18 Apr 2024 Attractions Management Handbook

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Attractions Management Handbook - Fact or Fiction?


Fact or Fiction?

Distrust in experts and institutions gave rise to the problem of fake news, but science centres can be part of the solution. Linda Conlon tells us how

Science centres can help children learn how to use online tools to validate information they read online
Linda Conlon is Chief Executive of the International Centre for Life in the UK – home to the Life Science Centre
Facebook and Twitter play a significant role in how fake information is spread photo: ©shutterstock/Frederic Legrand - COMEO
Visitors explore how things aren’t always the way they seem in the Brain Zone at Life Science Centre photo: ©sarah deane
photo: © Life Science Centre
The post-truth era was on the agenda at the 2018 Ecsite Conference in Geneva photo: © June 2018 Ecsite Annual Conference

We are living in a ‘post-truth’ age: blatant lies have become routine across society; public tolerance is shockingly high when it comes to inaccurate and undefended allegations; and non-sequiturs are commonly uttered in response to hard questions.

Post-truth politics is made possible by a loss of trust in established institutions. Across the Western world, trust is at an all time low, which helps to explain why many people prefer so-called ‘authentic’ politicians who tell it how it is – that is, what people feel. In a survey of Americans’ views on trust, the media and democracy, released in January 2018 by the Knight Foundation and Gallup, respondents were twice as likely to say the media support our democracy “very poorly” or “poorly” (43 per cent) than “very well” or “well” (28 per cent).

The second big factor in a post-truth age is the internet and the services it’s spawned. Nearly two thirds of adults in the USA get news on social media and the numbers continue to grow. On Facebook, Reddit, Twitter or WhatsApp, everyone is a publisher. Content no longer comes in fixed formats like articles in a newspaper. It can take any shape – video, chart or animation. A single idea can be shared by millions without background or context.

Facebook is by far the biggest player in the social network world, but its sheer dominance compared to others in the media industry is what’s truly staggering: 2.2 billion people use Facebook every month, which is more than 70 times higher than unique visitors to the most popular newspaper website in the UK.

Its financial clout is also on a different scale to any of the other players in the industry. Facebook is worth sixfold-plus more than Time Warner – at about $500bn. Even the recent outrage over Facebook’s failure to protect its users’ data in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal only put a very short-lived dent in Facebook’s finances.

While Facebook and Twitter may insist that they are technology and not media companies, they’re an integral part of the media ecosystem and play a significant role in how fake information is spread.

Facebook is starting to take ownership of this responsibility. In April 2018, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the US Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees, admitting “we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm”.

The first big test for Facebook’s ability to take back control and stop being used as a pawn in electoral processes is this summer’s (2019) European Parliament elections. Facebook has already stated that these elections are a “top priority”.

Science centres and museums face a similar challenge in this post-truth world. We want to believe that we’re different and that science is not like business and politics – but that’s not true. For decades science has been plagued by inaccurate information; rational debate on subjects as diverse as climate change, gene therapy and vaccinations has been hampered by a toxic mix of fact and fantasy. What does it say about the standing of science when global warming is dismissed by President Trump who, like him or loathe him, holds a position of great influence.

Increasingly, scientific evidence is also pitted against emotional stories, which have greater influence on the public when they’re told by celebrities. Actress and model Jenny McCarthy appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to share her story about her son being diagnosed with autism and how – contrary to scientific evidence – her “mommy instinct” told her that childhood vaccinations played a part in triggering the developmental disorder. In the interview, McCarthy went on to add that “the University of Google is where I got my degree from”.

At the June 2018 Ecsite Annual Conference in Geneva, Switzerland – the largest gathering of science centre professionals in Europe – science communication in the post-truth era was on the agenda. Naturally, the problem of fake news wasn’t solved in one session, but it was reassuring, at least, to see an acknowledgement that this is an issue that science centres must address.

But what role can science centres play in this battle? I believe that science centres can work with schools to help children understand how they can use online tools to validate information they read online. A final report by the Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools, published in June 2018, found that only two per cent of children have the critical literacy skills to decide if a news article is real or fake. The startling report also found that 49.9 per cent of children are worried about not being able to spot fake news and that 53.5 per cent of teachers believe that the national curriculum does not equip children with the literacy skills they need to identify fake news.

To help address this issue, we’re currently planning Life Science Centre’s first workshop on fake news as part of our hands-on Science Sessions for teenagers, which are held every six weeks. While the efforts of one science centre is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to equipping children with the skills to spot fake news before they share it, Life is part of an international network of science centres and we call upon our peers globally to run their own workshops.

It’s also important to show children that the scientific method that they’re taught – the process of rigorously testing a hypothesis – has a place in everyday life, not just inside the science classroom.

I’m mindful, however, that we need to be careful to distinguish between ‘mistakes’ and ‘fake’. Children shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes – rather, failure should be celebrated as a necessary hurdle before any great innovation. Fake news, on the other hand, is the purposeful spreading of false information, usually to benefit an agenda on one side of a polarised debate.

The biggest lesson we can learn from science is to avoid embedding ourselves in one camp on any debate, but to review all evidence presented to us fairly before we come to any conclusions. By adopting a scientific mindset when we scroll through social media, TV channels or newspaper columns, we can start to turn the tide on the proliferation of fake news.

Science & Media Museum, Bradford, UK
November 2017 – January 2018
John O'Shea

There’s nothing new about fake news, social media is simply making it possible for false stories and photoshopped images to travel faster than ever before and on a global scale. But staff at the Science & Media Museum were the first on the bandwagon to readdress the balance, launching an exhibition on the history of fake news, unverified statistics and doctored photos. FAKE NEWS investigated how and why fake stories are created and how the growing influence of new technology is expanding the audience.

