Suddenly, the sort of conversations that had long taken place at scientific conferences, in hallways, by email or over the telephone were now exposed for the world to see and recorded for posterity. This gave the public and the press a rare view into scientific activity. In principle, that should be a good thing. In practice, a number of problems arose.
When scientists strive to understand a new phenomenon, they put forward a range of hypotheses. Researchers take various positions, and the community collects further evidence and gradually sorts out the details.
In the classroom, however, we teach only the settled facts. We don’t highlight the messy business of getting there. A public accustomed to learning about science as a final product was perhaps perplexed to see science in the making. Instead of clean facts and clear explanations, it found contentious debates not only where the science was unsettled but also where scientists were behaving as humanly as everyone else: confessing their doubts, coalescing into cliques and indulging in personal animosities. It is no surprise that many wondered if science was somehow failing them when they needed it most. Indeed, public trust in scientists fell.
For those with political motivations, the public nature of this conversation made it easy to cherry-pick examples and promote contrarians who clung to discredited viewpoints. Some promoted drugs had already proved ineffective for treating Covid-19, such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. Others argued that the sooner low-risk people were infected, the sooner we could recline in the Elysian fields of herd immunity. Yet others seemed to believe that just one implausibly perfect worldwide lockdown would eradicate the virus. Those in favor of some return to normalcy were vilified as “eugenicists.” Anti-vaxxers catered to many of these factions with disturbing success. Scientists were exposed to harassment that few of us, outside of climate science, had experienced before.
Perhaps the reward structure of Twitter influenced the scientific conversation unfolding there. The Twitter algorithm was learning, in real time, to promote tweets that most effectively drove engagement. And scientists learned what kinds of posts were likely to go viral and how to avoid fights — or initiate them.
Twitter can influence the behavior of its users. The carrot and stick of likes and abuse may have led some researchers to bend away from the norms that underlie scientific activity, like objectivity and organized skepticism. For example, scientists who made pronouncements on controversial topics — “Schools need to remain closed!” or “Masks harm kids!” — could find large partisan audiences who appreciated those conclusions, perhaps more than the quality of the reasoning that led to them. Once followers became fans, some scientists may have been reluctant to revise or reverse their conclusions in light of new evidence if doing so risked backlash.
By early 2022, the value I found on Twitter had fallen off. It was harder to find productive scientific discussions. Posturing, virtue-signaling and name-calling increased. Some of my colleagues left or locked their accounts. Coordinated harassment quashed nuanced debate.