Daily briefing: Tips for trust-building science communication


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Wide aerial shot showing a hole in the main collecting dish of the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope.

Damage to the Arecibo telescope from a 6 November cable break is too extensive to repair, the US National Science Foundation says.Credit: University of Central Florida/Arecibo Observatory

Scientists are reeling from the news that one of astronomy’s most renowned telescopes — the 305-metre-wide radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico — is permanently closing. Engineers cannot find a safe way to repair it after two cables supporting the structure suddenly and catastrophically broke, one in August and one in early November. “Even attempts at stabilization or at testing the cables could result in accelerating the catastrophic failure,” said Ralph Gaume at the US National Science Foundation, which owns the observatory. Limited science will continue at some smaller facilities at the Arecibo site.

Scientists are sharing memories and grief on social media using the hashtag #WhatAreciboMeansToMe. The loss is acutely felt in Puerto Rico, where the observatory is a cradle of science education and career development.

Nature | 6 min read

A satellite image of the Arecibo Observatory on 17 November 2020 shows a hole in the dish.

A high-resolution satellite image of the Arecibo dish shows gashes in the main dish through which green vegetation below is visible.Credit: Planet Labs, Inc.

COVID-19 coronavirus update

A young woman takes face mask off to smell the flowers

Cavan Images/Alamy

How COVID hinders the senses

COVID-19 affects the sense of smell and taste of about four out of five people with the disease, but scientists have struggled to explain why this happens. Now, a team in France has shown in hamsters that SARS-CoV-2 damages sustentacular cells in the nose that support the olfactory system, including the fingerlike cilia on the neurons that help to detect smells. “If you physically disrupt those cilia, you lose the ability to smell,” says neuroscientist Sandeep Robert Datta. Scientists are less certain of why people with COVID-19 often lose their sense of taste, or their chemical sensing, such as the ability to detect a chilli’s heat.

Scientific American | 7 min read

Reference: Brain, Behavior and Immunity paper

Features & opinion

The use of facial recognition to pick people out of a crowd is on the rise. But this kind of ‘one to many’ match is notoriously inaccurate (unlike the ‘one to one’ verification that unlocks your phone, for example). Critics say the technology is also riddled with bias and can be used in discriminatory ways. Other aspects of facial analysis, such as deducing someone’s personality on the basis of their facial expressions, are even more controversial. “At this point in history, we need to be a lot more sceptical of claims that you need ever-more-precise forms of public surveillance,” says Kate Crawford, a computer scientist and co-director of the AI Now Institute.

Nature | 11 min read

Facial-recognition research is facing an ethical reckoning. As Nature reports in a series of Features this week, many in the field are worried about how the technology is being used. A special episode of the Nature Podcast explores what can go wrong in a world where your face is routinely photographed, shared, matched and mismatched — whether you like it or not.

Nature Podcast | 35 min listen

Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

Conventional science-communication tips — such as “tell a story” — might work when the aim is to change people’s beliefs or behaviours. But to maintain trust, it’s better for experts to inform and not persuade, argue an interdisciplinary group from the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge, UK. Their approach, called evidence communication, recommends avoiding unwarranted certainty, neat narratives and partisan presentation.

Nature | 10 min read


The aim is to ‘inform but not persuade’, and — as the philosopher of trust Onora O’Neill says — “to be accessible, comprehensible, usable and assessable”, write researchers from the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication.

• Address all the questions and concerns of the target audience.

• Anticipate misunderstandings; pre-emptively debunk or explain them.

• Don’t cherry-pick findings.

• Present potential benefits and possible harms in the same way so that they can be compared fairly.

• Avoid the biases inherent in any presentation format (for example, use both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ framing together).

• Use numbers alone, or both words and numbers.

• Demonstrate ‘unapologetic uncertainty’: be open about a range of possible outcomes.

• When you don’t know, say so; say what you are going to do to find out, and by when.

• Highlight the quality and relevance of the underlying evidence (for example, describe the data set).

• Use a carefully designed layout in a clear order, and include sources.

Books & culture

A lone figure stands in front of a space portal that is showing a "no entry" sign

Illustration by Jacey

Among the exhibits in the British Museum is a 4,000-year-old clay tablet containing the oldest known customer complaint, notes author M. V. Melcer on her inspiration for the latest short story for Nature’s Futures series. Tourist trap explores what complaints the customers of the future might have — and why we should always read the instructions on interdimensional portals.

Nature | 5 min read

Andrew Robinson’s pick of the top five science books to read this week includes the science of sliminess, the secrets of bones, and mathematicians who took to the air.

Nature | 3 min read

Where I work

A plant biotechnologist researching in a greenhouse at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Kenya

Leena Tripathi is principal scientist in plant biotechnology at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Nairobi, Kenya.Credit: Jaindra Nath Tripathi

Leena Tripathi uses CRISPR gene-editing technology to protect bananas and other staple crops across Africa against killer pathogens. “Kenya imposed a partial lockdown on 7 April, but I was allowed to continue some crucial laboratory work, and our research is not affected,” says Tripathi. “These plants are like our ‘babies’ in the lab — I can’t leave them.” (Nature | 3 min read)

Quote of the day

The first-ever fossilized parasites found in a dinosaur bone left co-discovers (and palaeontologist spouses) Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano speechless. (Smithsonian Magazine)

reference: Cretaceous Research paper

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