Category Archives: Politics

Can We Ask Presidential Candidates about Science?

 

Back in December 2011, The Guardian USA and New York University’s Studio20 (see their Tumblr – note: I am associated with the program) announced a new joint project – US presidential election 2012: the citizens agenda. Here is some background information from that time:

The Guardian USA:

The citizens agenda: making election coverage more useful: We invite you to help refresh the media’s tired templates of campaign coverage to address issues people really care about

Studio 20:

Studio 20 Will Collaborate With The Guardian on How to Improve Election Coverage: On Dec. 8, Studio 20 and The Guardian US jointly announced that they will collaborate in the development of a “citizens agenda” approach to election coverage during the 2012 campaign for president.

Nieman Journalism Lab:

Civic journalism 2.0: The Guardian and NYU launch a “citizens agenda” for 2012: Jay Rosen and Amanda Michel reunite for a project that aims to inject citizen voices into campaign coverage.

PressThink:

The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage: The idea is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision. So you go out and ask them: “what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?”

Nadja Popovich:

Re-thinking Elections 2012: As part of the Studio 20 graduate program at NYU, we’re partnering with the Guardian on a big question: how do we make election coverage more useful to the average user? So, today we launch the “Citizens Agenda”, an attempt to do just that.

What does that all mean?

The idea is for a media organization with a strong reputation, large audience, and necessary resources to team up with a group of smart, dedicated, innovative, tech-savvy and Web-savvy students of journalism to explore and analyze the questions posed by the media to the presidential candidates (most notably during the presidential debates), to see what questions are asked frequently, what questions rarely, and what questions not at all – and then to provide the citizens with the opportunity to have their own voices heard, adding questions they want to ask, inquiring about topics they care about the most:

Have the 839 GOP debate questions reflected the ‘citizens agenda’?: By studying the 20 Republican presidential debates of this election season, we can better see if the questions being asked correspond with the issues voters actually care about.

Some questions that may be of great interest or importance to the voters may be tip-toed around or completely ignored by the media, while other questions that are asked often may not be as informative to the public. For example:

Don’t ask, don’t tell: Mormonism mentions scant at GOP debates: Despite being the religion of two candidates, only three questions over 20 debates have dared to utter the M-word.

There have been 20 presidential debates so far this season, generating a total of 839 questions. The students have analyzed the questions, classified them and are starting to publish the details of the analysis – this is the first one, with more to come over the next several days:

The GOP debates: what questions do journalists like to ask? We looked at all the questions that have been posed to the Republican candidates in the 20 debates since May 5, 2011.

Interestingly, most of the questions were quite serious and substantial, but a small percentage could be characterized as “fluff” questions, designed primarily to entertain the audience, and secondarily hoping that a candidate may trip up or say something unusual or revealing:

The nine quirkiest questions from the Republican debates: There have been some strange moments over the last 20 debates involving the GOP candidates. Here are our favourites.

Interestingly, in some of the debates, the candidates were asked questions posed by the public, either by the members of the audience in the room, or from Twitter. Those questions were much different – they covered different topics, were often quite tough, and usually had a personal story as a starting point. By posing problems, the audience questions forced the candidates to abandon the talking points and put themselves in a “problem-solving mode”, which may be potentially much more useful to the television viewers at home:

At the GOP debates, ‘regular people’ didn’t shy away from tough questions: When the mic was handed over to audience members, they framed their questions around personal stories – and big issues

What was asked so far?

According to the first analysis (and more is upcoming), there are certain topics or types of questions that were asked at the debates very frequently. For example: on the economy and jobs (227 questions), the candidates’ lives and records (223 questions), fixing government and reducing the debt (188 questions), foreign policy and national security (160 questions), strategy and maneuvering among the candidates – the “horse-race journalism” focused on polls, electability and mutual criticisms of candidates, attempting to provoke a fight between them on the stage (113 questions), and the “How conservative are you?” type of question (104 questions).

Interestingly, concerning foreign policy questions, out of 200+ countries of the world, only a handful were mentioned in the questions, most frequently Iran and China, while many other countries, regions and entire continents were completely ignored (including very rare mentions of Iraq).

On the other end of the spectrum, restoring American greatness (“Are we still as powerful as we once were?” – 9 questions), human interest fluff (12 questions), education (12 questions) and religion (24 questions, but see above for lack of questions on Mormonism), were not often asked. There was nothing about, for example, women’s issues (apart from abortion), or about small-business owners.

In the middle are: immigration (61 questions to multiple candidates, 16 to Gingrich, nine to Romney, six to Santorum, six to Paul), healthcare (53 questions), social issues: abortion and gay rights (46 questions), and social spending: Medicaid, Medicare, social security and unemployment (42 questions).

