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Science communication in the era of fake news

Welcome to 2018 and another year where sorting out fact from fiction is time consuming and at times impossible. Sarah Boon, PhD, is a science writer and editor. Her articles about academic culture, women in science, and the environment have appeared in Nature, Outpost, iPolitics, Canadian Science Publishing, CBC’s The Nature of Things, and Science Contours. Sarah is a co-founder and serves on the board of Science Borealis. In this guest post she offers some ideas to help science facts rise above science fiction.
Find her at Watershed Moments or on Twitter: @SnowHydro.


"If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”—Hannah Arendt

We live in a “post-truth” era in which the US President tells on average 5.5 lies per day, and attacks the media for publishing “fake news”—usually news that is critical of him or his government.

At the same time, actual false news stories are spreading like a virus via social media and fringe media publications.

Take, for example, the #PizzaGate scandal. A man went to a pizza shop in Washington, DC with a rifle, a handgun, and a folding knife, intent on busting the child pornography ring which he believed was being run by Hillary Clinton under the guise of a pizza restaurant. Not only was this false news, but more concerning is that he hadn’t been able to identify it as such.

This post-truth era represents a serious issue for science and science communication. As The Shattered Mirror Report on News, Democracy, and Trust in the Digital Age notes, “genuine journalism must now compete with content that mimics it and dresses deceit in a cloak of credibility, while society must adapt to a world in which fact and falsehood are increasingly difficult to tell apart. An information market polluted this way puts the very notion of credibility at risk.”

What does this mean for science communication? There doesn’t seem to be a decline in people’s interest in science, as recent surveys show that 82% of Canadians want to know more about science and how it affects our world, while more than 70% of Americans say they are interested or very interested in seeing science news. It’s more about making sure we connect with these audiences and keep them engaged.

So how can science communicators reach their audience through this thicket of fake news?

1.      Start local. Talk to your relatives and friends. Publish science stories in your local newspaper.

2.      Develop your cultural literacy. Science communication is most effective when it works with the culture of the audience you’re trying to reach. Understand their values and morals.

3.      Talk. Research shows that people are more likely to believe things they hear versus what they read. Having a conversation with someone about a scientific topic can make them more receptive to the topic than if you write an article about it.

4.      Build trust in science and scientists. As I never tire of saying, a colleague on Twitter suggested that we don’t have a science literacy gap, we have a trust gap. Trust means telling accurate stories that humanize science and scientists, stories that encompass the entire scientific process and not just the final outcomes.

5.      Don’t hype research results. Many science communicators and consumers of science news are not impressed with over-hyped science results. They want to know the basics, instead of being peppered by various articles touting, for example, a different superfood every month that can reduce your cancer risk.

6.      Tell science stories. The scientific process lends itself perfectly to narrative, and narratives are intrinsically persuasive. You can tell a story of how a researcher got interested in a particular research question, how they tackled it (and where things did or didn’t work), and what the outcomes were – plus what other things they want to do now that they’ve got these results.

7.      Build participatory media literacy. Media literacy is critical for distinguishing between real and false news. By working with public groups to determine the difference between the two, we can help the public be more informed.

8.      Make science part of everyday life. By making clear that science is a part of—not separate from—daily life, we can reach more people. This will also pique the interest of adults as much as kids, as science is fun for everyone, not just the young.

If you can talk to a roomful of people and then, as the old commercial used to say: ”They tell 2 friends, and they tell 2 friends, and so on and so on, and so on,” we have a chance of beating this problem. We have everything to gain and so much to lose if we don’t even try to tell science stories in a culture where truth, misinformation, and outright deception wait in the shadows. Maybe, in a few years, scientists and science communicators can put on their own red ball caps emblazoned with “#theypersisted,” and know they all did their part.

Science communication in the era of fake news

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