Crisis in Science: The Public Relations of Truth

Science is suffering a public relations crisis! From the anti-vaxx movement to climate change deniers and activists against GMOs, anti-science sentiment is gathering momentum. Recent polls show a significant gap between public and scientific opinion. In this internet age, the channels of information are open like never before so why are minds closing in response?

This question is being echoed by reporters and bloggers alike. Here is a sampling of just a few of my favorite stories on the growing anti-science movement:

  1. Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?
  2. F#@! You Bill Maher!
  3. It’s Never the Science Itself: Why the Right Questions Climate and Vaccines 
  4. Even in 2015, The Public Doesn’t Trust Scientists 

This flood of media attention was likely triggered by the recent predictable and preventable measles outbreaks across Canada and the United States. The writers however realize it is not just the science of vaccines that is under attack.

Anti-science groups are preying upon some basic human traits to gain support for their misguided ideals. The main tool these groups use is fear. Using the right trigger words, they can flip a seed of doubt or lack of understanding in the minds of the general population into a full-fledged belief in their cause. It is the responsibility of the scientific community to remove the doubt and help with understanding. The public needs easy access to accurate information. Facts and study findings need to be everywhere not just buried in the depths of complicated peer reviewed journal articles that are not always easy to access.

There is a wealth of often conflicting information posted on the internet and users have become wary of claims and products made by large companies. Years of inflated advertising claims and some shady business deals have soured public opinion on any company with the ultimate goal of making a profit. The public needs to be informed about the regulations and oversight involved in taking a product from benchtop to clinic or store shelves. Millions of dollars are spent before a pharmaceutical or lab-modified product makes it to market and if the regulatory hurdles are not successfully cleared, these products don’t make it at all. This is not well understood by the general population.

The PR issue really comes into play when we consider the elevation of celebrities in the eyes of public opinion. Scientists have been too concerned with technological advances and amazing new discoveries to spend much time on image. Well, that needs to change. We’re up against some pretty slick adversaries and it’s time to step up our game. All that meticulous research will amount to nothing if a beautiful playboy model decides to tell people she doesn’t believe a particular scientific concept. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye are charismatic, interesting, passionate champions of the science. They speak in a clear, unified voice, that is not laced with scientific jargon; people outside of their areas of expertise are easily able to understand their message.

We need more publicly accessible scientists to help reduce the gap between scientific thought and public opinion.

So scientists, pick up your pen, hit your keyboard and stand on your soapbox. Educate, inform and support our scientific celebrities.