Restoring trust between scientists and the public

by Brian Herman, Published on July 28, 2014, Featured in: Education

Lobbyists, car salespeople, reporters and members of Congress – all are viewed, rightly or wrongly, as untrustworthy professions. Gallup’s episodic polling of the public’s attitudes towards professions consistently places these disciplines close to the bottom in terms of perceived honesty.

But scientists are having their own public relations problems when it comes to trustworthiness. A Huffington Post/YouGove poll from late last year found that only 36 percent of respondents have “‘a lot’ of trust that information they get from scientists is accurate and reliable.” Another 51 percent said that they trust information spouted by scientists only a little, while 6 percent don’t trust scientists at all. More recently, issues with reproducibility of scientific data have exacerbated the lack of public trust in science. Taken together, those numbers highlight a credibility gap facing scientists.

This gap can’t be explained with a dismissive wave of the hand that political conservatives and their mistrust of “elites” are to blame for the bad poll numbers. The trustworthiness problem is much bigger than the conservative/liberal divide over a narrow subset of issues.

Something else is at play, and the problem in part rests in the scientific enterprise and how it goes about conducting the research that is then relayed to the public.

Military leaders are fond of saying that because most Americans don’t serve in the armed forces, they have very little understanding of military culture and the unique issues facing those in the armed forces. This breeds misunderstanding and its corollary – mistrust.

There is a similar phenomenon occurring in science. Inside the institutions, the various disciplines have become so stovepiped, so highly specialized, so segregated from the public and each other that they are losing touch with the community they are seeking to serve and whose problems they are trying to solve.

Jeanne Garborino, director of science outreach at Rockefeller University, argues that much more extensive research across scientific disciplines is required to allow for greater “transparency” – or public understanding of what is going on inside the laboratories and ivory towers.

She wrote on that “the pace of basic science research is hastened when researchers from different areas or fields collaborate. We are sitting at a crossroads where computer scientists and biologists or chemists and anthropologists can sit together and find new ways to answer old questions. Or, even better, they can propose questions that have never been asked.”

“Science needs this type of novelty to survive, but in order for this novelty to exist and thrive, we need more transparency. There is no scientific crystal ball. If we are not sharing our findings early and on a much wider scale, we reduce our chances of finding that connection that could transform that Hail Mary fishing expedition into a clearly mapped out journey toward scientific success,” she wrote.

She’s right. More thoughtful research that crosses disciplines, that is transparently shared far and wide with the public and scientific community alike, and that addresses humanity’s most pressing problems will help restore trust with a leery public.

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