The 21st Century Science Challenge: Communication with the Public

On my last trip to China, I was meeting with a former social science colleague at Tsinghua University, Professor JIN Jianbin, who received a new research grant to study public perspectives on science, such as around research on genetically modified crops. Our conversation about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) quickly touched on a variety of other issues, such as the public’s acceptance of research on climate change, on which sizeable proportions of the public in China, the US and other nations often dismiss, if not distrust, scientific opinion.

IMG_2381
Bill Dutton and JIN Jianbin at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, 17 Sept 2017

Of course, some level of public distrust of scientific authorities is not new. I recall some famous work by political scientists in the US who studied the politics of conspiracy theories around the fluoridation of water that was prominent across American communities since the 1950s, but which – surprisingly – carries on to this day. So while it is not new, distrust of the political motivations behind scientific opinion is arguably growing.

Some indicators have suggested that diffuse public support for scientific institutions is not declining.[1] However, there is some limited and more recent evidence that universities and academics are being perceived as more partisan.[2] And anecdotally, science is increasingly questioned as biased by researchers who are claimed to be in the pockets of the sponsors of their research, illustrated by controversies over pharmaceutical research.

Such assaults on the integrity of science have led universities and research institutions to place a higher priority on the prevention and detection of conflicts of interest rising in the conduct of research. Finally, symptoms of this growing distrust seem evident in the divisions over a rising number of issues, with GMOs, climate change, vaccinations, and evolution, being among the more prominent. Perhaps the controversies surrounding science simply reflect the many issues that have broad public implications, such as for the digital economy or public health, while issues such as the moon landing were more removed from immediate public impact on the redistribution of resources.

The bad news is that these controversies are likely to slow progress, such as on efforts to reduce man made climate change. In some cases these controversies are dangerous, such as in leading parents not to vaccinate their school children.

However, there might be some positive outcomes here, if not good news. One positive outcome of this developing problem might be that scientists will place a greater priority on better explaining their work to a wider public. Already, the study of science communication is a burgeoning field around the world, illustrated by new research being launched by my colleague JIN Jianbin, Professor of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University in Beijing. And an increasing number of research councils and foundations stress the importance of public outreach.

Of course, scientists explain their research findings and their implications as a matter of practice. Not to be forgotten or dismissed is perhaps the most effective albeit long-term form of science communication, which is teaching in colleges and universities. Yet there are questions about whether top scientists, whatever their field, are as closely involved in teaching as they could be. For example, my former university, the University of Southern California, placed a priority on putting top senior scholars into the entry level undergraduate courses, which I thought was brilliant, but which is exceptional.

But arguably, most communication about scientific issues remains focused on peer-to-peer rather than public facing communication. Peer-to-peer communication is conducted   through journal publications and academic conferences and presentations. And when public facing, it is often limited to top-down or what I have called ‘trickle-down’ science, with scientists expecting their publications to be read and interpreted by others, and not themselves – the primary researchers.[3]

However, and here I could be wrong, it seems that the worse possible development might be what I see as a trend toward scientific persuasion, often based on appeals to authority and scientific consensus or by lobbying, such as through petitions, rather than by effective communication of research. Any scientist is quick to dismiss or place less credibility in appeals to authority. Why should the public be different? Where is the evidence? And once scientists move into the role of a lobbyist, petitioner, or activist, they diminish their credibility as scientists or researchers. Surely this kind of context collapse, when a scientist becomes political, or a doctor runs for a political office, invites the public to view scientists and academics as partisan political actors rather than scientific actors, and see them in ways that parallel other political actors and lobbyists.

How can scientists explain their work to a larger public? First, they need to recognize the need and value of effectively communicating their work to a broader public. This aim is rising across academia, such as in research councils insisting on research including components on outreach, and academic quality being judged increasingly by its impact. Unfortunately, this can sometimes drift into a tick box exercise in budgeting for conferences and seminars involving business and industry and the government, while serious efforts to communicate to the general public with an interest in the topic needs to be tackled directly. Academics need to guard against this tick box mentality.

Another concern is that this need for public outreach might simply lead to a greater focus on media coverage, getting the press to pick up stories on a scientist’s research. There is nothing wrong with this, universities love such coverage, and it can be helpful, but news coverage is generally overly simplistic, too often misleading, and potentially adding to the problems confronting good scientific communication. Researchers need to hold journalists and the media more accountable, and address inaccuracies or overly simplified messages in the press, cable news shows, and mass media.

