Troll Below? Science policy below the line.


Some streetart on a bridge in Dublin

I have an essay in James Wilsdon and Rob Doubleday’s collection: “Future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall” (downloadable for free). It’s an invitation for the various greats and goods of science policy to not only use social media to promote their ideas but to “go below the line” and listen to the public there too. I know such listening is problematic – I’m not about to try to rehearse all the problems here, they exist and are generally very specific to the people and cases involved – but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.

There’s a shorter version on our Guardian blog, or here’s a preview of the full thing:

We should ask what we want openness to mean online, what forms we want to invest in, and how this should be organised. There is a lot more to open science than simply open access. Indeed, a preoccupation with the latter as a solution to social ills may well be a way of avoiding dealing with the former. Further, how we choose to finance and manage forms of open access is far from straightforward. Whilst politicians, scientists, publishers and learned societies argue it out, the #icanhazpdf hashtag is gradually whittling away at current publishing models (used so people looking for paywalled papers can find those with institutional log-ins who are willing to be generous on their library’s behalf). Scientists may feel persecuted by activists, especially if they engage in debates over climate change, alternative medicine or animal rights. They may also feel that when work flows into ‘social media’, even more of their private lives are being taken over by work. Online interaction can be tiring.

A related issue is whether the public can be trusted with science in the open. One might, for example, feel pleased when the Science Media Centre manages to keep a story out of the press (as when I heard senior scientists cheer in the case of a story about GMO food last year). Alternatively, one could follow the lead of the Cancer Research UK news blog which accepts that stories they don’t agree with will get published, but uses the more open spaces of the web to put extra context out there, hoping those who care will find it. One recent piece of research argues that the ‘incivil’ tone of web comments can derail evidence-based public debate on science, technology and especially environmental and health issues. For all that I can personally relate to this (having uncomfortably found myself being incivil myself, as well as at the receiving end of incivility), such calls for polite behavior online leave me uneasy. Complaints about ‘tone’ are too easily used to quell dissent. Words like ‘troll’ can become a proxy for what is, at best, disagreement, and worst, class hatred.

It is now 18 years since Bruce Lewenstein suggested a ‘web model’ as an alternative to top-down ideas of science communication in his study of the cold fusion controversy. This networked view seems almost too obvious today, as gross a simplification as the deficit model. But it contains an important message that is increasingly hard to ignore: the simple messiness of scientific discourse. Although neater debate has its uses, especially in policymaking, that doesn’t mean we should aim to tidy it all up. This mess is how we build capacity for more coherent exchanges, build trust, learn and digest. It is also where people can show dissent and support for science, both of which are important. We should be wary of being too spooked by the incivility or apparent lack of expertise online. As science policy debate bleeds onto social media, we shouldn’t be scared to take a dip below the line, and take some time to look and listen. You never know what we might find.

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