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article imageOp-Ed: Serious challenges facing scientists in the online world

By Tim Sandle     Mar 14, 2019 in Science
Social media has brought many benefits, not least the opportunity for the scope and reach of many topics to be extended. On the reverse side, however, it is easy to shoot down a reasoned message. This is part of the challenge faced by scientists.
On social media it is fairly easy to whip up a storm. Sometimes this is part of a reasoned response to a major issue facing society; at other times a false or ill-considered statement becomes perpetuated, retweeted or reposted without due consideration.
This latter scenario is something increasingly faced by scientists, especially where information is communicated that does not fit with a particular political persuasion or requires a lifestyle choice that people do not wish to make.
It can be a matter of great frustration to scientists for a well-researched issue, which has been peer reviewed, supported by other studies and which forms part of an emergent scientific consensus to be lambasted as ‘fake news’ or refuted with baseless facts or weakly compiled data. There is a difference between discussion within the scientific community (no scientific consensus) and discussion on the Internet (where there may be scientific consensus but this is not obfuscated by discussions and reactions around non-fact based statements).
Climate change is a case in point. The scientific consensus on climate change, is the widely held view on climate change by most within the scientific community. This relates to the Earth's climate having warmed significantly since the late 1800s and that human activities (which have caused greenhouse gas emissions) are the primary reason for this. The accepted paradigm runs that if emissions continue at a given level, this will increase the likelihood and severity of global effects. It then follows that intense efforts are required to reduce emissions and to tackle other factors that lead to warming. To the degree that it is too late to correct some of the adverse impact, societies need to prepare for unavoidable climate changes.
Climate change
Those who do not support climate change are mainly driven by a political agenda, and there is very little scientific study to support the fact that climate change is not happening. However, a response on social media against climate change can be as strong (and sometimes stronger) as the argument for climate change, leaving the impression amongst many in society that ‘climate change is a theory’ or that ‘there are worthy arguments on both sides’.
At times the counter(factual) arguments lead to abuse delivered to scientists. Sometimes this is encouraged by prominent politicians or those with a strong social media following.
In March 2019, Donald Trump repeated the false claim that climate change is not real and that the science demonstrating the crisis is "fake". He based this on a speech delivered by Patrick Moore, who describes himself as a co-founder of Greenpeace Canada (which he is not, although he was active several years ago) and an environmental expert (for which he holds no qualification).
Moreover, for Trump to state: “The whole climate crisis is not only Fake News, it’s Fake Science. There is no climate crisis, there’s weather and climate all around the world, and in fact carbon dioxide is the main building block of all life,” runs contrary to the scientific findings of his own administration. The U.S. government National Climate Assessment's report has called for immediate action to combat climate change, as a necessary effort “to avoid substantial damages to the US economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.”
A second example is with vaccines. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides the figures that vaccines given to infants and young children over the past two decades will have prevented 322 million illnesses, plus 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths, projected over the course of the lifetimes of the vaccinated infants.
There are also some major historical milestones, such as with the eradication of smallpox. The virus killed thousands of people in Europe in the 18th century. Smallpox was officially wiped out in 1980 through a mass, global vaccination program. If the virus was still common, it would cause an estimated 2 million deaths every year around the world.
The importance of vaccination does not prevent a strong anti-vaccination movement being present on social media. Not only does this again present confusion to the general public it acts as a forum for abuse to be targeted towards scientists who are trying to re-present the case for vaccination.
The link between vaccines and autism, for example, has been disproven by the medical community. However, the continuation of the myth has led to many parents electing not to vaccinate their children against measles, and the effect is a growing number of measles cases. According to the World Health Organization, in light of gaps in vaccination coverage, measles outbreaks occurred in all regions, while there were an estimated 110 000 deaths related to the disease.
Singling out researchers for online abuse
A more specific area of attempts to discredit science online and where threats have been directed towards an individual scientist is over the causes of chronic fatigue syndrome. Medical researcher Michael Sharpe published results of a clinical trial that indicated that some patients with chronic fatigue syndrome can show improvement with talking and exercise therapies.
Since publication the Oxford University academic has been subjected to near-continual and anonymous online intimidation, ostensibly by people seeking to discredit his research. Many other researchers looking at chronic fatigue syndrome worldwide have received similar attempts at intimidation.
The negative power of social media
The issue affecting Professor Sharpe has led the academic to explore how scientists around the world, in relation to a disparate array of topics which do onto conform to someone else’s world view, are facing constant and quite often abusive or threatening attacks on social media.
There are no immediate solutions to stop online campaigns against science (social media providers do not have the best of records for tackling bullying, clamping down on racism or removing images of self-harm). What is important is to provide the mechanism for sound science to be discussed without threats to the scientists themselves. Without fact-based science and proper discussion, democracies are inevitably weakened.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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