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21/10/2014

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Shorts

Shorts Editor Dr Joanna Carpenter rounds up the latest engagement stories.

New media can benefit public engagement

But it can also be dangerous.

US researchers into public engagement in science have called for more applied research on how best to communicate science online.  Writing in Science magazine, Dominque Brossard and Dietram Scheufele  of the University of Wisconsin-Madison argue that today’s reality is that one in seven people actively use Facebook and more than 340 million tweets are posted every day.

Perfect medium

But it can also be dangerous.

US researchers into public engagement in science have called for more applied research on how best to communicate science online.  Writing in Science magazine, Dominque Brossard and Dietram Scheufele  of the University of Wisconsin-Madison argue that today’s reality is that one in seven people actively use Facebook and more than 340 million tweets are posted every day.

Perfect medium

Speaking to People & Science, Dominique Brossard said, ‘Depending on the outcome one wants to accomplish, social media and the internet can be a perfect communication medium. The majority of people do not go to science centres.’ She continued, ‘If you think of internet platforms, you have the potential to reach audiences that traditionally wouldn’t be interested in finding out more about science.’

Targetting different groups

Tiffany Lohwater, Director of Meetings and Public Engagement at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) urges caution. ‘Sometimes scientists think they’re communicating with the public when they’re really just talking to themselves. There’s more to effective public engagement than just putting material online,’ she told P&S.

AAAS has different strategies  for reaching out to different audiences. ‘Some programs here target teachers, some target decision-makers and communities, some target policymakers, and some are specific to kids,’ Lohwater said.

Overly honest

Simon Williams blogs for the Public Library of Science and is a research associate at Northwestern University, Chicago.  He has been watching the twitter hashtag #overlyhonestmethods, in which scientists poke fun at how they go about their work

‘Many are very funny,’ he told P&S, ‘but what is new is that they are on twitter, which has over half a billion users worldwide. ‘#overlyhonestmethods has been covered by national newspapers like The Guardian and internationally, so it has left the confines of the science community,’ he said.

Some of the tweets are relevant to science policy or public confidence in science. ‘For example, a number commented how they were unable to access full scientific articles,’ Williams said.  ‘Others make comments that imply unscientific practices or even malpractice. It is impossible to tell whether they were joking.’

Dangers

New media can be dangerous as well as beneficial, Brosssard warned, because online opinion can sway others’ views. ‘Comments on blogs can change the way people think about scientific issues,’ she explained.

Williams sees the danger: ‘I think more honesty about the realities of science will ultimately increase public trust in science, but “joking” about malpractice might actually serve to reduce public trust in science.’

Aftermath of Italian earthquake case

Trust should be rebuilt with stronger building codes, says geologist

Scientists have responded with concern to prison sentences of several years given to expert advisers to the Italian authorities. They provided public advice in advance of an earthquake at L’Aquila, Italy, on 6 April 2009, which killed 309 people. Survivors complained that official reassurances led people to stay inside shaking buildings that collapsed.

Trust should be rebuilt with stronger building codes, says geologist

Scientists have responded with concern to prison sentences of several years given to expert advisers to the Italian authorities. They provided public advice in advance of an earthquake at L’Aquila, Italy, on 6 April 2009, which killed 309 people. Survivors complained that official reassurances led people to stay inside shaking buildings that collapsed.

The Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences jointly protested,  saying the verdict ‘could lead to a situation in which scientists will be afraid to give expert opinion for fear of prosecution or reprisal.’

Inappropriate reassurance

However, the International Seismic Safety Organization responded by pointing out that the advisors had been ‘accused not for not having been able to predict the earthquake, but for having wanted to corroborate a forecast of ‘no risk’ in progress.’

The German National Academy of Sciences (the Leopoldina) and the French Académie des Sciences reserved judgement and issued a joint statement on the situation: ‘It is very unfortunate that the trust between scientists, state institutions and the affected members of the public is profoundly damaged,’ they said.

Parallels with BSE

Miles Parker, Associate Fellow of the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge and a former Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told People & Science in a personal capacity: ‘I was very struck with the parallels with the BSE story in Britain regarding the degree to which scientists and politicians could give authoritative statements that were reassuring.’

‘In very complex and difficult areas like this, one needs a dialogue and often in pressured circumstances there isn’t time for the scientists to fully understand the impact that the statements being made are having,’ Parker continued.

Buildings kill

Kelin Wang of the Geological Survey of Canada thinks there were unrealistic expectations.  ‘All a seismologist can ever say… is that a large earthquake is unlikely but cannot be excluded.  And if that’s all you can ever say, it’s pointless,’ he told P&S.

Wang says his study of the effectiveness of earthquake policy inChina since the 1960s shows that the focus on prediction is wrong. ‘Public discussion never deal with why those buildings [inL’Aquila] collapsed,’ he said. ‘Earthquakes don’t kill people.  Buildings do,’ he continued, explaining that building codes inJapan andChile have saved many lives. ‘It’s tragic that it‘s not been done in many other places,’ he said.

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Dr Joanna Carpenter
Dr Joanna Carpenter is the Shorts Editor of People & Science
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