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How online public challenge Chinese scientists’ authority

BY Zheng Yang, PhD

Scientists are always considered the only ‘legitimate’ communicators in the online science communication process, especially in the Chinese context where science and scientists enjoy very lofty social status with their discourse authority.

However, the digital media environment and the public - who are good at taking advantages of such an environment - are changing this phenomenon.

Through a long-term online ethnography on Zhihu (the biggest Chinese knowledge-sharing network), it has been found that about 61.8% of scientific questions around the topic of genetically modified food were answered by non-scientists users, which are also called ‘citizen science communicators’. Those answers provided by citizen science communicators also received many likes and comments.

It indicates that also other users have accepted them on Zhihu as ‘science communicators. In other words on Zhihu, the Chinese online knowledge-sharing network, scientists are no longer the only ‘legitimate’ communicators in science communication or scientific discussion around genetically modified food.

Those citizen science communicators have also changed the traditional style of science communication/ science popularization in China. In their answers on Zhihu, genetically modified food is not just about science but can be interpreted from many different perspectives, such as history, culture, philosophy, economy, etc.
Even when they answered the genetically modified food questions from a scientific perspective, such science communication or scientific discussions were not so serious as the science popularization led by Chinese scientists in the traditional media outlets.

All of the above are deconstructing the discourse authority of Chinese scientists in the traditional science communication/ science popularization process. 

Some scholars believe that such deconstruction of scientists’ discourse authority can stimulate more effective public participation in science communication. But we also need to be alert to the possible disadvantages of such deconstruction of discourse authority, such as disseminating false information due to the lack of rigorous scientific gatekeeping. 

What kind of complex impact will such deconstruction of the scientists’ discourse authority from the public have on the science communication system and even the whole science and society? These are still unanswered questions. Furthermore, facing such deconstruction of their discourse authority, whether Chinese scientists should take specific measures to maintain their privileged position and discourse authority also needs further research.

Read the full article Deconstruction of the discourse authority of scientists in Chinese online science communication: Investigation of citizen science communicators on Chinese knowledge-sharing networks on Public Understanding of Science

Zheng Yang, is a PhD researcher in the Department of sociological studies, at the University of Sheffield. His research focuses on science communication, public engagement with science, digital media and society.
Follow him on Twitter: @ZhengY1409