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Unravelling the science of science communication

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Do you trust what you read on social media? Can you rely on the credibility of online science information?

These are questions that first troubled PhD candidate Yi-Ling Hwong when she was working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, back in 2010.

Yi-Ling saw significant resources being invested in the use of social media to convey their science, but the effectiveness of this form of communication was not measured or known. This struck Yi-Ling as ironic, considering that science itself is such an evidence driven field.

So when the Master of Engineering graduate decided to pursue a PhD – at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at UNSW – she elected to analyse the processes and outcomes of social media science communication. Essentially Yi-Ling wanted to understand the impact of social media engagement on public trust in science and the drivers of public distrust in certain well-established scientific facts. A current and very relevant example of the erosion of public trust in science is the climate change denier’s movement.

With her keen interest in social media as a platform for communicating science, Yi-Ling is committed to uncovering the essential ingredients of an engaging science-related social media message. Drawing on her background in engineering and also computer science, Yi-Ling is using the immense potential of machine learning to harness the power of social media big data and to find meaningful patterns. Yi-Ling employs a range of techniques to analyse the data including supervised and unsupervised learning, sentiment analysis and topic modelling.

Her findings to date, reveal that while 97% of scientists believe that climate change is real, communicating tangible facts, such as this, is not an effective way to convince the public. In reality, Yi-Ling found that the use of facts and figures actually confronts people, their world views and their values. Instead, Yi-Ling’s insights are showing that it’s necessary for scientists to engage with people at a human level through authenticity and by telling personal stories.

Yi-Ling hopes her research will prove useful in guiding the success of future science communication.

“By being open, authentic and sensitive to the worldview of their audiences, scientists stand to get the most out of the opportunities offered by social media to improve public perception of science,” says Yi-Ling. “I also feel that trust is a very important issue right now and that the public is losing trust when it comes to topics like global warming, vaccination or even evolution. My goal is to provide some kind of evidence-based guidance to scientists on how to communicate effectively.

Ultimately, Yi-Ling wants to encourage and inspire the public to become more engaged with science and more scientifically literate - while also restoring public trust in science.

Yi-Ling was one of the five finalists in the 2017 Campus Travel and Virgin Australia STEM Travel Grant initiative.

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