How researchers get heard

Eric Feigl-Ding is Good at Twitter

I had to laugh: The climate scientist Brian Brettschneider last week discovered that the Twitter account of John Kerry, Joe Biden’s pick to be his administration’s “climate czar,” was following zero climate scientists. The response: dozens of scientists jumping up and down to suggest themselves and others to an account whose handler (be they John Kerry or a staffer) is clearly struggling to do basic Twitter and does not respond to tweets from anyone he doesn’t already know.

This is the main way Twitter works for many scientists — as social reinforcement of their individual and collective powerlessness. There’s nothing wrong with using Twitter this way. It might even be Twitter’s main function. But it’s incredible that anyone still believes they might get policy access through a follow or that John Kerry should follow climate scientists. That’s failure to understand the platform.

Meanwhile, Undark skeptically profiles Eric Feigl-Ding, the Harvard-trained epidemiologist who has since January used Twitter to sound alarms on COVID-19, winning over 300,000 followers and the attention of policymakers, public health officials, journalists and scientists.

How has Feigl-Ding done it? According to his numerous scientific critics, by sensationalizing, distorting and just being sloppy with science, as well as not staying in his lane (he’s a food epidemiologist, not an expert in infectious disease). Some even complain that he reaches out personally to them after seeing their criticisms. Horrors!

All the criticisms of Feigl-Ding are correct — and none of them matter. Why? First, because Feigl-Ding is good at Twitter. He understands how Twitter works and how to get what he wants — engagement and attention — out of it.

He understands the high value of alarmist reactions — his feed often looks like the captioning to a fight on the TV series “Batman.” He understands the supremacy of responsiveness on social media — that responsiveness always trumps complete accuracy — and so he posts quickly and corrects afterwards, if at all. He understands how to exploit network effects. Most importantly, he understands that you have to first capture attention to have attention, which breaks a cultural norm of science: Don’t call too much attention to yourself.

You would think science would want to learn from Feigl-Ding. Instead, he’s committed the unpardonable sin of failing to act on Twitter like enough of a scientist —​ you know, terrified of getting something wrong, because science never does. Undark quotes the science communicator Paige Jarreau as worrying that “if you’re trying to be really fast and sexy … maybe you ended up having to take it down because it was wrong or you were too quick to jump to sharing something and it wasn’t actually correct. … Then you’ve broken the audience’s trust.”

Please. If that’s true, then science and scientists have broken everyone’s trust by putting out reams of sloppy COVID science and shoddy hot takes. Who today expects science to always be correct? Aren’t we forever being told by scientists that science is constantly evolving, a quest rather than an end point? Isn’t that what Twitter is for — to serve as one angry endless after-pub peer review of the wrong?

The sniping at Feigl-Ding reminds me too much of how scientists in power have invoked science’s cultural norms for more than a generation to marginalize those scientists who want to communicate their work at all to nonscientists. These scientist-communicators, the flamekeepers argued, can’t be serious about science. They’re wasting their time on social media. Their simplifications and dumbing-down threaten science itself.

How well that attitude has protected science, right?

Eric Feigl-Ding is good at Twitter because he gives Twitter something Twitter and the world reward. Instead of complaining, we might continue to correct him and trust he’ll eventually wear out his welcome. We might study his approach and figure out whether it might be possible to match his speed and impact without sacrificing quite so much of the accuracy science craves.

Or we might continue pretending we are special and the world should be what we want it to be, a world in which John Kerry might follow us because we’re an expert on Twitter.

Credit: Fred F./Flickr