Another, and a possibly more effective and more recently practical approach, is to communicate directly to the public. Join the conversation. Write reports on your research findings that are understandable to those in the educated public that might be seriously interested in your work now or in the future. You can reach opinion leaders in your areas of research, and thereby foster effective two-step flows of communication to the general public. Don’t worry about a mass audience, but aim to reach a targeted audience of those with a serious interest in your topic. When they search online for information about your topic, make sure that accessible presentations of your research will be found.

Unfortunately, too many academics are taught not to join the conversation, and to avoid blogging or writing for a general audience. Instead, they are taught to focus more than ever on only reaching the top peer reviewed journals in their field and being read and cited by their peers. As noted above, this too often leads to a weak form of trickle down science, which is not in the long-term interest of the scientific enterprise.

We should question this conventional wisdom in academia. Personally, I don’t believe there is a necessary risk to scientific publishing by also trying to communicate to a more general audience. That is what teachers do, and when researchers try to teach and communicate with their students, they can find problems with their arguments, and ways to improve how they convey their ideas.

So – scientists – offer up your best ideas to the public, not as your peers, but as smart and educated individuals who do not know about your work – even why it is relevant. Some of my most meaningful experiences with communication about my research have been exactly when I – focused on Internet studies – sat next to a physicist or mathematician over a meal who asked me about my research and vice versa. What am I working on? Why is it important? If we can do this over lunch or dinner, we can do it for a larger public online.

Perhaps this is more difficult than it sounds, but we need to accept the challenge. Arguably, the scientific challenge of the 21st century is effective communication to the larger public.

References

[1] See: https://www.nap.edu/read/21798/chapter/4#12

[2] See: https://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/annabel-scott/pew-poll-majority-republicans-think-colleges-have-negative-impact-us

[3] Dutton, W. (1994), ‘Trickle-Down Social Science: A Personal Perspective,’ Social Sciences, 22, 2.

 

What Happened to our Academic Culture?

Universities – along with their centers, departments, and colleges – vary greatly in the vibrancy of their respective academic culture (intellectual climate). Nevertheless, no university can be complacent about the vitality of their culture for academic excellence – least they lose it.

Of course, there is no single academic culture. There are differences in the values, attitudes, and priorities of academics cross-culturally and at teaching versus research institutions, for example, but some of the same questions are relevant: Are the faculty and students engaged with each other over important issues and questions in their fields? Are they open to new ideas, but also are they actively scouting for new ideas in areas close and far from their primary areas of study or research? Do colleagues exhibit a healthy analytical skepticism – questioning the validity of assumptions and arguments, regardless of their prominence among their colleagues or their field as a whole?

Arguably, if you feel that you need to build an academic culture at your institution, you might have already lost it. But in many respects, even institutions with a strong academic culture need to continue building on their success, and not taking it for granted. There are too many pressures in modern academe across all institutions to ignore the forces that could undermine the openness and engagement of academics.

Competition for Time and Attention

These pressures include a nearly universal sense of increasing time pressures. Traditional images of the academic sitting comfortably reading while smoking a pipe seem increasingly romantic to academics multi-tasking online to handle never ending streams of email, deadlines, reviews, and the pressures to publish. Time to think and write seems to be shrinking for many if not most and not only among early career scholars, but across the range of temporary, fixed term, and tenure-track faculty. With attention appearing to be spread more widely across multiple demands, it is understandably difficult to take the time out to have lunch with a colleague, meet with students, go to a seminar outside your immediate area, listen to a lecture, or even read a book!

Unfortunately, this can lead academics to prioritize their activities in ways that can be counter-productive, such as going only to seminars central one’s areas of research and teaching, if at all. However, it is so often the case that it is in a seminar outside of one’s immediate areas of interest that you can find new ideas, new methodological approaches, and analogies with one’s own research. Many activities that appear unproductive, such as having a relaxed lunch with colleagues, are central to building an academic culture. For example, you learn about developments outside of your normal field of view, or discover how to better explain your own work.

A risk is that a focus on publishing can lead to more of a culture of production than a more genuine academic culture. A production culture could lead to publishing more work, but in a day when virtually anything can get published, this can undermine the quality of the academic process, such as leading us to do more incremental versus more innovative research, in addition to creating an academic treadmill for yourself and your colleagues.

