Twitter regularly presents me with information and articles I am sure I never would have seen; I have also met many friends and colleagues there. But Twitter can also be nerve-wracking. As I wrap up my PhD and am now on the job market, I have to think about how I am presenting myself on social media. This means I need to question just how much of my own personal views I want to make apparent online. I am clearly not the only one thinking about these things, as there are plenty of articles offering advice about how to clean up your online presence or present yourself in a professional way. One good example of advice for academics is a blog post by Dr. Heather Froehlich, an assistant professor at Penn State, who lists useful tips for academics who want to use Twitter.

Dr. Froehlich notes that “there is an art to being quiet about some things.” This is particularly hard for academics since, as anyone who has sat through the question and answer period at an academic conference knows, we tend to want to assert our own opinions even on topics we have just learned about. Political Twitter can be crazy, frustrating, and anxiety-generating. I regularly have opinions I would like to express, and want to respond to news events or even to individual comments I see online, but choose not to do so.

In addition to not wanting too much of an online record that may negatively influence future employers, I am really conflict averse. Uncomfortable social interactions that many others might forget in a matter of minutes can really nag at me for a long time. I got stressed out just reading as Sinai and Synapses fellow Ian Binns engaged with another Twitter user who called him a “liar” and a “fake christian” for tweeting about evolution.    

I understand that given my temperament as well as a concern for my public profile, I’m not going to be throwing political Twitter bombs, but avoiding negative or hostile responses affects my Twitter presence over time. Frustratingly, this often prevents me even from tweeting facts, for fear of instigating the type of interaction that Ian dealt with. I regularly see news items, links to studies or surveys, or comments by academics that are simple presentations of fact, but which also happen to be facts that are politicized or religiously contentious. Topics such as human evolution, climate change, data regarding social contexts, and the scientific study of religion, are all of interest to me, but the very act of tweeting them comes across as politically or religiously (anti-religiously) motivated.

I regularly read about human evolution, but sometimes I am reticent to retweet or comment on the what I read. For example, I see frequent tweets by scholars such as Christine Legare (@CristineLegare ) that are worth sharing. Legare recently wrote a piece for Nautilus magazine, which was shared by Sinai and Synapses fellow Brian Gallagher (@brianga11agher).

Likewise, the science regarding climate change is not debatable as our political discourse might present it. Yet, I am reluctant to retweet facts like this about climate change.

A similar situation exists with regard to the data concerning social issues  in the United States. One example can be seen in the NRA’s recent attack on doctors who tweet about the alarming statistics surrounding gun violence.

As a final example, I can share a study about the importance of human evolution in understanding religion.

 

My point in all of this, I think, is really an acknowledgement of my own worries, but also a recognition of the need for a way forward. A common saying is that in polite company you are not supposed to bring up politics or religion, but often a scientific or historical fact is regarded as being religious or political.

One of the goals of Sinai and Synapses is to better contextualize or completely recontextualize scientific information so that it can be a topic of dialogue between people from various political and religious perspectives. Perhaps better contextualizing this information can help find a way to better present this information in a way that avoids perceived political or anti-religious bias from these types of scientific facts. This new context can set the stage for a depoliticized conversation about a topic, and perhaps soften the edges to prevent politically-induced knee-jerk reactions.

One way to do this, as recently discussed in a post on Sinai and Synapses blog, is to embed facts within a story. 1Dahlstrom, Michael F. “Storytelling in Science.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2014, 111 (Supplement 4) 13614-13620. 2Martinez-Conde, Susana, and Stephen L. Macknik. “Opinion: Finding the plot in science storytelling in hopes of enhancing science communication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 31 (2017): 8127-8129. Whether this story is a personal engagement or firsthand encounter with the fact, or the history of how the fact came to be known or understood, these stories can provide apolitical or non-religious contexts that can move a fact away from being perceived as a political attack or subtweet. 

With context, with emotion, and most of all, with relationships (both in-person and online), we can become a little willing to share our knowledge with a new audience… and learn from unexpected sources, as well.

References   [ + ]

1. Dahlstrom, Michael F. “Storytelling in Science.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2014, 111 (Supplement 4) 13614-13620.
2. Martinez-Conde, Susana, and Stephen L. Macknik. “Opinion: Finding the plot in science storytelling in hopes of enhancing science communication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 31 (2017): 8127-8129.