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Public attitudes toward new technologies: Our post-truth, post-trust, post-expert world demands a deeper understanding of the factors that drive public attitudes

Introduction
Are public attitudes to new technologies driven more by our hearts or our heads? We’d like to think they are driven by our heads and that we all make decisions based on the scientific research and the data.

If only!!

There is a telling scene in the recent docudrama Brexit, starting Benedict Cumberbatch, in which the two opposing sides outline their key strategies, with the anti-Brexit camp going for the public’s heads, while the pro-Brexit camp openly goes for their hearts. I don’t need to remind everyone who won that campaign.But it is worth reminding people that the pro-Brexit campaign knew that people tend to make emotion-based decisions and then look for the facts that will support that. It is the same with many new technologies, be it gene technologies, synthetic biology, or artificial intelligence.

We have learned an awful lot about the way people react to new technologies over the past decade, as well as the impact of contested data and misinformation (aka Fake News).What do we know about public attitudes to new technologies?Of significant interest, different surveys can give very different results depending on how different questions are framed, what is happening in the world at that time, and which population set the questions are being asked of.

The Eurobarometer1 is a good indicator of the variety of responses to questions on new technologies that exist across different European countries at different times.Looking at the variety of data that has been obtained from just one country—Australia—it is instructive what different surveys show. For starters, the Australian Government’s leading research institution Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) undertook a survey in 2014 that found 17% of the popu-lation were very interested in science and 40% were quite interested in it. A combined figure of about 40% was also quite uninterested in science2, as is shown in Figure 1.

However, another study, carried out by the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University in 2017, asked the question differently and found that more people said they were very interested in scientific discoveries (60%) than said they were very interested in music (38%), films (30%), or sports news (19%).3A third study by the Australian Department of Industry, conducted in 2013, came up with a figure of about 80% believing that science was so important to our lives that we should all take an interest in it.4 And, a fourth study conducted by Swinburne University in Melbourne5 found that the statement science and technology are continuously improv-ing our quality of life received a rating of 7.24 out of 10.Looking more broadly, we can find studies in the United States that show support for science and technologies is anywhere between 59%6 and 87%.7 And, UK data have shown that the figures can vary between 55%8 and 81%.9So, clearly, different polls will give different answers—based on such things as how the questions are asked, when, and even what questions are asked around them.

But to be honest, any public attitude survey that states boldly that public attitudes to say nanotechnologies are 45.7% or 62.5% in favor or against is doing you Cormick 3a disservice. All such surveys should be considered indicative rather than defini-tive—the same way if you took a temperature and wind reading at a particular moment on one day, it is not representative of the variety in readings you would get for the whole day.And such polling, while great for simple headlines, can too easily become a distrac-tion—because such broad overviews also don’t really capture the differences that can exist in gender, age groups, education, demographics—and more importantly psycho-graphics (the different ways that different people think). Toward that it has become more relevant to find “Why” people think what they do about science and technology than to find “What” they think.Traditionally, if asked how people’s attitudes to new technologies are driven by, a good response would cover a few key points:

••First, you should know that we can divide people into different segments, such as those who are interested and excited about new technologies, those who are more concerned about them, and those who do not really care.2,10

••Then, you should know that people rarely judge new technologies on the technol-ogy itself and are more likely to judge them based on how well they align with their worldview or values. So, somebody who has a strong belief in “natural val-ues” will more likely reject genetically manipulated (GM) foods, but accept the science behind climate change. And, somebody whose values are more “pro-development” will more likely accept the science behind GM foods, but most likely reject that of climate change.11Attitudes can be driven by valuesPut simply, people’s attitudes to complex new technologies are often based on how well the technology aligns with their values, rather than what the technology does and does not do. Dan Kahan of Yale, who has undertaken significant work on how values affect attitudes, has said that the issue of climate change, for instance, is not about what you know, rather it is about who you are.12Value-based studies have shown the following:

••Between four and six different segments of the population have been mapped for GM foods,13 climate change,14,15 and science and technology,16,17 based on peo-ple’s attitudes and values.

