How to create better science communications – interim findings from the TRESCA project
By Pamela Bartar and Gabor Szudi, ZSI The European Commission has called fighting misinformation and disinformation one of the grand challenges of the 21st century. This has become even more obvious since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic: a new wave of misinformation, fake news and hoaxes about the pandemic has generated a dangerous infodemic. But there are solutions available to us – and our research in the TRESCA project, discussed recently at the SCIENCE & YOU conference in Metz, France, underscores the importance of developing long-term strategies for handling the problem. Crises like COVID-19 can be an opportunity to reframe conversations around politics, research funding and governance. Promoting robust and transparent scientific and transdisciplinary methods, supported by an independent research environment, can prove a valuable strategy so that consensual, sustainable policies informed by science can bring public value. A few clear conclusions stand out: During recent months, the need for strong strategies to increase people’s awareness of the appropriate use of media sources and fact-checking became visible. Public attitudes to science and technology are complex; therefore, it is necessary to open spaces for listening and dialogue. When talking about digital science communications, we need to create new environments for new strategies. One potential moment to overcome these challenges are the encounters between scientists and policy makers. Here, we elaborate on these points, which were aired at the SCIENCE & YOU conference. There, one of the panel discussions featured TRESCA project partners from Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Sara Degli Esposti), Observa Science in Society (Giuseppe Pellegrini), Erasmus University Rotterdam (Marina Tulin) and the Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna (Gabor Szudi, Pamela Bartar). At the end of this blog, we ask you to contribute to our upcoming policy brief. Please read on to see how you can share your perspective of what can and needs to be done. 1. Digital science communication: New environment calls for new strategies Continuing digitalisation has made information on any topic widely accessible. In this new environment, the responsibility of choosing what or whom to trust is increasingly in the hands of the audience. On the dark side, the large amount of user-generated content makes it difficult to filter out errors or lies. While traditional mediators of information, such as journalists, are reaffirming their roles as gatekeepers, it is clear that the digital sphere presents challenges that are difficult to overcome. Even after a source of misinformation has been debunked or removed, the content continues to spread via re-posts and other types of online engagement. On the bright side of this development, the participatory web has provided platforms for numerous excellent science communication practises. A case in point is the animation studio “Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell”, which has established itself as one of the biggest science channels on YouTube, with more than 15 million subscribers all over the world. But not everybody can make a good YouTube channel: the production quality of successful YouTube videos tends to be cutting-edge and constantly increasing, requiring collaborations across technical and academic disciplines. 2. Listening to citizens on public communication of science and technology Public attitudes to science are complex. One recent survey of Americans found 44% expressed “great confidence in science”, and another 47% had “some” confidence – both, little changed since the 1990s. The EU-funded CONCISE project on public attitudes to science showed that, in the case of health issues, the information channels preferred by many citizens are traditional news media and television, as well as word of mouth. This means that public communication strategies must be carefully evaluated and the role of the various actors, such as decision makers, experts and communicators, must be balanced to avoid confusing people. It is therefore necessary to open spaces for listening and dialogue. The CONCISE project offered this opportunity by involving 500 European citizens in a public consultation. This made it possible to identify some elements of trust and attitudes towards information channels that were also analysed during the TRESCA project. As part of TRESCA, three workshops were organised to involve citizens in an evaluation of videos in the context of COVID-19. Through comparison of the videos with and without audio, three groups of citizens from different cultural and social backgrounds were able to express their opinion on the quality of the materials, on the messages transmitted and on the methods of communication. This experiment made it possible to identify factors that influence public perception and can fuel trust in scientific communication. One factor emerging was the importance of emotions in assessing the type of images used, the role of the protagonist’s characters and the relationships shown in the videos. Participants stressed that adequate scientific communication should not depict extreme emotions or too strong contrasts; they should also avoid excessive spectacle. Another conclusion: experts and scientists, if easily recognisable, are indeed credible witnesses, at least when providing data and tools to understand phenomena, as opposed to trying to impose scientific truths. 