Master thesis: Popular Science in Social Media

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Discussion by: larstee

Hello everybody,

My name is Lars and I’m a student at the University of Darmstadt in Germany. I’m currently preparing myself for my forthcoming Master thesis with the potential working title “Popular Science in Social Media”. Popular science in social media stands in contrast to traditional mass media like TV, Radio or Newspapers. The central element I want to discuss, is this phenomenon I want to call “user generated popular science”. I guess the best example I could give you is the Facebook-Page: “I fucking love science”.. 

My problem is, I have to propose an assumption (a hypothesis) which I then have to analyze during my Master thesis. An assumption like: The use of popular science content in social media increases the scientific literacy in STEM-Students. I have already done a lot of research on this topic, but I can’t find any connection between Pop-Science 2.0 and STEM-Scientific Literacy or even Internet and STEM-Scientific Literacy.

Now, my question to you: Do you see any other potential research subject in this topic?

Kind Regards

Lars

 

10 COMMENTS

  1. Explaining scientific literacy sounds like a fine topic to me, especially if you have already reviewed the literature and found nothing. If you’re looking for a causal explanation for scientific literacy, you’d need longitudinal data, and that would be pretty ambitious, considering it’s a Master’s and not a PhD thesis. I guess you could do a cross-sectional survey. You don’t necessarily need to limit yourself to what you call user-generated pop sci as an explanatory factor: put in other stuff too, like traditional media, formal education and books.

    A problem I see, though, is you’d also need a measurement of scientific literacy for your respondents. If you’re going to measure that, too, in the same survey, it could be a pretty big survey, which means a lot of work designing it and a lower % of responses. And you’d need a sample that has enough people who follow pop science to begin with.

    Not a bad topic, all in all, but you’ll need to find a way to keep it narrow enough, or it will blow up in your face. If you wouldn’t need to collect the data yourself, that would make your job a whole lot easier. Maybe you could begin by checking what kinds of data sets might be available?

  2. Hi Lars,

    I’m not surprised that you can’t find evidence that the use of popular science content in social media increases the scientific literacy in STEM students. I would frankly be stunned if it did.

    Given that STEM students are, by definition, studying actual science while popular science’s raison d’être is to inform and convince those without a science education, or with a poor understanding of science, of the significance of data and scientists’ conclusions about those data … I imagine most STEM students find popular science in social media (or any form of medium for that matter) to be annoyingly superficial and a constant irritation in their peer group interactions.

    That said I can see how popular science in social media may increase STEM students understanding of cross-discipline challenges and approaches (climate change comes to mind). Similarly, it may increases the scientific literacy of complete arts graduates, or in sociology students. For all those scenarios I remain sceptical.

    I can see that social media (with the possible exception of YouTube) doesn’t have enough depth to be a real STEM education channel. If it is a good way to educate people in other fields, that probably says something about the difference between STEM and other fields. Social media may, in time, develop the capability to support existing distance learning models but I remain, again, sceptical.

    Popular science, delivered with or without a social media wrap, could be a great way to educate a poorly educated population and may marginally increase science literacy in the general public. This, it seems to me, must be a field that has been studied outside (i.e. before) social media. There must also be existing studies that cover the effectiveness of teacher-absent distance learning and the effectiveness of on-line communications (particularly advertising, charities and political campaigning). There’s a few angles to get your teeth into.

    It seems to me that, so far, the best examples of on-line scientific education are copies of the old media models – particularly journals like New Scientist. That doesn’t mean that new media can’t overtake these older models … eventually.

    In addition, popular science thrives for another, worrying, reason. Science education is clearly falling far short of where it needs to be for democratic citizens to make decisions on the complex issues being presented by science today.

    Good luck.

    Peace.

    • In reply to #3 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

      Hi Lars,

      I’m not surprised that you can’t find evidence that the use of popular science content in social media increases the scientific literacy in STEM students. I would frankly be stunned if it did.

      My reaction as well. At a minimum you should be open to a more balanced view, for example social media may (probably does) improve awareness and social acceptance of STEM. Its a lot cooler to be a nerd now then when I was in school and I think you could put some of that on social media. But I think another factor is that social media contributes to a lot of junk science. Sometimes with political goals in mind (e.g. Creationism, Climate Change denial) and sometimes even with good intentions. I can’t tell you the number of comments I read on sites like the Huffington Post from people who think they are deep thinkers but obviously don’t understand even basic physics.

      For what its worth I’ve always thought an investigation into civility on social media would be interesting. There is something about being anonymous and also not getting the body language and other in person feedback that I think tends to make people be dicks a lot more in comments like these then they would in the real world. I think there has already been some work done on this topic but I think its an area where more work could be done.

      Good luck whatever you pick.

    • In reply to #3 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

      Hi Lars,

      I’m not surprised that you can’t find evidence that the use of popular science content in social media increases the scientific literacy in STEM students. I would frankly be stunned if it did.

      Given that STEM students are, by definition, studying actual science while popular science’s ra…

      I totally agree.. I am a doctor and I do not go on any popular sites.. they´re totally annoying (like a lot of people who read them..)

  3. Maybe I can offer a layman’s perspective. I’m not literate in technical science (not by choice, I seriously wish I could be a scientist) due to a simple lack of skill therein. It’s simply not something I’m cut out for. As such, I read popular science books- I do love science, but I can only do it as a layman. Incidentally, I follow the “I fucking love science” page and I do find that these popular science pages educate. But I don’t think they’d be a huge amount of use to someone with proper education in science.

    So, basically, to a layman who regrets his lack of skill in science such as myself these popular science outlets in social media (and, of course, books and documentaries) are very useful and informative. But I don’t think that outside a general interest in another field of science they would be much use to a biology student or someone with a degree in a scientific discipline. So maybe you could do it on how it educates the public? I can offer only my own anecdotal evidence for how useful these things are but such pages are quite popular (the “I fucking love science” page owner appeared on TV with Michio Kaku recently, though that was due to the fact everyone was shocked she was a she and it was a discussion on women in science) so maybe they do have an effect. Hope this helps, even if only a little.

  4. I find a remarkable number of friends on my list repost articles from I Fucking Love Science and similar sites while also posting up their tarrot predictions and horroscopes. popular science has a huge following among those who like to pick and choose, UFO fanatics, conspiracy theorists even god-botherers seem to regularly repost articles. scientific litiracy is not what draws them to these sites so much as the artists impressions of a distant star exploding etc..

    while many of us are genuinely awe inspired many more seem to be driven by “look at this cool stuff” motives. what you won’t find them reposting are things like actual academic articles (like the cool memes but with long words, boring maths stuff and no pretty pictures).

    maybe a study in cognative dissonance? i know people on facebook who repost science site articles that directly dispute the mumbo jumbo they spout yet fail to notice..

  5. What about ‘Accuracy of popular science in social media vs traditional media’
    Survey a large set of scientific assertions on social media, and rate each on how true it really is. Compare it to scientific assertions in newspapers. It might be a lot of work though!

    • In reply to #7 by conmeo:

      What about ‘Accuracy of popular science in social media vs traditional media’
      Survey a large set of scientific assertions on social media, and rate each on how true it really is. Compare it to scientific assertions in newspapers. It might be a lot of work though!

      There be journalists out there mate, be afraid…

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