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Science’s practice for progress and trust

As the coronavirus pandemic put scientific research in the public spotlight, people’s trust in it -surprisingly- increased. Surprisingly as so many scientists are publicly being ridiculed about their oftentimes alarming findings, be it climate change or other areas of pubic interest. An increasing number of extreme wing politicians around the world actively name blame and shame individual scientists and so brutally assault their integrity only for political gain.

But according to this recent global survey, 80% of the people surveyed from 113 countries gained trust in both science and scientists. They trusted science either “a lot” or “some.” About 75% of the 119,000 surveyed said they trusted scientists, either “a lot” or “some.” The renowned Pew Research institute reports a similar development that public confidence in scientists in the US has increased during the pandemic. In my home country, that trend is noticeable too; a recent study conducted by the Rathaneu institute showed that Dutch people have strong faith in science: “Scientific sources of information about climate change and vaccination are also highly trusted: science is at the top here with regard to climate change and almost at the top of (corona) vaccination. Regarding vaccination, only doctors working in hospitals get a little more trust than scientists.” The latter finding is possibly influenced by distance bias; the human tendency to trust things and people that are near more than further away.

Who are the people that have reflected their trust? The survey shows that the academically educated have more trust than the practically educated (I do not distinct “Higher” vs. “Lower” education as a matter of principle). But nothing new here. What’s more interesting is that men and women have similar confidence, and there is hardly any difference between young and old. Also: “People who encounter science more often, for example by reading about it, have more confidence in science.” In short, this is a rather uplifting observation in times of increased vaccine and climate change scepticism, reinforced by social media algorithms that fuel confirmation bias.

So how can you tell credible information from nonsense? How do we know which source is most informed and trustworthy and how that information is learned? Science itself is never absolute, not even maths (what is the highest number?). Individual scientists can unconsciously make decisive choices in their analysis (bias), they can make mistakes and if they want, can even cheat. But the scientific process in which researchers must be open about their choices, share data and assess each other’s work, is a long-standing antidote; the often painstaking and ego bruising practice of peer review. Ask any person who pursued a PhD, and they will undoubtedly second this sobering truth. 

One scientist’s job after all is to try and find better arguments and facts, vested in peer-reviewed research, to challenge another. That ancient principle is imperfect, but it gets all of us just a little closer to what we can safely accept as being ‘true’. Therefore, we should listen to science to improve our understanding of complex affairs, as it is the best alternative to accepting what we think we already know.