Managing scientific discourse on Twitter.

lol as if.

Today I’ll be contributing to a session on Managing Online Discourse which is part of the SciBeh 2020 Virtual Workshop on Building an online information environment for policy relevant science. I have to come up with 10 minutes of “insights” about scientific discourse on Twitter, but I have no idea what I’m going to say yet, and this thing starts in a few hours. In a panic, I’ve decided to do a shit-ton of illegal drugs and then look at the session questions and write down whatever comes to mind.

1...2...3…GO!

  • What levels of discourse support quality assurance in research?

  • Why should researchers discuss work in online spaces, with each other and with the public?

  • How should researchers engage in online research discourse to combat misinformation?

Shit…I don’t know what “levels of discourse” means. Right now I am imagining a kind of discourse pyramid, with 4chan shitposters at the bottom (or below it) and the Nobel laureates private Slack group at the top (it’s real, I promise). Twitter is closer to the bottom, but there is more than one Twitter, and some of them sit higher than others.

What separates the different Twitters? What defines quality? I know that in discussions of scientific research, there is a constant tension between critique and kindness. The importance of critique is self-evident, but it can easily become unkind. This is a hard problem, because what I find unkind you may think is perfectly reasonable. Regardless, if experts don’t feel welcome, they won’t engage, so there is a selection bias which can create inequities, to the degree that there is real value in using Twitter as a scientist/researcher/academic/expert. It seems to me that if online discussion among scientists is going to genuinely support/improve the quality of science, then that discussion needs to be broadly inclusive, and to do that we really need to engage with this critique <-> kindness problem, and from both “sides”. We have to learn to be kind, and we have to learn how to remain confident in the face criticism.

This problem however is greatly exacerbated by the public nature of Twitter. It’s probably more than possible for the bulk of experts to develop and broadly agree to maintain some level of professionalism in their interactions, but there is of course no chance for getting the public to do so, and obviously there are some who are intentionally problematic, either as a business model or because they are broken on the inside. So no matter what “we” do, on a public forum there will always be the reply-guys and the perpetually outraged; the incels, grieffers, and trolls; and the shitposters, pot-stirrers, provocateurs, and outright abusers, all making twitter much harder to navigate, and doing so for some people much more than others. To this latter point, I can confirm that the account of a middle-aged white male statistician is pretty much invisible to these types of people/accounts, meaning that I can hop on and share whatever little thought pops into my head while many of my colleagues have to be much more cautious - and let’s not fool ourselves - if there is “influence” to be gained through using Twitter, volume matters - perhaps more than content.

Trust among participants is the other key characteristic of scientific discourse that is lit up in my head like a giant neon sign made out of balloons and cotton candy floating up into a bright blue sky carrying me like a baby to my maker. Sorry. The shrooms. Anywhooooo…trust. The best parts of Twitter for me these days are the little conversations that take place with people I trust. To be certain, virtually all of these people are “strangers” to me, but we have a history of repeated interactions, some going back a decade. This trust is particularly important when there is disagreement. I can be wrong, but it’s not going to be smartFella029571923 that convinces me of it - it’s going to be someone that’s already gained my respect because I trust their intentions and I’ve seen them say substantively smart things before.

But here is where it gets tricky. Why not just have a private forum for scientists to come and discuss science? BECAUSE NOBODY WOULD USE IT SILLY. The very reason that trust among strangers can build on Twitter because we find it useful for things other than discussing science. And if we took all that conversation to private forums, who controls that? Who are the gatekeepers? Because I’ll tell you right now those assholes in the Nobel laureates private slack group are not fucking interested in my opinions about anything. And what about the value of transparency? Isn’t the fact that we talk about science “in public” a good thing? Doesn’t that help keep us on our toes (some of us anyway)? And finally, most of us overlap mutliple expert groups, and I don’t need to be checking 32 different online forums just to keep abreast of the comings and goings of science world.

MOVING ON.

Regarding quality assurance, the role of discourse on Twitter seems like a double-edged sword. First, as someone who comments a lot about research methods, I like to think there is some educational value to those comments that in turn might lead to better study designs. Further, I suspect that we can support broader trust in science by conducting ourselves professionally in public forums, but (as noted above) the public nature of this has disproportionately deleterious consequences for some potential participants, which in turn creates a selection bias for what views become public and who gets rewarded for their participation. Twitter also has, in my opinion, a problem with legit scientists feigning expertise (intentionally or not) in areas that don’t actually fall within their expertise, which can lead amateurs to develop unwarranted concerns about specific aspects of a given study, or research more broadly; and of course there are certain “popular” accounts that are able to completely pervert science and do so intentionally with the aim of confusing or misinforming the public - and I’m not sure they can be “countered” by anything less than respected scientists working full time to do so (thankfully there will be actual experts in this workshop talking about this). Finally, there is also the fact that many scientists working in (or closely with) government and industry are constrained on what they can say on social media, which is a huge hole in the discourse.

That’s enough for now. If you want to check in on the actual workshop you can sign up HERE. I still have no idea what I’m going to say. I’m sure it will be fine…