Reddit, science, and the power of critical review

reddit-alienReddit/r/science is a wonderful internet location for sorting through the latest fascinating findings from science. For those of you who are unfamiliar with how Reddit works, basically users submit digital “stuff” that falls in to certain categories (and there are hundreds if not thousands of categories from which to choose) and other users “upvote” or “downvote” that stuff. Upvotes rise to the top of the lists, downvotes sink to the bottom.

On r/science, users submit science-related stuff, often research from academic journals or at least good secondary source summaries of those findings.

On this particular day, an article was posted regarding a very large discovery of Old Stone Age (Middle Paleolithic) tools at a site in South Africa. The post linked to a website called Sci-News and the headline said, “1-Million-Year-Old Artifacts Found in South Africa.” The article made the front page of r/science and generated quite a large number of upvotes. The comments and actions that followed provided a very interesting illustration of the power of review.

The lead comment from Reddit users under that original link was, “Misleading Title: Artifacts found at 1,000,000 year old archaeological site.” A criticism.

Why?

Because the original paper published in PLOS ONE, Kathu Tpwnlands: A High Density Earlier Stone Age Locality in the Interior of South Africa, spent very little time talking about the age of the artifacts. And frankly, even as the top comment suggested, the study didn’t spend a lot of time on the age of the archaeological site.  In fact, as it turns out, finding a 1,000,000 year old artifact in this part of South Africa is fairly unremarkable in archaeology circles.

What made this discovery interesting was the sheer volume of artifacts found – not dozens but tens of thousands – as well as the fact that the site is currently in danger of being further destroyed by encroaching real estate development.

With that backdrop, what happened next is truly fascinating and illustrative of the power of connected information sharing. The lead author of the paper, PhD candidate Steven Walker, found out that the story had been linked to Reddit, so he actually got online and placed this comment under the top comment:

[–]s_j_walker 539 points 14 hours ago

Lead author of the published paper here.

The site described in this blog post is Kathu Townlands. They are describing research we published in PLOS one here

The dating of the site is based on a variety of indicators. The artefacts at the site were made sometime between 1,000,000 and 700,000 years ago (see our article for our reasoning).

I’ll happily answer any questions at this post over here:

Please see the following news article for a much better description of our findings

With that, Walker actually spent some time answering reader questions about his research! Incidentally, the headline from the “popular” science article in IOL Scitech that Walker linked to was, “Ancient treasure chest under threat,” a much more accurate yet still attention-grabbing headline.

And for the science purists out there who would rather read the original research, when I went back to Reddit the next day, the page looked like this:

redditscienceNotice the “stuff” that was nestled just below the original post.  Here’s to the power of review, critical inquiry, connectedness, and getting to the most accurate representation of the truth.

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