Over recent years, scientific institutions and journals have increasingly been expressing their concerns about the public’s growing distrust in science, a situation hardly helped by many people, politicians and even presidents, publicly expressing doubts about the validity of scientific findings.
Much has been written about how social media and the 24 hour news cycle contribute to this, but anti-intellectualism is far from a new phenomenon, as Issac Asimov in a 1980 essay noted:
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
― Isaac Asimov
Asimov’s primary examples happened to come from the political world, however not all of the unreason is partisan, as the anti-vaccination movement has shown.
In fact, it’s a tricky problem to figure out where one should direct one’s skepticism. In principle, any data is open to more than one interpretation, and dismissing a study as fake isn’t logically inconsistent. Teaching people facts doesn’t always get them to agree with a scientific consensus; sometimes it just makes them more committed to their own fringe theories.
People can be skeptical or distrusting of science for different reasons, whether it is about one specific finding from one discipline (for example, ‘The climate is not warming, but I believe in evolution’), or about science in general (‘Science is just one of many opinions’). Bastiaan T. Rutjens of the University of Amsterdam identified four major predictors of science acceptance and science skepticism: political ideology; religiosity; morality; and knowledge about science. These variables tend to intercorrelate – in some cases quite strongly – which means that they are potentially confounded. To illustrate, an observed relation between political conservatism and trust in science might in reality be caused by another variable, for example religiosity. When not measuring all constructs simultaneously, it is hard to properly assess what the predictive value of each of these is.
With education severely disrupted due to Coronavirus and the polarised political landscape, it may seem like we are stuck with wide-scale skepticism of intellectuals and scientists for a long time to come.
However, very recent results from both Germany and the UK offer a glimmer of hope, suggesting that public trust in science and researchers appears to have increased during the Coronavirus pandemic.
The proportion of Germans who said that they trust science and research “wholeheartedly” shot up to 36 per cent in mid-April. This is four times the proportion recorded in the same survey in 2019 and substantially higher than in earlier years. Another 37 per cent said that they were “likely” to trust science and research.
If nothing else then, perhaps the pandemic is highlighting the value of scientific thinking over partisan non-scientific ideas.
Written by William Brooke, Director of Witherow Brooke