Trust me, I’m a doctor (of philosophy)

2020Science this week posted a poll asking whether trust in science needs to be restored. It’s a bit of a simplistic question (as acknowledged by the author), you might get different answers by differentiating fields of science, but an interesting question nonetheless.

From my own experience, I’ve had mixed reactions when I’ve told people I work in nanoscience research. Last year for example I was told that nanotech was “a bit dodgy”. Why? Because the military are interested in it. Explaining that the military also used computers, moustache wax, rubber bands and boot polish, none of which are intrinsically dangerous, didn’t make much headway. At some point the seed had been planted that nano = evil. He just didn’t trust it, and no amount of eloquent, well-reasoned persuasion could shift his view. Maybe I’m just not a fun person to talk to at parties.

Ultimately, there’s no reason why some guy at a party should believe anything I have to say, because It’s not a case of trusting science, but listening to people you trust.

It’s not a matter of explaining peer review to people or making raw data more readily available as suggested in the recent blog post by Stephen Hill outlining 7 steps to restore trust in science (though I agree a lot of the steps would be positive, for different reasons). How many people have the time or inclination to wade through original research papers and perhaps highly technical peer review comments? It might be useful to other academics, or make investigations easier where there are accusations of impropriety, but I’m not sure of the impact on public trust in science.

I actually think the solution is far simpler. In terms of public perception, it’s more important to have vocal and trusted champions of science in the public domain.

Trust is a human emotional reaction. It’s not a question of trusting science, since science in itself is a process and in some respects an abstract concept. Science can be performed badly, misinterpreted, misrepresented or misappropriated, but it’s no more rational to mistrust science itself than to mistrust bakery. Rather, it’s a question of trust in individuals and organisations who conduct, interpret and communicate it.

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I’ll leave you this week with a thought-provoking clip from Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man series, about the importance of understanding the fallibility of science as the the fallibility of mankind itself.

Update: just seen this this piece on DC Science, on trust in science “Climate: science, politics, and honesty”; well worth a read.

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4 Comments on “Trust me, I’m a doctor (of philosophy)”

  1. Steven Hill Says:

    Really good points here – ultimately it does come down to trusting people.

    My point about openess is not really that people will wade through primary literature if it is available. But because it is not available to them it creates the impression of science as being closed off from society and that fosters mistrust.

    • James Hayton Says:

      Thanks for the comment! I really think we need more truly great science communicators. David Attenborough is maybe the ultimate, having been on TV pretty much forever, but other fields don’t have an equivalent.

  2. Ruth Seeley Says:

    Oh – that clip caused me to actually burst into tears – great blog post – sorry – can’t remember what I was going to say other than that.


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