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A commenter, John, wrote in another thread–which is really about another topic entirely–offered this (quoted in full):

I think the bigger question is, why don’t people trust science anymore?

Maybe…

1. It’s been wrong before (asbestos, 245-T, etc)

2. Potential corruption (by funders, politicians, government departments, etc. AFTER the scientists release it)

3. Public’s lack of time to research evidence, so decide based on perceptions (easily swayed)

4. ‘The man’ — science is cold, establishment, authoritarian.

New Agers present a much more attractive image — peace and love. True they don’t do rigorous tests, but then they don’t make as many ’scientifically proven’ promises the way science does. Little wonder they earn more trust.

Maybe science is antiquated and out of alignment with how society thinks now? Many other industries are having to adapt to survive — music, journalism, museums, etc. Has science made any radical, fundamental changes to try to gain the public’s trust?

I’d like to offer some very quick starter thoughts. I haven’t had time to think this through (work to do), but I hope this might seed useful discussion. Free-form rumination rather than an essay, if you will.

I’d suggest it’s not science itself that is ‘wrong’, but that the interface that science has with the public that might benefit from change.

The ’scientifically proven’ slogan is more a icon of media and marketers rather than (modern) science. Modern science deals with uncertainty and in probabilities. The likelihood that something might happen, rather than a certainty that it will.

Peter Gluckman once pointed out that the public may not appreciate (fully) the implication of science dealing with complex subjects, compared to the simpler one-element focuses of the past. Among other things complex subjects involve modelling. A typical feature of modelling complex systems is that the model is repeated many times with slight variations on the input to assess the most likely outcomes and which outcomes appear to be reliable outcomes of the model for that data.

Another is the sheer amount of knowledge that lies behind even seemingly simple statements. I’m not trying to put science on a pedestal here. If you’re a scientist, peering into another field has this effect too! What at first seems trivial quickly proves to have an awful lot of things to cross-check.

As for the new-age ’peace and love’ message, in my experience scientists in general are strong pacifists. (Maybe others have a different experience – ?)

Getting back to John’s comment, there is a perception v. reality element here. If you look at the points, bar the first, none of them are about the outcome of science itself.

Alison wrote recently: ’I think the fact that media reports tend to ignore the tentative nature of a lot of scientific finds/rulings/statements does us a grave disservice.’ As she is saying, I think there is a need to present science as it actually is. I’ve touched on aspects of this before, how the state of play is presented, what it is that is disputed, and so on. (More links after this article rumination.)

There is a tendency in science communication–sometimes including in some efforts by science journalists writing blogs that cover a wide scope–to over-simplify, creating more certainty than there is. Certainly the mainstream reporting is guilty of it.

There is a balancing act here. Too much detail puts people off, unless the reader or viewer already is committed to the topic at hand. Too simple and people (sometimes rightfully)  complain of being fed an answer.

I read somewhere–I forget the source now–that once a story ‘takes’ it many editors move it off the science writers to the feature writers. I don’t think I need to tell you that, if true, I have mixed feelings about that.

Then, very briefly on each of John’s numbered points above as quick conversation starters:

  1. It’s been wrong before (asbestos, 245-T, etc) Sure. So has everyone else! One issue here is that science doesn’t give ’the’ answer, it gives the best answer at the time and it’s able to move on past it’s mistakes.
  2. Potential corruption (by funders, politicians, government departments, etc. AFTER the scientists release it) This is more about how science is used by others. (Correct?) I’m not excusing it, it’s a fair point, one that annoys scientists no end. It’s one reason I like Peter Gluckman’s call to better use of evidence in policy formation. It’s a big topic, one I had meant to write about. (I did once suggest a NZ Science Party!) A point here may be that it’d be helpful to have some way to present–open to the public–’the data’ without strings so that they might see the underlying issues without the framework others wish to cast them within.
  3. Public’s lack of time to research evidence, so decide based on perceptions (easily swayed) I have a lot of sympathy for this. It’s one reason why science blog articles can take a long time to write! It brings up the issue of reliance on authority. One tack at it I had was for media to ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion. The point here is that while the short time frame limits presentations to a few people speaking, it directs the responses to the substance, rather than opinions.
  4. ‘The man’ — science is cold, establishment, authoritarian. I think this is mostly perception. Take a look at Mark Quigley speaking on the earthquakes in and near Christchurch over the last year. Cold, establishment, authoritarian? Or for that matter some fellow writers here at sciblogs who have been in the media. To me if there is a ‘real’ face to this, it’s the formal advisory, written in terse language. One important distinction is authoritative, as opposed to authoritarian.

Another element that might contribute is for mainstream on-line media to link to original sources and resources.

But – enough from me! Feel free to comment.

Update: This video might interest some readers - How does science work?


Other articles on Code for life (most of these are quite old; my views may have moved on or elaborated since!):

Conspiring against science

Three kinds of knowledge about science and journalism

Consensus, evidence, wikipedia and blogs

Of use of the active voice by scientists

Sidebar scientists

Scientists can’t write?