Recently, Popular Science disabled its online comments. In explaining this decision, the magazine cited research that showed that online comments, especially uncivil ones, strongly influence readers, often leading to misleading or incorrect interpretations of the articles. Popular Science wrote, “If you carry out those results to their logical end…you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the ‘off’ switch” [Labarre, 2013].
While one magazine can change the way it handles comments, the scientific community cannot hit the off switch to the new communication realities. In the digital age, all perspectives can get equal airtime; we now live in what could be called a post-expert world. This new world has created several challenges that are contributing to the isolation of science and the polarization of politically charged science topics such as climate change.
To overcome these challenges, the scientific community needs new communication strategies to build a new relationship with the public. Although comments, tweets, and other digital tools can expand public engagement in science, simply using new tools to communicate in old ways may only intensify the polarization around politically charged issues.
The Challenges of the Digital Age
The biggest challenge of the digital age for science communication is the shift from the “broadcast” model, where a network or magazine broadcasts information, to a “conversation” model, whereby someone generates information and others comment, share, and add to it. Because anyone can comment, blog, or tweet, the online conversation dilutes expert voices. Often, the only distinguishing feature among voices may be if someone is a member of your “tribe”—that is, someone of similar cultural or ideological views [Haidt, 2012].
Another challenge is that social media and other online tools have created a “filter bubble” that reinforces tribal perspectives [Pariser, 2011]. People increasingly get their news from like-minded social networks. Many online news sites use algorithms to display only stories a reader is likely to click on, producing “the daily me”—only the news you want to see [Thurman, 2011]. Research indicates that people are more likely to accept information contrary to their tribal views if they perceive that there are experts with diverse values on both sides of the debate [Kahan et al., 2011], suggesting that filtering out all but like-minded perspectives polarizes opinions.
Ideological filtering of online information amplifies the growing polarization of news from traditional sources [Gentzkow and Shapiro, 2011]. For example, Democrats are more likely, by a 3 to 1 margin, to read The New York Times, while Republicans are more than twice as likely to watch Fox News [Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2012]. However, the voices of scientist experts are not evenly distributed. While articles on climate in The New York Times generally reflect the scientific consensus [Donner and McDaniels 2013], Fox News often explicitly or implicitly questions the validity of climate science [Hmielowski et al., 2014]. Indeed, the more Americans listen to conservative media, the more they distrust scientists and the less they accept the scientific consensus on climate change [Hmielowski et al., 2014].
The post-expert digital world also amplifies the geographic polarization of American society. People tend to live in communities with others who have similar racial and ethnic backgrounds and who have similar cultural, religious, and political beliefs [Bishop and Cushing, 2008]. “Birds of a feather flock together,” and research indicates that they also tweet together [Himelboim et al., 2013], suggesting that the polarization of American society is reinforced by the digital age’s echo chambers. The result is that liberals and conservatives live in different worlds, online and offline, each with their own versions of scientific facts.
This polarization is also reflected in the geographic distribution of scientists, who are largely clustered in relatively liberal parts of the country. For example, AGU members in the United States who work on global environmental change are concentrated in just a handful of counties (Figure 1), with nearly 80% living in a county that voted for President Obama in 2012. While this segregation arises because many research centers are located in liberal metropolitan areas and not necessarily because of scientists’ political affiliations, it means that in many parts of the country, especially conservative regions, climate scientists are rare.
If climate scientists do not live in conservative communities, they are not likely to be part of the conservative communities’ tribes —at least offline—and thus, these communities are less likely to trust climate scientists as sources of credible information. The digital world does transcend geographic boundaries and has created a broad diversity of online communities that transcend ideological and cultural boundaries [Shirky, 2010]. However, conventional communication strategies, focused on transmitting facts, applied within the post-expert digital world, may be reinforcing ideologies and intensifying the partisan divide.
Joining the Conversation
Scientists and science communicators need to expand their mindset from simply reporting facts to joining diverse conversations. Some promising models to do this are emerging. For example, the U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA) laid the foundation for such dialogues through the establishment of NCAnet, an online network of producers and users of climate information (ncanet.usgcrp.gov). Expert-driven efforts, such as the NCA, are critical for informing policy and shaping research priorities to meet society’s resource management needs. However, by themselves, these will not bridge the partisan divides around politically charged science issues such as climate change.
To open up new lines of conversation across ideological divisions, science communicators need to focus on developing strategies to join and initiate conversations that start with people, not science. How could such conversations between scientists and fellow citizens be developed and sustained? There is no simple and quick solution. But if strategically navigated, online communication may help.
A crucial first step will be recognizing that, outside the walls of academia, in the post-expert digital world, credibility is determined more by the communities scientists are associated with than by the papers they publish. Second, scientists should embrace the fact that online communities enable people to come together and collaborate, and use this to identify new opportunities for coproduction of knowledge that can complement more conventional science communication efforts. Citizen science efforts such as the Audubon Bird Count have long recognized the value of crowds in data collection. However, few programs have explored the value of online communities for enabling the coproduction of knowledge, which has been identified as critical for empowering a transition to sustainability [Cash et al., 2003].
In the private sector, the post-expert digital age has disrupted traditional business models and provided opportunities for new ones. Wikipedia, YouTube, and Facebook were inspired by and thrive on the coproduction of knowledge. Marketing companies have transformed their strategies to take advantage of new digital realities. Is it time for science communication to join the digital revolution and rethink its approach to public engagement? If we do not, the post-expert digital age may push science further and further into isolation.