Implications of COVID-19 and the Public Face of Science
The American Academy of Arts & Sciences launched the Public Face of Science initiative in the spring of 2016 to address the complex and evolving relationship between scientists and the public. Scientific and technological innovations affect every corner of American life, deeply influencing the economy, health and medicine, the environment, energy policy, national defense, and many other policy arenas. But many factors influence public attitudes towards science. As a result, there are some subjects where a lack of trust in the scientific consensus can have a powerful effect on policy development and public decision-making. The Academy initiative was launched to develop a deeper understanding of how individual experiences and beliefs shape attitudes toward science and how a stronger relationship between science and society may be cultivated.
The principal outputs from the initiative have been three reports. The first explored the perceptions of science among the public. The second explored studied the complex landscape by through which people encounter science. And the third, which was just released, includes various recommendations to enhance the capacity for the public to engage with science in a manner that will enhance the ability to benefit from it and apply it in decision-making.
The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed the critical role science plays in ensuring the well-being—indeed, the very survival—of both individuals and society as a whole. As will be seen, the experience with COVID-19 reinforces the need for continuing thoughtful work to address public access to reliable scientific content and to enhance the public’s capacity to identify and reject misinformation and disinformation (intentionally false information).
Recent polling by the Pew Research Center shows, as a general matter, that the public has growing confidence in science, in particular medical science, and this obviously is reassuring. We noted in our first report, however, that there are troubling gaps in attitudes towards particular scientific issues based on political orientation, race, education, religion, or age. For example, those with high scientific knowledge are far more comfortable with the safety of genetically modified foods than are those with low scientific knowledge. Race is a strong factor in judgments about the safety of vaccines. Religious belief can be an overwhelming factor affecting the acceptance of natural selection as the principal determinant of evolutionary change. It is of note that the recent polling reveals that attitudes toward the reliability of medical science join climate change as an issue on which conservative Republicans are more distrustful of the scientific consensus than are liberal Democrats. This divergence, of course, has an important impact on the implementation of policy to address the pandemic. It reinforces the importance of our recommendations to seek to understand and to close the gaps between the scientific consensus and public understanding.
The COVID-19 experience has also revealed a growing challenge in dealing with misinformation and disinformation. Many are understandably searching for information on the pandemic and can be led seriously astray by content they encounter. The situation is complicated by the fact that medical understanding of the COVID-19 is evolving and, as a result, scientific advice has changed somewhat over time. Indeed, an essential ingredient of science is that findings can and should be subject to detailed scrutiny and, as a result, initial conclusions can be modified. The scientific process and the willingness to adapt to new evidence should serve to increase confidence in the validity of firmly established scientific conclusions. Unlike the assertions of some political figures, science is not a matter of opinion but of fact (subject to explicit acknowledgement of varying degrees of certainty) and ignoring scientific consensus can come at great peril. The problem of misinformation and disinformation is that they corrupt public trust in the legitimacy of scientific results and, in the case of COVID-19, result in danger for all.
Our third report provides some recommendations for dealing with falsehoods. Scientists, scientific societies, and journalists should respond promptly to correct misleading or false statements. Scientists should be provided with communication skills and their engagement with the public should be valued and enhanced. But care is needed. Sophisticated understanding, guided by social science, is needed to understand the appeal of misinformation and how most effectively to respond to it. Past studies have shown, for example, that the repetition of a misstatement in discussing why it is misleading can in fact serve to reinforce it. The problem becomes even more complicated in the case of COVID-19 because of the political dimension. For example, although the science now shows that facemasks may be an effective means to prevent infection, we confront the challenge that wearing (or not wearing) a facemask can be seen as an affirmation of a political position rather than a public-health measure. There is also the danger that the resurgence of falsehoods about the safety of vaccines by conspiracy theorists may prevent the development of herd immunity once a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available.
The COVID-19 situation also highlights recommendations in our third report on the need to reinforce the capacity of journalists to deal with scientific information. Turbulence in the media world was the backdrop for our third report, but the threat to journalism of all varieties has intensified as a result of the collapse of advertising in the wake of the economic shutdown. The need has grown for journalists in both print and virtual media to communicate accurate science to the public. Means to assist and encourage journalists in this role need to be enhanced. This has become all the more important as the capacity for universities to devote significant resources to public information has diminished and as other important fora for the exchange of scientific information (science museums, zoos, science festivals) have been forced to close.
The COVID-19 situation has served to reinforce the central findings of the initiative and has demonstrated the importance of pursuing the recommendations we have offered.