The Science of Sustainability

Distrust of Science

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"They're lying." "Who are they working for?" "What a bunch of gibberish."

This is the sort of stuff I sometimes overhear when a scientist comes on TV. And I'm not the only one who is hearing this sort of thing. Many studies over the years have chronicled an increasing distrust of the scientist.

Where does this lack of trust come from? Scientists themselves are at least partly to blame. (Next time I'll deal with the public's part in all of this.)

I'll just go over a couple of the reasons why I think scientists are culpable. I am sure readers can come up with plenty of them on their own.

First off, many scientists are no longer lone crusaders searching for the truth. Some of them have an agenda.

Like the scientists at oil companies who pooh-pooh global warming. Or the big tobacco scientists who claim nicotine is not addictive. Or scientists from pharmaceutical companies who talk up new medicines while data about the drugs' side effects are hidden.

The public rightly questions some of these scientists' motives. But to extend this questioning to all scientists is a mistake. Most scientists are still working for the common good. Even those in corporate America.

Scientists are struggling to cure unprofitable diseases like malaria. To create foods that can solve problems like Vitamin A deficient blindness. To understand how the Universe works. To cure heart disease AND make money for their company.

Beyond wanting to be recognized within the scientific community, most of these scientists don't have an agenda. And frankly, even if they do, science will sort it out.

This is because science is self-correcting. Something the public often doesn’t understand because scientists have not done a good job of explaining it.

Science is always building on previous results. What this means is that the previous results have to hold up. If they don't, new experiments won’t work and the previous bad data will be found. And thrown out.

Take the example of human cloning. A Korean scientist named Hwang Woo Suk said he had cloned a human cell. This was huge.

It opened up doors to personalized stem cells. And to all sorts of ethical dilemmas. But it was a lie.

DNA testing showed that the work was bogus. Scientists looked bad here (or at least this one did). But science corrected itself and marches on.

This lack of understanding by the public about how science works is also at least partly the fault of the scientists (and science educators). Why? Because scientists tend to be awful at talking about science to the public. So much so that people don't listen or hear what they want to hear.

Rosalind FranklinNow none of this is surprising as talking to the public isn't part of a scientist’s training. They are trained to do excellent science.

If taught well they run all the right controls, come to reasonable conclusions and can plan the next set of experiments. But very few are taught to explain their work to the public.

And so if they have an exciting finding that is either important or sexy enough for the media, they are thrust into the spotlight. Where they often stumble.

Sometimes they speak in a technical fog that makes their results hard to decipher. Or they don't take the time to explain the basics. Or they ignore the effect their work will have on people and their beliefs. Or a host of other possibilities.

And so the public misunderstands and questions their work. I remember listening to a story on PBS' own NewsHour program (a show I love by the way).

There was a scientist on the show discussing new research on lung cancer. The correspondent asked about why people who don't smoke can still get lung cancer.

The scientist never really answered the question. If she had known about the level of knowledge of the public, she could have responded like this:

"Smoking increases your risk of cancer because it damages your DNA. And cancer is caused by DNA damage. Not all DNA damage leads to cancer, though. So only some smokers get lung cancer. And there are lots of other ways to damage DNA besides smoking. So some nonsmokers get lung cancer too."

Because the scientist didn't get into the basics of cancer, it was more difficult for some of the audience to interpret her results. And so easier to mistrust them.

What to do? Programs are being created to make scientists more aware of what the public knows about science (I run one called Stanford at The Tech). And how to write and talk about science with the public in a way that is entertaining, accurate, and appropriate.

As more of these programs are created and more scientists are trained, hopefully the public's distrust for scientists will decrease. And like I said, I only touched on a couple of points here.

I didn't bring up the effects of exaggerated claims about a scientist's work. Or exaggerated claims about when a scientist's work will lead to a cure for a disease. Or when stem cells will cure diabetes. Or when…

Why else do you think scientists are so mistrusted? Can you think of any ways scientists can regain the trust of the public?

The prevalent distrust of science
http://www.fortunecity.com/emachines/e11/86/maddox1.html

Mistrust of Science
http://memetherapy.net/19/mistrust-of-science-part-one/

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA.

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Jeremy Price

    Thank you for the interesting posts. Matthew Nesbit, in his interesting blog Framing Science, has recently written a related post, "Citizens…and Scientists Who 'Go Without Data'" (http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2007/03/citizensand_scientists_who_go.php). His research seems to support what you have written here, taking a slightly different perspective. The overarching message, that "doing science" and learning the skills necessary for public education and communication should be tightly coupled, is the same.

  • http://www.memetherapy.net Jose

    You linked to two articles I co-authored on Meme Therapy and since I wrote them my thinking has changed a little on the issue. I've spent a lot of time reading hard right, christian dominionists blogs. This exposure has opened my eyes a little and I'm increasingly thinking that what we're seeing is a christian dominionist recoil to what they percieve as a growing threat to their worldview from science.

    Science to some is the enemy. There's a widespread sentiment that there are scientists seeking to undermine religion (evolutionary theory) and conservative values (global warming). In both instances I'm seeing a lot of out and out conspiracy theory being exposed.

    This isn't to say that religion itself is an "enemy" or diametricaly opposed to science. Religion is a big tent after all, but there are some strains, paticularly the christian dominionists who have their backs up. It isn't a mistake for that the villain in Battlestar Galactica is a european scientist. He's a ficitional character of course and no real resemblance to pretty much any scientist you're likely to meet but he's an a spot on reenactment of a certain perception of scientist. Nihilistic, politicaly and moraly bankrupt willing to advance his own agendas at the expense of the public good, elitist, condescending and ultimately an unholy fool.

    And we're not talking about beliefs which are held by a few oddballs. Creationists and intelligent design adherents are hardly a minority in a lot of societies. And these people don't just think that scientists are guilty of a minor error in judgement. A good chunk of these people actively believe that scientists are engaged in a coordinated and orchaestrated acts of deception.

    After all if you believe the world is 6,000 years old you can't rationaly explain away evolutionary theory on someone forgetting to carry the two. If you honestly believe that then the next logical step (and I use the term loosely here) is that the preponderence of evidence to the contrary has to be the results of an act of deception.

    The christian dominionist crowd has absolutely no problem with corporate scientists, Exxon climatologists, agribusiness, GM crops and the rest.

  • Barry Starr

    Thanks for the two responses, both blogs were an enjoyable read and I recommend them to the Quest audience.

    Jose mentions Christian dominionists in his piece. While it is true it can be difficult to discuss facts with people who ignore them, I think we need to dig a bit deeper and see why these folks question the facts (I'll be going into more detail on this in my next blog). A big reason may be that many scientists use these facts as weapons to show that there is no God. Of course a religious person will fight back if the issue is framed that way!

  • Pingback: QUEST Science Blog - KQED » Distrust of Science, part II

  • http://www.mycanceronline.com/ John

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