Talking headlines: Anne Glover
Professor Dame Anne Glover is Vice Principal for External Affairs and Dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen. She served as Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission (2012-2014) and as Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland (2006-2012); this year Prof. Glover has been elected Fellow of the Royal Society, one of the highest recognition that can be awarded to scientists.
Prof. Glover, you are a strong advocate for evidence-based decision making. Do media play a role in shaping science-related political decisions at the expense of evidence?
Many people get their information from the media and although many opinion polls across the EU tell us that citizens do not trust journalists, nevertheless, they appear to believe what is reported. It is helpful to remind ourselves that many media sources place more priority on a good story rather than accurate or balanced information.
The media could do more to report stories accurately but they may always be keen on an attention-grabbing headline at the expense of balance.
Public opinion on these issues seems to reveal a level of distrust towards scientists. Do scientists have their own responsibilities for this situation? What can they do to regain the trust of the public?
In general terms, scientists do enjoy a high level of trust from the public. In an IPSOS MORI poll in 2015, scientists were in the top five of most trusted professions. We can always improve, however. And I think the best way to do this is to communicate effectively and often, particularly when evidence is being misused.
Funding bodies are increasingly expecting researchers to engage with the public, yet the argument is often made that time is better spent at doing research rather than communicating it. What is your view?
My view is research not communicated is effectively research not done. Communicating our research is not an option, I believe it is an obligation and is an integral part of what we are about as scientists.
Luckily, it is not always bad news. We have just seen considerable media coverage for the discovery of gravitational waves or space missions. How important are these initiatives to bring science closer to the public and young generations?
These recent science achievements are inspirational for the public, I think. For young people who are yet to make decisions about what careers they might follow, it also provides an insight into the excitement and potential reward of scientific research.
Finally, would you like to leave a tip for our readers on how to evaluate whether sensational or alarmist headlines are actually supported by scientific evidence?
Something I find useful is to ask the question – “is this causation or correlation I am being told about”. That’s a helpful start. We might also look at where the evidence is being sourced from – do the evidence providers have a conflict of interest? Last suggestion, have a look at the websites of organisations like Sense About Science as they will try to answer questions the public might have using the best available evidence. They also have a lot of information available on a wide range of topics such as energy, food and climate – well worth a look to help untangle what you read.