Trust, mistrust, and science – finding the balance between conspiracy theories and naïve trust
Scientific illiteracy and “anti-science”-beliefs are a common topic in scientific and academic communities. For example, how most (or many) Americans do not understand the difference between DNA and a genetically modified food. Another known topic is, for example, skepticism towards vaccinations. In this editorial of the biggest Finnish newspaper, the author predicts that the new rise of the Middle Ages is upon us if people refuse to trust scientific results, and emotions continue to rule out reason.
While excessive skepticism and building conspiracy theories against science might, by and large, be irrational and, most importantly, harmful, the phenomenon deserves a deeper consideration than accusations of irrationality, emotionality, or stupidity.
An important reason for the need of deeper elaboration is in the following controversy: on the one hand, the scientific community, rightly, calls for trust to scientific work. Enormous accomplishments of biomedical science are a great argument for trusting science and its capability to improve life. However, on the other hand, there is strong evidence that the scientific community is not always trustworthy. Medical companies, the paramount founder of medical research, have faced many accusations of scientific misconduct and fraud (how funding affects outcomes – see also this and this -, ghostwriting, corruption). Furthermore, there is discussion about how FDA reacts to questionable and even unreliable scientific papers. It is claimed that despite the knowledge about scientific misconduct, the FDA does little to report the questionable results to physicians and medical researchers. And there is at least much evidence to discuss good practices concerning e.g. Monsanto and how things work with GMO agriculture. “What companies do is not the problem of science” is a legitimate sentence when discussing only the mere possible existence of some biomedical or GMO innovation, but when brought to a concrete level, the real-life questions should be taken back to the issue.
Notwithstanding scientific work is trustworthy, but there are exceptions. It seems that there is good reason for some suspicious attitude. The challenge is that while we acknowledge that e.g. medical companies might sometimes not be trustworthy, we should trust the overall picture of science. Some scientific results are more debated than others in the scientific community, and using the “the scientific community is unanimous in this question” – clause should be used carefully. The “unanimous”-argument is too often used to justify ones ideological views, and this takes the power away from situations where the scientific community actually is unanimous in some questions.
Denying the justification for a feeling of mistrust does not do anything good. Science, and especially the use of science, is not objective and neutral. Economic and societal values affect what research is done, what research is not done, how the research is done, and how the research is applied. Trivializing the obvious challenges in the application of science does not create trust – it creates the image of scientists being black-and-white thinkers who cannot consider the big questions surrounding science. Considering “the skeptics” to be merely conservative, irrational, or scientifically illiterate is probably not the greatest reaction. The best way to get rid of unreasonable skepticism might not be in mere accusations of irrationality.
Last but not least, a question about targeting the fault of unreasonable skepticism: Why is “the people” being blamed of scientific illiteracy? Why are we not lamenting more about the amount of scientific education, popularization of science, how the media builds one-sided truths about scientific research, and how scientific misconduct damages trust. The amount or formally or informally educated people who have had the possibility to create a decent overall picture about the developing bio-sciences is limited, and creating a decent overall picture is not easy even for those who have had the education.