It’s hard to change people’s minds. Controversial topics such as climate change and vaccines are not exempt from our inherent obstinateness. Scientists assume the solution to persuasion is more effective communication. A wealth of podcasts, Twitter accounts and YouTube channels are dedicated to the digestion and dissemination of scientific information. Even Bill Nye attempts to “save the world” in his recent Netflix series, in which he presents the consensus on some of these controversial topics. The obvious question is: Is it working? Incredibly, studies show that when presented evidence against a deeply held belief, previous convictions are strengthened rather than altered. Unfortunately, information and evidence are not enough, no matter how clear, effective or loud you are.
Scientists are often seen as “others,” distant because of scientific jargon that is alienating rather than inviting and inclusive. When people don’t understand the nature of scientific research, it can fuel skepticism. It makes sense to be hesitant to believe a group of people you don’t understand and have never met. Social media can help scientists explain their research in a way that people can both understand and relate to.
Scientists: They’re just like us
Social media initiatives that humanize scientists have become more prevalent and must continue. With hashtags such as #actuallivingscientist trending on Twitter and Instagram, people are getting a better look at the daily lives of scientists. Initiatives like The Story Collider produce podcasts in which scientists tell personal stories about their experiences. Sometimes these narratives are rooted in scientific discovery, other times they track the romantic endeavors of scientists in the field.5 Such approaches allow a lay audience to sympathize with scientists (and, by extension, the scientific community) through common experiences. But more needs to be done.
Targeting a teenage demographic would be one way to expand on this project — an Actual Living Scientist Snapchat account could be used to crowdsource images and videos from the daily lives of scientists in different fields. Topics could change on a weekly basis and range from botany to astrophysics. An Actual Living Scientist Snapchat account would add to the variety of social platforms that familiarize teenagers with the nature of scientific research, could sow trust in the research enterprise at an early age by associating it with people and not abstract concepts, and hopefully foster pursuit of careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). They’re already on Snapchat — let’s meet them there.
An element waiting to be explored in efforts to humanize scientists is humor. Imagine a YouTube channel made in a late-night show format with scientists briefly discussing their research, but more importantly telling stories of professional rivalries, romantic endeavors and any drama that has surrounded their experiences in science. This could be followed by an unrelated competition, such as arm wrestling or pop culture trivia. Also, guest scientists could recite popular songs as poetry or play Pictionary with the host.
Anecdotal accounts of some of the struggles endured by researchers and professors build sympathy for the scientific community. We need more relatable representations of scientists — humor and honesty can make them social peers instead of strangers.
If you build it, will they come?
As with all social media, the primary obstacle is the user base. To reach the demographics and communities that are skeptical toward the scientific enterprise will require a large following of the pages, profiles and channels. To reach the broadest audience possible, it is crucial that these accounts avoid any semblance of exclusivity for the scientifically sympathetic..
A growing sense of desperation infects the very fibers of the collective American disposition. Hostility, polarization and aggression have been the fruits of argumentative rhetoric over the past years, even among scientists. In these times it is paramount to rescue the elements that transcend cultures and unite us as a species: laughter, love, suffering. Trust can only be built on the foundations of unity, and efforts to humanize scientists are what may allow a skeptic to stop digging trenches for ideological warfare and realize that we’re all on the same side as humans. We need to stop screaming. As my mother would say, “Use your inside voices.”