“The public wants certainty”: why have Americans stopped trusting science? | Books
In the age of the anti-expert, Christopher Reddy has a bold proposition for scientists: step up.
Reddy, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution chemist who specializes in oil spills and related environmental disasters, has watched with despair as public trust in scientists plummeted in recent years, culminating in a widespread pushback against measures to public health and vaccines during the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to Pew Research, only 29% of Americans say they have a great deal of trust in scientists to act in the best interest of the public. In a reflection on how politicized science, including medicine, has become, Democrats are three times more likely than Republicans to trust scientists. Reddy has an explanation some scientists might not like. They are part of the problem.
In his new book, Science Communication in a Crisis: An Insider’s Guide, the chemist challenges scientists to learn how to explain what they know to the public, especially about environmental disasters and medical emergencies, in a time when the spread of misinformation is accelerated.
“The central problem is rooted in academia itself: communication with non-scientists is not valued,” he writes.
Reddy’s book uses a series of high-profile disasters and emergencies to offer scholars advice on how to engage with the press, public, and other stakeholders in ways that illuminate the science rather than obscure it.
Too often, Reddy says, experts talk to each other but don’t help ordinary Americans understand the science, whether it’s oil spills, the climate crisis or a pandemic.
Reddy was marked by his own experience working on “groundbreaking studies of oil spill chemistry.” He said industry and cleanup specialists rarely pay attention to developing science, in part because researchers like him don’t speak to those who might use their work. Reddy thought he was wasting his time and prepared to move on to a new area of research.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Photograph: US Coast Guard/AFP/Getty Images
Then, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and spilling huge amounts of oil into the sea. Finally, his expertise was sought by the US government, as well than by other scientists who accurately measured the amount of oil released into the Gulf and determined how the currents would distribute the polluted water.
“The initial containment, damage assessment and environmental restoration work all depended on our contributions. And yet government and industry hated us more than ever,” he said.
“The public had soured on science-based cleanup efforts, thinking they were making a bad situation worse — an ominous foreshadowing of vaccine hesitancy during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he wrote.
“And the media had fun unearthing small personal disputes between scholars and picking out the most sensational claims about the end of the world made by anyone with a doctorate attached to their name. I argued with a reporter during a taping of Good Morning America, which ended with him pulling the plug and running off.
Reddy said part of the problem is a gap in perception about what research or testing can tell us. “The general public does not understand how science works. A scientist is more than willing to wait weeks, months, years, or even decades to resolve an outstanding research question. The public wants certainty, and they want it in four seconds. They want it to be like Wikipedia,” he said.
But Reddy said that while the public might have unrealistic expectations, too often scientists are reluctant to give clear explanations because they fear their colleagues will think they are ‘reckless and reckless’ if they give definitive answers. . So they answer questions from the press and the public by hiding explanations with caveats about what they don’t know.
“Most people want answers, not a long list of shortcomings and challenges of a scientific problem,” he said.
Added to this is the fear of being ridiculed by an error that the public quickly forgets but not the scientific community. “When you venture outside the ivory tower and make a mistake, more often than not the risk outweighs the reward,” he said. Reddy describes scientists’ errors as “sticky”.
“They don’t disappear the next day, or the next year, or even five years later. They could completely derail your career,” he wrote.
Then there is the problem of famous scientists.
“Your colleagues might think you’re a sellout because you’re attracting too much attention,” he wrote.
Reddy gives the example of Carl Sagan, cosmologist, astrophysicist and many others, who was denied tenure at Harvard and never admitted to the National Academy of Sciences. Reddy said Sagan has been ridiculed in parts of the scientific community due to his popularity with the public through his books and interviews.
Reddy was prompted to write his book by the politics of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I just couldn’t understand the idea of such a pushback against the vaccine once it started rolling out. Then you see death threats against scientists, and it’s not just [Anthony] Fauci [the chief medical adviser to President Biden]. These people dedicate their lives and put themselves in danger,” he said.
“It just seemed like we were missing an opportunity to shed some light on how science works, how medical science works and what happens in a crisis. So I try to make some clarifications from my own mistakes and experiences.
One of the things he learned is to clarify that a scientific explanation is not the same as a solution. “This whole idea of trusting your experts is about recognizing that there is no happy ending during a crisis, and ultimately you are working on the basis of preventing a bad thing from getting worse” , did he declare.
Reddy understands the challenges of going public, especially for climate scientists like the vicious policies and conspiracy theories surrounding global warming. One way to handle this, he says, is to keep it local.
“People are much more likely to gravitate to a local scientist. And the risks are lower for a scientist when working on a more local scale. So my advice for a lot of these things, whether communicating about vaccines or climate, is to have the people who have the most knowledge about your audience and the most likely chances of trust,” did he declare.