Public outreach has become an issue of growing importance for science. Many scientists and scientific institutions feel a need to inform the public about potentially dangerous misconceptions or to counter a continuing barrage of misinformation from numerous quarters including commercial lobbies and fundamentalists. In fact, there are alarming deficits in the public's understand of science, as was highlighted this year in a study by the Wellcome Trust, which found that only 9% of respondents were aware that antibiotic resistance means that bacteria are resistant to antibiotics (https://wellcome.ac.uk/sites/default/files/antibiotic-resistance-graphic-wellcome-apr16.pdf). More than three times as many, 31%, think that it is their own bodies that have become resistant to antibiotics. Similar levels of ignorance have prevailed regarding the fact that antibiotics kill only bacteria and not viruses, and are therefore not suitable for treating flu or the common cold.
A lack of trust
There has been debate over where the blame lies for such ignorance, but most observers now apportion it in varying measures between scientists, science writers or journalists, and the public itself. Institutions also carry some responsibility due to expending more effort bolstering their own reputations, rather than meticulously reporting their research. Indeed, public resistance to scientific messages may stem in part from the continuous stream of exaggerated claims, according to Charles Seife, Professor of Journalism at New York University. “Some of the reasons for the resistance come from the fact that history is littered with self‐serving, incorrect, and even dangerous pronouncements in the name of science”, he said. “It would be a very stupid and bovine population that actually believed every official statement declaring a “breakthrough” in science. Anyone who trusts blindly in “science”, thinking that even the most corporate of research is pure and unsullied by commercial interests, is incredibly naive”.
If lack of public knowledge were the only problem for science communication, …