••Broad attitudes toward science and technology and nature can influence consum-ers’ attitudes toward particular applications of science or technology.18

••Pro-science and technology values are a strong predictor of support for even con-tentious science or technology such as GM food.19

••When information is complex, people tend to make emotion-based judgments, driven by values, rather than by the information presented to them.20

••Messages that do not align with people’s values tend to be rejected or dismissed by them.

So, based on all that, new technologies need to be framed in terms of how well they address people’s concerns about them—be it equity of access, or inadvertent impacts, or health and safety, or all of the above. That should not be too hard to achieve for technology developers, surely.Because there is a new paradigm in town!

The new paradigm

We can summarize the new paradigm as the post-truth, post-trust, post-expert world that we now all live in—where notions of truth, trust, and expertise are commonly contested with varying beliefs in what is “truth,” who can be trusted, and who is a credible expert, based more on who we want to believe.And, this is why it is important to understand how the Brexit vote played out.

Not What was decided, but Why it was decided. As in the Brexit vote, the new paradigm says that how you feel about something is more important than what somebody else knows about it. You can be your own expert on issues related to science and technology because your gut feelings are enough evidence to you—be that feelings of concern, overwhelm-ing endorsement, or dread.Yes, you can go and cherry-pick data to support your feelings if you really wish to have them confirmed—and cherry picking of data has been found to be one of the most common statistical fallacies in public debates22—but just finding an online community with the same feelings can be more than enough to provide confirmation. And, whether it is anti-vaccination, anti-stem cell research, pro-human cloning, or pro-artificial intel-ligence—you will find a like-minded community out there.Living only within our tribesNot everybody is going to think the same way, of course, and the advice about the public being segmented into different ways of thinking still holds13—but it is now possible to live only within the influence of a like-minded segment (or “tribe”), with almost no inter-action with other segments who hold alternative points of view. Different segments ‘tribes’ are shown in Table 1 and Figures 2 and 3.

This tribal-mindedness undermines sometimes the “wisdom of crowds”23 and is actively supported by online algorithms that favor certain ideas and articles over others.For buying books on Amazon, that type of algorithm is very helpful, as it recommends to you books similar to ones that you have browsed or purchased. But for contentious issues, it is not so helpful recommending sites and publications in online searchers that are similar to ones you have already browsed—increasingly giving you one perspective and excluding other alternative views.24This is a problem for technology developers as much as it is for those who are con-cerned about new technologies. It allows those who live in a science bubble to feel that everyone is going to love their new technology as much as they and their colleagues and friends love it (what’s not to love about nanotechnology, right?).

And, it allows those with concerns about new technologies to feel that everyone is also concerned about it, Cormick 5and perhaps, therefore, some sort of action needs to be taken (which is why everyone is scared about nanotechnology, right?)Again, feelings trump knowledgeAnd, in an age when personal feelings are worth at least as much, if not more, than expert opinion, that can promote huge societal discords on science and technology issues. Evidence of the gaps that exist on science-based issues were highlighted in a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Fact Tank Research Center, which found that while 88% of scien-tists felt it was safe to eat GM foods, only 37% of the public agreed.

A 51 point gap!!

Or, while 98% of scientists polled believed that humans had evolved over time, only 65% of the public agreed25, as is shown in Figure 4.There is also a discord between the concept of majority voice versus passionate voice, with quiet expert voices often being given less accord than vocal and concerned voices—despite their relative numbers. It is almost as if there is a secret algorithm that gives a higher weighting to emotion over reason. Or, fears over facts. “How concerned people are” seems to be a bigger question for policy makers and financial backers than “how many are concerned.” Think of outcries about culling of wild horses or badgers,26,27 or thinning out native forests by planned burning,28 or even the amending of urban planning laws29—not based on science or data, nor even on the majority of the public’s wishes—but rather on “public outcry.”This is important to know tooFor these are the very areas where debates around new technologies are often being played out.

