A new study examined comments given on the Reddit forum “r/science” to discover how commenters express negative attitudes towards science. Results showed that these views are most often expressed by describing scientists as corruptible, poor communicators, and misleading. Commenters particularly negatively evaluated social sciences, especially psychology, calling it pseudoscientific. The study was published in the Public Understanding of Science.
When scientists do non-commercial scientific research, they primarily focus on communicating their findings to other scientists through scientific journals conferences and other types of scientific publications. However, communication of scientific findings to the general public has been gaining in importance in the past century. That period saw the rise of many dedicated science news outlets that aim to present the results of scientific research to the general public.
One forum that gained particular prominence in the field of bridging the gap between scientific research and public at large is r/science forum on Reddit. In 2022, it is reported having 27.7 million members, making it the largest community-managed science forum. A popular feature of this forum are the “Ask Me Anything” public discussions in which the public gets the opportunity to ask questions to scientists. Founded by Nathan Allen, an American Chemist, in 2014, it instantly became a success. Eventually it became the world’s largest two-way discussion between scientists and the public.
However, recent decades have also seen a crisis of confidence and trust in science by the general public. Experts have attributed this to the public’s scientific unawareness, but also to the attitudes of the scientific community towards the general public.
The author of this study, Jordan Batchelor, wanted to examine how commenters on r/science express negative attitudes towards science in discussions outside formal scientific spaces. Discussions happening on r/science were found to be a good match for this. The author wrote a script in Python (a programming language) that collected comments made to posts on r/science between 2017 and mid-2021.
“As a corpus linguist, I’m interested in examining the real language that we use to communicate with one another,” explained Batchelor, a doctoral candidate in Applied Linguistics & ESL at Georgia State University. “With this study, I found that there were millions of people who connect online to discuss scientific topics — so I wanted to know, what aspects of science and academia are they discussing? How can their authentic interactions inform us about the role of science in society? What can a corpus approach add to the previous literature?”
The script collected around a million comments made to around 3,750 posts. Batchelor proceeded to clean the collection by removing posts that had less than 5 and more than 499 words. He also took care that there not be more than 5 comments from a single commenter in the collection for the study. The final collection of comments consisted of 177,296 comments made across 3 years, a total of around 7.75 million words in length.
“I was surprised to find such a vast amount of online communication about academic research,” Batchelor told PsyPost. “There are a lot of people really interested in keeping themselves informed about the scientific topics of their choice, both on Reddit and elsewhere. I think this is great and validates the continued interest in the role of science in society.”
As the goal of the study was to identify negative attitudes towards science, further linguistic analysis was done to identify evaluative language (i.e., content in comments that expressed positive or negative attitudes). When this was done, the author proceeded with the analysis based on keywords.
Results showed that negative comments about scientists most commonly described scientists as corruptible, poor at communication (e.g. “I hate how many times ‘cancer has been cured!’ and then I’m left trying to explain why that isn’t true to my entire family. . . I just wish scientists did a better job communicating in bite sized nuggets for lay peoples”) and misleading when sharing their research with the broader public.
Negative comments about science denied that science is methodological, unbiased, and objective. Science was also seen as being done with a political agenda, leading to mistrust (“Science used to just be science, but these days science is politics and can’t be trusted [. . .] now you have to question every scientific finding to see what political bias was used in forming the question”)
“Science communication has never been more accessible, thanks to digital genres like social media,” Batchelor said. “But these contexts have also made science communication more complex — there’s a wider range of quality of published research, a wider array of subject matter explored in research, and more organizations publishing and covering science. As a result, critically thinking about the science we consume and how we communicate about it is as complex and crucial as ever.”
The word “statistics” was often paired with negative language. However, this was mainly attributing the general public insufficient knowledge to understand statistics, while statistics itself was strongly attributed to good science. Samples were often described as too small or inadequately created. Researchers were commonly described as overreaching in their conclusions and that the public should remain skeptical if a certain finding comes just from a single study.
Commonly encountered sentiments towards social sciences included claims that their conclusions are not reproducible, not trustworthy, obvious, and that social science research is particularly susceptible to subjective bias. Psychology was mentioned particularly often (e.g. “These psychology articles always have such vague premises and words, what makes a person ‘nice’ and ‘agreeable.’ This sub has too many of these making it too hot, more often than not the conclusions they come to are common sense.”).
Negative evaluations of popular science journalism contrasted the “bad” journalist with the more trustworthy “scientists.” Science journalism were often described as bad or influenced by politics. Science news outlets were described as misrepresenting the source materials due to the lack of full details and not focusing enough on methodology. However, these negative comments were most often not directed at popular science/science news outlets and when they were, other users were often countering those comments and defending these news outlets.
“I expected to find some negative comments about science journalism, but I was a little surprised by the amount of negative attitudes as well as the predictable criticisms that some raised — that science writers can be this corrupting mediator that misinterprets and sensationalizes science,” Batchelor told PsyPost. “In my personal experiences, this flavor of science news is the outlier rather than the norm.”
The study makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of the public perception of science. It should, however, be noted that the study analyzed only comments from a single internet forum. Results from other forums might not be the same. Also, the analysis focused solely on negative comments and that is the reason why no positive themes were mentioned in the paper.
“It would be interesting to delve into what the science-informed public thinks science is doing ‘right,’ to help counterbalance my focus on what it does ‘wrong,'” Batchelor said. “With the amount of discourse on a forum like r/science, it can be really difficult to focus your sights on the most interesting data. There’s probably a lot of unique insights and implications in these online interactions that I didn’t happen across in my analysis.”
The study, “Just another clickbait title: A corpus-driven investigation of negative attitudes toward science on Reddit”, was published online on January 12, 2023.