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.

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10 Responses to Trust, mistrust, and science – finding the balance between conspiracy theories and naïve trust

  • Thanks for the important post!

  • thinkingAfrican says:

    I am in total agreement with this post. A true scientific attitude is in testing ideas and seeing if they hold up, not in ridiculing and shutting out dissenting opinions. Scientists have believed many things that were in time proven wrong and the beauty of being open to new ideas is you’re never wrong for long. The move towards screaming everyone agrees with you and dissenters are all idiots who should be silenced is about as unscientific as it gets and a deeply worrying development. As a lover of debate and discussion, I find even people who hold positions I find completely crazy may yet still teach me a thing or two worth knowing.

  • elisa freschi says:

    I enjoyed the post until I read the Finnish article which inspired it (by Jukka Ruukki, linked above) and which seems to me just naively positivist (whoever does not accept GM food is part of non-further-specified Middle Ages, which encompass also Pakistan). You can read an interesting analysis (by the historian of sciences Dominik Wujastyk) of Ruukki’s article here: https://www.academia.edu/s/d41f404d76

  • Keith Tayler says:

    This post follows nicely on from the previous resent post ‘How people are wrong about cognitive enhancement and how to fix it’ by Joao Fabians (18/2/15), where the so called scientific research in the cited paper on the decision-making of ‘public’ and ‘lay people’ could not uncharitably be described in Lakatos’ terms as being ‘pseudo-scientific claptrap’. Of course there is a problem of scientific illiteracy, but the notion that this could or indeed should be ‘fixed’ in order to make the promotion of neuropsychopharmacological enhancement easier is obviously going to increase the level reasonable scepticism in this area. Unfortunately bad science in one area of research infects other area because of the common belief that science is pretty much a uniform disciple. You are right, ‘using the “the scientific community is unanimous in this question” – clause should be used carefully.’ It is seldom true and even then is only true for a short time.

    • Anthony Drinkwater says:

      Hello Keith,
      A couple of points :
      1 If you think that that we should not fix scientific illiteracy by education, how should we confront it ?
      2 Whilst we can all think of some examples of where the scientific community was unaminously wrong (for a time), a glance at any science textbook will demonstrate that it is far from “seldom” that the scientific commuity is unaminously right.
      The fact is that there can be bad science, just as there is bad literature, bad music, or bad philosophy – and even dishonest writers and scientists. (Although obviously there are no dishonest philosophers ;>)
      I think that thinkingAfrican has got it right.
      And thanks to Johanna for leading me to the DHMO homepage !

      • Keith Tayler says:

        Hello Anthony

        1. I did not say we should not engage in education to reduce scientific illiteracy. I was criticising a paper and a post that has the title ’How people are wrong about cognitive enhancement and how to fix it’. This has little to do with education but a lot to do with wild speculation and a “fix it” mentality that has more to do software engineering than education.

        2. If we take all of science, which means we have to include the social sciences, research programmes that are degenerating into mathematics and a whole mess of stuff that is claiming to be a science, we will find considerable disagreement among scientists and philosophers of science. For sure, if we pick up a textbook on physics, the most established, vigorous and arguably value free of sciences, we will find a high degree of agreement. But all of that is not, as far as I understand it, the point Johanna is making. When we read “the scientific community is unanimous in this question” it is all too often being used, as Johanna says, to justify an ideological viewpoint. It is, as I said, seldom true that the scientific community is unanimous on such issues, it often being a media invention (“media” includes scientific journals that sometimes create a false sense of unity by the use of censorship). These “stories” do not last that long, although they do have the habit of being recycled.

        • Dave Frame says:

          Keith wrote “When we read “the scientific community is unanimous in this question” it is all too often being used, as Johanna says, to justify an ideological viewpoint.”

          The problem is sometimes that non-experts make mistakes about where the research controversies are, or how large they are. In the case of climate change, for instance, there is consensus that CO2 and H2O vapour trap infrared radiation. There is also consensus that a warmer atmosphere lying over an ocean will, ceteris paribus, enhance the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere. There is disagreement about details of cloud feedbacks on this warming, and lots of disagreement about regional effects and so on. Experts – folks who publish in the physical climate research literature – kind of know which processes are uncontested and which are the sites of active disagreements. But non-experts are often, perhaps usually, confused about where the calm and stormy bits of the literature are. Some folks (esp. climate change deniers) make the error of thinking that calm bits are stormy; others (esp. climate change alarmists) make the error of thinking that stormy bits are calm. As you say, both errors* are very frequently highly correlated with other beliefs. I think my point is that it is not only those who claim unanimity who are guilty of ideological contamination of their interpretation of the literature – it’s also those who imagine controversies where there are none. A reasonable approach to science would address/penalise both sorts of errors.

          *These are errors in terms of reflecting the state of the literature.

          • Keith Tayler says:

            Hello David

            Yes – I agree with you. Taking the climate change issue: like the majority of scientists and reasonable people, I have no doubt that our climate is always changing and that now much of that is anthropogenic. How much of the past and present change is anthropogenic and what would be reasonable predictions of future warming (possibly cooling if the climate flips) is controversial and does divide opinion among climatologists and scientists in general. I think there is some pretty sloppy science being done by some climatologists but am still convinced by the available evidence that humans must change their ways. The bad science should be exposed, but that of course would be grist to the climate change deniers’ mill. I am nonetheless still inclined to exposing the bad science and explaining why it is so difficult to come up with definitive answers to ever problem. Although this will highlight divisions, it should demystify the science for most people and explain how scientists work together. As with most things in life, we learn more by understanding our mistakes and the mistakes of others than just papering over them

  • Johanna Ahola-Launonen says:

    Thank you all for comments!

    I think that “the scientific community is unanimous in this question” can have two meanings. First, as Dave describes, there can be different agreements about the “only-science”-part. Secondly, we can say that sometimes the authority concerning a “scientific fact” is applied too far: for example, by taking a scientific result (“this particular SNP had an association with cognitive performance”) and making overstated interpretations of it (“thus, intelligence is genetically heritable”) or even proposing normative conclusions of it (“thus, people who don’t have this SNP are stupid”). (this particular question elaborated here: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2014/09/bad-news-for-intelligence-genes/).

    It is true that drawing a line where “unanimity” exists or not is difficult, and the scientific consensus is a living truth. However, I think that “but the scientific consensus changes” and “but science has had it wrong also before” is not a good argument for defending whatever kinds of “scientific truths”.

    (watch out for DHMO! 🙂 The site is funny and makes me laugh, but simultaneously I think it is a great example of trivializing mistrust and slightly unfairly making fun of people who don’t know lot about chemistry. But then again, just as science-enthusiasts can use scientific argumentation to justify ideological views, so can science-skeptics – and where technological fear is spread with this intention, I think the DHMO-page is in the right place.)

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