Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bill Nye, Meet Science Twitter ---Guest Post---

    How can science celebrities and scientists work together to better communicate science? The scientists behind #BillMeetScienceTwitter share their views, and set the record straight on their celebrity “trolling”.

    Recently, there have been ongoing discussions within the scientific community about the nature of science celebrities, and what their role is within science and society in general. Much of the focus has been on two of the biggest names, Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Many people think of scientists as nerdy dudes doing physics and chemistry in white lab coats, and unfortunately the current cohort of science celebs (Brian Cox, Karl Kruszelnicki) have done little to dispel this myth. Bill and Neil have a following of over 10 million on Twitter - as a result, each tweet they send can influence the thoughts and perceptions of audiences many times greater than almost all other science communicators.

    Another common misconception of scientists is that an expert in physics, for example, is an expert in all of science. This means that science celebs like Bill and Neil are often asked to answer questions from outside their respective areas of expertise, something for which we do not envy them! Within the science community this is generally dealt with by directing the question to another potential expert who knows about that topic, however for Neil and Bill, with the cameras rolling, they are often expected to give an answer on the spot, which can lead to factually incorrect answers. One that is often mentioned is when Neil said that a species would surely be extinct if its sex was painful. Given the myriad of brutal sexual practices in the animal kingdom (male insects piercing the female abdomen with their penises, penile spines….we could go on), this is simply untrue. Neil, however, has since addressed this, saying that his comments were misinterpreted. Getting such a volume of requests for information outside of your field must be tough to deal with – but the load can be lightened by spreading the work across the wider scientific community.

    These issues were the motivations behind #BillMeetScienceTwitter. You might be asking yourself “Why?” or “Are they trying to bully my heroes?”, or thinking “Scientists are so weird and nerdy.” We understand how you might have arrived at those conclusions based on the Forbes article entitled “Why A Bunch Of Scientists Are Heckling Bill Nye With #BillMeetScienceTwitter”. However, what we were actually trying to do was reach out and offer assistance in areas outside the expertise of Bill and Neil. We also wanted to show the diversity of people doing science, as well as the diversity of the science that we do. Over 50% of the people tweeting on #BillMeetScienceTwitter were women – certainly not just a bunch of nerdy men in lab coats!

    Since the creation of the hashtag, it has been used over 28,000 times and reached over 1.2 billion people. This movement by scientists was so effective that it grabbed the attention of Bill Nye himself. He even highlighted a few of the scientists who introduced themselves to him. 

Needless to say, we were pretty thrilled about this.

    Neil has also subsequently reached out to clarify his responses to information requests outside of his area of expertise. You might say, “‘Mission accomplished! Well done guys!” But whilst the response has been mostly incredibly positive, and we feel we have succeeded in showcasing our awesome science, some of the reactions have been not so great. Some of the reporting still described the scientists involved using terms such as “geek” or “wonk” – the kind of language this whole hashtag was designed to fight against. Language really matters, and science isn’t just for mega nerds. We really hope that people can read beyond these labels, see the diversity of scientists behind the hashtag, and think, “Hey, science is for everyone.” We recommend you take some time today and scroll through all (or some) of the tweets with #BillMeetScienceTwitter. You’ll find a very diverse group of scientists from across the globe, in every discipline, from singing mice to how soil stores carbon to climate effects on different organisms. Each one is trying to make a positive impact on the world in which we live.

    Diversity in science is important for a number of reasons. We each think differently, often due to our different backgrounds. Highlighting diversity shows people from all walks of life that they too can become a scientist. Bringing everyone together helps develop a sense of community and support networks. While each person is unique, putting these experiences and knowledge together can result in outcomes that might just revolutionize our way of thinking, or even our lives.

    We hope this is just the beginning of collaborative efforts between Bill (and Neil!) and the science community on Twitter. As scientists, we have a duty to communicate science accurately and well, and we are sure both Bill and Neil would agree. We are here if you need us, all you have to do is ask!

Dani is a zoologist studying the effect of climate change on African wild dogs at the
 Zoological Society of London and UCL. She has been studying and working in the field of ecology and conservation for 9 years now, and has worked with a variety of animals including bats, foxes and reptiles. More recently, she has co-authored the science humour book ‘Does It Fart?’ - the result of a collaboration between scientists through Twitter. Follow Dani on Twitter: @DaniRabaiotti!

Melissa Cristina Marquez is a Latina marine biologist and wildlife educator who studies shark migratory patterns, habitat use, and social media coverage of sharks and their relatives. She is a freelance environmental writer, and founder of The Fins United Initiative (TFUI; www.finsunited.co.nz), a program that brings attention to the unusual and diverse sharks (and their relatives) of the world, the threats they face, and the scientists who study them. She regularly hosts #STEMSaturdays on Twitter to provide career guidance and advice to young women in STEM worldwide. Follow Melissa on Twitter: @mcmsharskxx!

Dalton Ludwick is a first-generation college student. He is currently working on his Ph.D. 
within the Entomology graduate area in Plant, Insect and Microbial Sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia. His research focuses on the management of western corn rootworm with transgenic corn. He also studies the ecology of northern and western corn rootworms. Follow Dalton on Twitter: @EntoLudwick!

Solomon David is an aquatic ecologist interested in fish biodiversity, conservation, and science communication. His current research focuses on ecology, evolution, and genomics of gars and other ancient fishes, and how that research can be applied to better understanding human disease and development. Additional projects involve conservation of Great Lakes migratory fishes, “Ancient Sport Fish” (e.g. gars and bowfins), and peripheral populations of species. He also communicates science through traditional and social media to raise awareness of the value of aquatic ecosystems and freshwater biodiversity. Follow Solomon on Twitter: @SolomonRDavid!

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