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selfies for science

5 min

Earlier this month, a paper came out in PLOS ONE called “Using selfies to challenge public stereotypes of scientists”. That title kind of covers it all: can we use selfies to change how the public sees scientists? Turns out, yeah. The main take-aways I got from their work are the following:

I first heard about this project when the researchers put a call out for scientists to submit selfies for their data set. One of my friends (male, Indian—experimental controls are important!) and I sent in pictures of us pointing at a computer being constantly updated with experimental readouts. You can check out the pseudo-Instagram page created for the project here.

I’m not going to lie—as I was reading through how participants were asked to score each “instagrammer” for their warmth and competence, my main question was, “But what did they think of me?” Am I warm? Am I competent?? Tell me, data!

Narcissism aside, I’m not going to actually look into the data to try and find out because it’ll probably end in an unhealthy fixation on whoever gives me the lowest score, and I will carry that grudge against anonymous participate #whatever for way too long. But it did feed into a sort of existential funk that I’ve been working through on how we use data to drive what we talk and how we talk about it, particularly in science communication. Using data to inform entertainment isn’t new (the Nielsen survey started with radio stations in the 1940s), but now that there are so many different ways to talk and so many different ways to gather data, it seems paradoxically easy to both overthink and oversimplify it all. On Booktube, you see it in the bias towards wrap-ups/TBRs/hauls that get good immediate views, even though reviews often perform better in the long run. In science communication, I think you see it in an emphasis on making scientists approachable and friendly. Or for a more concrete and recent example: Bill Nye’s latest rant about climate change, which—while entertaining for a lot of people—also inspired its share of responses asking whether calling people idiots is the best way to inspire them on to your side.

I don’t have this fully thought out yet, so sorry for how disorganized these thoughts are. At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s one “correct” approach to science communication, just like there’s no one “correct” approach to communication in general. There’s probably a range of approaches out there that average around one generally successful style. The problem is that in science communication, Bill Nye (and Neil deGrasse Tyson) are probably the only current household names in the field, which means there’s more of a demand for them to reach everyone all at once.

I think that’s part of why I was so interested in this paper in particular. I’ve been really interested in how people (particularly Samantha Yammine, who is one of the authors on this paper and has a popular Instagram account @science.sam) take advantage of both the visual and personal nature of Instagram to reach new audiences. And I think one of the great things about social media and other platforms like YouTube is how it helps us find new ways to talk about science and reach different audiences. I think this line from the scientist selfie paper sums it up nicely:

The more diverse the approaches, the greater the potential reach. To connect on a human level through a smiling “selfie” is just one promising approach among many.

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