Science with Impact: Communicating science in a post-truth era

01 November 2017 - By: Alex Evans

Science with Impact: Communicating science in a post-truth era

 Science with Impact
Tom Wakefield and Anne Osterreider with the ‘Post-Truth’ book Photo: Simon Callaghan

By Alex Evans

In today’s ‘post-truth’ society, where facts and rationale play second fiddle to political rhetoric and emotional manipulation, the ripples of ‘alternative facts’ are felt throughout all corners of society, including the science community. How can we discuss the facts of global topics such as climate change and GM crops when celebrities and politicians are trusted more than researchers?

Thankfully, Science Communication Convenor Anne Osterrieder and SEB+ Committee Members Jenny Sneddon and Esther Odekunle put together a panel of experts from a range of scientific backgrounds to discuss this hot topic. “Interdisciplinary discussions are particularly valuable as they allow us to peek outside of our own ‘echo chamber’ and consider new perspectives,” said Anne. Alongside the session, Anne asked a series of questions online to gauge how confident scientists were at sharing their science with different online and offline audiences.

Tom Wakeford of Coventry University, UK, kicked off the session with a bold history lesson into the colonial roots of cultural bias and mistrust. By exploring today’s rising trends in xenophobia and the historical propagation of bigotry and racial discrimination by prominent figures in science such as Carl Linnaeus and Julian Huxley, Tom highlighted that far-right ideas haven’t always remained solely outside the scientific community. “There’s a link between post-truth ideology and colonialism that can’t be ignored,” explained Tom. Drawing on his experiences discussing the impact of GM crops with Indian farmers, Tom also emphasised the importance of allowing people who will be affected by scientific research to help shape the questions it asks.

Next up, Kristin Schirmer from the University of Waterloo, Canada highlighted the increasing mistrust the public feels towards scientists and commented on the conflicting role of the media as both helpers and hinderers when it comes to interpreting scientific stories. “We have to rethink how we reach out to nonscientists,” said Kristin. “Our messages have to be clear, cut down to the bones and completely honest.” Using her own work using cells sourced from fish as an example, she stressed that clarity and openness about research is a good place to start for winning back the public’s trust. Following up on this, Kristin highlighted the increased popularity of ‘Famelab’-style events that encourage scientists to explain their work in interesting and understandable ways for lay audiences. “There’s a difference between making fun of your science, and having fun with your science,” said Kristin.

Alexandre Antonelli from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden agreed with many of Kristin’s points about explaining research clearly and honestly, adding that researchers should aim to explain how their research can be directly beneficial for the public, as well as the scientific community. This issue turned out to be especially relevant for Alex, as he explained how the surprisingly politically partisan treatment of climate change and evolution have effects on the perceptions of his work on species extinction in South America. To mitigate these issues, Alex recommended clearly explaining the relevant outcomes of his research to sceptical audiences to encourage positive and productive communication, especially when biological specimens are removed from the wild. To reach wider audiences, Alex suggested conducting outreach activities in public institutions to boost public awareness and education, noting that the botanical gardens in Gothenburg get over 2 million visitors every year, making it an ideal location for engaging with interested individuals.

Following the panellists’ talks,there was a thorough and lively discussion of topics that covered a range of additional issues from the handling of press appearances to the unique role of scientific artists and ‘creatives-in-residence’ to communicate science to the public in novel and inspiring ways. However, it appears that tackling the rise of ‘post-truth’ thinking won’t be easy and Anne acknowledged that even simply responding to ‘alternative facts’ with reasoning can often just bring harmful ideologies back into the spotlight. Ultimately, it will always be difficult to change the minds of the public and a lot of time and energy can be wasted trying, especially when the discussions grow repetitive and sour. As Anne quoted during the session: “no one ever changed their mind by being called ‘stupid’. ”Afterwards, Anne was pleased with the outcome of the session: “I thought the session went really well, and it was interesting to see the audience’s response to the communication confidence questions.”

Category: Science Communication
Alex evans- RS

Alex Evans

Alex Evans is a PhD student at the University of Leeds investigating the energetics of bird flight. In his spare time, Alex enjoys writing about the natural world, contributing to the Bird Brained Science blog and exploring other avenues of science communication.