Scientific discourse has always been encouraged as a means of nurturing accuracy and development, but according to a recent article by Andre Picard, the internet has changed the nature of scientific debate for the worse.
According to Picard, in the world of cyberspace, scientific “evidence” now increasingly takes the form of anecdotal reports, and “debate” takes the form of personal character assassination. The internet allows people to fire off an opinion (however unqualified it may be) with only a moment’s thought and with just the click of a button; and individuals who are not adequately equipped to interpret scientific data are elevated to a platform to comment alongside those who have spent years preparing, compiling and understanding such data. At the same time, opinions supported by dubious scientific research (for example, in the area of novel medical treatments and cures) are rampant on the internet and can become accepted as scientific fact.
One of the problems is that the typical layperson is in a difficult position if required to distinguish between so-called quack science and legitimate scientific analysis. Many do not have even a basic appreciation for the scientific process or an ability to critically analyze scientific findings. According to Picard, this illiteracy in the sciences is part of the reason many are unable to identify dubious health solutions proliferating the internet.
The lack of scientific literacy has been addressed by John Wilbanks, Vice President of Science at Creative Commons, who is currently running the Science Commons project. In a recent interview, Wilbanks talked about efforts being made to build AcaWiki a website devoted to preparing “human-readable summaries” of scientific papers in a Wikipedia-type format. That type of solution would undoubtedly be of use to many who seek assistance distinguishing between soundly-based science and unfounded hypotheses.
Wilbanks’ efforts at Science Commons also address another issue concerning the availability of scientific data on the internet. According to Wilbanks, the copyright system can lock up facts inside scientific papers and prevent movement of information that would otherwise occur freely. The creation of Science Commons is an attempt to remove barriers to sharing of information through things like standard copyright licenses in order to convince people that “the public domain is something to be cherished, and not a thing to be avoided at all costs when it comes to things like data.”
The internet has unfortunately been a tool for the worse as far as the spreading of dubious science is concerned. Nor has it been used to its full potential since reliable scientific data has remained out of sight or, at least, not readily available to scientists for whom it may be of great assistance. But there is clearly an opportunity for the situation to be reversed, and a community-based, information-sharing approach for sound scientific research that will benefit everyone may not be far away.