Credibility, expertise and the challenges of science communication 2.0

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M. Bucchi, Credibility, expertise and the challenges of science communication 2.0, «Public Understanding of Science», 2017, 26 (8), pp. 890-893.

Recently, wide-ranging discussions about so-called ‘post-truth’ have also significantly involved science-related topics and science communication.

The issue of credibility and reliability of information is obviously central for science communication and public understanding of science. However, some themes deserve more attention in this context.

We live in a communication environment that is radically different from the past, and nevertheless, we paradoxically continue to invoke traditional forms of certifying the trustworthiness of information. In the age of ‘science communication 1.0’, if we wish to call it that, the reputation of the source or journal brand was enough to reassure us (for good or for ill) of the credibility of content. ‘I read it in the newspaper; it was on TV news’ were expressions often used to close a discussion. Nowadays, such guarantees seem no longer viable. The Internet hosts a deluge of citations dubiously attributed to famous thinkers and scientists in an attempt to cling to their authority and prestige. Some time ago, the magazine New Scientist collected a long series of quotes attributed to Einstein (including one highly widespread on the disappearance of bees) never actually said or written by the famous physicist. ‘A scientist said it’ is increasingly and confusingly used as a synonym for ‘scientific’.

The quality of information has a cost – in science communication as in other domains – and we cannot expect such quality from social media networks whose core business is not about informing or publishing and, furthermore, when people are not willing to spend a few euros/dollars to read a newspaper or magazine. To make an analogy with gastronomy, it is like, accustomed to stuffing ourselves at a cheap, all-inclusive buffet, we would suddenly expect to find there haute cuisine delicacies. Even if such delicacies were there, it is doubtful that we would be able to distinguish them from the rest.

Mystification for propaganda, also involving well-established scientists, is certainly not a novelty introduced by the Internet. In 1914, some of the greatest German scientists of the time, including seven Nobel laureates, signed and disseminated the so-called ‘Manifesto of 93’. The manifesto denied a series of facts (including the invasion of Belgium by Germany!) for the sole purpose of supporting their own Nation’s stance.

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