Science and technology questions, including space and climate, were in the middle of the pack, with a total of 44 questions asked to date. Here are some examples:

On climate change:

John Harris (Politico): Governor Perry — Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

And a follow up: John Harris (Politico): Just to follow up quickly. Tell us how you’ve done that. [applause] Are there specific — specific scientists or specific theories that you’ve found especially compelling, as you? (both from September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On stem cell research:

Shannon BREAM: Alright, Governor Pawlenty, just days ago a Federal court struck down the ban on using Federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. You identify yourself as strongly pro life, but you don’t oppose government funding for research on existing stem cell lines already derived from embryos, but is that still spending tax payer money on elements that were generated by, at some point destroying an embryo. (MAY 5, 2011 | FOX SOUTH CAROLINA DEBATE)

On energy and environment:

Brian Williams (NBC News): Governor, time. Congresswoman Bachmann, a question about energy, back to that subject for a moment. Were you quoted correctly — and do you stand by it — as wanting to drill in the Everglades in Florida? (September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On green energy:

Bret Baier (Fox News): Governor Perry, you — you have railed against the special treatment of Ford and Solyndra as have the other candidates here tonight. And particularly the tax code incentives for green technologies and allowances that have been made for this industry. But it’s nexus, governor you have afforded the same attention to the oil industry. Back in 2003, you signed a bill that reduced the tax paid by some natural gas companies that have helped them reap since, better than $7 billion in tax savings. So I — I guess what I’m saying is, are you guilty of the same behavior as governor, favoring an industry, that you claim this president has, favoring the green industry? (December 15, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Sioux City, Iowa)

On the EPA:

John DISTASO: Speaker Gingrich, what exactly is an Environmental Solutions Agency? I don’t — I think a lot of people might not know or understand that — why you want to disband the EPA and set up — set up something that kind of looks like the EPA? (Republican Candidates debate in Concord, Hampshire January 8, 2012)

On nuclear energy and the Yucca Mountain:

Q from audience: QUESTION: My question for you is, do you support opening the national nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain? ANDERSON COOPER: Speaker Gingrich, we’ll start with you. [crosstalk] ANDERSON COOPER: Sorry, go ahead. ANDERSON COOPER: Is Yucca Mountain that place? ANDERSON COOPER: You were for opening it in Congress, right? (Republican Candidates debate, Las Vegas, Nevada October 18, 2011)

On the space program:

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: We have a question. I want to speaker to weigh in as well. [applause]This question is related from — we got it from Twitter. Speaker Gingrich, how do you plan to create a base on the moon while keeping taxes down in eight years? [laughter] (January 26th, 2012 | Republican Candidates Debate in Jacksonville, Florida)

How to build a citizen’s agenda?

Next presidential debate will be on Wednesday, February 22nd, moderated by John King of CNN. Another four debates have been scheduled in case no clear candidate emerges in the meantime. After that, there will be general election debates between the candidates of the two major parties. As the year progresses, the program will evolve, adapting to the circumstances on the ground.

In this first phase, between today and the next debate, the citizens (both of the USA and other countries) will be encouraged to post their questions – what they would like to see the candidates asked – in the comment sections of this post. Alternatively, people can tweet their suggested questions at @JohnKingCNN using the hashtag #unasked. The students will also do a quick classification of all the questions to send to John King’s producer just before the debate.

Will there be many questions? Will they be much different from what the media asks anyway (after all, the mass media shapes the public opinion)? Will a few of those questions emerge as strong contenders by being asked repeatedly by many people? Will John King actually ask one or more of these questions? Will moderators of future debates ask the citizens’ questions? Will other media outlets pick up these questions and ask the candidates whenever they have the opportunity to do so? That is still to be seen.

Asking about science?

Many important policy questions are in some way related to science or rely on scientific information. The same can be said of medicine, environment and technology.

While many science publications collect candidates’ quotes on scientific matters every four years (including us, just a couple of weeks ago), attempts to get presidential candidates to answer science questions have been made in the past without much success. Most notably, ScienceDebate.org managed to get some answers from both Obama and McCain four years ago, and intends to try to do the same this year. Occasionally a very lucky blogger may get an exclusive interview with one of the candidates specifically about science (I was that lucky four years ago, interviewing then presidential candidate John Edwards).

But questions posed by a large number of citizens are harder to ignore than questions posed by an organization, be it a specialized science media organization, or an organization of scientists (which can be dismissed as an “interest group” by the politicians). Also, questions about science, when placed in the mix with other questions of interest to the public, may have a better chance to get answered than if science is kept in isolation and treated as a special topic.

