Building trust in science

In their book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future,  Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum say that Americans don’t trust science. A lot of that, as they point out, is a result of negative portrayals in television and movies, attacks from politicians and religious groups, and a general disconnect of scientific research from most of our daily lives.

I have always revered science, or at least the classical scientific principles that have been proven over time. Just as I would rather listen to classical music than the latest hits, or get my information from books instead of streaming newscasts, I tend to prefer the thoroughly digested long-term overview of science over the day-to-day research process.

When we get down to day-to-day findings, or even decade-to-decade findings, science hasn’t always earned our trust. The same people who brought us “better living through chemistry” also brought us bisphenol-A, PCBs, Agent Orange, and a host of household chemicals with dangers and toxicity levels that the average person is either unaware of or chooses to ignore. Science has overall raised our standard of living, but it has also led to overpopulation as food has become more plentiful, people live longer, and many diseases have been eradicated or made less severe. We are more comfortable, healthier, and able to enjoy life more than ever, and yet there is a sense of loss in that we seem to have more and more odd seasons–here in northeast Ohio we seem to have a lot of unusually warm winters and cool summers of late. Visit a park like Smoky Mountain National Park today and it just doesn’t have the feeling of wilderness that it used to have. It hasn’t been developed any more than it used to be, but as more people visit the park it just doesn’t feel like you are getting as close to nature as you used to feel. As we build more roads, buy more cars, and develop more suburbs, things start to look the same everywhere you go–I loved the term Generica that someone coined for the strip malls that all have the same stores and restaurants. Admittedly, all of these observations are indirectly a result of the science that made them possible. It is perhaps unfair to blame science for it, because it has more to do with how people have chosen to use the science.

In pure scientific research we see practices that also lead us to suspect scientists’ motives. Researchers receive funding from drug companies to test the effectiveness of the drugs, but do not disclose the funding source. Negative experiment results are simply not reported. In my own field of psychology, all kinds of things can go wrong with experiments. Many researchers do their best to avoid introducing biases or errors into their experiments, but results are often open to interpretation. A lot depends on how the questions are asked or how the results are interpreted. Experiments are supposed to be reproducible, but how often does someone actually try to reproduce any but the most classical experiments that are demonstrated in student labs. More likely, when a result is published, it will motivate someone else to come up with a counterexample or way of demonstrating an opposing view, and a subsequent experiment will argue for the opposite interpretation. Over time we might get to the truth, but it will take a long time to get there.