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“When We Explain the Facts, We Should Also Explain How Misinformation Can Distort Our Facts”

 

Dr John Cook (Monash University) is an award-winning scientist and cartoonist who fights climate misinformation with humour and critical thinking. He is also the creative mind behind the Cranky Uncle, a “male, older, white, and politically conservative” caricature of those who are dismissive of climate science according to psychological research. His acclaimed book “Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change” and game app expose misleading techniques of science denial and offer tools to build public resilience against misinformation. His work has not only been used in schools, but he has recently developed a project to counter climate disinformation with Facebook, jointly with other researchers.

He will be one of the contributors to the workshop “Using experiments to fight science disinformation online: an evidence-based guide” at the Future of Science Communication Conference organised by ALLEA and Wissenschaft im Dialog on 24-25 June. Ahead of this conference, he offers some tips and insights on how to combat misinformation in the science communication and education fields.

Question: “Cranky Uncle vs Climate Change” is the name of your book and the game you developed which brings together climate science and dealing with misinformation. Where does this name come from and what is your tip as a first step to dealing with a “cranky uncle” in our real personal lives?

John Cook: Psychological research finds that people who are dismissive of climate science are more likely to be male, older, white, and politically conservative. Cranky Uncle is the embodiment of that demographic type. And anecdotally, almost everyone has a family member, friend or colleague who captures that “cranky uncle” personality type. My first tip in dealing with your own cranky uncle is to recognise that the odds of actually changing their mind is very small, so don’t get frustrated if you don’t make much headway in your conversations. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage with them however. Often the beneficiaries of such conversations are not our cranky uncle but everyone else witnessing the exchange. That’s the purpose of the Cranky Uncle book and game – not necessarily changing our cranky uncle’s mind but inoculating everyone else against his misinformation.

“The purpose of the Cranky Uncle book and game is not necessarily changing our cranky uncle’s mind but inoculating everyone else against his misinformation”.

Q.: You wrote a paper on “which counters misinformation better: facts or logic?” concluding that logic outperformed facts in your study. How can we translate these findings for practitioners of science communication?

J.C.: The key thing that science communicators need to realise is facts are vulnerable to being cancelled out by misinformation. When people are confronted with conflicting pieces of information and they have no way of resolving the conflict, the risk is they disengage and don’t internalize our factual explanation. Our research found that if we explain the facts to people then they afterwards encounter misinformation casting doubt on the facts, the misinformation cancels out the facts. However, logic-based corrections that explain how the misinformation misleads is not vulnerable in the same way – the positive effect from logic-based corrections are not affected by misinformation. What I recommend is when we explain the facts, we also explain how misinformation can distort our facts. This is like wrapping bubble wrap around our facts to keep them safe as we send them out into a world filled with misinformation.

“If we explain the facts to people then they afterwards encounter misinformation casting doubt on the facts, the misinformation cancels out the facts.”

Q.: The Cranky Uncle game has found users all over the world, but can it be used equally effectively everywhere, or can cultural differences in communication and science communication influence how to handle misinformation?

J.C.: Currently the Cranky Uncle game is only available in English so obviously that does make it less relevant to the non-English speaking world. Even so, I was surprised to see the game being picked up in a number of European countries and hope to see that trend increase once the game is available in other languages. We are currently in the process of translating the game into German – our first test of the translation procedure. Once that process is worked out, we’ll begin translating into other languages (we’ve had volunteers approach us to translate the game into around a dozen languages and more volunteers are always welcome). There are some language difficulties in translating parts of the game from English. For example, we talk about the ambiguity fallacy, where words with double meanings can be exploited in order to mislead people. Unfortunately, words with double meanings vary across different languages so we’ve been exploring creative ways to tackle this issue. We’ve also discussed adding new cartoons for new languages. For example, a cartoon of Neal deGrasse Tyson features in the current game, as an example of a famous astrophysicist from the United States. We’re exploring incorporating the German equivalent of Neal deGrasse Tyson – an astrophysicist who is well-known in Germany.

Q.: For our Future of Science Communication Conference, we have also focused on battling science disinformation. Have you observed any trends in SciComm practice in recent years which have been particularly successful?

J.C.: The approach of using technology – particularly digital games – has exploded in recent years. Misinformation is nimble and adapts to new technologies and online platforms with disturbing rapidity. That means that science communicators need to be adaptive and innovative in our responses to misinformation. We’re dealing with a complex, ubiquitious problem which requires interdisciplinary solutions that can scale up to meet the huge challenge. Scientists need to be working with practitioners in other fields such as game and app development to develop technological solutions that can reach large proportions of the public. I am excited to see that this is already happening with a number of clever and engaging digital games springing up in response to the problem of misinformation.

“Misinformation is nimble and adapts to new technologies and online platforms with disturbing rapidity. That means that science communicators need to be adaptive and innovative in our responses to misinformation.”

