Welcome to our November 2015 newsletter: Building and retaining trust

Working in the field of science communication, it’s easy to forget that many people don’t understand the process of science.

Not because they are incapable of understanding it, but because they have never been exposed to it at school or later in their adult life.

If people don’t understand the science process, can we expect them to trust the process, or to exercise good judgment in assessing research findings and sources of science?

This month we’re sharing some tips and techniques you can use to build and retain people’s trust in your science.

What do you think? We’d love your feedback via Facebook, Twitter or email.

PS Thanks for your feedback on last month’s newsletter: Distilling your science without dumbing it down. Subscriber Ron Day has shared his views on the topic: Building up, not dumbing down.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam,

Jenni Metcalfe, Mary O’Callaghan (newsletter editor), Sarah Cole (on maternity leave), Sharon Connell, Jane Ilsley, and intern Jay Nagle-Runciman.


Protecting the trust of your online readers – 4 tips

By Jay Nagle-Runciman

One of the primary obstacles to building and maintaining people’s trust online is the (sometimes startling amounts of) misinformation out there.

Try some of these tips to neutralise the misinformed online rhetoric that can undermine your efforts to communicate science.

  • Acknowledge your funding sources. Nothing kills conspiracy theories faster than beating the false pundits to the punch with a clear, unhurried author disclosure statement. This strategy is listed as number 4 of 10 ways The Conversation is different from other media.
  • Expose your readers to a weak version of the misinformation. Researchers call this the ‘inoculation theory’, and it can be more effective than simply throwing correct information at people. For example, you might be able to point out weak correlation–causation relationships.
  • Don’t guess. Tell people what you know, not what you might know. Because that is how the spread of misinformation starts.
  • Respond to any rebuttals in an environment you can control. Rather than posting your comment on someone else’s website, take time to cool off, prepare your response and then post it on your own website/blog. This mitigates the risk of your words being manipulated, taken out of context, or just deleted.


Gaining trust through listening

By Jenni Metcalfe

I remember the ‘Poowoomba’ debacle in 2006 where scientists prepared clear messages about the safety of recycled water, and conveyed these messages to a community who feared for the health of their families.

Activists were able to build on those fears and it was no surprise when, in a referendum, 62% of the people of Toowoomba voted against adding purified recycled water to their water supply—and this happened during one of the worst droughts ever to hit the region.

One of the big problems in trying to gain people’s trust in our science is that all too often we think the scientific evidence is enough.

We prepare glossy brochures with carefully crafted and tested messages, and expect people to accept the weight and credibility of that information.

But we ignore their perceptions, misperceptions, concerns and needs about the issue, particularly controversial issues that affect their health, lifestyle and environment.

The facts and the science are not enough.

We cannot expect people to listen to our science if we have not truly listened to them.

We need to find out about and recognise people’s values and beliefs in our communication. And we can only do that by actively listening (LACE):

Listen actively – ask questions.
Acknowledge what people say – summarise it for them.
Clarify – ask more questions to check you understand what they are saying.
Elicit more information – explore their answers in depth.


Cutting out the media middle man

By Sharon Connell

Australians believe that science is important for solving today’s problems; yet, a 2014 survey found that 30% of us do not know who to trust, or do not trust anyone, as a source of accurate science information.

We are being bombarded with loud, negative or contradictory information on topics such as evolution, climate change, animal research and genetically modified food.

Science deniers, lobbyists, politicians and journalists can have vested interests in selling controversy and creating doubt in our minds.

Without credible sources of well-researched evidence, we are left skeptical or distrustful.

The opinions of scientists and the American public are drifting apart, according to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center.

While 97% of climate scientists believe that climate change over the past century is being caused by human activity, only 57% of adults surveyed saw scientists as being in agreement on this issue.

I think that scientists should be constantly communicating their research direct to the public. This would build the public’s trust that scientists are indeed working to solve society’s problems.

Social media is a powerful and far-reaching platform for them to achieve this.

Here are some useful tips from the Australian Science Media Centre for communicating science through social media:

  • Be brief.
  • Limit each sentence to one idea.
  • Use language that is easy to understand, with a small dose of joviality and creativity.
  • Write in a conversational style.
  • Be personal—say ‘you’ and ‘I’.
  • Use active voice and avoid abstract nouns.
  • Craft meaningful titles for blog posts. Try to use fewer than 8 words.
  • Quote reputable sources that you can link to with descriptive link text.
  • Explain the relevance of the science to people’s everyday lives.
  • Think visual. People are more receptive to photos of real people.

Quote of the month

“Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance over a story.” — Annie Proulx