TDL Brief: Trusting Science
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“Fake news”, a term that should be reserved to describe misinformation, has quickly become a propaganda tool. This phenomenon has caused millions of Americans to stop trusting publicly provided information. Science, in particular, has taken a hit – it is no longer viewed as an authoritative, factual discipline and instead is now often met with skepticism. As political views continue to become more and more polarized, any scientific information that is incongruent with one’s political ideology begins to be distrusted. In this new era, information that we don’t like becomes characterized as untrustworthy.
The frayed relationship people are beginning to have with science and scientists means that the field needs to come up with new ways to try and get people to trust their findings. This might help explain the storyline Grey’s Anatomy decided to focus on in the first few episodes of season 17. Beloved character Derek Shepherd returned to the show, a decision which he said he made to try and get people to take COVID-19 more seriously.1 The star of the show, Mereredith Grey, also contracts the virus. A showrunner explained that this was an attempt to get the public to understand the very real consequences that the virus has had on healthcare workers.2 The idea behind both of these moves is that people might be more likely to trust their beloved celebrity doctors than real doctors – go figure!
Some of the scientific phenomena that have most been impacted by a growing distrust in science apart from the current COVID-19 virus are climate change and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These are no small issues and whether or not people ‘believe’ in them greatly impacts our behavior, which can have grave consequences on our health and planet. People who don’t believe in the virus are unlikely to follow health protocols, people who don’t believe in climate change will continue engaging in behavior that harms our planet, and people that believe that food from GMOs is bad for you can be manipulated to buy expensive products.
Since a lack of trust in science impacts us all, not just the individuals who don’t listen to scientific experts, it is important that it is tackled with the correct strategies. In the modern world, just throwing data at people is not enough to get them to trust in the information, so other methods need to be used. Not all the blame can be placed on people – scientists have a role to play when it comes to getting people to trust science. This article will examine effective ways to restore trust in science and explore the ways in which distrust in science has impacted our response to COVID-19, climate change, and GMOs.
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1. Data is no longer enough: trust must be in the people disseminating science
By The National Academic Press, Trust and Confidence at the Interfaces of the Life Sciences and Society: Does the Public Trust Science? A Workshop Summary (2015)
If we only look at the extremists who distrust science, it seems like science is equated with conspiracy theories. However, most people do not hold such outlandish views and are more likely to feel uncertainty about science rather than outright dismissal. While the General Social Survey in 2013 showed that 95% of people believed that scientists were helping to solve challenging problems, the survey also showed that half the American population felt as though science has created as many problems as it has provided solutions for society from 2001 to 2010.
This data suggests that while people may conceive of scientists as hard-working, intelligent people in general, there is some ambivalence as to the intent behind the particular work that they are doing and whether it will be beneficial for society. While people might agree with science in principle, they are quick to doubt its ability to perpetuate the right agenda when its conclusions don’t fit neatly next to their pre-existing beliefs on particular topics.
What this means is that science, as a discipline, needs to do more work to get people on board with their findings. It is not enough to dissipate information – they first need to ensure that people believe in the credibility of the particular issue. One strategy that has proven to be effective to help get people more engaged with science is the use of ‘celebrity scientists’. When the information is coming from the mouth of someone that people trust or admire, they are more likely to buy into it. In the modern world, scientists almost need to become popular figures in order to become more relatable which might help people believe that they really do have their best interest at heart.
This new requirement for scientific experts may help explain the storyline that Grey’s Anatomy has chosen to begin their 17th season – beloved character Derek Shepherd (played by Patrick Dempsey) returned to the show, a decision which he said he made in order to try and get people to take COVID-19 more seriously.2 The star of the show, Meredith Grey (played by Ellen Pompeo) also contracts the virus and a showrunner explained that this was in order to get the public to understand the very real consequences that the virus has had on healthcare workers.3 The idea behind both of these moves is that when science is coming from beloved celebrity doctors, people will be more likely to trust it.
2. How Distrust in Science Impacts our response to COVID-19
By The National Post, ‘A Matter of Trust’: COVID-19 pandemic has tested public confidence in science like never before (May 2020)
Perhaps more than ever, the population’s distrust in science is having serious consequences for global health. Individuals who don’t have confidence in science are not likely to trust public health experts and follow their guidelines for how to combat COVID-19. With every media outlet, every political leader, and almost everyone else giving their opinion on the virus and the best method to fight it, it is no wonder that the public is confused and unsure. But people’s mistrust in science might be the real disease – without a national consensus on how to tackle COVID-19, we are unlikely to be able to quickly defeat the virus.