I am confident that the readers of Scientific American would love to ask science-related questions of the candidates, and can come up with good, well-informed questions that can lead to important and informative answers. This is your chance to influence the Citizen’s Agenda, by posting science-based questions on the Guardian site or on Twitter. Let’s see if we can influence the Citizen’s Agenda, and if that, in turn, may affect what questions get asked of the candidates in the mass media.

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Image: Nadja Popovich

3 Science Questions to Ask U.S. Presidential Candidates

As you may already be aware from my previous posts, The Guardian U.S. and NYU’s Studio 20 journalism lab have teamed up to push a project called The Citizens’ Agenda into the media discourse surrounding the U.S. presidential 2012 election. The idea: find out what you–the citizens–want the candidates to be discussing over the next four months – usually meaning questions of substance about policy rather than horserace and gotcha questions so pervasive in mainstream media.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a call for the Scientific American community to provide us with the three most important science-related questions that they would like to see the candidates asked by the media or during presidential debates in the fall. The Scientific American community is one (actually the first to have this finished) of a number of topical communities providing questions. Naturally, our readers are interested in science, so we are focused on  the science topics here.

Our Facebook page post soliciting question received over 120 comments (as well as 104 Likes and 61 Shares). The blog post itself got an additional 18 comments. We asked you “What three science questions do you think the U.S. presidential candidates should answer before we vote on November 6?” and since some comments included multiple questions, we got a grand total of 246 questions!

I am extremely happy with the quality and quantity of the submitted questions. You took this seriously and came up with a number of excellent questions.

An informal scan of the questions leads me to categorize questions by focus. There are: questions that ask for candidates to state science facts; questions that ask candidates’ stances on hot and politicized science issues; questions that ask about the role of science in governing; and fun/silly/provocative questions

There is value in all four types of questions. Each one of them is multi-layered and is actually trying to examine the following:

- are candidates reasonably educated in basic science?
– are candidates well informed about current understanding of various aspects of the world?
– to what extent will candidates apply scientific knowledge and advice by scientists in shaping policy, as opposed to interest groups that may or may not adhere to empirical knowledge in their agendas?
– to what extent will candidate’s style of governing resemble scientific method: observing and studying the world as it really is (as opposed to what one wishes it to be), collecting and analyzing data, and applying best available remedies to the problems?

In short, all the questions are trying to get at this core issue: are the candidates reality-based?

But for purposes of our effort, we also had to classify the questions by topic.

Interestingly, the topic of greatest interest, judging from your responses (23 questions clearly and solely in this category), is Science Education – its value, its role in society, the role of federal government in regulating it, and the need for its reform and funding. Interestingly, Role of Government in Science (22 questions) is also mostly about science education, so we fused the two categories into one.

This question, by our reader Cherry Kersey probably captures it the best:

How important do you feel science and science related education is in young children and how would you affect change so that U.S. students are competitive with the rest of the western world in these key subjects?

Some other examples are:

Do you think that promotion of critical thinking is a primary goal of education?

What role does the federal government play in supporting scientific education, infrastructure and research?

From media reports, it seems the U.S.  lags behind many other developed countries in protecting the populace from harmful chemicals and substances. Our laws and regulations seem to be designed to protect business interests first and foremost, and only to protect the populace or environment when it has been clearly proven (for example, from a lot of people/animals dying or being sickened by something that has been on the market for a number of years) and there is public outrage. What would you do to address this?

How will you help the USA recapture its #1 place in the STEM sciences, and how is education part of this important agenda?

Do you support evidence based education? If not, how are we to improve education? If so, how soon can we get rid of No Child Left Behind, which had no pilot?

What is the cost of American college education relative to its value to students and to the nation at large? Please describe that cost/benefit ratio in terms of its distribution throughout the current population of students who are in college or who are about to attend. Is that ratio favorable or unfavorable? If less than favorable, what actions would you recommend as President to make it more favorable?

What role does the federal government play in supporting scientific education, infrastructure and research?

Can the decline in U.S. ranking in science be directly attributed to the anti-science policies of today’s conservatives, and what affects will the continuation of these policies have on the standing of the U.S. as a leader in science in the future?

Do you believe the federal government should place more emphasis on increasing the number of young Americans who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or not?

Are you going to seriously fund scientific research? How will science help you develop policy? What are you going to do to make the benefits of scientific research benefit the American people?

In your opinion, who gets to decide the truth of a scientific concept? The people, the experts, or the well-funded?

What are you going to do to increase the number of scientists in office, ensuring the people making scientific decisions are in fact qualified to do so?

Will you support reestablishment of the Office of Technology Assessment to aid officials in proper evaluation of complex scientific issues? If not, why?

