Commentary on “science and misinformation”

Fiona Fox:

And remember, misinformation is not confined to anti-vaxxers on social media. On Friday night, I was dealing with a BBC story suggesting the government had lifted a ban on animal testing of cosmetics. On Tuesday night, I was dealing with the breaking news of the first UK babies born with mitochondrial replacement therapy – headlines again called the technique ‘Three-Parent Babies’. For weeks now, the media have been carrying opinion piece after opinion piece from those who feel that AI is a dystopian nightmare that may destroy humanity, and all research should be paused. And last week, the science community had to balance their huge excitement about a second promising Alzheimer’s drug with a responsibility to not raise false hopes of patients. All of these stories are stoking public and media debate. All need scientific experts to ensure they are properly understood.

I’ll finish with the good news. We don’t have to first earn the public’s trust, or battle widespread public scepticism. Poll after poll show that scientists are right up at the top of the groups most trusted to tell the truth, with over 80% trust levels that are the envy of politicians and journalists alike.

So, we are in a good position – we don’t need to sit around working out who has a trusted voice. You are here in this room. You already have the trust. But that’s only the beginning. That trust has been hard won, and from a public who now expect nothing less than scientists being seen and heard in every media story that affects them, from nuclear power and gene-edited food, to vaccines and vaping. When campaigners are pulling them one way and politicians the other, it’s you that they look to for the unbiased truth – always speaking plainly and admitting uncertainties, never playing politics or ideologies, never ducking a question. If that hard-won public trust in science is to be maintained, scientists need to show at every opportunity that they deserve it.