How researchers get heard

Beyond Extremely Online Expertise

A certain kind of public expertise — the one you see all the time, the Extremely Online version that can take you from tweet thread to op-ed to TV talking head in under 24 hours — can also easily slip into being a punishing trap for all but those pugnacious, extroverted few who thrive on continual exposure and friction.

If that sounds like hell — a prospective hell that prompts most introverted researchers to shy away from public expertise in the first place — your fear of Extremely Online Public Expertise will be confirmed byan excellent interview Harvard epidemiologist and The Atlantic contributing writer Julia Marcus did with the former New York Times media reporter Charlie Warzel for Warzel’s Substack (highly recommended, BTW).

Warzel touched base with Marcus because she was an Extremely Online Public Expert during the first year of COVID and at some point disappeared. It turned out Marcus deliberately stepped back, feeling burned out and overexposed, but also feeling as if Twitter, the boiler room-cum-megaphone of Extremely Online Public Expertise, was undercutting the value of any unique insight she might contribute:

I’m fairly new to Twitter but it’s felt to me that the people who are amplified in news media as experts are often the people who have large followings on Twitter, which creates this feedback loop that can build a false sense of consensus. And that makes it very difficult to put forth alternative perspectives.

Twitter rewards certainty. How often do you see a tweet go viral when somebody is unsure about something? And it’s an addictive process. Certainty is rewarded, high emotion is rewarded, especially anger and fear, and it’s a self-perpetuating phenomenon. When the scientific discourse largely moves onto social media it begins to degrade. … I think over the past few months I started to feel that my efforts were more futile than they were last year. Earlier I felt a sense of contribution putting my thoughts out there and saying things based on my research experience that felt semi unique. Eventually, I got to a place where I was questioning everything, and even whether I should be saying anything at all. Maybe that’s simply the burnout talking. Or, again, that lack of resilience I have felt. But I also think that our social patterns and the politicization of the pandemic response felt more cemented over time, and that feeling of futility kicked in. 

In his much-discussed Substack on Lab Leak and how the news media quickly coalesced around zoonotic transmission of COVID as the scientifically unanimous explanation for the initial outbreak in Wuhan (without there being unanimity among scientists, except those Extremely Online), Matt Yglesias also wonders hard about how Twitter’s bubble effect is blunting disagreement and dissension within domains of expertise, which makes actual disagreement and dissension on the platform always combustible:

Social media is truly social in the sense that it features incredible pressures to form in-groups and out-groups and then to conform to your in-group. Unless you like and admire Cotton and Pompeo and want to be known to the world as a follower of Cotton-Pompeo Thought, it is not very compelling to speak up in favor of a minority viewpoint among scientists. Why spend your day in nasty fights on Twitter when you could be doing science? Then if you secure your impression of what “the scientists” think about something from scanning Twitter, you will perceive a consensus that is not really there. If something is a 70-30 issue but the 30 are keeping their heads down, it can look like a 98-2 issue.

I do not know a lot about science, so I will not opine how generally true this may or may not be.

But in economics, which I do know well, I think it’s a big issue. If someone tweets something you agree with, it is easy to bless it with an RT or a little heart. To take issue with it is to start a fight. And conversely, it’s much more pleasant to do a tweet that is greeted with lots of RTs and little hearts rather than one that starts fights. So I know from talking to econ PhD-havers that almost everyone is disproportionately avoiding statements they believe to be locally unpopular in their community. There is just more disagreement and dissension than you would know unless you took the time to reach out to people and speak to them in a more relaxed way.

My strong suspicion is that this is true across domains of expertise, and is creating a lot of bubbles of fake consensus that can become very misleading. And I don’t have a solution.

There is no solution, if you cannot imagine public expertise without the ecosystem of Twitter and journalist gatekeeping.

Lab Leak is the apotheosis (or nadir) of a decades-old science-media-industrial complex dynamic that’s been turbocharged by social media into an ever-tightening death spiral: Extremely Online Journalists Chasing and Chased by Extremely Online Public Experts, ratifying each other’s prejudices, creating false consensus about crucial public questions (in COVID alone: masks, outdoor gatherings, schools, masks again, what else?).

Marcus seems to have been traumatized by her pandemic year as an Extremely Online Public Expert. Like so many experts, she innocently thought the science-media-industrial complex would amplify her insights. The real product, as she found out, was turning her into bear-bait for Twitter’s always-on Coliseum-grade barbarism.

I counsel experts who want to be public to first have clear goals for what they are doing that are ideally tied to their organizational or career goals. Then we create a strategy and a content program that rests on a range of public expertise activities appropriate for the impact they want to create. That might mean using third-party media platforms, but it doesn’t mean dependence on them. We cultivate conversations and create communities through email newsletters, podcasts, webinars, videos, data viz, private emails to inner circle targets…even (still) white papers.

The typical result: Smaller scale, but deeper impact. Fungal, not viral. Extremely on point, if not always online.