Civic Science Sparks With…Boston University

May 5, 2023

Greetings Civic Science Community,

Beyond the headlines of ChatGPT, partnerships are coalescing to find more effective, resilient responses to misinformation—from social scientists investigating approaches through research (as Civic Science Fellow Michelle Amazeen discusses below); to efforts to look across the ecosystem of challenges and potential solutions (as in a consensus study being led by partners at the National Academies); to gatherings bringing together experts, leaders, and the public (as in the Nobel Prize Summit).

While some focus explicitly on misinformation, in a broader sense, people across the civic science network are working together to contribute to creating the conditions needed for science and evidence to thrive as part of democracy—and more ways for our pluralistic society to weigh in on choices, risks, and benefits. The Civic Science Fellows program and growing network began after many years of looking at intersecting challenges, including misinformation, with an intention to connect learning and action across boundaries.

Together, we are building innovative approaches to complex problems that require civic engagement as well as technical solutions. More of these approaches are highlighted here, including strengthening science journalism and communication, as Michelle’s host partner, Boston University College of Communication Dean Mariette DiChristina shares. And—in a move toward civic science being recognized as inherent to scientific work and impact—Civic Science Fellow Elyse Aurbach and her host partners at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities will discuss efforts to increase incentives for academic researchers to engage in civic science in the next Civic Science Connect event (register here).

In partnership,

Elizabeth Christopherson
President and Chief Executive Officer, Rita Allen Foundation

Elizabeth Christopherson: How would you describe yourself to the civic science community?  

Mariette DiChristina: I spent three decades as a science journalist, culminating in ten years as the first woman editor in chief of Scientific American and an executive vice president of its parent company, Springer Nature. Today, I am dean of Boston University’s College of Communication and Professor of the Practice in Journalism. Our college teaches students from undergraduate through Ph.D. in a variety of communication areas: journalism, advertising, public relations, media science, emerging media, film, and TV. With the support of the Rita Allen Foundation, my college hosts a Civic Science Fellow, Dr. Michelle Amazeen, and I am honored to be a member of the Practice and Science of Civic Science Advisory Committee.

Michelle Amazeen: As an associate professor at Boston University, I study persuasion and misinformation, exploring the nature and influence of misinformation and efforts to correct it. Using a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods, I strive to offer findings with practical applications for journalists, educators, policymakers, and consumers who want to better recognize and resist persuasion and misinformation in media, especially pertaining to science-related issues.

“Our society has become so saturated with media messages, it’s important for us to understand how these messages—especially as they relate to science-related issues—are affecting human perceptions and behavior.”

—Michelle Amazeen, Boston University Civic Science Fellow 

Elizabeth: What inspired your civic science path? What’s your why?

Mariette: As science popularizer Michio Kaku has said, science is the engine of human prosperity. I agree. And good communication is essential for all of society to benefit from science. But I believe that it is not enough to simply disseminate information about science. To make an impact on society’s challenges, scientists and engineers—and science journalists like me—have to be active listeners, engage respectfully with people who have different ways of knowing, and collaborate via our civic processes to be able to go forward together.

Michelle: Prior to academia, I began my career in communications “selling air” at WPGU radio in Champaign, Illinois, and went on to conduct marketing research in various client and supplier side positions. After witnessing much business, political, and scientific misinformation, I decided to study for my Ph.D. in Media and Communication. Our society has become so saturated with media messages, it’s important for us to understand how these messages—especially as they relate to science-related issues—are affecting human perceptions and behavior.

Elizabeth: Would you share more about your work as a Fellow—and what you are especially proud of or excited about?  

Michelle: As a Civic Science Fellow, I led a team that designed and implemented a three-phase study to explore two broad questions: 1) Which are the most science-misinformed communities, and 2) what are effective ways to combat science-related misperceptions in social media?

In phase 1, we found that marginalized groups in the U.S. have experienced a plethora of racial and ethnic inequities and that global issues such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have further amplified these disparities, increasing distrust in science. Moreover, while misinformation is pervasive on social media platforms, we found that corporate and special interests often create the narratives that are perpetuated not only by social media, but via corporate mainstream media, as well.

In phase 2, we conducted focus groups among Black and Latino populations who qualified as misinformation-susceptible to discuss their engagement with and perceptions of science. While participants were familiar with best practices of verifying sources of information, they were highly distrustful of authority figures, celebrity testimonials, and fact-checking strategies that attempt to combat online misinformation. However, most were receptive to an “inoculation” message that forewarned about dubious influence strategies rather than messages that refuted specific claims.

