21 November 2018

“We need reliable and trustworthy information instead of fake news and extremes”

In an interview with Die Welt, Foundation president Hans-Christian Pape describes the challenges of science communication.

Hans-Christan Pape (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Mario Wezel)

In an interview published today in the daily paper “Die Welt”, Hans-Christian Pape, president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, takes a stand on science communication in times of fake news and distrust of scientific findings. It’s right and important that society critically questions science, says Pape, but examples such as climate change, the existence of which many people deny, highlight the problem of communicating in hermetic circles where we are no longer faced with opinions that differ from our own. “People who live in information bubbles become practically impossible to reach with valid scientific evidence.”

Pape believes that the public is absolutely interested in science; it’s the communication, he says, that often fails. “To gain people’s attention, extreme examples – both positive and negative – are almost always presented. But that doesn’t really contribute to an understanding of the process of scientific knowledge production. We need a platform that can serve as a mediating instance between the academic community and society”, Pape states.

Such a platform, he expands, should document findings in a comprehensible manner and explain the scientific system transparently. “This would be a source of information for journalists, but also for the public. No science PR, just reliable and trustworthy information that reflects the current state and value of research – including its uncertainties. After all, we’re not always able able to present success stories. Science is a process of understanding that also involves errors and contradictions. We need to make that transparent and expect the public to cope with it”, says Pape.

Pape also criticises problems due to which academia itself contributes to the loss of trust in its work. “The speed with which scientific findings are published has accelerated. In addition, research results are published in ever smaller units. Scientists do this because the number of publications they have to their name is considered a measure of their achievement and frequently boosts their career. That means quantity sometimes becomes more important than quality. There is unfortunately a disastrous trend of measuring researchers’ achievements too heavily by their publication figures, divorced from the value and content of the actual work. That is something we urgently have to correct”, says Pape.

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