January workshop report: What explains public distrust of science?

A concern frequently voiced by participants in our workshops is the decline of public trust in science. The need to rebuild trust, and strengthen public awareness of the scientific process, are oft-cited goals of science communication, including the kind of science-related creative writing we try to foster in NeuWrite Nordic. Yet how to solve the problem of trust in science depends on what we think might be causing the problem in the first place.

It's often assumed that the public just doesn't understand science. But a number of experts challenge this view. The longtime former director of NeuWrite in New York, Tim Requarth, is among them. Tim has written:

Many scientists hope that by doing a better job of explaining science, they can move the needle toward scientific consensus on politically charged issues. ... It's an admirable goal, but almost certainly destined to fail. ... The way most scientists think about science communication ... is plain wrong. In fact, it's so wrong that it may have the opposite effect of what they're trying to achieve. ... [Studies have shown] that even when people understand the scientific consensus, they may not accept it. The takeaway is clear: Increasing science literacy alone won’t change minds.

From this counterintuitive conclusion, Tim goes on to discuss some useful alternative strategies for communication. You can read Tim's suggestions here.

Still, the question remains: why has trust in science fallen so far in the first place—especially if it's true that many distrustful citizens basically understand science well enough? To kick off 2024 at NeuWrite Nordic, instead of workshopping our own texts we read a piece of published popular science writing to study its methods and to ponder this vexing question.

The politics of scientism

One possible but also controversial answer to the question is that falling trust in science doesn't actually have that much to do with scientists; rather, the argument goes, the problem is more that over recent decades, politicians and policymakers have appropriated science for their own purposes. To promote their agendas, they have relied more and more not on science, but on "scientism"—an inappropriate and excessive invocation of the power of scientific knowledge and techniques to justify choices that are being made well outside the realm of science. And this, in turn, has fueled a public backlash, not necessarily against scientific methods and discoveries themselves, but against the misuse of science for unscientific purposes.

This is a provocative claim, and it was made last summer at length in a cover article in Harper's, the oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the United States. The essay—"Doctor’s Orders: COVID-19 and the new science wars" by the political scientist Jason Blakely—was the reading for our January meeting, and it led to a lively, rich, and deeply thoughtful discussion.

The media stoking conflict

After our workshop discussion, a number of us continued the conversation over drinks afterwards. Many of us felt that most scientists, to their credit, try not to contribute to the politics of scientism. However, another problem came up: even when scientists try to be careful in their public statements to describe the complexity, uncertainties, and limitations of actual science, in mainstream media and on social media nuance often gets converted into simplistic, black-and-white conflicts. These conflict-driven narratives can end up pitting scientists against each other in public view in a way that also erodes public trust in science.

Thus scientists face a dilemma: they want to communicate with the public through mainstream and social media to rebuild trust, but trying to do so can risk stoking distrust. This dilemma was described, for example, by the Stanford University professor of medicine Eran Bendavid during the COVID pandemic in an essay titled "The Faustian Bargain Between Pandemic Scientists and the Media: Casting scientists as polarizing media figures has proved a disservice to both science and the public."

One solution is to do what we are doing at NeuWrite Nordic. By bringing together scientists and creative writers to workshop draft texts, we can help each other notice such problems in advance and develop alternative strategies and avenues for better communication.

The reality of paradigm shifts

A final note, though: it's also evident that historically, genuine and necessary conflict has occurred within science, as Thomas Kuhn argued in his classic study, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If science communicators don't acknowledge this possibility as well, the public is still unlikely to trust them. At NeuWrite Nordic's March 2023 meeting, we read an essay by the indomintable science communicator Trisha Greenhalgh, who's been ranked among the 100 most-followed scientists on Twitter/X. In the essay Greenhalgh wrote:

Thomas Kuhn proposed that science progresses in paradigms—a paradigm being a set of assumptions and beliefs shared by a group of scientists about what the important questions are and how they should be tackled. Most scientists, most of the time, work within an existing paradigm and build rather doggedly on what has gone before. ... Occasionally, someone (often a youngster new to the discipline or perhaps someone in a second career) questions the prevailing assumptions and methodological rules. ... A fight ensues, with the newcomer typically rejected by the old school as ignorant or not rigorous, and a breakaway group forms. The most famous example of this is Einstein, who challenged the assumptions and methods of Newtonian physics and started playing to new rules, allowing new questions to be addressed in a whole new way.

—Trevor Corson

Resources & references

The following came up in our discussion or were relevant to the workshop texts or theme:

Image: Thamonwan Chulajata, Vecteezy

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