Thermophiles produce some of the bright colors...
Thermophiles produce some of the bright colors of Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was recently visiting one of my favorite spots just outside of Yellowstone Park in northwestern  Wyoming when a long-brewing story drew my attention again. It involves a number of issues relevant to our industry — open data, science sensationalism, media reporting, and science literacy. With a new and authoritative paper from US Geological Survey (USGS) scientists out recently, it seems a good time to recap.

This all apparently began in February 2014, when a seismometer inside Yellowstone dubbed B944 malfunctioned and sent inaccurate data to a public web site that’s part of the University of Utah’s seismographic station. Soon, not only were volcano aficionados abuzz, but “end of days” types were taking notice.

Social media, which seems to facilitate cluster communication around fringe world views, accelerated matters, with Yellowstone’s park historian, who has worked at the park since 1969, telling the New Yorker:

There’s always been some level of concern about the supervolcano. But I’ve never seen anything like the spiral of misinformation we had this summer

The head of public affairs confirmed the social media angle:

We got lots of e-mails and phone calls about it, way above the normal background level. But what was interesting, in my mind, was that all the rumors were fuelled and disseminated by social media. It was all over Facebook and Twitter, not the mainstream media.

The author of the New Yorker article, George Black, summed up the multiple rounds of social media hysteria with this:

. . . the part that concerned me the most was that the Civic Tribune report introduced one of the favorite tropes of “real” journalism—the “some scientists believe X while other scientists believe Y” frame that has wasted so much of our time on, for example, false debates about the reality of global warming. In this case, the reporter said, “The scientific community is split on when exactly the volcano will erupt. Some say weeks, while other camps suggest that it could be several months.” Of course, there’s no such belief and no such split. And the only scientists who know what they’re talking about when it comes to the Yellowstone supervolcano are the kind who wrote the report issued yesterday by the U.S.G.S.

The Civic Tribune is an online publication with the tagline, “Dedicated to the Truth.” Their most recent story is about how US Attorney General Eric Holder is supposedly funding gang members in Ferguson, MO.

The report from the USGS confirms only what anyone familiar with the caldera under Yellowstone already knows — if it blows, it’s will be a major geological and climatological event. My father was a ranger in Yellowstone and grew up there as well. Stories about the volcanic potential of the caldera below Yellowstone were a regular feature of our annual visits there as I grew up. Yet, the Internet crowds were behaving as if stunned and shocked.

As a reflection of the hysteria, the USGS report includes the following as its second sentence:

Despite graphic and often fanciful media depictions of the devastation and the impact on human life that would result from a modern supereruption . . .

This story of sensationalistic and misleading public stories coming from rational scientific speculation or misinterpretations of scientific facts or errors (as the “open data” error of a malfunctioning seismograph is what started all this) is reminiscent of other such events over the past 20 years. With vaccines and autism, we saw a former Playboy model and struggling actress hijack the science and perpetuate an anti-vaccination movement that continues to this day. With intelligent design, we’ve seen science twisted by pretzel logic into a quasi-religious and anti-science story believed by far too many. The list goes on, from evolution to the Big Bang theory to dinosaurs. Some people are unwilling or unable to accept scientific fact. What’s odd is that their influence seems to be increasing. In fact, as science publishing is pushed to cut important elements to lower its costs, more information that can be distorted may be emanating from upstream sources. After all, more filtering costs more, so lowering costs often means shortcuts in review, editing, and selectivity.

As media swarms propagate and prove difficult to swat down, the distortion of science has created cults of personality, with the likes of Dr. Oz and others unable or unwilling to stick to the facts as they use their scientific credibility to peddle dubious assertions and miracle cures. We also have the Jack Andraka story, where personality has become larger than any demonstrated scientific advance, leading recently to a deal to publish his autobiography (despite no published research) and a gullible media that proclaims him the “modern Edison.” I guess the mighty dollar rules these supposed scientists, as making claims that the public wants to hear is now sufficient grounds for fame and scientific credibility.

Again and again, science gets distorted when it hits the public mainstream. This is partially because when people hear facts, they impose whatever story they prefer to make sense of them. Therefore, these distortions are a reflection of society. But it’s not just laypeople who possess these traits. Scientists possess them, as well, which is what often leads to the “scientific urban legends” I wrote about recently.

There is something more deeply human and more intractable in all this.

In “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman writes about the mental traits of humans that makes this a predictable part of life (p. 142). Kahneman calls the phenomenon “an availability cascade,” based on an a number of psychological factors:

An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement.

This is how the cascade begins. But Kahneman goes further, explaining how opportunists and attention-seeking types glom onto the cascade and drive it forward.

The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by “availability entrepreneurs,” individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuing flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile: anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a “heinous cover-up.”

Finally, the public concern becomes a political reality, and the cascade changes policy priorities:

The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.

