Future of Science Communication Conference: Moving Forward Research & Practice

How can we connect research and practice in the science communication field? How can science communication help make science more trustworthy? What lessons have we learned on the relationship between science and politics during the Covid-19 pandemic? Over 1000 participants joined two days of digital discussions and workshops to tackle these and more questions at the Future of Science Communication Conference.

After a year of planning and curating, the event took place in digital format on 24-25 June, co-organised by ALLEA and Wissenschaft im Dialog, the organisation for science communication in Germany and funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research within the scope of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

The international conference brought together actors from research and practice of science communication. Its goal was to sensitise the various stakeholders from science, science communication and politics to the respective challenges and to provide an impetus for stronger networking and transfer between the ‘science of science communication’ and European practitioner communities.

Attendees could enjoy three keynotes and six panels, participate in ten workshops and attend three lightning talk sessions, a poster session and a matching session. All sessions were related to one of five topics: Science & Politics, Trust in Science, Target Groups of Science Communication, Open Science & Citizen Science, and Fake News & Disinformation.

“We are at a Fork in the Road moment in science communication.” – Mike Schäfer (University of Zurich)

From Science Communication to Trust in Science

Day one started with welcoming words from Thomas Rachel MdB (Parliamentary State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research) and the ALLEA President Antonio Loprieno, before featuring two keynotes by Mike Schäfer (University of Zurich) and the Chief Scientific Advisor to the European Commission Nicole Grobert (University of Oxford), who shared input from their scientific and political perspectives.

Schäfer presented an overall analysis of the science communication field with three main questions: how can we move forward, what is going well, what is not going so well. His take-home message was to recognise that science communication is in a “Fork in the Road” moment. Institutions, scientists and communicators should work together to push forward and scale up the synergies between practice and research. For instance, he proposed to increase “inreach” into science: motivate, train, support, valorize and sensitize scientists for societal demands.

The Chief Scientific Advisor Nicole Grobert added a science advice perspective to the discussion and provided insights on how to communicate emergency and strategic science advice. Particularly, she suggested to follow four key questions when communicating science advice for policy:

  • What we know
  • What we don’t know
  • What is uncertain
  • What cannot be known

The discussions continued in the afternoon with the panel “Trust in Science: nurtured, built or earned?”, moderated by Dr. Birte Fähnrich (Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences/Zeppelin University) and with speakers Rainer Bromme (University of Münster), Maria Baghramian (University College Dublin/PERITIA), John Besley (Michigan State University) and Tracey Brown (Sense About Science).

The debate focussed on how to create a concept of trust in science useful for science communication. Speakers debated how to frame such debate for practical approaches, from focusing on the causes of distrust to understand the importance of trustworthiness in science. Their advice to the science communicators was:

  • Make the right questions about science (Brown).
  • Talk about your honesty, good intentions, competence (Besley).
  • Explain the process of science (Baghramian).
  • Foster epistemic trust (Broome).

“The infodemic in fact preceded the Covid-19 pandemic by many years” – Cissi Askwall (VA Public & Science)

Are we living an “infodemic”?

The second day was kicked off by our third keynote speaker, Cissi Askwall, sharing her perspectives from science communication practice, who argued that the “infodemic in fact preceded the Covid-19 pandemic by many years”.

Friday’s first panel “Fake News & Disinformation: A pandemic of its own?” developed further this question. The debate featured Natali Helberger (University of Amsterdam), Dan Larhammar (ALLEA/Royal Swedish Academy) and Philipp Lorenz-Spreen (Max Planck Institute for Human Development) and was moderated by journalist Kai Kupferschmidt. Panellists discussed digital media literacy and the importance of including schools in the debate on fake news. Lorenz-Spreen added: “We cannot rely on the idea that with the next generation and digital natives problems with fake news will disappear. We can see even university students today can be victims of fake news.”

