids. We are able to endure a few Internet shells to get to our ultimate prize.
I hope this captures what some of my colleagues feel also. Finally, as I reflect on my life, upbringing, challenges, and circumstances, there are some other things that I have come to realize with age and experience. When I consider my journey, the “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” rule kicks in and I just brush the silly stuff right off my shoulders.” I have endured and overcome far more significant challenges.