Do we trust in science?

At the beginning of autumn, I completed the last bits and pieces of the work required for my degree in science communication. Since then, I have been preparing myself to enter this rather specific niche. So on December 9th, I went to the 2nd all-island SCI:COM (http://scicom.ie/) conference in Dublin. Although this was a local conference, issues and discussions were essentially global. The main theme of the conference was: How to communicate controversial issues in science?

Under this banner, a wide range of issues of public communication of science was raised and disputed, but it seemed that underneath all discussions there was one main concern: TRUST

Most people around the world acknowledge the importance and contribution of science (and technology) in our everyday lives. Yet public trust in science and scientists seems to be in downfall, particularly when it comes to topics like climate change, childhood vaccination or clinical trials. Such topics have become so controversial in the last few years that they now lead scientists and people who try to communicate science ask themselves:

Why are people not convinced that climate change is real despite the global scientific consensus?

Why people still argue for the link between the MMR vaccine and autism, despite the vast amount of research that proves there is no link?

Why public participation in clinical trials is so low despite this is pretty much the only way to know whether a new treatment is safe and effective?

Where are we doing wrong?

Science communication itself is not only a professional practice of writing and talking about science but also an academic field where scholars try to identify the underlying reasons for problems like the above and come up with solutions. However, the latter is not easy because there is no single cause-to-be-solved in any given problem and the people involved are not machines.

One problem identified is the ‘if we educate the scientifically illiterate public, they will better understand and appreciate what we are doing’ attitude of scientists.

Well, obviously, giving more lectures and statistics and data about vaccines is not helping.

The suggested solution to this still-existing problem is to step down from the ‘ivory tower’ and, as with almost every conflict, open a two-way dialogue. Why? Because we do not make decisions based only on hard evidence. Emotions, past experiences, beliefs, personal values, social norms and a whole range of other factors play a role in our decision-making. Therefore, whoever intends to communicate a scientific issue to the public needs to genuinely find out about these factors and take them as well as public opinion into account.

This ‘understanding or empathizing with your audience’ approach was the key take-home message I got from last week’s conference and in fact, from my degree.

The question that remains: Will scientists and science communicators respond to this call?

Betul

 

Read more about this from science communication scholars Prof. Andrew Maynard and Prof. Dietram A. Scheufele in The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/what-does-research-say-about-how-to-effectively-communicate-about-science-70244

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2 thoughts on “Do we trust in science?

  1. Dear Betül, thank you for this nice text. I completely agree with you on many points. But I am still asking myself how feeling emphatically and showing it will change the mind of people. For climate change for example, how showing my feeling that I am sad about people that became unemployed because the coal mine they are working was closed will help the problem? we have to offer alternatives to these people. Opening the mine again is clearly not a solution but of course just telling people what will happen in 50 years apparently also doesn’t help. If they cannot find money to feed their family I do not expect them to appreciate the problems their children will face in 50 or less. “At that moment” they have more serious issues to think about. It is a difficult problem to solve and does not only involve how science is communicated to public but also the socioeconomic balances that are beyond the reach of scientists alone. Maybe one thing we scientist should do is to become politically more active and not isolate ourselves in our laboratories. I am myself very puzzled about this topic…

    For vaccination the situation is maybe a little different. There, empathy might help a bit more and we can all do something to solve the problem. I think discussing on social media even escalates the problem as people attack each other and naturally both sides stick to their idea. Discussing personally in smaller groups without fancy scientific words might help mothers more. If a person is primed at early age, it will be more difficult to change their mind by scientific evidence because they don’t even trust how scientists do science. If they could hear reasonable explanations from people they trust, that could help. But I think one should not allow them to be primed in the first place. and school education plays an important role there. Of course school is a minor part of “education” but if science is taught in a more likable way, maybe these children who will become adults in the future will be less critical about scientific evidence. Science is fascinating and it is heartbreaking that children are forced to memorize things and loose all their interest.

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    • Thanks for your comments Özen. Your examples demonstrate perfectly that each problem needs to be approached as a separate case and communication strategies need to be designed accordingly. What the science communication field means by ‘listening to and understanding the audience’ is putting yourself in your audience’s shoes to see their perspective on the issue and then, think about an appropriate communication (or even research) strategy.
      For instance, in your coal mine case, as you also said, you cannot just tell workers that ‘its better to close the mine to prevent climate change’ and show data or future predictions. However, you can listen to them, see what the concerns are, find potential solutions (together) and actually, communicate all of this to the decision-makers, in this case for example, the governments.
      The idea is really to build a mutual relationship between science and society through getting scientists (and science communicators) to understand the public needs better.

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