Trusting science in an age of ‘truthiness’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Taylor: "We live in an era of “post-truth politics”, where rumour, gossip, and misinformation can spread at an alarming speed." [ECPA]

With trust in our institutions ebbing away, people are becoming more likely to accept the provenance of information than they are the accuracy of the facts. Graeme Taylor suggests four ways industry can re-ignite trust in science.

Graeme Taylor is a spokesperson for the European Crop Protection Association.

We live in an era of “post-truth politics”, where rumour, gossip, and misinformation can spread at an alarming speed. Where “truthiness” – the intuition of what should be right – is more important than what is fact.

This has far-reaching implications for us all – and especially for the decisions and debates that take place in Brussels.

The industry I work in, the pesticide industry, feels this impact particularly acutely. Beyond the frustrations of those of us working in the sector of being misunderstood or misrepresented, there is a very real concern for the impact it is having on the pressing challenge of providing sufficient, safe and affordable food for an ever-growing world population.

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European politicians support a great deal of scientific research but they often do not pay attention to the results if they are “politically unwelcome”, Nobelist Richard Roberts told EURACTIV.com.

Today, people face a deluge of “facts”. A combination of increased access to technology and a public increasingly willing to trust what they read on Facebook and Twitter, combined with a world where conventional media is playing a less central role, makes communicating real science more and more difficult. Even the pursuit of fairness can create a phony balance. For example, just this month an NGO report was hailed as a “new important study”, whereas a major pesticides industry study conducted by a specialised consultant that showed a €65 billion impact on trade was labelled “an industry-cooked report”. People are more willing to question the provenance of information than they are the accuracy.

So, with trust in our institutions ebbing away, what do we need to do to re-ignite trust in science? Here are four suggestions:

Understand the impact of loose words

People in a position of authority must think before they speak. People want to be listened to, and they want to feel that their worries are taken seriously. We need to recognise that there is a concern, and we should neither dismiss it nor stoke it.

Re-energise education about science

We need to make science more accessible and find a less hierarchical way to communicate it. Provide access for the young and the old, be it through hubs, expanding great work that organisations like Sense About Science do, or providing an Erasmus programme for science students.

If we give a child a fact they are informed for a day. If we teach them how to access information and use technology, they will have the skills to make informed decisions for the rest of their lives. This is crucial.

Communicate throughout the process, from development to policy

As a communication professional, I would say that communication is often seen as a second-class discipline. Some of the most well-meaning EU policies have been derailed simply because the communication implications had not been thought through. From my experience in national government in the UK, in the European Commission, and in the pesticides industry, I have to say we are all guilty of this.

The private sector needs to make a concerted effort to proactively communicate throughout the whole of our respective processes – be it the development of a new substance, research findings, or policy formation. We need to actively engage in a conversation with partners, opponents and interested parties alike.

Message to the pesticides industry: continue to open-up

We are, in many ways our own harshest critics. We recognise that in today’s era of ‘always –on’ communication it is no longer an option to sit in the corner and only come out to defend ourselves from attacks on our products. The pesticides industry has at times been invisible, and, at times, unnecessarily aggressive in our response. We have learned valuable lessons.

With or without pesticides?

Regulations that prohibit farmers from protecting their crops are putting our food supply at risk, writes Graeme Taylor.

The future of the pesticides industry relies on acceptance of the innovative products that we provide: products that will help address major societal challenges related to food production in years to come. Our challenge is that we are viewed as being quite closed, and there is a misperception that we are not being honest. That’s not easy for anyone to hear.  But then as anyone who has seen ‘trust index’ studies such as the Edelman Trust Barometer would clearly see, the pesticides industry is not alone in suffering from a deficit of trust.

Communication and transparency are the two pillars to address this. We want people to see that the pesticides industry is actively addressing concerns about our products. That we understand these concerns. And that we are not afraid to have an open and honest debate about our contribution.

So, in short, it’s industry’s responsibility to listen. We need to make science accessible, and we need to build trust and confidence in our own and scientific institutions and not to shy away from the difficult conversations. It’s only by having the difficult conversations that we, as a society, can truly progress.

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