Trust in Science in a Digital World: New Mechanisms Needed

ALLEA published the discussion paper “Trust in Science and Changing Landscapes of Communication” today. The paper examines how the increasing use of social media and other digital transformations affect and challenge trust relations between science, media and society.

 

In response to these challenges, the paper discusses the development of new tools for fact-checking and quality control of scientific information online. The authors urge political leaders to back and value scientific methods and standards of research integrity, and support digital innovations to overcome threats to public reasoning and scientific discourse.

While the widespread use of social media as a source of information might lead to a ‘context collapse’ of information, reinforce people’s confirmation biases and ultimately push the polarisation of societal groups through so-called ‘echo-chambers’ and ‘filter-bubbles’, the paper warns about a growing corporatisation of communication, a lack of funding for quality science journalism, (geo-) political computational propaganda and disinformation campaigns, as well as an increasingly polarised political climate.

All these trends have substantial consequences for the communication of science and might threaten the core pillars of trust in science as well as media: integrity, transparency, autonomy and accountability. The paper proposes to develop new mechanisms for researchers, journalists and other communicators of research to safeguard and reinforce these pillars and counter a loss of trust and trustworthiness.

Researchers “need to convincingly prove that a free and just society means a society in which all people are equal, but not all expressions are equally true. It is a society in which everyone should have unrestricted access to data and information, but also the opportunity and civic duty to acquire the skills needed to evaluate knowledge claims. This is why it is crucial to reflect on how we can effectively organise and defend a democratic digital society in which trust in expertise is anchored in longstanding and well-established standards – but wrapped in new mechanisms.”

The paper considers that researchers “need to become even more transparent, more ‘observable’, and more public than before”, engage in online debates regarding their field of expertise and “guide non-experts by systematically deconstructing and refuting deceitful stories and outright fabrications”. “Automated tools for fact-checking, flagging, online linking and referencing have to be developed and carefully tested in order to help citizens identify quality information”, the authors argue.

However, as the paper concludes, there are limits to what a good-hearted and motivated scientific community can do to overcome the identified obstacles by merely improving its (digital) communication. Without a supportive political backing that values scientific methods and standards of research integrity, and effectively protects science and society from the threats identified in this paper, “all well-meaning efforts might come to naught and look like bringing origami flowers to a machine-gun fight.”

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Note to Editors

The discussion paper reflects the conclusions of a workshop held by the ALLEA Working Group “Truth, Trust & Expertise” at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences and Arts in Amsterdam in August 2018. The expert group, chaired by Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve and Professor Ed Noort, is a transnational platform for perspectives on the nature and relationship between truth, trust and expertise in the field of science and research.

The discussion paper “Trust in Science and Changing Landscapes of Communication” and all preceding issues can be found here.

For press inquiries, interviews with experts or requests of hard copies please contact Susana Irles (irles@allea.org).

For content related inquiries please contact Daniel Kaiser (kaiser@allea.org).

 

Related Event

ALLEA and Re-Imagine Europa have organised the international forum “Democracy in a Digital Society – Trust, Evidence and Public Discourse in a Changing Media Environment”, taking place on 24 January, at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. On this occasion, Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve and Professor Christiane Woopen will discuss the findings of the ALLEA Working Group Truth, Trust and Expertise with a wider audience alongside contributions by EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, Manuel Castells and other prominent speakers from policy, academia and civil society.

For further information on the event and a livestream please click here.

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