Measures to mitigate myths

How science communicators and public can avoid perpetuating dogmas
13 September 2022

Interview with 

Claudia Schneider, University of Cambridge


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We’ve heard about the damage dogmas can do to how science is conducted. So how can we deal with them? Well, the best way is to be able to nip them in the bud early. Claudia Schneider works at the University of Cambridge’s Winton Centre; she’s interested in how best to communicate science to the public. This, it’s argued, can help people to recognise dogma and misinformation before it becomes embedded in our thinking and retards progress…

Chris - Claudia, what's your perception of how people judge science, or what's their perception of science and how it's practised at the moment?

Claudia - So I think science has definitely come into the spotlight in the recent years during the pandemic, we've seen a lot of signs in the press briefings, graphs and data being shown. And that's good because it shows that scientific insights are being used to help make decisions. But I think having science in that spotlight and the media might have also contributed to a public feeling or almost expectation that science can provide us with answers, that it can sort of tell us what to do. We've heard this mantra of "follow the science" and it's really tricky because science comes with a lot of uncertainties: in the data we use and modelling the statistics and the insights that we have and what we know constantly changes. So I think it's very important also for the public to know what science can do and what it cannot do and what it can't tell us.

Chris - I mean, personally, as someone who is involved in science radio programmes and therefore the communication of science, one of the things I think is a big challenge is that life and the way that we tend to operate as human societies, it's very guideline and law driven. We tend to make people think or plan in black and white and science is completely not like that in the sense that science is all about hypotheses and narrowing the gap in our understanding. But nothing's certain, nothing's a fact, although I know notwithstanding what Ian said about tranexamic acid just now, but my view is that people find it hard to understand what scientists are talking about when they talk about uncertainty. That's the difficulty

Claudia - Absolutely. Communicating in a way that is clear and helps to inform the public, not trying to persuade them to believe a certain thing, that is really the key here. And that's actually one of the good evidence communication principles that we've put together at the Winton Centre to try to inform, not persuade. That goes together with, when we communicate: offering balance. So talking about the harms and the benefits to help people understand disclosing uncertainties. Saying, "what is it that we don't know" that also acknowledges that what we know will change over time stating the evidence quality. So telling people, "what is that information that I'm giving you? What is it based on? What is that evidence? Is it reliable? Is it trustworthy and helping to preempt misunderstanding?" So I think if we adopt these communication strategies, be it in the media, in our personal life or in government that might be able to help people to understand the scientific process better and to spot potential misinformation.

Chris - I first came across those five guiding principles that you just summarised there during the COVID pandemic. And I was very impressed by them because they nailed it. But I was left thinking, well, why did no one say this to us before?

Claudia - I think, and these have also been voices raised in the literature and in the field, that there's this fear that if we tell people all the things that we don't know and all the uncertainties, maybe that will undermine public trust, they're like, "well, what do these scientists even know?" And that's a relevant question and a valid one. And we've actually, in some of our studies, empirically researched this by running studies where we looked at does it happen or not? And in studies where we compared the more balanced evidence communication with more one-sided persuasive approaches, we've seen that it does not seem to undermine trust. And people actually appreciated being presented openly and honestly with the kind of evidence and. They were more willing to listen to them.

Chris - So there was a dogma among scientists and science communicators that the public wouldn't welcome risk and a perception or communication of risk. And you've broken that dogma down by saying actually they do.

Claudia - Generally, as humans from psychology research, we know that we do like certainty and uncertainty and ambiguity is hard to deal with, but it is important to not let that stop us from communicating it because telling a simple story and a neat narrative that over-claims and presents things with unwarranted certainty - that can come back to haunt us. If things change, it can erode credibility in a communicator, it can erode trust. And on the other hand, if we really treat people as able decision makers, able to handle uncertainty, then we allow them to also get more comfortable with the uncertainty down the line and be able to spot when someone approaches us telling us, "this is what you should do." And then they might ask, hang on a minute, what's the evidence base. And that's good because that way they can participate in the scientific discourse.

Chris - What would be your advice then to people who want to defend themselves? I use the phrase mentally immunise themselves against dogma or falling for dogmatic communication. How should people make sure that they're, they're better prepared not to just absorb a fact and regurgitate it. What sorts of questions should people be asking when they're confronted by something that someone says is a fact?

Claudia - Yeah. It might be helpful to come back to the five principles, which are relevant both on the side of the communicators - so we think, if I communicate something, have I made sure that I disclose what the kind of evidence is that I also talk about what I don't know - but then also at the receiving end that when we read something on social media, when someone tells us something that we really ask these kind of questions, right? Like is this more persuasive or do they offer a balance? Do they talk about the pros and the cons? Are they trying to inform me, are they talking about the possible uncertainties or where the evidence came from, and that then allows people to ask questions and to judge the quality of that particular information, that particular communication that someone is trying hard for them to believe.

Chris - It looks like, as one former Conservative cabinet minister who was a science minister said to me, this is the time when the public have got more trust in science than probably they've ever had. And probably COVID has done that. It strikes me that scientists and science journalism is in a very strong place at the moment. People are looking to science for the direction of travel. How do we make sure we don't go in the wrong direction from here?

Claudia - I think the key here is for communicators to demonstrate trustworthiness, to make sure that we communicate in a way that we are worthy of people's trust, which goes back to this idea that we should be honest and open, say what we know, but also say what we don't know, because sometimes it is just not a simple story. And then don't stop there, but also say, "well, this is what we're doing to find out" and making clear that our insights, our advice can change and that is actually okay, because that is what should happen in the scientific process. And that we don't need to hold on to dogmas that we have believed for a long time.

Chris - Claudia, thank you very much, indeed, for putting it so clearly. Claudia Schneider, who's from the Winton Centre at the University of Cambridge.


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