Kahneman uses the word “media” in his writing, and traditional media certainly have their place in this, but social media appears to be a new aggravating factor when it comes to creating bursts of misinformation that become amplified far too much and last far too long.

Link bait headlines and their related stories, poorly written and researched articles don’t help. Recently, I came across an interesting example in a story from Salon about diet sodas and artificial sweeteners. In it, a study from the University of Texas Health Sciences was cited as indicating an association between consumption of diet sodas and weight gain. However, the study was only presented at a meeting years ago, no published study seems to have resulted, and others have pointed out that due to “meal deals” at fast-food restaurants, consumption of diet sodas is also associated with having fries with that.

This story also illustrates how social media and online analytics are recycling information to generate traffic. The Salon article was actually from March 2014, but it appeared on Facebook for me last week. Other instances of time lag have been noticeable on Twitter and Facebook, from hours to days to weeks to months. Vacation photos from friends are appearing weeks later. News items are showing up days after. Recently, Twitter announced it will be moving from a chronological listing of tweets to a more filtered listing, ala Facebook.

Because of these and other approaches to information management, the filter bubble Eli Pariser identified a few years ago is only getting stronger. This is the tendency of personalization services to create what he calls the “Internet of One,” your own version of online information, filtered to reinforce and cater to pre-existing beliefs and perspectives, while sheltering you from news or viewpoints you might find unsavory or upsetting.

Now, with temporal filtering — drawing on things from the archive, or delaying information until the algorithm finds space for it — we have filter bubble awareness shifting. That is, in addition to filter bubbles based on preferences, affinities, and political perspectives, we are now less able to know what is “news” in the sense that the information is current and not just recycled link bait.

Generating traffic is what online companies and publishers have to do to generate business. However, perpetuating false dichotomies, “teaching the controversy,” recycling old link bait, and prioritizing sensationalism over solid reporting only gives us the modern version of yellow journalism. (Given how so many of these sites load, I’m thinking of calling it “reload journalism,” since the services they use chunk in with so much latency you often see the page load and reload multiple times before it’s fully available.)

At the same time that the public is dealing with odd flows of scientific information and misinformation, science itself is losing some of its ambition. In a recent series on NPR called “When Scientists Give Up,” listeners learned how budget constraints, cautious administrators, creeping incrementalism, and pressures to avoid spectacular failures are driving some talented researchers from science altogether. With more than a decade of Congressional leadership over science committees stacked with believers in intelligent design and other unscientific perspectives, is it surprising that science is less valued by policymakers?

It seems an odd juxtaposition — in a time where we have more communication capabilities and reach than ever before and more trained scientists than ever, the media have uncorked geyser after geyser of misinformation for the public and elected leaders are more anti-science in philosophies than you’d expect. In fact, despite vast bandwidth and computing power, we’re seeing throttled information sources and filter bubbles.

An easy message from all this is to increase your publications’ and organization’s involvement in social media, so that the messages you have aren’t drowned out or ignored. Aim a little wider perhaps than makes you comfortable, following information sources you might not normally so that they reciprocate and are exposed to science coming from scientific organizations. Perhaps even engage with those who are misrepresenting science — often, authority and the confidence of knowledge hold great sway in conversations. But with social media becoming a less predictable way to reach an audience, can we really rely on it anymore?

Since disputes over things ranging from evolution to what to eat seem to be a permanent fixture of our mix of abilities — to perceive, to tell stories — perhaps we need to move more strongly into storytelling ourselves. Pushing individual research findings is one thing, but linking them together into a coherent story of science is another. To me, scientific and medical publishers need to show the way here, because if the volcano of misinformation were to ever truly erupt, the long-term effects could be devastating.

Or has it erupted in a blast of articles and social media, and we’re just now seeing the ash settle around us?

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


13 Thoughts on "Cascades and Volcanoes — Are the Problems of Science in Public Discourse Getting Worse?"

I see two points of entropy at work here.
1) When scientists step out of their areas of expertise such as when physical scientists begin to dabble in the social sciences. Two notable examples:
William Shockley:
William Pierce:
When this happens, we start seeing strangely distorted science from credentialed scientists.
2) When journalism and, especially, science journalism becomes unremunerative. We’ve come to expect that information is and should be free thinking that someone else (George as in “let George do it”) will pay journalists and hold them to high standards of reporting. Those who actually do pay journalists (advertisers) will ultimately call the tune. The filter that was an editorial staff has been removed from the flow of information.
Of course we do have and Wikipedia but they are subject to the same kinds of corrosion. How long will they last?
Our unwillingness to pay either as individuals or as governments and institutions ignites the “race to the bottom.” We have seen the enemy and the enemy is us.

It may just be that the fact that one can now find detailed analysis and discussion of specific scientific advances free online has made generalist scientific journalism relatively obsolete, just as it has tended to do with news in general. There are an uncountable number of blogs and other social fora dedicated to the discussion of specific scientific topics, including this one.