In a pre-recorded impulse video, Dietram A. Scheufele (University of Wisconsin-Madison) challenged common wisdom on the relevance of disinformation in today’s science communication debates: “There is very limited social scientific evidence, if any, to suggest that misinformation directly connects to more pro-social behaviours, for instance, physical distancing or getting vaccines when available”. The moderator Kupferschmidt provided additional thought-provoking ideas and key takeaways on a Twitter thread:

Friday also featured a panel discussion on science and politics moderated by ALLEA President Antonio Loprieno. The panel included Prof. Dr. Antje Boetius (Alfred Wegener Institute), Dr. Janusz Bujnicki (International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw), Prof. Dr. Ortwin Renn (Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies Potsdam) and Dr. Bella Starling (Vocal / Wellcome Engagement Fellow / Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust). A key question that centred the debate was: What do policymakers want from scientists? Ortwin Renn had some suggestions:

In the final panel discussion, panellists touched on the question whether there is a gap between research and practice in science communication. Brian Trench (Dublin City University/PCST Network) asked whether instead we are overstressing this disconnection between the science of science communication and science communication practice. He also presented his manifesto for a future of science communication that is authentic, engaged, open, surprising, uncertain, ethical, inclusive, unfinished and interpreting.

“Science Communication is about interpreting the meaning of science for people” – Brian Trench (Dublin City University/PCST Network)

SAPEA and PERITIA workshops

Two ALLEA projects also found space in the programme. The workshop “Communicating microplastics risk: Balancing sensation and reflection” was hosted by SAPEA and featured Bart Koelmans (University of Wageningen), Sabine Pahl (University of Vienna), Lesley Henderson (Brunel University) and Toby Wardman (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies).

Additionally, our PERITIA colleagues organized two workshops, “Trust in science in social surveys: challenges, measurement and case studies” and “Using experiments to fight science disinformation online: an evidence-based guide”. The first workshop provided an overview on the nuances and complexity of measuring trust in science across countries and different contexts.

The second workshop led by Carlo Martini (PERITIA) offered an overview on strategies to tackle disinformation attempts with the use of attention and monetary incentives interventions on social media. The contribution of John Cook (Monash University) brought additional perspectives on the use of gamification to foster critical thinking. Read more about this on our interview with him at the ALLEA Digital Salon.

 

For further reading on the contents of the conference, you can find the summaries of Day 1 and Day 2 published at the German science communication portal Wissenschaftskommunition. More documentation will be published in the coming months. If you want to receive future updates, subscribe to the ALLEA newsletter.

 

European Coordination Needed to Fight Science Disinformation, Academies Say

In a new report, ALLEA examines the potential of technical and policy measures to tackle science disinformation and calls for improved European exchange and coordination in this field.

While disinformation strategies are intoxicating public discourses in many fields, science disinformation is particularly dangerous to democratic governance and society at large. As highlighted by the ongoing pandemic, an undermining of trust in science poses a fundamental threat to political and individual decisions based on evidence and scientific knowledge.

Over the past years, extensive research and a variety of strategies have been developed and applied to tackle science disinformation. ALLEA’s paper reviews this work, focusing on the roots and consequences of this multi-dimensional phenomenon, as well as practical solutions for policy, technology and communication.

“The science race against Covid-19 has not only been in the search for a vaccine. Another major risk has mobilised researchers: science disinformation. This report identifies key pathways to counter this ‘infodemic’ in future global crises. Seeing these problems unfolding in our societies, we need an institutionalised and coordinated strategy to galvanise researchers, communicators, and policymakers into action as early as possible”, says ALLEA President Antonio Loprieno.

The authors discuss the most prominent psychological, technical and political strategies to counter science disinformation, including inoculation, debunking, recommender systems, fact-checking, raising awareness, media literacy, as well as innovations in science communication and public engagement.

Following an analysis of the consequences of science disinformation in climate change, vaccine hesitancy and pandemics, the report concludes with a series of recommendations. The authors call for:

  • a stronger focus on communicating how science works and more dialogue in science communication practices,
  • a serious engagement with the public when exercising or communicating research,
  • valuing the virtue of intellectual humility when communicating scientific evidence,
  • the maintenance of good research practices and high ethical standards to ensure integrity and trustworthiness,
  • accountable, honest, transparent, tailored and effective science advice mechanisms.

To implement these proposals, the authors advise to establish a European Centre/Network for Science Communication and a European Code of Conduct for Science Communication.