Climate change is too often emotion versus reason. Infant vaccination is too often fears versus facts.So, how is this all going to play out for new technologies like synthetic biology? Well, it could go either way, depending on how the public debate is framed. Will it be all about public benefit or public risk?And let’s be clear here, very few new technologies are not contested by someone who is going to lose out as a result of the disruption of their old business, meaning that there will always be someone willing to frame the new technology as bad for individuals, society, or the environment.Accepting the new paradigm and working with it

The challenge for those who develop new technologies is to accept the new paradigm in town and also frame their arguments in terms of people’s feelings, and not be like the losing side of the Brexit campaign, insisting that if only people understood the facts they would be more supportive.An important thing to know is that attitudes that were not formed by logic and facts, cannot easily be influenced by logic and facts.26

For technology developers, this means understanding what existing values different people have, and being able to frame messages around the new technology that resonates with those values. It also means being able to help people feel that the benefits of a tech-nology outweigh the risks, not just demonstrating it with data.Of course, there are some technologies that might be very beneficial for us that are going to fail because of public concerns—but that is a part of the new paradigm too. In the era of citizen-generated content and Web 3.0, the public will demand more and more to be a partner in the development of new ideas and how they apply.

Good public consul-tation will achieve much of this, but the public will also have the right to make decisions that ultimately disagree with the science and evidence

Value segments

Characteristic

A: Fan Boys and Fan Girls (23%)This group was very enthusiastic about science and technology. Science is a big part of their lives and they think everyone should take an interest in it. They also strongly felt that new technologies excite them more than they concern then and that the benefits of science are greater than any harmful effects. However, there was disagreement that science and technology creates more problems than it solves and that we depend too much on science and not enough on faith.

B: The Cautiously Keen (28%)Segment B were interested in science and technology, but were a little wary of it. They tended to believe that the benefits of science must be greater than any harmful effects, and they had the highest agreement that children should be protected from all risks.

C: The Risk Adverse (23%)This segment tended to be less positive toward the benefits of science and technology. They were also more concerned with risks. But in contrast to Segment D, they had relatively high awareness of science. They were least likely to agree that human activities have a significant impact on the planet and least likely to agree that not vaccinating children puts others at risk.

D: The Concerned and Disengaged (20%)Segment D was the least enthusiastic about the benefits of science and technology. They had the highest agreement that the pace of technological change is too fast to keep up with and were the most likely to agree that science and technology creates more problems than it solves. They also were most likely to agree that scientific advances tend to benefit the rich more than the poor, and that we rely too much on science and not enough on faith.Cormick 9 2. Cormick C. C

Craig Cormick is the past president of the Australian Science Communicators and has undertaken research on the drivers of public attitudes for over two decades with organizations such as the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). He is author of the book The Science of Communicating Science that will be published late in 2019.
(10) (PDF) Public attitudes toward new technologies: Our post-truth, post-trust, post-expert world demands a deeper understanding of the factors that drive public attitudes. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333317187_Public_attitudes_toward_new_technologies_Our_post-truth_post-trust_post-expert_world_demands_a_deeper_understanding_of_the_factors_that_drive_public_attitudes [accessed Nov 30 2019].

the pro-Brexit camp openly goes for their hearts. I don’t need to remind everyone who won that campaign.

But it is worth reminding people that the pro-Brexit campaign knew that people tend to make emotionally-based decisions and then look for the facts that will support that. It is the same with many new technologies, be it gene technologies, synthetic biology or artificial intelligence.

We have learned an awful lot about the way people react to new technologies over the past decade, as well as the impacts of contested data and misinformation (aka Fake News).

What do we know about public attitudes to new technologies?

Of significant interest, different surveys can give very different results depending on how different questions are framed, what is happening in the world at that time and which population set the questions are being asked of. The Eurobarometer1 is a good indicator of the variety of responses to questions on new technologies that exist across different European countries at different times.

Looking at the variety of data that has been obtained from just one country – Australia – it is instructive what different surveys show. For starters, the Australian Government’s leading research institution CSIRO, undertook a survey in 2014 that found 17% of the population were very interested in science, and 40% were quite interested in it. A combined figure of about 40% were also quite uninterested in science2.

