How Reddit created the world’s largest dialogue between scientists and the general public

reddit science

Up until a little over a month ago, Kathleen Mandt had never spent any significant amount of time on Reddit. Mandt, an earth and planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, had heard of the social news site, but only because her teenage son “mostly lives on Reddit.” She received a crash course, however, when a press release summarizing a recent paper she’d published was submitted to r/science, a thriving community on Reddit with over six million subscribers. “A coworker told me about it,” she recalled in a phone interview. “So my son sat me down, signed me up for Reddit, and I started answering questions about the paper itself.” It was while she was answering those questions that a Redditor suggested in the thread that Mandt sign up for an official AMA. “So then I had my son sit down and sign me up for an AMA.”

Short for “ask me anything,” AMAs are a bedrock of the Reddit community, so much so that a subreddit devoted to them is one of the most popular on the site. The concept is somewhat self explanatory: A person with some kind of interesting experience offers himself up to the Reddit community, promising to answer any question that is asked of him. As I write this, a thread titled, “IamA survivor of Stalin’s dictatorship. My father was executed by the secret police and my family became ‘enemies of the people’. We fled the Soviet Union at the end of WWII. Ask me anything” has over a thousand comments, more questions than any one person could answer in a single sitting. In true Reddit fashion, the questions with the most upvotes float to the top, so the popular questions are usually the ones the participants answer.

The IAmA subreddit became so popular that it eventually caught the eye of publicists and became a pitstop for any celebrity on a press tour looking to promote a new project. Suddenly you had superstars like George Clooney and Louis CK stopping by to answer questions. An AMA with President Barack Obama, conducted just before the 2012 elections, drew so much attention that the site temporarily crashed under all the traffic.

reddit clooney

Something happened once celebrities began to flock to IAmA, however: It became more difficult for non celebrities to get much attention, even when those non celebrities had something particularly unique to share. Nathan Allen, a mod for r/science and r/askscience (mods are volunteers who police subreddits and have administrative powers), noticed this discouraging trend whenever he’d see scientists try to conduct AMAs. “If you go through and arrange an AMA for a member of the National Academies of Sciences,” he said in a phone interview, “and you do a lot of work to prep him for the AMA, and then George Clooney posts an AMA on the same day, the [scientist’s AMA] gets buried, and these people don’t get any visibility even though it’s really important and the general public needs to have access to it.”

So Allen, a PhD chemist who works for the Dow Chemical Company in Pennsylvania, began to think about ways he could leverage r/science’s massive reach to connect scientists to the general public. R/science is a default subreddit, meaning it’s visible to people visiting Reddit.com even if they aren’t logged in. According to internal metrics Allen has access to, r/science gets between 30,000 and 100,000 unique visitors a day; it’s arguably the largest community-run science forum on the internet. So what if r/science were to form an AMA series of its own, focused solely on working scientists who are producing interesting, groundbreaking research?

Starting in January, r/science officially launched its Science AMA series, and very quickly you had scientists not widely known to those outside their fields answering questions on the front page of a site that is visited by 114 million people a month. Virtually overnight, Reddit had created the world’s largest two-way dialogue between scientists and the general public. “Of course you can talk about the large audience when scientists go on TV,” said Allen.  “But is that really an interaction?” Usually, those scientists who you’ll regularly see on cable news or the Daily Show are among a small group of pop culture celebrities, like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye the Science Guy. “You have the pop culture scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, who’s doing a good job of communicating science, but he’s not publishing a lot of scientific papers,” Allen argued. “His role is more science communication, but he’s not so much a practicing scientist who goes out and has ongoing research projects and is doing the nuts and bolts of science.”

For the mods, the two-way conversation was as equally important as the sheer reach of the AMAs. “Really the only way people get to find out about new research is if they have journal access or if they read the shortform news story that can be skewed by whatever journalist is covering it,” said Chris Dawson, another r/science mod. “If you had questions about the study then there wasn’t a good way to get them answered, and now you can.”

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There has been a longstanding criticism against science journalism, particularly its penchant for histrionically magnifying the scope of the results in such a way that misleads the public into thinking a much more monumental discovery has been made. “The general public won’t catch ‘may,’ ‘could,’ or ‘potentially,’” noted Allen. “They just skim over that, and then that’s why they think there are cancer cures every week, because they see reports of early phase academic studies on something that fights cancer in a petri dish. And though this could be the mechanisms in which  a cancer treatment could be provided 30 years from now, the general public reads this as, ‘Oh there’s a cure for cancer.’” While the Science AMAs aren’t a panacea for misinformation, by giving the public access to the scientists themselves, Allen hopes to eliminate at least some of the impact of sensationalized journalism.

