23 December 2013

Oh ye of little faith... in science

Well this isn't good:
In a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, only 36 percent of Americans reported having "a lot" of trust that information they get from scientists is accurate and reliable. Fifty-one percent said they trust that information only a little, and another 6 percent said they don't trust it at all. Science journalists fared even worse in the poll. Only 12 percent of respondents said they had a lot of trust in journalists to get the facts right in their stories about scientific studies. Fifty-seven percent said they have a little bit of trust, while 26 percent said they don't trust journalists at all to accurately report on scientific studies.
I shared a link to the story on Twitter and headed off for a while - and got a far more active response than I anticipated, led primarily by Katie Mack.

This led to a larger discussion, first about the context of the word "faith" and setting off a science vs. religion debate that was only tangentially relevant to the article, then a few points about the scientific method, and so on.

These are all really smart people having this discussion and I mean them no disrespect.  But I think they're all missing the point.

There are two driving issues in the current reputation crisis facing "big science" and scientists generally.  First, people are generally supportive of the idea of "science" but don't see its direct relevance in their everyday lives.  Second, people who have a financial interest in obfuscating certain scientific facts are attacking the purveyors of those facts, using tactics borne from politics, marketing, PR, and strategic communications - and scientists don't know how to counter.

"Big Science" is breaking the first rule of communications.  They don't know the audience.

Sure, they know the people who think this stuff is super cool.  But they don't know the people who have no "faith" in them.

Look at the stories on "the biggest science discoveries of 2013" from places like Wired, io9, or National Geographic. All have the nice SEO-driven headlined "listicle" format that gets the attention of the general public. This may be the one science article they read this year - all the important science stuff they missed over the past 12 months in one handy-dandy place!

Read through all of them and you'll see words like "neutrinos" and "exoplanets" or weird acronyms like "CRISPR" or terms like "interstellar space." But you'll see virtually nothing that has any bearing whatsoever on the daily life of a typical reader or even an "opinion elite" - that is, unless they have a PhD in science.

I don't know how strong the methodology is for this Huffington Post / YouGov poll - after all, I'm not a scientist - but I do think it serves as a good starting point and wakeup call for anyone who wants to improve the image of science and scientists.

There isn't a silver bullet to improve science's "favorables," but there are a few requirements.

It starts with knowing the audience.

I think we'll take more steps to know the audience in 2014.

1 comment:

Jim Barber said...

Aye, for its when we discuss science that does have a direct and immediate effect on the general populace that distrust is sowed. And make no mistake about it, there is an active distrust of science not simple a passive lack of faith.

The two areas of science people really need to know about are medications and food. The drug industry is run for profit not the common good and the science coming from pharmaceutical companies is notoriously bias toward making money and not toward finding facts. On the food front the people have been told THEY, the people are not to be trusted with the knowledge of whether their food is genetically modified or not. Science knows what people may do if they knew the truth.

Without honesty forthcoming from science in these two areas, all the rest of science is just a pretty fairy tale.