If people don’t trust science, they are quick to claim that the numbers that are being reported about daily cases are inaccurate, if they even believe that the virus exists at all. It then follows that they are unlikely to follow social distancing or mask protocols because they don’t believe the issue is as big as scientists are claiming it to be. It becomes pretty clear that those same people aren’t likely to eagerly accept the vaccine. All of this means that we will continue to see numbers rise, hospital beds filled and death tolls creep up because scientists cannot get everyone on the same page.
One of the factors that caused American distrust in medical experts is Donald Trump’s response to scientific advice. Consistently, Trump has downplayed the severity of the virus and gone against the advice given by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. His remarks and actions have caused COVID-19 to become a political issue, instead of a scientific one, which has had dire consequences on the number of cases across the U.S. When the U.S.’s cases are compared to much smaller numbers in Canada, it seems that a political leader’s relationship to scientific fact and health experts might be a huge factor in the ability to flatten the curve. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has, from the beginning of the pandemic, aligned himself with public health experts in his public addresses, unlike Donald Trump. While there are still a considerable number of cases in Canada, they are next to nothing when compared to the data from the U.S.
3. The False Binary of Climate Change
By Embo Reports, Taking Distrust of Science Seriously: To overcome public distrust in science, scientists need to stop pretending that there is a scientific consensus on controversial issues when there is not (May 2017)
An area of science that is often met with skepticism is climate change. Despite the vast amounts of data that has emerged showing that human activity is slowly but surely wreaking havoc on our planet, some people still don’t believe it to be true. While it may be tempting to think of climate change deniers as stupid, idiotic, conspiracy theorists, such a view serves only to further alienate them from science. Instead, their skepticism needs to be taken seriously and an investigation into the factors that cause distrust in science needs to be conducted if we are to combat it.
When it comes to climate change, one of the challenges is that an incredibly broad and complex issue has been reduced to very simplistic claims. For example, before the term climate change gained popularity, the concept was called global warming. For people that weren’t experiencing warmer temperatures, it was easy to dismiss global warming altogether. Rising temperatures were just one effect of climate change but by labeling the phenomenon through one characteristic, people were misled.
Another issue that contributes to distrust in science is the fact that public debate usually creates a false binary when it comes to controversial topics. You must either wholeheartedly believe in it without any shadow of a doubt, or you must think that the entire thing is a hoax. However, there are so many different components of climate change that we should not have to divide up opinions so starkly. There is more nuance than just ‘global warming’ because climate change is incredibly complicated and the scale is so vast that 100% consensus amongst scientists is near impossible.
It is hard to consolidate opinions around simple agreement or disagreement for a topic so complex. Although disagreement within the scientific community might initially yield some anxiety about whether or not we can believe the data, we need to understand that when it comes to a question as complicated as climate change, there is bound to differing degrees of agreement. Climate change is not easily testable and verifiable and to claim that there is 100% unwavering certainty would suggest that scientists aren’t doing their job. After all, scientific experiments often set out trying to disprove their own theories. The more knowledge that we have, the more room for a lack of consensus. We need to allow room for skepticism because skepticism highlights gaps in our knowledge that need to be filled.
While climate change is very real and certainly occurring, we need to accept that there might still be debate about specific details of a complex phenomenon.
4. People Need to Confront Their Own Distrust
By The Decision Lab, Science Denial Isn’t Only a Conservative Problem (Oct 2020)
Often, a strategy that is used to combat people’s distrust in science is to release more data and spread more facts on the matter. However, if people already don’t believe in the scientific data, simply regurgitating more is not going to help change their minds. In fact, it might cause them to solidify their stance against the data because we are quick to turn our backs to information that does not agree with our beliefs, according to the confirmation bias.
If data won’t help solve distrust in science, scientists need to find another way to change people’s minds. It isn’t easy to get people to give up their beliefs as pride often causes people to stubbornly hold on to their views and not listen to others. If external pressure to change one’s mind doesn’t work, scientists may need to get people to turn inward and confront their own understanding of science.