3. Potential strategies to increase people’s awareness The pandemic and associated infodemic have made evident the dangerous impact that digital mass media manipulation of scientific facts can have on individual and collective behaviour and, thus, on public health. Digital platforms such as Facebook had to rush into adopting solutions to patrol political micro-targeting, hate speech, disinformation spreaders and fake accounts. Among the factors influencing people’s ability to distinguish accurate from inaccurate information is a person’s worldview. We know that individuals are more likely to accept or reject misinformation based on whether it is consistent with their pre-existing partisan and ideological beliefs. Previous research, such as a 2010 study on Facebook of US voter attitudes, found that showing people familiar faces in online posts could dramatically improve the effectiveness of political micro-targeting. If people saw on Facebook that close friends had voted, they were four times more likely to get others to vote – indeed, that social factor was more important than the voting message, itself. The study found Facebook social messaging had increased voter turnout directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters, for 340,000 additional votes. That represents about 0.14% of the US voting age population of about 236 million in 2010. Thus, familiarity has an effect on people’s views and political decisions. The TRESCA project examines that, plus the role that fact-checking websites can play in debunking misinformation. It also looks at potential strategies to increase people’s awareness of their ideological biases and degree of vulnerability to misinformation. 4. Policymakers and scientists Appropriate and tailor-made scientific advice gains in importance in the design and implementation of sound public policy. However, the uptake of scientific evidence is undermined by a communications gap between scientists and policy makers. Using the specific characteristics of policy makers as a starting point, TRESCA researchers carried out primary and secondary research to better understand the consumption patterns of science communication by policy makers and how their values and interests influence their decisions. The research found that an increased institutionalisation of scientific advice in legislative and regulatory decision-making processes is well in progress at EU and national level. This involves a stronger engagement between experts and decision-makers through various national and supra-national institutional mechanisms fostering two-way dialogue. This new participatory model requires a more open, accessible and reliable science communication, which should contribute to trust-building between scientists and policy makers. A deeper understanding of how the other side in the science-policy nexus operates is essential for this trust-building. Trust is further enhanced by strengthening open science and access initiatives, the new innovative platforms of science-policy collaboration, the use of more digital and visual solutions, and the set-up or upgrading of ‘fact-checking’ websites. Contribute to the TRESCA policy brief! Clearly, we need to get more people fluent in the language of both science and policy. To accomplish that, as part of our TRESCA POLICY BRIEF, we are soliciting your views on what needs to be done. The policy brief aims to provide EU policy units with concrete and practical advice on how to better engage with experts and leverage scientific findings in their decision-making. The document is based on the results of TRESCA’s work package ‘Science Communication in Context’, in particular, a study on the science communication behaviour of policymakers, and an overview analysis of the (dis)incentives for scientists to engage in science communication. Based on TRESCA‘s findings so far, the policy brief recommends the following actions: Prepare short but comprehensive science communication guidelines Create training opportunities and tailor-made learning resources for scientists and policymakers Elaborate financial incentives for early-stage researchers to participate in science communication with policymakers Strengthen the EC’s Open Science Policy Leverage the use of digital media to create interactive two-way dialogue options between scientists and policymakers Promote the use of fact-checking websites and tools Stakeholders from all related disciplines, policy makers and policy influencers are invited to share their opinion. The consultation process ends on 31st of January 2022. Please follow the link – the survey will only take a few minutes of your time: https://survey.zsi.at/index.php/289265?lang=en
Why we need science communication: A word from Kurzgesagt
By Elisabeth Steib and Marc Zwiechowski, KURZ
Kurzgesagt is an animation studio and YouTube channel that specializes in explaining complex scientific topics in illustrated and animated videos. For the TRESCA project, we created a video about science communication and the challenges experts and science communicators face.
Initially, we wanted to talk about a completely different topic. But after working with the TRESCA team, who did some experiments on one of our videos to analyze which aspects influence their trustworthy impression, we realized that the overall subject of the TRESCA project should be our video topic instead:
Why do we need science communication in the first place? What can it and can it not do? And what is it we, as science communicators, struggle with when creating our content: how do we condense complex topics down to the perfect detail level – not too much so it is overwhelming, not so little that we are oversimplifying things? How do we deal with balancing the opinions of experts who do not agree on certain aspects?
