Normally, a paper citing Kim Kardashian’s Wikipedia page wouldn’t make it into an international research journal. But in 2014, that’s exactly what happened. A satirical commentary published in the journal Genome Biology by scientist Neil Hall, ‘The Kardashian Index: A measure of discrepant social media profiles for scientist’, asked whether scientists on social media had more influence than their scientific renown would warrant – i.e. whether the scientists were “famous for being famous”.
The proposed measure that emerged from this question, the K-index, compared the number of Twitter followers a scientist had with their citation metrics: how many times their research papers have been referred to in other papers. Through this metric, Hall wished to highlight the “Science Kardashians” (those with scores of 5 or higher on the index), supposedly in an effort to nudge them to “get off Twitter” and write more papers, as Hall put it.
Hall’s reasons for developing this satirical metric were not without merit. In the age of a 24-hour news cycle and a 280-character attention span, usually the loudest voices get heard. Individuals with high-profile scientific blogs and feeds are seen as leaders in their field, often shaping public opinion, without having published their work in peer-reviewed journals. Ben Goldacre, through his book Bad Science and his blog, tirelessly documents such Science Kardashians who gained public favour and the status of ‘authority’ through media without demonstrating that they could interpret scientific evidence in a reliable way.
Nutritionists and alternate therapists such as Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford built, and build, fortunes by selling pills through endorsements and TV shows that propagate pseudoscience at best and outright lies at worst. This is of vast public concern because people spend large amounts of their money on quick fixes they believe are “scientifically proven” while adding to the already large deficit in public understanding of science. So while it is a humorous, tongue-in-cheek measure, what the K-index really does is quantify the credibility of someone’s opinion in matters of science and science-related evidence in the public domain.
The commentary, with its clickbait name and contentious subject, caused a Twitter storm of fury and opposition. It also brought forward a bigger question: in this day and age, can we conclusively identify who the members of a ‘scientific community’ are? The K-index implies that the foundation of someone’s credibility to contribute to public debate is based on their record of academic publishing. But this is reductive – only 1% of all scientists regularly publish a paper a year. Moreover, academic debate and public debate are not mutually exclusive. Communicating science, explaining new findings and properly contextualising their relevance to people’s lives is an integral part of the scientific endeavour.
The K-index undervalues the efforts of scientists engaged in outreach and science journalists who work hard to accomplish the formidable task of explaining science to the masses. Additionally, new-age social media platforms have, in many ways, further democratised science. Many researchers whose work used to be hidden behind expensive paywalls and incomprehensible jargon are now able to effectively communicate and disseminate their findings.
Twitter also acts as an informal peer-review channel. Public forums and discussions allow researchers otherwise unable to provide critique or analysis to engage in debate. In numerous instances, as have been catalogued by the science journalist Leonid Schneider, crowdsourced reviews of published research papers can spot flaws and malpractice that slip past even the most seasoned editors and publishers. As a result, shortcomings of the traditional review process are overcome.
Closer home, a letter by a select group of scientists condemning Satyapal Singh’s comments – which questioned the legitimacy of the theory of evolution by natural selection – was shared widely on Twitter. Similarly, another minister took to Twitter to share an article called ‘The Scientific Dissent from Darwinism’, presumably in support of Singh’s statements.
The debate about democratic practices and the dissemination of science becomes more complex in a country like India. Unequal access to the internet, disuniform educational qualifications and language barriers all make communication a Herculean task. We need to work harder to design -innovative, effective ways to communicate science accurately. We also need to assess ways in which those engaged in outreach and science journalism are incentivised to continue their pursuits, unencumbered by institutional and financial barriers or divisive articles such as the one by Hall.
Even so, social media platforms aren’t just digital water coolers. They are the mediums through which most of the world (our country included) communicates and interacts. It is where most people receive their news and information from. And ‘credible scientists’ need to assume leadership of these efforts that the people’s trust in the scientific methods and endeavours is maintained. To this end, the also-satirical Tesla Index calls out those reclusive scientists who continue “sitting alone in their ivory towers”. Low scores on the T-index serve as
[a] warning to the community that researcher ‘X’ may be forsaking all methods of publicly sharing their work at the expense of solely publishing manuscripts. In contrast, a very high T-index suggests that a scientist is being active in the community, informing and educating their peers, colleagues, and the wider public. They are thus playing a positive role in society.
Simply put, trust isn’t so much about information as it is about dialogue and transparency.
Want to know if you’re a science Kardashian? Calculate your K-index here.
This article first appeared in The Wire on Friday on 2nd February, 2018, (http://bit.ly/2E1HLTx)