From the media to the readers

I have a thin skin when it comes to criticism. This is deeply unfortunate when I a) publish in such an argumentative forum as palaeontology (and even more so with theropods and pterosaurs) and b) run a public access blog with comments. The former I can at least generally deal with in the literature and the latter on the blog itself, but ah! What about those little comments that sneak out on the DML, other blogs and especially these days on forums and newspapers running your work? Oh God the stupid. And the offensive.

I do appreciate that people on the internet are and can be anonymous and this means that they can (and therefore are) far nastier or just less polite than they ever would be face to face. I also appreciate that instant communication means that people can (and again do) post comments without a moments thought. There are however two different patterns of comments or rather commenters here at play, one group of which I found particularly disturbing.

The first are those which come from the ‘average’ person who (I *assume* I should note) has no great knowledge of science either at the knowledge level (i.e. they don’t know many facts) or at the mechanics level (i.e. the don’t know how science and science publications work). They tend to leave unreasoned comments based on either a misunderstanding of the science or the method. Those who think to criticise our methods despite having only read a 300 word newspaper report of 7500 word paper written by a journalist. They do not seem to realise that there might be more to the story than what is on the page right now in front of them and frankly probably lack the knowledge and skills to obtain and understand the full report in any case. As such they are overestimating their own knowledge and underestimating the abilities of the scientist. Annoying though this is, it is to be expected and while it will be difficult, these are exactly the kinds of people who we should be trying to reach through science communication efforts even if it is difficult.

However far more worrying was the reaction of the second group of people, those who we have already reached or do not have to reach. Here people have a clear understanding at least of the mechanics of science and a good (or at least better) based knowledge of science. Most importantly, they *like* science and want to learn more and understand more (or again, this at least is my impression). Unfortunately, the reactions I spotted here were, at least on occasion, essentially the same as the first group.

A specific example – on one ‘sceptics’ site someone posted up a link to my blog post and commented briefly that it was some new research. It got stomped on pretty much instantly by a number of other commenters despite the defence of the original poster and another person. At least half a dozen different people over about 30 minutes tore into various aspects of the research, the methods, the data and yes (obviously, annoyingly) the actual researchers (i.e. including me). However, since my blog actually tracks incoming links and so on, I know that only a grand total of two people ever actually followed the link to the blog post. In other words, people who are supposed to be interested and knowledgeable about science were quite happy to disparage research without having read the paper, or the words or one of the authors even though it was a mouse click away on the very thread they were writing on. They even proved themselves quite knowledgeable about palaeontology and dinosaur research based on the comments and citations they used to discredit me, despite the fact that ironically they were citing work I myself used to *support* my ideas since they had large chunks of the concepts backwards (perhaps unsurprisingly since they didn’t actually bother to read what I actually said or ask me what I thought).

This IS a disturbing trend. I am used to annoying and provocative comments on the Musings, but then I am aware that I get a lot of non-expert or causal readers and also obviously they tend to at least respond directly to things I have already said so it is largely a case of clearing up a confusion or expanding on a point I had kept brief etc. However here we have a situation where those I would most expect to want to read the original research or the words of the researcher did *not* do so and still acted like the classic pack of ignorant hyenas who tear apart a story without knowing anything about it. The ignorant I can handle, but the wilfully ignorant? This is a problem!

In fact it’s such a problem I’m really not sure what I can say more or do about it. I will confess I did not do much about it on the original page (since I would have had to sign up and login and everything and I can’t do that for *every* place that gets something wrong, even about just my own work – though here at least this may have been a mistake I admit). I have not seen anything quite like this before (or perhaps I have but, without the intimate knowledge of the subjects being discussed, missed the salient points) and I would hope it is not common. If those who profess to enjoy and like science (enough that they do know about taphonomy, coprolite research and predator prey ratios and regularly comment on a science discussion forum) are still happy to hack away at things in public even when presented with the actual research that contradicts them then we have a real issue on our hands.

These are the people we do not have to try and reach (or so I thought) yet despite the obvious problems I noted above with internet communication they seem as beset with an equal miss-estimation of their knowledge and indeed those of researchers and we are back to the Ivory Towers problem again. I think there is more work to do here than I had thought and this is a real problem as far as I can see, though I hope that it might be an isolated case and as if often the situation, dinosaurs just bring out the worse excesses in ignorance from some.

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17 Responses to “From the media to the readers”

  1. 1 Charles Choi 15/08/2009 at 2:33 pm

    I myself often find myself mystified after readers email me and ask me about what they presume is *my* research, even though it should be perfectly obvious that I’m just the writer and not the scientists I quote.

    • 2 David Hone 15/08/2009 at 6:02 pm

      It’s interesting to see that both seem to hold true from different people. I’ll keep that in mid in the future, though of course there’s not much I can do about it.

  2. 3 davidmaas 15/08/2009 at 6:05 pm

    Don’t be discouraged!
    There are largely silent folk like myself enjoying your information immensely, without feeling qualified to really say much about it. In my case, I’m working my way up to being qualified enough to try my hand at paleoart… using a novel NPR system I’m contributing to.

    Take what you get, and enjoy what you have!

    • 4 David Hone 16/08/2009 at 9:03 am

      I know they are out there (though your comment is much appreciated, i can assure you), but I was more concerned about the ‘next generation’ if you like of people who should be well into their science (and certainly appear to be) and yet are falling foul of the same basic ignorance and attitudes that I would not expect from them.