Even though there seems to be widespread awareness of the problems and harm caused by   disinformation, there is still no coordinated European effort to respond to this with increased and better science communication. While mechanisms of science advice for policy have been introduced on different levels to bridge the gap between scientists and policymakers, no central pan-European mechanism or institution is in place to coordinate existing initiatives and develop coherent guidelines and recommendations on science communication in an inclusive manner”, the authors argue.

The discussion paper will be presented and debated at the upcoming scientific symposium ‘Across Boundaries in Sciences’, held online on 5 May, during the 2021 ALLEA General Assembly. Registration is still open at: https://alleageneralassembly.org/

Download the report here and learn more about ALLEA’s Fact or Fake Project.

 

“Inoculating People Against Being Manipulated Will Be Crucial”

What are the main approaches to win the fight against misinformation? And how do the fact-checking methods applied by social media platforms affect the actual spread of conspiracy myths? Stephan Lewandowsky, professor of cognitive science at the University of Bristol and member of the ALLEA scientific committee Fact or Fake?, gives an insight into current research on trust in science and why it is essential to foster deliberative communication formats.

Question: Mr. Lewandowsky, conspiracy myths and misinformation are not really a new thing. However, they are currently making headlines again. Are we really experiencing a rise in misinformation during the pandemic?

S. L.: I don’t know of an evidence-based answer to this question as I do not have data on the quantity of misinformation and conspiracy myths. What we do know is that people’s trust in science and research has increased in response to the corona pandemic. On that we do have data from different European countries like Germany or the U.K. as well as the US. In Germany for example the science barometer by Wissenschaft im Dialog (Science in Dialogue) showed a dramatic increase in trust to over 70 per cent in April. That has been accompanied by a vastly smaller number of people who have gone the other way and have been swept up in the toxic brew of covid denialism and anti vaccination movements. I think these are the developments we have, based on the data.

We also see that the media is paying a lot of attention to conspiracy myths and misinformation and while it is important to do so, at the same time, by talking about it a lot, you are enhancing the prevalence of misinformation as well. So that is something to watch.

“(A rise of trust in science) has been accompanied by a vastly smaller number of people who have gone the other way and have been swept up in the toxic brew of covid denialism and anti vaccination movements.”

Q.: Why are pandemics a good breeding ground for conspiracy myths?

S. L.: Pandemics are always a trigger for conspiracy myths and that has been true throughout history. People are frightened, their sense of control over their lives is disrupted and whenever that happens, people are drawn towards conspiracies. Psychologically, people seek comfort in the assumption that evil people are responsible for bad things that are happening because there is potential for the world to be better. If you have an enemy that is responsible for bad things, you can pretend that things would be better if they were not there. Accepting that a virus is responsible is something that is out of control. That is frightening and that is why these times are breeding times for conspiracy myths.

Q.: In Germany we are currently seeing protests against measures the government has taken. In how far are they due to uncertainty when introducing measures, especially with regards to the introduction of masks?

S. L.: Most Germans actually think that the government is doing a good job with the measures. So once again we should not pay too much attention to the minority of protesters. Corresponding to that we see a decline in support for the AfD because they do not offer any solutions for the problems at hand. I think we have to be careful not to exaggerate the uncertainties that existed. Social distancing for example was never doubted as an effective measure against the pandemic and even though there was uncertainty about masks, a lot of scientific advice was actually quite consistent. Of course it would have been nice, if the science on masks had been available more quickly but I do not think uncertainty was a trigger for conspiracy myths in this case.

Q.: If trust is rising, why should we still care about fighting conspiracy myths? 

S. L.: The mere exposure to conspiracy myths can potentially reduce people’s trust in official institutions and is inducing people to become disengaged with politics. So the mere exposure has adverse consequences and that’s not talking about the people who believe in them. Secondly, we have data showing that the people who believe in conspiracy myths are less likely to comply with social distancing measures. So there is an association between not doing what you are supposed to do and believing in conspiracy myths. We do not know if there is a causal relationship but we know there is an association. The final thing is that ultimately conspiracy theorists are more prone to violence than others and are more likely to endorse violence as a means to resolve conflicts. So there are a number of reasons why we should be concerned about them and why we need to tackle the problem at hand.

