Science, social media, and my fear of corporate puppetry

Image: Marionette, © Thomas Quine CC BY 2.0 via

When we do science, we presumably want that science to have both impact and reach.  By “impact”, I mean more than citation counts: I mean that what we’ve done adds to human knowledge and changes how we think about, and interact with, our world.  By “reach”, I mean that the impact happens broadly: not just with the six other people in the world who do research on the same questions and systems I do, but with scientists more broadly, with journalists, with policymakers, and with the general public.

Do I want my science (and my science commentary here at Scientist Sees Squirrel) to have impact and reach?  Of course I do.  It would be rather peculiar to publish science, and write a blog, and hope that nobody ever heard about it or was influenced by it.  So yes, I want my science, and my commentary, to have impact and reach.  But I’m also afraid of that impact and reach.  And while that seems very strange, even to me, I think it’s not uncommon and it distorts our scientific message.  Let me explain.

Three years ago now I wrote a post called “Why most studied populations should decline”.  In that post I argued that because of a very simple interaction between statistics and study logistics, we are at great risk of overestimating (exaggerating) the frequency and severity of population declines in wild organisms.  (I’ve since been thrilled to help two excellent collaborators develop this into a published paper, which marries that simple insight with simulations and data to show that the problem can be severe, and that its signature can be seen in real-world datasets.)  In addition to post and paper, I’ve given conference talks and departmental seminars about this work.  And the common thread every time I’ve opened my mouth (or poised my typing fingers): fear.  I’ve been terrified that someone – a right-wing political party, an industry lobby group, or a large corporation – will seize upon the work to declare “See?  Things aren’t that bad; scientist Steve Heard says that apparent population declines are actually no big deal, so we can keep on burning coal/cutting timber/growing corn/building subdivisions”.  This kind of highjacking, I fear, will make me look like a corporate puppet – and if it’s successful, for all intents and purposes I might even be a corporate puppet.  Blech.

To be crystal clear*: “declines are no big deal” is not what our work says.  We can indeed show that some population declines are likely overestimated by a significant amount.  It still remains true that many populations are in decline, some of those declines are severe, and that we have done and continue to do serious damage to the natural world we share.  But it’s so easy to imagine lobby groups or politicians or corporations taking the work deliberately out of context to serve their own narrow interests.  So every time I write or talk about the issue, I include – often repeatedly – a declaration that declines are real; that while our work may back us off a little way from Chicken Little, it doesn’t get us anywhere close to Pollyanna.

Somewhat to my surprise, our population-decline work hasn’t (yet) been highjacked.  But my fears were realized recently (if only modestly) with a tweet I posted about an excellent blog post by Brian McGill – the one that dives beneath the headlines on the three-billion-missing-birds paper.  That tweet got picked up by a forest-industry consortium and lobby group to suggest that clear-cutting in my home province of New Brunswick doesn’t harm bird populations:

In the end, this particular highjacking allowed only a tiny and ineffective piece of puppetry.  The industry group in question isn’t followed by many people, the tweet didn’t spread much further, and I think I (probably) did the right thing by squashing their intended puppetry right away. I can breathe a small sigh of relief.

But I suggested that the problem goes beyond my own fear.  Here’s the thing: I wonder if a lot of us are reluctant to share good-news stories, or even to suggest that Problem X is actually not as severe as estimated.  I wonder if a lot of us are afraid that positive messages will be distorted and used out of context by people and groups who don’t want environmental problems to be taken seriously.  Our population-decline paper, for example, had a very rough ride through many rounds of peer review.  Although none of them quite came out and said it in so many words, some anonymous reviewers seemed to be simply unwilling to engage with a result that said “sometimes, some things may not be quite as bad as we think”.

In the long run, I don’t think we do anyone favours by pretending things are worse than they are.   Sure, maybe by deliberately overestimating the severity of problems** we can draw attention and resources to those problems.  But if so, we’re misallocating those resources.  Surely we need to know, without bias or misrepresentation, exactly which environmental problems demand our most urgent attention?

I don’t pretend to have a magic solution to all this.  I still hesitate about any messaging that isn’t the most dire. It surely can’t be right to counter distortion with distortion; but it also can’t be right to serve up fat juicy softballs for corporate highjacking.  Careful, repeated and detailed explanation (“this problem isn’t as bad as we’ve thought, but it’s still pretty bad”) is all I’ve got.  What can you suggest?

© Stephen Heard  October 15, 2019

*^Because I’m afraid (meta-afraid?) even that this post about being afraid that my work will be co-opted and I’ll end up a corporate puppet will itself be co-opted and I’ll end up a corporate puppet.  Yeah, I know how that sounds.

**^That’s what we’re doing, of course, if we aren’t willing to speak the good news (or at least not-as-bad-as-we-thought news): we are deliberately misrepresenting our understanding of nature.


5 thoughts on “Science, social media, and my fear of corporate puppetry

  1. Marco Mello

    This is a very important reflection. As scientists we should always seek the truth, even when it is not pleasant or does not follow our own beliefs. There is a very similar problem going on in the world of bat research. In the past years, several pathogens have been identified in bats of different countries. Some extremist conservationists deny this evidence and are deliberately boycotting papers on bat-born viruses, bacteria, and protozoans. Studying bat diseases in not only important for human health, but also for bat health. Furthermore, how can we regain society’s trust in a post-fact era, if we conceal inconvenient evidence? I agree with you that some findings can fuel corporate agenda, but lying to the people will only contribute to destroying our image.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Brian McGill

    I saw that Twitter scuffle and thought you handled it well. I have to say I’ve tracked all the ripples from that 3,000,000,000 bird blog post as best I can and my net results is a handful (2-3) crazy nature-trashing misuses among not widely read sources and dozens of meaningful engagements including with some high profile press that took on the message of nuance and complexity. This is my 2nd go around (earlier being 2014 Dornelas et al paper on local biodiversity trends being flat) with a similar result.

    That is still just anecdotal, but I become increasingly convinced that the benefits far outweigh the costs.

    It is a topic on people’s minds though. At the BES Macroecology meeting in July they took attendee voted break out sessions at one point and one of them was how/whether to communicate positive outcomes and interaction with the press around them.

    I think your 2nd footnote is absolutely vital. To do anything other than representing what we discover (good and bad) is a form of bias in our research.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Emily Chung

    I also thought you dealt well with the forestry group. That happens to us journalists sometimes too.

    A few other thoughts came to mind when reading your post.

    I’ve found that Canadian scientists tend to be more worried about being misconstrued than scientists from the U.S. or the U.K., and that has a negative impact on their ability to communicate with the public, although that’s more of an issue in broadcast than print. I should also mention that some of the details/nuance that would be important to other scientists in the field might be interesting to the general public, but might also be more than they need in the given context and may even, at times, be confusing.

    Putting things in context is really important though, and I try really hard to get scientists to do that. That’s one of the reasons I try to talk to people who weren’t involved in a particular study when I write about the study — to get more of the big picture.

    Generally, there’s a take-home message that’s important to get across, and if some people get a little more than that, it’s great, but we certainly can’t expect everyone to get it all.

    You might also be interested to know that we’ve found that our readers really do want good news, solutions and examples of things that are working. We’ve been trying to look for and report on more of that. So I wouldn’t recommend burying positive messages. They just really need to be put in context so we know why we’re getting positive results in some contexts and don’t think we’ve solved problems that we haven’t.

    Liked by 2 people


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