Selling science in trust deficit days

There’s more wrong than fake news says Peter Yates

 “Overhyping” research stories is sufficiently common for Australian and UK science media centres to consider tagging university and institutional media releases loaded on their sites. Stories would be labelled to identify research that is peer reviewed and distinguish lab based from human-tested findings.

The warning came from Peter Yates, chair of both the Australian Science Media Centre and the Royal Institution of Australia, in a speech to the Cooperative Research Centres Association conference in Adelaide yesterday.

In a broad ranging speech Mr Yates set out the challenge in communicating science fact, and separating it from fallacies and fiction.

 Mr Yates said science reporting suffers in “the resource-poor but media-rich” environment, “that gave birth to the ‘fake news’ movement.”

Newsworthy events are discovered first on Twitter, and break as a story before an accredited journalist has shown up. Even worse, today, anybody who manages to generate a large audience can use Facebook advertising to support their running costs.”

In contrast, science communication aggregators can rely on sponsorship, which, “may not be sustainable.”

Science also suffers from community distrust of institutions and from peoples’ beliefs and their own sense of self-interest trumping evidence. “Unlike an area of science, like space discovery, the implications of climate change or water resources, for example, could mean job cuts, heightened regulatory conditions, higher taxes etc.”

While scientists stick to the facts and leave it to the community to work out the values, “the problem is that the ‘losers’ will fight the science and easily conflate with those whose belief systems are unaligned. Together they have an enormous incentive to double back on the science and undermine its credibility.”

So, what is to be done? Mr Yates proposes ideas to address the trust deficit and indifference to evidence.

“While institutions aren’t trusted scientists are,” especially in the regions. “Should we consider creating a distributed trust model such as Airbnb or Uber – where trust is created by a two-way engagement between producers and users rather than institutions.”

As for changing minds, science has to acknowledge people’s “incentives and beliefs” and work out how to influence them. “This means talking through issues and outcomes with industry, government and the public early on, and involving experts from various disciplines such as the arts, humanities and social science.”


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