“We do know that it is better to inoculate people before they are exposed to conspiracy myths than to fight them after they are spread.” 

Q.: What are the main approaches to win the fight against misinformation?

S. L.: First of all we do know that it is better to inoculate people before they are exposed to conspiracy myths than to fight them after they are spread. Ideally what could have been done right in the beginning of the pandemic would have been to communicate up front not only what we know about the virus but also what might happen during the pandemic with regards to conspiracy myths developing. There is evidence that shows that telling people how they will be misled is actually beneficial to building up resistance. On a societal level the moment to do so has passed, but we can still do it with new disinformation that may come along.

The second thing is, that you can correct things and you can get through to people who are spreading conspiracal narratives and it has been shown that not all people are completely resistant to correction. Sometimes the narratives are just used as a rhetorical device and for that group of people corrections can work and are a good device. For hard core conspiracy theorists where the myths have become part of their identity, that is not the case and talking them out of them is very difficult.

If (scientists) communicate well and explain things online and offline, they can be an asset in the fight against misinformation. The same is true for physicians who are very influential and can play a large role. I think by now most scientists – especially younger ones – are very capable of communicating well and know how to use social media well.”  

Q.: What can scientists themselves do to combat fake news?

S. L.: A lot. Scientists are among the most trusted people in most societies including Germany. If they communicate well and explain things online and offline, they can be an asset in the fight against misinformation. The same is true for physicians who are very influential and can play a large role. I think by now most scientists – especially younger ones – are very capable of communicating well and know how to use social media well.

“Algorithms should not draw attention to outrage and myths and that is something we have to tackle and deal with.” 

Q.: Some of the social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter have started introducing fact checking. What is your opinion on those?

S. L.: I do not think there is a single magical silver bullet to the problem. We instead need to add up different measures and put them together to solve the issue. Labeling – if done correctly – can be very effective. What Twitter is doing is OKish but not good enough. What Facebook has done with Covid misinformation has been much better because they put an opaque banner on them that hid the headline so that you could not see it at first glance. That is much more effective than the little button twitter put underneath the information. To be effective you have to introduce friction that prevents access to the information that is critical. Not totally of course because that is censorship, but sufficiently so that it causes friction. The Facebook manipulation cut sharing of misinformation by 95 per cent which is very good and that shows that labeling can work, if it is done right.

But even before you get there what really needs to be done and needs to be discussed are the algorithms of the platform. Nothing you see on Facebook or Twitter is there accidentally but is put there by the algorithms. Those algorithms are often guiding users to extremist content and even though the platforms knew that they did not do anything against it because they were afraid that it would cut into their revenue. We therefore have to take a close look at the information diet that is created to us and we have to make them accountable for their activities. This is not about censorship but about mandating information and about holding platforms accountable. Algorithms should not draw attention to outrage and myths and that is something we have to tackle and deal with.

Q.: How likely do you think it is that this will happen sooner than later?

S. L.: In the United States we are probably not going to get there any time soon. In Europe chances are much higher. The European Union will be taking action and I have written an in depth report for them and hopefully they will use some of those ideas when it comes to introducing regulations.

“Dialogue can be successful and positive in formats that focus on deliberation, on sharing data and on moderated debates in which people can participate.”

Q.: What would a good online discourse look like?

S. L.:  Dialogue can be successful and positive in formats that focus on deliberation, on sharing data and on moderated debates in which people can participate. That is something we are not finding online at the moment but we know it works from deliberative assemblies like those in Ireland which debated topics like abortion and gay marriage. Topics with the potential to tear a country apart but that did not happen because they were led successfully. There is evidence that this can work online as well if you design spaces in which this can work. The moment you create those spaces and make them work you move away from the terribly polluted spaces that we are currently having.

Q.: One topic people are currently worried about is vaccinations and trust in vaccines. Are you worried that this will be a huge breeding ground for conspiracy myths?

