FYI: Science Policy News

Factors Influencing Public Trust in Science Explored at MIT Conference

DEC 06, 2019
Ways to increase public trust in science through improved communication were explored this week at a conference convened by the MIT Technology Review. National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt delivered a keynote address on ways researchers can better signal to the public what features of science build trust in individual studies.

Perceptions of Science in America Report Cover

Cover image of a recent study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

(Image credit – AAAS)

To address concerns over disconnects between scientific and public understanding on topics such as climate change, MIT Technology Review magazine convened a daylong conference this week on ways to improve the communication of research and increase public trust in the scientific process.

National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt delivered the keynote address for the event, suggesting ways that researchers can better “signal” to the public how the proper application of scientific norms leads to trustworthy results. The conference also explored what survey data reveal about public opinions of science and ways to tailor outreach to different groups.

McNutt offers blueprint for building trust

Diagnosing sources of public distrust, McNutt said skepticism of science stems in part from confusion about conflicting results from individual studies and a lack of understanding of the “self-correcting” nature of science.

“The problem that I think we face is that when scientists say they trust in science, they aren’t very clear about what it is they actually trust,” she said, arguing that scientists should emphasize how individual studies still “have to earn trust.”

Drawing an analogy with Consumer Reports, which provides independent product reviews, she said, “Why don’t we take a page out of the book of some of these other organizations that know how to deliver trusted information and signal clearly to the public what it is they can trust and why they can trust that information?”

McNutt pointed back to what she called the “old days,” when peer review was the primary signifier of trust, saying,

When I first started as a graduate student, it was a binary system. We said if a study was peer reviewed, we would trust it. If a study had not been peer reviewed, it had not yet earned trust.

While weight of evidence and authors’ reputations in the field were also factors at that time, she said, the growth and increasingly global nature of the research enterprise since then has made trust more complicated. Now, she argued, individual reputations are less known and practices vary more widely.

“Cultural norms don’t always align. What might be a very accepted practice in one country for creating trust is not accepted in another country,” she said, citing differing views over what constitutes plagiarism. The growth of science has also increased competition to publish results and demonstrate societal impacts, she observed, adding that the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of science has made it harder to review papers.

Suggesting remedies, McNutt drew from a recent paper she cowrote on signaling the trustworthiness of science. She noted that survey data suggest the public already recognizes key signals of trustworthiness, such as transparent data and methods and disclosure of who funded the study, as well as its publication in peer-reviewed journals.

To shore up these features, she called for incentivizing transparency through open science badges , standardizing regulations on the disclosure of conflicts of interest, and strengthening the peer review process.

Pointing to the emergence of “predatory” journals as well as “peer review rings,” in which researchers conspire to give each other positive reviews, she said that spot audits of journals and adoption of unique author identifiers could help curb abuses. She also said research institutions should be incentivized to investigate and correct errors in the published literature without fear of punishment.

McNutt said a further challenge is to improve public perceptions of the personability of scientists. While scientists are generally perceived as having a high level of competence relative to other professions, she said they rank relatively low on perceptions of “warmth,” which she suggested is “a measure of how much people believe we are working in their best interests.”

When the floor opened for questions, one audience member contended that McNutt did not address “what’s causing the divide in the United States right now between the part of the public who accepts fact-based evidence and those who do not.”

McNutt replied she believes the issue traces back to “the whole way that everyone talks about science.” As an example, she called into question the use of the word “believe” in discussions of climate change, remarking,

If someone asked me, ‘Do you believe in climate change?’ [I would say] ‘There’s an evidentiary basis for climate change.’ Because to say you ‘believe’ in it puts it in the same category as religion. And we have to make a solid distinction between what has a basis in science and has predictive power and what doesn’t.

‘No single anti-science population’

Other talks at the conference explored how data on public attitudes toward science reveal variations across demographic lines.

John Randell, leader of the Public Face of Science project at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, summarized findings of its recent reports, “ Perceptions of Science in America ” and “ Encountering Science in America .” He said surveys show that confidence in science among U.S. adults has remained steady since the 1970s, whereas confidence in financial institutions, the press, and Congress has declined significantly.

Acknowledging that some view such figures as “masking some problem areas,” he noted that confidence varies by age, race, educational attainment, geography, and ideology, among other factors. For instance, he noted a strong positive correlation between individuals’ level of education and their trust in science about the safety of genetically modified foods.

He also asserted there is “no single anti-science population,” adding,

There are people who lead deliberate misinformation campaigns who take advantage of anti-science sentiment for political or economic or social gain. I’m not disputing that that exists, but what I do think is that there’s no sort of massive movement of people who reject the scientific consensus broadly on all of these issues.

For this reason, Randell said he rejects the idea of there being a “war on science,” and suggested such a framing has an alienating effect.

“A lot of the people that I know that do a lot of science advocacy on the Hill really dislike that framing,” he added. “You can’t really paint people as being engaged in a war on science and then engage them on science.”

“I think it’s been much more productive for us and I think for a lot of people that we’ve worked with to start from a standpoint that we know that people are supportive generally of science, and that they may have specific concerns, and that there are ways of addressing those concerns,” he said.

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