The degree to which the public has lost trust in science has, to some extent, been exaggerated. Surveys since 1979 have consistently shown that about seven in 10 Americans believe science plays a positive role in society. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found the scientific community is the only one of 13 social institutions that have enjoyed this stability in public confidence over decades. A 2017 Pew survey found that 67 percent of Americans believe science has had a mostly positive effect on society, with just 4 percent saying its impact has been mostly negative. Data from the NORC’s General Social Survey offered similar figures. Most Americans, overall, trust the scientific community, and this has been the case for decades.
Yet, to any observer of politics in the last several years, it would seem that science is losing its authoritative status in the eyes of much of America. The rise of notions like “alternative facts” and “fake news,” riding a wave of anti-establishment populism, has created a groundswell of public skepticism around topics on which the scientific community has achieved a good deal of consensus. According to a Pew survey from 2015, 98 percent of scientists with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) believe humans have evolved over time, yet only 65 percent of US adults say the same. Eighty-eight percent of AAAS scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe to eat, compared to only 37 percent of US adults. Eighty-seven percent of the scientists attribute climate change mostly to human activity, compared with just 50 percent of US adults. On these issues, it seems that facts and truth are increasingly up for interpretation.
In other words, in subjects where there are politicians, media sources, and advocates actively presenting a counterargument and fostering doubt, scientists tend to lose those battles in the minds of a certain percentage of Americans. Some of this has to do with the media itself.
The nature of scientific work does not lend itself to brief headlines and clear-cut takeaways. Not only can scientific data appear prohibitively complex, but individual studies may appear contradictory. While this is all part of the scientific process, it raises doubt among the public. For example, a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience last year suggested that the world may be able to emit more carbon than previously thought, and still meet the targets laid out in the Paris climate agreement. While the conclusion of the study was itself measured, and other climate experts expressed skepticism, certain corners of the news media ran with it.
Breitbart declared “Climate alarmists have finally admitted that they’ve got it wrong on global warming.”
The Sun announced:
“The scientists who produce those doomsday reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have finally come clean—the computer models they’ve been using to predict runaway global warming are wrong.”
In reality, the study had merely suggested that we may have 20 years of current emissions before the Paris targets are out of reach, instead of as little as four, as suggested by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And even those results were challenged by some scientists. A cause for optimism? Perhaps. Reason to dismiss climate concerns altogether? Not at all. Irresponsible reporting is part of the problem.
The scientific community should also play an active role in combating these doubts. Scientists are often immersed so deeply in their subject matter that communication with the wider public is often lost in the complexity and details. Arthur Caplan, NYU’s Division of Medical Ethics founding director, told Futurism:
“We have to have more scientists learn how to communicate better…we don’t have many good spokesmen. Out of hundreds of thousands of scientists, we have roughly six that can communicate.”
There is a great need for proficient science communicators in the vein of Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson. Many scientists do not think to tailor their communications to suit their intended audience, rely on jargon, focus too heavily on details, and even lack confidence when speaking to the media. The skills needed in a lab setting are very different from those needed to communicate with the public. But if scientists lack those skills, the scientific community needs individuals who specialize in public relations. Politicians, the media, and activists all employ communication specialists. Perhaps this is why scientists often lose their battles with these groups.
And finally, education plays a role in the public’s ability to interpret science. According to the General Social Survey, 94 percent of Americans with postgraduate degrees agree the benefits of scientific research outweigh any harm, compared to 84 percent of those with bachelor degrees, 67 percent of those with high school diplomas, and 52 percent of those who had not graduated high school. Opinions on individual issues broke down differently, but education was also linked to respondent’s views toward anthropogenic climate change, and the safety of genetically modified foods. The fight for quality education has a ripple effect on many other aspects of society. This is one of them. A great place to start would be with more accessible and affordable higher education.
These issues have a direct effect on policy in a democratic society, as the last US election goes to show. Only when the public is actively involved in calling for science-based policies will they become standard and consistent no matter which party prevails in the White House and Congress. It’s not that the public has lost their trust in science, it’s that the cautious, detail-oriented voices of scientists are being drowned out by loud, partisan, sensationalist coverage. Accessible science communication, quality education, and responsible journalism are all great places to start.