In a recent Scientific American Observations post, Catherine F. Brooks argues that science communicators may often be chasing public attention and that this quest for virality may be undermining public trust in science. She mentions the viral video that I created for the McGill Office for Science and Society as an example of a meta-video shining light on the common use of emotional manipulations to gain attention.
She is concerned by a 2016 Pew study on public trust in science, but trust in scientists has not gone down. When we combine respondents who trust scientists "a great deal" with those who trust them "a fair amount," we get to 76 percent. The report characterizes this trust as "relatively strong" and states that "scientists are the only group among the 13 institutions covered in [the survey] where public confidence has remained stable since the 1970s."
I'm perplexed: what more does Brooks want short of a utopia? And more importantly: how has recent science communication undermined a variable that hasn't fluctuated in decades?
I do agree that a segment of the science communication community seems to be engaging in fairly superficial and click-baity "science cheerleading," or what I have referred to as "waving the flag for science." But to bring Yanny/Laurel in as a star witness in this case seems absurd to me. We are competing in an attention economy. Reaching the masses is a challenging problem that requires thinking outside the box.
Not only that, but we struggle to make the general population care about scientific issues. We should use cultural moments where non-scientists are already intellectually aroused to teach them about brain science. When they click on a video from a science channel explaining why they hear "Yanny" whereas their roommate hears "Laurel," they'll be exposed to more science content from this channel and they may, shocking as it may sound, realize that science can be cool and mentally fulfilling.
Brooks also has a problem with a headline about bringing back mammoths from extinction, but the article itself is about climate change, simultaneously the most pressing global issue of our day and the one generating the most apathy. We can argue if an article about a seemingly far-fetched solution to climate change is worth writing about, but surely when it comes to an issue that is at once critical and easily dismissed, we can agree that experimentation is warranted.
Getting back to the Pew survey, it has been clear for years that only some people distrust some science (like climate change and vaccination) because it threatens their identity. We are emotional creatures, and when it comes to these contentious issues, the information deficit model—"just the facts, ma'am”—has failed us spectacularly.
The answer to changing minds when people deny the consensus on a specific issue is not to ivory-tower our science and return to the days of elbow patches. We need to make smart use of emotions, we need to leverage identity, and we need to be entertaining and make full use of storytelling devices. To do otherwise would be to commit the sin economists were making before Kahneman and Tversky: to think of us as rational agents.