However, another study, carried out by the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University in 2017, asked the question differently and found that more people said they were very interested in scientific discoveries (60%) than said they were very interested in music (38%), films (30%) or sports news (19%)3.

A third study by the Australian Department of Industry, conducted in 2013, came up with a figure of about 80% believing that science was so important to our lives that we should all take an interest in it4. And, a fourth study conducted by Swinburne University in Melbourne found that the statement Science and Technology are continuously improving our quality of life and received a rating of 7.24 out of 105 .

Looking more broadly, we can find studies in the USA that show support for science and technologies is

anywhere between 59%6 and 87%7.  And UK data has shown that the figures can vary between 55%8 and 81%9.

So clearly different polls will give different answers – based on such things as how the questions are asked, when, and even what questions are asked around them. But to be honest, any public attitude survey that states boldly that public attitudes to say Nanotechnologies are 45.7% or 62.5% in favour or against is doing you a disservice. All such surveys should be considered indicative rather than definitive –

3

the same way if you took a temperature and wind reading at a particular moment on one day, it is not representative of the variety in readings you would get for the whole day.

And such polling, while great for simple headlines, can too easily become a distraction – because such broad overviews also don’t really capture the differences that can exist in gender, age groups, education, demographics – and more importantly psychographics (the different ways that different people think). Towards that it has become more relevant to find Why people think what they do about science and technology than to find What they think.

Traditionally, if asked how people’s attitudes to new technologies are driven by, a good response would cover a few key points:

  • Firstly, you should know that we can divide people into different segments, such as those who are interested and excited about new technologies, those who are more concerned about them, those who do not really care, and so on10 11.
  • Then, you should know that people rarely judge new technologies on the technology itself – and are more likely to judge them based on how well they align with their worldview or values. So somebody who has a strong belief in ‘natural values’ will more likely reject genetically manipulated (GM) foods but accept the science behind climate change. And somebody whose values are more ‘pro-development’ will more likely accept the science behind GM foods but most likely reject that of climate change12.

Attitudes can be driven by values

Put simply, people’s attitudes to complex new technologies are often based on how well the technology aligns with their values, rather than what the technology does and does not do. Dan Kahan of Yale, who has undertaken significant work on how values affect attitudes has said that the issue of climate change, for instance, is not about what you know, rather it is about who you are13.

Values-based studies have shown that:

  • Between four and six different segments of the population have been mapped for GM foods,14

climate change15, 16 and science and technology17, 18, based on people’s attitudes and values,.

  • Broad attitudes towards science and technology and nature can influence consumers’ attitudes towards particular applications of science or technology19.
  • Pro-science and technology values are a strong predictor of support for even contentious science or technology such as GM food20.
  • When information is complex, people tend to make emotionally-based judgments, driven by values, rather than by the information presented to them21.
  • Messages that do not align with people’s values tend to be rejected or dismissed by them22.

4

So based on all that, new technologies need to be framed in terms of how well they address people’s concerns about them – be it equity of access, or inadvertent impacts, or health and safety, or all of the above. That should not be too hard to achieve for technology developers, surely.

Because there is a new paradigm in town!

The new paradigm

We can summarise the new paradigm as the post-truth, post-trust, post-expert world that we now all live in – where notions of truth, trust and expertise are commonly contested with varying beliefs in what is truth, who can be trusted and who is a credible expert, based more on who we want to believe.

And this is why it is important to understand how the Brexit vote played out. Not What was decided, but Why it was decided. As in the Brexit vote, the new paradigm says that how you feel about something is more important than what somebody else knows about it. You can be your own expert on issues related to science and technology because your gut feelings are enough evidence to you – be that feelings of concern, overwhelming endorsement or dread.

Yes, you can go and cherry-pick data to support your feelings if you really wish to have them confirmed

– and cherry picking of data has been found to be one of the most common statistical fallacies in public debates23 – but just finding an online community with the same feelings can be more than enough to provide confirmation. And whether it is anti-vaccination, anti-stem cell research, pro-human cloning or pro-artificial intelligence – you will find a like-minded community out there.