The video we created gives some insight into the evolution of our research and our motivation to inspire people to get excited about science and wanting to dig deeper by themselves. See for yourself and check out the video below! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFqn3uy238E
Experiment: How to effectively communicate scientific findings
Evidence from the TRESCA Citizen Science Communication Workshops, an experiment on pre- and post-audio perception of video mediated scientific communication. By Chiara Lovati and Giuseppe Pellegrini, Observa Science in Society Citizens find it increasingly difficult to choose between the growing number of science communication sources and discern trustworthy and reliable information from fake news. But there are some elements that science communicators can pay attention to and ensure that their message gets across as effectively as possible.In a series of science communication workshops organised by TRESCA in December 2020 in Austria, Italy and the Netherlands, researchers were able to test the perceptions of regular citizens on scientific communication. Their methodological design made it possible to explore the effects of visual and audio elements on news trustworthiness and emotional response and identify strategies that can improve and make science communication more effective in these times of uncertainty. Figure 1: A segment of TRESCA workshop participants from Italy The workshops preparation included steps such as the definition of an engagement strategy for citizens, the training of the moderators, and the selection of the two videos to be shown to participants. In this last step, two very different videos were chosen. The first one was a very fast paced, chaotic, YouTube style video with the aim to debunk Covid-19 related conspiracy theories, while the second video was a journalistic report on ex-Covid-19 patients stories, with a newscast style. The session began with an introductory speech about the TRESCA project and the activity of the day, partakers were then invited to join breakout rooms to continue the meeting in small groups. Citizens here viewed the two videos without audio and had a first discussion round on their impressions and emotional response. Following, after a small break, everyone watched the two videos again with the original audio and subtitles in the respective languages. Participants debated the credibility of the information communicated, the roles and responsibilities of the different people appearing in the videos and the impact of their emotions on how the message was being received. The comparison between participants’ reactions to the videos with and without sound helped the TRESCA team focus on the impact of images and words on participants’ perceptions of the science communication videos. Figure 2: TRESCA workshop design Researchers were able to draw some interesting conclusions from the experiment. Firstly, it is important to develop a communication style that is suitable to different types of audiences and use emotional language with caution. Science communicators should avoid extreme or contradictory positions when presenting topics, or excessive simplifications, to prevent viewers from distrusting the communicator or communication channel, and therefore rejecting the content. Secondly, to create successful forms of engagement with the public, it is better to avoid polarisations and disputes where possible. Workshops data also suggests the public is able to judge and evaluate information, therefore, science communicators should not appear to have an attitude of superiority and arrogance, and to avoid a ‘deficit model’ approach when explaining scientific findings to citizens. Figure 3: PCMAG.com, “No, 5G is not causing Coronavirus (or anything else), still from Workshop video #1 Trust in science and scientific institutions is not as straightforward as one may think. Trust is actually the result of a process rooted in previous experiences and attitudes and it cannot be changed very easily. It is crucial to create spaces for people to freely build their own knowledge and opinions. Furthermore, context varies greatly across languages and cultures, causing at times some unintended references and issues to arise in some communications, this should also be kept in mind when transmitting scientific news. Figure 4: Photo by Matheus Bertelli, from Pexels There are no easy solutions to avoiding disinformation and the dissemination of fake news. However, a powerful tool in the fight against misinformation could be fact checking apps and platforms. Nevertheless, these do not seem to be popular amongst the public: sometimes because of an accessibility issue, perhaps cultural or social, other times because they are just ignored. Indeed, for the time being, these tools are not particularly practical, but more research is being conducted – especially in the TRESCA project – to surpass these issues. Figure 5: Photo by Pixabay, via Pexels Effective scientific communication requires a time-consuming group effort by researchers, scientists, and communicators to consolidate best practices and shared knowledge. Nonetheless, effective scientific communication can certainly be mastered. Summarising, data from the workshops highlighted how important it is to avoid extremisms when discussing scientific findings, especially highly emotional language, excessive simplifications or contradictory positions. Furthermore, these workshops demonstrated the importance of maintaining contact with the public in order to detect a very useful point of view for the development of better communication. It is also crucial to steer clear of patronizing language or an attitude of superiority, while always trying to create spaces for the members of the public to freely build their knowledge and opinions.
Climate change: Experimental insights on perceptions of online science communication
By Asher van der Schelde, Marina Tulin, and Jay Lee, Erasmus University Rotterdam How do you stay informed about what is happening in the world? Chances are social media play a crucial role. This is not entirely surprising as science communication increasingly occurs via platforms such as YouTube and Twitter. Nonetheless, we know little about how viewers perceive, trust, or judge, this type of science communication. In this study, we tried to bridge this knowledge gap by running a survey experiment using a science communication video by the popular animation studio Kurzgesagt (In a Nutshell). The experiment focused on climate change. Despite the vast majority of scientists agreeing that humans have a (lasting) impact on climate change, a fraction of the population does not believe in the existence of the phenomenon, or its man-made cause. As a consequence, science communication experts face the critical, yet difficult, task of increasing public understanding, and stimulating engagement within this group of skeptics. The Kurzgesagt video we used is called “Who is responsible for climate change? – Who needs to fix it?”