  3. 5 Julia 15/08/2009 at 6:51 pm

    As you know, Dave, I’ve suffered from bad reporting of my own research, although at the time I was in the first year of my (first attempt at my) PhD and had no clue about publicity. Thinking of a sceptics forum, this was the extent of my dissing: Fortean Times Message Board. Fortunately my Official Cheerleader is a member and could set things straight.

    And you and I have both had commenters who are arguing with science from a non-science point of view – like the whole cluster**** over whether a pterosaur was a dinosaur or not. Why should we have to use wholly inaccurate euphemisms (like “dinosaur” to cover anything big and extinct) when the public could be better served by saying “relative of dinosaurs” for pterosaurs? When we are arguing the science, the issue of whether “dinosaur” is a nice easy word for the public to understand should be irrelevant. And the people arguing the latter point actually have a lower opinion of the public’s intelligence than the scientists arguing for accuracy do.

    Gaah, wibble.

    • 6 David Hone 16/08/2009 at 9:09 am

      I agree (obviously if anyone reads that whole thread) I fail to see why 2 or 3 extra words that actually inform (if only a very little bit) are left out when they could be included. It is ironic given the level of dedication and education to get a PhD that the public leap over any error in a news report and assume that it is the scientists at fault. For once that is not journalist bashing, but few of them are palaeontologists. If the secretary in a workshop told you what was wrong with your car and made an error you would guess she made a mistake rather than the mechanic who asked her to pass on the message so why not here?

      My take is still that science journalists should be trying to inform and report accurately on science and a great many fail to do so with even the simplest tasks. Obvious errors are introduced everywhere all the time and once more the Bad Science cataloguing of errors are horrifying. The MMR stuff is simply horrendous for anyone who has read the book.

    • 8 Nick Gardner 15/08/2009 at 10:42 pm

      wrt the above, you could either read the full story first (the article is written atrociously) or the terrible comments by morons in our state.

      • 9 David Hone 16/08/2009 at 9:12 am

        But here we are dealing again with the concept that researchers are somehow uneducated idiots and that everyone else knows better. We have to convince them that we are doing a good job. This is tricky as although there are great science writers out there, they tend by definition to write for the higher end publciations like New Scientist etc. that are not likely to reach the average commenter and the less-able reporters make the kinds of mistakes that do teach them and can misrepresent us. Though I think the whole anti-intellectual movement (which seems to be stronger in the US than the UK, but none the less present) is a very significant problem here.

  4. 10 Anonymous 16/08/2009 at 2:02 am

    Speaking of morons, Nick:

    I don’t know what the #@$%&* this crap is, but it’s just so incredibly moronic that it makes me want to curl up in a ball and shake. It is HIDEOUS.

  5. 12 Davor 16/08/2009 at 11:49 pm

    As a layman, though one who does aspire to greater knowledge of science (including a better understanding of the process of publishing work and then sharing it), I really hope I’ve never been one to flippantly critisize a scientist’s work. One thing I’ve learned for certain is the sloppy way science is reported, whether due to reporters who lack the knowledge and insight to deal with the subject matter or editors who don’t place higher priority on bloddier or sexier topics.

    I think much of the problem is that science is a practice of questioning and revealing. People are so invested i ntheir worldviews that they feel a knee-jerk defensiveness toward scientists, who often burst the myths that define their worlds. The problem with an instant-access medium like the internet is that I can post my initial feelings of shock or anger, and while time may mellow my feelings or change my mind completely, that first reaction will be what’s preserved in the fossil record, so to speak. Extreme reactions are easily fossilized; the soft tissues of thoughtful commentary are not.

    I hope it’s not foolish optimism to imagine that some of the harsh commenters are flexible enough to change their minds…

    • 13 David Hone 17/08/2009 at 9:29 am

      Davor I think you are dead right there and have largely said (more succinctly, and with the nice allusion to preservation, more poetically) what I was trying to say. My one comment would be that while I agree in general with this portrayal of the *average* reader, I am still concerned with this effect showing up with those who are supposed to have more nous and a better understanding of how these things work, (and dare I hope a little more respect for us and our work).

  6. 14 John Scanlon, FCD 20/08/2009 at 10:39 am

    Here’s another approach to making a scientific study more interesting and intuitive using a pop-culture hook:

    The comments there include a number of attacks on the researchers by people who (of course) haven’t read the actual paper but think they’re so much smarter…

    • 15 David Hone 20/08/2009 at 10:45 am

      I’ve not had a chance to read the paper yet, but my office mate approves of it. It does seem to be just that a clever way of looking at a genuine issue (disease outbreaks and their containment) which I think is a good thing (generally). I can only imagine the comments. I’ve literally just broken my own self-inflicted promise to stay clear of these things and ripped someone apart who went for the “first scientists said A and NOW they say not A, how dumb are they” approach on the the new pterosaur landing paper. As ever it is incredibly hard to convince them that you are right and you are either accused of being patronising or elitist. Arrrgh! Still, hopefully one or two *other* people will read it and think “maybe he has a point”, it’s all you can hope for really.

  7. 16 Tim Lurke 26/08/2009 at 3:36 pm

    I enjoy reading your post, keep posting like this informative article, I’ll be back to read your next posting :). Thanks

  1. 1 Knowledge and the application of knowledge « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 24/08/2009 at 5:05 pm
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