Living only within our tribes

Not everybody is going to think the same way, of course, and the advice about the public being segmented into different ways of thinking still holds24 – but it is now possible to live only within the influence of a like-minded segment (or ‘tribe’), with almost no interaction with other segments who hold alternative points of view. This tribal-mindedness undermines the sometimes ‘wisdom of crowds’25, and is actively supported by online algorithms that favour certain ideas and articles over others.

For buying books on Amazon that type of algorithm is very helpful, as it recommends to you books similar to ones that you have browsed or purchased. But for contentious issues it is not so helpful,

recommending sites and publications in online searchers that are similar to ones you have already browsed – increasingly giving you one perspective and excluding alternative perspectives26.

5

This is a problem for technology developers as much as it is for those who are concerned about new technologies. It allows those who live in a science bubble to feel that everyone is going to love their new technology as much as they and their colleagues and friends love it (what’s not to love about nanotechnology, right?). And, it allows those with concerns about new technologies to feel that everyone is also concerned about it, and perhaps therefore some sort of action needs to be taken (which is why everyone is scared about nanotechnology, right?)

Again, feelings trump knowledge.

And in an age when personal feelings are worth at least as much, if not more, than expert opinion, that can promote huge societal discords on science and technology issues. Evidence of the gaps that exist on science-based issues were highlighted in a 2015 study conducted by the PEW fact tank research centre, that found that while 88% of scientists felt it was safe to eat GM foods, only 37% of the public agreed. A 51 point gap! Or while 98% of scientists polled believed that humans had evolved over time, only 65% of the public agreed27.

There is also a discord between the concept of majority voice versus passionate voice, with quiet expert voices often being given less accord than vocal and concerned voices – despite their relative numbers. It is almost as if there is a secret algorithm that gives a higher weighting to emotion over reason. Or, fears over facts. “How concerned people are” seems to be a bigger question for policy makers and financial backers than “how many are concerned“. Think of outcries about culling of wild horses or badgers28 29, or thinning out native forests by planned burning30, or even the amending of urban planning laws31 – not based on science or data, nor even on the majority of the public’s wishes – but rather on ‘public outcry’.

This is important to know too.

For these are the very areas where debates around new technologies are often being played out.

Climate change is too often emotion versus reason. Infant vaccination is too often fears versus facts.

So how is this all going to play out for new technologies like synthetic biology? Well, it could go either way, depending on how the public debate is framed. Will it be all about public benefit or public risk?

And let’s be clear here, very few new technologies are not contested by someone who is going to lose out as a result of the disruption of their old business, meaning there will always be someone willing to frame the new technology as bad for individuals, society or the environment.

Accepting the new paradigm and working with it

The challenge for those who develop new technologies is to accept the new paradigm in town and also frame their arguments in terms of people’s feelings, and not be like the losing side of the Brexit campaign, insisting that if only people understood the facts they would be more supportive.

6

An important thing to know is that attitudes that were not formed by logic and facts, cannot easily be influenced by logic and facts32.

For technology developers this means understanding what existing values different people have, and being able to frame messages around the new technology that resonates with those values. It also means being able to help people feel that the benefits of a technology outweigh the risks, not just demonstrating it with data.

Of course, there are some technologies that might be very beneficial for us that are going to fail because of public concerns – but that is a part of the new paradigm too. In the era of citizen-generated content and Web 3.0, the public will demand more and more to be a partner in the development of new ideas and how they apply. Good public consultation will achieve much of this, but the public will also have the right to make decisions that ultimately disagree with the science and evidence.

Self-driving cars? Brain chips? Genome editing of babies? Robot caregivers33?

In all likelihood, it will be the quality of the public debate that has a bigger impact on whether the technologies are adopted or not than the quality of the research and development.

References:

1 European Commission, Standard Eurobarometer 90. Eurobarometer Surveys. European Commission, 2018.

2 Cormick C. Community Attitudes Towards Science and Technology in Australia, CSIRO, 2014.

3 Lamberts R. The Australian Beliefs and Attitudes Towards Science Survey, the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, 2017.

