Social Media in Sri Lanka: Do Science and Reason Stand a Chance?

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks on "Using Social Media for Discussing Science" at the Science, Technology & Society Forum in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 9 Sep 2016. Photo by Smriti Daniel

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks on “Using Social Media for Discussing Science” at the Science, Technology & Society Forum in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 9 Sep 2016. Photo by Smriti Daniel

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.

Social Media in #LKA:Do Science & Reason stand a chance? Asks Nalaka Gunawardene

Social Media in #LKA:Do Science & Reason stand a chance? Asks Nalaka Gunawardene

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:

Sri Lanka STS Forum panel on Using Social Media for Discussing Science Topics. 9 Sep 2016. L to R - Asanga Abeygunasekera, Nalaka Gunawardene, Dr Piyal Ariyananda, Dr Ananda Galappatti & Smriti Daniel

Sri Lanka STS Forum panel on Using Social Media for Discussing Science Topics. 9 Sep 2016.
L to R – Asanga Abeygunasekera, Nalaka Gunawardene, Dr Piyal Ariyananda, Dr Ananda Galappatti &
Smriti Daniel

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.

 

 

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21 Dec 2012 is here: So where’s the End of the World I was promised?

The much touted ‘Doomsday’ has finally arrived: today is 21 December 2012.

According to the assorted peddlers of doom and gloom, the world should be ending today. Hmm…

Perhaps THEIR WORLD of myth and fantasy would indeed end today — and not a moment too soon!

For the rest of us, however, it’s another day. And from today, I would call the misguided “star-readers” ass-trologers.

Ass-trologers and other dabblers in pseudo-science and non-science will now have a lot of explaining to do. The religious zealots, of course, would probably claim that their pious conduct and non-stop prayers earned us a stay of execution…

The US space agency NASA was so sure that the world won’t come to an end on 21 Dec 2012, that last week they released this simple explanatory video for “the day after”. It has already been seen by over 2 million viewers on YouTube:

A perceptive commentary on the End-of-the-World hysteria, written by the leading Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku, is well worth reading:
WAITING FOR A FLYING SAUCER AGAIN…Of psychopaths, profiteers and big doomsday biz, by Sanal Edamaruku

Here’s an excerpt: “Doomsday prophecies may not be the most dangerous part of the problem. But as they are bound to collide always so harshly with the continued existence of the world after zero hour, they allow us a glimpse at a process – here in fast motion – that normally would play out too slowly to be understood. It is a process of immunization against reason…”


Read my 4 Nov 2012 Sunday column: End-of-the-World, Inc.