Canadian Nobelist wages war on science disinformation

Trailblazing physicist Donna Strickland hopes new institute will tackle waning public trust in science

March 29, 2023
Donna Strickland portrait as described in the article
Source: Getty

Holding the first Nobel prize in physics won by a woman in more than a half century, Canada's Donna Strickland has thought hard about what she could do with the spotlight. Her answer: a public much better defended against scientific disinformation.

Professor Strickland has decided to create the Trust in Science and Technology Research Network, or TRuST, at her home institution, the University of Waterloo. She hopes it will become a centre for multidisciplinary examinations of whether and why the public trusts its scientific experts, and what can be done to improve that situation.

“I really want the public to understand the scientific process,” Professor Strickland told Times Higher Education. As difficult as that may seem in a world getting forced into ideological camps, her goal is a nation that thinks before taking positions on controversial new questions, and then adjusts those positions as the science improves. “That’s what I would really like to get across to our citizens,” she said.

That problem doesn’t yet seem to have reached crisis levels in Canada, Professor Strickland said. But the warning signs are emerging, she said, including this year’s CanTrust Index, an annual study by the public relations firm Proof Strategies, showing that medical doctors and scientists remain the nation’s most trusted types of professionals, but are also facing the steepest declines.

Professor Strickland, a native of Ontario, won a share of the physics Nobel in 2018 for a breakthrough in laser amplification reached in 1985 while she was a graduate student at the University of Rochester. She became only the third female winner of that award and the first since 1963.

She described the creation of TRuST as a process arising from repeated suggestions after that victory that she make use of the attention. The nudges led Professor Strickland to think of her trips to Asia, and especially South Korea, first with her parents, in which she saw the country's startling transition from poverty to wealth based on its full-fledged society-wide commitment to scientific progress as the pathway.

“I really just started to think, we’ve lost that a bit in the West,” she said.

That brought her attention to public deficits in scientific literacy – “just waking up people’s ideas as to what science is” – and from there to questions of public trust of science. “As we brought the people around the table together,” she said of her project colleagues, “trust in science came to the forefront – that we first have to get trust.”

The TRuST initiative has a modest amount of seed funding from the University of Waterloo to get it going for its first three years, said Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher, associate professor of English language and literature at Waterloo, who is the network’s inaugural co-director along with Professor Strickland.

As an initial concept, it is earning some high-level encouragement. “I like a lot the idea of such an institute,” said John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford University. Dr Ioannidis is a pioneer in studying accuracy in scientific research, and believes too much of the debate around it involves non-expert opinion. “This is a topic that needs to be studied scientifically, with rigorous methods,” he said.

But a prominent investigator of political disinformation, Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University, while applauding the initiative, warned that attempts to improve scientific quality and public communication historically face well-funded pushbacks.“I hope the new institute will take seriously the deep and determinative political and cultural aspects of the problem,” Professor Oreskes said.

Professor Strickland said she recognised that reality. She said she did not expect the TRuST project to actively fight disinformation in the middle of a public crisis, but hoped it would lay the groundwork so that citizens were better prepared next time one arrives.

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Reader's comments (3)

Public trust in science is a big problem in the UK too. It is not helped by the government’s misapplication of statistics at a very public level. This is something we, in the Royal Statistical Society, are taking very seriously.
GovernMENTAL claims of 'following the science' has done huge damage, along with humanities claiming to be 'sciences'.
We should remember that DISinformation is not the same as merely MISinformation. MIS = what we thought honestly was true at the time, but later turns out not to be. DIS =deliberate lies to lead people astray, often to achieve a (nefarious) political end.


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