7

  • Community Attitudes Towards Emerging Technology Issues, Ipsos Social Research Institute, Department of Innovation, Canberra, 2013.
  • The Swinburne National Technology and Society Monitor, Faculty of Life & Social Sciences, Swinburne University of Technology, 2012.
  • Kennedy B and Funk C.  Public Interest in Science and Health linked to Gender and Personality, Pew Research Center, 2015.
  • National Science Foundation. Science and Engineering Indicators, National Science Board. 2016/
  • National Forum for Public Engagement with STEM. Trends in attitudes to science and public engagement with Science, Briefing Paper, Extract from National Forum Response to Science Communication Enquiry 2017.
  • Castell S, Charlton A, Clemence M, Pettigrew N, Pope S, Quigley A, Shah JN and Silman, T, Public Attitudes to Science, IPSOS Mori Social Research Unit, 2014.
  1. Cormick C.  Community Attitudes Towards Science and Technology in Australia, CSIRO, 2014.
  2. Leiserowitz A, Maibac, E, Roser-Renouf C, Feinberg G and Rosenthal S,  Global Warming’s Six Americas, March 2015. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 2015.
  3. Cormick C.  Communicatology: the Ultimate Guide to the Science of Science Communication, CSIRO Publications. In press, 2019.
  4. Newell B. Science alone won’t change climate opinions, but it matters, the Conversation, 28 November 2012.

14 Cormick C and Romanach LM. Segmentation studies provide insights to better understanding attitudes towards science and technology, Trends in Biotechnology, 2014, 32, 114-116.

  1. Leiserowitz  A, Maibach E, Roser-Renouf C, Feinberg G and Rosenthal S. Global Warming’s Six Americas, March 2015. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 2015.
  2. Lim-Camach, L, Ariyawardana A, Lewis G and, Crimp S. Climate adaptation: What it means for Australian consumer, consumer Survey – 2014 results. CSIRO, 2014.
  1. Public Attitudes to Science, Ipsos-Mori, Department of Business, Innovation and Skill, UK, 2011.
  2. Nielsen, Report on Public Attitudes Towards Science and Technology, Nielsen, 2014.
  3. Costa-Font M and Gil JM. Meta-attitudes and the local formation of consumer judgments towards genetically modified food, British Food Journal, 2012. Volume 114, Number 10, pp. 1463-1485(23).
  • Mohr P, Harrison A, Wilson C, Baghurst K. and Syrette J. Attitudes, values and socio-demographic characteristics that predict acceptance of genetic engineering and applications of new technology in Australia, Biotechnology Journal, 2007. Volume 2, 1169-1178.
  • Binder A, Scheufele D, Brossard D and Gunther AC. Interpersonal Amplification of Risk? Citizen Discussions and Their Impact on Perceptions of Risks And Benefits of a Biological Research Facility, Risk Analysis, October 2010.
  • Nyhan B and Reifler  J. When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions, Political Behaviour, 2010/ Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 303-330.
  • Klass G. Just Plain Data Analysis: Common Statistical Fallacies in Analyses of Social Indicator Data, 2008. http://polmeth.wustl.edu/media/Paper/2008KlassASA2.pdf
  • Cormick C and Romanach LM. Segmentation studies provide insights to better understanding attitudes towards science and technology, Trends in Biotechnology, 2014. 32, 114-116.
  • Golub B and Jackson MO. (2010) Naïve Learning in Social Networks and the Wisdom of Crowds, American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, 2010. 2 (1): 112-49.
  • Ravenscraft E. How Sites Like Google And Facebook Put You In Political Echo Chambers, LifeHacker, 2016,
  • Pew Research Center, Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society, 2015.
  • Graveland B. Wild horse cull raises a ruckus in Alberta, the Canadian Press, 6 February 2014.
  • Morris S. Police consider drones to monitor badger cull protesters, the Guardian, 24 September 2018.

The Dark Side and the Grey Side of Science Journalism

The Dark Side and the Grey Side of science Journalism

By Craig Cormick

“Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”– Peter Pan.

Let’s talk about the problems of dealing with the dark side.

