A Lack of Trust in Science — National Structural Issues Exposed by Covid-19 Series, Part 1
A massive tsunami has travelled around the world in the form of the Covid-19pandemic. That wave is in the process of toppling what looked like strong buildings. What’s more, it is washing away the sand to expose the very suspect foundations upon which much of our recent developments in society have been built. It is time to fully expose these suspect foundations on which our economic and political lives depend.
Across a short series of articles I’m going to examine these issues. Here is part one.
A Lack of Trust in Science
One of the first structural issues exposed by Covid-19 is a broad lack of trust in science. We’ve seen this over and over again in so many ways, first with climate change and now with the Covid-19 pandemic. At least it is something that scientists are widely aware of and much discussion has occurred on it, such as in this workshop proceedings from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
Perhaps the most obvious is the clear lack of trust in science shown by the White House and many in the Republican Party. Whatever the cause of this lack of trust in science, seeing it by many of the senior politicians of the US sets a very poor example for the rest of the American population.
However this lack of trust in science has not just been a US phenomenon. We’ve seen signs of it in many countries, from the UK to India to Australia and many places in between. Sometimes the issue has been due to religion, but many times it is not. Religion certainly plays a role in some of the ignoring of science we see. Especially in the US where there is a greater belief in the literal truth of the Bible than in many other countries, this fundamentalist belief that what is written in a book sourced from many authors written long ago has more authority than any amount of scientific evidence is proving a huge barrier to progress. The same thinking is present among a thankfully smaller group on the far right of politics in Australia. In India we’ve seen a similar denial of science by sectors of the fundamentalist aggressive Hindu sector of politics over recent months.
Leaving aside the religious fundamentalists, I believe that a root cause of the lack of trust is a combination of ignorance about how science works and a case of trying to ignore information when you really want to do the opposite. Let’s examine these causes.
Ignorance of How Science Works
Despite significant time spent on science in schools across the world, a real understanding of scientific thought processes and of the actual way science is done is lacking. What is especially lacking is a real understanding of how scientists are trained to talk about the results of their research. We see over and over again a fixation on a disagreement of approach as a sign that science does not have the answers. While a relatively new field of study, research is being done in this area, and it raises concerns about how academic disputes impact public perceptions. With Covid-19 this was evident in the discussions about different strategies to contain and control the virus, from herd immunity to massive lockdown with the aim of elimination. It was also most obvious in the debate over the use of masks.
Good science, as a consequence of the need for careful observation and the gathering and then analysis of solid evidence, can be slow to reach a majority position. In the case of a new virus with seemingly novel characteristics, it was obvious to anyone immersed in science that clear answers would take time, and that while this was happening scientists, when pushed for a recommendation, would base this on past experience with other diseases and best guesses. This would naturally lead to disagreements in the recommendation given. Scientists are people too and so also some will stick to their opinion longer than they should. The problem here was that the different messaging from different people and organisations created a field day for people looking for an excuse not to wear masks.
Language and Media
Another major part of the issue is a real difference in language between scientists and the general public. Good scientists are careful in the language they use to describe their research results. While to another scientist saying, ‘we believe’, ‘we have confidence that’ or ‘our studies suggest’ indicates a strong belief in the results, to the general public these words suggest doubt and a lack of certainty. Scientists talking to the public are in a real bind. On the one hand the public is used to hearing definite language from politicians. Yet if they do that themselves, they run the risk of being labelled an attention-seeker or even a bad scientist by their own colleagues.
Complicating all this have been two factors: the way politicians speak and the way the media will often chop up what is said.
Politicians show little modesty in their use of language and it is very rare for a politician to say that there are alternate thoughts that may be just as valid to the one they are proposing. Anyone who really thinks about what they say knows this to be the case, but the need to create a sound bite and suggest that they know what they are doing pushes politicians to present their approach as the gospel truth. We’ve encouraged a polarisation in politics that is only making this worse.
The media, driven by what the general public seem to increasingly want, rarely have the time and space to provide proper coverage. The emphasis on the ‘sound bite’ that the media can’t edit down any further pressures the interviewed to make unsound statements and leaves no room to explore nuance. We’ve become a world of short attention span, easily distracted media consumers who, at the same time, can blow almost any statement, real or imagined, into a conspiracy theory.
Research has shown that trust in science is a key factor in the way people have responded (or not) to initiatives during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is thus critical that efforts be taken to increase the general understanding of science and the way that science is both done and spoken about.
Of course a major factor in people’s behaviour during the pandemic has been the growing self-centredness and seeming inability to consider the potential impact of one’s behaviour on others. Since there is a lot to say about this, I’ve moved most of this discussion into an upcoming article. But I think here it is enough to say that there clearly is a rise in self-centred thinking and so people have been looking for excuses to justify such behaviour. The issues we’ve discussed above about perceptions of science plays nicely into this, and provides a ready set of reasons that people have used to justify doing what they want to do without accepting that there may be consequences for themselves or others. We see this in the ‘Bunnings Karen’ case in Australia and also in the behaviour of much of the Right in the US and elsewhere.
So How Do We Move Forward
I clearly won’t have all the answers, but I’d like to propose some steps to start addressing this issue.
Firstly, scientists need more training about communicating with the media and the general public. This needs to be worked into all courses in science, health sciences and engineering, and reinforced in postgraduate courses. Academic and research organisations need to also do training workshops for existing staff that are mandatory.
Then we need to address the understanding of the way science is done by better material in schools. Frankly I think this should be part of a much bigger direction of study dealing with communication, thinking, diversity, resilience and tolerance. The science aspect needs to cover differences in language and meaning and the actual processes of science. The importance of debate and disagreement as a positive aspect of scientific progress is also required. Some work on the history of science to show the generally forward and positive contribution of science, while also exposing and acknowledging the historical issues that have occurred, such as the manipulation of science by the cigarette companies and present similar issues with the chemical and drug industries, should be examined as well. These efforts need to be reinforced in tertiary education across all university level courses.
Politically we need to start pushing our politicians to move away from polarising and overly confident language.
We need to demand more of our media in the way of quality reporting, and we need to be willing to pay to support this.
We also need to encourage more open discussion in the public space about complex and often difficult topics. The negative tendencies of political correctness and cancel culture must be resisted and the right to free and open speech must be reinforced at every opportunity. One of the main ways of doing this is to refuse to be silenced. We must pressure our politicians to encourage and support open discussion and to reinforce that just because someone is offended is not a reason to silence people. As a society we need to toughen up. Our leaders and the media need to reinforce this and stop playing the offence game for political points or ratings.
Part 2 of this series will look at the Casualisation of the Workforce.