European academies sound alarm on decaying trust in science

12 Feb 2019 | News

New report makes the case for consolidating trust in science as scientific results become ‘contentious’

In a new report, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA) warns about the erosion of public trust in science, as online propaganda and disinformation campaigns are making scientific results the subject of polarised political debates.

The ALLEA report decries the negative effect the 2016 political debates in the US and in the UK have had on the public perception of science. Also, public discourse around topics such as vaccination and climate change has been heavily politicised in the past years. “Scientific results have become contentious,” says José van Dijck, professor in media and digital society at Utrecht University and lead author of the report.

“Debates were no longer about factual exchange but contentious debate on whether scientists are able to communicate truth,” said van Dijck.

To boost trust in science, the academies say researchers need to become more transparent and to present the sources and origins of their data, but also to clarify their methods of data processing and interpretation. “Open data implies the opening up of databases to fellow-experts, so they are able to verify and replicate studies,” the report says.

The academies also call upon media organisations to rethink their business models around “making responsible reporting profitable” and to support scientific and media literacy programmes. “If people learn to reason methodically instead of merely wanting to see their opinion confirmed, they are able to develop autonomous judgments,” says the report.

Over the past 15 years social media platforms have turned into sources of information and are very influential in setting the agenda for public debates. However, experts warn that an unfiltered use of such platforms could reinforce people’s confirmation biases and polarise groups through echo chambers and filter bubbles. “A lot of hype is pushed on social media,” said van Dijck, whereas “scientific discussions require nuanced assessments.”

But scientists cannot bypass social media and it often is their only means of communication. “Social media is very much like a double-edged sword,” said van Dijck. Scientists use it to draw in attention to their work, but science should not be communicated exclusively through platforms “that by nature have inclination to make topics trending or to sensationalise issues,” van Dijck said.

Communicating science has always been a challenge for researchers. They are used to communicating with peers, but they are lacking the skills needed for interacting with larger audiences. “It’s a skill not very easy to learn for them,” said van Dijck.

The report is available here.

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