Combatting Science Denialism

Speaker submission
Submission by Vic Farrell
Organisation La Trobe University
Presentation Combatting Science Denialism

Each speaker will have 10 minutes to convey the story of their individual science communication challenge, the solution and most importantly the learnings from their experience.

What was your science communication challenge

Ian Chubb, Australia’s Chief Scientist, argues “scientists are an unappreciated force for good in Australian Society.” (Chubb 2011) This has a serious impact on how Australia is to move forward, to grow and to keep Australians and the natural environment safe and healthy. For science to continue to benefit Australian society “…it has to be able to do its job.” Science struggles to be effective when it is under attack in the mass media and by those who benefit from spreading anti-science or science denialist propaganda.

My PhD project is create a touring Shadow Puppet Performance to spark debate among individuals within the alternative lifestyle communities. Individuals in these communities often celebrate anti-science and denialist ideas such as: anti-vaccination, non-acceptance of human induced global warming, use of placebo medication and other non-scientific ideas such astrology and other forms of retained mythology.

Talking to individuals about these topics at alternative lifestyle festivals I found that many still believe that the moon landing was recorded in a studio, vaccinations are dangerous, homeopathy has medical benefits and global warming is partly natural.

Many of these people are adults with children. How do we, as science communicators, combat these entrenched beliefs?

Chubb, I 2011,
Does Australia care about science?, Web Article7 November, .

What was the solution

Science is presented in the mass media where it is subject to rhetorical debate which undermines the role of peer review. This confuses individuals and sends the message that all aspects of science beyond it’s implementation is fallible, and everyone is worthy of having their say.

If science is reported and communicated in the mass media by journalists who understand science, moreover a larger commitment by media owners to commit more time/space to science news, perhaps the Australian population may have a more positive attitude to science.

What did you learn from the experience

Many issues combine to further entrench science denialist ideas and beliefs: Social networks and the ubiquitous search engine Google support homiphily in casual online research; and mass media presenting “balance” where the anti-science/denialist views presented are disproportional to those in reality who hold those views.

The Australian government needs to identify the importance of a broad scale campaign to educate Australians about the nature of the process of science and separate it from what science produces with the intention of arming individuals with the capacity to be better able to identify authentic sources.

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