Social media has become a ubiquitous part of our lives, completely changing the way we share information and connect with others. As scientists, we would be remiss to not combine the opportunities that social media presents with traditional mentoring strategies to improve scientific communication and inspire the next generation of researchers. One of the most important advantages of social media is that it fosters communication between people from all walks of life on a familiar and comfortable platform. This can therefore open a line of communication between scientists and students, encouraging a meaningful and mutually beneficial discourse. Wielded correctly, social media could inspire a new generation of scientists by fostering an environment of exploration, rational discourse, and critical thinking.
We cannot ignore the important role social media plays in the development of children and students in today’s digital society. In a culture of celebrity worship, where ideas and opinions can spread globally in an instant, pseudoscience can grab a foothold dangerously fast. Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine crusade has contributed directly to a devastating rise in measles cases. Kyrie Irving’s support of the “flat Earth” conspiracy highlights the danger of scientific illiteracy. Kim Kardashian’s paid endorsement of Diclegis, a morning sickness pill, prompted the FDA to issue a warning letter to drug maker Duchesnay USA for misleading patients and omitting any information regarding the risks of the drug. When these misinformed opinions and pseudoscience are presented to such a large audience, they can pose a major threat to public health and scientific literacy.
We can help to stem the tide of these uninformed ideas by utilizing social media as a tool to foster conversations between scientists and students, from grade school to university level. Social media supports the exchange of opinions and ideas and students could benefit enormously from communicating with scientists by being encouraged to think critically about what they read and developing their own informed opinions. Additionally, having the ability to interact with scientists on familiar and comfortable social media platforms could reduce the feeling of intimidation (page 38) that they may feel towards researchers. By increasing the number of scientists adept at social media and cultivating thoughtful and critical conversations with students, we can encourage the next generation to think critically about what they read in the news, which could eventually stop dangerously misinformed opinions from gaining momentum and spreading across the social media universe.
There are, of course, challenges to creating an open environment for scientific discourse between the research community and the general public. Celebrity culture is a behemoth with an established global audience, and we therefore need a rapid and exponential increase in the number of scientists properly proficient at navigating the various social media platforms. This involves presenting their ideas in a respectful, interesting, and non-intimidating way that is easily understandable and not heavy with technical jargon. One particularly powerful tool for this is a personal narrative, which has been shown to help communicate science to non-scientists. Simply providing data and facts are unlikely to convince a skeptical audience or engage young minds, but the skillful use of culturally appropriate storytelling and a personal narrative will help students feel personally invested and reduce the likelihood of your argument being automatically discounted. Since the majority of the general public gets their science information from narrative formats, engaging students on this level could help them gain both understanding and enthusiasm about the world of scientific research.
Both young and established scientists absolutely need to develop an online presence to engage with students and laypeople in thoughtful discussion about current research. Fostering an open discourse between students and scientists using social media and personal narratives could be immeasurably beneficial to society by promoting engagement in the scientific enterprise, encouraging critical thinking and forming verifiable conclusions, and inspiring the next generation of scientists.
Peer edited by Mikayla Armstrong
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