What do freedom and responsibility mean today, and why do they matter to the scientific community? With expert guests, the ISC will explore critical topics such as building trust in science, using emerging technologies responsibly, combatting mis- and dis-information, and the intersections between science and politics.
In this third episode, Courtney C. Radsch (Postdoctoral Research Fellow at UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy) and Guy Berger (Professor Emeritus at Rhodes University) explore the concept of science communication.
How can we convey accurate scientific information in a world of disinformation, information overload, and politicization? Tune in as our guests discuss how scientists tackle complexity, combat falsehoods, and navigate online harassment, while exploring the vital role of collaboration with journalists.
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“We’ve moved away from this enlightenment paradigm, and in a way gone back to Copernicus, with knowledge being under siege.”
“It’s often less about a shortage of information and more about how to cut through the noise of today’s information-overloaded world.”
Hello and welcome to this podcast series from the International Science Council, where we’re exploring scientific freedom and responsibility.
I’m Marnie Chestertonand this episode is all about science communication. How can we convey accurate scientific information and ideas in a world of trolling, censorship, and fake news? And what are the responsibilities of individual scientists, institutions, the media, and tech platforms?
It’s never been more important to share scientific findings and insights. They have huge implications for how all of us live – think about the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, or Artificial Intelligence. And yet the way that we communicate has transformed over the past few years…
Courtney C. Radsch
We see the democratisation of science through networks of social media, the open access movement, which has really pushed to get science from outside of the paywalls. But we’ve also seen that this is an era of disinformation, of propaganda, of influence operations. And that science has become incredibly politicised. The way that science is communicated is also wound up with our technologies. And so it is inseparable from the rise of social media, how we collect data and what we can do with that. So it’s been, I think, both a very exciting time, but also a very challenging time for science communication.
This is Courtney Radsch, a fellow at the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy.
Courtney C. Radsch
Some of the biggest challenges that science communication faces right now is how to cut through the myriad of information sources that are out there, to make sure that the findings and exciting discoveries of science are able to make it through the morass. To that end, I think science communication needs to focus on also understanding how our information communication technology, on the kind of algorithmic front, the way that it connects, for example, climate change, with flat Earth issues with anti-vaccine movements. Another of the challenges with science is that it can be complex, and you know, tik toks, and Instagram posts and tweets don’t do well with complexity. And yet that is the dominant way that we communicate.
The modern information landscape makes it possible to reach more people in more ways than ever before – but, as we’ve seen in recent times, it also provides fertile ground for mis- and dis- information…
Courtney C. Radsch
When there’s a new topic like COVID, or some new discovery where very little information exists about it online, this is a time when disinformation flourishes. And we see that especially actors that are seeking to monetize disinformation, will try to fill those information voids. I think we need to see tech platforms doing more to elevate and label and classify science information and science producers so that algorithms can better identify those, but I think that we also need to recognise that much of the disinformation situation today is caused by politics and the politicisation of science. You know, there are topics like climate change, like vaccinations, that are highly polarised and politicised and scientists have to understand that and try to adapt to that dynamic.
There’s an old adage that lies travel faster than the truth. So rather than waiting for misinformation to spread before debunking it, if possible, we should take action before the damage is done.
If scientists are looking ahead and seeing how a tsunami, global warming, manifestation, whatever, is going to happen, and they anticipate what kinds of lies, misconceptions, falsehoods, conspiracies, could arise about that and if they have knowledge, it’s possible for them to jump in before these reach scale. So not only debunking what’s wrong with pre-bunking, and pre-bunking is to really pull the carpet away from anti-science and it would be such a valuable thing if more scientists could be involved in the pre-bunking business.
Guy Berger worked at UNESCO for a decade, promoting freedom of expression for journalists, scientists and artists. He warns that in our efforts to combat disinformation, we have to be wary of going too far. Like, for example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when some countries passed laws that made it possible to prosecute people for spreading false information.
My biggest concern with these so-called “fake news laws” is that it implies that everything can be true or false. And of course, we know from science that is not the case. There’s a big grey area in between. And there’s a lot that’s not yet known. And this only emerges over time. And the problem was beginning to criminalise what may be false, may be malicious falsehoods, and may be innocent falsehoods, but by criminalising it, you really infringe on freedom of expression. And it really lends itself to abuse. So you saw it during the pandemic, for example, journalists being jailed for fake news. But actually what they had been reporting was corruption in the COVID procurement process. And so this is something that I think science has got a great role to play to help policymakers get it right.
In light of these issues, it’s vital that scientists and journalists can work better together, to report on some of the most important stories of our time. But, of course, this isn’t always easy, especially in the Global South.
Of course, we know that science has huge impact in the Global South, you know malaria, pollution from mining, youth migration. The science about these phenomena is so relevant that there should be potential for news, science news, to fly in the South. Although, I’d say worldwide, scientists tend to mistrust journalists, because journalists oversimplify, they sensationalise. But on the journalist side, they also don’t see scientists as lucrative sources for stories. And because it’s complex, it takes time for a journalist to convert scientific information into a story when time is very much a matter of money, and especially in the Global South, where journalists are under huge pressure. And so I think the takeaway here is that a lot is needed on both sides to build relationships in the South. And there can be dialogue about, for example, trying to mainstream science literacy across journalists who are not science specialists, and not to write each other off as a lost cause.
Disinformation, science illiteracy, political polarisation – these are big themes in 21st century science communication. But the fallout is often felt by individual scientists, and so we must also consider how those individuals are impacted by the intense scrutiny and abuse they can experience online.
Courtney C. Radsch
So one of the challenges of being a scientist today is that you do have to communicate in the public sphere, and that can turn you into a public figure, voluntarily or not. And one of the issues is that scientists are facing online harassment, especially women scientists, scientists who don’t fit the mould or who are from marginalised communities, or have any sort of intersectional identities. And what this means is that, you know, when they publish their paper, or they tweet about how excited they are, it often leads to a barrage of trolling, and it can lead to self-censorship. So part of addressing science communication in the 21st century means figuring out how to grapple with online harassment. And it means taking precautions like digital hygiene and digital security to make sure that when you are communicating, you are as safe as you can keep yourself.
So what does all this mean for scientists who want to do a better job of talking about their research, and what it means for society? Courtney has some advice.
Courtney C. Radsch
How do you break down complex problems or issues and make them understandable, and hopefully also get people excited in science? Scientists need to have social media skills. They need to understand how to, you know, tweet thread their latest paper, or how to post it on LinkedIn; how to update Wikipedia; how to, you know, make these posts digestible and, ideally, make a video about it or get on a podcast. I would also add, I think that scientists have a responsibility to communicate better with policymakers. But I don’t think that it’s fair to expect the individual scientists to do it all by themselves. So it’s very important that we work in communities and have the support of our institutions who can help translate complex or maybe esoteric information, so that we can have a more informed public conversation about science.
That’s it for this episode on freedom and responsibility in science from the International Science Council.
The ISC has released a discussion paper on these issues… You can find the paper and learn more about the ISC’s mission online, at council.science/podcast
Next time, we’ll be looking at the role of the state when it comes to advancing science as a global public good. And we’ll be looking at the impact of conflict and collaboration on science.
The information, opinions and recommendations presented by our guests are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.
Image by Drew Farwell on Unsplash.