The student winner of the UNSW Press Bragg Prize for Science Writing 2022 is Olivia Campbell (Year 9, Presbyterian Ladies’ College). Her essay Viral Science will be published in The Best Australian Science Writing 2023.
To begin: a confession. Each day, I spend two hours and 48 minutes on my phone. I derive a masochistic pleasure from doom-scrolling infographics about climate change on Instagram. When I was 10, I burned through our curtains trying to turn my grandfather’s lighter into a soldering pen like I saw in 5-Minute Crafts, and it took me longer than I care to admit to realise that my sunburn couldn’t be cured by massaging it with honey. I used to write poetry, and essays like this one ... but quiet contemplation is so much more lonely than letting YouTube tell me what to think.
Social media is a ubiquitous landscape of the modern world: one ruled by likes and views, overseen by some omniscient algorithm. Since the emergence of these platforms in the early 2000s, the way we communicate as a society has been entirely deconstructed and rebuilt, seemingly from scratch. And of course, when the very structure of our civilisation is so suddenly shifted, there are bound to be cracks in the foundation.
Any post on these platforms exists in an economy of clicks. Every story has to be sensational for us to bite; be reeled in. So what do we do, when the happenings of the world don’t make bright enough bait? We spray-paint minnows gold.
To illustrate: in late July, an article was published in the journal Hypertension titled ‘Association of nap frequency with hypertension or ischemic stroke supported by prospective cohort data and mendelian randomization in predominantly middle-aged European subjects’. The next day, news.com.au released a piece of their own, provocatively titled ‘Do you like napping? You might also have a deadly heart condition’.
What happened here, to create such a vast chasm between these two articles – one that seems to broaden with every comment and reblog? Though this is a fairly trivial example, the real-world impacts of misinformation and poor science communication are by no means inconsequential. Facebook yells that the Covid-19 vaccine is a hoax, a lie disseminated by ‘Big Pharma’, an experiment for which we are the lab rats – ‘that will kill us’. So, thousands of people refuse to be injected ... Some of them probably die.
In the worst of times, it can seem as if science communication and modern media are two wholly incompatible beasts – one repelling the other as similarly-charge poles on a magnet. But the argument here is in fact a far more nuanced one.
Social media lends a certain virality to knowledge, unlike anything we have known before. While, as discussed above, this can often lead to the widespread dissemination of fake news, it also has the potential to allow important information to rapidly reach a whole demographic of young people aged 10 to 30. Somehow, videos on subjects ranging from reproductive healthcare to the latest developments from universities find them. Simply in the process of living, children are exposed to a trove of thought-provoking concepts. These are often in the same frame of reference as dance challenges and makeup vlogs, placing them in the context of fun, relevant and dopamine-inducing content.
Then, we see the algorithm giving people exactly the type of material that will make them stay on the platform – or, in less cynical terms, the kind of science they are truly interested in, as opposed to the musty case studies in their textbooks. The micro-format of posts essentially forces them to be accessible and digestible, distilling complex ideas into an easily understandable solution, and hence providing young people an entryway into the vast world of science.
Finally, the gatekeeping of academia is abolished in the world of modern media – a benefit to society being reshaped from the ground up. Anyone can speak on a topic that matters to them. People with disabilities are able to insert themselves into the conversation about what they want and need; students can talk with their peers rather than lecture them.
All of these factors serve to cast light on STEM as an endeavour – an expedition – as opposed to a table of figures to memorise. The impact this may have on growing minds, and their desire to pursue the sciences as a career, is potentially massive. And of course, this is a field where we need diverse perspectives and experiences to draw from, both in identifying problems and developing viable solutions.
In asking what science is in the modern world, this essay has revealed that there is no true answer ... Or rather, that there are thousands. Some of these are ugly while others inspire, and far more find themselves somewhere in-between. But we cannot begrudge a field for evolving alongside its creators. Science is the basis of how we understand the universe, and this is simply what it will take for it to survive.