The Impact on Public Trust of Image Manipulation in Science

Francisco López-Cantos
Informing Science: The International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline  •  Volume 22  •  2019  •  pp. 045-053

In this paper, we address the theoretical challenges today’s scientific community faces to precisely draw lines between true and false pictures. In particular, we focus on problems related to the hidden wonders of science and the shiny images produced for scientific papers or to appeal to wider audiences.

As rumors (hoaxes) and false news (fake news) explode across society and the current network, several initiatives using current technology have been launched to study this phenomena and limit the social impact. Over the last two decades, inappropriate scientific behavior has raised more questions about whether some scientific images are valid.

This work is not about analyzing whether today’s images are objective. Instead, we advocate for a general approach that makes it easier to truly believe in all kinds of knowledge, scientific or otherwise (Goldman, 1967; Goldman, & Olson, 2009). This need to believe is closely related to social order (Shapin, 1994).

We conclude that we must ultimately move away from older ideas about truth and objectivity in research to broadly approach how science and knowledge are represented and move forward with this theoretical approach when communicating science to the public.

Contemporary visual culture suggests that our world is expressed through images, which are all around us. Therefore, we need to promote the reliability of scientific pictures, which visually represent knowledge, to add meaning in a world of complex high-tech science (Allamel-Raffin, 2011; Greenberg, 2004; Rosenberger, 2009). Since the time of Galileo, and today more than ever, scientific activity should be understood as knowledge produced to reveal, and therefore inform us of, (Wise, 2006) all that remains unexplained in our world, as well as everything beyond our senses.

In journalism, published scientific images must be properly explained. Journalists should tell people the truth, not fake objectivity.

Today we must understand that scientific knowledge is mapped, simulated, and accessed through interfaces, and is uncertain. The scientific community needs to approach and explain how knowledge is represented, while paying attention to detail.

In today’s expanding world, scientific research takes a more visual approach. It is important for both the scientific community and the public to understand how the technologies used to visually represent knowledge can account for why, for example, we know more about electrons than we did a century ago (Arabatzis, 1996), or why we are beginning to carefully understand the complexities and ethical problems related to images used to promote knowledge through the media (see, i.e., López-Cantos, 2017).

fake pictures, scientific fraud, scientific pictures, public understanding of sci-ence, science communication, science journalism
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