Since launching, Science AMAs have been conducted up to five times a week, though never more than one a day. The brunt of the labor of organizing each one falls on Allen’s shoulders; he not only conducts most of the outreach to solicit participation, but also walks them through the entire process of conducting an AMA, from creating an account to crafting the headline so it’ll have a wide appeal to Reddit’s userbase. “The problem we encounter is that it turns out big name scientists aren’t big redditors,” he said. “Their grad students may be, but they are not. Typically, big name scientists are in their late 40s, 50s, 60s — they’re a different generation and don’t really have a natural inclination to post in social media.” Much of his outreach involves a simple cold call or email to the scientist; armed with r/science’s web traffic statistics, it’s not difficult to convince a top tier researcher of the AMA’s value. Gradually, however, the PR departments within universities have begun to notice the series and, wanting to generate publicity for their own faculty, started reaching out to Allen to schedule AMAs.

That’s what happened with Peggy Mason, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago who studies empathy in rats. Kevin Jiang, a communications specialist at the university, approached her several months ago to pitch her on conducting an AMA. “It was just as I was about to start teaching a MOOC” — short for Massive Open Online Course — “We were thinking let’s try to publicize this whole thing. And so we pitched it, and Reddit was really easy to work with.We went back and forth and they said what the blurb should say and how short it should be. They also told me to make sure to set aside a lot of time that day. It was a complete trip. It was so much fun.”

Within minutes after Mason’s AMA was posted, dozens of questions began to flood the thread. Most of the redditors asked questions pertaining to what was mentioned in the short blurb describing her work and few referenced her published research in scholarly journals — a sign that this was mostly a layman audience who merely sought to slake their random curiosities rather than engage in rigorous scientific discussion. Mason was asked questions ranging from whether rats mourned the death of other rats to if sociopathy exists in other mammals besides humans. “For me it was an exciting and fun conversation about something I love, even if it wasn’t questions on the one particular subject that I had published on most recently,” Kathleen Mandt said of her AMA.

But with a large audience comes great responsibility. We’ve seen the devastating impact of what happens when bad science creeps into the national conversation. Recent measles outbreaks, for instance, have been wholly attributed to the pseudoscientific claims propagated by the anti-vaccination crowd. Nathan Allen was forced to consider his criteria for vetting AMA candidates when he was approached by Paul Héroux, a physicist at McGill University. “We knew going in that it was going to be controversial,” Allen told me. “He holds that electromagnetic radiation from electronic equipment has health effects and can affect the metabolism of cells. This isn’t a generally accepted view, in fact . But the guy is still a legitimate professor at McGill University. It’s a very good school. It’s called the Harvard of Canada, and he’s a tenured professor there.”

But were those accomplishments enough to warrant Allen giving Héroux access to such a massive viewership? “I don’t want to be in the business of deciding what’s a fringe idea and what’s mainstream,” he said. “That’s against the basic philosophy of Reddit. So I made the decision that, ok, this guy has a fringe idea, and we have a bunch of verified scientists [who frequent r/science]. This guy speaks for himself. He can get up to the mic and answer questions. If he can defend his answers, then we’ll let the community decide whether or not he’s fringe.”

Héroux posted his AMA about a month ago, and what followed in the subsequent hours was about as close as you can come to a bloodbath in a wonky, jargon-laden scientific discussion on the internet. Reading it now, the first thing that strikes you is that Héroux avoided answering many of the questions that were upvoted to the top of the thread, a heterodox faux pas in a community that’s rooted firmly in the wisdom of crowds. A cadre of biochemists flocked to the AMA and, after reviewing the scientist’s research, began to dissect his findings to such a technical and abstruse degree that a layman like me couldn’t even begin to discern the validity of their arguments. “Having read some of your paper, I have to say that your conclusions seem like a serious stretch from the evidence,” wrote one redditor. “I find it a bit odd that you think it appropriate to bring your results to a public forum like reddit at this stage. No offense, but your actions strike me as having political intent.”

reddit science 2

Whenever Héroux did respond, it was often in a vague, evasive manner that avoided addressing the specifics of his challengers’ questions. Several of his answers yielded negative upvotes, a sign that the Reddit community had turned against him. “I think the important lesson here is that the general public gets to see that scientists have different opinions,” said Allen. “They get to see how scientists are critical of other scientists. They get to see what peer review looks like in a real sense — what sort of minutia is going on. They get to see the actual mechanism of science going on. The comments that were in that thread would not be out of line in any comments you’d get in an anonymous peer-reviewed journal.”

Reading through the dozens of science AMAs that have been conducted on Reddit, it seems evident that r/science is fulfilling a need that may have been previously unforeseen by the scientific community of researchers who spend years toiling in obscurity, testing and retesting their hypotheses so that one day their hard work may see the light of day in the form of a journal article. In a world where scholarly journals are often frustratingly difficult to access by the general public, there remains a demand in the market for a way to remove the friction between scientists and non scientists. With the rise of MOOCs and other discussion tools like Reddit, science communication is transcending its heretofore gatekeepers. “My personal belief, in the end, is that scientists really work for the people,” said Mason. “We’re allowed to follow our intellectual curiosity insomuch as we share it with other human beings.” With six months of AMAs and thousands of questions uploaded, Reddit’s Science AMA series seems to have brought us significantly closer to that goal.

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