How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Twitter, Black Holes & Science Inspiration

Science Twitter lost it a bit on Wednesday, because some Twitterites were insufficiently awestruck by the new photos of the black hole:

And even if you responded with the required enthusiasm, that just reminded at least one famous scientist of how we’re letting Science down elsewhere:

The universe is amazing. Science shines a light on that amazingness. And yet — as with all other often-wonderful pursuits — science is quite unattractive when it lectures us on how wonderful it is, and how we’re letting it and everyone else down ever single time we fail to recognize that.

Science wants everyone on its team, and decries its enemies (rightly so). And yet, scientists are too often all too willing to divide the world into teams — to indulge in nostalgia for a time when science had unquestioned authority and people made decisions based not on superficial things like feelings or appearance but ideas.

Which century was this?

Our failure to be inspired by everything scientific threatens something fundamental to scientific identity: the idea that science is a universal good and should be regarded by all as such. That’s a blind spot for science, and a problem. Because, despite all the talk about scientists becoming better communicators, in the end, too many scientists still think that science deserves a cultural privilege that it clearly has lost and won’t get back. And if you scratch them hard enough, you’ll hit resentment about that loss.

We might be able to educate people into inspiration, through a long process of conversation and cultivation. But we can’t berate them into it. Inspiration is an expression of resonance, of identity. Failure to be inspired usually isn’t a question of deficient character; it’s a question of missed signals. We need to make both our signals and our receptors stronger, not just blame the receiver. We need to have a strategy about how to talk with the unmoved, not at them.

I keep thinking about this recent paper by Shi, Teplitskiy et al. called “The Wisdom of Polarized Crowds,” about how ideologically and politically diverse teams of Wikipedia editors produced higher quality Wikipedia articles on scientific topics than entries that those edited by homogeneously ideological teams. As the abstract says:

“Analysis of article ‘talk pages’ reveals that ideologically polarized teams engage in longer, more constructive, competitive and substantively focused but linguistically diverse debates than teams of ideological moderates.”

Wikipedia, the study found, works better in these situations because it has a strong culture and policies that drive contributors who would normally trash each other on Twitter to channel those energies into less personalized conversations that hash out the finer points of debate in the article — in essence, a social contract to produce consensus content.

As study co-author James Evans told Nautilus, scientists need to embrace these encounters — because the conversation, structured properly, will make for better knowledge:

My hope is that not just scientists, but people with opinions and political stakes in general, can seriously consider the fact that people who don’t share their political viewpoints have something valuable to say — and even if they don’t have something valuable to say about a particular political topic, that their different experience and perspective has likely given them access to other kinds of information that will be valuable and new to you. That’s the key to unlocking the potential of polarization: to allow people to constructively contribute to knowledge projects and other projects together. If you know enough about Wikipedia to open up the talk page, which anybody can do but almost nobody does, you’ll see extensive discussions going on. You’ll see people carefully, painstakingly employing diverse perspectives that are perceived by experts as being systematically better. It just produces more robust knowledge because there’s less ideological filtering going on.

Surprisingly, the authors found that articles with balanced groups of editors “have a lower harassment prevalence” than do articles with unbalanced groups, study co-author Misha Teplitskiy told Nautilus.

At first I thought: Well, we can’t possibly transfer the rules of Wikipedia to the world. But the more I see reactions like the ones above, from otherwise superior science communicators, the more I think we need find ways to try.

Takeaway: But the revolution almost certainly won’t be on Twitter.