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In-Depth With Our Experts

Improving Society by Bridging the Gap Between Science and Everyday Life

Brian Southwell is an expert in communication and human behavior, as well as misinformation and how it spreads.

In a time of global uncertainty amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a spotlight has been put on science and the way we communicate. As scientists have learned more about COVID-19 and the changing course of the pandemic, we have witnessed missed opportunities for communication between scientists and the public. This has left us vulnerable to the spread of misinformation.

“Misinformation” has become a buzzword in recent years, but there is more to it, according to Brian Southwell, Ph.D., senior director of RTI’s Science in the Public Sphere program. Southwell has dedicated part of his decades-long career to investigating public understanding and the misunderstanding of science.

“It’s disconcerting that misinformation is possible because so much of our society is dependent on trust and people being truthful — the basic idea that people are not lying to one another,” said Southwell. “There is a real fear about the idea of us being misled by external agents, while we overlook how much noise is in our systems for reasons other than overt malice.”

Turning Knowledge into Practice

Southwell is a curious researcher whose work does not fit into a singular category. His background in communication, psychology and sociology has helped build a foundation for his interest in misinformation. 

“I’ve always been interested in communication and the role mass media plays in holding society together, or simultaneously causing problems,” he said. “Thinking all the way back, I was interested in ways to take the observations we’ve made about how humans interact and apply them to societal well-being, in return improving the human condition.” 

More specifically, Southwell points to an underlying care for democracy and democratic institutions and even a philosophy book on lying that he read as an undergraduate, which led him in part to study the intersection of communication and science. At RTI,  a project on corrective advertising offered a key moment that propelled his interest in the concept of misinformation, ultimately leading to published research and his co-edited book on the topic. 

Southwell has used the knowledge he has gained throughout his career to emphasize addressing misinformation for the sake of society’s benefit and helping build a deeper societal understanding of how and why misperceptions occur.

An Old Problem with New Challenges

Southwell notes that while the idea of misinformation has been around a long time, in recent years it has been mentioned in news headlines regularly due in part to the sheer amount of information and misinformation now easily available. 

“The pandemic has offered a particularly rich opportunity for misinformation to spread, but this won’t be the last time this issue will arise. I do have moments of deep concern, but I think we’ve successfully avoided some of the worst of what could have happened,” said Southwell. 

He points to the 1918 Spanish influenza as a relevant example of our enduring human challenges: over 100 years ago, the world went through a pandemic, and, although aspects of life have drastically changed, human nature has stayed the same. 

“We are roughly as likely to believe and share misinformation now as people were then,” said Southwell, “and the reasons are more obvious than we think: human psychology, social dynamics, and the way we interpret information drive our tendencies to consume and share misinformation.”

Addressing Misinformation

Throughout the pandemic, Southwell has been a key resource in helping to guide media outlets and the public on what misinformation is and how to address it. His knowledge of misinformation and understanding of infectious diseases has allowed him to support the public health crisis by publishing research on connecting public understanding of other infectious diseases to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as evidence regarding COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

To address misinformation, Southwell stresses that science and translation efforts must go hand in hand: both types of efforts rely on one another, yet there is a significant amount of work that needs to be done to bridge them. Building this bridge is a three-way street consisting of communication channels between the media, the public and scientists, he notes, and it must be improved. 

In theory, this seems like a large task, but it is the type of work he has been putting his expertise toward for decades.  

“We aren’t spending enough time thinking about our own roles in the spread of misinformation,” he said. “As humans, we have a real vulnerability to sharing it. We tend to weigh a 2 a.m. Google search around the same as we weigh a credible source when we are in a hurry to connect with other people on an emotional topic.”

Southwell shares that he has been encouraged by people who have sought him out to discuss the topic, suggesting that in the age of COVID-19 there is enthusiasm to address it more seriously. 

Building Trust in Science

Southwell’s work is closely related to another concept important to him: trust in science. He believes that a vital tool in addressing misinformation is maintaining trust in science.  

To better understand how and why people trust science, he has engaged in projects such as collaborating with the National Science Foundation to assess Americans’ trust in science and report on public perceptions for the Science and Engineering Indicators project. 

Southwell has learned that “Americans tend to trust science somewhat more than some news headlines would suggest” and notes that “ultimately, I believe there are opportunities to build and maintain trust by acknowledging the shared interests that scientific institutions hold with the general public.”

As the world shifts away from traditional communication platforms, such as broadcast and written news, and toward social media platforms, Southwell emphasizes a strong belief that we still need to carefully evaluate our spaces for interaction and the extent to which our communication infrastructure invites in people from a diverse array of backgrounds. According to him, we cannot expect useful and functional communication without the proper spaces and platforms to communicate.

“I think the key to combatting misinformation is shifting from an ‘I’ to a ‘we’ mindset. It is up to the media, the public and scientists to start listening to each other to gain a true understanding of how information is shared and how we all live in this information environment together,” said Southwell. “This unified understanding will serve as a steppingstone in bridging the gap between science and everyday life.”

Brian Southwell, Ph.D., is senior director of the Science in the Public Sphere program at RTI. Dr. Southwell also serves as a faculty member at both Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Outside of these roles, he is the creator and host of a public radio show for WNCU called The Measure of Everyday Life, as well as advisor for the PBS initiative NOVA Science Studio.