the problem with scicomm and the scientific community

the problem with scicomm and the scientific community

Recently, there’s been quite a bit of uproar on “Science Twitter.” This is primarily due to that handful (cough, more than a handful) of scientists who just don’t know when to practice “think before you tweet” or other acts of consideration. What am I talking about?

Dr. Joan Meiners, presumably, as a joke, tweeted about starting a freelance business where she would happily point out taxonomic inaccuracies of people’s insect tattoos.

I assume it was intended to be a joke, as this is a running gag on science Twitter – and has been for quite a while. The idea that people unknowingly get the invasive honey bee species tatted on their body, when they either intended or ought to have gotten a native bee species tatted instead.

Now, to some, this does not matter at all. To others, it can turn into the regret that our Boomer and Gen X parents and grandparents always warn us against when considering tattoos.

This criticism was especially distasteful, though, as Dr. Meiners was actually criticizing a tattoo that people got to honor 22 victims of the Manchester bombing in May of 2017.

It is estimated that over 10,000 people got this tattoo in mourning and homage to those that died that day. These tattoos contributed to fundraising for bombing victims. Apart from the 22 that lost their lives that day, over 150 were injured.

So, you can see why this tweet was in terrible taste, and why Dr. Meiners should’ve looked a little further into why so many people got identical tattoos around the same time of year, regardless of their taxonomic accuracy.

This is a prime example of what I believe to be a significant problem with scicomm, and a primary driver of the wedge between the public and the scientific community.

Many people are already under the impression that scientists think they are so high and mighty, above all, and [nearly] all-knowing.

There has always been a toxic misconception that scientists care only for their work and nothing else. That we behave like a bunch of robots performing experiments, reporting them, and doing more experiments until they die.

Tweets like this both reinforce that perception. Secondly, they sour the scientific community’s opportunities to communicate with non-scientists in a considerate, empathetic manner.

There is an abundance of research that demonstrates that environmental management is more effective by several orders of magnitude when constituents feel respected and heard by scientists and managing authorities.

This applies to any scientific research and activities that, by nature, require the participation of communities apart from scientists or require stakeholder participation to some extent.

Sarkki et al. (2019) demonstrated that social innovation (SI) is dramatically enhanced when the public is involved in every step of the management process.

(SI refers to the methods by which people develop and execute new ideas that are valued by their efficiency to improve the quality of life and well-being of constituents.)

These innovations start as an idea (to address climate change, conservation, and similar things that affect the daily lives/persistence of people and/or the environment). They then become initiatives, and ultimately (hopefully), become tangible systematic change.

The only way this can happen, though, is when the three pillars of SI are fulfilled:

  • Doing: An individual’s perception of the natural world and the opportunities for action offered by nature to that individual.
  • Belonging: A communal sentiment of “being at home,” and/or a collective set of values which a given community shares.
  • Respecting: A community or individual feeling represented by, and involved in, substantial governance changes that affect their lives on a socio-cultural and social-ecological level.

In the words of Sarkki et al., “[respecting], therefore, includes a strong view of considering others as equal… [and] refers to individuals, communities (social, ecological, hybrid), and nature.” The only way we as scientists can do effective scicomm is not only by seeing others as equal, but treating them and making them feel as such. Dr. Meiners did not do that.

Unfortunately, Dr. Meiners is not the only one who is guilty of this. Even I have violated these three pillars, many, many times. All three are interdependent.

When we violate Respect, this results in alienation, which then pushes people out of Belonging. Consequentially, the marginalized group wonders why they should then engage in Doing. Sometimes such pondering leads to efforts to actively work against Doing.

As we enter this new year, let’s truly start to consider how we can engage in better science communication.

Before you tweet or speak, ask yourself: If I were the recipient of this message, scientific background or not, would I feel respected by the way this is conveyed? Is this message valuable or necessary at this moment in time? Does this information benefit anyone or shed light on current scientific issues?

Once we begin to consider the way our scicomm may be received and not merely focus on the flashy and funny nature of the content, we will start seeing an actual change in the way the public engages with scientists, and the three pillars will begin to function correctly together once again.


Sarkki, S., Ficko, A., Miller, D., Barlagne, C., Melnykovych, M., Jokinen, M., … Nijnik, M. (2019). Human values as catalysts and consequences of social innovations. Forest Policy and Economics104, 33-44. doi:10.1016/j.forpol.2019.03.006

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  1. Pingback:Happy New Year!

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