Examining the Mistrust of Science

Proceedings of a National Academies Workshop: “The Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable held a meeting on February 28 and March 1, 2017, to explore trends in public opinion of science, examine potential sources of mistrust, and consider ways that cross-sector collaboration between government, universities, and industry may improve public trust in science and scientific institutions in the future. The keynote address on February 28 was given by Shawn Otto, co-founder and producer of the U.S. Presidential Science Debates and author of The War on Science.

“There seems to be an erosion of the standing and understanding of science and engineering among the public,” Otto said. “People seem much more inclined to reject facts and evidence today than in the recent past. Why could that be?” Otto began exploring that question after the candidates in the 2008 presidential election declined an invitation to debate science-driven policy issues and instead chose to debate faith and values.

“Wherever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. Now, some 240 years later, science is so complex that it is difficult even for scientists and engineers to understand the science outside of their particular fields. Otto argued,

“The question is, are people still well-enough informed to be trusted with their own government? Of the 535 members of Congress, only 11—less than 2 percent—have a professional background in science or engineering. By contrast, 218—41 percent—are lawyers. And lawyers approach a problem in a fundamentally different way than a scientist or engineer. An attorney will research both sides of a question, but only so that he or she can argue against the position that they do not support. A scientist will approach the question differently, not starting with a foregone conclusion and arguing towards it, but examining both sides of the evidence and trying to make a fair assessment.”

According to Otto, anti-science positions are now acceptable in public discourse, in Congress, state legislatures and city councils, in popular culture, and in presidential politics. Discounting factually incorrect statements does not necessarily reshape public opinion in the way some trust it to. What is driving this change? “Science is never partisan, but science is always political,” said Otto. “Science takes nothing on faith; it says, ‘show me the evidence and I’ll judge for myself.’ But the discoveries that science makes either confirm or challenge somebody’s cherished beliefs or vested economic or ideological interests. Science creates knowledge—knowledge is power, and that power is political.”…(More)”.