Fewer people trust science information in this digital age than ever before, and President Trump’s advice to disbelieve what we see or hear does not help. This environment of fake news sites and accusations about false claims leaves scientists competing to gain people’s attention. But by relying too much on gripping headlines (bringing back mammoths), or in trying to get science information to go viral as in the Yanny/Laurel case that had people around the globe talking about hearing sounds differently, are we leading audiences to rely less on data than emotion? Are we somehow undermining the critical role of trust in scientifically-based work?
Of concern is a 2016 Pew study finding that less than one fifth of respondents trusted scientists in general. This is worrisome given today’s urgent issues like climate change or herbicides in our food. It is not surprising that people have trouble trusting the information they receive and being critically engaged as information consumers given the many emotional messages that move across platforms like Facebook and Twitter each day. Recognizing this problem of the too prevalent use of emotional ploys to gain attention, McGill University’s Office for Science and Society in Quebec posted a recent fake video entitled “This NATURAL TRICK can CURE YOUR CANCER” in order to teach viewers to remain critical of what they see online.
That video has been viewed by millions of social media users, many of whom likely clicked on the video about “curing your cancer” assuming it was real. The video was a trap for viewers who clicked, and instead of offering an easy cancer cure, it encouraged them to look past gripping sounds and provocative imagery, asking viewers to be more skeptical when information is presented with a lot of dramatic music, emotional appeals and historic portraits.
To be sure, there has been an understandable push by scientists and their funding agencies to make findings accessible to broad audiences. The National Science Foundation, for example, requires broad impact of funded projects, which often means sharing information with a wide audience beyond the scholarly or scientific community. But are we chasing public attention at the expense of good science? Is our use of emotional appeals and need for social-media virality dumbing down science or impacting public perceptions of scientists?
Today’s scientists must be good media producers while instilling the importance of critical audience evaluation in every message. We scientists need to understand how our messages spread and get taken up in the fast-paced news cycle and also the tendency of relying on emotional triggers rather than data and how it may contribute to a lack of critical analysis overall. Somehow, we need to keep science information findable in a busy digital culture by simply presenting the data while relying on emotional appeals to a lesser extent.
Effective strategies might be showing simulations of activity such as fires, like one recently shared by Cal Fire in California, or providing slideshows like the that WebMD created for social media. These examples emphasize data without a lot of other attention-getting strategies. We need to turn away from the reliance on emotional appeals in our messaging in order to avoid further damage to perceptions of science so that people can cast attention toward urgent scientific news of the day.