For an industry that prides itself on cutting-edge research, science can be very outdated – particularly when it comes to communication. Social media is a topic that scientists often view with confusion, skepticism, disdain, or contempt. Some scientists are great at maximizing social media, but they’re the exceptions; others are dragged kicking and screaming into it.
The skeptical views were apparent in a recent study that surveyed health policy scientists on how they use and perceive social media. I highly recommend reading the full study here. Briefly, many scientists were hesitant to use social media for several reasons:
• Doubts of its effectiveness
• Low confidence in their ability to use it
• Perceived professional risk
• Belief that social media and science are incompatible
I understand the first 3 hesitations, but the last one is mystifying. Specifically, the cluelessness of people who “believe that the culture of social media is … crowded with opinion and ‘junk’” and thus “incompatible with that of science and research”.1
In other words, science is only respected if it appears in peer-reviewed academic journals. So it was fitting that, last week, flawed reporting of a peer-reviewed journal article was corrected via social media.
On June 12, there were several news reports that “cities with bike share programs see rise in cyclist head injuries” (to quote the original headline from the Washington Post, which has since been revised.) The news reports were based on a peer-reviewed study in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) that reported that a measure of head injuries did, in fact, increase after cities introduced public bike-share programs.
Here’s the problem – the “measure” in question was the proportion of bike-related injuries that are head injuries, not the number of head injuries. The number of head injuries actually decreased following implementation of bike-share programs. Cities with bike-share programs saw an enormous drop in non-head injuries, and consequently head injuries shared a bigger portion of the injury load even though head injuries declined, too. No matter how you slice the data, implementation of new bike share programs was associated with a decline in bike-related injuries.
“Fewer injuries” is usually a good thing, but the authors saw the glass as half empty. They focused on the increase in the proportion of head injuries, and journalists generally followed their lead. Mass misinterpretation followed, as headlines attributed a fictional increase in head injuries to bike sharing.
The misinterpretation was intercepted, though, by Dr. Kay Teschke, an expert on bicycling and traffic injury research at the University of British Columbia. She quickly recognized the error, re-analyzed the study’s data, constructed a figure to show how the actual number of injuries declined, posted the figure on Twitter, and discussed the study results through other media channels.
The shift in response was striking. Within days, most media outlets appropriately revised their headlines and several outlets focused on the positive evidence that bike injuries declined.2
Miscommunication was not extinguished completely; many outlets continue to say that the “risk” of head injuries increased, which is still inaccurate. Nonetheless, Dr. Teschke’s rapid utilization of social media went a long way toward erasing the notion that bike-sharing is a health hazard.
Now imagine how the scenario would’ve unfolded if she had communicated exclusively through traditional scientific channels instead of social media …
She could submit a letter or article to AJPH, politely pointing out the study’s nuance. She would need to wait for the editors to review her submission and allow the original authors to respond. When you add up all the steps – writing, submitting, reviewing, responding, and publishing – a few months and a few hundred news cycles would’ve passed. By the time the public saw Dr. Teschke’s response, bike-share critics would’ve had “BIKE SHARES CAUSE HEAD INJURIES” written into stone tablets.
Delays like that are not inconsequential. Not in a world in which the city of San Antonio invests $1 million to install bike lanes and then, one year later, spends $740,000 to remove them because drivers are unhappy.
Moreover, Dr. Teschke’s social media response was entirely compatible with science. She critiqued a study (which scientists value), saw it through a different lens (which scientists value), objectively analyzed the data (which scientists value), and built upon the authors’ initial conclusions (which scientists value). The only difference is that her science was communicated with a 140-character limit at times instead of a 4,000-word limit. Brevity is a virtue.
Most importantly, she communicated it through channels that the rest of the world listens to. Social media is how science is communicated today. It can include a lot of “opinion and junk” but it can also contribute to science if scientists are willing to engage.
I’m curious to hear from people across the social media spectrum, from early adopters to skeptics:
• If you think social media and science are incompatible – why?
• If you think social media and science are compatible – how do we integrate them more?
I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, where I specialize in childhood obesity policy research and systems science. My research has been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NPR, CNN, FOX News, Wall Street Journal, and several other media outlets. This is my personal blog; views are my own.
You can follow me on Twitter at @DanTaber47, where I often tweet about obesity news, school nutrition, public transit, systems science, and occasionally random topics like Seattle sports, marathon training, or my latest off-the-beaten-path vacation destination (coming in July 2014 – Kyrgyzstan!!)
1 The quoted text appeared in the study, “Translating Research For Health Policy: Researchers’ Perceptions And Use Of Social Media,” by David Grande, et al. It represented a summary of study participants’ views on social media, not the views of the authors.