Is America Suffering From Technophobia?

Albert Einstein, 1951, by Arthur Sasse/AFP-Getty Images file

Albert Einstein, 1951, by Arthur Sasse/AFP-Getty Images file

It seems that scientists in this country have a PR problem.  A thought-provoking editorial in

Food Technology asserts that the public’s confidence in scientists has eroded and that may be one reason people are attracted to the advice of pseudo experts. Part of the problem the authors Henry Chin, PhD, and Rhona Applebaum, PhD, say is the public is turned off by scientific jargon and they’re more apt to listen to the more effective communicator  — regardless if the information they dispense is scientifically valid.

That’s why nutrition misinformation and quackery can spread so rapidly.  If you have a persuasive messenger, then it doesn’t matter if the message is accurate. People are convinced by the communications.

The authors make a plea to the scientific community to change their ways.  They outline three major recommendations to prevent technophobia and fear mongering from spreading:

1. Scientific organizations and scientific journals should adopt a set of guiding principles on how studies are reported in the media, with an emphasis on experimental proof.  Many scares are driven by scientific reports and press releases that are more imagination than fact, the authors wrote.  In this era of reduced government funding for research, academic organizations sometimes resort to hyperbole to promote the significance of their research.  In the same way researchers must  now report conflicts of interest in conducting research, they should also have guidelines for reporting the research.

2. Scientists should help educate journalists about the scientific process and scientists need to improve their communications skills to effectively reach the public.  The authors say a best-in-class model is the science of climate change, where there were many forums to engage scientists with journalists and others who work with the general public and policy makers.  Others scientists can learn from this success.

3. Without devaluing science, scientists must learn how to communicate with non-scientists.  It is self-delusional, the authors wrote, to blame the public’s failure to understand complex scientific information on scientific illiteracy.  They said scientists must make an emotional connection with audiences.  “We must accept the fact that we need better connectivity with the public, beginning with better communication skills and training….If we do not, the public’s confidence in science, scientists, and the scientific process will further erode.  And there will be no one to blame but ourselves.”

I thought this was quite compelling.  No matter how solid the advice, if you’re not able to effectively communicate, you lose out to the self-proclaimed expert who knows how to tell a great story. That’s why the myriad of multilevel marketing salespeople who are selling superjuices, supplements and diet aids are making such a great living — even if there’s little to back up their claims.


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