Accessible science reporting can foster overconfidence in readers

After reading an accessible science news story, participants were more likely to feel they had no need to consult an expert to find out more

By Alex Fradera

A scientifically informed public is a wonderful thing, and at the Digest we’re happy to be part of cultivating it. But we’d be the first to admit that many scientific issues are too complex for a single article to resolve decisively. When it comes to making consequential life decisions, it’s still important to defer to experts who can draw nuanced conclusions from looking at the big picture. But experts are increasingly denigrated, and a new study in the journal Public Understanding of Science suggests that one cause may be our easy access to information, giving us the impression that we already know all we need. Specifically, science reporting that is accessible, breezy and details-light can discourage readers from consulting experts on that topic.

Lisa Scharrer of the University of Münster and her colleagues recruited 73 German participants (average age of 34) with a range of educational backgrounds. They read a booklet containing four scenarios in which a hypothetical friend had a health issue and wanted to know the veracity of a claim, for instance: “does eating chillies decrease blood pressure?”. Each scenario was followed by a genuine research-based article about a relevant medical science finding.

These research articles had been published between 2007-2011 and were reproduced verbatim. Their original place of publication was hidden from participants, but two of the articles in the booklet were always from a source aimed at experts, such as Springer Medizin (similar to the English language site Medscape). These were digested accounts of peer-reviewed articles that retained some technical nitty-gritty. The other two articles were always from a mainstream press source such as the popular German tabloid Bild.

Participants rated both types of text as credible, and both types increased their faith in the scientific claim queried by their friend. However, participants agreed more with scientific claims that were backed up by an article from the mainstream press, compared to a digest aimed at experts. What’s more, after reading a mainstream science article, participants were more confident in their understanding of the issue, and although they admitted they weren’t yet 100 per cent confident, they were less likely to say they needed to consult an expert.

Scharrer’s team believe that when we read technical scientific accounts, the jargon and depth remind us of the complexity of the topic. But when the account is too easy to swallow, we feel on top of the issue – we reason that it can’t be that complex because we understand it already. This “fluency effect”, where information that’s very easy to process gives you the impression you’re on top of that topic, is known to be triggered in other contexts, such as by lectures from engaging speakers.

Findings like these pose a dilemma to science communicators – do too good a job and you risk leaving your audience with an inflated sense of confidence. To our mind, the benefit of making science accessible to as many people as possible – while remaining accurate – is too important to sacrifice. But this new research is a reminder that it’s always important to alert readers to the caveats and limitations behind new findings, and that science is a messy process – after all, what’s scientifically supported today may turn out to be false tomorrow.

When science becomes too easy: Science popularization inclines laypeople to underrate their dependence on experts

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

5 thoughts on “Accessible science reporting can foster overconfidence in readers”

  1. One is reminded of the recent Blue Planet 2 programme, where people reacted very strongly to a piece on the death of a Whale calf. Although the intentions of the presentation were commendable and shouldn’t be questioned, many people didn’t critically examine the claims, especially the robustness of their assumptions, linking the whale’s death to plastics. This actually leads to an undermining of their aims, because when peers point out the failings, the public’s confidence in accessible and higher science, can be damaged disproportionately.

    1. Definitely. As a practitioner I recognise that it can be a tricky balance – if you read a lot of my earlier writings for the BPS you’ll find enough hedging to reconstruct Hampton Court, and then it’s difficult for a readership to know what they should take away. But as the temptation is generally to go too far in the other direction, it’s important to continually sense check whether your claims outstrip the data.

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