The Communication Gap Between Science And The Public

Picture of By Audrius Šaras

By Audrius Šaras

“Science is not finished until it’s communicated,”- a quote by Mark Walport, the former United Kingdom’s government chief scientist. In our society today, science communication is becoming more and more imperative. While fake news is not a new concept, the emergence of social media has made its impact in the 21st century unquestionable. Although scientists have made tremendous advancements, just during this COVID-19 crisis we have seen the difficulties of convincing the public of getting the vaccine, because Jonny on Facebook said that Bill Gates is going to put a chip in our brain and control us with 5G waves. Where do we go from here?

The scale of the problem

While we all have seen statistics, for instance, that 13% of Americans in 1988 thought that the moon is made of cheese, the pure ignorance that exists even now is relevant. For example, a survey in 2016 revealed that while 56% of respondents claimed to understand what “antibiotic resistance” means, only 9% were aware that antibiotic resistance means that bacteria are resistant to antibiotics. Continuing, YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project conducted a survey of 26000 people in 25 countries, and at least 20% of respondents in almost every country surveyed expressed concern about vaccines for COVID-19. While we should consider that with every instance, the level of trust differs, it is still appalling that with so many advancements, the work of scientists is still getting dismissed by at least part of the public. Science tries to explain the complex material that they deal with every day, but it fails to get the message across. Why?

Comforting Chair of Misinformation

If you have ever seen fake news (and you probably have), the language and the way they are reported are seemingly consistent. For example, a lot of ALL CAPS, rhetoric questions and weird use of punctuation are all very prevalent methods to make them appealing to the public. While such techniques make them widely shareable, experts on misinformation give even deeper insights regarding their appeal.

While scientists knew about the effects of lead way back in 1909, lobbying groups were one of the key reasons that prevented any regulations from the government.

For example, University of Bristol professor Stephan Lewandowsky has noted that all conspiracy theories that are out there are very psychologically comforting; not in their content, but rather that they give a sense of direction, and do not leave people surrounded by randomness. Besides, another study investigated the reasoning of parents that refuse to vaccinate their children by Dan Kahan, a specialist in risk perception and science communication at Yale Law School in the USA. It revealed that one of the main reasons is that “individuals face a strong psychic pressure to conform their perceptions of risk to those that distinguish their group from competing ones to avoid dissonance and protect their ties to others”. This is really important considering that such social factors can influence the effectiveness of pseudoscience as a whole. 

Another external force that is probably the most powerful and effective is the spread of message by lobbying groups. For example, let’s take lead, the chemical element which is known for its polluting nature and toxicity. While scientists knew about the effects of lead way back in 1909, lobbying groups were one of the key reasons that prevented any regulations from the government. In 1928, Lead Industries Association advocated for the use of lead while constructing pipelines, although cities in the US had reported multiple deaths from intoxications. Only in 1986, after the environmentalist movement, a ban on lead-made pipelines was issued. It took public outrage and several lawsuits to convince the government of dismantling something that was hurting the public. It is no wonder why, to this day, the lack of trust in the government exists, and why officials are not trusted when spreading actual scientific knowledge.

Are there solutions?

We cannot expect scientists to not only excel at their own particular field, but also communicating with the public. The lack of coherent and consistent communication between governmental institutions, polarization that is enhanced by the media, and putting profit as #1 all have contributed to distrust of science and the communication gap. While the COVID-19  crisis is still ravaging the whole world, let’s hope that in a few years we can celebrate a victory led by science, which narrows down that gap.


Cover: Michael Longmire

Edited by: Carolina Alves

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