Dr Craig Cormick
Australian Science Communicators
A very big question for science communicators
So here’s a very big question for you: What are science communicators to do, to make a difference, in the face of the rapidly changing and complex environment that we operate in?
Here is a brief picture of the world we are now living in, with growing:
- mistrust in vaccinations and other mainstream medicines
- belief that science makes life more difficult for many
- trust in celebrities as sources of good information
- media black holes where people ignore mainstream media altogether
- fears of fake news
- hyping of science stories, over-promising results.
And at the same time we have falling:
- trust in public institutions
- trust in academia
- trust in science
- mainstream media consumption
- public funding for science and science communication.
All this in our post-truth, post-trust, post-expert world that is increasingly been polarised, driven by feelings over facts, with information being increasingly manipulated by corporations, media organisations and politicians!
Add to that huge fails in data security by leading social media platforms and government agencies – it is no wonder that trust is low.
According to the Edleman Trust Barometer, one of my favourite go-to places for current information on changing trust –the major trends for 2018 have been diminished trust in Governments, the media, businesses and NGOs. Trust in the media, for example, fell from 42% in 2016 to 31% in 2018.
Of interest, their survey, conducted world-wide, but which can be broken down by countries, divides respondents into a ‘general population’ response (85% of the population) and an ‘informed public’ – who represent the top 15% by education, income and media consumption.
In Australia there are strong differences between the general population, who have a very low trust in institutions and the informed public who have a middling level of trust.
Interestingly, the country with the highest trust amongst both the general population and the informed public was China, yet Hong Kong had quite low levels of trust. Read into that what you will.
The largest drop in trust across the world was in the USA, falling 9 points from 2017 to 2018 amongst the general population and a whopping 23 points amongst the informed public. No surprise to most people probably.
Yet there is some good news in there too. While trust in the media is low, trust in journalism is rising, having gone up five points in Australia. Trust in media platforms however has continued to drop.
However this should be understood in terms of at least 50% of the public surveyed not consuming news less than once a week, and when people described the media they felt it encompassed both platforms and content. That is. Media to most people is both social media and mainstream media and news apps and so on.
Having access to good data like this, regardless of how sobering, helps us do our jobs better. But when I read another set of data in Vox.com that surveyed scientists into what they felt the biggest problems were facing them today – many cited the poor communication of science. And then, when asked what might be done to address it, answers included:
- Scientists should spend more time learning how to communicate with the public.
- Improve the incentive structure for engaging the public.
- Disincentives for hyping stories and having credible checkers.
BUT there seemed to be no mention of science communicators as being part of the solution.
Which prompts me to turn to that very big question I asked up front: What are science communicators to do, to make a difference, in the face of the rapidly changing and complex environment that we operate in?
It is something we really need to discuss and grapple with if we really want to make some difference.
I hope to see many of you at the next National Conference in Sydney where will discuss this and other big issues for our profession.
And with that I’ll be signing off as President, after two years in the chair, and expect to hand over to a younger and dynamic President before the end of the year.
The ASC is a great organisation and I have been proud to have been a part of its ongoing journey.
+ + +