Change in Collaborative Research Practices

A related driving force is a move from the traditional model of the lone scholar to more team oriented research collaboration. There is a degree to which a lone scholar values interaction with colleagues, such as over lunch or through seminars, as a stimulating approach to their own thinking. As academics move more into collaborative teams, often distributed geographically, they are more engaged in communication online and offline with their team, potentially undermining the attraction and value of spending more relaxed time with colleagues that are not closely tied to their work. Of course, the resources available online for collaboration and research generally are enabling individuals to work on their own in more productive ways, but nevertheless, there is arguably more reliance on distributed team research that can supplant more informal collaboration (Dutton and Jeffreys 2010).

Of course, the move to online collaboration and teaching creates more pressures. It might be easier to meet with people at a distance, but this means we meet more often and about more things. Online courses might make life easier for students, but they are harder for teachers to produce, and put more pressures on the time of academics. But as they are a new source of revenue for universities, and a means for increasing the productivity of faculty, these pressures will increase, or create more teams for the delivery of courses, which reshape the collaborative culture of teaching as well as research (Dutton and Loader 2000).

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: a Focus on Careers versus a Liberal Education

Another pressure is the move of many universities to focus more on ensuring that their graduates get good jobs rather than a liberal education. Decades ago, I was intrigued by arguments that a university should train students for their ultimate job, and not simply their first job. I wasn’t sure if it was right, but it certainly seemed closer to what universities did in trying to provide a liberal education to students on how to do such things as communicate, listen, reason, appreciate new cultures, create new ideas and approaches to old ideas, and challenge conventional thinking. But as more pressure is placed on more universities to train students for their first career if not their first job, the priority of a liberal education diminishes and so do aspects of university life tied to an academic culture. Of course, this focus on a student’s first career is problematic when students are likely to have not just multiple jobs, but multiple careers over the course of their working life.

From the Ivory Tower and into a Political Cockpit

Another pressure worth mentioning is the politicization of education, including universities. In the US, for example, there is a growing disparity of trust in universities across political parties (Geiger 2016). Universities seem to be increasingly lumped into a category of liberal-elite institutions that are out of touch with popular criticism of the status quo. As politics becomes more prevalent and perceived as more partisan in the climate of universities, it is possible that universities might become less open and more self-conscious about expressing viewpoints, such as on politically sensitive issues. Moreover, as competition between industries – which often cuts more deeply than politics – becomes more politicized, such as in the EU and US, then there are even greater political tensions in the Ivory Tower that can undermine free and open inquiry. Already in the USA, it is difficult to get federal funding for policy research, given the partisan concerns that surround funding decisions and research outcomes.

To Build a Culture from Yourself Up

The pressures of the digital age, the economic imperatives to train for jobs, and the growing political visibility of academia might combine to undermine academic cultures across many institutions of higher education. This makes it even more important to constantly think about building the academic culture of your institution. Don’t be defensive – this is a general problem, not just a swipe at your institution, but more of a note to myself.

There are steps you can take. My suggestions are first to start with your own willingness to take the time to engage, participate, and be open to and challenging ideas in areas close to and also far from your primary areas of inquiry. The moment you hear yourself think that you are not interested in a topic, that is the moment you should make an extra effort to engage, hear more, and see what you can learn. An academic culture can’t be driven from the top-down, or required by the instructor. But an academic can teach by example. So make an open, inquisitive, skeptical academic culture your priority, and other good things will happen.

References

Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

Dutton, W. H., and Jeffreys, P. (2010) (eds), World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Geiger, A. (2016), From Universities to Churches, Republicans and Democrats Differ in Views of Major Institutions, Factank, September 26th. Available online here.

My Endorsement of ‘Sharing: Crime Against Capitalism’ by Matthew David

‘Through a remarkably broad cross-industry synthesis, Matthew David demonstrates how information industries could benefit by adjusting market mechanisms to support the vitality of sharing-based economies. Anyone with a serious interest in intellectual property policy and practice should read this provocative case for building business models around sharing.’
William H. Dutton, Quello Professor of Media and Information Policy, Michigan State University

Information about Matthew David’s new book, entitled Sharing: Crime Against Capitalism (Polity Press 2017) can be found here.