. As the title suggests, the video revolves around climate change and which countries should take responsibility in countering this worrying development. Figure 1: Screenshot from the Kurzgesagt video “Who Is Responsible For Climate Change? – Who Needs To Fix It?” We split up this video in three chapters to which we made several manipulations (e.g., the gender of the narrator, textual changes). After watching one chapter, respondents answered how they perceived the video in terms of trustworthiness, reliability, engagement, and entertainment. This allowed us to understand whether small changes in the video affect the overall perceptions of the video. Respondents also answered how they perceived the narrator, the overall production and what they thought the primary aim of the video was, which produced interesting insights as well. Positive perceptions First, it is important to mention that the video was perceived very positively. Respondents deemed the video to be trustworthy, reliable, engaging and entertaining (Figure 2). They were also positive towards the female and male narrator. The narrators were perceived to be similar in terms of warmth and trustworthiness, but the male narrator was perceived to be more competent (Figure 3). This result can reflect some underlying gender bias and would require further analysis to disentangle cultural and individual effects. Figure 2: Video perceptions. 1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree (with 95% CI). Figure 3: Narrator perceptions by gender (F = female, M = male). 1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree (with 95% CI). Trustworthiness and entertainment go hand-in-hand Science communicators can be hesitant to communicate insights in an entertaining way as they fear this might harm the trustworthiness of the message. Our analysis indicates this fear is not grounded in reality. Respondents who perceived the video to be entertaining, were more likely to say the video was also trustworthy, reliable and engaging. As a consequence, quality and entertainment should not be treated as a trade-off. On the contrary: they go hand-in hand. All correlations between the video and narrator perceptions are illustrated in table 1. Table 1: Correlations between video and narrator perceptions Perceived aim matters One of the most striking findings is the effect of perceived aim on the overall perception of the video. When respondents believe the aim of the video is to blame, they perceive the video to be less trustworthy. Some of these respondents commented that the video was ‘quite brain washing’ or ‘seemed to be aimed at children’. Therefore, science communicators should make sure their message does not come across as such. On the contrary, respondents that indicated the video aimed to inform, rated the video higher on trustworthiness than those who did not. The same goes for changing behaviour, which is a remarkable finding, as this suggests that science communicators do not have to obscure their beliefs if they feel strongly about a certain topic and want to make a change. The significant effects of perceived aim on trustworthiness are displayed in figure 4. Figure 4: Perceived trustworthiness by perceived aim. 1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree (with 95% CI). Production value serves a proxy for overall perception When production value was perceived to be high, the video and narrator were perceived more positively. By perceived production value we mean the extent to which viewers believe that the video is of high quality regarding technical aspects, such as quality of resolution, professional voice-over, recording quality, sound design, detail of illustrations, or smoothness of animation. Perceived production value possibly serves as a heuristic that viewers use as a proxy for their overall perception of the video. Viewers project good intentions onto the creators and give them the benefit of the doubt. Figure 5: Perceived trustworthiness, engagement and entertainment value separated by perceived production value. 1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree (with 95% CI). Effects of manipulations We incorporated several manipulations to see if they would affect perceptions of the video. Through a check in the survey, we found that a substantial part of the participants had not noticed or remembered the manipulations. In hindsight, this is unsurprising as most manipulations were made in the narrative while humans tend to be more focused on visual information. Running a separate analysis in which we only included respondents who did notice and remember the manipulation did result in more significant findings. For example: participants who remembered that negative consequences of climate change for Europe (instead of worldwide) were mentioned, were more engaged with the video (leaving a comment about the video was coded as engagement). Since all respondents reside in the UK, this illustrates the human tendency to be more concerned by local developments. Similarly, engagement was greater among the respondents who watched (and remembered) the video that contained a fearful message than among those who were provided with a hopeful message. Figure 6: Differences in engagement by remembered manipulation. X-axis corresponds to proportion of respondents in group who engaged (i.e., left a comment) with the video (with 95% CI). Besides more engagement, the ‘fearful message’ also resulted in a decrease in the narrator’s perceived warmth. Thus, ending on a positive note results in a warmer perception of the narrator. This difference is depicted in Figure 7. Figure 7: Differences in perceived warmth by message. 1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree (with 95% CI). Communicate uncertainty! Science is often uncertain. However, science communicators might fear that communicating these uncertainties will confuse people. We did not find significant negative effects of using uncertain terms (e.g., approximately and presenting numbers in ranges) on the video’s perceived trustworthiness, reliability, engagement, and entertainment. This indicates that science communicators can be honest about presenting uncertain findings. Audience matters Finally, we found that science communicators should be well aware who they are targeting as climate change attitudes affect how the videos are perceived. For example: the inclusion of prominent sources enhances engagement, but this effect is muted for those who ‘believe’ more in climate change. This leads us to believe that this group is not fond of “over-the-top” stimuli. Similarly, climate change deniers are more likely to perceive the video as less trustworthy when the narrator uses uncertain terms in comparison to believers. In sum, the public tends to be informed (sometimes falsely) about many scientific topics. As such, people have already formed their opinions. Consequently, science communicators need to be aware they are reaching out to an already informed, and critical audience. The next TRESCA objective will be to produce a new video with Kurzgesagt on the history of rationality, and different aspects of human reasoning. Valuable insights that were gained in this experiment will be used to improve the video. Keep an eye on the TRESCA website and the YouTube channel of Kurzgesagt-In a nutshell for the video release (expected in September 2021).