This blog is based on a presentation “Trends in Science Communication and the role of the Covid-19 pandemic,” given on 2 February, 2021.

Trust in science and the way we communicate scientific results has come under intense scrutiny during the coronavirus pandemic. Today I want to share some findings from the Research Council of Norway on the levels of trust in science, together with the communication approach taken by me and my team in a Norwegian research institute.

Trust in science: The statistics

Caption: The statistics provided by the Research Council of Norway show the numbers of people with high trust (light blue) and quite big trust (grey) in science. The dark blue line shows these figures combined. The data shows that in November last year, 89% of Norwegians had either a lot of trust or quite a lot of trust in science. It is maybe no surprise, but trust has risen quite a bit in recent months, and it may be that all the coverage of coronavirus vaccine research has had a positive effect. Other European countries have seen a similar growth in confidence.

 

Caption: The statistics provided by the Research Council of Norway show the numbers of people with high or quite a lot of trust (grey), low or quite low trust (yellow), and no opinion (green). Scientists themselves also enjoy a high confidence in the work they do in the fight against the coronavirus. 87% of those surveyed expressed confidence in the work that researchers do, the highest since the question was first asked in April 2020.

 

 

Debate and criticism of science is important

These are good figures for science in Norway, but of course it is equally important that people have a healthy critical perspective and do not blindly trust science. Debate and criticism is an important part of the scientific method. The meeting between science and society is dependent on a critical discourse. For science communication specialists, we shouldn’t forget we are working with communication gold. As the statistics show, scientists have a built-in credibility and trust to the vast majority.

 

 

Three challenges for science communication

There are lot of issues and challenges in front of us that makes this job interesting. I see three big challenges relevant to the coronavirus situation we are in now, but they are also relevant to science communication in general:

  1. Specialist journalists are becoming scarce and have less time for quality-journalism. They are less gatekeepers and more curators. This issue has been raised by professor Mike Shaefer and James Painter in this article.
  2. Fake news and conspiracy theories
  3. How to best communicate ambiguit

Working with journalists

The need to build relationships with journalists is obvious. Instead of dwelling on that, I will share three other techniques I use to try and deal with the issue of the scarce journalist:

  1. Help the journalist understand that there is a difference between an expert specialist and an expert generalist. Being a professor does not make you an expert on everything. In Norway there has been recent criticism towards reputable news sources for providing experts on general medicine when they really should have asked a virus expert. For me, I try not to oversell our scientists, and I always try to consider context. Clicks, engagement and visibility are great, but we have a responsibility to inform and educate the public as well.
  2. My next tip is to try to make yourself excessive. Communication experts are often proud of the journalists they have on speed dial. But sometimes I believe we are so hung up on “owning the narrative” that we try to control the story too much and consequently the story becomes less relevant and interesting. Trust the scientists and the journalists to do their job, it is more efficient and democratic. My team and I do train scientists to become better communicators, but usually we do not spend lots of time preparing them for each story or interview.
  3. Provide source material (e.g. peer-reviewed articles) where possible. At SINTEF, we always try to publish a science blog based on the original articles to improve visibility online. This is good training for the scientist and helps journalists to find story ideas. It also provides transparency which is relevant to my next challenge.https://blog.sintef.com/

The challenge of conspiracy theories

What do you see in this picture? I guess most of us will see a leaf and a mouth. Our minds have a tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things, this is called apophenia. But connecting the dots is not always a good thing. Apophenia is an effective way of spreading conspiracy theories in organisations such as QAnon. QAnoners are asked to do their own “research” and make their own conclusions. But when they do “research” on google, they are only exposed to results that confirm their biases. I strongly recommend reading this article about how a game designer has some interesting theories on how QAnon is a game that plays people through guided apophenia.

 

What can we do about that?

Firstly, it’s important to “claim your niche” online. Make sure you have SEO-experts on your team. When someone googles your area of expertise, make sure they find your peer-reviewed science and not some random person who has their education from the “YouTube university”. To put it bluntly: If you are a true expert withing your field, you owe it to the world to share your knowledge online.

Remember to target your communication. Yes, we have an obligation to share results to a wide audience, but if you want to get a specific message across it might be just as relevant and more efficient to communicate directly with industry experts or politicians.

Finally, a bigger picture issue. I have young children and they learn about critical thinking and checking sources in school. That is great! But maybe they should learn more about the inherent weaknesses of the human mind, including phenomena such as apophenia. Being humble enough to question your own conclusions as potentially flawed should be appreciated and taught. We tell people to “trust your instinct” but we should teach children about why scientific methods are more reliable than gut instinct – or watching YouTube.

Communicating ambiguity

The last issue that has become particularly relevant during the pandemic is how we communicate ambiguity. Science at its core is very much about debate and criticism to drive the research front forward, so scientists rarely give a 100% bulletproof answer.

I studied communication; and I was told that to communicate efficiently you need to have a uniform message. This is good advice in most circumstances but not always with science and the coronavirus.

Politicians and coronavirus experts in Norway have been open about the fact that the situation will likely change, and suggested different scenarios that can play out in society, so we can learn to anticipate different outcomes.

I think that in Norway we have been exposed to efficient expectation management as well as communication. Even though the message has not been 100% uniform, the overarching message has been clear: wash your hands, keep your distance and be patient.

Big but manageable task

The pandemic has changed so much about our lives. It has reminded us how fragile we are, but also that if we come together, we can find a solution faster.

In many ways the pandemic has been similar to the climate crisis. It demands a global response, so we as science communicators have an important role in making sure that message is delivered.

If the trend in trusting science continues, I think that we have a big, but manageable task in front of us.

 

Author: Anne Steenstrup-Duch

I am as the communication director at SINTEF Energy Research. SINTEF is one of Europe’s largest independent research institutes, and we work within natural sciences, medicine, and the social sciences.  SINTEF Energy works with sustainable energy solutions and climate mitigation technology. I have also worked before with medical science communication at the Faculty of Medicine, NTNU.

The SINTEF Energy communication team won the CHARGE Energy Award for Best Organisation Brand 2020.