A New Internet Institute to Rise in Berlin: Congratulations

Delighted to hear about the announcement of the award of support by the German Ministry for Education and Research for a German Internet Institute. It will be based in Berlin and be called the Internet Institute for the Networked Society or the Internet-Institut für die vernetzte Gesellschaft. The ministry has committed 50 million euros over five years, roughly based on a scheme similar to initial government funding for the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at Oxford University by the UK government, which was matched by support from a major gift by Dame Stephanie Shirley.

The OII was founded in 2001 as the first department at a major university that was focused on multi-disciplinary studies of the Internet. It complemented Harvard’s Berkman Center, which was focused on law and policy in its early years. 2001 was a time at which the Internet was still dismissed by some academics as a fad. Since the OII’s founding, study of the Internet has been one of the most burgeoning fields in the social sciences (Dutton 2013). I am pleased to see that the name of the new institute suggests it will be, like the OII, firmly planted in the social sciences with many opportunities for collaboration across all relevant fields. Also I am pleased that the new institute appears to build on the The Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG), which spearheaded the development of a network of Internet research centers. Clearly, the new institute could make Berlin the center for Internet studies.

A Map of Internet Research Centers from NoC

I am certain that many groups of academics competed for this grant, and that many will have been disappointed with the outcome. However, adding a major new center for Internet studies is going to lift all the growing numbers of centers and academics with a focus on the economic, societal and political shaping and implications of the Internet. And all of the scholars who put their efforts into competing proposals are likely to have many great ideas to continue pursuing.

So, my colleagues and I welcome the leaders and academics of the Internet Institute for the Networked Society to the world of Internet studies. The social and economic implications of the Internet are raising many technical, policy, and governance issues, from inequalities to fake news and more. Quite seriously, the world needs your institute along with many others to help shape responses to these issues in ways that ensure that the Internet continues to play a positive role in society.

I along with others are only now learning about this development. I look forward to hearing more in due course, and welcome any comments or corrections to this information – but too great to hold back.

Reference

Dutton, W. H. (2013, 2014), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies. Oxford University Press.

More information: an Announcement from AoIR: https://aoir.org/welcome_gii/ 

Also: https://www.bmbf.de/de/aufbau-eines-deutschen-internet-institut-2934.html 

Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Underresearched and overhyped: as appeared in The Conversation

Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Underresearched and overhyped

File 20170504 4929 1sx8gvi
Don’t panic: An international survey finds concerns about fake news are overblown.
studiostoks/shutterstock.com

William H. Dutton, Michigan State University

In the early years of the internet, it was revolutionary to have a world of information just a click away from anyone, anywhere, anytime. Many hoped this inherently democratic technology could lead to better-informed citizens more easily participating in debate, elections and public discourse.

Today, though, many observers are concerned that search algorithms and social media are undermining the quality of online information people see. They worry that bad information may be weakening democracy in the digital age.

The problems include online services conveying fake news, splitting users into “filter bubbles” of like-minded people and enabling users to unwittingly lock themselves up in virtual echo chambers that reinforce their own biases.

These concerns are much discussed, but have not yet been thoroughly studied. What research does exist has typically been limited to a single platform, such Twitter or Facebook. Our study of search and politics in seven nations – which surveyed the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain in January 2017 – found these concerns to be overstated, if not wrong. In fact, many internet users trust search to help them find the best information, check other sources and discover new information in ways that can burst filter bubbles and open echo chambers.

Surveying internet users

We sought to learn directly from people about how they used search engines, social media and other sources of information about politics. Through funding from Google, we conducted an online survey of more than 14,000 internet users in seven nations.

We found that the fears surrounding search algorithms and social media are not irrelevant – there are problems for some users some of the time. However, they are exaggerated, creating unwarranted fears that could lead to inappropriate responses by users, regulators and policymakers.

The importance of searching

The survey findings demonstrate the importance of search results over other ways to get information. When people are looking for information, they very often search the internet. Nearly two-thirds of users across our seven nations said they use a search engine to look for news online at least once a day. They view search results as equally accurate and reliable as other key sources, like television news.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/pfmZV/1/

In line with that general finding, a search engine is the first place internet users go online for information about politics. Moreover, those internet users who are very interested in politics, and who participate in political activities online, are the most likely to use a search engine like Bing or Google to find information online about politics.

But crucially, those same users engaged in search are also very likely to get information about politics on other media, exposing themselves to diverse sources of information, which makes them more likely to encounter diverse viewpoints. Further, we found that people who are interested and involved in politics online are more likely to double-check questionable information they find on the internet and social media, including by searching online for additional sources in ways that will pop filter bubbles and break out of echo chambers.