Q.: You recently published a teachers’ guide for your game, and in the past you have authored textbooks for university students on climate change facts and denial. What have you learned from teachers who use your game in their classroom?

J.C.: It was enthusiasm from educators early in the game development that made me realize the classroom would likely be the venue where the game would make its biggest impact. Teachers are crying out for interactive resources that engage their students while strengthening their critical thinking skills. The other thing that struck me in my interaction with teachers has been their creativity in combining the Cranky Uncle game with classroom activities. One example is a delightful classroom assignment where students were assigned to write an email to their teacher, explaining using multiple logical fallacies why the teacher shouldn’t fail the student despite the fact that they hadn’t studied. This assignment is an elegant example of active inoculation, where students get inoculated against misleading fallacies by learning how to use the techniques of science denial. It is also an excellent opportunity for the students to practise humour and creativity, with some hilarious assignments!

“Teachers are crying out for interactive resources that engage their students while strengthening their critical thinking skills.”

Q.: Schools, universities, teachers seem to be natural partners to tackle science misinformation. In your experience, are they willing to join this “fight”? Is there enough understanding of the problem and/or resources to do this? 

J.C.: On the one hand, a number of schools and universities have eagerly embraced the opportunity to teach critical thinking and build resilience against misinformation. On the other hand, there are many more schools and teachers that are already so time-crunched, they struggle to fit extra content into their classes. It is important that more resources be developed that make it easier for teachers to incorporate these kinds of activities in their classes, while meeting their curriculum requirements. We also need to build awareness among educators of the powerful benefits of “misconception-based learning” (also known as agnotology-based learning) – teaching students by directly addressing misconceptions and misinformation. This doesn’t need to be seen as negative or combative – rather, it’s an opportunity to combine the teaching of facts with critical thinking (or from a psychological perspective, combining fact-based and logic-based communication). This type of education shows stronger learning gains which last longer than standard lessons – it’s a powerful form of education.

“We need to build awareness among educators of the powerful benefits of “misconception-based learning” (also known as agnotology-based learning) – teaching students by directly addressing misconceptions and misinformation.”

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.

 

Book release: “Women in European Academies — From Patronae Scientiarum to Path-Breakers”

ALLEA released the book “Women in European Academies — From Patronae Scientiarum to Path-Breakers” today. Published by De Gruyter, the volume examines the lives and achievements of women who played determining roles in the history of European academies and in the development of modern science in Europe.

These persevering personalities either had a key influence in the establishment of academies (“Patronae Scientiarum”) or were pioneering scientists who made major contributions to the progress of science (“path-breakers”). In both cases, their stories provide unique testimonies on the scientific institutions of their time and the systemic barriers female scientists were facing.

“While many of our academies were founded by women in position of political power such as Prussia’s Sophie Charlotte, Austria’s Maria Theresa, Russia’s Catherine the Great or Sweden’s Lovisa Ulrika, women’s role in professional science has suffered from a long discrimination which in the academic world was not less virulent than in other societal domains”, says ALLEA President and series editor Antonio Loprieno in the preface.

Conceptualized as a transversal series of thirteen biographical portraits, the contributions focus particularly on each personalities’ role in (or relation to) European academies, ensuring both a geographical and disciplinary balance.

The co-editors of the volume are Professor Ute Frevert (Co-Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development), Professor Ernst Osterkamp (President of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung) and Professor Günter Stock (former ALLEA President). In the foreword, they underline the myths that this book challenges:

One might easily get the impression (…) that behind the scientific and scholarly achievements of the exclusively male members of these academies membership was the sole preserve of men for several centuries there was in all these cases a patrona scientiarum: the hand of a woman, conceptually guiding the membership and their research programmes from on high. Yet are these not, in reality, mere founding myths formulated on the basis of the interests and wishes of our own time, and assigning to these queens and empresses a substantially greater interest in the academies and a higher share in their scientific programme than they ever in fact delivered?”.

The contributions are written in the native language of the authors and translated to English where necessary. The book is the third volume of the ALLEA book series Discourses on Intellectual Europe, which includes two additional volumes: “The Boundaries of Europe” and “The Role of Music in European Integration”, both in open access.

About the book

Authors: Eberhard Knobloch, Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, Eva Haettner Aurelius, Jan Kusber, Paolo Sommella, Pat Thane, Hanna Krajewska, Doris A. Corradini, Katja Geiger, Brigitte Mazohl, Ramon Pinyol, Patricia Faasse, Eoin Mac Cárthaigh, Minna Silver, Eleanor Dodson.

More information about how to acquire the book is available here.

The foreword is available here.

Media inquiries

Please contact Susana Irles, ALLEA Communications and Media Relations Officer at irles@allea.org.

Free copies for reviewers and media are available upon request.

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.”

 

Read more

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.