Does talking about science in social media lead to instability?

NB: this blog post is not about cold fusion!

.... and is that a good or bad or both thing?

Upon reading something I'd written on scholarly communication in science and blogs, a reviewer suggested I read stuff by Lewenstein.  My first reaction was, "huh?" He's an STS researcher who did a few articles on the cold fusion episode - but not really about the science but how communication happened, how events unfolded, and who knew what when.  But it had been a while, so I thought it was worth doubling back.

This seems to be the primary article:

Lewenstein, B. V. (1995). From fax to facts: Communication in the cold fusion saga. Social Studies of Science, 25(3), 403-436. doi:10.1177/030631295025003001

But there are a couple of others.

Interestingly, he talks about a failing in STS studies of scientific communication is that they are basically based on the Shannon model (re-read some of my comps posts). Like the standard Garvey and Griffith model - it's basically and outshoot of Shannon. I hadn't thought of it that way, but I can see how they're of the same school. Now we talk about interactive and convergence (posts on Schram). Likewise there's the whole science journalism old school thing where it's just dumbing it down and passing it around (I might have blogged about Hilgartner and/or Myers).

Anyway, the thing that really stands out about communication during this period is how chaotic it was. Scientists used media reports to try to replicate the results. Scientists relied on reporters to get them copies of pre-print articles. Reporters hung out in labs and traded information to scientists for their new experimental results. The original scientists apparently didn't answer other scientists' questions to their satisfaction. Communication over all channels was fast and furious and often confused. Pre-prints were significantly different from published versions. The media reports used emotionally charged terms about the "believers." It was difficult to judge the science because there were authority figures on both sides. Newish technologies like newsgroups and faxes were used to quickly distribute results of meetings.

At some point, media gave up and some scientists tuned the hype out to either try to replicate on their own or just ignore the whole thing. Then science went back to the typical communication patterns.

Lewenstein says that "one of the implications... is that the presence of multiple forms of media is associated with problems of information instability" (p.424). There's the complexity of communication - more like a sphere instead of a line. Scientists are communicating with each other, with the media, with the public all at the same time.  Did this instability actually slow science instead of speeding it up? With confused and differing reports from various sources, are you worse off than waiting for a more authoritative (or at least carefully crafted) source?  As he asked, did the confusion lead to a need for more information or did the proliferation of information lead to confusion - or yes, both? He suggests that the immediacy of the communication created more pressure and also confusion.

Other effects he suggests are that the immediacy of the communication leads to more emotional messages and that, at least in this case, CMC did not level the playing field - there were haves and have nots identified by access to information. The existence of these fast communication methods mixed with the slow make the spread of information non-uniform and destabilizing.

One problem in trying to use the conclusions of this article to talk about social media now is that the traditional science venues are also electronic, and also much faster. Also, as he admits, this is a special case. 

On the other hand, when the public sees in the black box by reading communications within the community - the discussions, the disagreements, the sausage being made - as opposed to the myth of the happy linear process... is that important? Maybe instability is good if, in fact, there is no consensus on something? (teach people not to make strident statements if they don't know what they're talking about - good luck!)

I suppose I have to figure out what I think of this, because this is directly relevant to the abstract that was accepted for 4S in the fall.

One response so far

  • Sounds like models of gossip would be really relevant for this: "With confused and differing reports from various sources, are you worse off than waiting for a more authoritative (or at least carefully crafted) source?" Interested to hear more!