It is often said that we need more science in our public debate. By this, it is usually meant that people should base their views on scientific facts, which have more authority than mere opinion. It is said that political leaders and public commentators should be both scientifically literate, and base their views on scientific findings where it is relevant to do so. While this is a noble goal, it is not what I’m proposing here. Instead, I’d like to argue that we should attempt, on a day-to-day basis, to approach social media and news consumption scientifically.
What do I mean by ‘scientifically’? Social media, and the internet more broadly, have afforded us tremendous potential to access information, and to interact with people beyond our immediate social circles. Interacting with others helps us to develop our knowledge of the world by digesting information, disseminating it, or engaging in dialogue about it. We can test our views about the world—however informal or loosely formed they are—against the views of others.
However, social media debates can often devolve into tribalism, pettiness, and ad hominem.
While debates in science are not immune to this—it is we moderately intelligent apes doing the debating, after all—they are far less prevalent. This is because scientific inquiry and debate are committed to increasing our understanding of the world, rather than signalling for praise and reinforcement from other members of our socio-political group.
Insofar as we might hope to use social media to gain a better understanding of the world, there are better and worse ways of going about it. Here I describe how three principles grounded in scientific practice can help us improve our use of social media to that end.
Firstly, science is increasingly coming to realise the importance of ‘double blind peer review’, where the identities of the author and reviewer are not revealed to either party. Why? Authors remain anonymous so that a reviewer’s biases about their person (positive or negative) will not contaminate their appraisal of the work’s content. Likewise, reviewers remain anonymous so that their identity will not be called into question in the course of evaluating a piece of work.
What relevance does this have to interacting on social media? For many people, social media is not anonymous, and therefore not blind. We often display a name and/or photo so others can identify us. This is fine, except when people let this knowledge of someone’s identity creep into the way they interact with them.
Suppose someone of a particular gender, race, or age authors a view that you dispute, and you—a reviewer, of sorts—respond to it. If your response entails criticising their identity—such as questioning their ‘right’ on that basis to an opinion on a particular topic—then you aren’t engaging with them scientifically. Just as a blind scientific review would focus solely on the content of someone’s work, so our social media interactions should focus on the content of what people are saying.
There are broadly two ways to debate important topics, both on social media and elsewhere. We can squabble endlessly about identity, and whether or not it affords someone the right to speak about a given issue. But this leads only to a dead end, as groups can be infinitely divided and partitioned along identity lines. Soon, no one would have a right to speak on any issue other than themselves.
Alternatively and preferably, we can dispense with concerns about people’s identities, and just accept that anyone and everyone has a right to an opinion. Instead of obsessing over someone’s gender, skin colour, or age, the value of their opinion on a given topic should derive from their understanding of the relevant facts, their respect for evidence, and the logical consistency of their argument.
Secondly, using social media scientifically means actively attempting to challenge our own worldviews, not merely looking for content that entrenches it. Science can be characterised as the process of attempting to falsify a particular theory. A good scientist will read a wide range of literature on their chosen topic, including—most importantly—viewpoints with which they do not necessarily agree.
In order to do this, we must expose ourselves to content beyond those in our socio-political group, who tend not to question our underlying assumptions. Much has been said about the rise of online ‘media bubbles’, and the tendency for people to only consume content that reinforces their worldview. Personalised social media feeds allow us to subscribe to news and information sources of our choosing. Algorithmic based ‘recommendations’ can then reinforce the lack of diversity in our newsfeeds by suggesting content based on what we already consume.
Given this, we should actively seek viewpoint diversity in our social media activity. A scientific approach to social media will actively attempt to discover voices and news sources that challenge the way we see the world, rather than keep us comfortable in our socio-political niche.
Seeking viewpoint diversity brings us to the final way to use social media scientifically: keeping our information channels open as best we can.
In some circles it has become fashionable to celebrate blocking online—both as the ‘blockee’ and the ‘blocker’. Blocking someone we dislike gives us a sense of power we don’t have offline. Being blocked by someone you and your friends dislike can be seen as a badge of honour. This culture of blocking has now given us shared block lists, whereby people are able to publicly share and subscribe to lists of blocked social media users developed by others. Generally, people who are sympathetic to each other’s views share and subscribe to these lists, resulting in many users being blocked by people they’ve never even interacted with.
Blocking is obviously a necessary tool to prevent harassment and abuse, so we shouldn’t begrudge anyone who blocks people for these reasons. But blocking someone after a disagreement, or worse, on a pre-emptive assumption that you will disagree? Individually, this speaks of an intolerance for alternative viewpoints. On a societal scale, the willingness to block is indicative of hyper-polarisation and demonisation of our socio-political opponents.
Imagine how this ability to block someone might play out in a formal scientific environment. Suppose that Scientist A sought to ‘block’ another Scientist B from all of their scientific activities, as one can do on social media, because of a disagreement. Despite researching quite similar topics, A goes out of their way to avoid any contact with B, either in direct communication or in the formal venues of scholarship.
Scientist A would begin to publish in different journals to B, even if they were investigating the same phenomena. Scientist A would never cite journals in which B was published. Scientist A would attend different conferences covering the same issues, but they would never encounter one another or one another’s point of view. Scientist A would be expressing views that speak to their own audience, without ever having to acknowledge that B’s alternative viewpoint exists.
In other words, blocking facilitates ignorance of potentially falsifying information. Furthermore, blockers can be comfortable in that ignorance, because they’ve purged dissenting voices from their networks. It should be immediately clear that such a situation is antithetical to the spirit of scientific inquiry, and to anyone who seeks to use social media to understand the world. At the very least we should view blocking as an occasional and regrettable necessity, rather than as a pleasurable act of retribution for disagreement.
As well as enabling unprecedented connectivity, social media has afforded us the tools to construct the walls of our echo chambers like never before. Each time we dismiss someone’s point of view because of who they are rather than what they say, we add a brick. Each time we only read our preferred news sources because they reinforce our worldview, we add a brick. Each time we block someone who could potentially lead us to revise or question our beliefs, we add a brick. Instead, approaching social media with epistemic humility would allow us to make the best use of the interconnection it brings.
Social media is arguably the new public square, giving anyone a voice to express their views and interact with others. It’s imperative that we try to cultivate a public discourse on it that reflects our highest values, not our most tribal instincts.
Andrew Glover is a sociologist based in Melbourne. He tweets at @theandrewglover