A decade of failures in Science Communication.

Eleven years is a long life for a science blog. Southern Fried Science was born in 2008, when the main writers were all graduate students. Over the last decade the online landscape has changed. Science Communication changed with it, adapting and evolving to meet an ever-shifting ecosystem. Looking back on the last decade and thinking about the next, it’s becoming easier to see where we went wrong. It’s not quite as easy to determine what we need to correct the course.

This is not a scientific assessment, this is my own personal observations from the last decade of running Southern Fried Science, from teaching Social Media for Environmental Communications for the last 7 years, from working with Upwell, one of the most dynamic and visionary ocean NGOs ever conceived, from helping build and launch multiple online platforms, dozens of novel programs, and hundreds of outreach campaigns, and from spending a lot of time since November 2016 reflecting on what we’ve done wrong.

That Hideous Deficit

Do we really need another 200 words on how bad the deficit model is and why it needs to die?

Apparently, yes.

The basic premise: that science perception and policy is shaped by an information deficit and that if we just make good science education content and spread it, we can combat the spread of misinformation, people will learn, and everything will get better.

It doesn’t work. It never worked. And it ignores the reality that misinformation is manufactured for political and financial gain, with tremendous incentives and, often, far better funding than science outreach campaigns. But beyond that, multiple studies have shown that, when confronted with information that challenges their fundamental world view, people don’t throw out their worldview, they reject the science, creating a more entrenched and intractable audience.

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World’s leading experts say there’s a problem with false balance in conservation journalism; Steve disagrees


False balance in the media occurs when a journalist  gives equal coverage, and therefore the perception of equal validity, to both sides of a story. While this sounds preferable to today’s hyper-politicized media, sometimes both sides of a story aren’t equally valid. For example, when the overwhelming consensus of the expert medical community says that vaccines do not cause autism but a famous former actress says they do,  giving both sides equal coverage can be not only frustrating, but harmful to public health. The same is true of early reporting on whether cigarettes are bad for you. Giving equal coverage of the global community of expert climate scientists and spokespeople  for the oil and gas industry who claim that climate science isn’t “settled” can also be problematic, as can coverage of other scientific topics.

Image via http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/sciencetoolkit_04

Image via http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/sciencetoolkit_04

Though it is discussed less frequently in this context,  overfishing and marine conservation issues can also feature some fairly egregious examples of false balance. Coverage of a proposal to list great hammerhead sharks under the Endangered Species Act in yesterday’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel provides a useful case study.

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