This post is the opinion of one student after reading one scholarly article. Reader discretion is advised.
“Do you trust me?” It is potentially my favourite line from the Walt Disney movie Aladdin, and the underlying question every time I read or hear new information. Do I trust the source enough to believe what they are telling me?
Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes the answer is no.
As science communicators, how can we make sure that the awesome new research we are presenting is perceived to be credible and trustworthy enough to be believed—especially when science is a discipline filled with uncertainty? Will the water bath even turn on today?
Is science more credible if presented as indisputable fact or as a very tentative guess? According to Jensen (2008), cancer research appears more credible to the public if the related researching scientists list the limitations of their experiments. A newspaper story was also more credible if the journalist presented multiple viewpoints.
I feel like this is an accurate representation of my own feelings. I know that if tomorrow a friend came up to me announcing that he had found the ‘cure for cancer’ instead of screaming up and down for joy, I would just roll my eyes and say ‘sure you did’. However, if he said ‘I think maybe the compound I’m working on might have some properties that actively work to prevent cancer’ I might actually ask him a follow up question.
What’s interesting from a science communication view is that hedging (adding caveats and disclaimers like ‘maybe’ and ‘might’ and ‘I think’ ‘under certain conditions’ ‘more research is required’) can actually strengthen credibility whereas normally it decreases credibility. Barack Obama did not become the President of the United States of America because he thought that ‘well, it was maybe sort of possible to potentially slightly alter American policy if we try really, really hard and make lots of compromises but then depending on attitudes of others and unforeseen world events it might not be the government’s highest priority so it could take a while. This might be the reality of the situation but it was “Yes we can” change the country that made him President.
What do you think? Are you more likely to believe something that presents its flaws or does the presence of flaws just make you think the research experiment is not ready for media attention?
Jensen, J. D. (2008). Scientific uncertainty in news coverage of cancer research: Effects of hedging on scientists’ and journalists’ credibility. Human Communication Research, 34(3), 347-369