Soul-searching scientists struggle to get message across

A trend has grown to challenge tenets that enjoy overwhelming expert consensus, including global warming

“We mortals do not understand you.” That’s the heartfelt cry from former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, pleading with scientists to use everyday language to help counter growing public mistrust.


Figueres was giving one explanation of why scientists are struggling to get their message across to a sceptical public at a major conference in Vienna this week.

Delegates made time for soul-searching at the meeting in the Austrian capital, conceding that they bear part of the blame for alienating some people.

Just days after a historic March for Science in Washington, the experts owned up to failures including remoteness and condescension—and operating in an “echo chamber of likeminded people”.

“I think it’s the conceitedness, in a way,” said Heike Langenberg, chief editor of the journal Nature Geoscience.

“The problem is that scientists have not spoken at an even level with people who are out there,” she told AFP on the sidelines of a European Geosciences Union (EGU) meeting of more than 14,000 experts in 22 fields.

“They have tended to give long speeches and not listen…. I think they have underestimated intelligence and overestimated knowledge.”

This has contributed to an erosion of support for since a high point in the 1960s when humans planted a flag on the Moon.

Led by the United States, a trend has grown since then to challenge certain basic tenets that enjoy overwhelming expert consensus—the benefits of childhood vaccination, evidence for species evolution, and the perils of global warming.

One prominent doubter, Donald Trump, is now in the White House. He has described climate change as a hoax and linked childhood vaccines to autism.

Since taking office, Trump has moved to curb science spending and gag government researchers.

A 2012 study in the American Sociological Review reported a dramatic loss of scientific faith among US conservatives, from nearly 50 percent who reported a “great deal” of trust in 1974 to only 35 percent four decades later.

People attend the March for Science in Vienna on April 22, 2017

Liberal views have consistently hovered around the 50-percent mark.

Jargon

The “politicisation” of science is a major part of the problem, conference delegates said.

Not only do politicians cherrypick convenient findings, so creating the impression that research is partisan, but also some scientists have trespassed into what Langenberg described as the “public bazaar of opinions”.

Advancing any view or judgement is a no-no in the evidence-based research sphere,…

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