A message for our scientists
25 August 2020
Opinion: Our scientists are constantly fighting campaigns of misinformation. This should not be their job, writes Neal Curtis, who takes his hat off to them.
When I was a child I was utterly enthralled by science.
Its explanations of nature and the amazing technological advances that came from it were thrilling. I still remain in awe today, and some part of me still holds onto the thought that I really should have been an astrophysicist working out the origins and structure of the universe. My love of knowledge took me in a different direction, but I still hold a fascination for what science can do. My admiration has only increased during the pandemic. So, I wanted to write a word of thanks to our amazing scientists.
Over recent weeks, this sense of gratitude increased due to the extra work they are now having to do on both mainstream and social media platforms. Throughout the pandemic our scientists have had to work on two fronts. They have needed to do the actual scientific work to counter the virus and map or project rates of infection. In addition they have also had to communicate that work. While the former is what they have trained years to do, the latter—as they will readily admit—is not ordinarily their strength.
In fact, in recent years a whole sub-discipline has emerged that links science with the expertise more readily found in the humanities, and what is known as science communication has become a specialised field of academic work. Translating complex scientific findings in a manner that is clear and understandable is an art. Our scientists have been fortunate to have a government prepared to follow their lead and a Prime Minister who is especially adept at this form of communication.
Throughout the first lockdown, this communication was epitomised in the daily briefings offered by Jacinda Ardern and Dr Ashley Bloomfield, supported by the brilliance of Dr Siouxsie Wiles and her partner in communication, cartoonist Toby Morris. Because of this we became an international exemplar of how to practice effective science communication.
In my lifetime, I cannot remember the scientific community and the knowledge of experts being as denigrated and dismissed as it has been over the last decade; and yet the fate of our future, not just in defeating the coronavirus but in maintaining a livable planet, is in their hands.
But the reason my sense of gratitude has grown during the course of the second lockdown is because our scientists are now not only having to do and communicate the science, they are having to fight a campaign of misinformation and even disinformation from those opposed to government policy.
To be honest, this should not be their job. This should be the role of our traditional media. While many journalists and news outlets have stood up to this challenge, others have simply helped to propagate the misinformation.
Of course, in a healthy democracy we should be hearing heterodox and minority opinion, but these should not be circulating disinformation or proposing alternatives where the evidence clearly does not support it. As the saying goes, if one person is saying it’s raining and another person is saying it isn’t, the work of a journalist is not to report both but go outside and confirm which one is correct.
Unlike the government, journalists have no responsibility over policy. They only have a responsibility to the truth. Without being accountable in the way that ministers are, it is easy for many of them to simply offer contrarian opinion for the sake of it, especially if the creation of scandal, outrage and drama—including loud calls for public officials to resign—brings you readers, viewers or listeners.
The party that sits in opposition has also been guilty of this. Without being responsible in the same way the government is, it can go wherever the wind of popular opinion takes it. However, it is one thing to cynically follow the mood of the people, it is quite another to conjure conspiracy theories about the Director-General of Health hiding things as part of a cover-up, or to now propose a policy that very recent history shows us would not have been your policy at the start of the health crisis.
Recently, after spending the most part of the pandemic arguing for open borders, the National Party seems to have come round to the need to protect them. Up until that point they were evoking the name of ‘the economy’ as a reason to not lock down. As if sacrificing hundreds if not thousands of people on the altar of Mammon would somehow help capital to continue to flow. They were, and many of them still are, in thrall to the idea that you could either save people or the economy, when evidence from across the globe suggests the economy takes a serious hit no matter what we do.
The UK, Australia and Sweden, who have all at various points been used as examples of an alternative strategy are all doing worse than us. Why this gets repeatedly lost in our media and why it takes scientists to counter this narrative baffles me.
Even now, pundits persist in misinterpreting data in support of the narrative that the lockdown is wrong. Instead of our media assisting in the exposure of these problematic interpretations, some are often actively promoting them. Scientific data is, of course, open to interpretation, but the ability to interpret it also takes years of training. So, in addition to having to do the science and communicate it, people like Dr Wiles, Dr Jin Russell and Kate Hannah are having to invest additional time and energy carefully and patiently explaining why these armchair reckons are unreliable and misguided.
This is all taking place in an environment where scientists are increasingly challenged because their findings run counter to very powerful vested interests and our often uncritically held beliefs. Just as the tobacco industry in the 1950s tried to hide the science linking their product to cancer, and in the 1960s the sugar industry tried to silence the research linking their product to heart disease, the fossil fuel industries—ably supported by talk radio shock-jocks—are now trying to discredit climate science using the same tactics refined over the last 70 years.
In my lifetime, I cannot remember the scientific community and the knowledge of experts being as denigrated and dismissed as it has been over the last decade; and yet the fate of our future, not just in defeating the coronavirus but in maintaining a livable planet, is in their hands. With all that work to do, they really shouldn’t need to field conspiracy theories, misinformation and amateur interpretations in our media. I take my hat off to them.
Neal Curtis is Associate Professor of Media and Communication in the Faculty of Arts.
This article reflects the opinion of the authors and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.
Used with permission from Newsroom A message for our scientists 25 August 2020.
Alison Sims | Research Communications Editor
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