Communicating Science in Post-Truth Europe

Science Communication


Last week (28th February 2017) I had the honour of giving a keynote speech to a group of science communicators at the British Embassy in Berlin, Germany.

The theme of my talk was ‘Science Communication in a Post-Truth Europe’ and my aim was to reflect on the current political situation in Europe – particularly the rise of populist views, which to many seem to be non-evidenced positions – and to put forward some concrete proposals for things science communicators can do.

I thought I would share my key points:

Firstly, people aren’t necessarily rejecting the science and enlightenment values, but instead are experiencing the world very differently to the way that experts are describing it. I have written more about that previously here and spoken about it at the Wissenschaftcommunikationforum 2016 and in my UCL STS departmental seminar in December 2016.

Secondly, we know that people base their opinions on more than facts. This is particularly true in science – and researchers in science and technology studies have spent decades evidencing and explaining this. I gave a bit of history, telling the story of how, in the 1980s and 1990s, we believed that improving the public’s understanding of science would make them more knowledgeable and so supportive of science. Research in the 1990s however revealed that the relationship between knowledge and attitudes is more complicated than simply “to know it is to love it”. In particular, Durant, Evans and Thomas (1995) carried out a survey of knowledge and attitudes of 2000 members of the British Public and concluded that understanding of science is weakly related to more positive attitudes in general, but it is also associated with more coherent and more discriminating attitudes. They argued that knowledgeable members of the public are more favourably disposed towards science in general, but are less supportive of morally contentious areas of research than are those who are less knowledgeable. This makes sense if you think about (for example) anti-nuclear protestors, who tend to be very well informed about the science and technology, despite being firmly against it. Indeed the more information they get about the technology, the more firm those anti-views become. Something else is driving their attitudes.

Instead, I explained that lots of research in science and technology studies has shown that factor like existing technologies and cultural frames of reference – that is, interests, values, previous experience and ways of responding to and interpreting the world – also shape people’s evaluations of technologies. For example, in my own research, I have found that people’s views of carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS) are strongly shaped by comparisons to nuclear and wind energy, and by trade-offs between particular energy futures (Lock, Smallman, Lee, & Rydin, 2014); and that a sense of ‘naturalness’ strongly affects views on the limits that should be put upon research (Smallman, 2016).

Added to that, trust in sources is important too – and gaining trust isn’t simply a communication exercise, but it involves changing your organisational behaviour to become trustworthy. This, I explained was the approach we took when I was leading science communication for the UK Government Department DEFRA in the mid 2000s – admitting our mistakes, rectifying them and then communicating what we had done to fix them. It was a long slog, but it paid off in the end, because for an organisation like Defra, reputation means more than popularity – as the department in charge of emergency responses to sudden disease outbreaks, for example, it was essential that they were trusted in order to gain support and compliance with actions and policies.

Finally, as well as acknowledging your audience’s values and framings, I highlighted how important it was that the scientific community also acknowledge the values and framings they bring to science. In particular, I explained how my own research looking at public and expert discussions of science and technology has shown that while scientists see science as a problem solver, with social and ethical issues seen as further obstacles to be overcome with more science, the public see these same issues as inherent parts of the science and technology, that need to be traded off with the benefits. To be good communicators, to address this seeming distrust of expertise, we need to recognise the perspectives we bring, and allow them to be opened up and challenged.