Scientists have the publics trust, so the swell of fake news shouldnt put them off communicating, says CEO of Science Media Centre
I am sorry to see Jenny Rohn penning her last piece for the Guardians science blog network (I was deluded. You cant beat fake news with science communication). I have enjoyed her columns and often shared the links. But I cannot agree with her swan song.
Rohn uses her last post to question whether her seven years of blogging has made the slightest difference to public attitudes to science and concludes that it probably hasnt. Her despair follows a now familiar trope in science: that in our post-truth society no one is listening to mild mannered science writers trading in facts and evidence. Instead the masses are in thrall to what Rohn calls the enemy camp, the anti-science brigade who lamentably picked up the pen as well and use it to peddle dangerous lies.
In our polarised times I question the wisdom of lumping the critics of science together into an enemy camp. Opponents of science come in many shapes and sizes as do their motivations and the quality of their arguments. I also wonder whether name calling is the best way of wining them over; Rohn tells us of fascists, charlatans and propagandists whose lies are then tweeted by anti-vaxxers, racists and nutters.
Mostly what I question is Rohns certainty that no one is listening to scientists. As Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and Rohn describes herself as a writer who specialises in evidence based communication. So where is the evidence that the public buy lies over the truth in science? And why is this the starting point of so many of the debates I have attended on post-truth and fake news?
I am seeing plenty to reassure me that the public are more discerning. The latest trust ratings showed once again that scientists remain near the top of the list of most trusted professionals with 83% of the public trusting scientists to tell the truth (compared with only 17% who say the same of politicians). Soon after Michael Goves infamous charge that the public has had enough of experts, the Institute for Government published a poll showing that 85% of people want politicians to consult professionals and experts when making difficult decisions, and 83% want government to make decisions based on objective evidence.
If you focus on specific issues its also hard to see why some are so adamant that everyone is blindly soaking up lies over facts. Other countries have had big problems with vaccination fuelled by the kinds of campaigns Rohn is talking about, but in the UK MMR rates have steadily recovered after our own crisis and in parallel with the growth of anti-vaccination noise on social media. I am not saying there is no problem here; the Science Media Centre exists to counter misleading reporting of science and we are as busy as ever. But I think something more nuanced and complex might be happening than Rohns bleak scenario allows for.
Some will no doubt refer me to the research evidence on cognitive bias and a number of widely cited experiments that appear to show that presenting the facts make no difference to those who have made their mind up. Worse still, some studies show that the noble pursuit of debunking facts might even make things worse, the so-called boomerang effect. But even here there are some rich discussions taking place with some social scientists now questioning whether the findings have been overstated.
Rohns tentative conclusion is that science writers like herself should maybe retreat from the public space and try to change things through more private and targeted channels. I really hope she doesnt. The last two decades has seen a remarkable cultural shift in science with more and more researchers viewing it as part of their role to engage with public concern on issues from GM crops to climate change to over-medicalisation. Time and time again I have seen scientists challenging misinformation on these subjects to good effect.
We are approached every day by journalists seeking the very best experts to comment, and the daily news is awash with scientists speaking from the evidence. Rohn may feel they dont win every battle, and I would be first to agree. But a world where scientists are absent from the debate would be far worse, and we would all be the poorer for it.
No one said this was going to be easy and I am open to Rohns claim that it might be getting harder, or at least more bruising. But thats all the more reason for Rohn and her fellow scientists to hang in there. Now would be the very worst time for scientists to return to their ivory towers.
Fiona Fox is the CEO of the Science Media Centre