The tools for overcoming declining trust in science lie in science itself.
Ian Anderson, INSEAD PhD Student and Crisis Communications Specialist | November 13, 2017
Science is currently experiencing a reputation crisis. In previous years it has emerged that many landmark studies are not replicable and some have even been exposed for questionable methodologies or simple data errors. The media has caught on and is adding fuel to the fire in the form of ridicule, feeding the public’s scepticism of institutions and intellectualism in general.
This is a trust-based crisis, which is among the most difficult of crises to solve, especially as the phenomenon is proliferating across government, business and media. But it is incumbent on the scientific community to regain this trust. The public is not only a beneficiary of scientific advancements. It elects members of parliament, senators and congresspeople who make decisions about funding studies and institutes. Businesses that fund research are also under unprecedented public scrutiny.
Public scepticism will be hard to overcome. While many have merely lost trust in the scientific community, others have become completely deaf to its self-correcting efforts, clinging to ideas that have been disproved by science itself at the expense of new research. Despite the fact that in 2010, The Lancet retracted the paper that first suggested a link between vaccines and autism and a mountain of evidence to the contrary, the anti-vax movement persists and even seems to be gaining momentum.
Fortunately, academia has an ace in the hole: science itself.
Turning the tide
By turning to well-established ideas that it has itself produced, the academic community has a solid base from which to respond. It begins with looking at why people react the way they do to information and what we can do about it.
In their paper, “Perseverance of Social Theories: The Role of Explanation in the Persistence of Discredited Information”, Craig Anderson, Mark Lepper and Lee Ross found that even after the initial evidential basis for certain beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions to those beliefs. People’s theories survive virtually intact even when personal beliefs based on inconclusive data from everyday experiences are corrected.
Another study by Gregory Berns and colleagues examined what happens when an individual’s judgement conflicts with that of a group. It has previously been established that individuals will often conform to the group’s thinking because it is unpleasant to stand out. Berns et al. find that this conformity is associated with decreased activity in the part of the brain that controls reason, and increased activity in the regions of the brain where perceptions are formed. This makes it hard for anyone to stand up for science or even consciously believe in it when they conform to entire online communities of sceptics. An INSEAD study on Reddit showed that wild theories peddled by users with little credibility spread much better than credible information. The researchers also found that the polarising nature of debate on the platform made it very hard for people to remain neutral as they entered the fray. When people have a choice of being for or against an idea, many swing in the wrong direction.
Why fake news proliferates
The proliferation of fake news is being driven by customised social media news feeds that provide ideological echo chambers for their users. People often share fake news knowingly, maybe because they believe in it but also because they gain social approval in the form of likes and shares from the likeminded.
Fake news is also easier to understand. It is couched in simple ways and designed to provoke outrage. Science on the other hand, while thorough, presents people with uncertainty. People are not particularly likely to share information they do not think they understand, nor to spend time trying to understand it. Discomfort with the content and fear of standing out make people less likely to share scientific ideas or developments.
In their book Denying to the Grave, Sara Gorman and Jack Gorman, however, argue that people are more likely to share ideas if they feel they can grasp the key concepts. There is also some evidence that making people aware of their biases and the way in which they are processing persuasive messages can help them rethink their attitudes. In one experiment, researchers exposed subjects to a message from either a likeable or dislikeable source. Some subjects were specifically told not to let “non-message” factors affect their judgement of the message. When subjects were already being persuaded by such a factor (e.g. the authority of the speaker), being alerted to a possible bias resulted in more careful scrutiny of the message and less bias in interpreting it.
The opportunity for science
This presents science with a few key opportunities to start turning the tide. First, the scientific community needs to acknowledge that it has some problems. Honesty about the scientific method, why many studies produce flawed results and how science’s self-correcting mechanism works, would be a start.
Personal beliefs are persistent. If we want to influence them, we have to alter the way information itself is presented. Ways to do this could include distilling the information into shorter form and including more background. Explaining the reason a certain study was carried out can give the public more context, teach them the history of the issue and even show how the study of the subject has advanced over time. Crucially, it will also be important to be transparent about the limits of the study and where it should advance. This may sound like a mammoth task, which requires nothing short of an academic paper to explain it all, but there are new technologies that can enable this such as short animated videos or even gamification.
Methods like these can help people to reconsider ideas in a non-exhausted or non-loaded state, especially one in which self-esteem isn’t threatened: Those who lack confidence can’t be expected to contradict ideas of a group which comforts them. According to Gorman and Gorman, a person with low self-esteem will be resistant to overly technical scientific arguments that have the not-so-hidden message “Even though you are not smart enough to understand what we scientists are telling you, believe us anyway.”
Scientists also need to market themselves better. They should aim to become more relatable. Putting a face to studies can increase people’s receptivity to them. An exemplar in this regard is Neil deGrasse Tyson who attracts 10 million followers on Twitter. He makes science easy to understand, while putting the advances of science in context. His awe for study rubs off on others. So do his disarming jokes.
