Do You Believe in Science?
For many laypeople, the answer is increasingly uncertain – and that may be difficult to fix
Michael Schubert | | Quick Read
More than ever these days, we’re seeing a lot of talk about… talk. In a worldwide public health crisis, almost as important as its management is how we communicate that management – and the public is growing increasingly distrustful of experts and their advice (1). The situation is only worsened by administrations whose statements and policies seem directly counter to what those experts are saying: contradictory public addresses, leaders who visibly censor scientists, media whose news reporting bears little resemblance to the truth, policies that prevent households from meeting (but are perfectly happy with gyms, bars, and restaurants)… It’s unsurprising at this point that people prefer to make their own decisions.
Unfortunately, those choices generally do more harm than good – and not just to the decision-makers themselves. COVID-19 conspiracy theories are making it difficult to convince the public to take simple protective actions, such as social distancing, mask-wearing, and testing when needed (2). Many are wary of accepting a vaccine once developed; more radically, others prefer to design and administer their own, rather than trust one offered by “Big Science” (3). A quick online search for “public distrust of experts” shows that this is not a regional problem – the results come from around the world. Headlines ask, “To defer or rebel during COVID-19?” or “What if they make a coronavirus vaccine and nobody takes it?” One publication, though, puts the responsibility squarely on those experts themselves: “Scientists must battle the disinformation pandemic” (4).
With only so many hours in a day – and a pandemic to fight – is it fair to place the burden of proof on the experts themselves? And, fair or otherwise, what can scientists and medical professionals do to fight back against an onslaught of misinformation and disinformation? Let us know how you’re tackling the problem ([email protected]) and we’ll share your advice with others facing the same issues.
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- SE Kreps, DL Kriner, “Model uncertainty, political contestation, and public trust in science: evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sci Adv, [Online ahead of print] (2020). PMID: 32978142.
- D Romer, KH Jamieson, “Conspiracy theories as barriers to controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S.,” Soc Sci Med, [Online ahead of print] (2020). PMID: 32967786.
- CJ Guerrini et al., “Self-experimentation, ethics, and regulation of vaccines,” Science, 369, 1570 (2020). PMID: 32943452.
- G Reed, “Opinion: scientists must battle the disinformation pandemic” (2020). Available at: bit.ly/3itlGkh.