Answering people’s pressing science questions on reddit: Interview with Tobias Landberg

Reposted from MSU graduate student Randal Olson’s blog.

Tobias Landberg is one of a handful of scientists that run the million-user subreddit, /r/AskScience Photo c/o Tobias Landberg

Tobias Landberg is one of a handful of scientists that run the million-user subreddit, /r/AskScience
Photo c/o Tobias Landberg

This post is the second in a series of posts where I am interviewing scientists who do science outreach to the public on reddit. My goal here is to discuss these scientist’s experiences to give everyone a taste of what science outreach is like on reddit. If you’re still on the fence about whether reddit is a good place to do science outreach, give these interviews a read and see if it suits your fancy.

My second interview is with Tobias Landberg, an Assistant Professor of Biology at Arcadia University. Tobias holds an undergraduate and master’s degree in Organismal Biology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut. Prior to becoming a professor, Tobias worked at two postdoctoral positions: One at Boston University / the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, and another at the Watershed Studies Institute at Murray State University. Tobias has been moderating and answering questions on reddit’s AskScience forum for over three years now, drawing on his broad research experiences to educate the public about science.

/r/AskScience

AskScience is one of reddit’s default forums, meaning that any new reddit user automatically subscribes to the forum. Currently, there are over 1.3 million users that subscribe to and read posts on AskScience on any given day. AskScience is unlike any of the other default reddit forums because it’s dedicated solely to asking science-related questions.

askscience-frontpage

On any given day, you’ll see a handful of thoughtful questions on the front page of AskScience

 

Users vote the questions up or down depending on how good they think the question are. Good questions float to the top of the page, while inane questions sink to the bottom. This means that the community conveniently sorts out the questions that they are most eager to hear the answers for.

A typical question on AskScience

A typical question on AskScience

In any given thread, scientists and AskScience panelists offer answers to the question and link the readers to scientific articles if they want to read more. Just like with the questions, users also vote up or down on the answers, so the best answers usually float to the top. With just a few minutes of your time, you can teach science to thousands of curious people — and have a permanent record of it, to boot!

Below is my interview with Tobias. My questions are bolded.

Interview with Tobias

What motivated you to use reddit as a science outreach tool?

Reddit is a fun place to goof off, but being a science nerd, I find lots of interesting science articles and images. Three years ago I found /r/AskScience, a subreddit dedicated to answering scientific questions. It is very satisfying to be a panelist there and be able to have dialog with the interested curious people asking questions about the stuff I love to think and talk about. The diverse community of panelists who answer questions, scientists from around the world, have grown to be colleagues. We share a common interest in education and outreach, and we even have lab meetings and discuss science, commiserate and share articles, skills, knowledge and excitement for science. There’s also been a fair amount of collaborations struck up. It’s learning from these colleagues as well as mentoring young scientists that has kept me motivated.

How do you use reddit to communicate science to the public?

I’ve been a moderator of AskScience for three years and we have built an amazing community that is reaching 3 million unique households with over 10 million page views per month! But even with all this traffic, we have a very personal relationship with our readers. People submit questions and we answer them. It’s kind of simple, but what sets AskScience apart is the way we moderate the site with the help of the community. We have a team of dedicated, generous and skilled people who are cleaning up threads and deleting distracting responses. Our community helps tremendously by upvoting the best answers and downvoting or flagging problematic ones. Behind the scenes we have constant discussions about how to best serve our community and developing new ways to improve the site, reach more people, increase the signal to noise ratio.

What are the pros and cons of using reddit as a science outreach tool?

The pros are that it’s fast easy and you can reach a wide audience. For those of us who study the science behind the things that people wonder about a lot, the possibilities are enormous. I like that you can do it whenever you want for as long as you want. Just show up and answer questions and engage in dialog. The down sides are that some panelists get burnt out answering similar questions that come up frequently. Other panelists don’t get enough questions in their field or specialty. And you need to have patience and pedagogy. It can also be frustrating to see answers that sound right and get upvoted but aren’t accurate. The moderators put a lot of energy into solving these problems and keeping up with our tremendous growth and traffic.

What was your best experience engaging with the public on reddit? Have you had any negative experiences while engaging with the public on reddit? If so, please elaborate.

Teaching people how to ask a good question is one of my favorites. Lots of questions come in that are unanswerable because they aren’t scientific. Giving someone an answer to a question is satisfying but teaching them to think scientifically is even better. Learning how people think, about misconceptions and what they find interesting has proven invaluable to me and helps me communicate broadly as well as to connect with my students. It’s just a pleasure to have life-long learners seek us out and learn through dialog, not only what they thought they didn’t understand, but new things. We’ve had teachers post questions from primary school kids and those have been especially memorable.

Honestly I can’t think of a really negative interaction I’ve had with the public. Rarely people get upset because their posts get deleted, but we have an incredible amount of support from our community who appreciate the hard work we do answering questions, doing research, and cleaning up the comments. Unlike on many other sites, trolls get weeded out of AskScience very quickly. For example, we don’t have creationists harassing evolutionary biologists because they get no traction on our site; they are outnumbered, downvoted, reported and anti-science comments are quickly removed. Recently sites like Popular Science have shut down their comments section because research has shown that internet trolls yelling negatively impacts learning. But we’ve solved that problem in a way I believe is unique on the internet.

What other science outreach programs have you participated in? How would you compare science outreach on reddit to other science outreach programs you have participated in?

I’m collaborating with the National Geographic Society, the Mystic Aquarium and the Mill River Conservancy to learn about snapping turtles in Connecticut. We have successfully deployed the NGS crittercam on lots of snappers over the past six years and learned things only snappers knew before now. This collaboration has educated lots of kids, allowed me to mentor many students, publish a paper and has garnered a lot of media attention. We even helped get some legislation passed to protect snappers. This work is logistically very expensive and difficult and slow. It’s tremendously rewarding and successful but we haven’t had grant support and can only outfit one turtle at a time with a camera that collects eight hours of footage. It takes dozens of people and dozens of hours of work for every deployment. Reddit is the opposite. Show up any time you want, stay for five minutes or five hours: no commitment, no organization, just reach out to potentially hundreds of thousands of people per day. I get different things out of these two outreach efforts and they are both very valuable to me.

Do you have any advice for scientists interested in engaging with the public through reddit?

It’s easy. Come to /r/AskScience and check out the breadth of questions and the depth of answers and dialog. Sign up for a username and start answering questions. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, apply to be a panelist and get a fancy colored tag that describes your field and specialty. If you have any questions or concerns, message the moderators and we will help you. It’s a great place to have fun and do good while goofing off.

Could science outreach on reddit help your career?

As someone who just landed a tenure track faculty position, I found having AskScience on my CV was really valuable. Several people asked about it on interviews and this type of education, outreach and broader impacts is increasingly important to granting agencies, hiring, and tenure & promotion committees.

Any parting words?

If you want to challenge yourself to be an educator, learn new things and interact with the public, check out AskScience. We are growing rapidly and need the help of scientists. Big things are happening and we are heading into exciting new territories. We have just announced a new crowdsourced funding initiative open to panelists which will give our readers a new level of interaction with our panelists. Join us!

Have an hour to spare?

If you have some spare time and want to impart your knowledge to thousands of curious people across the world, come see if anyone at /r/AskScience is asking a question you can answer. Make sure to read theirposting guidelines first, though!

 

About Danielle Whittaker

Danielle J. Whittaker, Ph.D. Managing Director of BEACON
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