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Communicate to rebuild trust in science, urges Davos panel

Image: World Economic Forum [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0], via Flickr

EU research commissioner Iliana Ivanova says everyone has a part to play in tackling misinformation

Researchers must do a better job of communicating about their methods and results to help restore trust in science, a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, has suggested.

The 15 January WEF panel on ‘liberating science’ opened the annual gathering of the world’s political, business and public sector leaders, which this year has an overarching theme of rebuilding trust. This theme led to much discussion in the science panel on problems with misinformation, which is inaccurate information, and disinformation, which is deliberately intended to mislead.

Both mis- and disinformation are thought by some to have contributed to a loss of trust in science in recent years, and they were placed in the top spot in a new WEF report on global risks published this week.

Talk to people

EU research and innovation commissioner Iliana Ivanova was one of the panellists. Speaking about the problem of populism in politics, which has spread on a wave of disinformation, she said: “I think we have to come down to Earth and really understand what the citizens want and what drives them. In that context, it is important to be able to communicate in a very simple, accessible way and to explain what it is that we do: us as politicians, you as scientists; why does it bring benefit to the citizens.”

Ivanova (pictured third from left) pushed back against a suggestion from fellow panellist Luciana Vaccaro (pictured second from right), president of the Swiss Universities association, that “science is not democratic” but rather is based on a neutral analysis of “one truth”.

“Yes the truth is one based on evidence and data, but you also have to be able to communicate it to the public for them to buy it…because if it stays only within our closed bubble, I’m afraid it may trigger even more extreme reactions,” Ivanova said.

Take responsibility

The EU politician also pushed back against suggestions from another panellist, Naomi Oreskes (pictured third from right), a professor of the history of science at Harvard University in the United States. Oreskes complained in the panel about “organised disinformation campaigns by industries with a vested interest in denying the science” on issues including climate change and meat consumption.

“This makes it hard for scientists, because they’re up against very powerful forces that are much more well organised…and much more well funded,” Oreskes said.

But Ivanova said: “It’s more responsibility than blame. I wouldn’t point to you or the private sector or politicians or citizens: it’s all of us who have responsibilities, first I think starting with the family, with us as parents, to educate our children from a very early age to understand” the difference between “good and bad” sources of information.

Train and educate

Oreskes and Ivanova agreed that researchers could help to restore trust in science by “explaining things more plainly”, in the historian’s words.

“I think a lot of scientists try but they have no training in communication. I’m sure you’ve seen this: they do a bad job even when they’re trying. And I also think some scientists, not all, kind of like the idea of being a bit mystifying,” Oreskes said.

Universities should devote more resource to improving researchers’ communication, she suggested. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had deans, presidents, provosts say: ‘It’s a good idea, but we don’t have time for that.’ My feeling is actually we don’t have time not to.”

Similarly, Vaccaro suggested that the public also needs to be better educated in the scientific method. She said people need to better understand that, in science, “It’s normal that you disagree…It’s normal to be wrong [in one’s hypotheses, as shown by one’s own or another’s results]. That does not mean that scientists are incompetent.”