Understanding the barriers between scientists, the public and the truth

Understanding the barriers between scientists, the public and the truth
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Hardly a day goes by without a scientific controversy related to the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, dietary guidelines, pollution risks or numerous other topics. Some of these controversies are the result of insufficient scientific data. Others are manufactured by advocacy groups seeking to sow public confusion to block a proposed mandate or regulation or reinforce an ideological belief. Still, others result from a poor understanding of the role of science in our public discourse. Poor communication by scientists also fosters public mistrust.

Science has always been controversial. Galileo was ordered by the Catholic Church to submit to arrest and trial for his belief that the Earth revolved around the sun. Charles Darwin is still reviled in many religious circles for his conclusion that species evolve through natural processes and share common ancestors.

Several factors presently contribute to public confusion and, hence, mistrust of science:

  • The search for truth is seldom definitive. More likely, the best that science can achieve is to narrow the uncertainties about a problem and present results that are “probable” or “likely” to happen. Herein lies a major problem with public understanding of science. Most people do not think probabilistically. They seek “yes” or “no” answers. By comparison, the stock market daily displays financial indicators that inform the individual investor whether the market went up or down and whether money was made or lost. No such reporting system exists for science.
  • When scientists change their opinions they didn’t lie, they learned more. Science is infinitely complex and emerges through the accumulation of partial insights. There are seldom “eureka” moments that dramatically reveal new solutions. Even the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccinations followed many years of meticulous research that occurred largely out of public view. In addition to the deliberate distortions of anti-vaccine campaigners, part of the public’s confusion over the efficacy of wearing masks, maintaining social distancing or obtaining vaccinations was the result of a changing landscape of scientific information that challenged even seasoned medical professionals to communicate clearly. Many times they didn’t.
  • Science informs, but it doesn’t decide. The confusion over the role of science generates multiple opportunities to manipulate scientific information. Policymakers seek political cover in claiming that their decisions are “science-based.” All too often this leads them to favor a scientific conclusion that favors their agenda.  In the case of former EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittUnderstanding the barriers between scientists, the public and the truth Overnight Energy & Environment — Biden makes return to pre-Trump national monument boundaries official Trump-era EPA board member sues over firing MORE, this behavior led to the purging of independent scientists on scientific advisory panels when their views differed from his policy goals. Other politicians, including President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE, fall to the temptation to predict scientific outcomes — such as the availability of booster shots — before they occur in order to manage public expectations.
  • Science has been deliberately and successfully manipulated to achieve a more confused and polarized public. The non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate has identified a top ten list of online information sources denying the existence of climate change on Facebook. These include Breitbart, the Media Research Center and organizations with links to foreign governments such as RT (Russian Television). The success of these and other campaigns to sow public confusion and mistrust of climate science is measured in the number of decades that have transpired before a large majority of the public accepted the fact that a changing climate is attributable to human actions and supported policy interventions to reduce the risk of more severe planetary impacts.

Today’s era of quick-reaction social media greatly challenges the public’s scientific literacy. In response, scientists must become more involved to ensure the accuracy and understanding of the information they generate. 

First, scientists must become more skilled at communicating the data they create. This can be achieved by collaboration with communications professionals to frame clear, transparent data-driven messages. Second, scientists need to take more direct responsibility in correcting bad information. One approach adopted by climate scientists is the creation of www.climatefeedback.org, “a worldwide network of scientists sorting fact from fiction in climate change media coverage,” with a goal “to help readers know which news to trust.” Third, scientists need to better understand the values and lifestyles of citizens whose lives they wish to improve.  

Mere communication of technical information is insufficient to persuade a public where personal experience is more influential in making lifestyle choices than expanded scientific awareness.

Dr. Terry F. Yosie is the former director of EPA’s Science Advisory Board who has served on numerous committees of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.