How will science help you develop policy?

What government body do we have to thank for the most inventions applicable to modern daily life in the last 50 years? (Answer is NASA)

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The second topic, with 18 questions focusing entirely on it, is Evolution, still a hot topic in this country. Our chosen question is by our reader Joseph Yaroch:

Explain why you think voters should care about your stance on evolution.

Here is a sampling of some other related questions:

Do you understand the role natural selection has played in the development of complex life over the last several billion years?

What is your opinion on the debate of evolutionary theory vs creationism?

Do you accept the theory of evolution? If so, do you accept that simply saying so is counter-intuitive to our current legal financial subsidies binding church & state?

Do humans and apes have a common ancestor?

What actions will be taken on school boards across the country that are eliminating scientific evidence of evolution from the curriculum?

Are you willing to defend separation of church and state and support the teaching of evolution in schools?

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The third most exciting topic to our readers, with 17 questions clearly and solely in this category, is Climate Change. The most representative question comes from our reader Eli Hernandez is:

Is global warming and climate change significantly and negatively affected by human industrial and fossil fuel consumption activity and if so what is our Government’s Role and Responsibility in mediating a solution?

Some more examples:

What should the US role be in controlling climate change and what would you do to advance it?

Even the most devout global warming advocates grudgingly admit that proposed regulations would only delay the inevitable (if global warming is in fact occurring), while the political/economic costs of such regulation would be devastating to the United States. Are you factoring the cost vs. the benefits of global warming regulation in your policy decisions? Will you publish this analysis?

How does the greenhouse effect work, and do you think that humans are interfering with its proper function?

Do you accept the scientific consensus on climate change and what policies do you propose to prevent and mitigate its effects.

Do you agree with over 90% of the world’s climate scientists that humans are at least CONTRIBUTING to global warming?

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The topics that follow are Space Exploration, Energy, Science Funding, Environment+Sustainability, Economics, GMOs, and general science questions (of the “what is an electron?” type), as well as a number of other categories with just 1-2 questions.

Finally, there was a “Silly” category, with only 12 questions (yes, guys, you were serious about this project!). Our favorite in the Silly category is this one, by nouseforaname.

Was Jar-Jar [Binks] possible through evolution?

Now I really wish someone would ask that question in the debate!

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Now that the questions are out, watch the The Guardian U.S. site for updates. Spread the word. Let’s all try to push for these questions to actually get asked of the candidates in the debates, or in other media outlets.

What 3 Science Questions Do You Think the Presidential Candidates Need to Answer before November 6th?

 

As you may remember from back in February, the Guardian U.S. and NYU’s Studio 20 journalism lab teamed up to learn what all citizens think about the upcoming election, not just those who care about politics with a capital P.

Back then, the questions were posed to the candidates in the GOP primary race. Now that this race is effectively over, it is time to shift focus to the general election.

Now we want to ask the science-loving Scientific American community to voice their questions, ideas and concerns with what’s been missing from the national conversation so far. What do you want to know before you cast your vote this November?

Other (media) organizations will tap into their own communities to identify questions relevant to their interests. We want to her you, the STEM community, as to which science, engineering, technology, medicine, environment and technology-related questions you want to see asked of the two major party candidates.

So tell us: if you could pose a question to both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, what would it be?

Give us your own question and “like” your favorites from fellow Scientific Americans on our Facebook page, and we’ll publish the top three both on our site and The Guardian’s Citizens Agenda.

Add your three suggestions to our Facebook page by Tuesday at noon.

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Image Source

Web breaks echo-chambers, or, ‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’ – my remarks at #AAASmtg

As you probably know, I was in D.C. last week, attending the annual AAAS meeting. This was my second one (funny, back when I was a member of AAAS I was still in grad school and I could never afford to go – now that I am out of science, invitations are finally happening). It is an enormous meeting (about 8200 people this year, I hear) and I missed even seeing some of the friends as the space was so enormous and the program so rich.

Unlike last year, when I was in a session that made quite a splash, this year I was a part of a much more academic panel on Social Networks and Sustainability.

Organized by Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University, the panelists were Mrill Ingram (University of Wisconsin), Ken Frank (Michigan State University) and Adam D. Henry (West Virginia University). These are people from areas like sociology, people who make graphs like this one and understand how to properly interpret it:

My role on the panel was as a ‘discussant’, i.e., someone who does not give a separate talk but comments, at the end, on what the other panelists have said.

I am glad I got the materials from the panelists in advance as this was quite dense stuff.

Every scientific discipline invents new words – the terminology (or jargon) with precise meaning that is necessary for practitioners to talk to each other. For the most part, natural sciences tend to stick to agreed definitions, and counter-examples are relatively rare thus usually quite well known (e.g., the different use of the term “gene” by population geneticists vs. molecular geneticists).

