October 26, 2015

Does the public trust science?

trustscience

By Casey L. Bradley – ASAS Public Policy Committee

Oct. 26, 2015 – Recently, the National Academies Press published a summary of the workshop “Trust and Confidence at the Interfaces of the Life Sciences and Society: Does the Public Trust Science?” The workshop took place in May 2015 in Washington D.C.

The workshop was needed because there is a lack of trust in research and science, particularly in regard to hot topics such as GMOs, sow gestation crates, and antibiotics, as well as confusion over terms such as “organic,” “all-natural” and “gluten-free.” Just type “trusting science” into Google, and you will notice countless articles on the topic. Here are a few quotes from articles generated during a Google search:

“Modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying- to the detriment of the whole science, and of humanity.” The Economist – “How science goes wrong.” October 19, 2013.

“But placing all one’s faith in the integrity of scientists is a mistake too.” Rod Dreher – The American Conservative. “Trusting Science Too Much.” May 27, 2015.

“Science is complex, hard and important, but it is a system of discovery that is riddled with problems. So can we trust it? Just, I think, for now, but the need for reform is profound. Trust it as long as you know that we urgently need to make it work better.” Adam Rutherford – The Guardian. “In science we trust… up to a point.” August 22, 2015.

The articles are enlightening and contain valid points, but more shocking are the headlines that draw the readers into the articles. These headlines aren’t necessarily incorrect.

Within the workshop proceedings (Figure 3-1), confidence in “Medicine” decreased 20% between 1973 and 2012, and confidence in “Scientific Communities” decreased 5% during the same time period.

Is this due to the way people receive their information today? Information is almost instantaneous and available in several forms. The TV show “Dr. Oz” and websites such as “WebMD” are popular sources of information for people. During the workshop, a panel of professors and journalists discussed this very point, addressing the challenges faced by Web, print and radio media in identifying reliable sources and promoting intelligent scientific discussion.

In Box 5-1 of the proceedings, some factors determining trustworthiness are listed, such as expertise, credibility, and objectivity. But ultimately, we as researchers fail ourselves.

Scott Hensley of National Public Radio shared his own frustrating experience of attempting to contact a university-based researcher (to follow up on a press release), only to find that person unavailable. In today’s world, we cannot wait 2 days to respond. At the same time, this creates another problem in itself…society’s self-imposed deadlines of “I want it now.” The workshop panelists admitted that there are fewer and less experienced writers covering science and medicine.

The workshop also discussed strategies to link knowledge with action….in order to build a better level of scientific trust. Marcia Kean, of Feinstein Kean Healthcare, said that the new fabric of trust will need to be built through “partnership, participation, and peer groups.” It’s not just about publishing your findings in a scientific journal but helping society understand what your research means for them.

Kean also stressed that we need to “get into the dialogue early.” A prime example of this is the use of antibiotics in food animals. All meat is antibiotic free, but the general public does not understand this or understand why we need to use antibiotics in food production. Is it too late to join the discussion now? Also, data supported by P-values is not the language that society understands, so it is absolutely critical to speak in a language that they understand.

In conclusion, the workshop conveyed that trust is complicated to define — and gain —with society. However, it is critical that we change our processes to ensure this trust, or there will be no science, and with no science there will be no more advances to support our growing population.

Note: To read the summary from the workshop, the PDF is available at http://www.nap.edu/21798