Bruce Lewenstein: a fundamental lesson is to recognize the importance of public discussion for the progress of science

By Carolina Sotério

A leading expert in the study of science communication, professor and ombudsman of Cornell University, Bruce Lewenstein, talks about the tensions between science, media, and society in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis.

The Covid-19 epidemic put science in the spotlight. Can we say that the pandemic has somehow changed the roles of scientists in public communication of science?

I don’t think so. There was clearly a change in volume, and things we used to see only occasionally, such as misunderstanding or conflicting opinions, became more prominent. During the pandemic, we saw more of these problems.

Another thing that may be new are the people. There are experienced science and health writers who have been working with the subject for 5, 10, 20 years, but there are always new people entering the field. And especially when there is something like a pandemic, many new people enter the area – and with less experience.

The pandemic has highlighted many communication problems, from the dissemination of misinformation based on preprints to the retraction of articles published by prestigious journals. What measures can journalists and scientists take to balance the need for speed with the importance of accuracy and verification?

It’s a difficult problem because both in science and journalism, there are incentives to be the first, and there is no real way around it – everyone tries, but it’s amazing how the problem always comes back.

We should have a better understanding that being the first does not necessarily mean being right – and that is the price of being first. For example, an article is published and then another, and they do not agree with each other. And it’s not until the third and fourth articles come out that you decide “okay, this is probably the one that makes the most sense.” Most people don’t understand the collective nature of science. The real process is not the deductive-hypothetical method, but the fact that there are errors, ego, and incentives to be the first. All of this is important to know that there are things like the so-called “bottom-drawer effect,” which refers to the act of conducting an experiment and, if the results are not interesting, the work is stored without being published. This means that no one else will know that doing such an experiment will not be a success – and this is one of the challenges of science. If we had stories about these processes and a better understanding of the pitfalls of science, this would be better understood when there are problems of accuracy or retraction.

Does this lack of understanding contribute to the decline of public trust in science? How can we address this complex crisis of trust?

Trust has not only declined in scientists but in everything. It is a matter of trust between different groups in our society, such as any government or institution. And we must be careful not to listen to some noisy people who say that the “sky is falling”.

People do not understand that retractions are normal. Doing science is hard work, and there are errors involved. Errors happen in the manufacture of cars and where cars are recalled, or in carpentry when we realize that our couch was not built with the right woodwork. Science is no different, it also makes mistakes. One of the problems is that scientists are so sure that they have the best way to approach the world that they present themselves as better than everyone else. But people are not stupid, they see the mistakes, and then distrust arises. But if scientists do a good job and acknowledge when they make mistakes, people can see it as part of the process of all sciences, and things begin to become more normalized.

How can we build stronger relationships between science, media, and society? How can these groups work to build a more informed and engaged public?

Much of what the public reads does not go through traditional media. Scientists have blogs, Twitter accounts, Instagram, TikTok, and their publications go directly to the public. This puts a responsibility on them to be careful about what they share. There is evidence that much misinformation does not necessarily come from journalists but from scientists and scientific institutions. We have to be careful and recognize the challenges in this process.

One thing that scientists can do especially is to get more involved in their communities, whether by giving talks in their local churches, community center, or soccer club, as this makes them part of the community. This is involving the public in a way that leads to open dialogue — and the media can be a part of this too. It is in this conversation that you build trust, but it is not a quick solution.

What were the most important lessons learned from the pandemic about public communication of science?

The first lesson is that public communication is essential for producing reliable knowledge about the natural world, which is what we call science. In the case of preprints, the process of discovering that some researchers were wrong was faster, and sometimes even the public raised questions like “wait a second, this article doesn’t agree with this other article. What’s going on?”.

This public and open process of science is actually part of the process of deciding which knowledge is more reliable. This means that errors and other things that came to light are a problem, of course, but it is also true that we obtained answers more quickly. The development of vaccines in the space of a year is practically unprecedented, but it happened in part because there was data that people could talk about. Therefore, I think one of our fundamental lessons is to recognize the importance of this public discussion for the progress of science itself.

The second lesson is that we have seen how scientific knowledge is critical to our modern society. We will not solve climate change, pandemics, or food insecurity without using science – and the pandemic has shown us that.

Any other points?

One of the issues I raise is about where people should get this kind of knowledge, that is, learn about the true way science works. Some of these forms should be through stories in the media. Others could be scientists on their social media accounts showing all the mistakes they make – and how that is part of the process.

For this, we have to look at the educational system from elementary school and think a little differently about how we teach science. In the United States, there has been an effort for many years to teach science so that we have good scientists. And that is not necessarily the best way to teach science to people who will not be scientists. It is necessary to understand more about this complexity of the process because when there is a pandemic, or an important issue arises, it requires a big change, really requires rethinking the way we teach. This is not a problem limited to the media or social networks; it also involves education, which is one of our largest social institutions. It is a long-term solution.

In the short term, as scientists are more willing to appear in public, they have to learn what will be useful to disclose on social media and recognize this link with education.

Carolina Sotério is a chemist (USP), a specialist in science journalism from Labjor/Unicamp, and a PhD candidate in public communication of science and technology (USP/Cornell).