Social sciences, on the other hand, tend to appropriate words from the existing English vocabulary and give those words new, precise definitions. Thus, possibility of misunderstanding by non-experts is greater. Also, some of the terms are defined differently by different sub-disciplines, research communities or even individuals, which makes it even harder to be sure one got the meaning correctly.

This all made reading the materials, as well as listening to the panel, quite challenging for me, the outsider in this field. I am also not a researcher of social networks – I am a user and observer, perhaps an amateur student of them. My thoughts could not be supported by numbers and graphs, but had to, by necessity, be more impressionistic – what I learned from my experiences using, living in, and running online social communities.

As all the speakers went substantially over their allotted times all I had left was seven minutes. Fortunately for me, I had all seven (not 3.5) as the other discussant’s flight into D.C. was canceled. Also fortunately for me, this was the very last time-slot of the meeting, so nobody was in a rush to go to another session and thus everyone let me talk a few minutes longer and then remained in the room asking even more questions.

As I tend to do, and in this case particularly, I decided not to prepare too much (OK, at all) in advance. Instead, I listened to the panelists carefully and made the decision what to say only once I climbed onto the podium in the end and knew how much time I had at my disposal. I decided what to say in the first couple of sentences – the rest came out on its own, pure improvisational theater.

As I was reading the materials and listening to the talks, I realized that a couple of examples were clearly discussing real-world, meat-space, offline social networks, but that all the other examples were ambiguous: I could not figure out if those were online, offline, or combined/hybrid social networks.

So, I decided to use my seven minutes to compare and contrast online and offline social networks, how they differ (more important than how they are similar, which is the default thinking), and how they interact and potentially strengthen each other due to such differences.

This is, roughly, what I said – or at least what I meant to say but had to speed up, i.e., this is an (very) expanded version:

Social norms build and enforce echo-chambers

You want to remain in a friendly relationship with the people you see (or potentially can see) often: neighbors, family, colleagues and friends. Nothing makes for a more unpleasant interaction than discussion of politics, ideology or religion with the people you disagree with.

Thus, there is a social norm in place: politics and religion are taboo topics in conversation. It is considered bad manners to start such conversations in polite company.

This means that most people are not exposed to views other than their own in their day-to-day interactions with other people.

In a small tightly-knit community where everyone’s politics and religion are the same (and people tend to move to such places in order to feel comfortable, on top of most likely being born in such a community to begin with), there is no need to discuss these topics as everyone already agrees. If the topic is discussed, there are no other opinions to be heard – it’s just back-slapping and commiserating about the evil enemies out there.

In mixed communities, the taboo against discussing politics and religion is strongly enforced. Again, as a result, there is not much chance to hear differing opinions.

There is no more airtight echo-chamber than a small community which interacts predominantly within itself, and not so much with the outside world.

Mass media builds and enforces echo-chambers

If you are born and raised by parents with a particular set of beliefs, you will also inherit from them the notions of which media outlets are trustworthy. If you were raised in the reality-based community, you are unlikely to waste much time with the media of the fantasy-based community (and vice versa). If your parents read Washington Post, you are unlikely to read Washington Times. You’ll prefer New York Times and not New York Post. MSNBC rather than Fox News. NPR rather than Limbaugh show on the radio.

But it is even worse than that – the choice is really not as broad. The media shapes the public opinion by choosing what is and what is not respectable opinion, i.e., ‘sphere of legitimate debate’ – what opinions to cover as serious, what opinions to denigrate and what opinions to ignore. There are many ideas that people hold that you will never see even mentioned in the US mass media and some of those are actually very legitimate in the Real World.

Furthermore, the press then divides the ‘respectable opinion’ into two opposites, gives voice to each of the two, and will never actually tell you which of the two is more reasonable than the other – “we report, you decide”, aka, He Said She Said journalism.

By presenting every issue as a battle between two extremes (and the fuzzy, undefinable “middle” is reserved only for them, the wise men), the mainstream press makes every opinion something to be sneered at, both those they deem worthy of mentioning and the unmentionable ones.

By refusing to acknowledge the existence of many stands on any issue, by refusing to assign Truth-values to any, by looking down at anyone who holds any opinion that is not their own, the mainstream press fosters the atmosphere of a bipolar world in which enmity rules, and the wagons need to be circled – the atmosphere that is so conducive to formation and defense of echo-chambers and yet so devoid of airing of any alternatives.

The Web breaks echo-chambers

When an individual first goes online, the usual reaction is shock! There are people in the world who believe what!?!?