Not the dark side of the moon, nor the dark side of the Force – the increasingly more worrying dark side of science journalism, where commercial interests are working to influence content – often without transparency.

Dr Susannah Eliott, the CEO of the Australian Science Media Centre in Adelaide, defined the dark side as “content that has a vested interest or that is trying to persuade the audience to think in a definite way”.

“And that is a problem when it is not being declared,” she said.

This can be seen playing out in the huge shifting imbalance between PR and science journalism. For as PR agencies grow in size and influence, and NGOs and even science agencies adopt increasing ‘spin’ tactics to promote their work, there is a converse downsizing in the numbers of science journalists working the mainstream media.

Susannah Eliott said this was often reflected in generalist reporters simply rehashing science releases.

Deborah Smith, former science journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, and now a science communication officer at the University of New South Wales, said cuts in mainstream media jobs and the pressure to file quickly and attract on-line attention, not only skews news judgement, but makes journalists more reliant on media packages.

The dark side can also be seen in the blurring of lines between advertising, journalism and advocacy in traditional and new media, with a lack of clarity over what might be independent journalism and what might not be.

Freelance science journalist and editor of The Best Australian Science Writing 2015, Bianca Nogrady, said, “For the general public, looking around on the internet, it is hard to distinguish what is written by a journalist or by somebody paid to write a piece, so it is becoming more and more murky to know who is writing that piece and who is paying for that piece to be written.”

According to Susannah Eliott, “I know of one particular example, and I don’t want to name them, where the journalist didn’t even think there was something wrong with it, when University X asked the journalist to write positive stories for them.”

The role of sponsorship can often be murky as well, with many different standards and expectations of whether a sponsor’s dollar is buying influence over content or not. The esteemed journal Scientific America was recently the subject of questions about its independence when it ran a conference on Science in the Media in the USA in March this year – sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and GMO Answers.

Described as a “branded partnership”, the event was run by Scientific America’s Custom Media division – said to be a distinct entity from the magazine – but of course using the magazine’s name and prestige, and not easily differentiated.

An article in Undark Science looking at the commercial partnerships with publications quoted AdAge magazine’s annual list of branded content, that showed that such practices grew from 1,500 cited cases in 2014, to 7,000 in 2015. They included partnerships between the Wall Street Journal and Netflix; the New York Times and GE and Wired and Nokia.

That such sponsorships exist isn’t major problem, as most media organisations are looking for new revenue streams, it’s that the influence the sponsor has is almost never disclosed.

The grey side
But there is another lesser dark side, that can even harder to discern. Let’s call it the “grey side”. It is a seemingly righteous, but sometimes dangerous, Neverland that also risks compromising science journalists, based on their inadvertent advocacy of “brand science”. It is particularly apparent when science is under attack from anti-science or fringe science supporters.

Bianca Nogrady said, “The issue is whether science journalists are a cheer squad for science.”

She also said, “I think it is a bit of dark side, and I know I’m guilty of it to some degree in having a blindness to the flaws in science and the scientific method.”

She said that like many science journalists and writers she came from a background of science that emphasises the truth of the facts of science.

“But I’ve come to understand there are no truth and no facts in science. We presume the rules that we have are pure and truthful – I think that is wrong. I think it is naïve. I’m getting to recognise it in myself.”

Having a potential blind-eye to science can also lead to becoming compromised by the efforts of those spinning a story in favour of science – sometimes even from fellow science communicators working for research organisations. It should not really come as a surprise to know that most science communicators for major public sector research institutions, working in parts of CSIRO, the CRCs or some universities, are more likely to be employed to promote their organisations’ interests, including commercial potential of discoveries, over analysing the science behind them.

Deborah Smith, however, said that she thought it was actually a good thing that former science journalists were moving into science-based agencies to work.

She said, “We we bring the ethics of science journalism into our new roles and are less likely to overstate something, and we can explain ambiguities so that reporters can’t mistakenly get it wrong.”

Yet in March this year, in a widely-shared article in the US-based Pacific Standard, Michael Schulson wrote, “In short, more than other fields, science journalists see themselves as working in partnership with their sources. As various commentators have observed, there’s probably no field of journalism that’s less sceptical, less critical, less given to investigative work, and less independent of its sources than science reporting.”

