According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 62% of adults get their news through social media, often from like-minded people they trust. One expert said there are a growing number of researchers who are focused on finding better ways to communicate their research.
Kevin Folta is the professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. He used to struggle with communicating his research to the public. Now he travels around the world working with researchers with efforts to bridge the gap between scientific research and consumers.
“I’d tell people all about why we don’t need to be worried about new technologies in their food. And don’t worry about it, I’m a scientist I can tell you the right way. It wasn’t a way to earn their trust,” Folta said. “It was beating them to death with evidence and data, which is great if you’re a scientist talking to a scientist. What the public wants to know, is why they should trust you?”
When scientists work on consumer trust, Folta said the public has a place to go with questions about controversial topics.
“Consumers are always very careful when they hear a message that stokes their fear,” Folta said. “They tend to capitulate to those, in other words, a very scary message will cause them to take action. Whereas the message that everything is okay, enjoy your dinner, doesn’t get people too excited.”
It has been Folta’s experience as a scientist that when it comes to sharing research about controversial topics, for example vaccinations, science communicators can hit a road block.
“Where there is the vaccination discussion, which in terms of science there is no debate,” Folta said. “Vaccinations are wonderful, I got one today so I don’t get Yellow Fever when I go to Uganda. Vaccinations help us as a population, yet there’s a small vocal minority that really has gotten into public perception to the point where whole populations are not protected against very simple diseases and we see children paying the price.”
Folta said this can create a tribal mentality. When someone from outside of a group offers new information, especially about food or farming, it can be seen as a threat.
“So people are very recalcitrant to accepting information that doesn’t fit within their world view and certainly collides with what the tribe has determined,” Folta said. “So our challenge is as science communicators, is how do we speak outside of our tribe as scientists and farmers and other folks in agriculture. Start talking to the foodies and the athletes and to the aging population to allow them to build trust in our message as scientists.”
Folta said consumers can also help by keeping an open mind and learning who to trust.
“As a scientist I’m constantly re-evaluating my own thoughts and beliefs just to test for self-deception,” Folta said. “I want to make sure that I’m following the good information and not ignoring something, simply because it disagrees with my models and preconceptions. We need to challenge our bias. If we do that, we find that we’re able to make better decisions that are ultimately better for us and better for our families."
Folta said it’s important to remember how lucky we are compared to other countries. He said most of the people go to bed hungry.
“We’re very lucky to be able to have the wonderful amount of food that we do with safety that is present,” Folta said. “When someone is telling you a horror story about your food, about a chemical they found or about some company that wants to change the way you need to control the population. Look at that very critically and skeptically. Make sure that they’re not scaring you away from perfectly good food because even though you may have an alternative, other people don’t.”