Can you trust ‘science’ on social media?

Liesje Powers | Multimedia Editor

By Raegan Turner | Staff Writer

Recent studies from the Pew Research Institute show an increase in popularity and quantity of science accounts on social networking sites. These studies suggest an especial uptick in engagement with accounts such as Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, NASA, National Geographic and others.

The widespread expansion of accounts such as these has been quick due to the large quantities of attractive scientific information now at users’ fingertips.

One study by the Pew Research Institute, however, pointed out that despite the large amount of material provided by these accounts, the information is not all new or groundbreaking. In fact, only around one-third of all posts from scientific accounts actually highlight new discoveries or developments.

This was revealed in the study by breaking down the different classifications of information present on scientific Facebook or Twitter accounts. The data was then analyzed into contemporary findings; each category is represented by a “frame”, a pre-set genre of information, of which a significant percentage is unrelated to innovative findings.

“Each page tends to present content from one of a handful of frames, and for nearly two-thirds of the pages in this set, a majority of posts reflect just one frame: either new science-related discoveries, science news you can use or promotions for programs or events,” the data showed.

Overall, only around 29 percent of the posts featured a new scientific discovery. Helpful life tips, such as the science behind eating or exercise habits, was next in popularity at 21 percent. Almost another quarter of posts consisted of promotional material such as data on other media sites or public appearances. In addition, 12 percent of the overall content explained scientific concepts or ideas. The remaining percentage of information was classified as miscellaneous.

The accounts post based on what content receives the highest numbers of engagement, which was found to be videos, low-text and interactive posts. Most of these consist of information that is science-based but not typically revolutionary to the scientific community.

Dr. Wade Rowatt, professor of psychology at Baylor, is a supporter of sharing scientific findings on social media; however, he warns students to be cognizant before trusting reported research, and says that proper communication from sources is integral to readers benefiting from the information itself.

“Journalists who can accurately translate basic science for broad audiences are critically important,” Dr. Rowatt said. “Baylor’s media communications office, for example, does a great job translating research from Baylor faculty. This is good for scientists and the public. Just as it’s important to ‘know your pharmacist’ before consuming a drug, it’s important to ‘know the messenger’ when deciding whether to accept their message. Is their advice evidence-based? Are they making generalizations that reach beyond the sample on which the study was based? Or are they just selectively cherry-picking findings, without considering other relevant facts?”

As a biology major, Washington D.C. junior Katelyn Lunini’s field of study is often included in material covered by the scientific social networking accounts. She explains the importance of having accurate, interesting and in-depth information present in the media.

“Scientific accounts on social media are a good thing if used correctly,” Lunini said. “The public deserves to be made aware of innovation and different things that could be helpful to their own lives. The things posted shouldn’t necessarily need a science degree to figure out, but they should be a good representation of what scientists, and even students, are studying and finding across the country every day.”