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The question of trust in science requires many answers

University World News

The issue of trust in science, or rather the lack of it, has come to the fore in recent political campaigns in the United States and internationally, most notably with US President Donald Trump in dismissing the science behind calls for action on climate change, and the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom dismissing the opinions of experts on the likely effects of leaving the European Union.

These stances by leading populists and right-wing politicians has left many in the academic community baffled by the popularity of these viewpoints and their own failure to sway public opinion behind either the scientific consensus in the case of climate change or the value of data from trusted bodies in the case of Brexit.

A new report on a survey by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), published last month, seeks to begin a process of informing academics on how to respond to this anti-intellectual trend.

Its key finding is that any attempt to lump together the doubters of science on the many important subjects will impair an effective response.

This is because there is no single ‘public’ that perceives science through a shared lens of experiences and values. 

Mindfulness among science communicators, advocates and researchers of the inherent multiplicity of attitudes towards science is therefore necessary for effective, evidence-based communication and outreach efforts.

Expanded research and polling on these topics are needed to provide a detailed roadmap for navigating this complex landscape, the report says. Moreover, sustained research in this field is critical given the significant changes in the way people access and engage with scientific information in the 21st century. 

The AAAS report offers an in-depth examination of the current state of trust in science among Americans, but its findings will resonate across countries, given the changing political climate internationally. 

The reportPerceptions of Science in America, draws on existing public opinion survey data to evaluate whether trust in science is changing, and to identify factors that may strengthen or diminish this trust – and is the first of a series of reports that will be issued by the academy’s Public Face of Science project, a three-year initiative to understand and address various aspects of the evolving relationship between the public and scientists. 

“Sustaining public trust in science will require gaining a better understanding of how confidence and scepticism develop in the first place,” said Jonathan F Fanton, president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “By calling attention to this question, the Public Face of Science project seeks to improve how science is communicated in an increasingly complex information landscape.” 

The report draws on data from NORC at the University of Chicago, the National Science Board Science and Engineering IndicatorsPew Research CenterResearch!America, and ScienceCounts

A key finding is that scientists continue to enjoy significant public trust, especially when measured against other professions. Yet the report also identifies potential vulnerabilities. For example, surveys demonstrate that perceptions of science can vary based on age, education, gender, political party, race and region. 

Perceptions of Science in America shows that despite widespread support for science in general, there are specific scientific matters that reveal significant shifts in trust. 

The report examines three examples – climate science, genetically modified foods and vaccines – that highlight areas in which distrust of science has taken root and reveal the complex nature of public attitudes on controversial issues.

For instance, the public opinion data reveals a high degree of divergence on climate science between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. But perhaps counter-intuitively recent research suggests that this political polarisation is particularly severe among those with higher educational attainment, science education or science literacy, the report says.

However, this phenomenon is limited only to a few areas of science; others, such as genetically modified foods, exhibit no such association.

Moreover, recent research suggests that conservative Republicans with a higher curiosity about science “for personal pleasure” are more likely to agree with the science of climate change, the report says.

Surveys do not point towards a single anti-science population; rather, different subpopulations express scepticism over different issues, the report says. 

These findings suggest that more research is needed on how people assess, select and – at times – reject scientific information; the underlying factors that inform group identity, as well as the effectiveness of various evidence-based communication strategies.

“Understanding the underlying factors that shape trust in science will help strengthen science communication efforts,” the report says. “More-extensive collaborations between social scientists and science communicators could improve the application of these concepts to communication strategies.”

“Overall, it is clear that Americans continue to recognise and value the significant benefits that scientific research brings to society,” said Richard Meserve, co-chair of the academy project and president emeritus of the Carnegie Institution for Science. 

“Where fractures have appeared, it is often due to misrepresentations of the scientific consensus. It is imperative that we understand how to counter such misinformation and restore trust in the evidence without making the problem worse.” 

Pilot programmes that explore new approaches to communicating science on controversial issues need to be developed in conjunction with strategies seeking to improve the overall practice of science communication, the report adds. 

“Science is just one of many areas of society where evidence is increasingly subject to public debate,” said Geneva Overholser, co-chair of the Public Face of Science project and senior fellow at the Democracy Fund. “As scientists explore how to help citizens distinguish between fact and fiction, they will need to know how to communicate effectively with an incredibly diverse set of audiences.” 

Peter Salovey, president of Yale University, commenting on the report in Scientific American, said it shows that scientific knowledge does not always lead to acceptance of the scientific consensus because scientific knowledge about the world alone may not easily supersede ideology.

“Other information – wisdom across disciplinary and political divides – is needed to help policy-makers and members of communities bridge this gap,” he wrote. “This is where institutions of higher education can provide vital support. 

“Educating global citizens is one of the most important charges to universities, and the best way we can transcend ideology is to teach our students, regardless of their majors, to think like scientists,” he wrote.

“Colleges and universities are home to diverse thinkers and leaders who can discover innovative strategies to translate scientific insights into solutions.”

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The Public Face of Science

Richard Andrew Meserve