According to the European Federation of Academies of Science ALLEA, a coordinated European network for science communication is needed to combat the deliberate dissemination of false information. A European code of conduct to govern the network is also proposed.
As the ongoing pandemic shows, undermining trust in science poses a fundamental threat to political and individual decisions based on evidence and scientific knowledge, the ALLEA report said. “The science race against Covid-19 wasn’t just looking for a vaccine,” says ALLEA President Antonio Loprieno. ‘Another major risk has mobilized researchers: the disinformation of science. To recognize these problems in our societies, we need an institutionalized and coordinated strategy to get researchers, communicators and political decision-makers to act as early as possible. ‘
The report analyzes the impact of scientific disinformation on climate change, vaccine reluctance and pandemics, and recommends various counter-strategies, including fact-checking, awareness-raising and media literacy. It also calls for a greater focus on communicating with the public about how science works, taking greater account of the virtue of intellectual humility in communicating scientific knowledge and more transparent, tailored scientific advisory mechanisms.
In order to implement these proposals, the authors propose a central Europe-wide mechanism or institution to coordinate existing initiatives. It would also develop guidelines and recommendations for science communication “inclusive”.
“It is becoming clear that misinformation is not just a ‘nuisance’ – it can influence decision-makers, and that is a major concern,” says Adam Hart, professor of science communication at the University of Gloucestershire. “It can also influence public opinion, which is another problem at a time of populist politics.”
Recognizing disinformation and setting the agenda of those who spread it, however, can be difficult, he adds. It is also difficult to get scientists into the media and weight their opinions. “In my work in conservation science, I see that all the time. Scientists stand on the side while celebrities are treated as knowledge brokers. It can also be very difficult for scientists to be heard on social media in the hurricane. Credibility is one thing, but reach and influence are quite another and we need to work on that. ‘
Hart believes the report does a valuable job of bringing together many of the ideas and thoughts of science communicators. “This will make people think more clearly about how to deal with misinformation, but it will also give us more clarity about our own responsibilities in this area. It is very easy to criticize others for misinforming the public, but we as scientists have to make very sure that what we bring into the wide world is as accurate as possible. ‘
However, Hart believes that a centralized European organization will not work. “One of the great features of science communication is the organic way in which it thrives and the wide variety of individuals and groups involved. Trying to centralize this and impose “codes of conduct” will produce some impressive reports, but I very much doubt that this will do much on the ground if it cannot really assist those who communicate science in practice. “
However, Alexander Gerber, professor of science communication at Rhein-Waal University, says an EU-wide science communication initiative is overdue. However, it should have an impact on how “research funders stimulate and evaluate communication and how research organizations implement public engagement and open science strategies”. It must also extend beyond Europe, for example to the USA.
Despite the obvious importance of building trust in science, the report’s recommendations focus too much on the “supply side” of disinformation, adds Gerber. That said, we focus on fact-checking and debunking, accuracy, and counter-narratives. “Demand-side” solutions such as “inoculation theory”, which allow us to pre-bunker information behavior rather than attempting to de-bunker the system later, deserve more than a footnote. They should guide our response to the challenges of disinformation. ‘