Social media has become everyone’s favorite new punching bag. It takes the blame for fake news and conspiracy theories. It takes the blame for political zealousness and tribalism. It takes the blame for the rise of fascism and nationalism. It even takes the blame for changing the courses of elections while fueling political coups and revolutions.
Science-based media too is blaming social media for everything from anti-vaxxers to climate change deniers and flat-Earthers. But perhaps a better argument to be made is that Facebook has not corrupted the way by which people take in information. It has only revealed it.
Social media isn’t responsible for making people lazy or inattentive, it has only proven that we have always been that way. Science-based media shouldn’t be out there blaming social media for the uptick in anti-science rhetoric, it should be adapting to the ways social media has taught us how people actually absorb and utilize information.
Statistics and numbers don’t always speak with their intended weightiness. For example, forecasted climate change is usually discussed in terms of average global temperature increases of 1 to 2 degrees Celsius. And for most people out there who only get the headlines in their daily news cycle, this just isn’t very alarming. Most people are only concerned with how something might affect them directly. So when you tell people in Miami, Florida or Kolkata, India about the projected 32 cm sea level rise by 2050 they might shrug that off as no more than the tides currently bring in. But when you tell those in Miami that their city is likely to be submerged under water by the end of the century they probably won't be thinking of buying that seafront house. Or if you tell the people of Kolkata about the flood of refugees who will be pouring into their city from Bangladesh due to rising sea levels maybe they will be more inclined to take more actions now. Scientific information needs to be made personal in order for people listen and take preventative action.
Scientific American posted a video graphic in their August article titled, “A Century of Global Warming, in Just 35 Seconds.” The video is short and easy to understand as average temperatures over time for each country dive deep into the red. Even though it is again only revealing temperature increases of 1 to 2 degrees Celsius, it does so in a way that is unmistakably personal and alarming.
A recent New York Times interactive article titled, “How Much Hotter Is Your Hometown Than When You Were Born?” also managed to put a bit of necessary brashness into what might otherwise be considered boring statistics. By taking the reader's birthday and birthplace it reveals in graphic detail how much warmer things have gotten in their hometown since they were born and how much hotter it will be in their future. This is the kind of medium the science community needs to take better advantage of if they are to appeal to everyone.
People by nature are bombastic and tend to acknowledge audacity and grandstanding over the specifics of an issue. Sending the first person to the moon may not have been so much of a scientific experiment as a way to get the American people behind a greater cause. The moon landing was the headline needed to get the country on board for the other scientific breakthroughs that were arguably more important but may not have made good headlines.
Climate change science is now in desperate need of its own moon landing. It needs the frenzied media coverage and support that gave the Space Race the fuel it needed to push science forward. We need to grab the heartstrings of everyone, not just appeal to peoples' logic. Information is a weapon, and like any weapon it can be used for good. Scientists and media outlets both must sharpen their tools. We need everyone on board for this fight and we can’t afford to leave anyone behind. If we do, they’ll make sure we will all drown in the boiling pot alongside with them.