By Maria Benevento
Americans rank second highest in scientific literacy among thirty-four tested countries, and the public’s trust in scientists remains steadily higher than trust in many other professions. However, discussions of these two related topics usually emphasize how important it is for scientific literacy and trust in science to increase even more.
Recent datahows that for a number of topics such as evolution, genetically modified organisms, vaccination, and climate change, public opinion deviates sharply from the scientific consensus. The public’s beliefs about these issues are concerning for many, because they shape public policy that affects our education system, food supply, control of infectious diseases, and global climate.
Various commentators propose different solutions to this problem based on what they believe to be its source. Common targets of blame are lobbyists and activistswho misinform people because of their agendas, low-quality science education, and poor communication by scientists themselves. While suggestions for deterring lobbyists and activists who interfere with trust in and knowledge about science are scarce, science education and communication seem to be areas where genuine improvement is much more likely.
However, improving science literacy does not automatically improve trust in science. In an articlefor National Geographic, Joel Achenbach cites research from Dan Kahan of Yale University which showed that high scientific literacy was correlated with strong views on the threat of climate change on both ends of the spectrum. Scientific literacy made some people agree with scientists but made others more confident in their disagreement. Achenbach adds that according to Kahan, “people tend to use scientific knowledge to reinforce beliefs that have already been shaped by their worldview.”
Since having more scientific knowledge does not automatically make people less biased, better education would have to be focused on more than providing information. Students must also be able to recognize their own biases, understand the scientific method, and identify credible sources of information.
While some types of science communication, such as trying to overwhelm opponents with lists of facts, are actually counterproductive, scientists can also communicate in ways that make the public more likely to trust them. In “Scientific Research and the Public Trust,”David B. Resnik argues that scientists should be better at clarifying what the public’s expectations of them are and explaining why the policies and guidelines they follow help them meet those expectations. Of course, scientists must also be trustworthy both by being honest and by having the public’s best interests in mind.
It is also sometimes possible to present scientific conclusions in ways that do not turn them into polarizing political issues. Some researchshows that when scientists advocate for certain policies in addition to stating facts, certain segments of the population are more inclined to distrust their accuracy.
In an article for Science, Dan Kahan argues that exaggerating the prevalence of anti-vaccination sentiment, aggressively emphasizing the safety of vaccines, or linking anti-vaccination with disbelief in evolution or climate change actually makes the issue more polarized and could cause people to oppose vaccines because they believe others in their cultural group do so. Talking about vaccines and other issues in ways that do not trigger polarization can help people trust science more.
As Alice Bell wrote in an article for The Guardian: “A world where we believe what scientists tell us is only one to aim for if we also have a trustworthy scientific community.” Blind trust of scientists is not the goal. However,when the public’s disagreement with scientists or lack of understanding of scientific concepts can lead to mistakes or inaction related to policies that affect our food supply, climate, and health, it is no wonder that science literacy and trust of scientists are serious concerns. If scientists become better at communicating valid information without provoking polarization and science education helps people avoid bias against scientists who are actually worthy of trust, then perhaps Americans can view science as a non-partisan and reliable way to understand the world.
Maria Benevento is a senior at Creighton University majoring in Theology and American Studies. Creighton University is home to the Beta of Nebraska Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.