Give the public the tools to trust scientists
Anita Makri argues that the form of science communicated in popular media leaves the public vulnerable to false certainty.
17 January 2017
What is truth? How do we find it and does it still carry weight in public debate? Given recent political events, these are important and urgent questions. But of the two industries I work in that are concerned with truth — science and journalism — only the latter has seriously engaged and looked for answers. Scientists need to catch up, or they risk further marginalization in a society that is increasingly weighing evidence and making decisions without them.
Whereas journalists are debating facts and falsehood, their own role and possible ways to react, scientists seem to see themselves as victims of, rather than active players in, the new political scene. Most debate centres on how the new political order threatens scientific knowledge and research funding, or downgrades climate-change policy.
All are important, but what's overlooked by many is how science is losing its relevance as a source of truth. To reclaim this relevance, scientists, communicators, institutions and funders must work to change the way that socially relevant science is presented to the public. This is not about better media training for researchers. It demands a rethink about the kind of science that we want to communicate to broader society. This message may sound familiar but the new focus on post-truth shows there is now a tangible danger that must be addressed.
Much of the science that the public knows about and admires imparts a sense of wonder and fun about the world, or answers big existential questions. It's in the popularization of physics through the television programmes of physicist Brian Cox and in articles about new fossils and quirky animal behaviour on the websites of newspapers. It is sellable and familiar science: rooted in hypothesis testing, experiments and discovery.
Although this science has its place, it leaves the public (not to mention policymakers) with a different, outdated view to that of scientists of what constitutes science. People expect science to offer authoritative conclusions that correspond to the deterministic model. When there's incomplete information, imperfect knowledge or changing advice — all part and parcel of science — its authority seems to be undermined. We see this in the public debate over food and health: first, fat was bad and now it's sugar. A popular conclusion of that shifting scientific ground is that experts don't know what they're talking about.
FULL PDF GRATIS: Nature