Thursday, May 13, 2010

How can we improve public trust of science in America?

Based on increasing concerns in both developed and developing nations about low levels of public trust in science, science+religion TODAY recently asked me for "a quick and dirty answer" to the following question: "How can we improve public trust of science in America?"  Here's my response:
"The good news (and the bad) is that public opinion is somewhat fickle.  Like many other attitudes and opinions that we think we hold firmly, our feelings of trust in political actors or institutions are highly susceptible to what is most salient or easily accessible in our minds when we express these feelings. Social scientists refer to this as priming. In other words, whatever considerations are made most salient by heavy media coverage, also tend to be the ones we take into account when forming attitudes. This is not any different for science and scientists.
During the week of December 7-13, 2009, for instance, the subject of global warming occupied one of ten stories published in news media (the most attention it received in the media since the Project for Excellence in Journalism began monitoring the news in 2007). And most of this coverage focused on the potential ethical lapses committed by scientists during Climate-gate (a charge that the UK House of Commons later rejected, by the way). In other words, the public’s thinking about scientists right now is influenced heavily by highly-visible recent coverage of scientific controversies and the politicization of supposedly objective science.  At least, those are the considerations that are most easily retrieved from memory when respondents are asked about how much they trust scientists in surveys.

This is not all bad, of course, since it implies that it is up to scientists to reverse this trend and play a more proactive role in informing public debate, and in highlighting the aspects of science that they think are most important for citizens to understand.  If this means an all out street fight for public opinion, as some have argued, or more nuanced strategies targeted toward convincing a reluctant public of the benefits of science, is another issue.  In either event, the ball is in the court of scientists.

Finally, trust is not everything. Public attitudes toward science and scientists are shaped by a complex interplay of factors, and trust in scientists is just one of many important influences. My colleague Dominique Brossard here at Wisconsin, for instance, has argued very convincingly for a while now that modern science requires a long-term commitment to science by the general public, something she refers to as deference toward scientific authority. Science is not any different from other institutions, such as law enforcement or the Supreme Court, that may suffer from short-term fluctuations in trust, triggered by accusations of racial profiling or allegedly partisan rulings. But the climate change of today will be replaced by a different scientific debate tomorrow.  The real danger for scientists, therefore, lies less in fluctuating levels of trust, than in long-term declines in deference toward scientific authority, i.e., the belief in the inherent benefit from science for society at large. Once we start seeing significant declines in these more ingrained values, we are in real trouble."