Jason Pridmore wants to cross the communication barriers between journalists, scientists, policymakers and public

Roy Borghouts

Jason Pridmore is Associate Professor at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and focuses on the topics of consumer surveillance, security, privacy and new media. Pridmore is the project coordinator of TRESCA, a Horizon 2020-funded project about social science communication in collaboration with scientists from Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany and Belgium. "If we can increase trust in scientists working in social scientific fields, we can use this to understand science communication in issues such as climate change.”

What is TRESCA about?
“The European Union is incredibly concerned about why people are not trusting scientists any more and issues with fake news. So, they are funding projects focusing on issues such as ocean pollution, climate change, anti-vaccination – the usual suspects. We have a slightly different approach. We will address more social science issues, especially in the field of digitalisation and privacy. One example is the automatisation of labour; another example is anxiety and stress.
The argument we put is this: if we can increase trust in scientists working in these more “blurry” social science fields, we can use some of that appreciation to understand science communication in less disputable issues such as should be the case for climate change.”

But in these social and privacy issues the scientific outcomes are widespread, maybe even contrary?
“I agree, that is why this is actually more interesting. But there are enough things that are commonalities: certain beliefs we can express and points we all agree on, while we can also still make clear that there are points of disagreement. Our goal is to try to cross the communication barriers between journalists, scientists, policymakers and the public. We are trying to connect all four.”

It sounds like an ambitious project.
“One of our partners in this project is a studio that does all sorts of scientific communication on YouTube. They make short YouTube videos and they have nine million subscribers worldwide. We will be testing a video with them. At certain points we will change the language used in the video and think about what works best. Is the phrase ‘many scientists agree on …’ appropriate, or should we say instead ‘this Harvard professor named Johnson states …’. This is just a small example.”

“Our goal is to find out who they trust and why, and on which topics? And how do we increase trust?”

Probably a lot of the information people (“the public”) believe is from the news?
“Our goal is to find out: who they trust and why, and on which topics? And how do we increase trust?”

Do you think we should trust scientists more?
“That is a legitimate question [laughs]. In general: of course. If the scientist is producing peer-reviewed work, yes. But it is the start of thinking of the critical skills that are needed to evaluate different ways in which scientific information is presented. The goal is, at least try, to increase critical engagement by the public. We also need to do this through journalism, connecting with journalists directly.”

Why are scientists and journalists not an easy match?
“The academic always wants to have a nuanced view. The academic says: ‘all these things could happen’. The news person will look for some of the worst or more surprising outcomes, the ‘hot takes’, the glamorising controversial content. I think that often puts scientists and news organisations at odds, but it also complicates the relationship with policymakers as well, because they will have to react to the news as well. On the other hand, people working in the field of news have a difficult task: they have to think about what will sell without losing the nuance, and without overselling.
Furthermore, we know that people tend to be drawn to what they already think. They align with what fits their point of view, then they can believe the rest as well. This is the way fake news works, too. So, we as scientists have to work with journalists, we have to work with policymakers, but also in a way that fits in with what people are already thinking.
A later part is a training project: we would like to train researchers better. How do we see scientific news, particularly in these social science areas, being communicated and how do we do it better?”

Associate professor