Is the Internet Good for Science?

I didn’t say you’d like the answer. In ‘The Net Delusion,’ Evgeny Morozov discusses why the internet might not be as good at promoting democracy and an informed citizenry as we (Americans) might think. From online entertainment and consumerism culture, to technology-enabled advanced surveillance, to “big data” personalized propaganda campaigns, authoritarian governments are often better at harnessing the internet for their political ends than we give them credit for, Morozov argues.

“Cyber-utopians did not predict how useful it [the internet] would prove for propaganda purposes, how masterfully dictators would learn to use it for surveillance, and how sophisticated modern systems of internet censorship would become” (p. xiv).

Americans often hold onto the perhaps false hope that the internet and the forces of free flowing information inherently support democratic ideals, including freedom of information and freedom of speech. In Morozov’s words, “let them tweet, and they will tweet their way to freedom. By this logic, authoritarianism becomes unsustainable once barriers to the free flow of information are removed.”

But in fact, Morozov argues, the Internet often empowers the strong and disempowers the weak. It may be a small example, but take Scientific American blogs’ former editor @BoraZ. Many science bloggers expressed the feeling that if @BoraZ (with his 26,700+ Twitter followers) didn’t retweet their posts, or endorse them in the blogosphere, they disappeared into the background of blogs “not worthy” to be promoted by the “blog father.” Sadly, other negative consequences of this renowned blog editor’s power eventually surfaced, in the form of tragic sexual harassment charges. At the same time as we laud blogs for being an engaging, equalizing and “democratizing” force for science, scientists, science writers and the public, even in this arena the empowerment of the “strong” rears its ugly head.

Morozov’s concept of cyber-utopianism brings another “false hope” concept to my mind: the deficit model of science communication, or the idea that public understanding, acceptance and trust of science directly follows access to easily comprehensible scientific information, facts and evidence.

“This belief has two aspects. The first is the idea that public skepticism towards modern science and technology is caused primarily by a lack of adequate knowledge about science. Related to this is the idea that, by providing sufficient information about modern science and technology to overcome this lack of knowledge — or 'knowledge deficit' — the public will change its mind and decide that both science and the technology that emerges from it are 'good things'.” – SciDev

But more and more evidence points to the fact that increased information about science (or politics, for that matter), does not necessarily lead to greater enthusiasm, support, or even unbiased understanding of science. The deficit model is a flawed premise that counts all its cards on facts and evidence, just as American enthusiasm for internet freedom places all bets on the “free” flow of information.

“The fervent conviction that given enough gadgets, connectivity, and foreign funding, dictatorships are doomed […] reveals the pervasive influence of the Google Doctrine” (p. 5-6).

The question that comes to my mind, after reading ‘The Net Delusion,’ is the following: Is the internet actually good for science? But perhaps the answer to this question depends on how we define “good for.” Are we defining it by the popularization of science? Public knowledge of science? The ability to make informed policy decisions on scientific research? Or the acceptance and support of scientific research agendas?

The Bad

“As pundits were competing for airtime and bloggers were competing for eyeballs, few bothered to debunk the overblown claims about the power of the Internet” (p. 18, The Net Delusion).

In May, an article by Jalees Rehman (one of our bloggers here at appeared at The Guardian, highlighting the rather controversial (among science writers) idea that too much contemporary science journalism and blogging falls under the category of “infotainment” instead of critical, contextualized reporting. I think of this as the product of science writers chasing stories that are interesting and directly relevant to lay audience readers, with just the right combination of novelty, sexiness and factual accuracy. But, as Rehman points out in his article in The Guardian and several subsequent blog posts, a media environment full of ‘infotainment’ might help to popularize science, but not necessarily enhance citizen’s ability to make informed policy, funding or other decisions about scientific research.

“[I]nfotainment science journalism rarely challenges the validity of the scientific research study or criticizes its conclusions. Perfunctory comments, either by the journalist or in the form of quotes – such as ‘It is not clear whether these findings will also apply to humans’ or ‘This is just a first step and more research is needed’ are usually found at the end of such pieces – but it is rare to find an independent or detailed critical analysis.”

Is there anything inherently wrong with popularizing science by mixing entertainment with the perfect amount of getting research details across to lay audiences?  Not at all – in fact, most of my own blog posts probably fall into this category. However, a blogosphere bursting with entertaining science tidbits is not the kind of media environment that is going to save us from misinformation and overblown scientific claims. An over-abundance of information may actually disrupt critical thinking, and “distracting” audiences with fun science doesn’t necessarily promote interest in science policy, or action on climate change, for example. In fact, science that devolves into entertainment might do just the opposite.

“If anything, the Internet makes it harder, not easier, to get people to care, if only because the alternatives to political action [or, in my mind, action on pressing scientific issues,] are so much more pleasant and risk-free” (p. 74-75, The Net Delusion).

And just as Morozov warns in ‘The Net Delusion,’ the Internet and social media have often made it as easy, if not easier, to spread misinformation as information. And misinformation and hype in science stand to do a world of harm in many cases – public opinion on vaccines and climate change, just to name a few. Cyber-utopians often forget that there are bloggers on both sides: blogs praising democratic revolution as well as pro-government and pro-establishment blogs. We have the same in science: for every climate science blog there is a climate denial blog with just as large or larger of an audience. There is often more misinformation floating around the science blogosphere as a whole than critical and contextualized reporting of scientific research and issues. Morozov argues that “opening up the information gates” does not necessarily erode modern authoritarian regimes, just as popularizing science through new media, opening up the doors of scientific research to the masses, does not necessarily promote support of a scientific way of thinking.

“To equate blogging with samizdat and bloggers with dissidents is to close one’s eyes to what’s going on in the extremely diverse world of new media across the globe” (p. 46, The Net Delusion).

And to make matters worse, personalization in the digital media landscape has allowed audiences to get only the science tidbits they want to hear, the entertaining and the opinion-confirming bits. Audiences can get the “flat-earth version” of their science news every morning, through blogs that twist and take scientific findings and statistics out of context.

“The Internet has boosted the power of the Huxley-inspired dictatorships. YouTube and Facebook with their bottomless reservoirs of cheap entertainment, allow individuals to customize the experience to suit their tastes” (p. 80, The Net Delusion).

The Good

But there must be redeeming qualities of the Internet and social media for science. After all, blogs and Twitter have opened up the doors for scientists to communicate directly with various audiences, to engage in collaboration and interdisciplinary discussion. Popularization of science is in itself a noble cause, in that funding of scientific research in the future will likely depend upon public and private money. Many science bloggers and other online science writers are leading the way in helping science to cross traditional boundaries of ivory towers and laboratory walls.

From open access to scientific research, to research literature at our fingertips, to a future many hope will involve open peer-review processes and more transparent research methods, the Internet and new digital media are unarguably changing the way we do and communicate science. Scientists have opened up online to both colleagues and collaborators as well as public audiences.

The Internet undoubtedly had great potential for raising awareness of pressing scientific issues such as global climate change. Andrew Revkin has argued that yes, despite big obstacles, the internet IS good for the climate, by greatly facilitating “the dissemination of best practices or great ideas” on mitigation solutions, and by providing valuable real-world experiments in communicating scientific ideas when it matters.

But I think it is important, before us bloggers starting waving our hats and hoisting the noble flag of “Internet for Science,” that we realize what is happening on the other side, how social media spreads misinformation too, and that breaking out of ‘infotainment’ is a very important exercise for a science media landscape that aims to do more than popularize and entertain.