Stephen Hawking isn’t on Twitter, but his book, A Brief History of Time, does an admirable job of explaining the origin of the universe, space and time, as well as the search for a unifying theory that can describe the universe in a coherent way. He also boasts in the opening pages that he has “sold more books on physics than Madonna has on sex”.To many academics, this might seem an effort they have little time for. But whether we like it or not, we are engaged in an information war. It will be crucial to better position our work and ourselves in order to disarm doubters and give us a better share of voice.
Ian Anderson is a PhD student in Marketing at INSEAD and a Crisis Communications Strategist.
[What follows is excerpted from WEB Du Bois’ ‘Marxism and the Negro Problem’, published in The Crisis, 1933, and elucidates Du Bois’ thought regarding the vicious tactics of the aristocracy of labor among the whites, and his rejection of false consciousness as a throwaway excuse for what is actually the interest of the settler working classes, who have become contributors and beneficiaries of imperial capital. As always this piece is provided for the purposes of study and discussion.]
…Revolution seems bound to come.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than recent actions in the United States; our re-examination of the whole concept of Property; our banking moratorium; the extraordinary new agriculture bill; the plans to attack unemployment, and similar measures. Labor rather than gambling is the sure foundation of value and whatever we call it — exploitation, theft or business acumen — there is something radically wrong with an industrial system…
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let jitters hiss out like / grass-steam at earth-sun awakening & / rose over blanket bloom in daylight petals / brain-wrinkles & shudders ease into the hands shaking in quiet airs / the ceasing is / fleeing-oxygen in a rush & left-behind stillness, stillness in the lungs, stillness in / fingers warping the screens, warming your thumbs in the evening quiets, the drawing of the dew-roots from the heart, the morning rising from your shoulders and / their crests in a calm way, / budding & creaking into soothing mist
there is violence in trumpet strings, cut deep in the brass-hands / we are pushing air into their /voices; melodic & humming out over / grass isles & the glow in our sky is / heavy with strong-purple clutching rain that climbs back into clouds there / is vapor & honey in your chapstick-touched words pressing me / into / corners and I / like the pressing hands in lead-touch; no-subtlety interrogation tongues tactically dancing around & what / was violence in the strings is quiet coming in heaves now, tranquil & slithering / between our ears, into the old paths wrung by the wasps / carrying still / on the cups and comfortable resting on /
hands & ankles & fingertips & rust & wasp-children, slithering / into canals upon kayaks and marketplaces in old jewels, land / full of waltzing bees & striped creatures /
lying in the vibrations of the bells & you & me bursting-spell in
cocoon body guarding tender-guts; caught / me violent // handled like / cautious kind of choke-hold; hand-hold like / whispers between tree-leaf palms / speaking life into uncut stems, we are / vital-signing into a rib-jail, lucid & inescapable, incomplete / as the excavation of catacombs under / the church, we / are ancient bones bubbling to the surface & wasps / in the night, // children of hornets / with lips of fire and broiling memories / so song-crest violent, un-erasable & full / of kind bruises, forest-cities of clasped hands, self-hearth thoughts / that / we never will forget.
A friend wrote something great.
I am seated in a well-lighted corner of the Student Center at Wayne State University. A few seats away from me is an Arab man with a thick beard and sunglasses despite being inside. I came here by way of a Lyft car driven by a young man named Abraheem who is generous with his smiles and inquisitiveness, who moved here from Gaza seven years ago. (He said that during his visit back home last month, they only had three hours of electricity each day and it took him more than week to get his laundry done–because why have bought laundry machine if you cannot use it? This is to also willfully say nothing of the people in critical medical conditions and hospitals and hospice who are also getting less than three hours of electricity — whereas some reports say Israel’s allowance of electricity for Gaza is down to one…
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& eating the quiet,
I roll in splinters, kitchen desk scrapes on
my sister’s fingers like something brought home,
dirt-filled and cavernous rapping out Nirvana on
suburban tables, spoons of spilled milk dancing
on television–that movie Fantasia & songs’ hypnotic
writhing through hung & broken silence from bubbling
air conditioner ventilator,
swooning in the depths, & it is the first time he
shows us weak, shows us
imperfect & bedridden by a bee-sting-allergy
metaphor of mistaken weakness sprouting through
that has defined my childhood,
shown the covers & how
perfect teaches and guides but forgets
congratulate & clutch & fail
examples like plane and robot-arm pilots of brains
sinking in sky, sinking with clear air
pushing off through bike-race finish lines, sobbing from
private school hallways & soccer grass
breathless & streaming through the hills,
stampeding spikes in churning cold mud & heels,
fake injuries & evading failure at
shoving all in sugar-hungry mouths like old-fashioned sundae
rotting in heaves,
silent in classrooms
hollowed out &
afraid of mistakes