My MSc course is, unsurprisingly, leading me down internet rabbit holes…
I was asked to bring a science ‘blog’ to our next course session and I had a problem. I don’t really think I read Science blogs.
This could be a fundamental issue in regards the course I’m doing and my particular area of interest ‘the public understanding of science’ if I’m not actually accessing the same information myself. So… start to hunt for science blogs.
But I felt a bit of a fraud. I get the Guardians Weekly Science updates and IOP’s Physics world newsletter and I read some of the articles I understand and ignore the rest. I couldn’t really turn up at class ready to discuss a blog I had only just started reading and, if I’m honest, I’ve always worried that the stuff I read in the IOP newsletter is pretty dry if you’re not a physicist. (The IOP blog is fun though!)
Then I wondered. I don’t read Blogs, but I do watch Vlogs… well I don’t really – my partner does and I’ll watch a couple through with him every now and again. I have questioned a couple of the things we’ve watched but largely it’s all good fun and interesting.
But before I prepared an email to our lecturer to check whether my suggestion would be acceptable I did a little research, and my research sent me down a rabbit hole of worry.
I was looking into the SciShow, created by the ‘Vlog brothers’ John and Hank Green, it’s an example of a relatively widely respected Science Show. Hank trained as a scientist and the topics seem to be fairly well researched, although I did find it hard to find information about how this is done and who by. But… in 2013 Myles Power writes a blog about ‘the biased views of Hank Green and Scichow’. Now I happen to know from watching Vlogbrothers that the brothers father was at one time the Florida State Director of the Nature Conservancy (Hank Green ref in ‘why bullets are good for the environment‘). It’s relatively easy to see where and why these views have developed. Scishow responds quite reasonably to the criticism and a further video is released. But here we have an example of the science around a highly important subject being selectively chosen and biasedly reported without any question or peer review of those presenting it.
When I questioned how many millions of viewers watched Scishow as compared to reading blogs the picture worsened. If you google ‘best science blog’ one of the first on the list is geekwrapped.com’s 20 best Science blogs not what I asked, but you know – internets. The list includes I am pleased to say, the IOP’s physics blog, but it also includes IFLScience. Which, whilst I really enjoy reading the comedy sections has published biased views and what I would consider to be some questionable science.. I’ve seen illustrations and examples of basic physics I don’t like but a specific example is highlighted by Brian Koberlain where a series of articles first promote then deny an impact on climate change of a piece of published science that in the original press release, had nothing to do with climate change!
There follows about a month later an article debating the ability of science to communicate. All three articles are published on IFLScience! If you read the small print at the bottom you’ll see that all three articles have different authors. But I wonder if people realise that what they are reading is a tiny bit of study and a massive amount of random journalistic opinion and ‘fill in the gaps’? It’s certainly not made clear on the main site.
Returning to the 3rd article the bit I love is in the where the writer blames the confusion on the Royal Astronomical Society releasing a press release that didn’t link the studied science (which was about the sun) directly to its affects on climate change – commenting that journalists rushed to fill in the blanks. The Telegraph have printed a small apology in italics at the end of their original article on the press release confirming that
“CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that scientists have predicted bitterly cold winters in the 2030s, “similar to freezing conditions of the late 17th century”. In fact, the research focused solely on solar activity, and did not made any prediction about its possible future climate effects. We are happy to make this clear.”
IFLScience completely ignore their own attention grabbing headline ‘we could be heading into a mini ice age’.
My poor opinions of this site have not been remedied.
On the other hand I still really enjoy Scishow, as mentioned before most of its facts are well researched and it engages a huge community with science.
You need to take both of these sites with a pinch of salt, and what if you don’t know that? How do you find out? Even a quick internet hunt suggests that IFLScience can be trusted: Media bias factcheck report IFLScience as ‘high’ if ‘left from center biased’ in regards the quality of their reporting.
What I’m concerned about is that there is no real ‘peer review’ process on the internet. You hope that a scientist who knows the science spots the error or the bias and picks up on it and that the original creator responds appropriately, with some definite link to the original piece so the error doesn’t spread. But really… in all the internet how can we trust this as a viable method of ensuring ‘truth’ or at least a minimalisation of errors?
On 9th October this year the ‘about’ section on Youtube reports SciShow as having joined in Oct 2011 and since then having 731,483,249 views
At this rate all I can ponder is; is all the argument about presentation of science in education and peer reviewed papers irrelevant? Our teachers and universities may debate the curriculum and delivery of science, but are the really our source of information anymore?