The QUEST project interviewed Giovanni Carrada, known as one of the writers of the Italian TV show Superquark, the popular science programme created by Piero Angela, a well-known Italian science journalist and television host.
Giovanni is not only a well-experienced science communicator, but he has a long-lasting experience on different media, and he’s expert in a diversity of fields of science communication. We spoke to him about the role of science communication today and how to define quality criteria for science communication.
Giovanni Carrada is part of the QUEST Advisory Board, a group of science communication experts who are advising QUESTS over the course of the project.
Is science communication today easier or more difficult compared to the beginning of your career?
Science communication today is much more difficult. In the past, working for a newspaper or for a TV show was enough to be listened to. A good job required the ability of telling the story by clearly stating the facts. Today, instead, communication channels have increased and so has the competition to catch people‘s attention. It almost seems like being creative is more important than having a proper understanding of the topic you’re speaking of. You need to work hard to gain credibility. It is not enough to properly know the facts, but you also need to convince people that you know them better than anyone else. Digital revolution brought a disintermediation in communications and everyone, at least in theory, can speak their mind and be listened to. Fact-checking and responsibility for one’s own words seems to be no longer required. As a result, when the general public looks for information about hot topics on the web, they can find so many different kinds of messages, difficult to discern especially without knowing the source of the information or without a proper education to recognize reliable sources. This could be the starting point of the process leading to a wrong opinion built upon a series of cognitive biases. Once this process is in place, it is very hard to counter it and make people change their minds.
Which field is the most challenging for a science communicator?
Probably high-risk technologies. Independently on the risk being real or just perceived. I’m thinking of vaccines, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), genome editing, pesticides, some infrastructures or the use of specific chemicals.
Our evolutionary history shows that natural selection has usually rewarded those who worried about risks, rather than those who underestimated them. We are natutally inclined to fight risks. There is a vaste literature about how we evaluate risks, and in particular how we estimate the likelihood of a specific risk. It is rare that the experts and the general public agree on the evaluation of risks. Usually what is worrying for the general public, does not worry the expert and viceversa. This adds to the scarce capacity of recognizing reliable information, and the possibility for everyone to add fuel to the fire, sometimes because of simple unawareness, sometimes because of an aim to defend specific interests. For example, speaking badly of a new technology usually helps defend the old one or a competing one. On top of that, it helps to reach a bigger audience because if it bleeds, it leads, as journalists would say. It can also help in presenting oneself as a defender of the citizens, the so-called virtue signalling, typical of politicians. All these factors combined cause the proper scientific message to be left behind. The real challenge is to find the right method of communication that is capable of counterbalancing all these factors.
What is the role of politics in settling science-related issues?
Politics could, or rather should, help, as its role is to effectively combine diverging interests. Pesticides are a good example of this process, as Europe has one of the best regulations in the world that defends in a good way both farmers and consumers. Problems rise when the politics uses science as a weapon against opponents, contributing to create confusion and disinformation. This is more evident now, as the changes in the communication process has contributed to a more polarized and simplified communication of political themes. A good example of this phenomenon is the debate on climate change, which in the USA is very polarized issue. For some, climate change is an emergency demanding extraordinary interventions, comparable to a war. For others, climate change is not a real issue, but rather a scientists’ conspiracy. This kind of polarization divides the public opinion in two political-cultural “tribes” very strong in their opinions. Trying to use real data to discuss with these tribes not only does not convince them to change their mind, but strengthens their opinion, because they feel threatened in what they recognize as a sign of their identity. In this atmosphere, it is very hard to take good and wise decisions rather than popular and simple ones.
How to change a deep-rooted public opinion?
In general, it is necessary to let go of the illusion that simply stating the facts is enough to make people change their minds. Vaccines are a perfect example. As a result of a fraud in 1998, later extensively exposed, a strong opposition to child vaccination was started around the world, lasting for more than 20 years despite the scientific retraction. However, in Italy, a couple of years ago there was a change. Some journalists and researchers stopped using the same argument of no-vax (the presumed link to autism), and they focused more on the immunodeficient children dangered by the lack of herd immunity, as a result of lower levels of vaccination. In a few months, the general feeling changed in the public opinion, on the media and in politics. This led to new regulations aimed to raise the levels of vaccination. The image of the immunodeficient child was strong enough to change the perception of the public.
What are the criteria for a proper scientific communication?
There are two types. Firstly, the usual ones: to properly analyse the sources, to check with the experts and to try to give a complete and objective overview of the subject. Then, there are less evident but equally important criteria. On topics such as vaccines, climate change or artificial intelligence, a traditional communication that is clear and logical may not be a sufficient weapon. In these cases, the quality criterium to consider is the efficacy. In my opinion, the new challenge of science communication is a sensible use of the concept of rhetoric and persuasion, from the ones that Aristotele passed on to us to the ones described by social psycology. The general public cannot be compared to a collegue of ours with prior knowledge and a lot of experience in looking at data. Our communication addresses people who have their own opinions and cognitive biases. This implies that we need to learn how to be effective to not be irrelevant. The challenge, which is mainly an ethical one, is to find a balance between the utilization of polished rhetorics and respect towards the science behind the subject we are speaking of.
What could be the future role of the science communicator?
Hopefully, its role will be crucial, a necessary link between science and innovation. But not only do we need more people working as science communicators, but also a bigger number of scientists who are able to communicate. In every science area we should have at least one scientist who is also a good communicator, both precise and persuasive. Each scientific community should identify someone with the role of public scientist, who could be trained by a good communicator. Once they start, they will love the role and never stop playing it.
Thanks to Matteo Di Rosa