7 downsides to participating in academic health care social media

I love social media so much that I give seminars on how academics should use it to advance their careers and fields of study.  Today I’m writing about what I hate about it to answer a question often posed to me by social media skeptics: what are the downsides to participating in social media?  At the risk of completely undermining my mission to encourage greater academic presence on social media, here is my list of gripes.

1. Scientists who throw their field under the bus to advance their personal cause. Whenever I read a blog, Twitter feed, or popular press book where a scientist starts off by explaining how everything in their field is all wrong and that he/she has the solution, I immediately stop reading.  This practice is a huge disservice to one’s field.  I’m not suggesting we don’t publicly discuss the problems plaguing our fields, but we have to be careful about how these discussions are interpreted by people outside of the field who may not understand the nuances of the problems and the challenges to solving them.  We should also be mindful of how such discussions are interpreted by colleagues who devote their life’s work to the field.  This practice also stinks of narcissism, but I digress.

2. Non-scientists listen to person I mentioned above and then air their skepticism about a field on social media.   The consequence of disparaging your field on social media for your own gain is that you spread the negativity to the public who then becomes skeptical about the worth of your field in general.  The public sentiment about what we do as scientists and/or providers matters a lot in a health care and research climate where funds are shrinking. Again, I’m not suggesting we hide the dirty laundry, but instead that we are very mindful about how we discuss issues that are more complicated and nuanced than can be captured via a social media discussion.

3. People with no experience in a field but who have a large audience appoint themselves as the “fixer” of the problems in that field.  This is a consequence of the previous two points.  The way this works is that a field outsider catches on that there are problems in a field and becomes opportunistic. He/she devises a “ground breaking,” “conventional wisdom-busting” solution to the problem which then gains popularity because he or she has a large social media audience. Occasionally the ideas are interesting but more often than not they lack substance and show a clear lack of understanding of the problem. This practice further reinforces public skepticism about a field and fools people into buying into half-baked solutions.

4. Science is misinterpreted more often than not.  People often desire a “bottom line” about a study they read about on social media and then get confused when bottom lines conflict with one another (e.g., Diet A is good for you, Diet A is bad for you).  The brevity of social media makes it very difficult to capture the nuances of study methodology and what findings really mean. The danger is that constant misinterpretation sends the message to the world that science is confusing and contradicting.  Even if two similar studies come to different conclusions, a closer look at methodology can often explain why. This is how science works not necessarily a sign that the work is shoddy or a waste of time.

5. Fruitless debates.  On social media you will find people debating points that are trivial, driven by hefty conflict of interest, or based on subjective opinions or a superficial understanding of a study or topic.  This can be very frustrating and consume mental energy so best to be avoided.

6. The self-appointed expert.  Non-experts, i.e., people with no training background or professional experience on a topic, generate large audiences and pose as an “expert” on a topic but spew misinformation.  I have even seen some go so far as to make up professional titles for themselves (Google any title you’ve never heard of).  Dr. David Katz has written cogently on the dangers of this practice, and judging by the comments on his post, it is a stubborn problem that isn’t going away soon. Give 100 people a microphone and you will have 100 experts.

7. Scientific experience is not related to social media clout.  The relationship between scientific experience and social media clout is weak at best.  A scientist with 100 publications and 200 followers will receive less respect for his/her opinion than one with 2 publications and 10,000 followers.  Obviously publication records and other professional experiences are not available on our Twitter profiles, but I urge people to be aware that a PhD or MD and a lot of followers does not mean a person is experienced on the topics they represent on social media.  They might just be really experienced at pontificating on social media.  I routinely use Google Scholar and Pubmed as a credibility check and I’m often shocked at what I see, or in this case, don’t see.

 All that being said, when used appropriately social media is a great tool to connect and bring awareness to the work we do.  Got social media gripes?  Share them in the comments.

Sherry Pagoto is associate professor of medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical School. She blogs at Shrink and can be reached on Twitter @DrSherryPagoto.

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