The usual first response is anger and strenuous attempts at countering all other ideas and pushing one’s own.

But after a while, unbeknown to the person, all those various novel ideas start seeping in. One is not even aware of changing one’s own mind from one year to the next. Many ideas take time to process and digest and may quietly get incorporated into one’s gradually enriching and more sophisticated worldview.

We all learn from encountering all those other opinions even if we vehemently disagree with them. And we cannot help bumping into them all the time. There are no taboo topics online, no social norms preventing people from saying exactly what they think.

Forming, finding or defending a vacuum-sealed echo-chamber online is extremely difficult, if at all possible.

Your Facebook friends will post stuff that reveals their politics is different than yours (and you did not even know that about them before – they seemed so nice in real life!). By the time you get around to blocking them…it’s too late – the virus has already entered your head [this one sentence added 2-27-11].

People you follow on Twitter because of some common interest (e.g., food or knitting or parenting or technology or geographic area) may be very different from you when concerning some other interest, e.g., religion, and will occasionally post links to articles that contain opinions you have never heard of before.

If you are, for example, a liberal and tend to read only liberal blogs, you will constantly see links to conservative sites that are being debunked by your favourite bloggers – thus you will be exposed to conservative ideas daily.

If your interest is science, you are even luckier. The mainstream media, if it links to anything at all, tends to link either to each other or to governmental sources (e.g., CDC, USDA, etc.). Political bloggers link a lot more, but again the spectrum of sources is pretty narrow – they link to MSM, to governmental pages, and to each other (including the “opposition” bloggers).

But science bloggers link to a vastly broader gamut of sources. If mass media is linked to at all, it is usually in order to show how bad the coverage was of a science story. Linking to each other is important (and that includes linking to anti-science sites when needed to counter them), but what science bloggers do that others do not is link to scientific papers, documents, databases, even raw data-sets (including some Open Notebook Science bloggers who pipe data straight from their lab equipment onto the web).

What echo-chamber? Contrary to what some uninformed op-eds in the mass media like to say, the Web breaks echo-chambers that the social norms and mass media have previously built.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically to affect real change

Many curmudgeons like to say that the Web does not do anything on its own. They (unlike behavioral biologists) do not understand the distinction between Proximal Causes and Ultimate Causes. Web is a tool that allows, among other things, many more people in much shorter time to organize to do something useful in the real world.

Release of Tripoli 6 was an instance in which massive outpouring of support online forced the mainstream media to cover the story which then forced the hand of politicians to do something.

Likewise, in the case of resignation of George Deutsch from NASA, it was investigative work by a blogger, Nick Anthis, that energized the blogosphere, which pushed the MSM to finally report on the story, which forced the event to happen.

PRISM was an astroturf website built to counter the pro-open-access NIH bill in the US Senate. Outpouring of online anger at the tactics by the publishers’ lobby inundated the senatorial offices – as a result the bill passed not once, but twice (GW Bush vetoed the first version of the large omnibus bill it was a part of, then signed it with no changes in the language on this particular issue) and the Senate is now educated on this issue.

But probably the best example is the Dover Trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) that made Intelligent Design illegal to teach in US public schools. The ruling by Judge Jones (pdf) is one of the most powerful texts in the history of judicial decisions I am aware of.

There are anti-evolution bills popping up somewhere in the country seemingly every week. But because of the Dover ruling, they are all illegal. Most don’t make it to the committee, let alone to the floor of the state legislatures. Others are soundly defeated.

Before Dover, both Creationist sites and pro-evolution sites, when linking to me, would bring approximately the same amount of traffic to my blog. After Dover, getting a link from PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Larry Moran or Jerry Coyne brings substantial new traffic. Links from Creationist sites? Essentially undetectable by traffic trackers – I discover them only when I search my blog URL to specifically see if there are new links out there. Creationism, while still popular with the people, is politically essentially dead. The Dover ruling castrated it.

But Dover Trial would not have gone that way, and would not result in such a gorgeously written document by the Judge, if it was not for a small army of bloggers who contribute to the blog Panda’s Thumb. A mix of scientists from different disciplines, lawyers, etc., this group has been online – first on Usenet, later on the blog – for a couple of decades before the trial.

This is a group of people who battled Creationists for many years, online and offline, in courtrooms and political campaigns, in classrooms and in print. They know all the characters, all the usual creationist “arguments” (and provided all the answers to them in one place), all the literature, etc.

It is one of them who discovered that the new Intelligent Design “textbook” is really just a reprint of an old Creationist book, in which the word “Creationists” was replaced by “Intelligent Design proponents” throughout the text….except in one place where they made a typo: “Cdesign proponentsists”.

