Sri Lanka’s first Science and Technology for Society (STS) Forum took place from 7 to 10 September in Colombo. Organized by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research, it was one of the largest gatherings of its kind to be hosted by Sri Lanka.
Modelled on Japan’s well known annual STS forums, the event was attended by over 750 participants coming from 24 countries – among them local and foreign scientists, inventors, science managers, science communicators and students.
I was keynote speaker during the session on ‘Using Social Media for Discussing Science Topics’. I used it to highlight how social media have become both a boon and bane for scientific information and thinking in Sri Lanka. This is due to peddlers of pseudo-science, anti-science and superstition being faster and better to adopt social media platforms than actual scientists, science educators and science communicators.
Sri Lanka takes justified pride in its high literacy levels and equally high coverage of vaccination against infectious diseases. But we cannot claim to have a high level of scientific literacy. If we did, it would not be so easy for far-fetched conspiracy theories to spread rapidly even among educated persons. Social media tools have ‘turbo-charged’ the spread of associated myths, superstitions and conspiracy theories!
I cautioned: “Unless we make scientific literacy an integral part of everyone’s lives, ambitious state policies and programmes to modernize the nation could well be jeopardized. Progress can be undermined — or even reversed — by extremist forces of tribalism, feudalism and ultra-nationalism that thrive in a society that lacks the ability to think critically.”
It is not a case of all doom and gloom. I cited examples of private individuals creatively using social media to bust myths and critique all ‘sacred cows’ in Lankan society – including religions and military. These voluntary efforts contrast with much of the mainstream media cynically making money from substantial advertising from black magic industries that hoodwink and swindle the public.
My PowerPoint presentation:
Video recording of our full session:
The scoping note I wrote for our session:
Session: Using Social Media for Discussing Science Topics
With 30 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people regularly using the Internet, web-based social media platforms have become an important part of the public sphere where myriad conversations are unfolding on all sorts of topics and issues. Facebook is the most popular social media outlet in Sri Lanka, with 3.5 million users, but other niche platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Instagram are also gaining ground. Meanwhile, the Sinhala and Tamil blogospheres continue to provide space for discussions ranging from prosaic to profound. Marketers, political parties and activist groups have discovered that being active in social media is to their advantage.
Some science and technology related topics also get discussed in this cacophony, but given the scattered nature of conversations, it is impossible to grasp the full, bigger picture. For example, some individuals or entities involved in water management, climate advocacy, mental health support groups and data-driven development (SDG framework) are active in Sri Lanka’s social media platforms. But who is listening, and what influence – if any – are these often fleeting conservations having on individual lifestyles or public policies?
Is there a danger that self-selecting thematic groups using social media are creating for themselves ‘echo chambers’ – a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are dismissed, disallowed, or under-represented?
Even if this is sometimes the case, can scientists and science communicators afford to ignore social media altogether? For now, it appears that pseudo-science and anti-science sentiments – some of it rooted in ultra-nationalism or conspiracy theories — dominate many Lankan social media exchanges. The keynote speaker once described this as Lankan society permanently suspending disbelief. How and where can the counter-narratives be promoted on behalf of evidenced based, rational discussions? Is this a hopeless task in the face of irrationality engulfing wider Lankan society? Or can progressive and creative use of social media help turn the tide in favour of reason?
This panel would explore these questions with local examples drawn from various fields of science and skeptical enquiry.
Pseudoscience is often characterized by contradictory, exaggerated or unprovable claims; over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of openness to evaluation by other experts in the field; and absence of systematic practices when rationally developing theories.
American astronomer Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996) was at the forefront in promoting science for its sense of wonder and also for countering pseudoscience. As he used to say, “Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.”
Sri Lanka has its share of pseudoscience, sometimes dressed up in politically correct ‘clothes’ of indigenous knowledge. Even many educated persons uncritically believe in pseudoscientific claims and practices.
As an example, I cite a currently fashionable pursuit of the Sinhalese community: going in search of archaeological ‘evidence’ for a mythical king of Lanka named Ravana (who is only a character in the Indian epic, Ramayana – but some people take it literally).
I argue that believing in Ravana after reading Ramayana is akin to believing in alien abductions and other modern mysteries after watching X-Files TV series.