On ‘scienceyness’ and public trust

At the beginning of February, Scott Adams posted on his blog Dilbert about “Science’s Biggest Fail“. The issue, said Adams, is that science has lost its credibility in the public because uncertainty over when science is ‘done’.

Scott Adams, “Science isn’t about being right every time, or even most of the time. It is about being more right over time and fixing what it got wrong. So how is a common citizen supposed to know when science is “done” and when it is halfway to done which is the same as being wrong?”

In response, Ben Thomas (a blogger for Scientific American, TechRepublic, HuffPost, Nature, Discover, Forbes, etc) wrote on Medium about “A Disease of Scienceyness“. The real issue, said Thomas, is not that scientists do not accurately convey when research is ‘done’. Rather the issue is the uncritical sharing of ‘sciencey’ stories on social media, which causes confusion over genuine science and hyped up breakthroughs.

Ben Thomas, “Twenty years ago, we could’ve just blamed pop-science journalists and left it at that. And while overblown science headlines are still a major aspect of the problem, many of your friends and relatives — and most likely, even you — are now implicated in this onslaught of misinformation. The worst part is, the vast majority of these people genuinely believe they’re performing a public service by resharing inaccurate “science” stories. But in truth, these people are doing a disservice not only to the people who read their feeds, but also to the very same hard-working scientists they believe they’re helping.”

While each article made some interesting points, Adams and Thomas exaggerated the issues of public trust in science and the sharing of science through social media.

Public Trust in Science

Adams feels as though he has been “kicked in the balls” by science through overblown health and diet promises. He says that consequently he is suffering from a lack of trust in science.

Public trust in science has been addressed through a variety of avenues. For instance, in March 2002 the Royal Society (UK) held a conference around the topic “Do we trust today’s scientists?”. Here’s the report they issued to reflect the issues raised in the event.

During the event, author and critic, Fay Weldon, gave an interesting overview of the relationship between science and it’s various publics. She first addressed the principle cause of distrust for lay publics: uncertainty.

She said, “The public isn’t ignorant or stupid. It does, however, like certainties, which is its bad luck because there aren’t any. It must learn to face the facts of matter, and to live with fluctuating acceptable risk, rather than safe or not safe. Then it will be prepared to trust where trust is due, and be the better for it.”

There is a growing movement towards conveying more information on the general uncertainty of science. In a recent speech given by Sir Paul Nurse, at a Parliamentary Links Day held by the Society of Biology twelve years after the first event, he noted that scientific knowledge evolves.

“Early on in a scientific study knowledge is often tentative, and it is only after repeated testing that it becomes increasingly secure.  It is this process that makes science reliable, but it takes time.  This can lead to problems when scientists are called upon to give advice on issues when the science is not yet complete.  We see this every day in the newspapers – whether a medical procedure is safe or what foods are good or bad, what is happening to the climate.  The public and policy makers want clear and simple answers but sometimes that is not possible.”

Sharing science in social media

The primary issue with Thomas’ article is the lack of responsibility for engagement given to the scientific community. By putting the onus on journalists and lay readers to judge the validity of a science story, he neglects to discuss the probable source of these posts – research institutions and journals.

Hype in science is not isolated to social media. Rather the hype you see in newspapers and television, blogs and Twitter, generally comes from the ground source – hype in press releases and announcements made by researchers and research institutions. As Brigitte Nerlich, Professor of Science, Language and Society at the University of Nottingham, wrote in her blog that “in an age of severe competition for funding and a race to gain ‘impact’… hyping research in various ways (in funding proposals, press releases, websites, interviews with journalists etc.) is almost inevitable”.

A recent study that matched hyperbolic claims in the press with claims in press releases found a strong correlation between the material originally presented to journalists and the resulting stories. The study also looked at the source of hyperbolic content and found indications that most hype starts in the journal articles and statements made by scientists. The responsibility for correct content, argued the researchers, should lie with both the original scientists and the press officers who support their search for publicity.

In an accompanying editorial, Ben Goldacre, Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and author of the book Bad Science, said that “Academic press releases should be treated as a part of the scientific publication… [we need to] produce an information trail, and accountability among peers and the public… this might change academic behaviour, and create an environment where researchers finally act to prevent patients and the public being routinely misled.”

These articles won’t be the last time we debate encouraging trust in science or whether the social sharing of science is beneficial. For a short article that also takes into account some additional perspectives, you can have a read this Nature article “A criticism of ‘science ‘fandoms’ prompts online reflection“.

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