Why Doesn't the Public Trust Science?
As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton try to convince voters that they should be the next president of the United States, one group in particular is pushing the candidates for answers: scientists. A coalition of 55 groups that collectively represent 10 million scientists, among them the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences, has put together a list of 20 questions they want Trump and Clinton to answer.
The queries America’s scientists have put to the two presidential hopefuls touch on some of the country’s most hot-button issues, including climate change and energy as well as immigration and healthcare. Going beyond stump speeches and policy platforms, they ask Trump and Clinton point-blank what they think of climate change and what they would do about it, how they would balance the needs for security and privacy on the Internet, which course they would take in managing the nation’s food supply, and whether they would fight back against declining vaccination rates and other threats to public health by putting hard science first.
The letter from the scientific groups responds in part to a larger illness plaguing the American political life. In the country as a whole, there is a growing disconnect between the public and the scientific establishment – and the 2016 campaign season has seen an avalanche of political claims completely unmoored from the view of most experts. In order to ensure citizens are well informed, researchers, policymakers, and others must act decisively to repair this gap in public trust.
To illustrate this disconnect, one could look to the gaps between the opinions of scientists on certain issues and those of the public. The Pew Research Center surveyed scientists affiliated with the AAAS last year and compared their responses with those of other respondents. Fully 88 percent of scientists said they believe genetically modified foods are safe to eat, versus 37 percent of US adults, a 51-point gap. Comparably large gaps can be seen in favoring the use of animals in research (42 points), the safety of pesticides (40 points), humans’ contribution to climate change (37 points), and evolution (33 points), with far more scientists in support of each than the general public. On issues of food and the environment, a sizeable portion of the public (34 percent and 31 percent, respectively) believes science has had a mostly negative impact – a significant increase from 2009.
Anti-science sentiment is particularly acute among Republican voters, where many harbor beliefs about political bias in science. A 2014 Pew survey found that 42 percent of conservative Republicans view scientists as liberal, a 14 percent increase from 2009. Other research finds that Democrats in the Senate are three times more likely than Republicans to follow scientific Twitter accounts. From a historical standpoint, this behavior is easy to explain. Republican presidents (and candidates alike) have for decades pandered to the anti-elitist sentiments of their political base. The problem has reached new heights with Donald Trump, who has demonstrated a genuinely profound ignorance on many policy issues and an utter lack of concern for veracity or empiricism.
But the rejection of experts is not just a problem on the right. On the left, Jill Stein seeks to put a moratorium on GMOs, ban certain pesticides, and promote certain alternative medicinal practices, despite such policies having little or no scientific merit. One could also look to leading environmental group Greenpeace, whose efforts to block GMOs designed to reduce vitamin A deficiency have been vigorously opposed by scientists and have likely harmed vulnerable populations in Southeast Asia. One could even mention Democrat business legend Steve Jobs, whose pursuit of alternative therapies to treat his cancer may have contributed to his death.
Why the growing public distrust? Part of the problem could come down to damaged credibility. A recent report found that 90 percent of researchers believe science is facing a reproducibility crisis. There are many false-positive discoveries, leading people to incorrectly believe a definitive finding has been made. This is due especially to a lack of statistical power in many studies. Researchers often use questionable scientific practices in hopes of producing significant results. Data and other information are often omitted from published research. Hypotheses are frequently changed after the results are found. Researchers often adjust statistical tests and/or data until significant findings are generated.
Funding has consistently gone to financing pointless projects, or even downright misleading ones. Modern research is rife with conflicting results. Contradictions in research are fairly common. The World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, IARC, has made headlines earlier in June after reversing its longstanding position on coffee’s carcinogenic potential. Similarly, the organization has been linked to several studies widely rejected by other researchers – such as the saga involving glyphosate. IARC broke ranks with several European bodies, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the EPA when it declared that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”. These confusions arose from the fact that IARC only screens for hazard, without taking into account exposure risk and dosage – making its findings contingent on other regulatory bodies’ assessments, most of which don’t support its conclusion.
With so many problems facing scientific research, it’s no wonder people don’t trust scientists anymore. Many of these failures stem from a systemic problem among academic journals, researchers, and the media, each seeking to promote their self-interest at the expense of accuracy and quality. Journals prioritize novel, clickbait-worthy findings, leading them to overlook flaws and reject reproduced studies and ones with negative findings. Researchers, for whom promotions and career opportunities rely on producing provocative findings, are guilty of much the same transgressions. The media, eager for to make headlines and short on time, often focuses on the results of the study with scant attention paid to the research methods or statistical significance of the findings.
And the reason all of this is happening? Science in general has trouble communicating its findings to the wider public. Part of the reason could be that key parts of the scientific community are too old, too male, and/or just too out of touch.
What can be done to resolve the problems plaguing modern science and repair public trust? Regarding scientific research, better standards of statistical significance are needed. Researchers should be required to register their research protocols in advance in virtual notebooks, to make it harder to get away with fiddling with an experiment’s design. Journals should create quotas for less interesting research, such as fact-checking other studies, which should be mandated by grant-givers.
Evidently, much can be done about the problems facing science. Given the concerning state of public distrust and the importance of science for the advancement of society, fixing it should be a national priority. A younger, more representative pool of scientists, combined with higher quality research, could help communicate important new findings to the world at large and restore the bond of trust between society and the scientific community. Without such changes, demagogues and snake oil salesmen will send us hurtling into a dark age of junk science.