Recently, I did a little blogging experiment on the business networking site LinkedIn (inspired by a post on Copyblogger). I was writing a feature article for Sciencebase about risk and the public perception of trust in science and technology. As an alternative route into the opinions of lots of members of the community, I posted an open question asking rhetorically why the public no longer trusts science and told potential respondents to let me know if they didn’t mind being quoted in the article.
The question was worded very loosely with the aim of eliciting the strongest responses possible. It’s not something I would usually do, I’d simply approach independent experts and contacts and ask their opinions directly in a more traditional journalistic way. But, like I say, this was an experiment.
Replies poured in quite quickly. One respondent thought I was crazy for imagining that the public does not trust science. “People do trust science and scientists," he said, "Anyone who doesn’t, please stand up and be allowed to fall immediately victim to polio, the Black Death, measles, chronic sinus infection, prostate cancer, and on on and on.” Others were in a similar vein.
They were not the kind of responses I was expecting. As if by listing the various things that many people take for granted somehow measures their trust of science. In fact, one can make a similar list of the kinds of science-related topics that are alluded to in the research about which I was writing in the original post – GMOs, nuclear, cloning, mobile phone radiation, stem cells, cancer risk, adverse drug reactions, superbugs, vaccines, environment, pollution, chemical weapons, biological agents, military technology.
These are all science subjects, in some sense, and are considered seriously problematic in the eyes of the public. Of course, the solutions to all those problems also lies with science, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that the public commonly distrusts.
The article itself looked at how the public respond to such issues, specifically cancer clusters, and delved into how trust in such matters is actually coloured by the particular organisation or entity that is offering the information about the topic. Moreover, the study showed that the way people assess risk when faced with such information differs greatly depending on the source of the information. Their thinking seems to change in working on such a risk-benefit equation depending on the source, whether it’s come from an official organ or a pressure group, for instance.
Strangely, another respondent accused me of bias in my writing, as if somehow the placement of a deliberately provocative question in a public forum was somehow the writing itself rather than simply an enquiry.
I could not understand why he thought that my posing a question journalistically would preclude me from writing a neutral piece? It was his response to my initial broad question that has led me to write this post, however, so maybe I should thank him for the inspiration.
As I explained, I put the question with a deliberate and strong inflection in order to provoke the strongest response from the community. That’s pretty much a standard approach to getting useful opinions from people on both sides of an argument in journalism. If you don’t believe me listen to the way people like the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys posture through their questioning in order to get the best response out of their interviewees. They often hint at a strong statement through their question one way or the other and people will either support what you say and offer their positive opinions or else argue against you.
It’s usually best to lean away from them (not only to avoid the blows but to inspire them to give the strongest argument for their case, and I’m not referring to Paxman or Humphrys here). Either way, you get useful comments on both sides that will provide the foundations for the actual writing and so allow you to produce a neutral article that reveals the pros and cons of an issue without personal bias.
Anyway, as an experiment, it didn’t work too well, initially. However, once the community had warmed to the question and I’d added a clarification some quite useful answers that weren’t simply an attack on the question itself began to emerge.
As it turns out, none of the responses really fit with what I wanted to report in the original post, which you can read in the Sciencebase blog under the title In What We Trust, by the way, and so I intend to write another post discussing the various points raised and namechecking those members of the LinkedIn community who were happy to be quoted.