Explaining the inspiration for the exhibition, senior exhibitions manager John O’Shea told Attractions Management: “Key from our perspective was a sense of urgency, and we wanted to go live with the exhibition during 2017, while understanding of the fake news phenomenon was still in flux. We worked ‘journalistically’: scoping, evaluating and changing content priorities right up until launch.”

Bolstering the exhibition, a special one-off event called “Live Debate: Fake News on Trial” with guest speakers Samira Ahmed (BBC broadcaster), Natalie Kane (curator, Digital Design, V&A) and John Lubbock (communications coordinator, Wikimedia UK) debated how museums and the media can deal with the challenges of ‘post-truth’ reporting, responsibility for the phenomenon, how the authority of information can be maintained in a fast-changing media landscape, and what response strategies can be adopted.

Commenting on the event, Ahmed said: “I was so impressed by the intelligent, thought-provoking focus of the exhibition and the speed with which it was put together, with a live discussion that involved experts talking directly with visitors who cared passionately.”

Fake news isn’t new: unverified telegrams claiming 1,000s of passengers survived the Titanic were reported as fact by newspapers photo: © National Science and Media Museum/SSPL

National Literacy Trust, UK
Fake News & Critical Literacy
September 2017 – June 2018
John O'Shea

The National Literacy Trust and All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy launched the Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills to gather evidence on how fake news is impacting on children and young people – and to investigate what skills should be developed at school to enable them to spot fake news (www.literacytrust.org.uk/fakenews).

The commission – which also teamed up with Facebook, First News and The Day to carry out the research – surveyed primary and secondary school pupils in autumn 2017 to discover what the children knew about fake news and how able they were to spot it. Teachers were also surveyed to gather information on where critical literacy skills are taught, what support they need to improve the teaching of these skills and to gather their thoughts on the impact of fake news in the classroom. The results were reported in June 2018 in the Fake News and Critical Literacy report.

The results reveal that just two per cent of the children surveyed have the critical literacy skills needed to tell whether a news story is real or fake; half are worried about not being able to spot fake news; and two thirds now trust the news less as a result of fake news.

Two thirds of the teachers believe fake news is harming children’s wellbeing and increasing their anxiety levels, while half feel that the national curriculum fails to equip children with the literacy skills they need to identify fake news.

Commenting on the findings, National Literacy Trust director Jonathan Douglas told Attractions Management: “Today’s proliferation of information and news makes it harder for adults and children alike to navigate the digital landscape confidently. The literacy skills children need to thrive in this world and identify fake news are not keeping pace and this drives a culture of uncertainty and fear, and poses a risk to young people’s democratic futures.

“Children need opportunities to develop critical literacy skills and, along with schools and families, wider society has an important role to play. Science centres and educational institutions can play a crucial role in protecting children’s rights around fake news by supporting children to be active and questioning participants in the reading process, ensuring that they know how to look at information sources and news coverage, including both the language and visual cues.”

Science centres can help to protect children’s rights around fake news by supporting them to be active and questioning participants
Ontario Science Centre, Canada
Science Literacy Survey
John O'Shea

Ontario Science Centre’s third annual science literacy survey reveals a striking tension between the widespread recognition (74 per cent) that we need science and technology to solve the complex problems the world faces, and the worrisome result that more than half (54 per cent) of Canadians believe that society is turning away from science. This is a fundamental issue for our technology-based society.

The 2018 survey asked Canadians about their science literacy and where they obtain reliable scientific information. The results revealed that 81 per cent of people are concerned that “fake news” is damaging public perception of science while 69 per cent believe that science is reported selectively to support news media objectives; and 63 per cent believe that science coverage is presented to support political positions. With respect to science literacy, 33 per cent consider themselves science illiterate and unable to follow science reports in the media; 43 per cent believe that science is a matter of opinion; and 75 per cent believe that scientific findings can be used to support any position.

Of particular concern, almost half (45 per cent) believe the science behind global warming is unclear and 27 per cent of millennials still believe that vaccinations are linked to autism despite this being widely scientifically discredited.

On the positive side, 90 per cent trust science centres and museums, scientists and educational institutions; 83 per cent want to know more about science and how it affects the world; and 74 per cent agree that the critical challenges facing the world will need to be solved by science and technology.

Ontario Science Centre’s CEO and chief science officer Maurice Bitran, PhD, told Attractions Management: “Canada’s first and most visited science centre isn’t just a science museum, it’s also a venue for public dialogue on the many issues at the intersection of science and society.

“Of these, none is more worrisome than the so-called ‘fake news’ because it erodes public confidence in science as a means to obtain reliable information.

“That’s partly why we started to conduct annual online surveys on the views Canadians hold about science, technology, and the effect ‘fake news’ has on the public perception of science. “The surprising result that 43 per cent of Canadians believe science is a ‘matter of opinion’ coexists with widespread interest in learning more about science, and that science centres and museums are among the most trusted institutions.

“This implies that science centres have an opportunity and responsibility to do their utmost to ensure that science literacy in their communities is healthy and that public trust on the scientific method, as the best approach we have to understand the natural world, is restored.”

Canadians trust science centres for their science-related information
About the author

Linda Conlon is CEO of the International Centre for Life in Newcastle, UK, incorporating the Life Science Centre visitor attraction and educational facility


@scienceatlife /scienceatlife

Originally published in Attractions Handbook 2018 edition

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