Ooops – a huge piece of evidence that Intelligent Design Creationism is just a warmed-up version of the old-style Creationism masquerading as something new. The Panda’s Thumb bloggers were at the trial as expert witnesses who provided all the expert evidence that Judge Jones needed to make his decision. People who organized on the Web have helped a meatspace history come to pass.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically if the ecology is right

When looking at the role of online communities and networks in meatspace events, counting the numbers of networked citizens (or ratio of networked to non-networked citizens) is not sufficient – one also needs to know their geographic distribution, and their connectiveness with non-networked citizens. The most fresh example are the so-called “Twitter revolutions” in the Arab world.

There are at least two possible scenarios (or thought experiments) that demonstrate the importance of ecological thinking about social networks:

1) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. All in the same city, all in the same college dorm, good friends with each other. No communication with other people. No Twitterati in other cities. Nobody knows that other people in other cities have the same negative feelings toward the government.

2) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. One each in 10 different cities. They communicate with each other via social networks continuously. Each is also a center of the local community of thousands of non-networked people using offline methods of communication. Through this connection, they become aware that there are millions of them, all over the country, and that a revolution is feasible.

In scenario 1, there are 10 buddies dreaming of revolution. In scenario 2, there are thousands of people in ten cities organizing revolution. In both, there are only 10 people on Twitter. Yet, the outcome is likely to be very different.

Thus, the ecology of the networkers, their spatial and temporal distribution, and their effectiveness in informing not just each other but many non-networked citizens, are important data one needs for this exercise.

‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’

I shamelessly stole this sub-heading from someone on Twitter (let me know who said it first if you know). Edit: Thank you – it was Chris Rowan,

A great example of a case where the Web produced a community (aka echo-chamber) but that was a good thing, is the case of American atheists.

Before the Web, each atheist in the USA thought he or she was the only one in the country. The social norms about the impoliteness of discussing religion, as well as the real fear of reprisals by the religious neighbors, made atheism completely invisible. No need to mention that the media never mentioned them – they were outside of the “sphere of legitimate debate”.

But then the Web happened, and people, often pseudonymously, revealed their religious doubts online. Suddenly they realized they are not alone – there are millions of atheists in the country, each closeted before, each openly so after! It is not a surprise that “no belief” is the fastest-growing self-description in questions about religion in various nation-wide polls and censuses.

President Bush Senior, himself not very religious, could say that atheists are not real American citizens. A decade later, his son GW Bush, himself a fundamentalist, could not say that any more – his speechwriters made sure he mentioned atheists in the listings of all the equally American religious groupings.

Not all online communities need to be politically active. Discovering people with the same interest in knitting is nice. Exchanging LOLcat pictures is fun. But such interactions also build ties that can be used for action in the real world if the need arises.

Without the Web, I would not know many people whose friendship I cherish. Without the Web I would not have this job. Without the Web, me and many of my friends would have never gone to a meeting like AAAS. There would be no such meetings as ScienceOnline, Science Online London, SciBarCamp, SciFoo, and others.

Every time I travel I make sure that people I know online – from blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. – know I am traveling. I say on which date, at which time, I will be in which restaurant in which city. Twenty people show up. Most I have never met in real life before. But after sharing a meal, a beer, a handshake and a hug, our weak ties become strong ties. Superficial relationships become friendships. If there is a need to organize some real-world action – we can rely on each other to participate or help.

I have a separate Dunbar Number in each city I visited. And I try to connect them to each other even more than they are already connected via online communication. Which is one of the reasons we organize conferences and one of the reasons I am online all the time.

Related:

As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For? by Emily Anthes.

Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber? Chamber? Chamber? by Ed Yong.

The Vaccine Song (video)

