This week, if:book Australia will take part in a panel on Science and Story at the World Science Festival in Brisbane. Ahead of the event, Simon Groth observes that, as we become increasingly reliant on the applied science of technology, our access to science communication has only become more fraught.
Science begins — as physicist Len Fisher notes — with the simple act of stubbornly checking out your beliefs against reality. But it’s also a publishing system. Peer review for academic publishing is built around the ideal that good ideas formed from astute observation and backed up by data will win out over less verifiable beliefs that might otherwise hold sway. It’s designed to hold authors to account, to check sources thoroughly and question the logic of conclusions. It is a system not without faults of course — no system is. It is hierarchical. It privileges some voices to the detriment of others. It’s run by people, with all the inherent fallibility that entails. But in the aggregate, it has served the community well in the discovery of new ideas and the integration of those new ideas into our lives.
Like its trade counterpart, traditional scientific publishing is a broadcast system, based around the authority of experts. Very few people read scientific journals for fun, but major discoveries can be filtered through to broader communication channels and taken to the wider public as new knowledge. At each point in this process, ideas are ideally subject to more scrutiny and interpreted so as to be understood by a broader population.
None of this seems well suited to the modern digital media environment where ideas become ‘content’ to be both consumed and created, usually at the same time.
It’s a truism that we’re reading more on screens than we ever have and what little data is available certainly backs this up. Market research shows that in the last ten years the average hours per week Australians spend on ‘the internet’ has ballooned from around 7 hours to more than 17.
So what do we do with all that extra time? It would be great to get a breakdown — in particular focusing on social media, streaming, and the open web — but it’s not clear such data is available and I can’t afford to get through the paywall anyway. So, I am left with the hideously unscientific approach of an educated guess. And my guess is that a good chunk of our burgeoning internet time is spent in social media, especially Facebook.
This is significant for two reasons.
First, it’s a casual reading environment. Though plenty of people on social media maintain a healthy scepticism (an essential tool for any online activity), no one is expected to thoroughly check claims, to track down the sources and data that back them up. The fact that you would have to ‘track down’ sources is telling in itself.
Second, in social media, like the rest of the internet, everyone is a publisher. The platform implicitly (sometimes explicitly) expects you not only to read, but to like, share, and post. And all of this activity generates more content. Whether you ‘like’ it or not, your every movement in social media is tagged, logged, aggregated and analysed for the purpose of delivering you better advertisements.
It is the starkest example we have so far of the ‘democratising’ nature of the internet. The devices and platforms through which everyone reads are the same devices and platforms everyone (including publishers) use to publish.
This has some tremendous benefits. Voices that might otherwise go unheard can break through, reaching far more people than could have been possible any other way. People are much more easily able to find their communities of interest. It can obliterate geographic boundaries. And the effect this has had on accessibility cannot be underestimated. People who have been marginalised through disability, poverty, or discrimination now not only have access to the same content as everyone else, but the same distribution platform.
But there’s a down side too. With all this access comes the noise of a billion people all wanting to have their say. As a reader, how do we make those (now individual) decisions to privilege one voice over another? To a large extent, we don’t. Those decisions are increasingly being made for us algorithmically. You ‘like’ this? You’ll get more of the same, or what the system has identified as the same. This aspect of social media, at its darkest, descends into mob mentality. Bad ideas surface within a community because they sound plausible or at least ‘feel good’ to enough people. They find a willing audience and perpetuate (or fester) not just unchecked but reinforced inside their own echo chambers, before leaching out to infect a wider discourse. You know the kind of stuff I’m talking about: conspiracy theories peddled by aggrieved ‘outsiders’ driven by ego or greed and determined to expose ‘truth’ (frequently a word that should come with its own trigger warning).
Unfortunately, this is happening at the same time that traditional science publishing has become largely inaccessible outside its core community: highly specialised, jargonised, and locked behind corporate paywalls.
So how does carefully vetted and cautious science find an audience within such a noisy, populist world? Are we all doomed to reinforce each other’s beliefs without ever bothering to check them against reality?
There’s an intriguing side note to those statistics on internet readership I quoted above.
All that extra time we’re now spending online hasn’t come necessarily at the expense of reading books (defined by said market research somewhat narrowly as ‘print, ebook, and audio’). Regular book readers were found on average to spend more time online than the rest of the population. We could hypothesise many reasons for this, but it does offer a glimmer of hope. Contrary to popular belief, the internet doesn’t short circuit our ability to engage with sustained stories and ideas and the book (by which I mean that deep, immersive reading experience). Rather, these can complement the frenetic pace of social media.
The first rule of writing is to know your audience. Of course that’s easier said than done, but writing that has impact and stories that people treasure come about because of a profound connection between author and reader.
Good communicators, whether in science or any other discipline, understand this.
You can’t force people to listen, but taking time to understand who it is you’re talking to and putting ideas and stories forward appropriately and as clearly as possible gives you the best possible chance for success. The internet may be noisy and messy, but it’s not making us dumber, or at least not any dumber than we were to begin with. And our systems of publishing, for all their faults, have seen good ideas win out for centuries now.
Is it so unreasonable to suggest that they might continue to do so?