We are in the final phase of the project: selecting the most influential misinformation messages and conducting a laboratory experiment among a nationally representative sample of U.S. residents to determine which of the interventions modified from phase 2 are most effective at mitigating scientific misperceptions. We are excited about having results soon.

Elizabeth: How does your work with the Civic Science Fellows program and Practice and Science of Civic Science Advisory Committee influence your professional work? Where do you see opportunities to build on your experiences with the program?

Mariette: I’m inspired by the Civic Science Fellows and also by the colleagues and community we’ve created in the Practice and Science of Civic Science Advisory Committee. This inspiration drives me forward, to do my part to help create momentum for a culture of civic science. At the Boston University’s College of Communication, we are very excited to be creating four online courses to pilot a master’s certificate in civic science, thanks to the support of the Rita Allen Foundation. The importance and potential impact of civic science communication has inspired a gift to support a Civic Science Initiative here. We’ll be developing additional learning opportunities; enhancing community services such as the free SciCommers network for researchers and engineers who want to engage the public; and developing a program to support projects in civic science communication.

Elizabeth: Would you share a few thoughts about the future of science communication over the next 3-5-10 years—and intersection with societal issues such as misinformation?

Mariette: We live in a 24/7 info-blizzard. Our information ecosystem is fractured into multiple digital channels, increasingly polarized, and often rife with misinformation. On top of that, social media platforms have siphoned off both advertising and circulation revenues that were previously available to news media to fund quality journalism; media were further stressed by having to report the fast-changing global story of the pandemic during lockdowns. For all these reasons, today’s—and tomorrow’s—science communicators have to sort good information from bad more rapidly and with less support than ever. To do that, they need to master the principles of trust-building communication and apply those to their work across a wide variety of dissemination platforms to engage communities.

Michelle: Effective science communication in the future will require the ability to understand both the supply and demand side of information. When engaging in scientific outreach, it is imperative that science communicators recognize how contemporary media systems incentivize sensationalistic sound bites over thoughtful, deliberative explanations. At the same time, disingenuous consumers of science may try to weaponize ill-conceived communication efforts. Especially in rapidly emerging and evolving situations as we’ve seen with COVID-19, effective science communicators are critical in contributing to public policy, industry, and civil society.

“We need to build momentum around fostering a culture of civic science and building trust, and I believe journalists and academics can play critical roles. Journalists and scientists may sometimes seem to be at odds, but they have a lot in common. They are both curious and evidence-based. They can be partners in helping to engage society.”

—Mariette DiChristina, Dean, College of Communication, Boston University

Elizabeth: As you look toward the future, what is a civic science aspiration to share? What’s your call to action?

Mariette:  We need to build momentum around fostering a culture of civic science and building trust, and I believe journalists and academics can play critical roles. Journalists and scientists may sometimes seem to be at odds, but they have a lot in common. They are both curious and evidence-based. They can be partners in helping to engage society. Together, they can cut through the noise of social media platforms whose algorithms foster echo chambers, misinformation, and polarization, and where celebrities can drown out the experts. Journalism business models are also shifting, which has shrunk the pool of specialized reporters at media outlets. For all these reasons, the mission of journalism to inform the public on civic issues can benefit from a partnership with scientists who share in that important mission.

Turning to academia, we are at a critical moment. With the rise of populism, many have become mistrustful of experts. Especially given the cost of tuition, academia needs to remind everyone of the value it brings to the world in enhancing human discovery and knowledge and in teaching critical thinking. I believe that by fostering a culture of civic science and building trust, academia can provide a vital service to a world that really needs help grappling with complex challenges such as climate change, racial inequities, and improving public health. Academics bring a helpful mix of convening power, connections between researchers and practitioners, and a strategic planning horizon that lasts decades, rather than one election cycle at a time. Civic science teaches us the great power in our collective action to build a better future together.

Michelle: Fostering a collaborative effort to build inclusive engagement between science, communities, and civic life—the definition of civic science, itself—is part and parcel to effectively addressing complex problems rooted in science and technology. Thus, encouraging a culture of civic science will go a long way in wresting control back over disinformation efforts. While an all-of-society effort is needed—including changes to public policy, educational updates, and structural reforms in the architecture and incentives of our media systems—promoting civic science is an important part of building a better future together.