Internet-savvy or not?

It’s not just politically interested people who have these helpful search habits: People who use the internet more often and have more practice searching online do so as well.

That leaves the least politically interested people and the least skilled internet users as most susceptible to fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers online. These individuals could benefit from support and training in digital literacy.

However, for most people, internet searches are critical for checking the reliability and validity of information they come across, whether online, on social media, on traditional media or in everyday conversation. Our research shows that these internet users find search engines useful for checking facts, discovering new information, understanding others’ views on issues, exploring their own views and deciding how to vote.

International variations

We found that people in different countries do vary in how much they trust and rely on the internet and searches for information. For example, internet users in Germany, and to a lesser extent those in France and the United Kingdom, are more trusting in TV and radio news, and more skeptical of searches and online information. Internet users in Germany rate the reliability of search engines lower than those in all the other nations, with 44 percent saying search engines are reliable, compared with 50 to 57 percent across the other six countries.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/nQXkq/2/

In Poland, Italy and Spain, people trust traditional broadcast media less and are more reliant on, and trusting of, internet and searching. Americans are in the middle; there were greater differences within European countries than between Europe as a whole and the U.S. American internet users were so much more likely to consult multiple sources of information that we called them “media omnivores.”

Internet users generally rely on a diverse array of sources for political information. And they display a healthy skepticism, leading them to question information and check facts. Regulating the internet, as some have proposed, could undermine existing trust and introduce new questions about accuracy and bias in search results.

The ConversationBut panic over fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles is exaggerated, and not supported by the evidence from users across seven countries.

William H. Dutton, Professor of Media and Information Policy, Michigan State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Fake News May Trump Other Current Panics over the Internet and Social Media

I recently posted a short overview of the findings of one of our projects on fake news, filter bubbles, and echo chambers in The Conversation. All three are foci of panic over the potential political implications of new technologies, such as search algorithms and social media friending and de-friending mechanisms. Given the comments received and the worries expressed in those comments, the fake news panic trumps all the others – no question. 

Why?

One reason is that it is so new. The public debate over fake news only began to arise during the 2016 elections in the US, though it quickly spread internationally. I’m sure I could be corrected on that, but I believe that is roughly the case.

Secondly, the definition – to the degree that is fair to apply to this concept – is being constantly enlarged and blurred by pundits and politicians referring to more and more ‘news’ as fake. In fact, ‘fake’ is becoming an almost viral term. There are many ways to characterize much of the news, some of it is patriotic journalism, some partisan, some misinformation, some just poor reporting, etc. But more and more of the whole journalistic enterprise is being labelled as fake. But journalists are not the victim so much as among the major users of this term, increasingly characterizing mainstream media as real news versus blogging and social media as the sources of fake news. In such ways, it has become a pejorative term used to discredit the butt of the insult.

These are a few of the reasons why we did not use the term ‘fake news’ in our survey of Internet users. We asked other questions, such as how often they found wrong information on different media. That said, we found the a surprisingly large proportion of people tend to check information they believe to be suspect, such as by using a search engine or consulting other sources.

So despite the rising panic over fake news, I still believe it is under-researched and over-hyped.

Notes

Short note on our study is here.

The full report of our study is here.

Talk on the politics of the Fifth Estate at University Institute of Lisbon, March 2017

I had a quick but engaging trip to Portugal to speak with students and faculty at CIES at the University Institute of Lisbon. I have given a number of talks on my concept of the Fifth Estate, but there are always new issues emerging that enable me to help students see the transformations around the Internet in light of current developments. In this case, they were most interested in the election of Donald Trump and the implications for Europe of his Presidency. I will post a link to the slides for my talk.

It was so rewarding to speak with the students, who were most appreciative. I don’t think students realize how much people like myself value hearing from students who have read their work. So, many thanks to my colleagues and the students of the University Institute of Lisbon for their feedback. You made my long trip even more worthwhile.

I also had the opportunity to meet with my wonderful colleague, Gustavo Cardosoa, a Professor of Media, Technology and Society at ISCTE – Lisbon University Institute. I met Gustavo when he was the adviser of information society policies for the Presidency of the Portuguese Republic from 1996-2006, and continued to work with him through the World Internet Project and more, such as his contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (OUP 2014).

Professor Gustavo Cardoso and Bill
Gustavo Cardoso, 2017