There’s been a lot written, tweeted and debated in recent days about the rise of ‘fake news’. What does it mean for scientists and science communicators?

We think it draws attention to the issue of Trust: Who can we trust? Who can audiences for science communication trust? Why?

And this month, we’re upping the stakes for giving us newsletter feedback: you could win 12 bottles of wine or an ABC Shop voucher for your thoughts. Fill in our 10-question survey to be in the running.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam

Jenni MetcalfeSarah Cole (newsletter editor), Jane Ilsley, Melina Gillespie and guest contributor Toss Gascoigne



Findings the facts amongst fake news and falsehoods

By Jenni Metcalfe

The biggest problem, I think, about ‘fake news’ is that the ‘fakers’ of news and information are very good at shaping messages that appeal to the emotions, beliefs and values of their audiences.

What this means for the science communicator is that the quality of the messages ain’t enough.

Trust in credible information is built and earned through relationships. We most trust our peers, our family members and, to a decreasing extent, high-profile ‘experts’.

This makes it challenging for those of us involved in mass communication about science through the internet or traditional media. It’s difficult to build trusted relationships online, and distrust in the media is only increasing.

So, what can we do to promote sources of credible, evidence-based information? I think it comes down to educating people about the questions they could ask when examining information – questions that all experienced science journalists consider before publishing:

  • Who is the expert source of the information? Does that expert belong to a credible organisation?
  • What peer-review processes has the information gone through? Has it been published in a highly respected journal?
  • What is the level of scientific consensus around the information? Do other credible experts agree with the information?
  • Who is sharing the information? Are they independent of commercial agencies or vested interests?
  • What is the author’s intention? Is the objective about facts or emotion-laden opinions?

Image: The Public Domain Review


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Can scientists win back public trust?

By Toss Gascoigne

Science seems to have lost the confidence of government – markedly in the Trump administration in the US, but Australia is no stranger to this.

The tendency of scientists, as they try to win back public acceptability (and funding), is to provide more facts and more information to justify their existence. The ‘Deficit Model’ of science communication is back!

At her seminar at the Centre for Public Awareness of Science at ANU last week, Rachel Ankeny pointed out that this is the last thing to do if you are seeking trust.

People don’t like it when scientists assume that their form of knowledge – peer-reviewed papers – has a higher standing than other forms of knowledge, such as what a farmer might understand about his land from long experience.

And they have deep concerns when it’s not clear what people might gain from the research in question: Is it going to mean a cheaper loaf of bread? A better environment? Jobs?

Trust partly comes down to reputation: How well-thought of is science? It has, after all, been tarnished in recent years by commercialisation, by conflicted motives, plagiarism and deep concerns about the benefits for the community largely paying for the research.

The public thinks: What’s science up to?

So how can scientists win public trust? Listen. Don’t preach. Look for shared values, even in contentious issues. Identify and emphasise the benefits of the work. And definitely abandon the deficit-model approach.

Image: UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences


Building trust with farming colleagues

By Sarah Cole

The Climate Champion farmers achieved some fantastic results during the program they took part in – designed to help farmers manage climate risk by connecting them to researchers and equip them with the best climate knowledge around.

We were continually inspired by their enthusiasm and persistence in being there for people who were interested in how they manage climate as best they can on-farm.

But climate change has been a dirty phrase, at times, in rural areas – especially when it gets mixed in with opinions about politics and policies.

So how did the farmers in the program work within this controversial area? I studied how they created trust when communicating about climate with their farming colleagues.

The crux was that they accepted other farmers’ points of view as being best/right for them. That is: if you accept another’s point of view as best for them, that shows them you trust them, which gives them space and reason to trust you.

The challenge of doing this reminds me of a quote by Stephen Covey: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Success for the Climate Champion farmers often required them to go beyond listening to understand, towards listening to accept.

Decision-making, as you might expect, was reinforced in my study results as a very social process for many farmers. It’s interesting that when we see fake news increasingly perpetuated and spread, part of why it can proliferate is that the reputations of fake news sites are expendable – unlike our personal reputations, which are absolutely vital to us for social relationships.

Farmers talking
Image: Econnect Communication


Link of the month

Why are “reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational”? Cringe-inducing experiments of the 70s can yield just the same results today. But it makes sense given our ancestry, say scientists.