Science, Pseudoscience & Media
Director of Sense about Science EU (Belgium)
Sense about Science is an independent campaigning charity that monitors the use and abuse of scientific evidence in public life. We stand up for the public interest, advocating for openness about the evidence behind important claims and equipping people to ask for and understand it. SAS is a small team working with thousands of supporters, from world leading researchers to community groups. It is a diverse band of people who share the goal of better representation of evidence in public life, and it is growing. Sofie Vanthournout has been the Director of Sense about Science EU since May 2016. She is based in Brussels and focuses on EU policy. She was trained as a botanist and has a background in molecular biology research. Between 2008 and 2016 she managed the international relations of the Royal Belgian Academies. In 2010, she launched a Brussels office for the European Academies Science Advisory Council, an organisation that gives independent scientific advice for EU policy. Sofie headed this office for 6 years, supporting EASAC in connecting to the European Institutions and other stakeholders. In 2014, she temporarily joined the team of Anne Glover, then Chief Scientific Adviser of the European Commission. Is was then that she became passionate about public dialogue and where she became convinced that Brussels is in urgent need of a Sense about Science EU.
Talking about Evidence in the Post-Truth Era
Are we living in a “post-truth era”? Is it true that the public doesn't care about facts and evidence and doesn’t trust experts? I am going to show you that it is not. At Sense about Science we are contacted regularly by citizens who care that evidence is considered in societal discussions. Over our 14 years of working to equip people to make sense of science and evidence we’ve seen that conversations about evidence often happen on a parallel track to discussions within science, engineering and policy. I will talk about our unique approach to communicating about research - public led, expert fed – in which scientists respond directly to real, unedited questions from the public. This approach breaks through polarised and difficult debates because conversation is led by the questions and issues people raise. It allows us to identify gaps and misunderstandings in the public debate and for researchers to respond to them. I will say that, if researchers want the public to trust them, they have to trust the public. I will use concrete examples to illustrate a different, more effective approach for both researchers and non-researchers to bring back reason into emotional debates. While trying to improve the use of evidence and science, Sense about Science also makes a case for active citizenship. Citizens do care about science and evidence when they realise it empowers them to challenge public claims which have an effect on their daily lives. Newspapers, politicians, celebrities and companies are good at making claims about what is best for our health, for our environment, and for our schools. Some of these claims are supported by reliable evidence, but many aren’t. We can get behind the voice of reason and rigour if we ask for evidence. The Ask for Evidence campaign encourages people to request evidence for claims they come across and helps them to make sense of the evidence and judge its quality.