For example, Fernbach et al. conducted a study in 2013 where participants were asked to give step-by-step explanations of how some policies could be implemented. Some participants were asked to write an explanation of how the policy worked, while others were asked to explain why they supported a policy. After they wrote their explanations, participants were asked to rate how well they understood the phenomena and how certain they felt about their position. Fernbach et al. found that those participants who had been asked to explain how a policy worked were less extreme in their final positions. The researchers concluded that this was because those participants were asked to confront their own ignorance, allowing them to see that they might not fully understand the phenomena and make them more likely to listen to differing opinions afterwards since they no longer starkly stood by their beliefs.
Those participants who were asked why they supported a policy did not have to confront the gaps in their knowledge. If people feel like they have a holistic understanding of something, more data is not going to change their mind because they already feel like they know everything they need to know on the topic. However, if we ask people to explain the scientific phenomena that they distrust, they may suddenly realize that their knowledge is limited and be more open to new ideas.
Mass distrust in science is a growing problem, which means that scientists need to correctly implement strategies to confront it. Fernbach’s study suggested that humility might be the key to changing people’s minds. When people come to realize that they don’t know everything, then they might turn to the data to fill in their knowledge gaps, but the motivation needs to come internally rather than externally.
5. We Can Be Manipulated by Our Distrust in Science
By Forbes, GMOs: Trust the Science, Not the Food Fad (Aug 2016)
Another scientific topic that attracts debate surrounds genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and whether or not they are good for us. Although scientific data has shown that we have long been modifying our crops and that there are actually a number of merits to the food made by GMOs, many people still believe that what is unnatural cannot be good for their bodies.
Knowing that people distrust the science behind GMOs, companies have used that knowledge to entice people to buy their products or businesses. Food companies use ‘no-GMO’ labels as a marketing tactic, whilst larger trade organizations promote membership through characterizing themselves with anti-GMO campaigns. Even if you don’t believe in the benefits of eating food from GMOs, research shows that it is really difficult to detect whether food has genetically modified ingredients, which means that the no-GMO labels mean little-to-nothing. Prices are drastically increased without any real knowledge of how different the product is.
The no-GMO food fad demonstrates that people are manipulated by their distrust in certain scientific phenomena. Unfortunately, when food companies and campaigns claim to be anti-GMO just to make money, they falsely give people a sense that their beliefs are accurate because they are being backed up by large organizations. This also means that people don’t feel the need to really understand what it is they are against, or what ingredients it is that they are trying to avoid, because they can point to the campaigns as ‘evidence’ that GMOs are bad.
Consumers suffer from a lack of knowledge. While it is one thing not to agree with scientific data, it is another to not even go looking for it – people should try and understand what a no-GMO label actually means before they start paying hefty prices for products with the label.
- Griffiths, E. (2020, November 18). How did Derek Shephard return to Grey’s Anatomy? Get the details. Hello Magazine. https://ca.hellomagazine.com/film/20201118101122/greys-anatomy-patrick-dempsey-derek-shephard-return-explained/
- Borge, J. (2020, November 20). Grey’s Anatomy Showrunner Unravels the Decision To Give Meredith Coronavirus. E! Online. https://www.eonline.com/ca/news/1210974/greys-anatomy-showrunner-unravels-the-decision-to-give-meredith-coronavirus
- Resnick, H. E., Sawyer, K., & Huddleston, N. (2015). What Do We Know About Public Trust in Science? In Trust and confidence at the interfaces of the life sciences and society: Does the public trust science? A workshop summary (pp. 11-20). National Academies Press. ISBN: 978-0-309-37792-8
- Brean, J. (2020, May 8). ‘A matter of trust’: COVID-19 pandemic has tested public confidence in science like never before. The National Post. https://nationalpost.com/news/a-matter-of-trust-covid-19-pandemic-has-tested-public-confidence-in-science-like-never-before
- Kabat, G. C. (2017). Taking distrust of science seriously: To overcome public distrust in science, scientists need to stop pretending that there is a scientific consensus on controversial issues when there is not. Embo Reports, 18(7), 1052-1055. https://doi.org/10.15252/embr.201744294
- Celniker, J. (2020, October 7). Science denial isn’t only a conservative problem. The Decision Lab. https://thedecisionlab.com/insights/environment/science-denial-isnt-only-a-conservative-problem/
- Wager, R., & Daynard, T. (2016, August 12). GMOs: Trust The Science, Not The Food Fad. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/gmoanswers/2016/08/12/gmos-trust-the-science-not-the-food-fad/?sh=11b487706fa2
About the Author
The Decision Lab
The Decision Lab is a Canadian think-tank dedicated to democratizing behavioral science through research and analysis. We apply behavioral science to create social good in the public and private sectors.