The oft-repeated phrase of “trust the science” may be doing more harm than good to the scientific community. Consider, for example, the six Italian scientists who were convicted of manslaughter in 2012 for the advice they gave before the deadly L’Aquila earthquake. In this case, the trust in science was too great or misplaced, at least until the convictions were overturned. In contrast, some members of the public express too little trust in the science behind the COVID vaccines by refusing vaccinations. Cultivating the proper levels of public trust in scientific findings requires a more robust communication strategy.
The current scientific communication challenges emerged from five interrelated issues:
What to do?
If the scientific community wants to enhance public accessibility to its research, influence public policy responsibly, and educate the public about the scientific process, then the community should consider the following ideas.
Scientists often overlook one philosopher’s cogent warning: “… science is an alien thought form…we need to appreciate the inherent strangeness of the scientific method.” Consistently reminding the public about the key features of scientific inquiry, spurred by the right catch phrases, might temper hype and overreactions to major scientific news. This requires a willingness to go beyond the temporal excitement of touting a thrilling discovery or embarrassing finding. The scientific community should see retractions of scientific studies as opportunities to “get it right.” It’s like a coach throwing a red flag in an American football game, asking the referees to review a play. But, unlike what many pundits fear, the red flag does not undermine confidence in the integrity of the game; it actually protects it.
Correcting misperceptions about the scientific process that are enabled by the scientific and media socio-ecosystems requires the collective efforts of scientists, public officials, media elites, and a willing public. Without a corrective strategy, the erosion of trust in science will accelerate. Scientists developed antibodies to beat back this dreadful COVID-19 plague; certainly, scientists working with others, can help develop the antibodies to counter the unintended assault on scientific inquiry.
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