S. L.: It depends on the country you are talking about. I am worried about the situation in the U.K. because the government has not exactly a good track record in managing the pandemic and thus it is very likely to be problematic. In Germany I think it is much more likely to work well. Countries like Germany, New Zealand or Australia with well-functioning governments acting in the interest of the people will be able to deal with the situation well. What is crucial is to make the vaccine easily available and to make uptake easy. I don’t think we will be facing insurmountable problems especially if you make it mandatory to be vaccinated to be able to take part in certain activities we will be fine. Once again, inoculating people against being manipulated will be crucial and we should be planning those campaigns right about now.

 

Stephan Lewandowsky is professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Bristol. His research examines people’s memory, decision making, and knowledge structures, with a particular emphasis on how people update their memories if information they believe turn out to be false. This has led him to examine the persistence of misinformation and spread of “fake news” in society, including conspiracy theories.

He will speak at the session “Disinformation, Narratives and the Manipulation of Reality“ organized by ALLEA at the International Forum on Digital and Democracy on the 10th and the 11th of December. The session will present some of the findings of the JRC Report on Technology and Democracy: Understanding the influence of online technologies on political behaviour and decision-making by Stephan Lewandowsky and Laura Smillie.

This interview was conducted by Rebecca Winkels and was first published on the Wissenschaftskommunikation’s website. Credit picture: Stephan Lewandowsky. 

Defending Truth: From Pseudo-Science to Science Disinformation

Prof. Dan Larhammar is a molecular cell biology professor at the University of Uppsala, the President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as well as the Chair of ALLEA’s new project ‘Fact or Fake: Tackling Science Disinformation’. In this interview, he shares with us insights into his work on tackling pseudo-science such as homeopathy and alternative medicine, as well as how these trends work to some extent in similar ways as science disinformation efforts.

 

Key takeaways:

  • “It is important to be aware that many who use or provide alternative medicine honestly believe that it works (…). The believers must be offered an honourable retreat, so to speak, if they are to abandon ideas they may have held for many years.”
  • “Science disinformation is a term used not only for different types of distortion of scientific facts but also attacks on science in order to undermine trust, for instance by spreading contradictory information, weaving conspiracy theories, questioning expertise, spreading false rumours about science and scientists, etc.”
  • “People are often extremely reluctant to abandon ideas that they find appealing for one reason or another, or ideas they have been holding for a long period of time. Such ideas may have become part of their personality. (…) Information may even back-fire and consolidate the false beliefs instead of replacing them with scientifically well-founded information.”

 

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Disinformation and the manipulation of reality

This session will explore the ethical dilemmas around disinformation and the use of narratives and emotions in manipulating reality. An increasingly influential stream of research demonstrates the integration of cognition and emotion in political decision-making. Political cognition is emotionally shaped. The role of narratives in shaping people’s minds has become an important area of research and debate, in particular in recent years when entire societies have made choices that seem “rationally” counterintuitive.

Fact or fake? New ALLEA project on tackling science disinformation

ALLEA is pleased to announce the launch of a new project, “Fact or Fake”, aimed at tackling science disinformation. The initiative will identify and discuss the root causes leading to science-averse attitudes in European countries, particularly focusing on disinformation campaigns on Covid-19, climate change, and vaccinations.

The project is led by a scientific committee composed of a multidisciplinary group of experts from across Europe. Its chair is Dan Larhammar, President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

The scientific committee will:

  • Promote exchanges and linkages among research, policy, science and communications and media communities on practices and approaches to tackling science disinformation.
  • Develop strategies to address the loss of confidence and trust in scientific evidence.
  • Provide guidance to scientists, science communicators, journalists and policymakers in appropriate ways to navigate and address the issue of science disinformation.

The outcome of the project is aimed to address both the recipients and the creators of science disinformation, examining the problem through a multi-disciplinary lens. Target audiences include researchers and research institutions, science communication practitioners and journalists, as well as policymakers at the national and European levels. 

The project is supported by  Compagnia di San Paolo and builds upon ALLEA-related activities such as ALLEA Working Group Truth, Trust and Expertise  and the Horizon 2020 project PERITIA, which explores the conditions under which people trust expertise used for shaping public policy.