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Scientists in the age of ‘fake news’

ESR’s new Chief Scientist says at a time when there is an increasing distrust of experts, scientists have a responsibility to communicate in a simple and clear way. Watch Brett Cowan talk on this interesting topic.

Brett Cowan was echoing comments by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Juliet Gerrard, who told ESR staff recently that building trust in a world where “everyone’s an expert” is one of the biggest challenges facing scientists.

Dr Cowan says that distrust comes from a political context, where it “can be convenient to have mechanism by which you can reduce the credibility of someone who really is an expert and that’s just for political gain”.

“So we have to be aware that the reasoning behind some people using things like fake news is to put their often non-expert view ahead of an expert by simply trying to discredit the expert.”

He says scientists, who are used to communicating to other experts, have to learn how to engage with the general public.

“Most science ultimately affects the general public and there’s a responsibility just to communicate in a way that is not condescending, but using that expert upskilled knowledge to describe it in a way that everyone can understand.

“It’s not the responsibility of the public to get upskilled – it is the responsibility of science to create an analogy or an explanation that enables the general public to understand what they do.”

Dr Cowan who has been in his new role since July says he has a responsibility to create an environment at ESR that allows “fabulous” science to happen.

“Science moves quickly, science knowledge advances quickly – but the other dimension is how scientists operate and in some ways that’s changed as well. There’s an opportunity at ESR to bring some of the newer scientific techniques and ways of thinking and organising that will help us to deliver on our scientific content.

“ESR has some great science and scientists and its most compelling feature is its relevance to the New Zealand economy and to individual New Zealanders. We do forensics, water, environment and health; we do things that matter.”


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