He also quoted Professor Charles Seife, science writer and academic at New York University, who said, “Today, science journalists’ motivations align very nicely with what the scientists themselves want, which is publicity for their work. This alignment creates this—almost collusion, that might even be unethical in other branches of journalism.”

Susannah Eliott said, “Science journalists can be prone to that from having to develop their sources. I think that like any other reporting round it is prone to happen.”

Deborah Smith disagreed though, stating, “I don’t think they are so much advocating for science, but advocating for getting the facts right.”

But is defending good science against the anti-science league, science sceptics and science-haters a vital task that needs to be done? Or is it advocacy? We may need to more often ask ourselves the question – do we too easily become like the Lost Boys, going into battle for the cause simply because we believe it is the right thing to do?
Susannah Eliott said, “It does risk that. I think that a really good example of this is some of the contentious issues, on things like GM (genetic modification), where there has been such a lot of nonsense and a lot of lobbyists trying to push the conversation in certain directions. I think there is a lot of danger that anyone trying to defend the science finds that anything that is a little negative needs to be brushed under the carpet to avoid it becoming an issue.”

She said, “You can get a certain species of science journalist who is a cheer leader for science, but I think in the context of science versus non-science, if you have an issue where there are a number of different perspectives, such as the Hobbit in Indonesia, you will find science journalists tend not to take sides. So taking sides between scientist is very different to taking sides between science and non-science.”

Awareness of this grey side is nothing new. Almost twenty years ago, in March 1997, Professor John Franklin of the University of Maryland gave a lecture at the University of Tennessee entitled the End of Science Writing. In it he stated, “Let me be brutally honest. Distortion began the very moment we conceived the story, as we angled our perspective to please our editors. As soon as we picked up the phone we started censoring ourselves, second-guessing the story, trying somehow to make something useful out of whatever we had. A lot of my colleagues will deny this, but I think the result speaks for itself.”

That this may happen in our work is one question for science journalists to consider – the other is the impact of it happening. For every time a science journalist is seen as being an advocate, does that risk having our readers lose their belief in both us and in science? Does another fairy fall down dead?

Consider the criticisms and defence of ABC Catalyst reporter Maryanne Demasi’s recent story on the potential dangers of WiFi as an example of a journalist being seen by critics as an advocate for a particular cause. As Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, says, we can see the faults in other people’s thinking, but almost never in our own.

Another grey area risk for science journalists, and public access to quality independent reporting, is the trend for organisations to bypass traditional media altogether and create their own media and audiences, with no one to independently appraise their information.

Susannah Eliott said, “Many research organisations have picked up many of the science journalist that left news rooms and have created their own channels, at places like the CSIRO and the University of Melbourne and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but they are never going to criticise themselves.”

What shape the future?
While it is certainly a difficult time to be a science journalist, with increasing economic and time pressures pushing people into dark and grey areas, often in such tiny steps that the transition might go unnoticed, there is still some hope for optimism.

Bianca Nogrady, for one, said she felt the future would be both exciting and diverse.

And new funding models, through crowd-sourcing and independent financial supporters – that still believe in resisting the dark and grey sides – may provide the space and time for more investigative and independent science journalism. Ideally more science journalist would be able to look in depth at stories, examine original published papers, and talk to several different sources – and then present the story in a way that explained the science but also gave it some context and nuance. And those stories might even be read by a wide audience that trusted the sources they came from.

It might be a different model from getting more quality science reporting not just back into the quality press, but also into the tabloid media, as was argued as crucial by Susannah Eliott – and both might seem like dreams. But surely they are both dreams worth believing in.

For to quote Peter Pan, that personification of belief in the possible, “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”

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Dr Craig Cormick is the current President of the Australian Science Communicators, and was the winner of the 2013 Unsung Hero of Science Communication. His books include editing Ned Kelly under the Microscope (CSIRO, 2014). An edited version of this piece appeared on Cosmos on 9 November 2016.