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CSU creating course to teach future scientists how to fight misinformation

We’ve worked to stop the spread of COVID the whole pandemic. Now scientists are working to stop the spread of misinformation

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Not everything scientists have thought about COVID has turned out to be true. That's the nature of science.

But that uncertainty has been weaponized by people who want to discredit scientists and ignore their suggestions. That means countering misinformation becomes part of the job for scientists and future scientists at Colorado State University (CSU).

"It’s not so much the information that you’re communicating, it’s, 'Do I trust you as a person?' That can really affect whether or not I’m going to believe what you say," said Nicole Kelp, a professor in the microbiology, immunology and pathology department. "Scientists can have the right information and not seem trustworthy and people don’t believe them."

In a meeting room at CSU, faculty from the microbiology, immunology and pathology department tackle a problem they can’t solve alone.

"Science communication is just an inherently interdisciplinary field. There’s the science and then there’s the communication," said Kelp, sitting around a table meeting with others in-person and over Zoom. 

Kelp is skilled in science. Ashley Anderson teaches communications. Together, they’re working to train the next generation of scientists on how to get the world to believe them.

"Context really matters for trust," said Anderson. "Scientists are going to be a key part of tackling misinformation."

CSU is working to stop the spread -- no not of COVID, but the spread of misinformation, teaching scientists about listening, valuing other perspectives, and articulating facts without feeling the need to dumb them down.

Scientists have told us about vaccines and how the virus spreads and so many other things during the pandemic. But their work has been countered by false information. Kelp, Anderson and their team want to stop that.  

"We in our academic ivory towers can’t march in and tell people what to do or think effectively. We want to really empower and connect with those communities," said Kelp. " I think it’s very easy as a scientist to say I’m the expert, trust me, stop doing your own research. I mean I’ve been there."

Communications students will join science majors for this class. They’re also inviting in members of the community to take the course with them. They want scientists already out working in the real world to come share their perspectives and help them find solutions as well.  

Kelp said a lot of the communication training for scientists right now simply involves telling them not to "dumb it down" for the sake of getting people to understand them. She said that’s bad and can make them come across as disingenuous. She wants to help them be able to talk about their research and data while also connecting with people.  

"Part of this communication isn’t just training for skills. It’s training for posture and attitude and humility and listening," said Kelp. 

The solution starts with a conversation.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us, but hopefully we can make a difference," said Anderson. "That’s the goal."

The course is expected to be available in 2023.

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