Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Science "Blinded" by Social Media

Thomas Dolby, one of the more famous one hit wonders of the 80's but also a working artist today (having begun performing again in 2006 after a long hiatus) is best remembered for the quirky, playful synth-pop song "She Blinded me with Science."

Of course, these days social media is blinding, confusing, modifying and changing science all out of recognition, at least according to Hornby Island resident Fraser Cain and the rest of his team at Universe Today, a popular internet site dedicated to news about astronomy and space exploration. The site receives over 600,000 page views a month, and the newsletter edition goes out to 26,000 subscribers every weekday.

Along with Dr. Pamela L. Gay, he hosts the Astronomy Cast podcast and recently had some interesting things to say about the advent of social media and how it affects the scientific process.

For example, according to Cain and Gay:
Astronomy is one of the scientific fields that have been completely shaken up by new media. The internet has enabled communication by researchers in a dramatic new way creating new collaborations, removing obstacles and drawing in an army of enthusiastic volunteers to help with the research.
Changes include:
  • The advent of portable text based content that can be read by small devices or cell phones anywhere in the world. This essentially means that there is no more need for traditional library or even formal internet access since the data is now posted online and available anywhere cell phones function.
  • A more open research environment using blogs to provide ongoing research updates, compare notes and provide context for scientific collaborations. This new environment is building an openness among scientists who may always have hungered for the opportunity to discuss problems, compare solutions, build community and provide insight into the "life of a scientist," but were never able to do so until now.
  • The creation of entire "virtual worlds" through social media constructs like Second Life, which has pretty much replaced the construction of physical buildings for the traditional planetarium experience of astronomy for a generation of students.
Essentially, where before solitary scientists would toil for years in private before eventually publishing a paper in a prestigious journal and then wait patiently for feedback and "peer review," science today is now done "out loud" and peer review is done in real time without the "middle man" to screw things up.

According to Cain and Gay, there is nothing scarier for a scientist than to talk to a "network or a mainstream journalist" because "they get it wrong a lot."

The podcast (episode 148 in the long running series titled "Astronomy and the New Media") is available here, for those who'd like to learn more.

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