Reclaim the networks

By Niko Komin

Last November, coincidentally a couple of days after Twitter was sold to Elon Musk, SANDSWA met in a local brewery and the question came up: should we stay on Twitter or should we go? If we do leave, where would we go? We didn’t delve into alternatives but it kept nagging me.

Mastodon had already been on my radar—first as a little child when I saw beautiful illustrations of the extinct Mammoth species by Czech illustrator Zdeněk Burian, and later, in 2017, when I learned about the alternative microblogging service named after this creature on the German technology news site Heise. I had already signed up some time ago, but I was using an alias and I wasn’t even posting, just like how I started on the bird site. About a week after our meeting at the brewery I decided to use Mastodon and finally made a new account with my real name. Why?

“Herd of Mammoths in Ice and Snow” by Zdeněk Burian in the 1962 edition of Weltall Erde Mensch , a book that fed my interest in science since early childhood.
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On Being Freelance

That work space looks unusually tidy

I was laid off from my communications job at Sanford Burnham in 2011, the collateral damage from a grant funding crisis. Theoretically, I could have gotten a similar position at Salk, TSRI or UC San Diego, but I was concerned the same funding issues would catch up with me. When my risk-averse wife gave her blessing, I decided to go freelance.

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The Public Good

Drosophila melanogaster

There may be science writers who do it for the paycheck. I don’t know any, but I assume they’re out there. The science writers I know do it because they love science and want to spread that joy. They are constantly amazed by the new information.

But there’s also a sense of public responsibility. Science shouldn’t be a private thing that only a few people understand. We need to spread the word.

Politicians sometimes cherry-pick a specific research project to mock as wasteful. Sarah Palin famously took on fruit fly research in 2008. She was probably talking about a $211,000 effort to study Bactrocera oleae, a pest that strikes olive trees, in an effort to support the California olive industry. Still, a lot of Drosophila melanogaster researchers bristled at the attack.

This kind of rhetoric is hard to combat – sound bites are much easier than science. If she was talking about Drosophila, it would be hard to go on CNN and explain the value of model organisms without getting too far into the weeds.

Like so many other things, we need to be proactive. These attacks stick because people often lack the fundamental scientific understanding to recognize their flaws. We probably can’t remedy that entirely, some people refuse to be informed, but we can at least create a knowledge base to help people understand.

We live in a time when people often dismiss science – the one discipline that has the best chance to help us through our many crises. That’s discouraging, but it doesn’t mean we’re not making a difference.

Which is basically what we’re doing in our day jobs. Every time we post an article or news release or blog post, we’re adding to that knowledge base. We’re creating a firewall against bad information with accessible science. Perhaps someone is interested in understanding the argument and a Google search leads to your explainer. That’s a win.