Canadian researchers worry about false scientific news

A marine mammal scientist in Vancouver believes his work has been poorly explained online, so he has come to wonder whether he should continue to talk to the media in the era of “false information” “.

“We have groups that may not understand science, but they hear a bit of science that fits their own idea and they grab it,” says Andrew Trites, who oversees the marine mammal unit of University of British Columbia.

“Truth is not as important as hearing something that can support your cause.”

Trites reports that a Washington State activist group called Save Family Farming recently published an article with a slide from a presentation he made on endangered killer whales.

It was a graphic that, presented without context, could easily be misinterpreted, since many people only look at titles and visuals without reading the story or context.

“The image is very powerful,” he notes.

David Shiffman, a marine biologist at Simon Fraser University, says he has heard from many colleagues complaining about the scientific portrayal of science in the media, and is convinced that offering scientists basic media training could help solve the problem.

“When they explain the situation to me and tell me exactly what happened, (I realize that) it could have been avoided if they had been a little more familiar with current media practices and with differences in culture between journalists and scientists, “he argues.

Mr. Shiffman is currently doing a study in which he is analyzing the media and the speech, and he believes the situation is not improving.

With the decline of science journalism, Dr. Shiffman believes that scientists can not take it for granted that they are talking to someone with a scientific background.

“What we can do is better familiarize scientists with how to effectively communicate their results to journalists and encourage the media to continue hiring and retaining specialized journalists with the necessary knowledge,” he said. he.

Thomas Sisk, professor of environmental science and policy at Northern Arizona University, also studied the issue.

Beyond the media coverage, he believes that science does not get the attention it should have in political decisions.

“I see a kind of desperation created by the lack of attention to science in general and the lack of attention when science really has something to offer in terms of politics,” he says.

As an example, he was surprised to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say that the government’s decision to support the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project was based on “a rigorous debate about science and technology. the evidence”.

Mr. Sisk says that he has submitted peer-reviewed research to Mr. Trudeau’s office on the potential impacts of the oil sands on the marine environment and has never been returned. A journalist then shared documents obtained as part of an access to information request showing that his work had been discussed with officials at Natural Resources Canada.

“It seemed to me that it was clear that our work had been received, reviewed, distributed within the government and that their answers were essentially about how they would counter it rather than take it into account,” he says.

Vanessa Adams, Press Secretary to Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi, did not respond directly to questions about Mr. Sisk’s comments.

“Our government has made it clear that our project decisions would be based on the science, evidence and traditional knowledge of Aboriginal peoples, and that the views of the public and affected communities will be solicited and considered.” said Ms. Adams in a statement.

Dr. Sisk does not expect decisions to be based solely on science because values ​​must also be considered. But he hopes that peer-reviewed scientific work directly related to an issue of public importance can at least benefit from impartial evaluation.

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