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Communicating the complexity: a film on how science speaks to society

August 14, 2019

We live in the information age but knowing what to believe and who to trust is harder than ever. What has this done for the public perception of science?

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What do you think about when you think about science?

Is it a force for good that helps improve all our lives? Or a tool misused to serve biased interests? Is it both?

Science can be complex and calculated but it can also stir our emotions. It is fundamental to all our lives, helps shape our futures, and yet it is often misunderstood, mistaken or even misused.

We live in an age where we are bombarded with so much information from so many sources it can be hard to know which views to believe and which to dismiss. Who are the experts? Which sources should we trust? 

Scientists can often struggle to make themselves heard amid the throng. We are living in a great age of innovation but are we in danger of losing our love for science?

“I think the narrative that says the public are losing trust in experts or scientists just does not stack up. It's the wrong way to view it.”

– Fiona Fox, CEO of the Science Media Centre

How society sees science

For the most part, the work of scientists is seen as beneficial. The idea that society is losing its faith in science, that we increasingly don’t believe experts, is not the case. According to Pew Research Center, public confidence in science has been stable since the 1970s with 91% of Americans having some confidence in the scientific community.

“I think the narrative that says the public are losing trust in experts or scientists just does not stack up. It's the wrong way to view it. There are issues around particular subjects, like whether we should use animals in research or whether we are over medicalizing society, and those debates are really legitimate,” says Fiona Fox, CEO of the Science Media Centre.

It is typically these more contentious issues that engender the greatest science skepticism. Areas such as climate change, GMO and vaccinations can provoke strongly held viewpoints that disagree with prevailing scientific opinion. This can be due to a lack of knowledge on the subject, of placing feelings over facts, but there is often more behind it:

“As a decade of studies have shown, knowledge is actually not at all the most important factor that drives someone to accept or reject the scientific technology. We need to understand that people's opinions are based on their values, their ideologies, and their preferences. Those factors actually influence the way people behave and their attitudes towards science,” according to Dr. Marta Entradas, Marie Curie Research Fellow, Department of Psychological and Behavioral Science at the London School of Economics.

Opinions in the internet age

The rapid rise of the internet, smart phones and social media has had an enormous effect on how we perceive science and scientific authority. It has simultaneously made scientific knowledge more readily available than ever before, and yet created a world where information is everywhere and anyone can claim to be an expert.

Most of us are not trained to assess the validity of the information we read. And in many ways, we don’t want to. We inherently want to confirm our established viewpoints ­– to hear only what we want to hear.

“What we know today is that when people process new information, it's emotions first and thinking later. It's a concept called motivated reasoning and it explains why we love articles that tell us what we already know and complain about articles that are critical of things we believe. It's how we've always processed information, but the internet makes it more apparent,” says Dr. Arthur Lupia, Hal R. Varian Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan.

“We academics and scientists have this social responsibility to engage the public. To bring science to people.”

– Dr. Marta Entradas, Marie Curie Research Fellow, Department of Psychological and Behavioral Science at the London School of Economics

Communicating the complexity

So how can the science community better communicate with the public in this age of mass media, memes and misinformation?

Engagement is everything.

“We need to move on to more better ways of engaging the public and not just disseminate scientific information, as we have traditionally been doing. We need to get out there and understand the ways the public think about science. We academics and scientists have this social responsibility to engage the public. To bring science to people,” argues Marta Entradas.

This means connecting scientific work with the core concerns of people. It means utilizing multiple forms of communication, especially social media. And it means playing an active part in current conversations.

“We think scientists should come out and engage in the debates, listen to what the public are saying they're worried about, and then thrash it out. I think it does make a difference,” says Fiona Fox.

Louis Pasteur, the pioneering French biologist and chemist, once said: “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.” By more actively engaging with the public, scientists can help pass that torch.

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