The diffusion (and confusion) of scientific knowledge is a complex, fascinating process, one that is worth greater study. On one hand the strangeness you complain of has surely always occurred, but now we can see it much more clearly, thanks to social media. (It is rather scary to discover.) But on the other hand social media enable these processes to occur on a new grand scale. Like minds, however strange, can now collect and confer globally. I find this more interesting than alarming. It suggests that altmetrics may be measuring something important, especially where the goal is to maximize the social diffusion of good scientific and technical information.

This is where the wheels fall off the cart. And there is plenty of blame to go around.

1. Generations of compromised science education in the US public school system thanks to major school boards that are run by science deniers. Sorry, but you can bet that textbooks used in CT were influenced by school boards in Texas and Florida.
2. Social media and alternative (now mainstream) media having a 24 hour news cycle to fill with zero concern for what is actually true or significant. “Can we get sued” seems to be the only concern.
3. Massive cuts to newsroom staff that usually starts with trained science correspondents.
4. Science journals and or Universities with strong PR departments that issue a steady number of press releases each week even if there is nothing particularly good to promote.
5. The loss of the source. Facebook and Twitter users see content “from” FB and Twitter. They seem to not pay a whole lot of attention to the original source of the content and, in fact, sometimes it is impossible to track down the source (hence the “parody” flag on FB for people duped by The Onion).

This is what concerns me about the “throw science works on the internet and the commenters can straighten it out” theory. What if the comments are stupid or ill-informed? What happens when real scientists get tired of wasting time debunking crap papers online? What if the paper is dangerous and readers don’t take the time to wade through 100 comments to figure that out? What if there is a group of people with an agenda who rate up and positively comment on questionable science? Will readers take the time to Google the commenters (if they are not anonymous) to see who is for real or not?

It is very easy to create an echo chamber for yourself on social media. It is very counter-intuitive to think that by having information from around the globe at your fingertips, people have figured out how to self filter only the news that advances their opinions or beliefs.

Harry Shearer has a great parody on the September 7 episode of Le Show:
He presents a news report on a new imaginary social sharing site along the lines of Uber or AirBnB–it’s called RXcess and is a way for people to sell their leftover prescription medicine to others to save them the costs of going to the doctor or the pharmacy. But how will the buyer know they’re really getting the medication they’ve been promised? Oh, the crowd will quickly give poor ratings to any seller who doesn’t deliver real medicine so they won’t have much business in the future.

Doesn’t really help anyone who bought from them though, and that’s a similar problem with relying on social media to close the barn door after the horses are already out.

It seems to me that much of what people are complaining about here is simply the downside of a wonderful thing, namely the information revolution. Progress always has a downside. Of course people sometimes do stupid things with information, as with all tools, but that is not the information’s fault. Plus some of what people seem to be complaining about is actually just disagreement, not stupidity.

I think you may want to reconsider. One of the big items in this is how social media divides and isolates groups. This is not a wonderful thing, and any “diffusion” (to use your word) becomes far less effective in such an echo chamber.

General media has the potential to overcome information tribalism to some degree. And Angela’s points above are very important.

The US founding fathers were dismayed by the rise of the two party political system, so groups are nothing new. When I was a boy, 2.3 eons ago, there were both liberal and conservative news magazines, so the interpretation of news is also nothing new. As we say in philosophy of science, all observations are theory laden. A lot of what you say above I consider to be inaccurate specifically because of our political differences, but I recognize that reason.

The point is that social media does not divide or isolate groups, but it does facilitate them. I have nothing against people forming groups of like minded individuals, as they are an important feature of social life. Some choose to be isolated but many do not and that choice is not driven by the available media. Of course there are stupid groups, and evil groups, just as there are stupid and evil people. But that is no reason to be against groups, or people, per se. In that context, I find the “echo chamber” metaphor to be unhelpful at best.

The ‘availability cascade’ is currently beautifully exemplified by the mass media coverage of Ebola. 2,500 deaths already! In only six months! What are the governments of the world doing to stem this evil tide of death? With no disrespect to those who have perished, or who have lost loved ones to Ebola: roughly 10,000 people die of malaria every week, year in, year out. When’s the last time that made the front page? Mass media are generally light not just on qualified scientific experts, but on merely statistically literate staff. And in the end they’re in the sales business, – online ‘news’ sites such as Buzzfeed even more so than legacy media – and panic sells.

And then policies are created or decisions to send aid are made based on “faux” public outrage fanned by click-bait headlines and fervent tweets. The flip side…a major sports organization may be pressured to actually enact their own zero tolerance policy on domestic violence or major universities may actually enact common sense sexual assault policies in response to “faux” public outrage. We, as a civilization, cannot be governed based on what is trending on Twitter.

I attended some conference at one point and there was a presentation about statistics. Without a doubt, the worst perpetrators of bad statistics and even worse graphics are newspapers and news magazines.

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