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Panel 223 - Science Fact or Science Fiction? How can science be heard in an age of misinformation?

Conference Day: 
Day 2 - November 8th 2018
Takeaways and recommendations: 

Science Fact or Science Fiction? How can science be heard in an age of misinformation?

Organized by: David Johnson Research + Technology Park, University of Waterloo

Speakers: Rita Celli, Host of Ontario Today, CBC Radio One; Erika Dyck, Professor, Department of History and Canada Research Chair in History of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan; Conway Fraser, Managing Director, Fraser Torosay; Heather MacDougall, Associate Professor, University of Waterloo

Moderator: Mike Pereira, Manager, David Johnston Research + Technology Park, University of Waterloo

Takeaways and recommendations

  • Progress in science communication can occur when advocates genuinely share and interact with their audiences. Directly compare what proponents can verifiably demonstrate with what opponents offer as opinions or feelings.

  • Counteracting misinformation and disinformation may be as simple as gathering more information in a broad, systematic fashion, rather than looking only at accounts that reinforce what you already know or believe.

  • Calling out “fake news” can be counterproductive, leading to a hardening of positions and reducing the ability to share ideas.

  • Language matters, especially if it is the highly technical terminology of science, which can convey different meanings in different contexts. Well intentioned researchers wielding jargon can unintentional mislead an audience by preventing people from understanding the true meaning of scientific conclusions.

Communication strategies

  • A story without facts can be engaging rhetoric that can readily draw attention, while facts without a clear narrative often fail to find an audience. This contrast accounts for why climate change denial continues to capture a considerable share of public imagination — its proponents simply tell better stories.

  • Adopting the free-wheeling, aggressive communication style associated with climate denial might be one way of enhancing the profile of scientific positions within this controversy, although many researchers may be uncomfortable with this approach.

  • Problems around miscommunication of science have a long history, going back to anti-vaccine campaigns mounted in the 1850s that persisted because the medical community did little to educate a nervous public about their health benefits.

  • Efforts to address incorrect or misleading information can have the effect of reinforcing the impact of that information. A better, if less satisfying, response might be to simply ignore it altogether.

The state of journalism

  • The electronic proliferation of communication channels has drastically altered the nature of who tells stories about science, which means a great deal of easily accessible content comes from sources that are not vetted or accountable.

  • The ranks of institutional communicators have swelled at the same time that newsrooms across the country have been hollowed out, which has created an unprecedented cadre of information “gatekeepers” with agendas dedicated to vested rather than public interests.

  • Balanced journalistic coverage of complex science stories has been undermined by an editorial emphasis on audience trending, which increasingly leads news outlets to place their resources on accounts that garner the greatest following rather than doing justice to the subject matter.

  • Journalistic accounts that adopt trending as a priority tend to take on overtones of crisis and calamity, which may not properly convey the necessary information and even misrepresent its implications.

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