Real Guys Immunize

guyzimmunize logo.jpgLast week I went to Philadelphia to a very interesting meeting – a Social Media Summit on Immunization. Sponsored by Immunization Action Coalition, this was a second annual meeting for health-care non-profits, organized (amazingly well, with great attention to detail) by Lisa Randall (and, I am sure, a small army of helpers).
Over a day and a half of the meeting there were two simultaneous sessions at each time slot, but I did not have much opportunity to ponder my choices as I was at the front of the room at three sessions, and participated actively in several others. The style was very ‘unconference-y’, with barely any PowerPoint – we talked and showed stuff on the Web as needed.
We discussed pros and cons of using various online platforms for spreading the message about vaccinations (which also means pushing back against anti-vaccination propaganda), making sure that all of the representatives of the non-profits understand they don’t have to use all (or any) of them unless this can be useful for the work they want to do and the goal they want to achieve. But if they do feel it is necessary, we were there to explain and demonstrate how to do it: static pages, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., the best practices and strategies for using each of these platforms, the metrics for measuring the spread of their message, etc. This was a LOT of stuff, and we covered a lot of ground, but I hope we were useful.
On the second day, we had a very interesting discussion following the presentation by Anna Kata, anthropologist from McMaster University, whose recent paper, A postmodern Pandora’s box: anti-vaccination misinformation on the Internet, analyzed the arguments by the anti-vaccination groups use in their online discussions. What is most interesting is that every single one of these arguments is nothing new – each has been used from the very beginning of vaccination, in 1796, from personal attacks on Edward Jenner, to arguments about “playing God”, to fear of putting animal material into bodies, to suspecting a conspiracy by government, industry and medical profession, to arguments for personal freedom, to proposing alternative theories of health (and disease and treatments). It never really stopped, it just has some very prominent spokesemen right now, visible in the media.
What is important is that people who reject vaccination are not the uneducated and the poor. The poor tend to trust the authority of physicians and will gladly vaccinate – if they can afford it. It is the upper-middle-class, at least nominally well educated, that refuses to vaccinate their kids. Trying to change their minds by presenting them the information does not work – they do not treat that information as valid. They live in a post-modern world in which everyone is entitled to their own facts. Their notions of body, health, and disease are very holistic, very New-Agey, so medical information does not mean anything to them. But they (not the activists, but parents seeking information) can be swayed by peer pressure. And nothing works better than for them to hear, from their friends, family, neighbors, colleagues and physicians, over and over again “I vaccinated my kids, trust me, I know what I’m doing, you should vaccinate yours, too.” If people they trust vaccinate, they will start wavering in their beliefs and may end up vaccinating themselves in the end. It is that social pressure, and need to socially conform, that is much more powerful than all the medical information in the world.
As a demonstration of the way, and ease of the way, for putting together a social media strategy, a group of ‘Social Media Ninjas’, about 5-6 of them who have never met or worked together before, took over one of the rooms and all of its computers during the meeting. They had 24 hours from start to finish. They started by crowdsourcing ideas, then picking one and running with it. The one they picked was focused on explaining ‘herd immunity’ and the target audience was men.
Almost all of the activity in persuading people to vaccinate their kids targets women, as it is supposed that mothers are the only ones making decisions about their children. This leaves out half of the population. And that half of the population can really help. In some families, still in the 21st century I know, the father has the last word. In other families, mother may resist vaccines out of fear and insecurity and her husband’s support can make all the difference – they can study the issue together, discuss it and make the decision together.
So the Social Media Ninja team, in that 24-hour period, came up with the name – “Real Guys Immunize” – drew a logo, and built a static web page, which explains what this is all about, provides brief FAQs and links to external resources. It also provides an easy way for readers to post personal stories.
They started a Twitter account (and the #guysimmunize hashtag), a YouTube channel and a Facebook page. They designed an e-card for Father’s Day. They had a couple of participants write blog posts (see here and here). And they put together a cool slideshow:

They decided against making a video (24 hours was too short, and nobody in the room was a real video-maven) though this can be done later, and made other changes to the original plan as the 24 hours passed. At the very end, they presented all of that to the gathering, including the first metrics of their reach (whatever one can measure after such a short time):

The site (and everything else associated with it on social media) is not really owned by anyone – it was just an experiment done to show how such a thing is made. So, if anyone is interesting in taking over this initiative and moving it forward into the future, there is a contact e-mail there, just click.

If scientists want to educate the public…but is that the right question to begin with?

Yesterday, Chris Mooney published an article in Washington Post, If scientists want to educate the public, they should start by listening. It has already received many comments on the site, as well as on Chris’ blog posts here and here and here. It will be followed by a longer paper tomorrow, at which time this link will work and you will be able to read it.
The blogosphere has not remained silent, either, with responses by, among others, Orac, Pal MD, Evil Monkey, Isis and P.Z.Myers. Most of them, as I do, agree with the article about 3/4 through, and are, as I am, disappointed in the ending.
I actually don’t have much to add to this discussion as this one is just another chapter in the discussion of Chris’ book “Unscientific America”. As usual, most commenters focus on one or two aspects of his (and others’, e.g., Randy Olson’s) argument, though the argument has many layers and components.
I don’t have much to add because it is hard to add much to what I have already written at length and in great detail, trying to address and combine all the components in a 30-page (when printed out) post. So, if you are a little confused about what Chris says and about the responses by others to Chris, you may find my old post informative. Here it is: What does it mean that a nation is ‘Unscientific’?
Update:: More reactions by Chad Orzel, Evil Monkey, Andrew Revkin, Joe Romm and Chris Mooney.